Okay, I actually did a bit of research for this one and ho boy... This is why I don't write more historical aus. I found out that, after the time of Emperor Augustus (aka the FIRST emperor), women had to go up into the higher boxes to watch the gladiatorial matches. Therefore, for the purposes of this story, we are going to ignore that for Ali and Ali only- as the daughter of the emperor, she probably would have been given special privileges.
Also, before you say that I spelled 'Alexandra' wrong- I decided to have Ali's full name in this be Alexandria: it's just more Roman.
Ali had the best seat in the house. Far enough from the action that there was no danger of any blood, sand or other fluids splattering onto her perfectly tied light blue tunic, yet close enough that there was no danger of missing anything. No matter how much she sometimes would rather miss the action by sitting with the rest of the women, far away from this.
She twirled one of the perfectly curled strands of hair left to hang fashionably at the side of her head around her finger as the announcer read through the same preamble she had heard for the past several days. Only the numbers were different.
Her father, the Emperor Kennius Caesar, had ordered fifty days of games to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, combined with a celebration of the troops' victories over the final remnants of Gallic resistance. As far as Ali could tell, every Caesar since Augustus, one hundred years ago, had held such a games- no matter how much they claimed it was so, the end of Gaul's resistance was never truly over. Even capturing a single child, alone in the wild, was celebrated as a symbol of finally crushing the enemy once and for all.
She supposed that, when he became Emperor, Kyle would hold a similar games. Hopefully she wouldn't have to watch them.
"They're coming in."
Kyle, wrapped in one of his ceremonial togas, tapped Ali on the shoulder, directing her attention towards the gladiators' entrance, a far too elegant thing for the men who waited behind it. Criminals, sentenced to the arena for some transgression. Slaves, who had no choice but to fight or be tossed in for execution. Captured men from other lands, unable to understand a lick of Latin.
And, of course, the champions.
The commentator yelled in excitement, announcing the names and schools of today's first pair of combatants. He was placed close to her, in the box directly next to the royal family, so that they wouldn't miss a single word he said. After a week of listening to him every day, Ali was beginning to tire of his voice.
"First, we have our reigning champion, undefeated so far! Please give a warm welcome to Lucius Vettius!"
The crowd went wild. Lucius was a crowd favorite, and he seemed to be drinking in the praise, waving and flexing his muscles.
"And challenging him today, we have a special treat for you! Captured in Gaul, here to submit to the might of Rome and the power of our great Caesar, the barbarian Ashlyn!"
The roar of the crowd faded to a dull hum in Ali's ears as the second fighter whipped off her helmet- a cheap thing, probably the cheapest that her owner could provide without appearing broke, to reveal her face to the crowd.
It was, as Ali had suspected from the name, a woman. But not just any woman. She had as many muscles as Lucius, and paint coated her cheeks in a cheap imitation of the tribal marks that she might have worn back home. They were meant as a humiliation, not as an honor. They would make it all the more poignant when Lucius inevitably forced her to the ground of the arena, subject to the whims of the crowd and the Emperor.
The look of defiance in her eyes as she stared back at the crowd, refusing to wave to or acknowledge them in any way, drew Ali's attention. Her blonde hair was tangled, probably by design. Any owner in Rome would have done the same, taking full advantage of the theater he could present with a female gladiator from a captured territory.
She was the most beautiful woman that Ali had ever seen. And she had seen many, many beautiful women in her twenty years of life.
"Combatants, turn and face the Emperor!"
Ashlyn and Lucius obeyed, turning their eyes directly onto the box where Ali sat. A burning pair of eyes met Ali's own, and she couldn't look away. The fury that was contained there was frightening, and Ali gripped onto the hem of her tunic, heart pounding faster and faster every second.
"We who are about to die salute you."
The traditional acknowledgement to the Emperor came only from Lucius's lips. Ashlyn's stay closed, and she raised her chin in defiance as Ali's father glared down at her.
She wasn't the first gladiator to refuse to acknowledge the power of the Emperor. Most of those who didn't were Gauls, or Celts, or really members of any conquered territory. They would still let her fight- no one could resist the drama of a female barbarian taking on the empire's favorite champion. But normally, the defiant one would meet the Emperor's eyes, give him a glare, promising that they would never submit.
Not this time. Ashlyn's eyes never left Ali's until she was called into the center of the arena to begin her fight.
Ali had seen few female gladiators in her time- they were saved for special occasions, but she supposed that this qualified- but Ashlyn didn't stand like a disgraced female slave, forced into the arena by an irate Master who had failed to gain the favors he wanted from her. She stood like the other proud men, the captured ones, who had refused to meet her father's eyes. Prouder than Lucius, who wouldn't hesitate to bend to his knees the second her father commanded it.
She stood like a warrior.
The announcer gave the signal to begin, and sparks flew as Lucius and Ashlyn's swords met for the first time. They were both talented, that much was clear, and it was hard to see who had the upper hand.
Lucius had the better weapon, that was certain. He was a champion, after all, and Ashlyn was simply a conquered woman, come to be humiliated. Her sword looked little better than the ceremonial one that hung on the wall of the Imperial Family's country villa. A small dent appeared in it when Lucius clashed his blade against it.
Ashlyn ducked, Lucius's weapon barely missing her. Sand swirled around their feet as they moved. It had to be fresh sand- the sand in that spot had been soaked the previous afternoon with the blood of an unfortunate heretic who had been tossed to the animals.
Lucius barreled towards Ashlyn, arm raised for another strike, when the female gladiator hooked a leg behind his calf and sent him sprawling to the ground. He tumbled, but regained his feet quickly and was coming for her again, brushing the sand off his arms.
Ali was sitting on the edge of her seat, fists clenched in her tunic. She couldn't bear to close her eyes, for fear that, if she did, she would open them to find the beautiful gladiator on the ground, Lucius's sword poised above her heart.
She knew that Ashlyn was supposed to be the enemy, a symbol of Rome's final victory over her people, but she couldn't stand the thought of her blood coating the arena.
Ashlyn's sandals slipped, giving Lucius enough time to reach her before she could duck out of the way again. One of his muscular arms wrapped around Ashlyn's neck, and Ali couldn't contain the gasp that flew from her lips.
Kyle sent a concerned glance her way at the sound, but Ali didn't catch it. Her eyes were locked on the fight before her, her elegant braids shivering as she did. It was uncharacteristic for Ali to be so absorbed- she normally didn't have the stomach for the games- especially days upon days in a row.
Something was wrong.
"Ali? Ali, are you okay? Alexandria?"
No response. His sister's eyes were still fixed on the match, where the female gladiator had managed to fight her way out of Lucius's choke hold via a well placed stomp to the bridge of his foot.
The first blood was drawn by Lucius, as was expected by the crowd- his sword sliced across Ashlyn's cheek and a vicious line of red appeared there, dripping down her chin to splatter against her white cloth, then down to the sand. The gathered crowd roared in excitement- first blood had taken far too long in their opinion. Ali's knuckles were white- her tunic was crumpled in her hands, hands shaking.
It didn't take long for Ashlyn to retaliate- her blade collided with an unprotected portion of Lucius's arm and the champion roared in pain. Worried gasps came from Lucius's biggest fans, but the rest of the crowd leaned forward, fascinated by this barbarian woman who had the gall to not only take on, but injure, a true Roman man.
Ashlyn pressed her advantage, slicing at Lucius's other arm. His sword caused a pile of sand to rise up from the arena as it fell to the ground. Before anyone could even blink, Ashlyn had shoved Lucius to the ground, a knee on his chest and her blade hovering above his chest.
The crowd roared, some in disappointment and some in excitement, and Ali allowed her shoulders to relax at the knowledge that this beautiful woman wouldn't die for her entertainment today.
I am using the modern names for all buildings, streets and areas including, in this chapter, the Palatine Hill, the Forum and Via Sacra. To get from the Colosseum to the Palatine, one has to turn onto Via di San Bonaventura, but I chose to take some license, because there is no way the street would have been named after a Christian saint back in the Roman times. In terms of the Roman timeline, I am placing this around 100-ish AD, following the rule of Titus Flavius, simply because he ordered the Flavian palace built.
After I take my Mediterranean History course fall semester, I will almost certainly be furious at myself.
If any of you are, possibly, reading this from Rome or Italy, please don't hesitate to correct my geography, because all of this comes from my own (brief) experiences in Rome and from Google Maps.
I made Alyssa far younger in this- I promise there is a reason.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The fight between Ashlyn and Lucius was the only one scheduled for that day- they didn't need another to draw people to the Colosseum, not when a barbarian and a champion were to battle. The Emperor and his children stood up to leave, making their way down the empty halls of the building. The people would wait a few minutes, to let them exit before they crowded the passageways.
So Ali, taking her brother's arm and allowing him to help her down the stairs so that she didn't trip on her tunic, was able to emerge into the hot Roman summer before any of the common people. The square around the Colosseum was almost empty, almost everyone nearby inside the building to enjoy the spectacles. The only people who waited in the square were the slaves, waiting with three separate liters to bear the royal family back to their palace on the Palatine Hill.
The two strong men who were to bear her knelt down to allow her to climb on, lying back on the pillows and pulling the curtains shut. The walk would only take the men a little over five minutes, but the brief moment of solitude was heavenly for Ali. It was one of the only times she could think without anyone analyzing her face.
And right now, she was thinking about the female gladiator. Her muscles rippling as she fought against Rome's champion, refusing to submit to the defeat that the crowd had come to see her suffer. Her intense gaze, her glare as she locked her eyes onto Ali's instead of onto the Emperor's. The cut on her cheek, dripping blood.
A bump, as one of the men stumbled on a hole on the Via Sacra, jolted Ashlyn from Ali's mind. Her day was far from over- the moment the liter deposited her at the palace, it was out of this tunic and into one of her others, for another night of feasts. She had to admit that the meals were the best part of this fifty day celebration- all sorts of foreign delicacies, Neapolitan wine, decadent desserts, just waiting to be consumed. She always ended the night with her tunic feeling a little tighter, and had to spend hours walking the palace halls, shadowed by her servants, to keep herself the lithe princess that she was expected to be.
The five minute walk ended far more quickly than she would have liked, and the men knelt down again. A hand reached out to take hers, helping her from the liter.
"Gratias," she said, and the man helping her from the liter nodded his head respectfully. Kyle had waited for her, and she grabbed onto his arm as they walked towards the door of the grand Domus Flavia.
"So, darling Alexandria," said her brother with a laugh. "It was quite a fight today. You seemed interested- moreso than usual."
Ali shrugged, stepping through the door and onto the marbled floors.
"I guess I was."
Kyle raised his eyebrows.
"Lucius got his ass handed to him, didn't he? And by a barbarian no less, and a woman. I don't know if his career will ever recover from this."
"Maybe it won't. But, the people will find a new champion."
Kyle and Ali parted down their separate hallways, him towards his own room and her down the long passage that led to the women's wing of the palace, only occupied by herself and her ladies. It was a lot of space to have to herself, and Ali could probably have screamed at the top of her lungs without anyone hearing her. Well, except the omnipresent guards, who flanked her as she walked to her bedchamber and pulled open the door.
They would stand outside while her slaves changed her tunic, bringing the old one away to wash. They would stand outside while she slept. They would stand outside even if she ordered them away.
"Welcome home, Domina," said one of her slaves, nodding respectfully. The others echoed the sentiment, surrounding her and pulling her tunic off over her head, leaving her in nothing but her undergarments. She was a bit sweaty- the crush of bodies in the Colosseum, as well as the fact that it was a very hot day in Rome, had seen to that. She couldn't go to dinner smelling like sweat.
The women had already prepared a bowl of soapy water for her- there was no time for a full bath, not until later in the evening. One of the women pulled out her day braids, running a gentle comb through her sunkissed hair, while the others took cloths and rubbed them up and down her legs, arms and underarms. The smell of the lavender soap soon overwhelmed the smell of sweat, and the slaves dried her off just as gently while the one at her hair finished twisting it up into more elegant night braids. They had to be perfect- all the women of the city styled their hair after Ali's, as well as that of a few affluent noblewomen, so the princess sat stiller than the statue of Diana which graced her chamber.
"Thank you," she said quietly as they slipped a new tunic over her head, this one purple to represent her status. They tied it around her waist, and she was ready.
"You look beautiful, Domina."
The voice of one of her youngest slaves, a girl of no more than eleven or twelve years. If Ali remembered correctly, she was one of those who had been captured in Gaul a few years ago. Her name had been Alyssa in her home, which Ali only knew because that was what the older slaves had called her when she woke at night with her nightmares, but she had been dubbed Alesia by the man who had sold her to them.
It was a cruel irony.
"Thank you," repeated Ali, giving the girl a smile and answering the knock of the guards, her cue that it was time to be escorted to dinner. She slid on her heeled sandals and strode out ahead of them.
It was a long walk from the women's wing to the main dining hall- far too long for Ali's comfort. She normally didn't mind walking, but on nights like this, it gave her far too much time to think. The entire Senate- at least those in her father's favor- as well as those patricians who were wealthy and affluent enough would all be here. Just like they were the previous night, and just like they would be for another month. While some of them were kind, easy to converse with and rather pleasant, many of the men were far less enjoyable to keep company with.
"The Imperial Princess, Alexandria Blaire."
The herald announced her, and all the eyes in the room turned to face her, most of the faces lowered in deference- all except those of her father, brother, and the most important senators and courtiers.
Kyle took her arm and led her to the seat which had been set aside for her, a reclining couch in a triangle with the wives of the Consul's wife and the wife of her father's favorite senator. Ali didn't like to recline while she ate, it made her stomach ache later in the night, and so she propped herself up on her elbow, holding her head up as high as she could. The senators' wives, neither of whom was much older than her, followed suit.
Ali took a long sip of wine, silently thanking the Neapolitan grape growers- well, those which remained following the eruption at Pompeii and Herculaneum, just before she was born. Making small talk with the other women, both of whom she had talked to the previous night, wasn't the most pleasant of endeavors, but it was far better than talking to the men.
"Princess Alexandria," said a voice behind her, and she turned her head around to face the newcomer. "I didn't have the pleasure of speaking to you before the Games today. You look lovely this evening."
"Thank you, Cassius," she said, forcing a charming smile to her face around the rouge that Alyssa had applied to her lips. "No, we did not have the pleasure of speaking earlier- quite unfortunate."
It had been by design, of course. Cassius was an eager young man who had been trying to catch her eye from his seat at the Colosseum, and Ali had pretended not to see him. Sitting and doing nothing was better than engaging in conversation with Cassius more than once a day- she had had to save her energy and patience for when he inevitably approached her here.
"I don't suppose you would want to walk with me?"
Ali weighed her options- it was either a monotonous conversation where she risked being approached by character upon character far less savory than Cassius, or a monotonous walk with a too-eager young man.
"I'd be delighted," she lied, letting Cassius take her hand and pull her from the divan, nodding to the women. She didn't miss the way that their shoulders relaxed, freed from the pressure of having her among them, where the slightest wrong move could be disastrous.
"So, Princess," said Cassius, leading Ali towards the garden in the palace's inner courtyard. "How... How did you find the fight today?"
Ali measured her words carefully.
"The woman fought well," she said finally. It was something that no one could deny, and it would give her a chance to judge how he felt about it.
"You don't mean that!"
Cassius stopped in the middle of the garden, taking a deep breath to try and control his emotions.
"I apologize for my outburst, Princess Alexandria. What I meant to say is that that... that barbarian did not fight like a Roman. She stepped on his foot to get away, when he had gotten her fairly."
"With an arm around her neck?"
Ali's voice was sardonic- while stepping on someone's foot may not have been sporting, neither was attempting to strangle someone. But, of course, Lucius was a Roman champion- he could get away with it, if Cassius's words were anything to go by.
He had nothing to say to that, so Ali continued.
"And besides, she's not a Roman. She's a Gaul."
"Filthy creatures," he spat, and Ali took a step away from him, checking behind her shoulder to make sure her guard had followed. Not that Cassius would ever hurt her- not if he wanted to leave the palace alive.
"But," he admitted. "It was a good show."
Ali nodded in agreement, silently pondering the conversation as Cassius droned about other matters. They took two turns around the garden before she gently guided his path back towards the main party.
"I don't know about you, Sir, but I am eager for more wine."
The party continued long into the night, and Ali took her leave as soon as she reasonably could. After wishing everyone goodnight who had even a modicum of importance, she kissed Kyle on the cheek, bowed to her father, and started back to her chambers.
Her slaves were still awake, ready to pull her royal purple tunic from her, this time along with her undergarments, and usher her into a warm bath. They washed her hair with sweet smelling soap, scrubbed all the dirt from her until her skin was red with it, then allowed her to use their hands to pull herself from the tub. Once she had lain down to sleep, they retreated to their own chambers, hoping to catch a few hours' rest.
Ali laid awake, mind wandering back to the Gallic woman. An inexorable urge came over her- she had to see her again, and she had to see her again now. So, she pulled the thin blanket from over her body and, tiptoeing quietly, pulled a simple white chiton, in the Greek style, from her closet. She pulled it over her head and made for the secret tunnel in her room, built by her grandfather, Flavius Caesar, in case any of his female relations needed to escape quickly.
Lighting a candle, she raced down the corridor and into the muggy Roman night.
Gratias- thank you
Alyssa's Roman name is ironic because the battle of Alesia is known as kind of the final defeat of the Gauls by Julius Caesar.
Since so little is known about Gallic gods and goddesses, I found what I could and had to fill in the rest. On a site I found, Belenus was the closest thing to a sun god I could find, and Arduinna was the Gallic/Celtic equivalent of Diana/Artemis. Since modern day France was the region where many Gauls lived, I filled in the rest of the gods and goddesses- such as Amourna- with those imagined by Robin LaFevers in her His Fair Assassin trilogy, which is set in Brittany. In that series, Amourna is the goddess of gentle love, and likely beauty as well although that was not specified on her website. I swear, it's like I'm writing a history text in these chapter notes. As always, if any of my information is incorrect, PLEASE let me know- the Gods and Goddesses are one of the most important things, in my mind, to get right.
This chapter does contain references to forced prostitution and murder- read with caution and remember to practice self-care!
There was only so many times that one could count the numerous bricks in the crumbling ceiling before one lost their mind completely. But, there was nothing else for Ashlyn to do except count them, unless she wanted to go to sleep- which she most certainly did not. Sleep meant that the faces would come back, the screams would come back. So, she was stuck counting the bricks over and over again, first in Gaulish and then in Latin. Counting and counting until she couldn't keep her eyes open anymore.
Her neighbors were quiet, presumably having fallen asleep by this time.
Often, victors would get special meals after winning a fight, or at least be allowed to come out of their cell for a little while, celebrate their victory and newfound status.
The moment she had been loaded back into the cart, cheek still bleeding, she had known she was in trouble. Her owner, Titus Liviarus, had wrapped a damp hand around her arm, sticky from the food he had consumed while watching her first fight, and pulled her along, throwing her roughly into the vehicle.
"Bitch," he growled, jowls shaking in fury and spittle flying to mingle with Ashlyn's blood on her face. "You... You... You stupid whore!"
He could barely speak for his anger, and when Ashlyn had landed in the back of the cart, his hand cracked across the side of her face that had not been the victim of Lucius's sword. His ring cut her other cheek, and Ashlyn bit her lip.
"You will never do that again. Do you understand me?"
Ashlyn spit onto the floor of the cart, and the liquid came out red, hitting the wood as Titus loomed over her, shivering with rage.
"You will never disrespect the Emperor again, you worthless piece of dirt. Never. If you do, I can easily sell you to the brothels- I'm sure there are many rich men who would pay good money to have a barbarian, even one like you."
This was the only threat he could have made that would have any effect on her. But she couldn't let him know it.
"My apologies, Dominus. It will not happen again."
He didn't catch the sarcasm that she threw onto the honorific, just slammed the door behind her, leaving her in the dark for the journey down Via di Porta towards the Gruppo Storico Romano- the Gladiatorial school where he had had her trained. Ashlyn hated the dark- when it was dark, even during the day, that was when the faces came. When she was in the sun, she could remember that it was the same sun which shone over her homeland. The Romans called him Sol, but Ashlyn would forever know the man in the sun chariot as Belenus.
The ride was bumpy and unpleasant, but it gave Ashlyn time to tend to herself. She pulled off a strip of her filthy tunic and held it to her cheek, trying to staunch the flow of blood. It stung, and Ashlyn had to bite her lip to keep from crying out as the leftover sand from the arena made its way into the slice. It was less than an hour before the driver stopped the cart, but to Ashlyn it felt like much longer.
The men's eyes locked onto her as she heaved herself out of the back of the cart- they hadn't expected her to come back. Some looked relieved, almost happy- Ashlyn was, after all, a decent sparring partner- while others just scoffed.
Now, she was back in her cell, with a proper bandage over her cheek, and nothing but time.
Nothing but thoughts, thoughts that wouldn't leave her alone until she thought them through.
All she had felt while she was fighting against Lucius Vettius, Rome's precious champion had been uncontrollable rage. When she looked at his proud face, she saw the faces of the soldiers who had burned her family's tents, had slaughtered her mother and father right before her eyes and dragged herself and her little sister off in chains. Her little sister had been clinging to her chest, hiding her face as Ashlyn screamed for her parents. Then, her sister had been pulled away from her, screaming in Gaulish and unable to understand the Latin commands being barked at her. That had been two years ago, and she hadn't seen her sister since, but she still saw her parents' deaths each night, heard them yelling for their daughters.
She almost wished that she had died with them, and that her sister had to. Anything was better than this.
She knew, really, that it wasn't Lucius's fault- he was a slave as much as she was. But when they put him in front of her, sword in hand and ready to kill, all she could see in his face was the very face of Rome.
But there was another face of Rome that Ashlyn also couldn't get out of her mind- the beautiful woman sitting beside the Emperor.
Her intricate braids fell had fallen into her eyes, sun beating down on her hair and making it shine. Her light blue tunic, clean and pressed, draped around her curves. The only thing that she could think when she had looked at her was that this must be Amourna, come down from her throne in human guise, to be with her daughter in her time of troubles.
But Ashlyn had always been a follower of Arduinna, not Amourna. And if Amourna was to appear to her, she wouldn't do it the guise of a Roman woman. So, this must have been a true flesh and blood woman.
When she had refused to speak the words, she meant to give the man a defiant glare, but she found that she couldn't take her eyes away from the woman who could only be his daughter, the princess of the Roman Empire.
She didn't want to think about her. She was Roman as much as the rest of them, holding her here in bondage. But, the thought of her wouldn't leave her mind.
It was a long walk, from the Domus Flavia to the Gruppo Storico, and with every shadow that moved in the darkness of the streets, Ali found herself jumping, ducking behind columns and fountains, anything to keep from being seen.
The only women walking the streets this time of night were prostitutes and theives, and Ali didn't know which one she'd less like to be mistaken for. Every once in a while, there would be a voice coming around a corner, belonging to a man leaving a party, or stumbling drunk out of the brothels. She held the candle aloft so that she could see the street signs, guiding her the way she needed to go.
She had only visited the Gruppo Storico once, with her father the previous year, and so she was astonished when, after almost an hour of creeping like a terrified ghost through the streets, she saw it looming ahead of her. Pushing open the door, she jumped when a guard appeared, her entrance having woken him from a light doze.
"Who are you? What are you doing here? The men don't want any whores tonight, girl."
Ali blanched, stepping into the light of the candles which lined the hallway.
"It's a good thing I'm not a whore, then. I've come to see the gladiator Ashlyn."
He laughed, stopping when she pulled out a small bag of coins and tossed it his way. He pulled open the drawstring, running his fingers through the money. His fingers landed on a silver coin, and when he held it up to the light to ensure its authenticity, his face whitened.
For on it glittered her visage.
She nodded, feeling her confidence growing with each shade his face paled. The guard sank down to one knee, head bowed in deference.
"Please, Your Imperial Highness. Please, forgive my foolishness in not recognizing you- and for mistaking you for a woman of the night."
Ali nodded, gesturing for him to rise.
"Take me to see the gladiator Ashlyn, tell no one I was here, and it shall be forgotten."
He nodded quickly, gesturing her down a set of stairs and through a hallway where the candles flickered far more dimly than in the entryway, to the last cell on the right, where a figure was tapping her foot on a stone bed, a bandage over her cheek lightly soaked with blood.
"You have a visitor, barbarian," said the guard roughly, and Ali gestured him away to stand at the end of the hallway. Ashlyn turned over on her bed, and Ali stepped out into the candlelight, in the view of the woman in the cell.
This is a bit of a shorter chapter- sorry!
When the woman stepped out of the shadows and into the dim light cast by the candle, Ashlyn thought that she was hallucinating. Because there was no way that this could be real. She couldn't be here, there was no reason for her to be here. This was a dream.
But Ashlyn had never seen beautiful women in her dreams, and she saw no reason for her to start now. The pain on her cheek was too prominent, the air to sticky, her stomach too empty for this to be a dream.
The woman was wringing her small hands nervously, her clothing just a simple chiton and hair plaited in a single long braid down her back, messy, as if she had done it herself. Her eyes were darting around like those of a nervous animal, ensuring that no one had seen her and that the guard was still standing at the end of the hallway, back turned to them.
"Do you recognize me?"
Ashlyn nodded, eyes raking across the woman on the other side of the bars. How could she not recognize her? How could anyone not recognize her?
She was even more beautiful up close, her image the only good thing that Ashlyn had seen in the darkness for quite some time. Her chiton hugged her soft curves, but her frightened yet determined expression was what really caught Ashlyn's eye.
"I do. You're the Emperor's daughter. Your highness," added Ashlyn quickly, bowing her head in respect.
The woman nodded, stepping an inch closer and playing with the hem of her chiton.
"My name is Alexandria. Ali."
"Well, Princess Ali," said Ashlyn, again unable to tear her eyes away from the other woman's. "With all due respect, what are you doing here? In the middle of the night? Alone?"
Ashlyn watched the princess consider her answer, chewing on her perfectly round lower lip. She wasn't used to being questioned by anyone except her father and Kyle- no one had had the nerve to ask what she was doing or why she was doing it. No one, that is, until now. She didn't seem sure herself why she had walked all the way here from the Palatine, alone, ducking behind columns all the way to avoid being spotted and recognized. Or worse, spotted and not recognized.
"I... Lucius cut you."
Her voice was quiet, but matter-of-fact. It was a statement of fact, not an answer to Ashlyn's question, but it was a start.
"Yes, he did."
Ashlyn brought a hand up to ghost over the bandage adorning her face. The cut would almost certainly leave a nasty scar, one which would never fade away and would be a permanent reminder of her time here.
"I... I wanted to make sure that they had... fixed it."
Ashlyn had to hold back a laugh. This woman, an imperial princess, had walked all the way here, in the middle of the night, to check if a simple gladiator's cheek was being taken care of? This was something she'd never anticipated.
"Well, rest assured, little princess. Your Empire takes good care of its champions. Even ones like me."
Ali nodded, eyes raking over the bandage on Ashlyn's face as she stood awkwardly before the cell, staring at a spot near the gladiator's feet. Tension filled the air along with the heavy silence. Ashlyn was the one to break it.
"Is there... Is there something else that you wanted, Princess Ali?"
"Ali. Just Ali."
"Well then, just Ali. Was there something else that you needed from me? I'd be happy to provide."
Ali was still biting at her lip, refusing to look at Ashlyn. Carefully, cautiously, and fully aware that this simple act was grounds for her immediate punishment, if not execution, but somehow unable to stop herself, Ashlyn reached a hand through the bars of her cell and placed a calloused but gentle finger underneath the princess's chin, trying to guide her to meet her eyes. Said eyes widened, and she took a quick step backwards, just out of Ashlyn's reach.
Her eyes were wild, but they locked onto Ashlyn's, and once again the Gallic woman couldn't look away. Her hand was still outstretched, touching only the air.
Ali didn't move any closer back to Ashlyn, but she reached out a hand of her own and pressed her palm to Ashlyn's. A spark lit up between the two hands, and Ashlyn felt as if Amourna had hit her on the head. Just this simple touch from Ali, a woman she had only spoken to once, made her feel more alive than she had ever since she had been dragged from her homeland.
"I just wanted to tell you that I'm glad you survived."
Ashlyn examined Ali's face, looking for any sign at all that she was being lied to. After all, why should Ali be glad of that- Ashlyn was the enemy. An old, broken down, defeated enemy, but an enemy nonetheless. But she could find no sign, as well as no reason, for the princess to be lying to her.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Ali continued on, voice still quiet but gaining a calm that hadn't been there earlier.
"And I'll... I'll be rooting for you."
Ashlyn carefully closed her fingers around Ali's hand, feeling the woman's smooth, unmarred palm against her own calloused, cracked and broken one.
"Thank you, Ali. I'll look for you. In the crowd."
Ali nodded, a small smile making its way to her face before she pulled her fingers out of Ashlyn's and took a small step back down the hallway and towards the exit. She was walking backwards, keeping her eyes on Ashlyn for as long as she could.
"I need to go," she whispered. "Before anyone notices that I'm gone."
"Be careful," said Ashlyn, sending Ali a last glance before the other woman reached the guard still stationed at the end of the hallway and turned to leave.
When Ali had gone, Ashlyn sat back down on her bed, leaning back and trying to process what had just happened. Princess Alexandria was certainly not what she had expected.
Aurora is the Roman goddess of the dawn.
It was a miracle that Ali managed to make it all the way back to the palace without being spotted by anyone. She had left the door to the secret passageway propped slightly open with a rock- it was the only way that she would be able to get back in without alerting the guards. She kicked the rock out from the door and slid it closed behind her, tiptoeing back up the passage towards her bed.
Her palm still tingled from the touch of Ashlyn's hand against hers, as if Jupiter Maximus himself had struck it with a bolt of electricity. The roughness of the other woman's hand was a contrast to her own, which had never done a day of hard labor in her life. Something inside of her wanted to run her fingers across all of Ashlyn's callouses, trace every crack on her hand and read them like a scroll, one which told the story of the other woman's life.
She didn't know why she wanted that. Pluto, she didn't even know why she had run from the palace in the middle of the night to visit her.
As she pulled her chiton off over her head, searching the floor for the nightdress that she had dropped on the floor directly in front of her closet, she realized that where it had lain there was now a blank spot of tile.
Someone knew she had gone.
Ali felt her heart rate speed up, the beginnings of panic forming in her chest. If she didn't find out who had noticed her absence, and stop them before they could report to her father, she didn't know what would happen. Nothing good, that was for certain.
A soft voice from behind her made Ali whip her head around, completely naked, to see who else was there with her. Automatically, her arms came up to fold across her chest, covering her breasts from her newfound audience. Her shoulders relaxed slightly when she saw who was standing there, holding her nightdress in calloused hands, worn from time spent scrubbing her floors and clothing.
"Alyssa. What are you doing up? You're young, you need to sleep."
The young girl took a step backwards, handing her mistress the nightgown and placing the chiton back into the closet.
"Domina," she whispered. "May I ask a question of you?"
Ali nodded, pulling the nightgown up over her head and sliding back underneath her light covers. She beckoned the girl to the side of her bed, and Alyssa approached with tentative steps, as if afraid that Ali might withdraw her permission at any second.
"You may. One question, and then it's back to sleep for you."
Alyssa nodded in agreement.
"Domina, why did you call me Alyssa? My name is... my name is Alesia."
Ali sat up in her bed, propping her pillow behind her back and taking the girl's hand in her own. There was no electricity, but she could still feel the difference between them. She met the girl's eyes, and she could tell that Alyssa was fighting the urge to look away.
"No," said Ali. "It isn't, is it?"
Alyssa shook her head slowly.
"It didn't used to be, Domina. The man who sold me gave me the name Alesia when I arrived in Rome."
Ali nodded in understanding, still holding onto Alyssa's hand.
"I heard the others call you Alyssa in the middle of the night. If you don't mind, I would like to call you that as well."
Alyssa's mouth dropped open slightly.
"Truly. Now, get your rest."
Alyssa obeyed, a small smile on her face as she dashed back to the chamber adjoining Ali's, where most of her women slept. Ali, for her part, took a long time to drift back to sleep, thoughts returning quickly to Ashlyn the gladiator, who simply wouldn't leave her alone. Even in her dreams, the woman was there, looking at her with a frightening intensity. Yet, somehow, Ali wasn't frightened.
Aurora brought the dawn far too quickly for Ali's liking, a soft pink light creeping in through the sunroof- the only window she was allowed, for fear that someone might use a side window to attack the palace. It mingled with the tile on her floor to create a pattern that would normally catch her eyes, but this morning Ali couldn't help but wish that the sun chariot could have held off just a little longer- she hadn't been able to finish her dream. As she stretched, pulling herself from the comfort of the bed and towards the mirror so that her women could get her ready for the new day.
Another day just like the last.
Ali examined her face to find sleep lines on her right cheek, and there was a crick in her neck that wouldn't crack, even when she rolled her head. Nimble hands pulled her long braid out, running a comb through her already smooth hair and returning it to soft waves, which would be twisted up into some complex style that Ali couldn't imagine having the skill to do for anyone else. Her head slave, Carelia, swept the closet open.
"Which tunic today, Domina?"
Ali shrugged dismissively- it didn't matter to her whatsoever, which tunic would adorn her body. This day was the same as any other, the same as it would be for any day following today until the end of her father's birthday celebration.
Carelia pulled out a light red one and held it up for Ali's inspection and approval. The princess nodded without really looking, and her head slave pulled the garment on over her head, then directed the others to begin work on her braids and ornaments. Alyssa fetched her sandals, worn and dirty from the previous night's walk. Ali lifted her feet one by one and allowed the young woman to slide them on, giving her a small smile.
"Your father requests that you join him for breakfast," came a voice from the door. One of her guards, a new one from the previous night. They always changed shifts in the middle of the night, when it wouldn't be noticed.
Her father requested this every morning, and Ali always complied. Today would be no different.
"Thank you," she said to her women, and they each bowed their head in deference as she followed the man from her chamber.
It stunned her, each and every morning, how clean the main dining room was. Every single party, and there had been many, had ended with the dining room being near completely trashed- food on the floor, smeared everywhere, unidentifiable fluids, a horrible smell in the air- and each morning Ali awoke to find that it was sparkling clean.
A bleary-eyed slave poured Ali's water, and she sat alone until footsteps sounded down the other hallway. Her father and brother appeared together, both in impeccably wrapped togas. Her father especially looked exhausted, hungover. Kyle had a hand on his arm, holding him up and helping him into his seat.
"Good morning, Alexandria," said the Emperor.
"Good morning, father."
He didn't seem to hear her, didn't acknowledge her beyond a nod as the head of the palace staff laid the day's agenda in front of him. Ali picked at her food, pushing it around her plate and taking small sips of her water. Her stomach was in revolt at the idea of another day in that place, a place which smelled like shit and death. She didn't know how anyone who ever went could eat.
"When do we leave for the arena today, father?"
Kyle's question got no more than a shrug from their father, but his head slave responded for him.
"You're expected there in an hour, Dominus."
Ali buried her head in her hands. The prospect of another day watching the same fight, among the same people... It was suddenly too much. There was something else that she had to do, and it was more important.
"Father," she said. "Father, I feel... I think I might be a bit ill."
Her father looked up, examining his daughter's face closely for signs of any illness. Unfortunately, his eyes did not appear to be open any further than halfway, and he didn't seem to have the energy to argue with her.
"Alright, Alexandria. I'll send the doctor to look at you. Just... so long as you're at the feast tonight. Tonight is an especially important one for you."
Ali nodded, concealing a smile. She would figure out what he meant by the last sentence later, after she had done what she wanted to do today.
"I thank you, father."
Normally, she would wait for him to dismiss her, but today she jumped out of her chair and sped up as her guards escorted her back to her room. Now, she just needed to think of an excuse to go where she was going in the daylight.
Sol and Luna are the Roman Sun and Moon
There was no rest for the weary.
Ashlyn and the rest of the people in the yard were living proof of that. The physicians hadn't bothered to change her bandage, which was completely soaked with blood. It ached every time she moved her face, and the sweat that was dripping down her cheeks was making its way into the slice, stinging her with salt. She gritted her teeth, trying to ignore it- she would have to use her water to wash out the bandage and replace it later.
"Pay attention, Ash!"
Her sparring partner smacked her shoulder with her wooden sword. She rolled her eyes, but raised her own blade and met hers.
"Bring it on, Sam."
Samara was the only other female at the scholae- a slave who had fought back against her master when he had sold her lover. The man had turned her over to the arena to die, but then Sam had won. She wasn't undefeated, but she was popular with the crowd, and she had been the one to slowly teach Ashlyn all the Latin she knew.
Sam knocked Ashlyn's blade from her hand.
"What's going on with you today?"
Ashlyn shrugged, bending down to pick up her sword.
Now it was Sam's turn to roll her eyes, tossing her head back and forth to make sure the trainers weren't watching them take their small break.
"I don't believe that for a fraction of a second, Ashlyn. What is it? I know that your first fight is terrifying, but it's over now. You won, and spectacularly at that."
Ashlyn nodded, already losing interest in the conversation. Her mind had been wandering all morning, wavering back and forth between the pain in her cheek and the memory of Princess Alexandria's hand in hers the previous night. She still wasn't quite sure why the woman had come to see her, but she couldn't get her out of her mind.
"Talk to me, Ashlyn. Because I need a useful sparring partner."
A yell sounded from across the yard, and Sam jolted, quickly raising her sword again and crossing it with Ashlyn's. Ashlyn tried to keep up with her friend, but she couldn't stop herself from thinking about Ali.
Ali marched through the lively streets of Rome as if she belonged there, thin veil draped over her head to conceal her face from the crowds. By her side, Carelia carried a basket full of food from the kitchens.
To the untrained eye- which was, thankfully, most of the Roman populace- they looked to be just two servants on their way to the marketplace on an errand for their Lord or Lady. The streets smelled ghastly during the day, and Ali wished that she had brought one of her small jars of perfume to keep under her nose. The scent of rotting fish, sweaty bodies and human waste was overwhelming, and Ali didn't know how the women who came to the market daily for the food could stomach it. She certainly wouldn't be eating today.
Ali gestured Carelia to follow her down the last street between the Domus Flavia and the place where Ashlyn was kept. The older woman had been astonished when she heard what Ali wanted to do with her day, and had tried to talk her out of it. But, when it became evident that Ali was going, Carelia had shook her head, tossed her Mistress one of her own tunics, and followed her out of the door of their room.
"The princess is sleeping," she had said to the omnipresent guards, who hadn't recognized Ali beneath her veil. They hadn't questioned her, and Carelia had walked Ali straight out the front door.
"I still don't know why you're doing this, Domina," said Carelia, shaking her head. "This is not a suitable excursion for someone such as you."
Ali shook her head dismissively. Her head slave had been protesting ever since they left the palace, but Ali had paid her no heed. She hadn't bothered explaining this fully to Carelia- it wasn't her job to ask questions. But, she had told her that it was something that she needed to do, for reasons that still made no sense to her.
The building looked both far more and far less imposing in broad daylight than it had the previous evening. Less so because it was light- there was nothing lingering in the shadows that she couldn't see. Nothing that might attack her that she wouldn't be able to run from. But, everywhere they went was another chance to be caught. So, she pulled the veil tighter around her face and let Carelia do the talking.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
The guard's voice was stern as he gazed at the two women, Ali's face locked on the ground while Carelia met his eyes boldly.
"My name is Carelia, and this is Al- Lucia. We are slaves of the Princess Alexandria, and she has sent us with gifts to honor her favorite competitor from this week's matches."
This had been the agreed-upon lie. Carelia gestured to the clasp holding her tunic in place, a clasp marking her as Ali's head slave. The guard nodded, but made no moves to admit them.
"Why didn't the princess send word that we should expect the pleasure of your company today?"
Ali bit her lip, but Carelia was flawless.
"Princess Alexandria found herself ill this morning, and thusly could not rise to send word."
The man nodded, examining Carelia and Ali one final time before gesturing them onward, escorting them inside to a cozy chamber with a divan and chair.
"To which competitor did your Lady wish to bestow her gifts?"
"The woman Ashlyn who defeated Lucius yesterday."
His eyes widened, but he didn't question Carelia.
"I shall send for her."
When the man left the room, Ali's shoulders relaxed in relief. Carelia passed her the basket.
"I can't believe that worked," squealed Ali in excitement. The older woman rolled her eyes again.
"Me neither, Domina. Me neither."
Carelia took the chair, but Ali remained standing, waiting for the door to open. When it did, she lowered her face quickly again, though she longed to raise her head and take another glimpse of Ashlyn.
"These two women are messengers from the Princess Alexandria, who wishes to bestow her favor upon you."
He closed the door behind himself, standing sentry outside the door, ready to burst in if Ashlyn attempted to murder the two women. Once she was sure that the only three people in the room were herself, Carelia and a slightly confused looking Ashlyn, Ali raised her veil, revealing her face.
When the woman revealed her face, Ashlyn's face lit up in an astounded smile. Ali was dressed in plain garb, that of a common royal slave, and her hair was twisted up in a simple bun. Even so, seeing her up close in daylight was the best sight that had ever blessed Ashlyn's eyes, and the Gallic woman suddenly felt especially dirty, what with the soil and sweat which coated almost every surface of her body from being knocked down by Samara several times.
She wanted to race forward and wrap the princess in her arms, but she had not been given permission.
"Hello, Princess Alexandria. It's... It's nice to see you."
Ali grinned, walking forward and using a cloth to wipe the sweat from Ashlyn's brow, making the other woman freeze in amazement. It wasn't Ali's hands on her, but it was close enough.
"It's lovely to see you too, Ashlyn. And I told you last night under Luna's gaze to call me Ali- that still holds true when Sol watches over us."
Ashlyn ignored Ali's slave in the corner, who seemed to be attempting (and failing) to stop herself from having a minor fit, and took the cloth from the smaller woman's hand, finishing wiping her own face.
"Why did you... why did you come to see me again?"
Ashlyn lingered beside the divan until Ali pulled her down to sit beside her. Never had she imagined that she would be sitting beside an Imperial Princess, on a divan, while a guard waited outside. In fact, she had never imagined herself in any of those situations separately. Ali wasn't touching her, aware as they both were of her companion watching them like a hawk even while pretending she wasn't, but she was close enough that Ashlyn could feel her breaths as she inhaled and exhaled.
"I couldn't help but notice," said Ali right away, so quickly that it almost seemed rehearsed. "That they had failed to provide you with more food than stale bread. I thought that you ought to have more than that."
Ashlyn's eyes widened as she noticed the contents of the basket in Ali's lap. Within, there seemed to be contained an entire loaf of fresh bread, a bundle of grapes, a small skein of wine and a cut of pork. Ashlyn's mouth watered. This was the most food she'd seen in a long time. Although she and her fellows were fed enough to keep up their strength, the quality of that food was often poor, and the fact that she had been being punished the previous night had caused her rations to be cut.
Ali nodded, passing Ashlyn the basket.
"All for you. Please, eat."
It was a direct command, and one that Ashlyn had no trouble obeying. She started in on the pork, bringing it to her mouth with small regards to how messily she was eating. She ate around half of it before switching to the grapes, and only when she had shoveled almost half of those into her gullet did she realize that Ali's eyes were fixed on her.
"Oh," she said quickly. "I apologize for my behavior, Ali. It's just I... I..."
"You're hungry. There's no need to apologize."
Despite Ali's reassurance, Ashlyn slowed her pace a tad, nibbling instead of gnawing on the remaining food and taking small sips from the skein of wine.
"I need to confess something," said Ali suddenly, and Ashlyn put down her basket, turning to listen.
"The food was an afterthought. I... I just wanted to... something in me told me that I had to see you."
Ashlyn felt a blush rise to her cheeks, matching the one on Ali's, although it was probably less notable on her still sweat splotched cheeks than on Ali's perfect smooth ones.
"I'm glad you did. Thank you, Ali. I... must admit that I couldn't stop thinking about you this morning."
"Nor I you."
Ashlyn passed Ali the wine, and she took a small sip. The warmth of Ashlyn's lips was still present on the rim, and Ali felt the blush on her cheeks deepen.
They didn't speak again, Ali just sitting and watching Ashlyn eat. It was fascinating, the way the Gallic woman's mouth moved as she chewed. Soon, all that remained was half the loaf of bread, some grapes and a mouthful or two of the pork. Ashlyn wrapped it up in the cloth, and Ali raised her eyebrows.
"Don't you want to finish?"
Ashlyn looked down at her feet.
"I... There's someone that I need to share it with."
For some reason, the prospect of Ashlyn sharing the food with anyone else made Ali's eyes narrow. Carelia took a step closer, hovering over them.
Ashlyn seemed to notice the difference in Ali's tone.
"Oh, Ali! It's not that I don't appreciate it, because this is the kindest thing that anyone has ever done for me, but... My friend Samara. She's the one who taught me Latin- the only other woman in here."
That made Ali feel a bit better- she knew of Samara, the woman who had near about lost her mind after her man was sold by her Master. She quite enjoyed watching her, in fact.
"Oh. Well, please tell Samara that it comes with my compliments."
Carelia placed a hand on Ali's shoulder, gently gesturing her to her feet. Ali nodded in understanding, even as her chest collapsed in disappointment.
"Yes. Just give me a moment, Car."
Carelia picked up the basket and went to wait by the door as Ali replaced her veil, squeezing Ashlyn's hand gently.
"I'll be rooting for you, Ashlyn. And I'll find ways to see you."
Then, Ali and Carelia were being escorted out of the room and Ashlyn back to the yard, food hidden under her tunic and a pleasant warmth in her heart.
Juno and Jupiter and the head Goddess and God (respectively) in the Roman canon.
Venus is the goddess of love.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ali walked with a new spring in her step after they left the Gruppo Storico, Carelia noticed with exhaustion. Her shoulders were back, and the older woman could tell that she was grinning stupidly underneath her veil as she swung the empty basket by her side.
"It's a lovely day, isn't it?"
Ali used the arm not carrying the empty basket to grab onto Carelia's shoulder, still practically vibrating with barely-contained happiness.
Carelia raised her sculpted eyebrows, rubbing at her aching temple and praying to Juno above for patience.
"Domina Alexandria, you do realize that we're in the middle of the fish market, don't you?"
Ali nodded happily, undisturbed by the reminder of the vile smell surrounding herself and her companion. All around them, vendors shouted their wares, but the women ignored them. It wasn't their job to do the shopping. It was their job to walk through this part of the market as quickly as possible before the smell made their stomachs rebel and add to the mess in the streets.
"Really? Are you sure you aren't sick? Because I saw you clutching your nose when we walked through here before."
Ali shrugged, pausing in the middle of the street only to be pulled along gently.
"I guess it just doesn't smell so bad this time 'round!"
Carelia shook her head and brought up the hand not currently occupied with propelling Ali forward to pinch the bridge of her nose. This girl would almost certainly be the death of her.
They got back into the palace unnoticed, basket covered with a cloth to disguise its empty state. When they finally reached her chambers, Ali tossed her veil carelessly to the ground and yanked Carelia's tunic off over her head. The older woman picked up both articles of clothing, handing them off to Alyssa before making her way to Ali's closet, throwing the doors wide.
It took her head slave several tries before Ali heard the question being posed to her, so lost was she in her own head.
Carelia was the only one who could get away with using a frustrated tone when it came to Ali, but it rarely came out to play. Only when the older woman was incredibly exasperated with her Mistress would she use it. The tone made Ali snap out of her reverie, one which featured muscles and blonde hair quite heavily, and turn towards the question.
"I asked you which tunic you wanted to wear tonight. Several times, in fact."
The question brought Ali abruptly back to the ground with a nasty crash. She had forgotten about tonight- about her father's ominous words from this morning.
Tonight is going to be a big night for you.
Her heart started pounding faster, opening up a pit in the depths of her stomach deeper than the foundations of the city. There were only so many things that those words could mean, and none of them were prospects that she was eager to face.
"You... You choose. I need a moment."
Completely naked save for her undergarments, Ali dashed from the main chamber of her room and into the side room where she had her baths and threw herself into the empty tub, trying to calm her breathing. The sudden panic was overwhelming her body, making a violent shudder run through her body.
Because whatever her father had planned for her, she wasn't ready for it.
A soft and shy voice came from her left, and then a small hand was wrapped around her wrist. Until Alyssa pulled her tightened fist away from her hair, Ali didn't realize that she was pulling at it, yanking it out in droves. There was a clump of brown strands in her hand, and her bun was now free around her shoulders, scraggly and completely ruined.
"Domina, what's the problem?"
Ali still didn't respond, instead wrapping her arms around herself and rocking slightly back and forth, thoughts racing a mile a minute.
"Alyssa," came another voice, this one surer, steadier. "Please go choose a tunic for Princess Alexandria. Make sure it's clean and relatively elegant. Morina will help you."
Alyssa reluctantly released Ali's wrist, leaving to perform her assigned tasks and leaving Ali alone with Carelia.
"Domina," the older woman whispered, climbing into the tub beside Ali. "Please, tell me what's wrong."
Ali leaned into her head slave's arms, letting the woman she had known for almost her entire life stroke her hair gently. Her hands were calming, familiar.
"I- Father- he said... Said that tonight was b-big for me."
She didn't need to say anything else- Carelia understood. She had probably been expecting this as well.
"Oh, Alexandria," she whispered, rocking her back and forth like a small child, calling her by her given name- which she hadn't done in years. "Darling, it'll be alright."
Ali shook her head, letting Carelia pull her closer.
"I can't- can't- they're all-"
"Shh, shh. I know. I know, but please, don't worry about it. It might not even be that. And I would never let anything happen to you, Ali. Ever."
She held Ali until the shaking subsided, then offered a hand to help her to her feet.
"Now," she said. "Let's get you looking your best."
As she pulled Ali out to see what Morina and Alyssa had chosen, Carelia's mind was racing with worry.
She had been there this morning- been there when Ali had met the gladiator woman's eyes, let her touches linger, and practically danced down the streets with joy at the thought of her. There was no good way for this to end- no way that didn't leave her Mistress with a broken heart.
Ali took a deep breath, looking at herself in the full length mirror.
She was glowing from the cream that Morina had rubbed into her skin. Her hair was perfect, wrapped into a braided updo by Carelia's talented hands. Alyssa had chosen a lighter purple tunic than the one she had worn the previous night, and it made Ali look even more like a princess than she ever had before.
"You're so beautiful," said Carelia. "Now, please. Please, try not to worry about it."
She took a step closer to her Mistress's ear, whispering just to her.
"We'll talk more tonight, okay?"
Ali nodded, then followed her guards to the dining room, just as she had the night before. Just as she had every night, and just as she would for the foreseeable future. Unless...
As soon as she entered the dining room, Ali was met not by Kyle, not by a plethora of senators and nobles vying for her attention, but by her father. The Emperor took his daughter's arm, guiding her away from her usual seat with the wives of the important men, but towards the head table that was normally just occupied by himself, Kyle, and whichever men happened to be in their favor that week.
She had never sat there in her memory, and as she followed obediently, she couldn't help but feel the fear rise back up into her chest, boring a hole in her heart.
Kyle gestured her into the seat beside his, one place removed from their father. She gripped his hand under the table, and whispered as quietly as she could as their father made no moves to retake his seat, instead clearing his throat and drawing himself up to his full height the way he did when he was about to make a major speech.
Her voice was frantic, and the older sibling could hear her pounding heartbeat through her tunic.
"Nothing bad, Ali. I promise."
"Then why am I here?"
Kyle was prevented from answering her when her father started speaking, but he gripped her hand tighter in a futile attempt to soothe his little sister's nerves. What was bad to Ali might not have been so to Kyle.
"As you all know," Emperor Kennius said, addressing the elites gathered around, who were watching and listening politely- or as politely as they ever had. "My beloved daughter, your princess Alexandria Blaire is approaching her twentieth birthday. While each birthday that my children celebrate is a cause for rejoicing, this year is particularly special for our dear princess."
He gestured for Ali to rise, which she did, still gripping onto Kyle's hand, using him for support, knowing that the next twenty seconds could decide her entire future.
"Dear girl," he said, directly addressing her now. "Of all the treasures in Rome, you are my most precious, which is why it is my honor to at last present you with this."
He gestured a slave forward, and the man opened a box and handed its contents to the Emperor, who took the three steps that were required to reach his only daughter.
When she saw what was in his hand, Ali brought a smooth hand to her mouth in shock. For resting in her father's open palm was a jade necklace, studded with all manner of precious gems, on a chain of pure silver. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry that she had ever seen in her life, and it was just as she remembered it.
She remembered sitting on her mother's lap, playing idly with it as a child. And, when she saw her mother's body placed into a tomb, she remembered asking her tearful father why Mater's favorite necklace wasn't going to the afterlife with her.
"My girl," Emperor Kennius had said, plucking Ali's tiny form up from the rough ground and balancing her in his arms, letting her bury her grief in his shoulders. "Your Mater, she... she wished that I give it to you."
They had spoken no more of it that day, but from then on until around her thirteenth birthday, Ali had asked after the necklace. Every time, her father had told her that she would have it when she was a woman grown- when she was ready.
She had almost forgotten about it.
Numb, she tilted her neck to allow her father to fasten the ornament onto her skin. Then, thanking her father with a kiss to his bearded cheek, she retook her seat.
"See, Ali?" Kyle said. "I told you, it was nothing to worry about."
But, as Ali started in on her food, the weight of the necklace unfamiliar, she still couldn't breathe.
Because what Kyle didn't know was that this necklace was more than just a memento from her deceased mother. It was a call, an announcement, and one that she prayed to Juno, Venus and all the Gods and Goddesses that she could think of only she and her father had the capacity to comprehend. The announcement that she had dreaded.
Ali was ready for marriage.
Please be patient with me if updates are a bit slower in the coming weeks- major life transitions, yay! But don't worry, I promise I'll still make time to get on here.
This chapter is kinda short, and maybe not my best. But, I needed to get something out.
The rest of the night passed in a blur. The new weight around Ali's neck gripped at her brain as much as it gripped at her wisps of hair, and she didn't pay attention to a single word anyone said to her. All she could do was pick at her food.
There really wasn't much of a difference between her and the lamb on her plate, when she thought about it.
Young, ready to be offered up for sacrifice at the whim of the Emperor, ready to be eaten by his cohorts. The only difference was that its death had come quickly, whereas she didn't know when or if hers would- or at whose hands.
She scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering who it would be. Or if it would even be any of them, if she had possibly misunderstood the meaning of the necklace. Maybe it was nothing more than a birthday gift.
Kyle's voice gave her a jolt- she realized that he had been talking to her for at least a minute, without any signs of recognition or even life from her.
Kyle laughed lightly.
"I thought you weren't listening. I asked if you were coming to the chariot race tomorrow?"
She nodded, forcing an excited smile onto her face.
"Of course! I wouldn't miss them!"
Really, under any other circumstance, she would be looking forward to the chariot race. No one was meant to die in them after all. Of course, people still did. The crashes were something straight out of a nightmare, but when no one crashed and it was a simple race... it was actually quite enjoyable.
But her mind was on other things tonight, and she was sure they would still be tomorrow.
When her father released her, accepting her kiss to his cheek with a smile and an embrace, Ali couldn't get back to her room fast enough. Those she passed as she exited bowed to her- she was already something new, something that they almost respected- something that she didn't recognize.
All because of the jewelry around her neck.
Normally, she would have been surrounded by her full cohort when she entered her room, balancing against a pillar for support, but tonight only Carelia was waiting for her.
The older woman's hands were gentle as always as she sat Ali down on her bed, pulling her clothes from her body and braids from her hair. When they reached the clasp of the necklace which adorned her body, they froze.
"Mother's necklace," said Ali in a dead voice. "He gave me mother's necklace."
Carelia carefully undid the clasp, putting the piece of jewelry into a drawer, out of Ali's sight.
"You don't sound as happy about that as you once might have, Domina."
Ali collapsed back onto the bed, letting her loose hair fan out behind her.
"I must just be overreacting," she said, without really believing it. "It's nothing more than a gift. It means nothing more than that."
Carelia guided Ali back to a sitting position so she could slide the nightdress over her head. She didn't contradict Ali, but nor did she offer her agreement.
"Good night, Alexandria," she said. "May Somnus grant you pleasant dreams."
As it turned out, Somnus didn't grant Ali much at all- not even sleep. She tossed and turned, mind racing at a million miles an hour.
There were two constants in her thoughts.
One- the necklace that Carelia had placed in her drawer. She had wanted it so badly, but now that she had it... all she wanted was for it to have gone to the afterlife with her mother. Then her memories of the thing wouldn't have been ruined by what she couldn't convince herself it didn't mean.
Second- the thing that had been keeping her awake the past several nights. A blonde woman, with a body as strong as that of any man, with a cut on her cheek that would almost certainly leave a nasty scar, and eyes that seemed to read Ali like an open scroll.
Ashlyn the gladiator wasn't going to leave her alone anytime soon, it seemed. And frankly, Ali didn't want her to.
So, she wasn't sleeping tonight, it seemed.
And neither, apparently, was another person.
Light footsteps alerted Ali to the presence of someone else, lingering on the edge of her doorway, unwilling to risk disturbing her by coming in but also not wanting to wake the others with her pacing.
"Alyssa," said Ali. "Come in, please."
The young girl jumped at the sound of her name, whipping her head around to find the princess staring at her.
"Oh, Domina, I apologize," she said, taking a tentative step forward into Ali's chamber. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"Oh, no," said Ali, gesturing the young girl further into her room. "You didn't wake me at all. I was just... thinking."
This seemed to comfort Alyssa bit, and she stepped towards Ali's bed.
"But," she said. "I do wonder what you're doing awake. You were awake last night as well, late. Would you like to tell me why?"
Alyssa hesitated, and Ali hurried to qualify her question.
"That's not an order, Alyssa. Just... If you would like to tell me what the problem is, I'll listen."
Alyssa's eyes were wide with awe as she took another step forward. Ali nodded, sitting up and gesturing for the girl to sit beside her on the bed.
Alyssa couldn't believe the invitation, and Ali had to gesture again before she obeyed.
"So," she said, once Alyssa's shoulders had relaxed slightly from their tense position. "Why are you never asleep at night?"
"I... It's just... When I sleep, I dream. And I don't want to dream."
Ali nodded in sympathy, watching the way that the girl's hands curled in the covers on the bed, steadying and grounding herself.
"Are these dreams... are they nightmares?"
Alyssa nodded, and Ali put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"I'm so sorry," said Ali. "That must be terrible. Would you like to tell me what happens in them?"
A shudder ran through Alyssa's body, but she opened her mouth and told the story.
Alyssa had been born in Gaul in a small tribe, scattered and separated from many of the others. But, her family had been incredibly tight-knit, until they had been separated from each other by the Roman soldiers when they had pressed further into the territory.
She had seen her parents murdered in front of her, trying to protect her.
She had no idea where her sister was.
By the end of her story, Ali was almost in tears. She had no idea how she would have survived that, if her father was murdered in front of her, if she had no idea where Kyle was, if she would ever see him again.
A twinge of guilt grew larger in stomach.
Because her father had done that to Alyssa. And to Ashlyn. And to many, many others.
"I'm so sorry, Alyssa," she said, and took the girl's hand in her own.
Alyssa didn't answer, and Ali realized that she had drifted off to sleep.
Ali only wished that she could follow.
Your bitch is BACK! Good GOD, I'm so sorry that it took me so long to update.
Historical notes: Neptune is the God who is widely believed to have created horses, and Ceres is the goddess of the harvest, who (if I remember my myths correctly) had sex with Neptune while they were both in the form of a horse.
Chariot races were Ali's favorite games, if such a thing was possible. They were entertaining, but without the certainty or even threat of death. Of course, deaths happened. All the time, in fact. But, they weren't meant to happen. Not like the one-on-one fights.
So, mouth firmly shut against any and all complaints that might have fallen from her lips, she sat beside Kyle and craned her neck towards the arena. There was always a warm-up match before the main event, to get the crowd excited, but Ali wasn't really paying attention to it. Her eyes were glazed over, and she was fiddling with the necklace which adorned her chest as she pointedly ignored the calls of the Senators, important men, and their sons, all trying to get her attention.
The interested parties seemed to have at least doubled since the previous night, growing to include not only men her age but older ones as well. The remarks were never lewd- no one would dare, not in front of the combined forces of her father, brother and bodyguards- but they still made Ali shiver, despite the heat. There were only so many times one could hear about how beautiful they looked before it started to grow into a background noise, that every once in a while would punch through and start to drown her in fear.
Kind of like the match going on below.
She refocused her eyes just in time to see one of the combatants land a brutal blow to the other with the hilt of his weapon. The man fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and she brought a hand to her mouth to cover the gasp.
Both men had fought well, so the crowd elected to let the defeated man live. Ali was glad to see it- the two men looked very young, maybe even younger than herself, and it would have been quite a shame to see a life end like that.
But, the two young men were quickly forgotten as preparations began for the main event. The racers guided their teams to the start, and Ali squinted and craned her neck to see if she could recognize any of the drivers. Out of five, two were complete strangers. Two were professionals, who had won these events many times before, and who drew large cheers from the crowd. But, the one that caught Ali's eye was the tall, lithe figure mounted in the simplest chariot- made of light colored wood, with designs of Ceres and Neptune for decoration.
"Father," she said, turning to face the man. "Why is Samara racing?"
"I don't know," he said. "Must be some trick of the trainers to make it interesting."
Samara swept her hair up beneath her helmet as she leaned over to speak softly to her horses. The animals were clearly nervous, as any sane being would be when surrounded by a roaring crowd, waiting to see you race around a small track at breakneck speed. Sometimes, Ali figured, horses were far smarter than people.
The racers lined up, and Ali leaned forward in spite of herself. All the racers' eyes were locked on her father as one of his slaves handed him the starting flag. He raised it high above his head, then brought it down with a single, sharp motion.
It was the signal to begin, and begin they did, with a clatter of chariot wheels and whinny of horses. One of the veteran drivers took the lead early, but the rest weren't far behind. Ali's eyes followed Samara as she somehow managed to dodge around the pack, avoiding one of the newcomers' attempts to use the side of his chariot to bring her down. They whizzed past Ali's section of the stands, and the woman felt her her hair being tossed around her ears.
The first chariot didn't go down until the second lap, when the pack had begun to separate slightly. It was one of the strangers, a large man who wasn't able to turn his horses quickly enough. The horses whinnied as the wooden chariot cracked and buckled, slamming against the barrier separating the first row of seats from the actual arena. It was a horrible noise, and Ali, like the rest of the crowd, didn't look away from the wreckage until the man, bloody and bruised but alive, clambered out, pressing himself against the wall to avoid the rush of the other chariots.
Samara's chariot was rattling, but her control of the horses seemed impeccable, and she was only a bit behind the chariot in second place, her front wheels nipping at his back wheels. By the third lap around, the other stranger had fallen so far behind that it would have taken intervention from Neptune himself for him to catch up.
Samara was neck in neck with her nearest opponent as they entered the fourth lap, and had overtaken him by the time they raced past Ali and her fellows.
"Come on," she whispered. "Oh, come on."
They began the final lap- Samara had paced her horses well, and they had just enough energy for one final push. The veteran racer had failed to do the same, relying- as many men would- on strength rather than stamina. His opponent inched closer and, as if he could feel her creeping up on him, he lost all control with one fatal move.
He looked behind.
The horses veered off course, and it was all over.
Samara breezed past him to the finish and, pulling back the reigns to slow her exhausted horses to a trot, let her shoulders relax. The crowd had erupted into cheers, and Ali joined them. Her father and Kyle were applauding as well as Samara dismounted her chariot and ran her hands over her horses' manes, speaking softly to them.
As the crowd quieted, the Emperor gestured the announcer over and said something in his ear. The man nodded and yelled over the noise of the clamoring Romans, still applauding Samara.
"Caesar," he said. "Has made it known that the champion of today's chariot race, victorious by the will of the Gods, shall join him as his guest of honor at the feast tonight!"
When Samara arrived back at the place she had called home from the past years, she only had two hours to make herself somewhat presentable before the Emperor's men arrived to escort her to the feast.
Gods, a feast. It would be the most food she'd seen, well, ever. And she would be allowed to eat it.
"Ah," said a voice. "My fearless champion!"
Samara rolled her eyes, trying to scrub the dirt from her face.
Her friend took the cloth from her hands and coated it with a new layer of water, then scrubbed until Samara's face was red and the worst bits of dirt had been eliminated. There wasn't much they could do about her hair, without a brush, but Ashlyn ran her fingers through it until the worst of the tangles were gone. It wasn't quite shining, but it was certainly better. The tunic that was sent for her to wear was definitely several years out of fashion, but the cotton felt heavenly against her skin, compared to the itchy wool that she had worn for her entire life.
It was most likely a castoff from some royal or noblewoman, and even if it was the biggest they could find, it was still a bit too small.
She wished she had a mirror- it had been a long time since she had felt even a little bit beautiful.
"Well," said Ashlyn. "Enjoy yourself at the sty of the rich pigs tonight. Drink some wine for me."
Samara laughed, clapping a hand on her friend's shoulder. But, behind Ashlyn's sarcastic smile, she could see the sadness in her friend's eyes.
"I wish you could come with me."
"Yeah," said the Gallic woman. "I wish that, too."
She was fiddling with her tunic, and the Roman woman could tell that she had something else to say.
Wait, no. Not her tunic. Her pocket.
She pulled something out, and pressed it into Samara's palm. It was a note, scrawled on a piece of cloth that must have been torn from one of Ashlyn's own garments. The way the Gallic woman closed Samara's hand around it, shaking slightly as she did, told her that this was something that Ashlyn needed her help with, and badly.
"If you... If you see the Princess Alexandria," she said. "Please. Give this to her. Tell her it's from me."
Samara's eyes widened, and she was sure her jaw dropped a little bit. What reason did her friend have to be communicating with the Imperial Princess? There was no way that this was any sort of a good idea.
But, the desperation in Ashlyn's eyes made her tuck the note into a fold in her tunic.
Ali was fashionably late. As usual.
But, it didn't matter. There was only one person she actually wanted to talk to tonight. The longer she could avoid the hordes of men only interested in her for what advantage she could bring to them, the better.
And, if being late could show at least a few of them how little she cared for their affections, then that was just an added bonus.
When she entered the dining room, she tossed her eyes around, looking for the safe places where she could spend at least a little time, as well as the dangerous places to be avoided. She also scanned for the one face that wasn't present night after night, the one face that could actually interest her.
Especially because of the woman's associates.
Samara was standing with two senators' wives, listening to them talk. She clearly had no stake in the conversation, and was looking understandably awkward in a too-small tunic, among people who thought of her as only a curiosity.
Plastering a smile onto her face, she marched over towards the circle.
"Miss Samara," she said, interrupting Portia so-and-so, wife of Jupiter-only-knows mid sentence. "Congratulations on your victory today. Mother Juno and Lord Neptune have surely blessed you."
Samara stiffened, then relaxed as Ali took her arm. It was more a reaction of surprise than a rejection of the gesture.
"Thank you, your Highness," said the woman quietly. "It is an honor to be here tonight."
Ali smiled sourly. After many, many nights, the "honor" had certainly worn off for her.
"Come," she said. "Walk with me."
Samara let Ali lead her through the crowd, trying to to become confused (or dizzy) with all the turns and backtracks she made.
"Please," she said, catching the glances that the taller woman sent over towards the delicacies which surrounded them. "Eat. I saw... I have been made aware that you are not always fed properly."
Samara opened her mouth to deny it, to promise the princess that everything was alright. But, as Princess Alexandria handed her a leg of some meat that she didn't recognize, she remembered that there was something else she would rather be doing with her mouth.
And, besides. How would this woman even know that? The closest she had ever come to Samara's home was sending her servants with gifts to honor Ashlyn. She couldn't imagine the two women described by her friend returning to ruin their princess's blissful ignorance of the realities of her Empire.
Alexandria kept turning her around the room, dodging around a pillar or talking more emphatically about nothing whenever a man looked like he was going to approach her. Samara ate, for the first time she could remember, until she was well and truly full.
Only with a full stomach and the warmth of a glass of wine did she remember her friend Ashlyn.
"Your majesty," she said. "I have something to tell you."
Quickly, Ali tossed her eyes back and forth. Then, she pulled Samara into a dark corner of the room, one where she hoped that no prying gazes would follow them.
"What is it?"
"Forgive me," she said, pulling Ashlyn's note out of her tunic. "My friend, I don't know what she was thinking, but she begged me to give you... Give you this."
Samara lowered her head, waiting for Ali's confused, or worse, angry, reaction to the dirty piece of fabric that she had opened. Her eyes skimmed over the note, then did so again. And then, to the taller woman's surprise, a soft but concerned smile rose to her face. She tucked the note into her belt, then took a sip of her wine.
"Thank you, Samara. Truly, thank you. Please, if you would... If you would tell Ashlyn that I will. That I await the morning eagerly, if only to see her."
Samara knew she was missing something, but she had a better chance of getting it out of Ashlyn once she delivered the message than out of this woman she had only just met, who even now was racing off and kissing her father on the cheek and excusing herself.
She shook her head. Whatever was going on, she supposed she was a part of it now.
The note was written with a shaky hand, in admittedly abhorrent Latin, but Ali clutched it to her chest as she tried to sleep. She was smiling at the thought of obeying the request from the note, but there was worry eating at her too. There was always worry when it came to Ashlyn.
I am not sure if you know, but I am scheduled to fight again tomorrow- I know it will be easier to stand if I can see your face in the crowd.
Please, forgive me if I overstep, but I cannot seem to help myself when it comes to you. If you are able, I beg that you come see me tomorrow, before I fight. Underneath the Arena.
Sleep well, my princess,
"I'll be back soon," said Ali, but neither of her male relatives seemed to be listening to her. They were rather absorbed in talking with one another, and with the dull men surrounding them. Her father nodded absently, and she was pleased and grateful when he just gestured for her to go, rather than insisting a guard accompany her, like he usually would.
This would be so much easier without a guard to slip.
Ali had never been down to the hypogeum before- she didn't even think her father had, or anyone that she knew in more than passing. The only people who came down to the underground tunnels were those who had no choice- those who were to enter into the deadly ring above, and those who would put them there. She wasn't even quite sure how to get down, and it wasn't like she had endless hours to figure it out. Ashlyn could be the first match, or she could be the last- Ali had no idea. Not to mention, the longer she was gone, the more likely it was that her father would send someone after her.
And she'd rather not have to explain what she was looking for.
"Your Imperial Highness."
Ali startled at a voice behind her, but relaxed at the sight of a slave. Not one of her father's- someone she had never seen before.
"I... Is there something I might help you with?"
Ali considered, but then she remembered- this man had no authority to question her. No ability to report her movements to her father, no reason to think that everything she did wasn't at his command.
And, as she reminded herself, she was rather in a hurry.
"Yes, actually. I was wishing to tour the tunnels, to see how they create such grand spectacles. But, I can't seem to find my way!"
The slave seemed only too happy to show her outside, to a locked gate which could be nothing but the entrance to the underground, if the darkness was anything to go by. The guard standing there raised his eyebrows at her, and she wrapped her hands in her tunic, silently willing herself to keep her nerve. This was far from the most dangerous errand she had ever gone on just for the sake of seeing Ashlyn. And yet, somehow, the potential reward far outweighed the risk.
"I wish to see the tunnels," she said, making a point of holding her head high, inflecting her voice with as much authority as she could. "It has always fascinated me to think of how the Games would not be possible without the miracles you fine gentlemen perform down here."
The man looked hesitant, but there was really nothing he could do. He was just a man, and she was a princess. Saying no to her was as dangerous as saying yes.
"Your Imperial Highness," he said. "I... There is no one who could tour you. We... all the men are occupied."
All the better.
"Oh, that's quite alright! Of course, you must stay at your posts! Just, please, point me towards the cells of the men. I'd very much like to know who I'll be watching today."
Silently, he lifted a finger and pointed her down a dark corridor, lit only by torches on the wall, flickering with the gusts of wind. No hint of the sun reached down here, except the little bit which filtered through the gate, and every step she took brought her further and further into the dark underbelly of her home's most popular form of entertainment.
The cobbled stones were rough on her sandals, and she had to squint to see her passage. Every person she passed looked startled, but no one thought to question her. No one dared.
The roars of the animals were the worst part. They were coming from a different hallway, but every time she heard one, her thoughts were torn between pity for the beasts and fear that they might somehow break free. It was a struggle not to cover her ears.
"Ashlyn," she whispered urgently, walking faster. She felt the stares on her back- down here, with no light to illuminate her face, she was just another girl. Out of place, vulnerable, if any of these men managed to get out of their cells. Or, if any of the guards found themselves bored.
"Ashlyn, where are you?"
No answer. The hallways were beginning to get emptier and emptier- the people she was passing now were probably the ones who were scheduled to fight later. Hopefully, Ashlyn was one of them.
"Ashlyn," she whispered again, as a sinking pit in her stomach told her that she was alone in the dark. But, of course, she wasn't.
"You looking for the barbarian?"
A rough voice came from a cell she had just passed, and she jumped, but managed to stop herself from turning to face it. The fewer people who got a good look at her, the better.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Could you... Do you know where she is?"
The man pointed a calloused thumb all the way to the end of the hallway, leaning up against the bars to try and get a better look at the source of the voice.
"She's last today. Damn good with a sword, too. Didn't expect it from someone like her, savage that she is. Why d'you need her? She certainly isn't good company, if that's what you're looking for."
Ali didn't answer- she had already nodded her thanks to the man and raced down the remainder of the hallway, to the last cell, tucked in a corner.
The blonde woman gasped, turning around to face Ali, a grin spreading across her face.
"Ali! Samara told me you'd be coming, but I couldn't believe it until I saw it."
Ali instinctively reached her hand through the bars and, in a gesture that shouldn't have felt natural, grasped Ashlyn's cracked and calloused hand in her own smooth one.
"Did you think I wouldn't come?"
"I... I was afraid you wouldn't. I was afraid that you might realize that it's too big a risk to take, for someone like you. Just to see me. That you might realize that I... But, I guess I knew in the back of my mind that you'd come."
Ali felt the heat rising to her cheeks, despite the chill in the underground tunnels, when Ashlyn used what little light they had to gaze into her eyes. She grasped at the image of the other woman, her hair pulled up into a bun at the back of her head, with several strands hanging loose. The mark on her cheek was still red, puckered. It would certainly scar. Yet, something in Ali wanted to use her other hand to stroke it, to stroke Ashlyn's cheek.
"Because you're you. You told me you'd come and you're too... too good not to keep a promise. From what I know of you, you always keep your promises."
"That's right. I do. Gods," sighed Ali, sinking down to sit on the cold floor and prompting Ashlyn to follow, just to keep their hands clasped. "I hate seeing you behind those bars. It frightens me. And I... I wish I could be closer to you."
"Forgive me for any insult to your Empire," said Ashlyn. "But I hate being here as well."
Ali laughed lightly. Right now, she wasn't a fan of her Empire either- it was separating her from this woman, when she wanted nothing more than for Ashlyn's muscular arms to wrap around her. To hold her tightly as they- what were these thoughts? She couldn't deny that she'd had them before but never- never this strong. Never outside of those moments after seeing Ashlyn, when she would sneak a hand between her legs, stifling her moans with a fist to avoid waking her women as she imagined the hands on her were rougher, thicker.
She shook her head, trying to banish them. But, they wouldn't go away, and she wasn't even sure that she wanted them to.
They sat and talked for a few minutes, before noises up ahead made Ali jump.
"Don't worry," said Ashlyn. "They're just bringing out the first men."
"Fuck," moaned the princess in disappointment. "I... I have to get back! Father will notice that I'm gone! He'll send guards."
She jumped to her feet, Ashlyn following quickly, steeling herself to say goodbye. But, Ali didn't move after that. It was as if her sandals had been tied to the cobblestones, and her hand and Ashlyn's were bound together by something stronger than just the clasping of fingers. The string of the Fates, perhaps.
"Go on," said Ashlyn. "They'll be worried. And we can't have that."
Still, Ali didn't move. It hit her in waves- how every time she looked at Ashlyn might be the last. How, when she let go of the other woman's hand, she might never hold it again. How, just hours from now, she might see Ashlyn fall to the ground with a sword in her. How she might lose the one person who had, in just a matter of days, managed to change her entire world.
"I... Just, please. Be careful. I don't think I could stand to see you die."
Ashlyn laughed gently.
"Don't you worry, my princess. Nothing will happen to me. Not if I'm fighting for you. And I will be."
Ali's eyes locked onto Ashlyn's, and saw nothing but confidence. And honesty. And something else- something she was sure was in her own eyes.
Sending a quick prayer up to Venus, asking her to shield them from any eyes that may have been prying, and asking for the simple courage to do it, Ali leaned forward and pressed her lips to Ashlyn's through the bars.
It was a quick kiss, and when she pulled away, their eyes locked onto each other. Ashlyn's were wide with surprise, and her mouth was slightly open.
"For luck," whispered Ali, and then Ashlyn had pulled her close again, as close as they could get with the bars in between them. Their lips danced again, but this kiss was different.
It was still a fumble, as all real first kisses were. But it was deeper, and Ashlyn's other hand tangled in Ali's carefully done hair as their mouths moved together, each trying to devour the other. By the time they pulled apart, Ali was breathing heavily, hands shaking. Every part of her was tingling, from her head to the tips of her toes. She wanted nothing more than to stay here forever, in these dark tunnels, pressed close to Ashlyn. But, she couldn't.
"Go," whispered Ashlyn. "I need to be able to see your face in the crowd. One bright light, in the darkness of that place."
Ali obeyed, giving the Gallic woman's hand a squeeze, then running back up the passageway and into the light, and back to her seat, the memory of Ashlyn's lips on hers making her feel as if she could fly.
Gods, she wished she could. She'd fly like Mercury on his winged sandals, and she'd take Ashlyn with her.
This chapter is rather short, but I needed to post something today :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She found her way back into her seat just in time. The drums were just starting to sound, announcing the first competitors. Her father's eyes were fixed on the Arena, where they were leading out the men. He hadn't noticed how long she'd been gone- he barely noticed her return, and Ali let the smile on her face widen.
Her lips were still tingling with the feeling of Ashlyn's mouth on hers.
Maybe the Emperor was too distracted to notice his daughter's return, but someone else was certainly paying attention.
"Where were you for so long, Ali? Cassius was looking for you."
Kyle fixed his sister with a questioning gaze, eyebrow raised and chin cradled in his hand, fingers tapping at his beard.
"I... I just wanted some fresh air."
Her lie was unconvincing, and Kyle narrowed his eyes.
"Really? And fresh air gave you that smile, Alexandria?"
As the men in the Arena began their fight, unnoticed by the siblings, who in turn went unnoticed by those few lucky enough to share their seats, Ali's foot started tapping nervously in her sandal.
"I... Why shouldn't it?"
"Because the Colosseum has never once made you smile, sweet sister. You hate it here."
One of the competitors went down, arm twisted at an unnatural angle. He was handsome, though, and so allowed to stumble to his feet and drag himself out of the arena to fight another day.
Her brother shook his head, turning back towards the action before anyone could listen in to their conversation.
"I don't know what secrets you're keeping, Alexandria. But, whatever they are, just... be safe."
Ali nodded, trying to sober her expression into one of appropriate attrition and concern. But then, the sunlight glinted off the sand at a perfect angle and formed the color of Ashlyn's hair, and the smile was back.
No matter how many times it happened, Ashlyn would never get used to seeing, rather than men walking, bodies being dragged back inside. She hadn't known this one, not personally, but it still made her stomach turn and her heart clench in pity for him, and whoever may have loved him.
She raised her arms towards the ceiling, then quickly brought them down again in a quick prayer.
"May you find the next life in peace," she whispered.
Someone would have to clean up the trail of blood that the man left, and she didn't envy them. But, she didn't really have time to focus on such things.
"Gaul," spat a man. "You're next."
He unlocked her cage and handed her her sword. She laced up her sandals and followed him towards the arena, heart pounding all the while. At one point, she felt something wet on her toes and, looking down, she saw the dead man's blood coating her shoe.
The summer sun was bright, and Ashlyn had to raise a hand to shield her eyes as she and her opponent approached the Emperor. Thankfully, the angle of the sun shifted as they walked, and Ashlyn's eyes locked with Ali's. The other woman's were wide, her mouth slightly agape. She didn't want to see Ashlyn down beneath her, in the sand pit with a sword in her hand. Ashlyn didn't want to see Ali up there either, looking as if her heart might explode with worry.
"We who are about to die salute you."
The words felt like sand had gotten into her mouth, but her eyes never left Ali's. So, really, it was like she was saying them to the beautiful woman, rather than the man two seats away from her.
The command to begin was given, and pure instinct took over- if she ever wanted to hold Ali again, she would have to ignore her for the time being. She only had a brief moment to analyze her opponent before he was charging at her- hopefully that would be enough.
He was a larger man- he would likely be slow, but almost impossible to get away from if he managed to get his arms around her. She would have to be quick then, never stay in one place for long.
Just in time, Ashlyn ducked out of the way of the man's spiked mace, hearing the whoosh of air as it whizzed by the side of her head. It had passed just millimeters away from her, millimeters away from colliding with her cheek or scraping across her eyes. She took two quick steps backward, kicking up little bits of sand. They stuck to the blood on her foot, and she swept her leg towards the man. Unfortunately, he managed to avoid the strike, jumping backwards faster than she thought he would have been able to. The mace swung towards her again, and she countered the strike with her sword. It must have been a cheap thing- one of the spikes stabbed right through the iron, nearly dragging the weapon from her hands. Her arm hummed in pain at the resistance of the downward stroke. But, she ducked down and managed to pull her sword free from the mace to raise it again.
The man lumbered towards her again, and the noise of the crowd faded to a hum in her ears, joining the pounding of her heart. She rolled away from his blow, then came up on one knee. Slashing with her sword, she connected with the hand holding the mace, preparing to bring it down on her head and spread her lifeblood all over the sand, in front of everyone.
In front of Ali.
Her blade may have been cheap, but it wasn't dull.
Suddenly, there was so much blood.
Ali had seen worse than someone losing a hand during her time watching games.
So, seeing the spiked mace fall to the ground beside Ashlyn, quickly followed by the man's severed right hand, wasn't enough to make her throw up in her mouth.
Not even the blood, the endless blood, which was squirting from the stump where the gladiator's hand once was, from the arteries that had been severed, was enough to do that.
No, what made her clap a hand over her mouth in horror and force down the nausea was the way that, as the man slumped bonelessly to the ground, trying and failing to staunch the flow of blood from his missing appendage, Ashlyn tried to totter to her feet. Her sword joined the rapidly growing pool of blood in the sand and, while Ali couldn't see her face, she could imagine the expression there.
Horrified, terrified, disgusted. Any or all of them.
The crowd roared as the man fell to the ground. It was clear he was going to die, and equally clear that Ashlyn was shaking like a leaf in the wind. Ali had to grip onto the armrests of her seat to stop from jumping to her feet, throwing herself down into the arena and, even as the crowd applauded her and the dying man was dragged away, pulling Ashlyn into her arms, protecting her from the horror of this moment.
Breathe, Ash, she silently willed the gladiator. Please, you can fall apart later. Just not now, please not now.
Ashlyn was staring after the man- in all likelihood, he wouldn't even make it back to the inside before he died of blood loss. Her trembling hadn't slowed.
She was the last fight today, Ali remembered. The crowd was rising to their feet, preparing to leave, hissing in disappointment at the reaction of their victor to her victory. Ashlyn walked mechanically back through the doors to be taken back to her home, and Ali stared after her, already plotting how she was going to leave her room tonight- calculating how much money she should bring to bribe the guards to leave her alone with Ashlyn.
Ashlyn may have been trained for this, but it was clear that nothing could ever have prepared her for this, for the actual act of taking a human life.
Ali wanted to cry.
Ashlyn was numb as she was transported back to the barracks. Every step was robotic, and she couldn't look down at her feet. If she did, she would see the man's blood, coating her sandals. The blood of the man that she had killed.
"Why so down," asked one of the men alongside her. "You won, Gaul!"
Ashlyn looked away from him, marching forwards.
The man hadn't cried, when he realized he was going to die. He had just looked down at his wrist in shock, before the blood loss caused him to lose consciousness. All she had known about him was his name- Marcus. She hadn't known where he was from, if he had any family, or even how old he was- which, she supposed, was a blessing in disguise.
She couldn't stop shaking, not even when she was back in her cell, sitting on her bed. Marcus's eyes wouldn't leave her alone- wide and astonished, and she thought that, should she manage to sleep tonight, new nightmares would be troubling her.
She had thought she was ready to kill someone. She had even fantasized about it, about sticking her sword through the stomach of the man who had dragged her sister away from her, the men who had butchered her parents, her owner, and everyone who screamed insults at her because she was a Gaul. But the reality of it was far different from the fantasy of revenge.
Ashlyn didn't touch her food- her stomach roiled at even the thought of eating. She wished that she could talk to Sam- her friend had done this before. She wished that she could fall into a dreamless sleep, just forget for a few hours. She wished she could go back in time, find a way to win her fight without killing Marcus. She really wished she was back home, in Gallia, with her family.
She wished that Ali was holding her, giving her a second kiss, and a third, and as many as she wanted to give. She wished most of all that Ali hadn't seen her murder a man.
In case you didn't notice, the angst train has left the station
Ali had gotten used to sneaking by now. And, she had to admit, had gotten rather good at it. She knew exactly how to tiptoe to her passage, slide aside the tapestry that concealed the entrance, and slip down without waking any of her women.
But tonight, she almost didn't want to sneak. It was physically painful for her to wait to go to Ashlyn, her chest aching in misery, and hurt for the woman she had kissed what felt like a lifetime ago. As her gladiator had trudged out of the arena, her shoulders had been slumped in utter defeat, her hands shaking in utter horror. Ali had wanted to run to her right then, wanted to jump into the bloody sand and pull her into her arms, in view of everyone who had come out to see the spectacle.
But she couldn't.
She had needed to wait the longest time, until it was late and dark enough for her to be able to sneak out.
Now, though, her hair was loose around her shoulders, her sandals laced up around her feet, a scarf over her head, and her coin purse gripped tightly in her hand as she raced through the streets of Rome. Every anxious stride, every dodged beam of light, brought her closer and closer to her Ashlyn.
A voice came from behind her, and she jolted. Turning around quickly, with just a glance over her shoulder, she saw a man in a chiton, stumbling out of what she could only imagine was a pub. He waved drunkenly, beckoning her towards him. He was too far away from her to be immediately threatening, but her heart still pumped faster. She jerked her head back around to the road in front of her, running down the cobbled street away from him, ignoring his intoxicated calls for her to return. There was no doubt as to what he wanted, and she felt a surge of pity for whatever poor prostitute would end up at the other end of his desire.
She made it to the storico in record time, having run the entire way. The guard at the door took in her appearance: sweat beads clinging to her flushed forehead and cheeks, heart beating a mile a minute. He raised his eyebrows, and she couldn't help but notice that they were almost sculpted, like the statue of her grandfather.
He looked just as stern.
"What are you doing here?"
Ali slowly unclenched her fist, revealing her purse to the guard. The coin she pulled out was probably equal to the man's wages for an entire month, and so he let her in with no questions asked. She was getting used to this whole bribery thing, and whenever she thought to feel bad about it, she remembered Ashlyn waiting for her, just a coin away.
She remembered where Ashlyn was kept, and was there in seconds, sprinting down the hallway quick enough that no one, even if they had the eyes to see well in the flickering torchlight, would have been able to tell who she was. Nevertheless, she forced herself to slow her pace as she approached Ashlyn. Every step she took, she longed to burst out running again. But these things... caution was always best. If there was one thing an Emperor's daughter learned, it was to never act rashly.
The soft patter of her sandals were the only noise on the late-night stones as Ashlyn came into view, and to Ali they sounded as loud as the trumpeting of an elephant, brought from afar to entertain the Roman people in the arena.
Ashlyn didn't look up, even though Ali knew she had to have heard her. The Gallic woman was slumped over on her bed, head buried in her hands. A plate of food sat untouched beside her, and her entire demeanor spoke of a sort of defeat that Ali had never imagined was possible.
Tentatively, Ali slid her hand through the bars, trying to run her fingers through Ashlyn's matted hair. But, even though she pressed right up against the bars, stretching as far as she could go, Ashlyn was just out of reach.
"Darling? Ashlyn, please. Look at me."
Ashlyn didn't move, and Ali could feel tears springing to her eyes. Still holding her arm out, wishing that she could just stretch a little further, that she could stroke Ashlyn's cheek, she slumped down to the stone floor, leaning against the bars. Her arm went slack, and she tugged at a strand of her hair.
"Please," she whispered. "Let me talk to you."
The utter desperation in Ali's voice was what finally made Ashlyn move. She turned to look at Ali and, seeing the lovely princess slumped on the ground in misery, shawl that had once covered her head now wrapped around her shoulders, she carefully got off of her bed and pressed her hand to Ali's soft one.
Their eyes locked, both full of tears, and fear.
Ashlyn swallowed around a lump in her throat.
"How can you stand to touch me?"
Ali's tears streamed steadily down her cheeks as she tried to blink them away.
"Ash," she choked. "This wasn't... It wasn't your fault."
Ashlyn gave a dry laugh as Ali curled their fingers together.
"How can you say that? I... I... I killed someone, Ali! And I- I can't stop seeing his face! He looked so... so..."
Ali reached her other hand through the bars and gently stroked the skin underneath the healing wound on her cheek. It was still red and angry, and Ali couldn't wait for it to heal, so that nothing would pain Ashlyn anymore. Nothing on the outside, anyway. And that was all that could heal, the physical wounds.
"It wasn't your fault," she repeated firmly, trying to invoke the authority she had been taught her entire life. "Sweetheart, you were forced. He would have killed you. If it's anyone's fault, it's..."
Ali trailed off, and her tears sped up into full sobs, heartbroken, guilty, miserable. Now it was Ashlyn's other hand coming through the bars, leaving a trail of dirt beneath Ali's eyes when she tried to wipe away the droplets.
"...it's my family's."
The last sentence was whispered, and Ashlyn held her hand tighter, squeezing it with all her strength. She heard Ali's knuckles crack, but she needed her to know that she was there. She needed to know that Ali was there, that she wasn't a beautiful dream that would go away, and leave her alone with her guilt.
She couldn't deny that the thought which Ali had voiced had crossed her mind more than once- would she be here, if Ali's father's men hadn't ripped her from Gaul? No, she wouldn't. But... But if she wasn't here, she wouldn't have met Ali.
At this point, she didn't know which scenario would hurt more. They were both nightmares.
What she did know was that Ali was crying, which was its own special kind of nightmare, and she was the only one who could comfort her.
"Never mind that," she said, trying not to choke on her own tears. "I... I had a choice, Ali. Not to be there, but... I didn't have to kill him. I could have let him kill me instead."
Ali shook her head violently, and her shawl fell from her shoulders.
"No! Ashlyn, you can't-"
Ashlyn shushed her quietly, running her thumb under Ali's eye again. Now, there were matching streaks of dirt right above her princess's cheekbones.
"Love," she said. "I don't want to leave you. I don't ever want to see you in pain. I... I know it hasn't been... I know there's no chance for us, but I love you. But I can't... I couldn't live with myself. I'll never kill anyone, ever again. Not even to stay alive."
"You're wrong," whispered Ali, blinking out the last of her tears onto Ashlyn's fingertips, and Ashlyn didn't know what to say to argue with her. She loved Ali, she couldn't deny that, but she would never kill again. Not even to save her own life.
But that wasn't what Ali meant, and Ashlyn figured that out when the princess pressed their lips together through the bars. It was a tender kiss, wet with their tears, but full of more love than either of them knew they were capable of feeling so quickly.
"There is a chance for us. There's always a chance. I'll get you out of her, somehow. I swear to the gods- yours and mine."
Come talk to me about this story on my new tumblr!
Hello, mes amours! I'm sorry it's been so long, I've missed you all!
Ali ran her fingers over the small, intricately mixed, tiles and stones which made up the glittering mosaic on one of her walls, directly above the mirror which Carelia used to do her hair most days. They were rough underneath her fingers in the tiny cracks between sections, filled in with a paste, but the numerous jewels, and the stones which had been brought all the way from the Mediterranean, were smooth to the touch. Normally, gazing at such a work of art would have brought her pleasure, both to the eyes and the soul, especially since this particular mosaic showed a picture of her father and mother, when they were young and happy in love, before the specter of illness had swept through the palace like Discordia herself and took her mother far too soon.
But today, all the jewels and fancy stones did was deepen the vast pit of black anger in her stomach, which had grown so deep that she wondered how long it would take for it to reach the gates of Pluto.
She couldn't stop thinking of her Ashlyn, shivering and probably hungry, in the storico. She had promised her... She had promised her that they would make it. That she would free her. But, Ashlyn had to survive long enough for her to find a way. And today would be another challenge, another roadblock in their path, an uneven stone for them to trip over.
It had been over a week since Ashlyn killed the man, and today was her next scheduled battle. Not for several hours, though, giving Ali plenty of time to fret and shake with worry, but not enough time to slip away and visit her, offer her some words of encouragement and comfort.
"I promise," Ashlyn had said, running a calloused thumb underneath Ali's eyes to wipe away the moisture that had gathered there the last time Ali had been able to sneak away to meet her. "Even if I don't kill, I won't lose. I can promise you that, Ali. I swear before all the Gods and Goddesses, I will stay alive. For you."
Ali had nodded, clutching Ashlyn's hand tightly in her own, so tightly that her ring had left a small impression in Ashlyn's palm, and said that she would hold her to that promise.
Although she was free to go wherever she chose to, it felt as if tiny insects were crawling all over her, trapping her inside her chambers and driving her nearly insane. Alyssa was staring at her as she paced back and forth around her bedchamber, picking up random objects and putting them down again, straightening them and shifting their position slightly, unsure as to what she should do to pass the time before she had to watch Ashlyn put her life on the line again.
The young girl's voice had become more confident lately, less afraid. Louder, as she used it more and more frequently. Ali delighted to hear it, to see her young maid's violent nightmares lessen a tiny bit. Now, she knew that she no longer had to wait for Ali to speak to her first- even if she rarely took the initiative and addressed the princess.
Ali instantly regretted her short tone, and briefly turned around to see Alyssa, shuffling her feet nervously. Then, she returned to obsessively picking up and setting down random objects, fighting the desire to throw them across the room and watch them shatter against the floor.
Alyssa trailed off, and Ali could tell that she was shrinking back into herself, frightened away by Ali's seeming disinterest. The older woman set down the scroll she had been rolling between her fingers- one of Cicero's speeches- and turned to face the girl, trying to rid her face of all the anxiety lines she could, and present a calming and kind portrait of herself to the child.
She repeated the question, softer this time, more kindly. She sank down onto her bed, running her fingers through the smooth covers in a continuing attempt to calm her nerves. She gave Alyssa a small smile, trying to at once apologize for her shortness, and encourage the girl to tell her what she had meant to.
"I was... I was wondering if it might help you to... to get out of the palace?"
Ali was about to protest, but then a warm breeze blew through the one small window, high up on the wall of her bedchamber. It caught a tendril of her hair and stroked her cheek, as if it was summoning her to follow it outside.
"You're right," she said, letting out a breath and standing up slowly from her bed, smoothing the covers behind her. "I ought to... to do something. Anything, except worry. Come with me?"
Alyssa's eyes widened at the unfamiliar proposal. Normally, Carelia would be the one who accompanied Ali, well... anywhere. The head of the princess's household, who seemingly knew everything the domina needed before she even knew it herself. Alyssa herself had barely left the palace since she had been taken to Rome. So, not only unwilling to disobey any request that Ali might make of her- she had been warned by so many that the kindness of any royal could quickly turn to cruelty- but eager to take a breath of fresh air and feel the breeze in her hair, she nodded.
Ali smiled, and Alyssa ran to fetch her sandals.
Two armed guards accompanied them as they walked the short distance from the palace to the elegant Temple of Venus. While Ali would normally offer most of her offerings and prayers to the Capitoline Triad- Jupiter, Juno and Minerva- they just didn't feel right to her today. Alyssa lagged a bit behind her, eyes full of wonder, taking in the sights that she had only seen once or twice before. There were so many people, a larger number than Alyssa had ever been surrounded by before, and she couldn't help but rake her eyes across every blonde woman she saw, hoping to recognize her older sister in one of them.
Of course, she saw no familiar face, but she was too full of wonder to deflate much. She just hoped that her sister had the chance to feel fresh air on her face as well.
Ali gave a smile, a real one which reached her eyes this time, at the sight of the little girl's reaction. Her chest twinged in regret at the thought that Alyssa was seeing almost all of this for the first time, that the poor child almost never left the palace.
As they had left the palace grounds, Ali had knelt down herself to pluck a bundle of roses, which she carried with her, disregarding the thorns plucking at her fingers. The goddess liked sweet perfumes, and the burning of the flowers as a sort of sacrifice might, Ali hoped, make her more inclined to grant Ali's prayers.
"We're here," she said to Alyssa, and the girl raced to her side. Ali handed her a rose, and the two left the guards outside the temple. The men watched them enter, then leaned against the steps to wait for their return.
"Alyssa," whispered Ali as they ducked through the archway. "If you wish, you might... You might ask the Goddess to grant your prayers. Only if you wish it."
Alyssa nodded. She didn't know if she wanted to- she supposed that she would see.
The head priestess greeted Ali warmly, and led her to one of the braziers, the grandest one which was reserved for when important people came to call on Venus. The priestess sent up a prayer in too complex of Latin for the little girl to comprehend, but Ali handed her the roses and then knelt before the fire as the flowers burned. It was almost startling to her young maid, to see the princess on her knees, humbling herself before the Goddess.
She was just close enough that she could understand some of what Ali was saying.
"Great Goddess... Protect my love... keep her alive, bring her home safe to me."
The priestess had left Ali to her prayers once she had said the initial blessing, and so only Alyssa was there to hear Ali. Her heart pounded quickly, listening to the whispered confession of love, to someone. Someone Ali clearly wasn't supposed to love.
Her hands were trembling, her heart was pounding, and fear filled her body, but she took slow steps forwards to kneel beside her domina. She put her rose in the fire, and offered her own prayers to a Goddess she had never known before now.
"O, Great Goddess," she whispered, to Ali's surprised gaze. "Protect my sister. Protect the Principessa Alexandria."
Ali put a gentle hand on Alyssa's shoulder, silently encouraging her as she mumbled her way through the complex Latin, trying not to stumble over any words.
"Protect us all."
The guards insisted softly, but insisted nonetheless, on escorting Ali back to the palace, to be brought to the arena in a litter. She had wanted to walk, but they had reminded her that the rabble often gathered around the games, and that there may be those who wised to do her harm.
Even though she could have protested that she would be far more conspicuous in the litter, she looked down beside her at Alyssa, and realized that there was no way she could bring the poor thing to witness the death and horror which featured so heavily in the games.
She had already seen enough, and Ali made a mental note to herself to request one of the cooks to get her something good to drink.
She didn't bother to change her clothes, just rubbed some perfume on her wrist to sniff whenever the smell of so many unwashed bodies packed together got a bit overwhelming, and then let her men load her onto a litter and begin to carry her towards what she could only pray would be another victory for her love.
She found her seat quickly, beside Kyle, who gave her hand a squeeze. She couldn't help but notice that the bottom of his toga was a bit dirty, as if he'd walked here rather than been carried.
Ashlyn strode into the arena as confidently as she always had- there was no sign of the broken woman who had left it last time. The sunlight glittered off her sword, and Ali could have sworn that she was a goddess herself. Then, her opponent strode in, and Ali's heart twisted in her chest. She didn't know if she should be horrified or relieved.
Ashlyn's opponent had her own blonde hair twisted up in a very Romanesque braid, and her lithe body was glistening with preparedness.
Her opponent was Samara.
TW: this chapter does mention rape. It's brief, and non-explicit, but it is still there. Just warning you, please practice self care.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ali couldn't help but clasp a horrified hand to her open mouth, biting down on the meat of her palm to stop herself from gasping aloud. Ashlyn and Samara gave each other terse nods before turning towards her father- if she hadn't known better, Ali wouldn't have been able to tell that only weeks earlier her love had shared the food she had brought with the other woman. As they looked towards the Emperor, Ashlyn's eyes locked firmly onto Ali's, just as they had the first time she had seen her perform in this arena, and her love seemed to be trying to tell her something, desperately searching her face. Ali returned the stare, wide-eyed with panic as she thought of Ashlyn, forced to fight her friend.
The traditional salute seemed to pain Ashlyn to utter, but she did, quietly, with her eyes still locked on Ali's, pretending that she was saluting her love rather than the Emperor. Then, she and her friend took their places, facing each other, beginning with their weapons raised. Her father gave the signal, and they began.
At the first sound of metal crashing against metal, Ali dug her teeth into her lip so hard that she could feel it splitting- blood flowed out of the wound and filled her mouth, and she hoped that it would be the only blood spilled that night.
Normally, a simple sword fight would be of no particular interest to a bloodthirsty and raring crowd- there were no wild animals from faraway corners of the Empire, no fascinating weapons or elaborate scenarios, just two fighters raising simple blades against each other. Yet, the stadium was packed to bursting, with commoners crushed shoulder to shoulder in their designated areas, barely able to breathe as they tried to look over each others' heads. Senators, distinguished guests and rich men sat in their seats with necks craned, money exchanged hands as everyone bartered over whose blood would be the first to splatter onto the sand of the arena, and if both of the women would even make it out alive. There was only one way to explain it- the crowd was drawn by Samara and Ashlyn themselves.
Ali had no idea how she'd managed to miss the announcement- she supposed that the announcement of the day's schedule must have been made while she was off at the Temple of Venus, praying with Alyssa. The thought of watching the barbarian woman, strong and proud, who had at first refused to salute the Emperor, fight the disgraced slave girl, sentenced to the arena for an assault against her master, was enough to tempt the imaginations of even the most indifferent.
Ali supposed that she would have been fascinated too- had she not been letting the blood from her lip dribble out of the corner of her mouth down to her chin, terrified that each and every move that Ashlyn made could be her last. Samara's sword whizzed past Ashlyn's head, so close that Ali was sure her love could feel the breeze of it near her left ear.
Kyle had taken his eyes off the match for a second, fixing the ties of his toga, and it was just enough time for him to catch a glimpse of his little sister, white knuckled with a bleeding mouth, frozen in fear but unable to take her eyes off the two women in the center of the amphitheater. She didn't answer him, seemingly didn't even notice him until he shook her arm, frightened by her lack of response to his voice right in her ear.
"Al, you're bleeding!"
She still didn't take her eyes off the fight, but she also didn't protest when he took the edge of his dark purple toga to wipe the blood from her chin. She took his offered hand in hers, squeezing it with all of her strength as Ashlyn and Samara battled to the cheers of the roaring crowd.
It was a good fight, even by the standards of the harshest critic. The two women were evenly matched, and one would never have been able to tell that they were friends by the looks of concentration on their faces. Samara's blade was better, that much was obvious, but Ashlyn was holding her own, swiping and jabbing at her friend's arms, trying to get her to drop her weapon. The slightest flicker of fear crossed Samara's face as she drew first blood, a thin line of red appearing on Ashlyn's upper arm. Ali wished she could jump into the center of the arena, jump between the two women, do anything to stop this fight.
Ali gripped Kyle's hand tighter as Ashlyn twisted away from the blade, returning the favor with a cut to her friend's exposed upper thigh.
The advantage shifted back and forth as Ali crushed her brother's hand, a new hole in her lip pouring fresh blood into her mouth.
Then, in a flash of rapid action, as the crowd's roars reached a fever pitch, it was over.
Ashlyn was on her back, looking up at her friend- Ali couldn't see her eyes. Samara's knee was on her chest, sand sticking to the sweat and blood which covered both of them, and the taller gladiator's sword was hovering threateningly over Ashlyn's exposed neck.
Ali could barely hold back a scream- the cold, unforgiving metal was just centimeters from her love's neck, and could easily be brought down, slice across her throat or impale her chest. She was preparing herself- should the crowd choose not to spare Ashlyn's life to watch her fight another day, the woman's only hope would be her. Her knees could already feel the pressure- how hard the floor would feel beneath them, as she knelt before her father and begged him to spare Ashlyn's life.
The crowd might have been in a forgiving mood. Maybe they had enjoyed the fight enough, or maybe they just didn't want to lose the spectacle of seeing this barbarian woman face their finest gladiators, because they allowed Ashlyn to rise to her feet, blood still streaming down from the cut on her arm, and exit the arena alive.
Ali was lucky she hadn't been standing to watch the fight, because her legs certainly wouldn't have been able to support the weight of the relief flooding through her body. Suddenly, all her senses came rushing back into her as she released Kyle's hand, seeing him shake it and crack the joints out of the corner of her eye. She could taste the rust in her mouth from her bleeding lip, smell the sweat of the crowd.
Her brother offered her his hand again, helping her to her feet and taking a step towards the exit of the arena with his sister clinging to him for support. Their father looked at them curiously- there were several more fights scheduled for after this one, and both of his children were expected to attend, just as he was, so that they could be seen by the people.
"Father," said Kyle quietly, ignoring the gazes of the important men around them. "I don't think Alexandria is feeling well. With your permission, I'd like to take her back home."
It only took the Emperor one glance at his children to see how badly his daughter was shaking, how his son seemed to be the only thing holding her up, keeping her from collapsing to the ground in a spectacle greater than the one of them leaving. Turning his attention back to the arena as the next competitors were announced, he nodded.
"See that she gets home safely, then come back to me here," he commanded, and Kyle nodded in agreement, supporting Ali down the steps and thanking the Gods that the crowd was focused on the roaring of the tiger that the next gladiator would be fighting, rather than the shaken state of his little sister.
"Ali," he whispered as they approached their litters. "What's wrong? Darling, what's wrong with you?"
Away from the heat and noise of the crowd, her knees had begun to steady themselves, and she let go of Kyle's arm, taking a tentative step on her own. She didn't answer his question, and rather glared at the litters.
"Kyle," she said, casting quick glances all around her. "Go somewhere, for a little while."
He stopped in his tracks, turning to face her and wrapping his hand gently around her wrist.
"Ali," he said. "Dear, you aren't well. I'm not going anywhere, except for home with you, then back here, when I know that you're settled and that your women are caring for you."
She turned her glare to him, determination evident in her gaze.
"No," she said. "I'm not going back home! Not yet! I don't care where you go, but let me go. There's something I need to do!"
She took advantage of his surprise to yank her wrist from his grip and take off running, ignoring her brother's shouts after her. Kyle started to race after her, before realizing that the slaves holding the litters had their eyes locked on him, watching Ali as she ran. He jogged to a stop, watching her go. When she had raced out of sight, he took a deep breath, gesturing the litters away. He knew where he was going until it was time to return to the games, and it wasn't anywhere he wanted anyone following.
"Not a word," he said to the slaves, who lowered their eyes, nodded, and let him go as well.
It didn't take the medics long to treat Ashlyn's wound- a simple bandage and some sort of tincture, which stung when they dabbed it on- and she was back to her room in the scholae in no time.
She didn't know how she felt about her room- one one hand, at least she had space to herself, outside of the shared barracks that the men occupied. On the other hand, she stayed in a literal cell, normally used for punishing unruly gladiators. She leaned back against the hard wall, ignoring the remaining sting from the tincture.
As she sat, embracing the relative quiet that only came when most of the men were off at the games, either participating or watching, the thing paining her wasn't her arm. The cut was relatively shallow- it had just bled a lot, luckily for her. It wouldn't have done for the crowd to think that she and Samara weren't trying. It was a fine line that they had walked today, but they had managed it. Just barely, but they had managed it.
There was a clattering noise at the end of the hallway, and the sound of racing sandals grew louder and louder, approaching her. Her heart was pounding furiously- almost as hard as it had been while she was crossing blades with her friend. She knew the sound of those sandals, but there was no way... No way. Not now, not so soon. It was too good to be true.
Yet, it was no hallucination- the Gods had never given her images outside of her sleep, anyway. The sweat pouring down Ali's forehead made it obvious enough that she was really here, racing down the hallway towards her.
Ali collapsed in a heap in front of Ashlyn's cell, barely even checking to make sure that no one was watching them before furiously pressing her lips to Ashlyn's through the bars. The gladiator tasted the remains of the blood on her love's lips, and reached a calloused hand through to brush the tattered remains of Ali's sweaty updo out of her eyes.
"Ali," Ashlyn whispered furiously when their lips parted- far too soon for either of their liking. "What are you doing here? If someone saw you-"
Ali took a beat, a deep breath, and took Ashlyn's hand in her own, clutching tightly to it, as if reassuring herself that Ashlyn was still there.
"The guards were busy bringing in someone else," she said. "There's almost no one here, and I was going too fast for anyone to really see who I am."
This did afford Ashlyn some manner of comfort, and she stroked Ali's face gently, trying to calm her furious heartbeat.
"Good, my love," she said. "That's good."
Ali's eyes were locked on the thin slice that Samara had taken out of Ashlyn's strong arm, the way it was still bleeding lightly, staining the white fabric of the bandage red.
"You scared me," she whispered. "I'm sorry, Ashlyn. I just... I needed to see you, make sure you were really alright. I... I couldn't stand it, seeing you with a sword so close to your throat. If the crowd hadn't enjoyed the fight so much..."
She trailed off, unwilling to entertain the possibility of what could have happened should Ashlyn not have managed to give Samara such a good fight. Her ears locked on a strange sound, and it took her a moment to realize that Ashlyn, far from being frightened of what might have happened to her, was laughing. Just a light laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
"Oh, love," she said gently, stroking the back of Ali's hand, enjoying the softness of her skin beneath her fingertips. "You never had a thing to be afraid of."
"What on earth do you mean, Ashlyn? I... I saw you... you- you lost!"
Ashlyn gave her a soft smile, and a gentle, calming kiss. For a second, Ali forgot her fear.
"Love," Ashlyn said between light kisses. "I lost on purpose. Samara and I... when we heard that we would be fighting each other, we... well, she needed to win, my love. She needs the money."
Ali's eyes were wide, confused. It sounded as if Ashlyn was telling her that she and Samara had worked together, fixed the match... But that couldn't...? That couldn't be... Why would Samara need the money?
"Shh, love," soothed Ashlyn, still rubbing Ali's hand, playing with her fingers. "I'll explain everything. Samara and I agreed, that we would fight until I had done enough to make it... likely, at least, that the crowd would spare my life. Then, we agreed that I would lose. She needed the prize money."
Ali still looked utterly confused, although the fear had faded a bit at the idea that Ashlyn hadn't been in danger from Samara, that it had been nothing more than a convincingly terrifying show, highly coordinated between the two friends.
"I mean," she clarified. "Why would Samara need the prize money? I... She's been enslaved for life, she'll never be able to buy her freedom. Not after what she did."
"Ali," said Ashlyn, wishing desperately that the bars between them would disappear and she could hold Ali to her chest, stroke her hair while she told her the story. "Darling, what you think you know is... it's not what happened. To make it simple, Samara did beat her master near to death. But there was no lover, nothing like that."
Ali sat, shock pouring through her veins at the upturning of the narrative she'd heard about the famous gladiator for years and years.
"Then what really happened?"
Her question was whispered, and she gripped Ashlyn's hand tightly. She had a feeling that whatever she was about to hear wasn't exactly pleasant, but she knew that she owed it to the woman to hear it. Ashlyn could sense Ali's resolve, her desire for the truth, took a deep breath, and began.
"I know that everyone thinks that Samara beat her master near to death after he sold her lover. But that's just a story, love. They spread that story as widely as they could, when they first put her in the arena- it makes her interesting. It makes her more valuable.
"But that's not what happened. The truth is, Ali, that Samara only beat that... that man after... after he... After she found her sister, crying in a corner of the house. She managed to get her sister to tell her the truth, and found out that she was... she was pregnant, after that devil forced himself on her. She and her sister still manage to send messengers to each other sometimes, and the latest message told Samara that her sister's son is ill, and that the master refuses to get him medicine. So, Samara needed to win this prize money to send to her sister, to save the boy."
Ashlyn looked at Ali's face when she had finished explaining, expecting to find shock. Instead, all she found was fury, so much that she was shaking with it.
"Ashlyn," she said. "Tell me that man's name. Give me his name, now."
It seems like every chapter I'm apologizing for being away so long! But, here we are again- I'm so sorry!
Everyone, please keep yourselves safe.