I almost laughed as I wiped my face with my shift. No surrender from this man. There was no way for him to know what it meant to me, that honest reaction. Again, I could have been anyone, and he would have done the same. I wanted to kiss him. Of course, if I had tried, he likely would have bitten me.
And then it hit me. That is what I would have done in his place. Exactly. In his position, in this situation, I would have spit in my face, too. It made me feel bound to him, tied tightly to someone who, I'm sure, would cheerfully have broken my neck could he have done it.
I was unconsciously drawing circles on his abdomen; winding the short ginger curls around my finger, until he shivered. I lay my hand there flat. I could feel his pulse thudding under my palm. I lay my head on his chest and closed my eyes to try and bring my thoughts into order.
I think perhaps I slept. When I opened my eyes, he had his head tipped back; he was apparently staring at the wall behind his head.
I reached for the blanket and pulled it up to his waist. The texture of his skin still intrigued me and I felt compelled to touch him.
"What shall I give you in exchange for the pleasure you give me? Coins?"
He pulled violently against the bonds keeping him immobile when my caresses swept up his body toward his face. "Let me go."
Ah, words at last. "Hush, you know I cannot. It would be unwise of me. Wouldn't it?"
That question got a curl of his lip, almost a laugh, and he nodded his head. Then he swallowed hard again, and went back to staring at the wall behind his head.
"I love men, you know. I love the way men's skin feels." I touched the places I spoke about. "I love the smoothness here, and then the curls here. I love these muscles, watching them move, and flex, and bulge, you can see them so clearly under a man's skin---ah, and then to feel them-I love running my hands down a man's flank as he's moving over me." He was still, but he couldn't fool me. He breathed deeper, his chest rose and fell, his fingers curled. He was listening. "I love the way a man smells." I buried my nose in the curls under his arm, and smiled thinking about other curls. "And tastes." Even though I knew it was possible he might try to bite me, I moved up and set my lips against his neck, flicked my tongue against his salty skin.
Spoken into my hair, so quietly. He was so still. He tasted so good. I moved up to the spot just behind his ear.
Desperation in his voice? I rubbed my face against the short beard and imagined whisker burn. Moved down to his collarbone, nipped and then soothed with my tongue.
He swore and began again to pull at his bonds.
I rose up to look into his face. There was no pleasure there. His body was mine; the rest of him wasn't. In his eyes I could see I had harmed him somehow, or damaged him where it couldn't be seen, or perhaps…stolen something from him.
I sat back, and pulled his blanket higher. He shut his eyes, concealing himself, but of course it was too late to do that.
"Have I taken something from you, Spaniard?" He ignored me. "That was not my intention." I stroked the side of his neck.
"Shall I give you something in return for whatever it is I have taken? What should it be? Beyond money, which I imagine at this point would offend you, I have nothing."
No answer. He was still trying to ignore me, to shut his mind away from me.
"I'll give you something of myself, then. Keep it or throw it away…." I smoothed the blanket across his chest. "This is the only way for me."
Was he trying to ignore me, or was he bringing himself under control? "Look at me. Look." He opened his eyes.
"I love men. Very much. But men don't love me; they don't love this." I held my left arm out as far as I could; I turned the left side of my face into his view. "This is the only way for me. You see?"
He was listening. "My husband married me because my father paid him to do so. My father is dead; my husband no longer needs to feign devotion. He is away," I waved at the wall, meaning a distant place, "amusing himself. I have given up yearning for another life, I no longer wish to be another person, it is useless to rail against the fates. This is what I am; and this is what I must do to get what I want. So I do it. You understand?"
He nodded once. I believe that he really did understand.
"I don't need to restrain the German." I smiled. "He gives me what I want in exchange for the coins I give him. It is a good trade for both of us. But I don't think you are interested in a trade like that. Do you think you can ever bring yourself to trade with me?"
"I thought not. Then let us be honest with one another. I intend to ask Proximo for you again. The German would be easier, but you interest me. I know you don't want me; I know you will resist. We all do what we must."
I stood and gathered up my clothing. "I am sorry, though, if my…attention…has caused you some kind of pain…"
"It's not because of your scars." It was a quiet remark I didn't expect, but appreciated nonetheless.
"I know that." I couldn't resist teasing him; I snaked my hand under the blanket and rubbed the inside of his thigh. He stiffened, and looked belligerent again, the way I liked him. "We each know something about the other now, I think."
When I was dressed, I let him know the guards would be back to loose him after I was gone. "Try not to hurt them; they only do what they are told." And I left.
I wondered idly if he would look at the German differently when he saw him.
I made myself wait a week before asking for him again. I thought about him constantly. In the flesh he was much more compelling than when seen from the stands in the arena.
He had a match in the meantime, a large Norseman with a red beard and red braids. Of course I went to see it.
His owner must have given the Norseman a potion of some sort to make him so wild. There was no finesse in this match at all; the Spaniard spent a lot of time ducking, rolling and dancing away to avoid the ax. He darted in to slash when and where he could. The crowd loved this sort of thing, and screamed at the top of their collective lungs. The sunlight was so bright I could hardly stand it. My head began to hurt.
The Norseman was a mass of small and less small cuts, bleeding profusely, before the end came. At one point, he stopped fighting; just stopped chasing the Spaniard, turned and ran the other way, towards the stands-towards me.
Well, I was wearing bright green that day, with gold-colored trim; I suppose that caught the big man's eye. At any rate, he started toward me, bellowing something in his own language. I didn't think he could scale the side of the ring, but it turned out that he thought he could, and so he began to.
The people around me scattered. If I had moved a little sooner, I would have had time to put some distance between he and I before he reached the top of the barrier. But I hadn't, and I'm slow. And I always sit right in the front.
The Spaniard ran toward the Norseman, with a wordless battle cry and his sword held high in the air.
He hacked at the Norseman's back and legs again and again as the man attempted to climb, until the blood ran down into the sand. Finally the man fell. I wonder if he wasn't dead before he let go.
The victor stood leaning against the wall just below me, panting heavily. I leaned out over the edge to see him. He tilted his head back, looked up at me for long seconds and I couldn't look away. Why would he save me?
The crowd was wild. They began to chant, "Spaniard, Spaniard, Spaniard." They were still chanting when I managed to get out of the stands and into my litter for the short trip to my house.
He became a hero overnight, suddenly tall and handsome and unconquerable. Saving the poor crippled woman from the ferocious Viking. I snorted when I heard about it. If he'd killed the madman sooner, he wouldn't have had to save me.
But it presented a problem. The other ladies who followed the gladiators as I did would certainly ask Proximo for him after this.
I didn't want to think of him in Octavia's careless, loveless hands.
Idiot, I said to myself, he's been in your loveless hands and none the worse for wear. Still….
I knew who to go to and what to say….it wouldn't be long before each one knew if she asked for the Spaniard, she would find an asp in her bed. I think the German increased his small hoard of coins greatly the next few weeks. I would remind him to thank me the next time I saw him. And the Spaniard, too.
When they brought him to me the next time, I was horrified. His hands were tied behind his back, and they led him by a leather strap around his neck with a rod attached to it; both he and the two guards were bleeding. Proximo would flay me.
The guards protested when I ordered him loosed, but not for long. I let them know what I thought of both their ancestry and their intelligence. When he was unbound, one of the guards gave him a shove. He countered with a fist in the guard's gut. The other guard joined in; another came running from down the hallway. I waited with my chin in my hand until they were done scuffling. The guards clanged the door shut, and then looked at me inquiringly. I waved them off and the Spaniard picked himself up off his face.
"Are you done?"
He stood by the door, leaning against the wall, gasping for breath and holding his ribs.
He shook his head, glancing warily at me from under his lashes.
"You might have saved yourself the trouble." I grimaced and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. "You have nothing to fear from me tonight. I can hardly walk, much less attack you."
He took note of my cramped posture in my chair, stared at me with those clear, clear eyes of his. Then, to my astonishment, he began to laugh. Not long, but long enough for me to see how it changed his face. The contempt and bitterness was compelling to me, made me quiver and pant, but this…..this was magic. He glowed. I think now that it was perhaps this point at which I was really lost, whether I knew it then or not. I felt I wanted him to laugh always, but didn't realize what that meant.
He slid down the wall and sat on the floor. "So I might have saved myself…all this." He wiped at the blood running from his nose, and gestured at me with the bloody hand before wiping it on his tunic. "What is it?" he asked.
"Stupid, really-I fell coming up those miserable steps to get to this…" I looked around at the yellow mud walls, yellow mud floor, yellow ceiling. "…love-nest."
He smiled a one-sided smile at that. "Anything broken?"
"How could anyone tell? In any case, it might be an improvement to what's there." Then I sighed. "No, no, I know what broken bones feel like, and there are none."
"I'll get your people to take you home," he said and started to rise.
"No, you will not," I said crossly. "What do I want to go home for? It'll hurt just as much there as it does here. And Proximo will never give me a refund."
He settled back, leaned his head against the wall. His eyes closed. I poured myself a glass of the wine I had brought with me.
"What now, then?" he said quietly.
I considered for a moment. "You know, if the German were here, he would first cluck over me, like a broody hen." That image made me smile. "Then he'd probably have some preposterous German remedy for the bruising I would have to politely decline-toad's blood at midnight, or something similar. Then I imagine he'd pick me up…" I had to stop speaking and shift again, and curse under my breath, "…pick me up-he's very strong, you know-take me to bed and help me forget for a while how much it hurts."
"Do you want me to send for him?"
"I think if I'd wanted the German I could have sent for him myself. Just as, if I'd wanted to go back to my house, I could already have done so."
"You never use his name."
"Who, the German? I never wanted to know it. It makes it easier for me….I don't call you by name, either."
He sighed and opened his eyes. "Maybe I don't have a name any longer. Maybe my name is just…Gladiator."
I made a mental note to ask Proximo his name. Another sign, that I was too dim to see, while I still might have saved myself.
"Well, right now you're the handsome, courageous Spanish hero that's on everyone's lips for saving the life of the pitiful crippled woman. Proximo hasn't thanked you for that, has he? He won't either. That will change the odds considerably. It's going to be fashionable to honor you; everyone will be betting on you to win."
He looked over at me. There was no smile on his lips, but perhaps in his eyes….I shook myself mentally.
"You'll have noticed I haven't thanked you, either. I don't thank people who save my life. Come over here and have some wine. I brought it, we might as well drink it." He didn't move. "Unless you think your virtue might be in danger this close to me."
He got up wincing, and limped over to the table.
"You might want to thank me, however." He took a cup, filled it and sat on the bed with his back against the wall. "Not only will it be fashionable for the gamblers to wager on you to win, it's also going to be desirable for the ladies to boast of having you in their beds."
"And what have you done that I should thank you for?" The sneer was back in his voice. "Have you been boasting?"
"I don't need to boast, do I?" He took a long swallow of his wine. Then I was sorry I had said that. For only a moment, though. That look was back on his face, the one that plucked a thread deep inside me and vibrated through my whole body. The contempt for me, for himself, and the whole world, that had captivated me in the first place. I looked away.
"I let the ladies know I would be unhappy if they showed an interest in you."
"Are you so frightening, then?"
"I suppose I must be; have you had to entertain any but me?"
"And are you entertained?"
"Not at the moment." I twisted and reached for the jar of wine to refill my cup. The ache intensified for a moment into actual pain. A couple of expletives escaped before I gritted my teeth, and gripped the arms of my chair. Then a deep breath as it passed.
"Which leg is it?"
He knelt in front of me and put both hands on my ankle. He was feeling for breaks, very thoroughly-when he reached a spot where the leg had mended badly, he paused and determined it was old before he went on. I hissed when he reached the point at which the bruises started, above the knee.
"That hurts?" And he did it again.
I gave him a shove. "If you do that again, I'll hit you with this jar."
He smiled and continued his examination. He was so intent on the bones, I don't think he realized at first where exactly his hands had got to. I was very still, watching him; I saw exactly when he realized it. He also went very still, slid his hands back down my leg to the knee, pulled my dress back down.
I took the opportunity to place my palm on his face and stroke his cheek with my thumb. He placed his own hand over mine, and I thought, well, actually it was more of an unfounded hope than anything else….but then he pulled it from his face and deliberately lay it on my lap. He rose.
"Can you walk?"
I decided not to answer him.
"Someone could carry you out to your litter if you can't."
"I suppose someone could, if I wanted someone to." I felt like flinging my cup across the cell, but I didn't. "Don't think just because I'm temporarily unable to follow my inclinations, that I've changed my mind about you. Or that my temperament has sweetened."
"This is just a brief truce, then."
"Yes. Now make yourself useful. Pour me another cup of wine."
"I live to serve, mistress." He inclined his head and did my bidding, but the turn of his lips betrayed his sarcasm.
I snorted. "You should. You obey Proximo quickly enough."
"Proximo only asks me to stay alive, a relatively simple thing. You ask a great deal more."
I drank far too much wine. I think perhaps the Spaniard drank too much wine, too. There was certainly none left in the morning. I vaguely remember singing sweet songs I recalled from my childhood. And it seems to me that I did throw my cup at him at some point, because I have the hazy impression in my mind of him laughing at me, and ducking.
Did he sing with me? Did we talk? What did we talk about? I have no idea.
I think I felt happy. I can't really remember.
part 1 part 2 part3 part4 part 5 part 6
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