Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. This story is not intended as a challenge to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures’ ownership of said characters, only an illustration of the many stories left to tell about them.
Sex: This story includes non-consensual intercourse of the physical kind (that means 'rape' if you weren't following along). It's not glamorous. It's not fun. Nor is it what this story is about. Speaking of which, those of you looking for a little nookie between our favorite pair best keep looking. That's not what this story is about either. However, there are plenty of references to and discussions about same-sex relations, and even a bit of physicality. If this offends you or is illegal where you live, I leave it up to you to hit the 'Back' button on your browser.
Violence: Excessive amounts of violence. I mean people getting hurt left, right, and sideways. Not just hurt. Maimed. Killed. With blood and stuff. Often for no good reason. Again, if it ain't your bag, don't hyperventilate into it.
Special Thanks: To my partner, who tolerated this obsession of mine for eighteen months and fell asleep many-a-night to the glow of the laptop in our bed. And Cinnabari, who convinced me that it is possible for a fully-employed person to write a novel on the side, and beta-read this story and offered great comments which I did my best to address, and checked my Latin, and continues to inspire me with her own fiction. I also want to thank all the bards out there who write this stuff, especially Carola "Ryûchan" Eriksson and her story "Gladiator" for planting the seed for this story in my mind.
Summary: While in Rome to renegotiate a treaty, the Conqueror meets an unusual gladiator.
Feedback: Almost forgot. This is my first fic; if you like it, or even if you read it, please send your comments to email@example.com.
FYI: To read this story in book formatting, visit Spyrel's Descent.
Flowers, coins, and the cries of an unruly crowd pelted the sands of the Forum, voices coalescing into one steady roll of thunder that shook the wooden stands. Fists clenched, the fighter they clamored for raised his massive arms and loosed a howl. It drowned under the roar of the masses.
In the consul’s viewing box, the guest of honor reclined and yawned, watching Caesar in the corner of her eye. Her host’s head turned slightly, his crown of golden laurel leaves glittering like fiery stars. Faint pleasure tugged at the woman’s lips; she felt no desire to hide her derision for her host or his entertainment.
“Are the games not to your liking?”
Her smile broadened. “Watching them fight is tiresome. Is this the best your famous gladiators have to offer?”
Condescension dripped from his smile. “Not bloodthirsty enough for you?”
Her wrist flicked dismissively toward the sands where slaves hurried to clear away the mess for the next bout. “Your so-called Samnites and Thracians are just Romans with different weapons. Same stances, same moves, same strategies, over and over and over again. No fire. No imagination. Boring.”
She aimed for a rise from him; he let it pass with a false smile. “Perhaps it is the watching. Would you enjoy it more if it were you down there? Against him, perhaps?”
The victorious gladiator strode out of the arena, his massive muscles glistening with oil and exertion. She hardly spared him a glance. “Don’t insult me. The only sweat I’d break against that one would be from the heat.”
“I am just trying to make your stay more pleasant, Conqueror.”
“Then get to your point, Caesar.”
A slow drink from the golden goblet, a click of the tongue. “Merely that Rome offers many avenues to work off…excess energy.”
His refusal to speak plainly made her scowl, only served to reinforce her loathing for the asp who proclaimed himself dictator of Rome. Sitting this close to him, smelling his perfumed clothes…it made her skin crawl, and not in fear. Only a healthy amount of practicality stayed her hands from knotting around his throat. The Praetorian Guard lurked just out of sight down the passage behind them, and within the bounds of Rome stood several more legions that would make escaping the city a less-than-pleasant task. So she shook her head, willed herself into the stillness she found in a perfect breath, and waited. She would make her move soon enough. Or he would, and tip his hand.
The next match had already begun. A group combat this time, commemorating some ancient battle the Conqueror knew and cared little about. The larger unit wielded spears and shields, advancing in ragged formation upon six warriors garbed in the plumed helmets, shaped breastplates, and round shields of ancient Hoplite soldiers. Outnumbered three to one, the Greeks retreated before the wall of spearmen, standing shoulder to shoulder and trying to avoid being flanked, cornered, or surrounded.
The Conqueror sighed. If she had to tolerate this mockery of combat, she’d at least study what passed for Roman tactics.
The spearman took experimental jabs at the soldiers, bolstered by their larger numbers and the impatient jeers of the crowd. One in particular found the courage to lunge and jab at the smallest soldier in the bunch.
Quick as blown sand, his target hopped out of reach, grabbing the shaft of the spear and giving it a sharp jerk. The Conqueror almost laughed aloud; the lunging man found himself sprawled to the sand between two hungry-looking opponents. In moments they hacked him apart, reforming into a defensive wall before the spearmen hardly knew what happened.
All Tartarus broke loose.
The spearmen rushed in a great if not unified wave, penetrating and collapsing the wall. For a few chaotic seconds it looked as though the soldiers were all but finished. Moments later the line reformed, soldiers stepping back over the wounded bodies of the flanked vanguard.
The Hoplites faced far fewer enemies but not without cost. One soldier near the edge found two spears in his side, falling even as his wild swing bit deep into the calf of one of his killers. Now the battle raged in earnest, with spearman rushing to surround the defenders and pin them into a tight group, the better to skewer them at leisure. One soldier grabbed a spear of his own, threw it into a lightly armored chest, grabbed that man’s spear and ran through two more before his crowd-pleasing rashness cost him his life.
Even so, his actions broke the tightening noose. The soldiers pressed outward, fighting two on one. The smallest fought with blinding speed and ferocity. The cumbersome Greek shield discarded, two gladii flashed forward and back, deftly deflecting the jab of one spear and swiping at another spear’s wielder; his weapon dropped to the sand, the hand that held it laid open to the bone. As one glittering blade deflected the other spearman’s thrust, a toe hooked under the long shaft in the sand and kicked it into its owner’s face, cracking him across the nose. His head snapped back and the tip of the second gladius flicked out. Red spray hissed from his neck, drawing a swell of cheers from the crowd.
The Hoplite showed no sign of noticing, now fully engaged with the other spearman. A jump back to avoid one thrust, then another, then another. The Conqueror smirked; clearly the spearman hadn’t paid attention earlier. As if on cue, the emboldened man jabbed one time too many. A gladius carried the sharp tip aside, its wielder spinning full circle, closing the distance, the second blade chopping deep into the side of the man’s neck. Red showered across the hot sand; the audience roared in appreciation.
He earned only a moment to breathe before another soldier dropped lifeless to the dirt and his attacker charged. The gladius deflected what would have been a killing thrust, but the larger man’s momentum sent them tumbling in the thick sand, weapons flying one direction, helmets another. The Hoplite popped up, short sweat-soaked hair gleaming almost white under the hot sun. A woman.
The stands exploded, hisses and catcalls mingling with a growing chant upon recognizing her. From Caesar’s box, his guest couldn’t make out what they screamed, but their energy shot through her like electricity. Unconsciously she sat up straighter, leaning forward for a better view of the scuffle below.
Weaponless, both gladiators scrambled to their feet, looking for anything to bring to bear. The man found a great shield and came in swinging, catching the smaller gladiator before she could hop away. Though the hit send her flying she somehow landed on her feet, eyes still darting around for a weapon. He was almost half again her size, swinging the unwieldy shield like a club. Whip fast she dropped under one swing, spun low and kicked a leg out from under him. Already off balance, he twisted and dropped hard on his tailbone. One short powerful leg cracked across his temple, knocking him to the sand in a stunned heap.
A great roar from the crowd jarred the Conqueror back to her seat at the edge of the arena. The screams of the mob finally coalesced into one great rousing voice, grinding against the Conqueror’s heightened senses. “Parda, Parda, Parda!”
Leopard. Breathing heavily, the fair gladiator retrieved a sword and faced the spearman. He roused, dazed eyes wide with fear and pleading as he raised a finger of submission.
Just as her pulse slowed it jumped again, pounding in her ears as the Leopard’s eyes rose to gaze at her, waiting.
No, not at her. At Caesar, whose dark unreadable eyes burned into the Conqueror. She leaned back like some great languid cat, indifferent to the gory display, to his decision. Still, every fiber of her being felt him stand, take in the crowd, the mood, the overwhelming shouts for mercy.
At his sign, the gladius plunged into the thick neck, pulled free with a great gush. Boos and insults outweighed the cheers; food and coins bounced off the leather breastplate, the blood-spattered face. If she heard or felt any of it she showed no sign. Pale eyes lingered on the box for only a moment before she dropped the blade and turned away.
One eyebrow peaked at his decision, at the palpable fury of the crowd. “They don’t seem to like the Leopard much.”
Caesar reclaimed his seat. “She’s not a very good gladiator.”
The Conqueror snorted. “She’s better than that sorry excuse for a spearman.”
He smiled. “Oh, she’s an excellent fighter. She just lacks a certain…flair. She doesn’t play for show. She plays to win. Not much fun to watch.” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Unless you disagree?”
She didn’t answer, watched the gladiator disappear under the shadowy arch of victory.
The Leopard ran.
Legs pumped with a strength born of desperation, fighting the poor purchase of the sand to outrun the pounding behind her. Every five steps she took the beast covered in a single bound. There was nothing to hide behind here, no overturned chariot or horse carcass to put between her and the hungry predator. She fast ran out of territory, closing with the arena wall and an end to escape.
A feral snarl behind her fed strength to burning legs. Planting one solid foot she leapt, pushed off the wall and spun in mid-air, slashing with the gladius.
The blade bit deep into an outstretched paw the size of her head even as it hooked into the bare flesh of her side. She twisted away as she fell, curled shoulders at the last second and tumbled in a spray of sand, instinctively rolling to her feet. A shape blocked the sun. She threw herself aside, slashing up and laying the cat’s ribs open as it landed where she’d stood.
It spun in place, all claws and teeth bared. The good paw ripped at the small shield strapped to her forearm. Claws as long and sharp as daggers bit deep into the wood, almost yanking her arm out of socket. She thrust her gladius between her and the creature to keep it at bay. The predator hung back, hurting and wary, gave her time to flex her shoulder and regroup, spare a quick glance down. That giant paw had left its mark; liquid life trickled down her bare breast and side to stain the loincloth, red mixing in long rivulets with gold paint and black Leopard spots. Even shallow scratches would cost her dearly in a long match.
She was tired of running.
The powerful paw smacked against the shield again. Braced for the blow, she countered with a sharp stab into the muscular foreleg between the thick bones. The monster recoiled with a deafening roar, yanking the blade from her. The other paw lashed out, knocking her back to the sand.
She scrabbled to her feet with less grace the second time. Her shield arm could barely brace against her ribs without sharp knives stabbing through her left shoulder. Blood poured from deep gashes in her sword arm, dripped from her smallest finger to dye the pale sand.
Weaponless she backed away, her eyes never leaving the beast as slick fingers fumbled with the knots fixing the shield to her forearm. The golden cat advanced, limping badly now on the impaled foreleg. Hunger and pain finally drove it forward, swiping again at the fair head just out of reach. Timing would decide the match now. The cat’s broken rhythm almost caught her twice, forcing her to jump back as claws raked across the gouged buckler. Then she dove in, smashing the paw aside with a great arc of the shield and swinging onto the monster’s back, one fist knotted in the thick mane while the other brought the wooden disc smashing down upon its massive head. The creature staggered. Three more blows, and it collapsed.
The shield raised to strike again, but the great cat lay still. Sucking in labored breaths the gladiator pushed herself up, worked the gladius from its tight sheath of flesh. A splash of opulent purple drew her eyes to the consul’s box. For the second time in as many days, she waited for the signal.
And as before, he had a guest. Though dressed as a Roman noblewoman, pale eyes gazed down at the victor with guarded appreciation, some intimacy with violence no noblewoman shared. She found herself staring up, wondering what the woman knew, what her arrow-like gaze saw in the arena.
An unsettling feeling came over her, and for the first time, she noticed the crowd. Not shouting; such noises were as silence in the arena. No, from the crowd she heard—felt—murmuring. Dimly the clinking of armor pushed into her consciousness. Two dozen Praetorians formed up around her, swords drawn.
The signal. The Emperor stood there, his expression sour, again giving the signal. How long had she stood there, staring at his guest, armed and unmoving? The punishment for disobeying Caesar was death. She blinked, dazed, turned to her opponent. It twitched, slowly stirring. Hardly aware, she thrust her blade through the creature’s corded neck, dispatching it.
A sharp blow knocked the gladius from blood-slicked fingers. Calloused hands grabbed her arms and escorted her out of the arena. She did not struggle, wondered at her own distraction.
Just inside the gate, guards slapped manacles on her wrists before leading her down. The dimness below reigned as absolute as the brightness above, swallowing her up as surely as that hungry beast meant to. Jostled by the rough grip of the soldiers, stabs of pain sent commands coursing through her body to protect itself. With great effort she willed her arms to relax. Any tension would be read by her escorts as resistance. Any resistance would bring swift reprisal.
They stopped, keys unlocking a cell door. She stepped in quickly, before the guards felt a need to throw her in. Only when the door locked behind her did she exhale, slide down the wall to sit next to the door.
For many minutes she rested, head back against the stone wall, spots leaping before her closed eyes. Finally they opened, gradually taking in the weak torchlight that washed the walls with swimming red.
Something warm and wet met her thigh, a stream of dark trickling from the triumvirate of gashes across her forearm. She reached through the bars, retrieved a cloth and dipped it in the bucket of water left for her there. Scrubbing angered the ragged edges of flesh, but it seemed to clear the sand from the wounds, and finally she wrapped a fresh cloth snug around the arm and did her best to tie it off with her teeth. Her shoulder throbbed, her side itched, other places ached and warned of future stiffness, but none of them seemed dangerous. The cell offered isolation, safety. Parda slunk away from the bars and pressed deep into a corner, knees guarding her bare chest, allowing herself the luxury of drifting off for a short time.
“Great Caesar, welcome to my home!”
The old senator gestured with a wide sweep for the Emperor and his entourage to enter. Their host’s eyes widened with pleasure. “Xena, the Conqueror of Greece! I am most humbled by your presence.”
Her pale blue eyes barely flickered his direction in response. Caesar sighed, smiled politely, if not genuinely. “Gracchus, thank you for seeing us. I am sorry for the late hour, but our esteemed guest needed a break from the day’s negotiations.”
“Oh, think nothing of it. Hard work, negotiations. Nothing like a day in the senate to leave me ready for a trip to the baths. Have you had the pleasure of visiting our baths, my lady?”
The Destroyer of Nations lounged upon a long couch. She’d traded the revealing dress of the day for a well-worn set of fighting leathers, though she looked just as stunning, if a bit more dangerous. “You will address me as Conqueror.”
The old man faltered only a moment. “Of course, how inappropriate of me. Let me offer you refreshments this evening. Or would you like a larger spread?”
“We didn’t come to socialize.”
Caesar almost grinned at the woman’s asperity. He offered the senator a disarming smile. “Congratulations on your success in the arena today.”
“Our success? Oh, quite right, quite right. A nasty bit of work, that lion. We’re very pleased—“
“I want to spar her.” The Conqueror leaned back on her palms, candidly calm.
The man’s countenance faltered again. “Spar her?” He glanced at the consul for confirmation.
Caesar nodded. “As you may have heard, Senator, the Conqueror is an aficionado of armed combat. She would like to stretch her muscles against your star gladiator’s sword.”
His jaw went slack with comprehension. “Oh. Conqueror. I think that unwise. These gladiators, they can be…unpredictable, as you saw today in the arena. Should you suffer even the slightest scratch, I would feel responsible—”
“She would be holding the sword, not you. And I wouldn’t worry about her landing a blow on me. Or are you not familiar with some of my many skills?”
The old senator snapped his jaw shut, reconsidered. “I have several fine gladiators, any one of which could provide you great sport—”
“But she is your purse winner.” The Conqueror flashed teeth, guessing the source of his hesitation. “Would it ease your mind if I promised not to hurt her…too much?”
Gracchus looked pinched, turned to Caesar for reinforcement. Little was forthcoming. “Senator, perhaps the Conqueror could compensate you for any forfeited matches if she’s injured?”
He swallowed, dark eyes darting between the two smirking faces before him. With the crook of a finger a slave stepped forward; whispered instructions sent him hurrying away. The pale man licked sweat-dewed lips, turned once more to the consul. “Caesar, I most humbly apologize for her transgression in the arena today. I hope this is not about that. You know of her…limitations. I promise you, it won’t happen again.” The consul pursed his lips distastefully, examining a nail, ignoring his feeble excuses. The Conqueror stared through him, his presence insignificant. He shrank, defeated. “The practice yard is this way.”
A shiver of anticipation fluttered through the Conqueror. She followed him into the torch-lit dirt courtyard, took in the training posts, weapons racks, and dummy targets with practiced ease. As long minutes passed, a drawing on the wall caught her eye. Though crudely rendered, the figure of a spotted woman-beast pinned a helmed gladiator to the ground, sharp teeth bared to the thraex’s gushing throat. Above it the artist had scrawled an inscription: Parda involat.
“‘The Leopard pounces.’ Why do they call her that?”
Caesar chuckled. When he didn’t answer, Gracchus cleared his throat, offered a weak smile. “There are many stories, Conqueror. Some say this depicts a true story, that she won her first fight by tearing her opponent’s throat out with her teeth. Others say her first opponent was a leopard she killed with her bare hands.”
The Conqueror grinned at the idea. “What do you think, senator?”
Gracchus’ lips pursed as he studied the drawing, his thoughts far away. “I think she’s some pale-haired barbarian from one of those northern tribes great Caesar conquered, more animal than woman. She eats. She sleeps. She mates. She kills.”
The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at that, a sharp retort on her tongue, but Caesar cut her off. “It’s just a name. Every gladiator gets one. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She glared at him, still fuming at the senator’s unflattering assessment, but sounds from a darkened arch across the yard drew her attention. House guards emerged dragging the stumbling gladiator to the edge of the corral.
She looked much less formidable in person than in the ring, barely coming up to the warlord’s shoulders. Without armor she seemed almost slight, in spite of the hard muscle that flexed beneath the rough brown tunic. At least she was wearing something. Darkly the Conqueror wondered who decided painting her like her namesake and pitting her naked against a lion would make good entertainment.
The Leopard looked as if she’d come straight from the Forum, face and arms grimy with sweat and smeared paint and gritty sand, hair plastered back with dried yellow mud, a soiled cloth binding wounds on her forearm, black blood crusted on her sword hand. In her grogginess, the woman looked barely past her twentieth summer, hardly the seasoned combatant the Conqueror had expected. A breath of disappointment fluttered through her. Scowling, she resigned herself to toying with the woman to draw out her enjoyment.
Manacled hands blocked the glare of the torches, dull eyes drifting from one face to another without comprehension. Perhaps it was the lingering grip of Morpheus addling her wits that she remained standing in Caesar’s presence, even after her escort saluted and bowed. The flat of a blade across the back of her legs corrected the error, dropped her hard to her knees. She blinked at him, eyes glazed, slowly dipped her chin in a bow.
“Rise.” He turned to his guest. “What is your pleasure?”
The Conqueror sighed. “I’m curious to try one of these stubby little blades you call swords.” Smoothly she crossed to a weapons rack, withdrew one of the wooden practice swords and gave it a few experimental swipes.
“And the Leopard?”
The Conqueror eyed the gladiator, remembered her preference the first day she saw her fight. “Give the dimachaera her twins. She’ll need the extra help.”
Guards jerked the slave to her feet and unchained her, placed a pair of wooden gladii in her hands, then stepped away. The Conqueror swung the sword a few more times, adjusting to the unfamiliar weight and speed of the short blade, a wicked gleam in her eye. The sleep-drunk woman didn’t move, stared at her vacantly.
“Are you stupid? Get your guard up. I won’t warn you twice.”
The gladiator watched her, mesmerized. The senator cleared his throat. “Apologies, Conqueror. Perhaps great Caesar did not explain. The Leopard doesn’t speak, understands commands little better than the beast she is named after. She’s no match for your prowess. I’ll send for another—”
“I don’t want another.” The animal could fight and would, or face the beating of her life. She spun and backhanded her with the flat of her wooden blade.
It never connected. Instinctively the Leopard’s gladius blocked the blade inches from her temple. The Conqueror grinned, shoved the gladiator back and flew at her.
Her attacks came fast and hard, making sure the gladiator knew this was no practice round. The Leopard barely kept pace, her wooden weapons blocking or deflecting blows with little room to spare, but she didn’t fall for any of the Conqueror’s usual tricks. She was cautious, this gladiator, with a fighting style that was definitely not Roman. Sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes straight lines and angles, sometimes sinuous circles, she proved to be unpredictable and deliciously difficult to hit.
But a frown began to tug at the corners of the Conqueror’s mouth. When a strike threatened the Leopard’s left she would turn ever so slightly, withdraw rather than block. With a snarl the Conqueror cut low, locking up one blade, then kicked high, her unblocked boot easily smashing across the Leopard’s face. Only a quick jerk back kept the gladiator from being dropped like a stone; she spun and reset her fighting stance, eyes watering as blood poured from her nose.
Truly angry now, the Conqueror swung high, grabbed the predictable counter and swung again, the flat of her blade smacking the shoulder that didn’t—couldn’t—raise a weapon to block. The gladiator grunted, body tense, face bloody, eyes hooded.
Disgusted, she flung the swords to the dirt, grabbed the gladiator’s shoulder to feel out the damage. “This is pointless. She’s injured. Why wasn’t this looked after?” The Leopard’s pale eyes—were they green?—dilated with pain but she held still, allowed the prodding.
“Begging your pardon, but our house doctor assures me she’s fine—“
“Clearly not.” Bending the elbow, she expertly rolled the shoulder over and into socket with an audible pop. No sound came from the Leopard, just a flare from those balefire eyes. She peeled down the wrap on the woman’s sword arm, poked at the inflamed scratches. “These need to be cleaned and stitched.”
“Our most humble apologies—“
“Don’t apologize. Fix it. I want her healthy when I beat her.” She shook her head, half at herself. What difference would a few days’ healing make? The girl hardly seemed worth the wait. But she’d been feeling tense and restless, and the fight—short as it was—offered sweet distraction from her less palatable duties. And she admitted feeling…curious? Yes, curious. Even after losing the match, the slave refused to back down. Something lurked behind those flat eyes, some force of will beaten down but not snuffed out. The feral thing consented to the Conqueror’s ministrations. She did not submit.
In Greece, none but the Conqueror’s highest-ranking officers dared defy her, and those often did so with a stink of fear. No such foul scent here. This gladiator—this Leopard in the guise of a woman—did not fear death, and did not fear her. A tingle crawled up the warlord’s neck. Was that the almost forgotten thrill of a challenge, of new territory to be conquered? She clucked her tongue, savoring some lost flavor between her teeth.
Gracchus interrupted her thoughts. “We shall prepare her for your return.”
House guards came and stripped away the gladiator’s armor, manacled her wrists together. Eyes shrouded once more, they never left the Conqueror, even as guards dragged her back through the darkened archway.
Early morning made the practice yard a crowded place. Aspiring gladiators ran through their routines, the sweat of their efforts cooled by the lingering chill of morning. Servants and slaves ported great pottery jugs of food and drink into the stores, prepared the afternoon meal, washed clothing for the senator’s household. Everyone worked quickly, eager to finish the heavy chores before the heat of the afternoon sun sucked the life out of the air.
The slave quarters below were therefore unusually quiet, and one gladiator made the most of it. In a rare moment of indulgence, diligent hands methodically cleansed every inch of skin with a scrap of cloth dipped in lemon water. The astringent cut through layers of filth and greasepaint from the practice yard and the arena, exposed tanned skin flushed pink with brutal scrubbing, but it was no bath. Stained by lampblack, no amount of scouring entirely removed the spots of her alter ego, as if she were the Leopard and it was the woman they painted on.
Gingerly she felt out the bloated nose she’d reset in the oppressive dark, rubbed the swelling down with watering eyes until satisfied she’d gotten it straight enough. A greasy salve scorched her nostrils with the reek of urine, burned the jagged edges of skin under the stitches on her forearm, but at least the lips grew back together with no hint of yellow discharge.
Body clean and wounds tended, she ran through some exercises, tentatively testing the questionable shoulder. It grumped when lifted, more sore than injured. She could raise her elbow at least level with her shoulder, even higher if absolutely forced. It would be weak for some time, but it functioned. Satisfied, she moved to the well in the center of the slaves’ quarters, drew up a fresh bucket of water for a drink and a cool splash on the face, set to rinsing caked mud from her hair.
A sound behind her. Before she could turn rough hands shoved her forward. She caught herself on the stone rim of the well, unable to let go without plunging head first down the shaft.
“Keep still, whore.”
She recognized the gladiator’s voice, knew what he wanted. She did not keep still, tried to elbow back but the manacles at her wrists snapped taut, almost jerked her supporting arm out from under her. She caught herself, barely, shoulder stabbing warning, found herself teetering over the edge of the well. Without leverage, it was all she could do to hold on as she felt him jerk up her tunic, force his dry erection into her.
Any noise that tried to claw out of her throat dammed up behind clenched teeth. She struggled to relax, open herself, move with him, anything to ease the burn as he reamed her.
“That’s a good canicula. I knew you wanted this. Much better than that old man’s tiny prick, ain’t it?”
He should have kept his mouth shut. The ‘little bitch’ took a steadying breath between bruising thrusts, then let go, grabbing the hand at the back of her neck as they both pitched forward. The man swore, had to catch himself while she dangled over the dark hole, tried to roll away from the long drop.
Chains wrapped around her throat, yanking her head back and arching her spine with each lunge of his hips. Desperate fingers clawed at the links, tried to wedge underneath to allow any scrap of blood and air to pass. Then, sound and sight dimming, she willed herself to stop fighting and let him take her.
She lost some time. When the blackness lifted she lay on the floor beside the well, choking down great gulps of air down her swollen throat, head pounding so hard her vision pulsed dark with each heartbeat. Between slick legs her opening smoldered like a raw bloody scrape.
It took a few moments to push herself up on one elbow, the other, drag her knees beneath her. She pushed herself up and, once sure shaky legs would support her, walked slowly up the stairs out of the slaves’ quarters, her expression as opaque as a brackish pool.
White morning sun brought another moment’s blindness. Through the chattering and bustle she found him, talking with other gladiators and grinning. As calmly and steadily as her legs could manage, she strolled across the practice yard, picked up a wooden sword, and in two swift steps leapt upon the gladiator’s back, plunging the dull tip through his neck.
Even as the house guards pulled her away she pounded the pommel of the broken sword into the dead man’s dented skull.
As the Senator’s house came into view, the Conqueror felt a familiar spring in the balls of her feet, a lightness of anticipation that she hadn’t felt since her last visit. No, before. Like she hadn’t felt since the morning her army took Egypt.
Egypt. Her last great campaign. That was more than a year ago, her last expansion after unifying Greece under her banner. And then…there was only Rome.
Oh, there had been skirmishes, tactical maneuvers to establish boundaries. But as much as it pained her to admit, the Republic had grown strong under Caesar’s military campaigns, its coffers fat, its legions numerous and battle-tested, its might brimming. Greece simply didn’t have the resources to confront the beast head on. Not that the Republic did not have its weaknesses. The greatest one walked not a few paces before her, and she secretly amused herself with the thought of his swollen head bouncing down the winding paved thoroughfare. But Rome was a Hydra; where one head was cut off, two more grew to replace it. She strategized day and night for the tactics, the weapons that might kill the Hydra.
So she would tolerate this one smug little head—for now.
The doors opened to the senator’s domus. The Conqueror swept past the slaves, servants and even Caesar himself, already unclipping her cloak and readying herself for combat.
Senator Gracchus flew into the room, winded and flushed. “Caesar! Conqueror! I had not expected you back so soon.”
“Call it happy circumstance. I look forward to the evening’s entertainment.”
“Ah, yes.” He licked his lips nervously. She felt a dark shadow settle on her face, knew she would not like what this weasel was about to say. “I regret to inform you that your sparring partner has not completely healed—”
She closed the distance, towered over the senator. “I don’t care if she is completely healed. Can she fight? Or has something else happened that I should know about?”
He blanched. “N-no, Conqueror. It’s just…I thought you wanted a challenge. She’s hardly a match for your martial prowess in her current state.”
Disappointment ate away her earlier buoyancy. Eyeing the frail senator, she fingered the worn pommel of her sword and found herself musing over entertainment of a wholly difference sort. The senator swallowed and backed away. “I will prepare her. Perhaps you will find her…satisfactory.”
Torchlight filtered through the tiny window, followed by the sound of keys in the door. She tried to rouse, force eyes open, pay attention, prepare. For what, she didn’t know, but she could guess it wouldn’t be pleasant. Guards yanked her up off the floor, dragged her out of the tiny cell to suddenly stand face to face with the Master.
He eyed her bare flesh, not liking what he saw. “Wake up.”
A bucket of water doused her head to toe. She jerked and sputtered, shook water from her eyes, forced her vision to focus on him.
“That’s better. You have a match to fight.”
Shivering, she stared disbelieving at the darkness of night at the end of the stairs. A slap stung her, brought her barely banked glare back to her owner.
“You will fight.” Hard grey eyes softened, the way they had the night he first saw her waiting in his chambers. He walked around her, out of sight, but she didn’t need her eyes to feel his hands hovering over her back. The heat radiating from his palms was enough to burn her raw flesh. “Damned unfortunate thing, this,” he said softly. “All of this. I can honestly assure you I wish none of it had ever happened.”
His apology rang hollow. In her mind’s eye she could still see him staring at her, his face twisted in disgust at his once prized, now ruined possession as the house guard delivered lash after lash.
His tone turned cold as Tartarus. “But you will fight. You will put on a good show for her, and if she’s pleased, she may let you live. And if you hurt her…” He stepped in front of her, debating his next words. “I know many more men who would like to know you as I have, none of them as gentle as your last lover. I’m certain I can line up enough of them to fuck you in every orifice every hour of every day until your insides fall out your cunt. Do you understand?”
He used that voice, the one that promised to follow through on every word. And he was a man who never broke his promises.
He watched her, waiting for an answer. Mechanically she nodded.
“Good. Fix her up.” He lifted her chin to examine the marks. “And make sure those are covered.”
She already wore full armor with a scarf around her neck when they led her up the ramp to the yard. She squirmed inside the cuirass, trying to unstick the coarse tunic from oozing welts, find a position where the stiff leather didn’t press too hard on her tender back.
Caesar’s guest paced there, wooden gladius in hand, slashing impatiently. Her quick, fluid movements seemed almost wild, but the grip she held on the hilt spoke of complete control and absolute will. The slave’s eyes flicked to Caesar, casually leaning upon a rail to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. Across the yard stood the Master, seemingly cowed into silence by the ill-temper of his guests.
All movement stopped, and the warrior woman fixed her eyes on the gladiator appraisingly. Her skin twitched under the scrutiny, tingled as if scraped by invisible fingernails up and down her flesh. She retreated inside herself, fronted a look of detached indifference to meet the gaze, about this match, her opponent, her owner, Caesar, anything but simply surviving. There was truth in that, enough to make the expression convincing.
The warrior cut loose with a shrill battle cry as she flipped through the air. The first few strikes almost overwhelmed the gladiator. With effort she found the woman’s timing, blocking and deflecting each blow while learning her tactics.
Her opponent knew it and pressed the attack, driving her back toward the wooden fence rails, launching a powerful chop downward just as the slave ran out of room to retreat. Instead she sidestepped, the blade striking so close that splinters peppered her cheek. Hairs stood up on the back of her neck as she registered the snapped rail. Her opponent’s strength was undeniable; a single blow would debilitate, even kill. As if reading her mind, the warrior woman cut a feral grin; she was only getting started.
She came in again, varying her angles of attack, executing wild combinations unlike any the gladiator had ever seen. She wasn’t sure which surprised her more, that she managed to keep up, or that she almost didn’t. More than once an unexpected thrust or slash caught her off guard, forcing her to dodge hard to avoid getting hit. One particular thrust forced the Leopard to writhe out of the way, and suddenly she found herself inside the woman’s long reach, at the perfect range for an elbow to the jaw—
She jumped back, shaking her head, glancing at the Master. If he saw her near-mistake, he made no expression. Her distraction cost her; a spinning backfist cracked across her face, pain detonating in her broken nose. Only a rapid pivot and retreat saved her from the side thrust meant to knock her out of the practice corral. As it was, the kick to her solar plexus through the hard leather breastplate knocked the wind from her lungs. She staggered back, panting around frothy blood filling her nose, cursing her own stupidity, cursing the Master for hobbling her.
The warrior arched one taunting eyebrow, waiting, daring her to do something. She willed the fire in her face to pass, settled back into that careful mask she wore in the arena. Swords struck again, glancing off each other so hard and fast the smell of burning wood filled the courtyard. The gladiator backed away, staying just out of the warrior’s long reach, forcing her to advance. But the dark warrior was no amateur. Unlike the spearmen in the arena, the tall woman moved in carefully, wary of over-extending and being lured off balance. Still, the attack never let up, a flurry of sword strikes interwoven with fists and feet in a tapestry of incredible skill. Disquiet raced through her, and excitement.
The onslaught was not seamless. Gradually she began to feel small openings in her opponent’s guard. Feel, like an itch that demanded to be scratched. An over-extended chin, a vulnerable joint, an exposed midsection drew her like a moth to its own fiery destruction. Only stepping away eased the itch, dampened the urge that surged through her to counterattack.
Her reserve only provoked the woman. Deliberately the Conqueror’s sword raked across angry stitches, setting the gladiator’s arm alight. A moment’s haze clouded her vision, and in that moment she felt her calf bump against the fence rail, found herself outmaneuvered again with nowhere to run.
An elbow swung at her face. Instinctively she ducked under the powerful blow and shot away, her wooden sword drawing a grunt of pain as it rammed into the warrior’s armored belly.
She froze, surprised and horrified. The warrior woman bent over double, the wind knocked from her chest, purple rage building under her exquisite features. A black grin broke out on Caesar’s face. Her owner blanched white, then flushed red, veins bulging on his forehead.
Time to die.
She didn’t move when the woman came at her, didn’t block, didn’t even flinch. She stared into those scorching eyes, felt the faintest relief knowing her death would be quick. Instead she found herself stumbling back, a fist knotted in the scarf around her neck, shoving her faster than she could keep up to slam against the railing.
White pain seared through her lacerated back; she stiffened, clamped down on the hiss that squeezed past her locked jaw. With a twist the scarf tightened on an already swollen throat, but she willed herself to be still, welcomed the spots of color that splashed ever darker in her vision.
“What’s this?” the woman’s velvet voice growled.
The grip loosened, then pulled the scarf away. She tucked her chin, but a fist tangled in her hair and jerked her head back, displaying the flowering bruises for everyone to see. Particularly the Master.
Beyond her own panting, she heard not a breath from the assembly. No one moved, fearful of the warrior’s anger.
“What is this?” Slightly louder this time. Her pale blue eyes raked those assembled in the courtyard, settling on the senator. “Who did this?”
The senator glowered at his property. “A remnant of her last match.”
“You lie. These are choke marks. Who did this?” She let go and the Leopard sagged, rubbing her throat as the warrior turned on the senator, her spine rigid with rage.
“A gladiator. In practice today. A lucky grab.”
Her speed astonished the Leopard. In four long strides she crossed the courtyard, grabbed him by the neck and heaved him up against a wall. Gods, the woman was mad, threatening to murder a senator over one battered slave.
House guards closed on her, swords drawn. Outnumbered three to one, the Conqueror’s escort drew in kind, encircling their ruler. Caesar’s men tensed, hands on their pommels. A flick of his wrist held them.
“I don’t know!” he squeaked.
She snarled, squeezing his windpipe. One of his guard stepped forward; her men raised their swords.
“That’s enough.” Caesar stepped closer, his expression—his entire being—promising consequences for any rash action.
The woman shot Caesar a warning look, the point of her sword making clear her opinion of his consequences. The Leopard, on the other hand, did not doubt his next actions would bring the warrior great suffering, with or without laying a hand to flesh. Because of her.
“He’s dead,” she croaked.
All eyes turned to her. A nervous glance at her owner, and at Caesar; the consul cocked his head curiously at her, as if noticing a mosquito for the first time. The senator, more than anyone else, looked at her as if she’d sprouted the three heads of Cerberus itself. “You…speak?”
She opened her mouth, thought she should say more but found her head empty. After such a long separation, words abandoned her. The succor of silence still clung to her; rejection of that steady companion seemed more frightening than triumphant. This was madness, speaking now, in front of Caesar, the Master. Especially the Master. Only his look of shock and his threat ringing in her ears made her glad to speak.
The woman looked from her to the Master, back to her, something dark and unreadable in her eyes. Then she let him go, tossed the sword in the dirt. “You don’t deserve a fighter like her. I’ll give you five times what you paid for her.”
The Leopard stared, not believing her ears.
From somewhere the Master drew a swell of confidence. “She’s worth far more than that in winnings alone—”
Her hands lashed out, jabbed him three times in the neck. He dropped to his knees, gasping, manicured fingernails clawed long gashes into his neck as if tearing at invisible hands. Twin rivulets of dark blood oozed from his nostrils. The slave stared at them, transfixed, conflicted between the urge to defend the only security she knew and the thrill of watching him die.
The dark warrior bent down in his face. “She’s worth nothing to you if you’re dead. Three times what you paid for her, and don’t make me reconsider again.”
He nodded vigorously, beyond speech. Two more jabs and a twist and he collapsed to the ground, gulping air.
Caesar eased back, smiling. “A wise decision, Conqueror.”
The gladiator’s gaze snapped to the woman. Not just any woman. Xena. Conqueror of Greece. Destroyer of Nations. Slayer of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. And Caesar’s greatest enemy.
She was suddenly glad for the rail that supported her.
The Conqueror turned on Caesar. “Negotiations will conclude tonight, with or without a treaty. Captain Marcus, arrange payment, then escort my new slave to the ship and tell Captain Bellerophon to prepare to sail.”
And then she was gone. The gladiator stared after her, too dazed to feel cold metal clamp down on her wrists.
It was several candlemarks after midnight when the Conqueror returned to her ship. Escort in tow, she plowed up the gangplank, fingers already working on the knots of her bracers. Captain Bellerophon met her as she stepped aboard, saluted smartly.
“Are we ready?”
“All supplies are aboard, Conqueror. We can clear the harbor before sunrise.”
“Do it.” She brushed past him, tired and tense, intent on her cabin and bed.
“Your purchase is waiting in your quarters,” he called after her.
The gladiator. She’d almost forgotten; the match seemed days ago. She rubbed her eyes. “Not tonight. Put her below with the stores.”
“By your wi—”
“Belay that.” Her forehead creased, caught in her own conflict. “Leave her. For now.”
Her indecision clearly surprised the captain. He covered it quickly. “By your will.”
She ground her teeth, swept across the deck and through the narrow door under the wheel housing. One of the bracer knots refused to come loose. “Niklos!”
A hanging lantern swung lazily, illuminating a small cabin furnished with a padded berth covered in silk sheets, a table next to a box of charts, and a certain fair woman. The cabin offered no rings for attaching manacles, so her chains were looped over the rudder arm drifting just under the ceiling beams, forcing her to stand or hang by the wrists. She stood, muscles in her arms bunching with the effort to stay on her feet. Still in armor, she swayed with the light rocking of the boat, head resting in the crook of her elbows, black blood crusted down lips and chin from the battered nose, dull eyes watching the Conqueror.
Who dropped her gaze, pushed past the woman to fling one bracer on the bed and fight with the stubborn knot. “Niklos!” The damnable tangle was rock hard, and after a few seconds of scrabbling at it ineffectively, she drew her dagger.
She jumped, blade pointed at the slave who’d stepped close, held out one hand. Cautiously the Conqueror presented the bracer, dagger ready, allowed the slave to pull her closer and set to work. For a gladiator, her small calloused fingers were surprisingly gentle and patient. As she fumbled in the dim light, the Conqueror took a closer look at her latest acquisition.
It had been a mistake to call her slight. In spite of her small build, hard muscles defined every inch of her arms and legs, and having seen her stripped bare in the arena, she knew the shaped curves and abdominal ridges of the leather breastplate were a fairly accurate representation of what lay beneath. She looked up, eyes the color of poor man’s jade meeting the Conqueror’s gaze unflinchingly.
They stayed like that, still, quietly evaluating one another.
Niklos rushed in, almost breathless, dropped to both knees and bowed low.
“Where have you been?” Irritated, she held out the bracer, only to find it loose. She looked back at the gladiator, but the woman had already moved away, eyes shuttered and distant.
The youth gasped for air. “I was in the hold. Captain Bellerophon asked me to record your purchases in the log. I came as soon as I heard you call.”
A grunt. “Help me out of this.”
He rose, took the bracer and arm guards and sword belt, unbuckled the side straps and held the armor while she unhooked the clasps in front. As soon as she was clear of it she sighed, rolled her head and shoulders around as if free of Atlas’ globe. The war skirt and boots followed as Niklos laid out a clean shift. “Would you like the cook to prepare anything for you?”
“Gods, no. I’ve had enough rich Roman food to last me all the way to Corinth.”
He gathered her armor and weapons. “Do you need anything else, Mistress?”
“Leave those. Just in case. You can clean them tomorrow.”
He arranged them neatly on the floor next to the bed, sword on top, then bowed. He was almost to the door when she stopped him. “What about her?”
His eyes darted to where the chained woman stood, regarded her with a tinge of trepidation. “I’m sorry, Mistress. I tried to prepare her for your return, but she wouldn’t let me.”
“Wouldn’t let you?” She arched an eyebrow as she contemplated the dangling fighter. “She smells like…” —blood, sweat, woman— “…sewage. Take care of it.”
“By your will.” He puffed up his chest, stepped toward the slave. Her eyes slitted, and when he reached for the buckles of her armor a kick knocked him back against the wall. She faced him down, teeth bared, legs set to fight. Regaining his wind, Niklos bravely reached again, though it looked like doing so might cost him a finger.
“Enough! Desistere!” She raised a hand to beat that impudent streak out of her, found herself looking into green eyes that yielded, expecting punishment. It was not the Conqueror she resisted, but the boy.
Even so, punishment was expected. A sharp punch snapped the slave’s head back, buckled her knees. Slowly she pushed herself to her feet, locked eyes with her keeper. The Conqueror could count on one hand the number of people who dared look her in the eye. Even her generals kept their gazes elsewhere. But this one…she seemed determined to stare down her own death. Which could be arranged, of course. A dark chuckle rumbled out of her. “She seems to enjoy her circumstances. Leave her.”
He bowed, closed the door behind him as he left. The Conqueror regarded the clean shift, tossed it on the table and reclined in the berth, still in her leathers. Her eyes drifted to the slave swaying with the rocking of the ship, eyes closed, fresh red dripping from her chin to the deck. The gentle drip-drip slowly gave way to the sound of sails unfurling above, gradually tilting the ship as the canvas caught the light breeze and pulled them away from Rome.
She woke with a jolt, found herself swinging from hands she couldn’t feel. Drunkenly she hauled her legs under her, a challenge with the lurching floor, pulled herself up to her feet. Blood flowed to her arms once more; slowly one set of aches made way for another.
She leaned her head back, rolled strained shoulder blades, twisted numb wrists. A wave pitched the boat, and another unpleasant feeling pushed its way up her throat. She caught herself before she gagged, forced it back down.
Voices filtered down to her, mutterings from above. Booted feet hurried across the deck, and hoarse whispers barked commands. She looked over at the bed. The Conqueror lay there, eyes slitted open, listening. How long had she been awake? The woman got up, already had her skirt and breastplate on when the knock came.
Captain Bellerophon stuck his head in, letting in the dim pink light before dawn. He, like her owner, spoke Greek. “Conqueror, a ship approaches. Roman.”
Xena nodded, buckled on her sword belt and gathered the rest of her armor. She didn’t spare the slave even a glance, blew out the lantern and latched the door shut behind her, smothering the cabin in darkness.
Darkness could do strange things to a mind. Every thump of water against the hull became a battering ram, every snap of canvas the crack of a whip, every creak of rope the groan of a vessel gone rotten and unseaworthy.
She’d held still while her new owner slept. Now in the oppressive blackness she paced, testing the two-and-a-half strides she could take before the chain pulled her up short. She could just touch the bed and table with her toes, but could think of no plan beyond that.
Voices joined in a rallying cry above, followed by the unmistakable ring of steel meeting steel. Heart racing, her wrists began to work inside the manacles, twist and pull on already raw skin. The left restraint was slightly looser than the other, and she focused on that one, hoping to could pull free with a little lubrication.
Several heavy thumps made her jump. The deck steadied beneath her, and fearsome battle cries heralded a boarding party. Her head snapped up as a shout filtered down through the din above: “Reperite Pardam!”
She didn’t want to know what they planned to do with her when they found her.
With a jump she caught hold of the rudder arm, swung her legs up to clip around it. More than a hand span of space separated the beam from the underside of the deck. With a heave, she hooked one thigh over the top, then inched her way up to lay upon the beam. In her armor she barely fit, the stiff leather digging into the welts on her back, allowing her to take only the shallowest of breaths. She flattened herself out, pulled everything up until the only thing visible from the door was the chain of her shackles, the only sound her strained breaths and the twisting of her hand against the restraint.
Light seeped under the door, a line of pink cut by passing shadows. Distantly she recognized the ululating battle cry of the Warrior Princess. She’d heard stories of that cry that chilled the soul, heard it for herself before she’d known who the warrior woman was. But it seemed far away, too far away, and she suddenly had visions of being forgotten, left behind, trapped on a drowning ship. A tiny noise squeaked out, primal and fearful, and she jerked more desperately against the manacles. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get her hand free, couldn’t escape, couldn’t fight.
No. With a steadying breath she pushed the nausea back, focused on her hand, on the iron grip on her bones, on skin that could bind or slide with the right help. Her dry mouth somehow conjured spit; it mixed with the widening ring of blood, let her hand slip just a fraction of an inch further.
The door slammed open. She froze. A Roman in piecemeal armor stepped in, scanning the corners. She held her breath, allowing only the tiniest gasps to feed her starved lungs, her heart thumping so loud she was certain he would hear it. He opened cupboard doors, lifted the down pallet with the tip his sword. Her hand throbbed, her fingers growing fat and stiff without circulation. Just tiny breaths, nothing more.
A bead of blood dripped from her wrist, drifted down like a feather caught in an ethereal wind. It splattered against his armor, loud as a footfall. He craned his head to look.
The chain wrapped around his neck, jerked him up off the ground high enough for his head to hit the beam. Her hand screamed in agony and she couldn’t hold him, but it didn’t matter. He crumpled to the floor, unconscious or dead.
She couldn’t relish the victory; two more came in, saw her right away. She swung from the beam, planted both feet in the first man’s face. If the kick didn’t knock him out, the crack of the back of his head against the wall did; bonelessly he slid to the floor. She landed on the deck; hand caught like a paw in a snare, she fought back rising panic, yanked hard against the unyielding metal. The second man clambered past his friend, came after her. She smashed a boot across his sword hand, sent it clattering across the room. He didn’t give up, charged her bare-handed. Jumping to grab the rudder arm, she wrapped her legs around the man’s neck.
Bad idea. Thick shoulder guards made it difficult to get her legs under his chin and around his throat. She squeezed anyway, smirked at the sight of his eyes bulging, his cheeks and forehead turning crimson between her knees.
A punch to the ribs knocked the grin from her face, set her gasping for air. His turn to twist bunched cheeks into a smile as he knuckle-punched her again between breastplate and backplate. With her arms stretched overhead she could do nothing to block it, nothing to stop the slow shrill wheeze of air fleeing her lungs. Another punch and all strength fled her grip on the beam; the manacles snapped tight, her wrist and hand bearing the bulk of her weight. Another screech from the trapped hand; nearly mad with pain, she could do nothing but lock her ankles together and squeeze, willing his skull to crack like an egg between her thighs.
With a muffled bellow he tried to pull away from her, until she thought her shoulders, her elbows, every joint in her arms might separate.
The skin of her hand tore free.
He stumbled under her sudden weight. Before he could recover she smashed the manacles against his temple; they both dropped to the deck.
She could hardly breathe, lay there for several moments before the stench of the man lent her strength enough to shove him off. She hurt, clutched an elbow to her side where the raider had punched her; sucked air into her lungs in tiny gasps. A glance at her hand almost made her heave; knuckle bones gleamed white where the skin peeled back.
Didn’t matter. She was free. She struggled to her feet, found a sword, stumbled out of the cabin into the glow of morning.
Bodies of the dead and wounded littered the deck, obstacles to be stepped over for those still thick in the fight. Grappling hooks lined one railing, bound them to another ship where more sailors traded blood. From somewhere on that ship came the wild call of the Conqueror.
She looked further still, spied hazy cliffs not too far distant. Without the armor she might make it. She’d never been a powerful swimmer as a child, but with this strong body and stronger will—
A scream overhead caught her ear. Partway up the climbing netting, the Conqueror’s servant scrambled away from a Roman. Fingers caught his foot and he screamed again, hanging on desperately until he kicked the large hand free.
She was three rungs up the net before she realized what she was doing. She shook her head, looked back at the beckoning shore.
The cry grated on her senses. She blocked it out to focus evaluate her chances. She’d never swum such a distance, and with her ribs and shoulder already hampered…a faint breeze carried the scent of fresh hay and freedom. She could do it. Even if she had to strip naked and float the whole way on her back she would make it. She climbed down—
“Someone help me! Please!”
A sandal fell from above. Her eyes darted between cliffs and the fight overhead.
They would probably catch her before she ever reached land.
She climbed as fast as she could, willing shaky limbs and throbbing ribs to obey. Above her they scrambled up into the crow’s nest, circled the mast. The raider’s sword bit into the rail, rained wood chips down on her. Niklos looked like he hardly had enough muscle to hold a sword, but he could move. One swipe meant to take his head bent him backward over the railing. He couldn’t right himself fast enough, and the man pounced on him, pinning him there, sword raised.
She heaved herself into the nest in time to see the servant’s legs flip over the rail. She lunged past the Roman, dove between the rail supports, reaching—
Caught a fistful of cloth. The linen ripped as it snapped taut, but held. Niklos grabbed hold of her arm, his dark eyes wide with fear.
A growl warned her of the raider’s charge. Pinned to the platform by the weight at the end of her arm, it was all she could do to block the blows that rained down on her. A vicious heel kick to the groin doubled him over. Pain fought with rage in his flat-nosed face; rage won and he lunged at her. She redirected his thrust but couldn’t roll out of the way, jerked as it sliced into her thigh.
Through red haze she saw her opening, dragged her blade deep through the muscles of his inner thigh. He grunted, yanked his sword free and came at her again and again. No heroics; she blocked swing after swing, protecting herself, waiting. A river of life ran hot down his leg, flooding the tiny platform. Gradually his skin grew pale, and by the time he stumbled, it was too late. He slumped back against the rail, slid down on unwilling legs, surprised and furious at her. She knew the look, nodded solemnly at him, respectful and understanding but not sorry. Never sorry. Even those expressions drained away, until only his eyes sparked. He died like she hoped to die, looking the enemy in the eye.
A cry brought her around, and she rolled over to look down. Niklos’ hand slid down her blood-slicked arm; he whimpered. She wouldn’t, couldn’t let go of the tunic, her gory hand a white-knuckled knot, but his hands continued to lose purchase. Even after she lowered the other end of the manacles to him, his red hands kept slipping on the metal, link by link.
“Help me,” he whispered, liquid welling in his eyes. She pulled, but he weighed as much as she and her body refused, too tired and hurt to rally. He tried to climb up the chain, slid even further. She wrapped her legs around the mast and tugged again, felt a stitch pop on the failing tunic.
His white eyes pleaded with her. She sucked in a breath, willed her body to obey. Miraculously it did, lifting him by inches toward safety.
The fabric tore. She lunged, came up empty-handed as he fell away into the dawn.
An arm reached out of nowhere, snatched him as he flew by. Startled, she craned her neck to see. On the climbing lines below, the Conqueror held the terrified man to her like a child.
She rolled onto her back then, eyes closed, heart fluttering in her chest. Long enough for the battle euphoria to wear off, be replaced by another sort of lightheadedness.
A thumb peeled back one eye. She squinted. Her owner leaned over her, poking at her leg, arching an eyebrow at her bloody hand, the empty manacle. Xena smirked, perhaps not unkindly. In one smooth motion the gladiator found herself hauled up and slung across the powerful woman’s shoulders like a sack of grain. The deck lurched many feet below; she squeezed her eyes shut, laced stiff fingers into the warrior’s armor and held on for the long climb down.
A soft pallet caught her. Her owner’s pallet in fact, when she opened her eyes to look around. The cabin. She started to sit up but a firm hand pressed her back. “Stay down. I won’t tell you twice.”
She nodded. Xena took to prodding her leg. The blade had gone all the way through the muscle and out the other side; it was sore, but she’d experienced worse.
“It occurs to me that I don’t know your name,” murmured her owner as she bent the leg, cleaned the blood away to ready it for stitches. The slave reached to help, had her hands pushed away. “You worked so hard to get free. Don’t make me chain you up again.”
She lay back, though it took effort to hold still. She’d grown accustomed to tending her own wounds, avoiding the explorations of unwelcome hands. Not that these hands—neither rough nor demanding—were exactly unwelcome. The gladiator lay still, tried to remove herself from the touches, the sting of the stitches, lose herself in the patterns of the wooden ceiling. Instead she found her gaze on the warrior, intent on her needlework. Her hands moved with the experience of thousands of stitches, as confident in healing as they were in killing.
She put the finishing touches on the dressing on the leg, moved to examine the hand. A large patch of skin hung from the first and second knuckle, but it could have been worse. Sour wine coursed over it, made the gladiator jerk and gasp. Her vision hollowed, threatened to go dark completely. The Conqueror’s grip was like steel, held her still through several cleansings, pale blue eyes watching her silent suffering curiously.
Xena set the flask down and wrapped the hand with a cloth. “That will infect if you don’t keep it clean.”
Her hand quivered like a leaf. Gradually the burning subsided, brought giddy relief. She stared at the harsh ruler, raging warrior, skilled healer, enigmatic mistress. Which parts were real and which were show? Was she the cold-blooded Conqueror, or the noble Warrior Princess?
In the practice yard, in the held breath after she’d said, “He’s dead,” the warrior had looked at her. Looked into her, it seemed, past the Leopard, past the slave. What did she see? You don’t deserve a fighter like her.
“Gabrielle.” The word slipped out, left her uncomfortable at her own admission.
Her owner stared at her. Had she forgotten the question? She mulled it over, tried it out. “Gabrielle.” It sounded like smoke when she said it, thick and dangerous. Those piercing eyes studied her face for a long moment. Then she shrugged. “It doesn’t suit you. I’m—”
She blinked. Ice settled into her eyes. “You will address me as Conqueror or Mistress. You may not use that name.”
Again the gladiator wished she’d said nothing. Silence would have spared her this uneasy moment, the conflicted choice between trying to apologize and trying to bite out her own tongue. A stab of discomfort brought her back to the Conqueror’s hands fairly attacking the straps on sides of her breastplate. Gabrielle shook her head, tried to resist the intrusive hands.
The Conqueror’s pale blue eyes bored into her. “Everything of yours is mine. Every hair, every scar, every bruise. Whatever you are hiding, I will find out. Save your strength for a battle that counts.” She considered a moment. “Or shall I have Niklos undress you?”
The Leopard’s contrariness surfaced for just a moment; she pushed it down, sensing the Conqueror didn’t make idle threats. She nodded, held still while the buckles came free. With help she sat up, lifted one arm while the woman slid the armor over her head. Finally free of the rigid leather she sagged, caught her breath as pain flooded her side. She gritted her teeth while Xena worked the tunic up and over her head, waited for the inevitable reaction.
She was somewhat disappointed. Casually the warlord glanced over her back. “Your last owner should have treated these welts sooner.”
So she knew about the beating. Of course she did, the same way she knew about the dislocated shoulder. Just as an artist read the canvas of a painting, the warrior read the canvas of a body, gleaning from subtleties of movement the larger condition.
Sure hands worked liniment into her back. Unlike the wine before, the greasy substance went cold on her skin, took the fire out of tender flesh. She felt a little dizzy leaning against the warrior, her face buried in a world of leather and sweat and sandalwood. She was relieved to lie down again, gladly endured the fingers probing her ribs and hips. The woman chortled. “You look like a map of the Mediterranean.”
The Leopard glanced down. Old and new bruises mingled in a mottled mess, down one side, across her belly, up the other. To her surprise, a sheet covered her lower half, some unexpected indulgence of modesty.
A cloth scoured the blood off her face. Strong hands straightened the nose again, and the warrior finally leaned back, satisfied. “Well, no broken bones that I can find. Just bruises.” She pulled the silk sheet up under her arms and stood.
“I’m sorry.” The gladiator forced the words out, her voice strange in her ears, deeper and rougher than she remembered.
The warrior cocked her head. “What for?”
A deep breath. “Dropping him.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be. Niklos would be dead if not for you.” She turned, put her hand on the door handle. Then softly, over her shoulder, “I want to say tha—” Words hung in the warrior’s throat, as if catching herself on the brink of saying something unforgivable. “That your choice to help him has been noted,” she gruffed, then stepped out of the cabin, pulling the door shut behind her.
The slave closed her eyes, thinking, listening, feeling. The down-filled pallet was as soft as an emperor’s bed. Its softness enveloped her, absorbed the rocking of the boat, lulled her away from vigilance.
A hand lay on her shoulder, startled her back to awareness.
“Sit up. Drink this.”
The tumbler of liquid looked and smelled like fetid pond water. On principle she refused.
“It’s just a precaution. We don’t want his seed growing inside you.”
The gladiator stared up at her, stunned.
Her owner smirked. “I am nothing if not observant. Am I right? Or shall I toss this out?”
The gladiator shut her mouth, downed the entire mug in a single gulp, wincing. As she offered back the cup, the Conqueror took her wrist in hand, unlocked the manacle. “You could have run. You didn’t. The chains stay off until we reach Corinth. Then we’ll see.”
She stood, gathered up the manacles. Thumbed them thoughtfully. “Gracchus must want you back pretty bad to send a ship after us.”
The gladiator’s eyebrows creased, remembering. “Didn’t recognize them. Not Gracchus’ men.”
In two sentences she doubled the number of words she’d spoken. They were important words, words her owner needed know. And by the shadow that passed over her face, the statement’s significance was not lost on the Conqueror.
Xena passed from body to body, her eyes roaming over uniforms, boots, hands, faces, wounds. Occasionally she stopped, turned over a calloused palm, examined the quality of a leather stitch. One guard’s arm caught her eye; she pushed up the sleeve of his tunic, noted the tattoo on his shoulder.
Bellerophon. The man could be preternaturally quiet when he wanted. “The attackers are all dead. Some of the sailors still live, but they claim to know nothing of their mission.”
“We’ll see about that.”
He waited for her orders. When she said nothing, staring at the body, he took the risk of intruding on her thoughts. “What are you looking for?”
She peered up, looked around, shrugged. “Nothing. Something. A clue.” She showed him the tattoo.
“S-P-Q-R.” His face darkened.
She stood up, wiping her palms on her leathers. “Senatus Populusque Romanus. I’ve seen it on many of Caesar’s soldiers.”
“You said these men served the Senator.”
She poked one of the bodies with the toe of her boot. “I’d thought so.”
“They were searching for the slave?”
“Maybe. For a mission to recover one little slave, they seemed very intent on killing me.” She looked around, her hairs standing on end. When her gut twitched, it was dangerous not to listen. “Press those sailors into service and split the crew; send the ship captain and half the guard over to the Roman ship to follow us; you and Captain Marcus will cover his duties here. And throw this mess over the side. It’s stinking up my deck.”
He saluted. “By your will.”
Within a candlemark they were underway again. For a while Xena took watch on the quarterdeck, her eyes aft for signs of pursuit. Sometime later she finally turned the watch over to the ship’s commander, made her way down to her cabin.
She stopped short, remembered her bed was not currently her own. She could evict the occupant, of course. But she didn’t, made an about-face and headed to the bow. She always liked the feel of salt spray in her face. It conjured memories of simpler, happier times. Clean, direct, uncomplicated. Nothing like the life she led now.
Niklos approached. Unlike Bellerophon, he couldn’t take a soft step if his feet were tarred and feathered. A grin tugged at her mouth; she carefully erased it before he came and knelt beside her.
“The cook wishes that you eat, Mistress.” He meekly offered a bowl of salami, cheeses, olives, and figs.
“The cook?” She arched an eyebrow.
His eyes downcast, he did not see her silent question, although he perhaps felt it. “He begs you forgive his impertinence. His only thought is for the welfare of Greece.”
She smirked. “Oh, very well. For Greece, then.”
Eagerly he set the bowl down before her, took for himself a piece of sausage and cheese, an olive and a fig, and happily popped them into his mouth. “The figs are delicious.”
She grimaced. “I’ve eaten enough figs to make me sick. You can have them.”
He grinned, handed her a wine skin and gobbled them up quickly. They sat carefully with their backs to the deck, a servant attending to his mistress and nothing more.
She chewed on a small bite of sausage, peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Are you recovered, little bird? From your flying lesson?”
His grin faltered. “I’m feeling better. I still get the shakes when I think about it.”
“You won’t sleep through the night for weeks.” She meant to sound amusing. Instead her words came out ominous, unsettling. He paled. She shook her head; sensitivity was never her thing. “Hey. You’re alive, right? That’s all that matters.”
He nodded, but his gaze drifted skyward to the crow’s nest. Some part of him was still up there, hanging for his life. She could see it in his eyes.
“Will she be okay?”
“Your new body slave.”
“Body slave?” She hadn’t even thought about it. What would she do with her newest acquisition?
Niklos flushed, looked away. “I am mistaken, Mistress. Please forgive me.”
What would she do with her? Why had she even offered to buy her? But she knew the answer to that question before it fully formed in her mind. That old fool didn’t deserve an artist like her, had no appreciation for the gladiator’s rare talent. She saw it the first time she watched the Leopard fight. And she confessed feeling intrigued. The gladiator was everything Xena wasn’t: a close-in fighter, low and rooted, evasive and yielding, cautious and precise, always thinking, tightly controlled. She bought the slave to fight her, to be the whetstone upon which the Conqueror sharpened her skills. To be her favorite new toy, until she broke.
“Mistress? She is okay, isn’t she?”
The Conqueror shook her head. “She’s fine. She wasn’t so hurt that she couldn’t save you, right?”
The young man nodded. He looked down, counted items in the bowl. “You still haven’t eaten anything, Mistress.”
An amused eyebrow crept up into her hairline. “I’m sure you’re mistaken, Niklos.”
“Yes, Mistress. As always, you are correct. However, your appetite is world-renowned, and the men might begin to spread rumors about your failing health if they see so much as a crumble of cheese left in this bowl.”
“I’ll have them executed.” She only half-joked.
“As the wise Conqueror is known to do. But to not finish this bowl of food is to dishonor the men who fought for you to take these spoils of war.”
She shook her head, snatched the bowl from his hands. “You are incorrigible.”
A wide smile brightened his entire face. “My worst flaw, Mistress, and one I work daily to erase from my being, that I might serve you better.”
“Stop. You’re making me ill.”
He grinned. “Which brings me to the next pressing affair of state. The Conqueror of Greece must get some rest. In two days we reach Corinth, and there will be many issues that need your immediate and focused attention.”
She snorted. “You imitate Vidalis fairly well. Shall I tell him that?”
He dropped the impersonation. “Please?”
“Get some rest? My bed is unfortunately occupied.”
“No it’s not. She’s sleeping on the floor.”
Her brow creased. Stubborn thing.
The Conqueror relented. She stood and took the bowl and wineskin back to the cabin, indeed finding the sleeping gladiator pressed against the wall under the table, the red silk sheets wrapped tight around her bare form.
The closed room still reeked of blood, sweat, and liniments. As Niklos removed her armor and leathers, she felt green eyes on her. She stripped down to skin, let Niklos sponge bathe her, not caring what the woman saw. Then she pulled on the clean shift she’d discarded earlier and climbed onto the down-stuffed pallet, buried her face in cool luxury.
The pillow smelled of olive oil, medicinal herbs, and the gladiator’s sun-kissed skin. Meeting the hooded gaze, she felt drawn into some sort of negotiation of the soul conducted in a language she didn’t understand. Those willful green eyes were the last thing she saw before drifting off, dreaming of conversing with her in the more familiar vocabulary of leather, steel, and blood.
She awoke in stifling dark, the kind that crawled down her nostrils and clogged the depths of her lungs, as if someone held a pillow to her face. She lurched upright, banged her head. The chart table. The cabin. The empty berth. Clutching the sheet around her she stumbled to the door, fumbled with the handle until it opened and she escaped into the night air.
An ocean breeze flitted across flushed cheeks, stole away the cloying heat and sickly sweet smell of the cabin. She sucked in long gulps, rinsing away the lingering panic of her wakening. When her head finally realized it was upright, she barely had time enough to lurch to the rail before spewing black potion, bile, and scant else over the side.
Leaning over the edge, feeling cool air on her face, watching dark water slide by the hull as she spat the vile taste from her mouth, she regained a measure of lucidity. It had been—she struggled to count—three days since her last real meal, her reward for surviving the great cat. She’d wolfed it down; some of the Master’s house guards took petty pleasure in cutting those privileges short. Now she struggled to remember what she ate, what it tasted like. It was a stew, if she remembered right, full of overripe vegetables and gristly meat, a shadow of the sumptuous feasts served at the gladiator school. But it was food, and it filled her rarely-full stomach. Achy as she was, she’d fallen asleep that night sated, even grateful, dreamt of the statuesque beauty in Caesar’s box, looking down at her with eyes wilder than the lion’s.
And then the guards woke her in the night. She’d expected to be delivered to the senator’s chambers, but instead they dragged her up to the practice yard. She wondered if she were still asleep; waiting for her there was the woman in her dreams. They fought; that had been part of her dream, too. And when those strong hands took hold of her…they were efficient but not indifferent as they put her shoulder back in its socket. She imagined even a hint of gentleness—
Her stomach growled more insistently. Three days since that moment, it reminded her. Three days of stale bread crumbs and water, or nothing at all. Her nose led her to stand, hobble on a stiff bandaged leg toward the hole near the bow of the ship. With effort she descended the stairs into the hold.
The smell of porridge that drew her gave way to a stink far worse than the cabin. Hammocks cradled to Morpheus’ bosom dozens of unwashed soldiers and sailors. She froze, almost scrambled backwards up the stairs.
A sloshing sound stopped her, and slowly she inched around the edges of the space to an open barrel with a ladle. The water tasted of pond scum, but she welcomed the wetness in her throat, felt it hit the bottom of her stomach like a fist. Greedily she gulped it down until the foul reek finally overruled her thirst. Prudence suggested she leave then, but that beckoning smell made her stomach gurgle again. The faint light of a hanging lamp revealed the leavings of the last meal, mainly a few scoops of porridge and a slightly moldy hunk of bread. She scooped the porridge into her mouth, hardly chewing before swallowing, gobbled down the bread as quietly as she could and washed it down with a swill from the dank barrel before retreating toward the stairs.
Voices stopped her. Murmurings floated from the rear if the ship where another set of stairs ascended to the open deck. Cursing her curiosity, she limped into the darker recesses of the hold. A silhouette under the moonlit opening made her stop. She crouched down behind giant amphorae, peeking over the edge.
“—she’s hardly ever on deck, spends most of her time in that damnable cabin.”
“You must find an opportunity. Night is your best chance. Fewer eyes. I needn’t remind you Corinth is less than two days away. If she still lives when this ship docks, your lives are forfeit.”
The dark shape of the speaker pushed past and up the stairs, the faint bulk of armor visible in dim light. Footfalls came closer. The Leopard knotted the sheet around her and pressed herself back in the darkness. When the smaller man walked by, her arm clamped around his throat.
The gladiator blinked, surprised. Perhaps it wasn’t her life they meant to take.
She clamped down on his throat, squeezing off his words. “Who wants the Conqueror dead? The senator?”
He wheezed, fingernails digging into the muscled forearm at his throat. He tried to elbow back, but she would have none of it, knuckle-punched him in the small of his back until he stopped struggling.
“I heard everything. Who wants me dead?”
“Conqueror, please have mercy! I am no threat to you. Surely you can see that?”
“Speak or die, assassin!” Her arms bulged with the effort of squeezing. Just when she thought she might run out of strength, he gave a noise and she let up ever so slightly. “What did you say?”
A rock settled in the bottom of her gut. “Let’s go.”
She manhandled him back the direction he’d come, up the stairs.
They’d barely taken two steps toward the cabin when shouts and drums sounded the alarm. Almost a dozen soldiers appeared out of nowhere, surrounded them on deck. The watch captain, Marcus, placed himself squarely between her and the cabin. “Release him, slave.”
And what would happen then? A slave assaulting a freeman, her word pitted against his? They certainly wouldn’t believe this sailor planned to assassinate the Conqueror. She tightened her grip, set her stance, eyes darting to the soldiers at her left and right. The sailor gurgled in her grasp, his face swelling with the pressure.
She planned to. When he was unconscious or dead.
A boot shuffled on the deck behind her. Eyes darted over her shoulder and her foot shot back, caught the stealthy soldier square in the throat. His sword clattered to the deck where he fell, writhing and choking.
The others took a reflexive step closer. She clamped down hard on the man’s neck, threatening to snap it, her eyes cold and dangerous. They stopped, looked to the watch captain for orders.
“What is the meaning of this?”
The Conqueror stormed out of the cabin, Niklos in tow. She took in the scene in a heartbeat, plowed through the circle like a raging bull. “Let him go.”
Though the man hung limp in her choke hold, she could still feel his heart valiantly pumping. The soldiers shuffled forward, made braver by the Conqueror’s presence. She could obey, and risk death at hands of the soldiers, or she could disobey, and risk death at the hands of her owner.
She released him, her gaze never leaving the Conqueror.
The soldiers swarmed her, slamming her cheek to the deck under a press of bodies. Spots of light exploded under her eyelids; she blinked, dazed, teeth gritted against the large hands that wrenched her sore shoulder as they twisted her arms behind her back. The world lurched and she found herself standing again—hanging really—naked, the sheet torn away in the scuffle.
“Explain yourself,” the warrior growled, making clear the danger if she refused.
The assassin took orders from a man in armor. Her eyes darted from one soldier’s face to another; one of these men plotted treason against the Conqueror. If she spoke against the assassin, she would certainly make an enemy of his commander, become a target for assassination herself. And if they did somehow kill the Conqueror, the Leopard would probably pass into the hands of the soldiers and sailors to do with as they pleased. Judging by the expressions on their faces, violation would be the least of her worries.
A backfist cracked across her face. The warrior towered over her, her torchlit face swimming in and out of focus. “Answer me.”
She ran her tongue across her swelling lip and loose teeth, tasted the too-rich red warmth filling her mouth. Spitting it out would certainly enrage the Conqueror further. With effort she swallowed it down, fought the nausea that pushed it back up. She raised her chin, looked her owner in the eye without deceit or defiance.
Another backfist to the same spot nearly put her out. Her vision came back slowly to a long rope of red suspended from slack throbbing lips. She raised her head again, resigned to the next blow.
Fingers like steel lashed out almost faster than the slave’s eyes could track. Her neck spasmed, clamped down on windpipe and pulse surer than her choke hold on the sailor. Her legs would have buckled had her feet touched the ground.
“You’ll be dead in seconds if you don’t tell me why you attacked this sailor.”
The invisible noose constricted, made vision go dark and sound turn tinny and distant. Her tongue grew thick in her mouth, her eyes bulged sightlessly. A vice clamped down on her head, promised with each pounding to grind her skull to dust.
“Conqueror! With all due respect…she’s mute.”
She couldn’t tell who said it. One of the soldiers, perhaps. The Conqueror knew better, of course. So she was shocked when the invisible band around her neck released, flooded her head with enough blood and air to make her swoon.
“Chain her up in the hold.”
They clapped her in irons and dragged her below, dumped her naked and shivering, half-conscious among the rats.
The ruler of Greece paced, too wound up to stand still.
“And you say the Leopard attacked you while you were retiring to your hammock?”
“And you didn’t lay a hand on her, didn’t look inappropriately at her in any way.”
“Never, Conqueror. I didn’t even know she was there. She snuck up behind me silent as the dead, she did.” The Roman sailor rubbed his neck at the thought, dark bruises under his chin.
She exhaled. “You may go.”
The sailor did so, eager to be out of the presence of the dreaded woman. She shut her eyes, massaged her temples, willing the buzz clouding her thoughts to go away.
“Perhaps she’s an assassin,” Marcus mused, his look far away.
She shook her head. “A damned clumsy one, giving herself away over a crewman. No.”
Bellerophon cut in, news of the attack still fresh on his flushed face. “Conqueror, she’s a slave. A gladiator and killer. No doubt she was sent to the arena to die for her crimes.”
“That doesn’t make her an assassin, Bellerophon.”
“No, but it does make her unstable, unpredictable, and a threat to the Conqueror of Greece. The ruler I’ve sworn on my life to protect.”
She fingered the manacles on the table, thoughtful. “She won’t harm me.”
Marcus cleared his throat. Quietly, “Your curiosity for this girl aside, how can you be so sure?”
“Because I can feel it. I can’t explain. She’s passed up too many chances to try.”
Marcus shrugged. “Maybe she’s afraid of you.”
The Conqueror snorted. “She’s never shown a scrap of fear to me, of me, about me, or even near me.”
“Then what is she hiding?” the dark-skinned soldier wondered. “You know she can speak. Why doesn’t she? What is she keeping from you? Has she said anything since—?”
“No,” the Conqueror lied. Those few words fallen from hesitant lips were treasures meant for her ears alone. “Marcus, she got free and chose to help rather than escape. She had the chance. Something binds her to me.”
“Perhaps a sworn oath to destroy you,” spat Bellerophon. “Has it occurred to you she’s only biding her time for the surest kill?”
“Of course it has,” she snapped. In truth, the thought hadn’t crossed her mind, not in any meaningful way other than academic conjecture. And even now, confronted with it, her gut wouldn’t allow her to conceive of it. Bellerophon was dead wrong, even if she didn’t have a shred of evidence to prove it. “Your concerns are noted. Dismissed.”
She hadn’t been so curt with her captains in a long time, regretted it almost immediately. They hid their astonishment; Marcus with a curt nod, Bellerophon through a stiff bow. “By your will, Conqueror.”
The door quietly latched shut behind them.
She let his words float in her mind, coalesce into the form of a cunning killer, heart cauterized by years of murder, intent carefully hidden behind a wall of silence and a pair of accursedly soft green eyes.
She slammed her fists down on the table, made everything jump.
“Mistress?” Niklos slipped into the cabin. He knew her well enough not to touch her, not when her rage sat this close to the surface.
“Stay here,” she growled. He shrank back as she stalked past and marched down into the hold, eager to vent.
The accused crouched motionless, her bare back and legs and arms still faintly spotted from her match with the lion. A rat strayed within range of the chains, only to be pounced upon and have its neck snapped. She caught more than she missed.
“You’re better than a ship’s cat. Perhaps I ought to leave you down here a while.”
Her head snapped around, searching the shadows where the Conqueror stood. A shadow passed across the Leopard’s bloody rat-bitten face, lit her eyes with sickly green fire.
“Is that a spark of anger? I didn't think animals could feel emotion.” She moved languidly, only the swish of leather betraying her presence, She enjoyed the way the eyes strained to follow her, trying to decide if she was predator of prey. She gestured faintly at the briny hold, dark except the moonlit patch where the nude slave hunkered. “Do these accommodations please you? Are they an improvement over your previous sleeping arrangements? Are you more comfortable with your chains than without? No? Perhaps you should not have taken my generosity so lightly.” She closed the distance between them until she squatted down just beyond the shaft of moonlight. “You know I have every reason to execute you. You dishonored me. You assaulted my crewman, resisted my soldiers, refused to answer my questions. I’ve skewered men for less. So I give you a gift. You get one chance to tell me why I should spare you the fate you’ve earned.”
She watched conflict play across taut features, the benefits of speaking battling the security of silence.
“Nothing? No excuses? No pleading? No insults?”
Swollen lips and cheeks shaped words thick and quiet as fog. “He’s plotting to kill you.”
She stared, slowly baring her white teeth in a broad grin. “Plotting to kill me? Who isn’t? Hardly a day goes by that some fool somewhere doesn’t fantasize about my death. Let them try. A pathetic attempt on my life might provide some entertainment. Is that the best story you have to offer?”
The quiet voice rasped, whether from disuse or abuse the Conqueror couldn’t tell. “He took orders from one of the soldiers.”
Her grin faded. She stood. “How do you know this?”
“I heard them talking.”
She circled, brow furrowed. “Which soldier?”
“Couldn’t see. They spoke in the dark.”
“And what were the soldier’s orders?”
She took a deep breath, reciting from memory. “‘If she is still alive when we reach Corinth, they will die.’”
“Me, I thought. But when I grabbed him, he was afraid I was you.”
The Conqueror thought it over for long minutes.
“You might be lying. You might have misunderstood.”
The slave shook her head. “He confessed. He said they were sent on orders from Caesar.”
Her fist connected with the slave’s cheek, an old response to ancient wounds reopened. The fair head snapped back. She tumbled to the ends of her chains.
“You lie,” the warrior hissed.
The gladiator slowly hauled herself up, delicately brushed the split cheekbone with the back of her good hand. “Do to him what you did to me. He’ll talk.”
The Conqueror chewed on her words, moved to the stairs. “You’d better be telling the truth, Leopard. Or we’ll be adding lying and treason to your offenses.”
A scream startled her out of a huddled drowse. From the open hatch above came the high-pitched squeals of a man in agony. She shuddered, tried to cover her ears with her arms. The noises continued for what seemed like hours. Even after they faded away she shivered, stared into the dark corners of the hold, desperate not to think about what tomorrow might bring.
Clumsy footsteps descended the stairs. Niklos, the servant, followed by soldiers. She coiled into a low crouch, wary of what the young man’s arrival could mean.
He stopped at the sight of her, wisely stayed out of range. “M-Mistress sent me to bring you a tunic and change your dressings.” As proof he held up dark linen, clean cloths, ointment. The four guards behind him fanned out around her, swords drawn.
She bristled with each step they took, eyes darting between them, muscles flexing uneasily. Movement on the deck above caught her eye. Long loose hair framed a familiar silhouette, and behind her an imposing armed figure watched her every move. She got the strangest sense she faced some sort of test. Nervous nettles and the rolling of the ship played havoc with lumps of cold porridge in her stomach.
“Stand up,” one of the soldiers snapped, a grizzled veteran she recognized from the stand-off on the deck. By his growl, he remembered her well-placed kick to a comrade’s windpipe, itched for an excuse to repay in kind. She rose as slowly as she could on a stiff leg, pulled the chains tight against the ungentle lurch of the sea.
Standing there on display for the men made her skin prickle. Looks passed between them, hungry wolves sniffing easy prey. One raked her form with a look; she bared her teeth at him. She was chained. She was unarmed. She wasn’t helpless.
Especially not with the Conqueror standing over the proceedings. She stood up straighter, knowing the warrior watched her.
A familiar sharp smell reached her nose, green and brown, almost sweet but for the acrid aftertaste. When a hand touched her back she jerked, rattling the chains. Jittery soldiers surged forward, the tips of their swords close enough to chill her skin. Senses on the edge of snapping, she struggled to slow her breathing, calm her heart as the young man quickly applied the foul-smelling salve to the welts. This time her already cool body did not welcome the chill.
Niklos moved to crouch before her. She hardly dared breathe, pulled tighter on the chains to quash any urge to flinch at his touch. For his part he had the grace to look embarrassed, keep his eyes on the task at hand and not the patch of golden curls next to his face. In short order he removed and reapplied the dressings on her achy thigh. The older soldier stepped forward, unlocked the chain at her wrist.
Niklos unwrapped the bandages around her hand, his light and nervous touch soaking through her skin into her already knotted stomach, setting her teeth on edge. The old soldier stepped closer, daring her to try something. If he stood close enough to strike her, he stood close enough to be struck. A quick and unsatisfying path to death to be sure, but worth a moment’s fantasy. She held very still, looked up again at the Conqueror and her officer. Faintly she could make out the gleam of white teeth, a dark smile. The warrior saw, knew she chose to do nothing.
The manacle came off her other arm, a welcome chance to rub tender wrists.
Niklos handed her the brown tunic. “I hope this is the right size. It’s one of my older ones.” She pulled it over her head. It fit well enough through the shoulders, though it hung a little long.
“Hands,” the old man grumbled. She held them out, let herself be chained again. She hoped the business finished, but Niklos appeared again, gave her a wineskin, a loaf of bread, and a coarse wool blanket. In a low voice he murmured, “The Conqueror wants you healthy, fed, and well rested for tomorrow.” He backed away with a nervous little bow and led the soldiers out of the hold.
Astonished, she stared at the items in her hands, up at the figures at the edge of the hold. The warrior revealed nothing, turned away. The other one stayed a while longer, scrutinizing the gladiator as if trying to read a smudged scroll.
“Conqueror, it’s time.”
Xena nodded to Bellerophon. He turned to the drum master. “Beat all hands to deck.”
A resounding rhythm roused sailor and soldier alike from their hammocks to assemble under the bright morning sun. When the drum fell silent, the Conqueror stepped forward to the edge of the quarterdeck.
“Bring the assailant,” ordered Bellerophon.
Two soldiers climbed out of the hold with their charge, two more pacing behind, swords drawn.
In spite of the fresh tunic and bandages, she looked a mess. Particularly her face, from inflamed cheekbone to lumpy jawline to swollen lips. She squinted against the bright light at the audience standing at attention. Some color drained from purple lips, a little steadiness fled her steps. They brought her to stand before the Conqueror.
“Bring the assailed.”
From the behind the Conqueror they dragged the sailor, brought him down the steps to stand beside the slave. His face looked much like hers, puffy and colorful. Through swollen eyes he cast her a truly vile look. She glowered back.
The Conqueror squared her shoulders. “Last night the slave you know as the Leopard accosted the sailor Miestes and, in front of witnesses including myself, attempted to strangle him. There is no question as to the defendant’s guilt in this matter.
“There is, however, some question as to the motivation. The slave indicated she overheard Miestes plot bodily harm to the Conqueror.” A mutter rippled through the ranks; she stilled those voices with a hand. “If so, the accused was only doing her duty to protect her mistress.”
“She lies!” Miestes threw himself at the slave, tried to shake off the hands that pulled him back. The Leopard stared back at him, hard as marble.
She fixed him with a look. “Strong words for a man accused of treason.”
“What proof does she offer?” He jutted out his neck, practically frothing as he addressed the assembly. “Look at these! She meant to kill me!”
The Conqueror smirked. “Stupid man. She’s a gladiator. If she wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
A general murmur fluttered through the crew. She resumed her address. “Just as there is no proof she intended to kill him, there is also no proof that he plotted to kill me. So my judgment is this. I sentence you both to be tied upon the mast until we reach Corinth, at which time your crimes against Greece are forgiven.” She arched an eyebrow at the prisoners. “Unless, of course, you wish to confess.”
The sailor paled. “Please, Conqueror. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Haven’t you? Admit your guilt, and you will spend the voyage in the hold awaiting trial. Far more comfortable than a day and night in the elements, I assure you. And far less lethal.”
His mouth worked soundlessly. Exasperated, she turned to the slave.
“And you? Do you admit you tried to murder this man?”
The fair woman allowed only the barest shake of her head.
“No? So be it.”
She signaled the guards. They nodded and dragged the captives to the main mast.
She caught the slave watching her, something like anger in her bright eyes. No, not anger. More personal. Betrayal.
She stung at that, hid it immediately. She turned her back before the guards dragged them away, didn’t watch as they were hoisted into the heavens.
As punishments went, the Leopard had suffered worse. Tied her to the yard arm at the wrists and elbows, her shoulders took most of her weight. They’d tied her feet to the mast, too. Occasionally she could push up for a few minutes, take the pressure off her arms and ribs, get some blood flowing to her fingers. And with the fresh air and unobstructed view of the retreating horizon, her ever-present seasickness had faded to a persistent queasiness.
The worst of it was the incessant grumbling of the sailor tied behind her. He cursed the Conqueror, the gods, the sun, the ship, even the ropes. Mostly he cursed the lying bitch behind him, cursed her parents, her womanhood, and her silence. His voice was like a splinter under a fingernail, infuriating and impossible to remove. Behind closed eyes she plotted a thousand ways to still his tongue, each more gruesome than the last. As morning turned to afternoon, however, his own grousing finally did him in. His voice grew hoarse as it dried up, dropped to a croak, and then a whisper. Finally he fell silent, only making the occasional moan when someone walked past. A quiet cheer from the depths of her soul for that.
Her disquiet grew in the silence. She replayed the trial in her mind, searching her memory for any trace of her owner’s intent. Hadn’t the Conqueror believed her? Hadn’t the assassin told her what he’d told the Leopard? Her head told her there was no proof. The Conqueror would be expected to mete out harsh punishment for her slave’s actions, no matter how justified. In that regard, her punishment could have been much worse. Her owner had done nothing more than any other might. So why did she feel such resentment?
It took her a good portion of the day to come to any answers, and those she found unsettled her. She had begun to think of their interactions as something more than owner and slave. She could swear she saw something in the Conqueror’s eyes, some glimmer of respect that transcended nobility and slavery, fame and infamy. Hadn’t the Warrior Princess herself risen from humble beginnings? When they sparred, it became a dance only they knew the steps to. The whole world fell away; walls, chains, people peeled back until it was just the two of them and the corral and the starry sky. Those moves, the tactics, the speed…her stomach fluttered at the memory of it, at the thrill of the challenge. And damn her eyes if Xena didn’t feel it too.
Apparently not. The Conqueror was just another owner, and she was just another investment to be hoarded or squandered. She’d been foolish and weak to imagine anything more.
Such thoughts circled each other like rivals in the cage of her head. She squeezed them out, only to have them burrow back in when she let her mind wander.
And then there were times when the wind roared like Poseidon’s own breath that she thought of the blanket that warded off the chill. And when the sun’s heat turned her throat to papyrus, she remembered the weak wine that soothed her through the night. The Conqueror said she took such kindnesses lightly. She was wrong. The Leopard feared them. Each one tore a hole in her heart, a heart she’d spent years hardening until it sat shriveled in her chest, a scrap of old leather. Her owner’s unexpected kindnesses made that withered organ swell like a desert flower tasting rain.
She wished she could hate her for it. Some tiny coal in the pit of her stomach did, perhaps. But she’d spent so long learning to survive that hate had become impractical, a waste of precious energy and resources. Hate had to be nursed, coddled, mothered. She was not the mothering type.
Anger was pure, a tool for doing what needed to be done. She needed that strength now. That and pride. She would not let a trifle punishment like this take down the Leopard.
So she hung there, masking her discomfort, willing her face and body into serenity and meeting the gaze of anyone who dared look at her. Especially the Conqueror, who did so many times as the day wore on.
Such displays grew more difficult as night descended. The cool wind seemed to lance through the rough linen straight into her chest. She tensed against it, willed muscles into armor against invisible blows.
Resisting, like hate, took effort. As Selene’s bright face rose into the black dome of sky, painting the ship in milky white, her body and her armor faltered, gave way to violent shaking. She shivered so hard it hurt. Coordination of her limbs became tricky when she tried to force herself up, relieve the pressure on her chest.
Late at night when the moon approached her climax, movement on deck dragged her head up. A warm cloak drawn about her shoulders, the Conqueror stepped out of the cabin. Pale eyes surveyed the ship, deliberately coming to rest on her newest possession. The Leopard managed to muster a sunken glare. The warrior looked away, climbed to the quarterdeck to relieve the ship’s captain.
She wanted to watch her, to study every movement. And she wanted the woman to feel her stare, to know what she knew. That the Leopard hung there because of her. That the price for helping the Conqueror was suffering. That she chose to submit, chose to endure hunger and humiliation and misery because…because she wanted to prove herself better than a slave. All she needed was the slightest acknowledgement, the barest glimmer of understanding, something to give her hope that her choice had not been in vain.
The Conqueror didn’t give her another moment’s attention.
Gradually her mind grew fuzzy with cold, her thoughts going missing until she merely stared, transfixed by the ripple of long muscle, the gleam of pale skin, the heat of red lips. She didn’t shiver anymore. She thought she should worry, but at least felt relief at the respite.
Sometime later something poked her in the ribs. Again, more forcefully. A third finally forced a groan past cracked lips.
Something warm touched her lips. She poured every ounce of her being into that liquid, forced her heavy head up to swallow whatever her constricted throat would take. It was thin warm broth, nothing more. Didn’t matter. Heat flushed through her, pushed back the numbness of sleep, swathed her in mortality.
The soldier moved along the climbing nets to give some to the sailor. He too roused only with harsh treatment, gulped noisily from the wooden cup. Above them the nearly full moon descended toward the distant horizon, promising dawn in a few candlemarks. She looked down, met another pale face shining up at her. What did the Conqueror see hanging from the yard? An animal? A troublemaker? A threat? She had no energy left for rage or bravado. Just one long look. I am still here.
The hard look softened just a touch. Then, almost imperceptibly, she nodded.
Eyes fluttered closed, her heart pumping hard.
When she opened them again, the Conqueror was gone.
She peeled off her armor in the dark, lay it on the on the floor next to the bed quietly. One arm guard slipped from her fingers, clattered to the floor. She swore at her distraction, snatched it up.
Soft snores still sounded from the down pallet.
She could move the young man, but he’d been sleeping in the tiny space under the stairs for days. No, he could stay. He needed to rest. She needed to think.
The gladiator had gotten to her. She wasn’t sure exactly when. Last night in the hold? Yesterday in the crow’s nest? At the senator’s house? That first fight in the arena? Did it matter? She had a way of commanding the Conqueror’s attention with a stance, a sound, a look.
That look, just now, as if she’d crucified her own brother. She couldn’t get that face out of her head.
She slumped, worn out. She worried for the woman. It was cooler than last night, cool enough to be dangerous. Bigger, healthier men had died under similar circumstances. She feared the broth would not be enough.
She could have, should have had them cut down. Only she’d said they would hang until Corinth, and a leader who changed her mind over a little suffering would be seen as indecisive, weak. She had enough problems with conquered peoples without throwing fuel on the fire.
She took a blanket from the foot of the bed, climbed under the table like the Leopard had, grunted as her head hit wall. Her slave was quite a bit shorter, probably didn’t have to bend her knees to fit. And the deck was quite hard, rough on her angular frame. Then again, she could sense the appeal of the cave-like space to the wary Leopard, enclosed on five sides, easily defensible. No doubt the gladiator would have traded her current bed for this one in a heartbeat. She pressed herself back against the wall, closed her eyes.
She dozed, but sleep wouldn’t take her. She kept thinking of the gladiator, dying by inches on the mast, until her fierce spirit hardly seemed attached to that failing body, only her eyes glowing like jade brands.
The warrior snapped awake, her senses prickling. It took a moment to focus in the dark, see feet standing by the bed. Not Niklos.
A kick to the knee took the visitor by surprise. While he stumbled her eyes darted to her sword laying by his feet. She reached for it, yanked her arm back empty-handed before his blade almost chopped it off. A kick the groin proved ample distraction while she hooked her legs around his thigh and jerked him to the ground. She rolled out, snatched up the sword and turned it on him.
Whether she heard or felt the threat, she reacted by instinct, blade knocking away the missle headed for her heart while her hand caught another aimed at her face. A third slipped through, stung the side of her neck.
She spun the sword, reversed her grip. It plunged though flesh and bone, pinning the assassin to the ground.
A wheeze from the bed. Numb fingers found the lantern, struck flint to steel several times before the oil finally caught.
Niklos stared up at her, clutching at the red spilling down his side, struggling to draw breath.
“No,” she murmured, clamping a hand down over the hole. “Marcus!”
Soldiers rushed in the door, swords drawn on the expiring assassin. Captain Marcus pushed his way to the front, his usually calm demeanor cracking. “Demetrius!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Someone get the healer!”
One of the soldiers disappeared. The captain stepped closer, a hand extended as if to help, or console.
“Get away from me!” she shouted, shoving him back against the wall.
“Conqueror…” Awkwardly Marcus reached again, eyes transfixed on her throat.
Reflexively her hand clamped to her neck. A metal dart almost the breadth of an arrow protruded from it. Blood poured liberally from the wound and with it, time. Marcus knew it too, judging by the pallor of his dark complexion.
She swallowed. “Marcus, come here.” She edged away from the berth, made room for him. “Press your hand flat and tight against that hole. Don’t let go unless Demetrius tells you to.” She backed away, hand still pressed to her neck, bumped into the edge of the table, blinking away spots.
Bellerophon shoved his way past the throng, jaw dropping when he laid eyes upon her. “Conqueror! Your neck—”
“Glad you could join us, Captain,” she grumbled.
His eyes narrowed as he took in the scene. “What happened?”
She glared at the obvious question. “A visitor at my bedside. Only I wasn’t in it.” She reached over to Niklos, took his cool hand in hers, tried to warm it, nodded encouragement. The young man wheezed, too petrified to look at her.
Marcus shook his head, pressed harder on the hole in his side. “Your gladiator was right. She just accused the wrong man.”
The Conqueror looked at the impaled corpse, hooked a toe under the sleeve of the assassin’s tunic. SPQR.
“Bellerophon, round up all the sailors from the Roman ship and lock them in the hold, including that man on the mast. As for the Leopard…bring her to me.”
The captain’s eyes went wide. “Conqueror? She could be working with them. She might have deliberately identified the wrong man—”
“Enough!” Her head was beginning to do strange things, and his squawking was not helping her temper. “Bring her to me now.”
Bellerophon couldn’t quite mask the argument in his eyes, but he knew better than to voice it. He saluted, turned away.
“And Captain? I’m not very impressed with the security on this ship. Take care of it, starting with stationing guards at my door.”
She said nothing more about the attempt on her life, but her eyes flashed silent threat. He caught her meaning and swallowed. “By your will.”
Her awareness began to run together, to overflow so that she missed some things, fixated on others. The healer pushed past the crowd of soldiers in the door, headed straight for her. She tried to push him over to Niklos, but he wouldn’t have it. “He can wait, Conqueror. You can’t.” Boots clattered on the deck overhead, the commotion loud enough to alert even the densest crewman to the fact that something had happened. The body disappeared sometime during the rush. “I have to take this out,” intoned the healer, packing more cloths against the flooding wound.
“No. Not yet.”
“Now, before you have no more blood left in you to lose.”
“No,” she barked. “Just a few more minutes.”
He didn’t understand why, but he went about laying out bandages and needle and thread. Minutes passed, until he edged forward, voice dropped to a desperate whisper. “Please, Conqueror. There’s not much time.”
Edges of her vision going dark, she searched the faces swarming around the cabin, not seeing one in particular. Reluctantly she gave in, leaned against a wall and steeled herself.
“Just do it,” she snarled.
He pulled. A fine spurt of blood painted his face. She almost laughed, but his hand pressed into her neck so hard she had to strain to breathe. She let her eyes slide shut, hid the blindness creeping across her vision, the lightheadedness that threatened to topple her.
A hand clasped hers, small, calloused, icy. She squeezed back, an anchor in the darkness. “She stays with me,” she announced to whomever happened to hear. Then she let go.
A bang woke the Leopard, sent her heart into wild pounding. Eyes darted about the dim lamp-lit cabin, sifted through the sounds that filtered in. Beyond the wooden walls came shouts, movement, activity. Muscles tensed, ready to move.
Moments passed. No threat burst in the door. The commotion drifted away and heaviness seeped back into her bones, drew her down into the warmth of the pallet.
The warmth of another body. She stiffened, staring at the slack face, the wild dark hair, raking her memories for how and when she ended up in the Conqueror’s bed. Then again, most of last night was hazy. Moments of clarity clung to her rather than an actual sequence of events. The deck rushing up to meet her. The light and pandemonium of the tiny cabin. Seeing the Conqueror, eyes closed, skin pale as milk, chest bathed in crimson. Standing in a crowd so quiet it seemed to be holding its breath, knowing the mythical Warrior Princess might not survive the night. Watching long fingers twitch with each ungentle stitch. Moving forward to kneel beside her, frozen hands covering hers, hiding the weakness. Her words, She stays with me, before sagging against the wall. A sea of hard faces upon the Destroyer of Nations, be they supporters, admirers, critics, or enemies.
That fact alone gave her fortitude enough to stay awake, cast suspicious looks at anyone—even officers—who approached while the healer worked. Luckily no one tried to lay a hand on either of them. There was probably little she could do to protect the Conqueror, weak as she was, but no one called her bluff. Once the healer moved to treat the young servant she slumped, rested her head against the warrior’s leg, succumbed to violent shivering. Someone draped a blanket around her shoulders, put a bowl of broth in her hand, left her to nurse it. Sleep pulled on her. She feared she might not stay awake, but anytime someone stepped near she came to life, shifted between them and the unconscious woman, baring teeth and barring access.
Captain Marcus ordered the gawkers out. The healer finished bandaging Niklos’s chest, moved him to rest under the table. Bloody sheets made way for fresh ones; delicately they stripped the ruined shift and put the Conqueror to bed. The captain’s eyes raked the slave head to toe before reluctantly pulling the door shut behind him.
She exhaled, gingerly settled her stiff body on the edge of the berth at her owner’s feet, leaned back against the wall to shake uncontrollably. The blanket was useless, seemed to hold the heat out more than in. Cold had taken root in her bones; she wondered if she would ever feel warm again.
That was the last she remembered until now. She and her wool blanket draped over the Conqueror like a shield, arm and shoulder and hip and leg stretched across the sleeping form, her cheek resting on one broad shoulder. Only the finest silk sheet separated skin from skin. She lay very still, her mind racing. Had the healer undressed her, moved her in her sleep? She hated to think she could be so far gone not to remember such a thing. Or had she shifted on her own, seeking warmth in sleep she could not find awake? Heat fairly radiated off the woman like sunlight, and she almost felt normal again. If feeling drained, sore from head to foot, and hungry as a beast in the games constituted normal. The fact that she was getting used to such a state did not reassure her about what life would be like under the Conqueror.
She should move. The Conqueror would not tolerate an uninvited slave in her bed, lying so close, touching her so familiarly. Nor would her officers likely be pleased. Then again, if the healer put her there, she should stay.
With the woman who ordered her crucified on the mast.
She pressed herself up, immediately sank down again, arms trembling, head full of wool. She’d be a fool not to stay, sleep, allow her body to rest. Let the Conqueror punish her later for doing what she had to do. Her body needed water, food, and rest, in whatever order she could accommodate.
Even with her head resting on the soft muscular arm, it took effort to relax. She stared resolutely at the berth wall, waiting for sleep to reclaim her, but the constant activity on the deck above and the pulse beneath her cheek kept her on edge, wouldn’t let her drift off. Her gaze wandered from the wall to the body before her, to the jump of a slow heartbeat under translucent skin. Eventually her eyes fixed on the gentle rise and fall of the lean woman’s chest. No, lean was too generous a word. Ribs rippled under the sheet, hip bones thrust like mountain peaks under the rough blanket. Her arm wrapped easily around the woman’s middle with room to spare. The hollow cheeks, the pronounced collarbones…how had she not noticed sooner? The warrior she’d met in the practice yard that night stood so tall and powerful. A goddess, invincible, reduced to mere woman, thin and wounded and very mortal. Fingers itched to touch a puckered scar over her right breast, wonder at its hidden story—
The door opened and she tumbled from the bed, bouncing gracelessly off the floor. She stood quickly, jerked the blanket tight around her, trying to look intimidating in spite of her heat-filled face.
The healer held up his hands, offered a wry smile. “Peace, girl. I merely wish to check on my patients.”
She backed out of his way, allowed sure hands to examine the stitches. The servant remained dead to the world, but the warrior turned her head at the prodding, finally opening wan eyes.
Some tension fell from her brow. She closed her eyes. “We’ve docked.”
Indeed, the motion of the floor and walls was almost unnoticeable after three days at sea.
“Captain Bellerophon sent me to wake you and prepare for the procession into Corinth.”
“Did he?” By her tone, the slave guessed giving the Conqueror orders could be a poor career choice. “Some fresh air would be welcome.” She hauled herself upright, immediately tilted. Two pairs of hands caught her. “Maybe not.”
They lay her back down, the healer lifting the eyelid to look into each eye. Reassured, he nodded, turned to the slave. “Now let’s have a look at you.”
The Leopard immediately stepped away, her guard up, heel to the wall.
“Come, girl. You were three sheets to dead last night. I need to make sure you’re alright.”
She refused, eyes flashing threat, kept him at bay with a stiff arm.
“Let him look at you,” her owner said quietly, velvet over steel. The Leopard glared at her defiantly. The warrior’s voice softened. “He has my permission, if he has yours.”
Her nostrils flared. Permission? This was her choice? Then she chose no.
The moment she made up her mind, the stubborn streak burned out, left a survivor’s practicality. The blanket fell to the floor.
She wondered at her own disarmament, at the pale eyes watching her from the bed, welcome distraction from the gnarled fingers poking tender wounds.
He clucked his tongue, turning the unwrapped wrist in his palm. The back of her hand felt puffy and tender, raw edges of skin gone white. “Conqueror, I recommend your herbalist look at this hand as soon as possible. Infection would surely do her great harm in her weakened state.”
The Leopard bristled, would show him weakened—
“I’ll see to it. Anything else?”
“The leg is healing nicely. I could examine her more thoroughly,” his voice trailing off as he glanced up into fierce eyes, “but I don’t think that would be wise.”
The warrior offered a tight-lipped grin. “You know how wild things are, Demetrius. Too skittish to know what’s good for them.”
He nodded, satisfied. “I’ll have your trunks sent up from the hold. Captain Bellerophon said he will be by shortly to escort you to the palace. By your will, Conqueror.”
The door latched behind him. Cold reality settled on the slave. A whole different world lay beyond that door, with new rules to be learned the hard way. Rome had been difficult enough. She felt more in command of herself and her fate this time, but already found herself squarely in the path of trouble more times than she could count on one hand. Danger seemed to dance around the Conqueror like some loving courtier, a deadly partner to cut in on.
“Hey.” So faint was her whisper, so uncharacteristic of the Conqueror, that she caught herself staring at a stranger. Those blue eyes stared back, flickered over her bare form. It was just a glance, but the gladiator flushed hot, gathered the blanket around her once more. One hand beckoned; uncertainly the gladiator approached.
“I know you’re angry with me. You tried to warn me. I won’t doubt your honesty again. But others will, and it won’t be the last time you’ll have to suffer to prove yourself. Can you live with that? You don’t have to, you know. I could put you somewhere safer. The kitchens, perhaps?”
The Conqueror offered a twisted little smile, and immediately the gladiator knew why. Ordinary slaves did not sleep in the Conqueror’s cabin, dine on the Conqueror’s food, fight for the Conqueror’s pleasure, receive the Conqueror’s tender care. The Leopard was no ordinary slave, had never been. She’d fought for the pleasure of men of consequence, dined with heads of state, met some of the most famous men and women of the known world. The Leopard was too proud to take up an existence scrubbing floors and dishes. Not after the freedom and power of the arena. Not after the past few days with the Conqueror.
She saw it in the Conqueror’s eyes, the certainty that no one would turn down the life she offered. Had she given Niklos the same choice? Niklos, who rasped with each shallow breath, his future uncertain? How many servants had said yes before Niklos? How many officers before Marcus and Bellerophon? How many slaves before this moment? Where were they now, those who chose this intoxicating woman’s bloody path just to bask—and burn—in her sunlight?
Dead and gone. Perhaps that would be her fate as well. But the Leopard would not hide from it. Until then she would bide her time, play the good servant, tolerate the Conqueror’s abuses, wait for the chance to escape. And if the Conqueror proved to be an exceptionally cruel owner…well, accidents could happen to anyone. They’d certainly happened before.
Throat dry, she nodded.
“Good. Your first duties then. While Niklos is recovering, I need a body slave.”
The slave faltered, heart hammering in her chest.
The woman smirked. “It’s not what you think. Just attend to my physical needs. Food, water, clothing. I’ll tell you what I need.”
Some things came naturally, like helping the weakened woman sit up, bringing her water, taking her to relieve herself. Other things proved more unsettling. Like sponging sweat from long lean arms and legs, back and breasts. In spite of the set of her jaw, she felt her ears grow hot, averted her eyes, hurried her movements. Then embarrassed at such puerile behavior, she forced herself to slow down, allowed herself to look at the thin physique, a blend of ropey warrior muscle and spare feminine curve. Her owner cleared her throat; she found herself still, her task forgotten. And she flushed again, set to scrubbing harder than necessary, unable to look her owner in the eye.
The trunks arrived. The Conqueror had her pull out a wine-colored silk dress with a high collar that clung to her form nicely. It also did a decent job of concealing the bandage at her throat. She put the slave to work brushing out the tangled ebony hair. After only a few minutes the Conqueror cocked her head, took the brush from her. “Your tunic and armor should be in the other trunk. Put them on. Quickly.”
The gladiator pulled out the dirty tunic, found her armor wrapped in sackcloth underneath. She looked up at the warrior questioningly.
The woman fixed her with a serious gaze as she brushed pitilessly at the tangles. “You are not some faceless slave. You are the Leopard, one of Rome’s prized gladiators. And my latest conquest. You better look the part. Hurry. Bellerophon is coming.”
She belted the cingulum over her soiled tunic, hefted the leather cuirass over her head, found the same hands helping to buckle it on that last took it off. She was left to lace up the boots herself as a knock announced the visitor. The Conqueror took a seat on the edge of the berth, composing herself.
“Come in,” she drawled.
With quick glances Captain Bellerophon took in his commanding officer and her armored slave. His face remained carefully neutral. “Conqueror, the men are assembled for the procession. We can leave as soon as you are ready.”
“Very good. Have a detail deliver Niklos to a cot in my chambers. And have this slave shackled to my sedan with the sturdiest chains we have.”
“By your will.” Bellerophon stepped aside, gesturing for the gladiator lead the way.
The Conqueror’s words rang in her head. You better look the part. She lifted her chin, steadied herself, stepped from the Conqueror’s presence onto the deck.
Like stepping from summer into winter. The captain snapped his fingers, summoning four soldiers. “Make sure the Conqueror’s newest pet doesn’t move a muscle.” He flashed a handsome smile that rose no further than his cheeks, left her in their watchful care.
One part of her attention on her hostile guard, she dedicated the rest to the port of Corinth. Harsh sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Crewmen and soldiers shouted and bustled, unloading the holds and assembling into columns on the docks. They numbered in the hundreds, far too many to have come off the ship. A welcoming troop from the local barracks, then. They stood in stark contrast to Roman legionnaires, their lines undisciplined, their armor unified in black leather and steel and little else. Only a dozen or so wore the ornate metal breastplates and helmets she’d grown accustomed to on deck. Those in matching uniforms likely formed a royal guard of sorts, like Bellerophon and his men, their steel cuirasses decorated with a clawed serpentine monster, bright blue matching tassels waving in the breeze where they stood around a covered sedan.
The Conqueror’s displeasure at one of her men plotting against her became clearer, if every soldier on the ship belonged to an elite troop hand-picked to guard her life.
Abruptly hands clamped down on her arms, grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked her head back. For a moment she stared down the dark shaft of the well, felt hot breath and hands—
—Keep still, whore—
and instinctively kicked back, drove the heel of her boot into a knee, jerked one arm free, elbowed up into the jaw with the other. A fist out of nowhere snapped her head around. Blindly she spun with it, smashed the heel of her palm across a nose. Bellerophon’s. Gods have mercy. Her extraordinary existence as the Conqueror’s slave would end in execution.
She jumped over the captain as he fell, keeping balled fists between her and the guards. She could feel others moving in behind her, turned her body to give them a shoulder rather than her back.
Bellerophon regained his footing, iron collar in hand, blue eyes glaring at her from a face that looked south and a nose that pointed west. Blood flowed down his lips, sprayed in heavy drops when he spoke. “Kill the bitch.”
Swords sang from their scabbards, four ahead, more behind. Her eyes darted around for a weapon, a shield, anything to put between her and them. Nothing. Just shrinking space to maneuver and nowhere to go but up the ropes or over the side.
A throaty laugh froze them in their tracks. The Conqueror crossed the deck, her hair pinned up, her face framed by the feathered gold crown of a great predatory bird, like some strange Egyptian goddess made flesh on earth.
A sneer played across her mouth when she caught sight of Bellerophon. “Trouble following my simplest orders, Captain? I said I want this slave shackled. Now.”
“But, Conqueror, she resisted—”
She snatched the chains from his hands, latched onto his flattened beak and pulled. He yelped, held the reset nose with shaking hands as she calmly crossed the deck.
A horrible blood-red smile made the gladiator shiver. Exhibiting a calm she didn’t feel, she dropped her arms and forced her chin up to meet the ice blue gaze, held still while the Conqueror latched the thick iron collar firmly in place. The wrist cuffs followed, trussed her hands under her chin on a very short leash. The Conqueror gave the heavy chain an experimental tug, jerked her subject down to her knees. The gladiator gritted her teeth.
“Bellerophon, the Leopard is a kitten! Must I do everything myself?” She held out a hand, wagged fingers impatiently until the captain produced the key. With a yank she forced the slave to her feet, led her down the gangplank at a stroll. Her leisurely gait masked unsteadiness, completely hid the fact that less than an hour ago she could barely stand. The gladiator didn’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed.
At the bottom of the gangway the warrior swayed, caught herself before anyone, slave included, could move to help her. She laughed it off. “Time to trade in those sea legs for my old ones.” The men nearby laughed too, if nervously. The slave let out a held breath.
Captain Marcus offered her a hand into the sedan. She settled herself, the chain draping lazily over her shoulder. At Marcus’ signal, eight men lifted the chair, and drums set the column in motion up a wide road into the walled city.