The Arts

"Here Cupid has his killing ground; and the man who came to see blood himself gets a wound- in the heart."
Ovid, "The Art of Love"

"On death ground, fight."
Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Chapter One - The Two Arenas

Shinji breathed heavily as he faced his opponent. He wasn't short of breath from exhaustion, and he wasn't gasping in terror. The man looked to be about two and a half feet taller than him, but he wasn't terrified. No, his breath came heavily and quickly because of a deep seated fear. Shinji feared that he would be responsible for another death. Two deaths already weighed heavily on his conscience. Still, he didn't want to die.

The man was a monster, or, to be more precise, a giant. Standing at approximately seven and a half feet, he was a very menacing figure. The giant man slowly and cautiously moved closer to Shinji, who warily adopted a fighting stance as the man drew near.

Normally, in a fight to death, Shinji wouldn't have to worry about defeat. Larger men always underestimated him and were always overconfident. Victory would come without effort, as his opponent would think he was just slitting the throat of some scrawny foreign boy. This man did not have that misconception, and was therefore more dangerous than the usual opponent. Still, this was not a huge concern, as victory was almost a given. Shinji would almost certainly win, despite the fact that he was forced to fight unarmed and unarmored.

Shinji, as gladiators go, was very unique, in that he was still alive. As a convicted criminal, it was expected that he would die almost immediately. As a criminal convicted of a capital offense, it was expected that he would die even sooner than that. No man could fight a bear empty-handed and win, after all. But Shinji had won. His first "match" had been meant to be an execution. That match had been sparsely attended by normal standards, but this match was a well watched spectacle.

The man circled Shinji, his Thracian sword gripped tightly in his right hand. He wore armor as well; leg guards, a small square shield, and a full visored helmet. He wore the armor of Rome's enemies, as wearing Roman armor would send the wrong message to the crowd. Anyone participating in the games, be he slave or emperor, would not be seen in Roman armor. The crowd was supposed to be reminded of Rome's past victories, their bloodlust thus quenched in times of peace.

The huge man lunged forward as quickly as a striking snake. To Shinji, the movement seemed almost slow.

Shinji, avoiding the blade, simply let the man's momentum carry him over his shoulder.

The crowd cheered uproariously. Shinji was extraordinarily popular with the crowd, even though this was his first real match. The girls didn't exactly swoon over the short and scrawny looking Shinji, but everyone loved to see the little guy win. The fact that he was fighting without a weapon, something reserved for criminals convicted of capital offenses, only made the fight more exhilarating to watch. His ability to throw grown men, and even giant men, seemed to defy physics.

The man climbed to his feet, a hard look on his face. He retained his dignity despite the humiliating fall. Standing his ground, he waited for Shinji to attack. Despite the man's tough and hardened appearance, or perhaps because of it, Shinji felt sorry for the man. His life would soon be ended by a boy that didn't need to shave, one way or another. He had been worried at first that the man might be able to overcome him, but the outcome had become obvious with the end of the first round. The giant man was simply too slow to be a threat.

The man, realizing that Shinji was not planning on attacking him, started circling him again, desperate for an opening. His helmet covered his face, but Shinji knew that he was terrified. He could sense the fear and panic emanating from the giant in barely visible colored waves. Yet another one of his admired talents. He could tell that this giant, who almost certainly would have survived his three to five years as a gladiator, was a coward at heart. It depressed Shinji deeply to know this man's most well hidden secret. The crowd would not want mercy, despite the fact that this huge man probably felt like wailing pathetically for his mother. They wouldn't feel sorry for the giant. All of their hatred, frustration, and bloodlust would be channeled into the huge man they saw as a bully. No one would try to look past that shallow image.

The giant charged again and again, struggling to comprehend Shinji's incomprehensible method of fighting. Every time he struck he was sent to the ground, as if thrown by an ancient and masterful Greek wrestler with iron arms. The armor hurt him instead of protecting him, jarring him to the bones with every fall. The shield was only a burden. The sword was becoming more and more useless with every round. Nevertheless, he continued his attack.

He had no other choice.

-

After an eternal ten minutes of this spectacle, which was enjoyed by the crowd but not the participants, the fight ended. Breathing heavily, sweating, and barely able to support himself on one knee, the giant held up his left hand with his index finger extended. It was a plea for mercy. He had admitted defeat. Whether the man lived or died depended mostly on the crowd.

Shinji waited breathlessly. It was this last part that he had been truly dreading.

The Editor, who happened to be the Emperor himself on that day, agreed with the ruling of the general crowd. He pointed his thumb upwards, which meant 'death'.

The giant, horrified but not hesitant, dragged himself forward and ceremoniously grabbed onto Shinji's thighs.

At that point, Shinji was expected to kill the man.

-"No!" shouted Shinji. "No! I won't kill him! How can you expect me to kill him? I've never seen him before in my life! I won't do it!"-

Shinji stood, his eyes full of hopelessness, looking down at the giant man.

The crowd, seeing his hesitation, erupted in fury.

-

'Shinji' had become a household name. A hero of sorts. A small and mild boy who could defeat a ferocious and enormous bear. In the eyes of Rome he had been no more than a murderer, but in the eyes of the Roman citizens he had been an icon. The men had idolized him for his martial ability, his strange quickness. The women had imagined that he was courageous.

That was no longer the case. Having refused to kill a helpless man, they now viewed him as nothing more than a spineless coward.

The single guard led Shinji through the cold and lifeless building, built only for temporary housing of criminals, almost all of whom were expected to die. The prisoners were no doubt huddled together in their cramped dungeon like cells, shivering against the cold. They would not have to endure it long. They would be executed quickly; crucified, burned, eaten alive by wild animals, or stabbed to death by another prisoner. Shinji often wondered what it was that motivated them to fight each other, in the instance that they were actually given the chance. There was virtually no chance of survival, because only one man would be left standing, and he would still face almost certain death. Shinji knew that if he were in their position, unable to fight well enough to defend himself, he would simply accept death.

Shinji was led past these grim rooms, to an isolated cell.

-

The guard locked the cell, which had been made specifically for Shinji. It was as large as a cell meant for a dozen slaves, and even had a linen mattress with bed-covers made of thick cloth. It resembled a bedroom more than a prison cell, and was actually quite nice, if a bit inhibiting.

The guard, whose name was Dillius, leaned in closer. He whispered something that Shinji didn't understand.

Shinji shook his head. "I don't understand Latin. Do you speak Greek?"

The man paused, then responded in broken Greek, "Yes. I say before, 'Why you not escape when I bring back? Why not hit and run away?'"

Shinji sat on the floor, not meeting the guard's eyes.

Quietly, he said, "People would recognize me. I can't escape."

The guard just nodded once with a harsh expression, without a hint of sympathy. This particular guard had always been kind to Shinji in the past, but it wasn't likely to be something that would continue. Refusing to kill in the arena was unforgivable.

Shinji, having nothing better to do, read through the one book in his possession. It was, in fact, his only possession.

-

"Who is this?" The Lanista asked as he examined the pretty young red-haired girl, who was struggling against his guard with admirable ferocity. She was speaking in the barbarian tongue in an annoying high-pitched voice, and he nodded at the guard, a signal for him to silence her.

As the guard attempted to gag the girl, she attempted to bite him, and he shoved her angrily. Falling forward, she landed on her hands and sent a kick flying at the hapless man's face. The impact sent him flying into the stone wall, and he grunted, almost immediately unconscious. The rest of the guards scrambled to restrain the girl, and she struggled against them, managing to snap out at one of the guard's legs with a ferocious kick. The man screamed in pain and fell on his back, his leg broken.

One of the guards spoke, breathing heavily, "A prisoner of war, sir. A barbarian."

"That's obvious enough," said the Lanista, staring at the struggling girl in amazement, "Why is she here? She doesn't have anything to do with me. Why didn't you just kill her if the auction house wouldn't take her?"

"She was mistaken for a male," explained Dillius, stepping into the room. "We didn't realize the truth until the school sent her back. They were the ones that washed the mud off her. She was so filthy, her own mother wouldn't have recognized her."

The girl squawked indignantly, and started shouting in Latin, "You damn Romans were the ones that dragged me through the mud in the first place! And I'm not a goddamn prisoner of war!"

The Lanista sighed impatiently and ignored the slave girl completely. "My question remains. Why is she here?"

Dillius responded quickly, "Well, sir, I might have an idea of a temporary use we could have for her."

"And what would that be," asked the Lanista with a bored tone.

-

"Let me go you Dummkopf!"

The guards couldn't understand a word of her Gothic tongue, so she freely used it to insult them.

"Where are you taking me you idiots?"

They led her past cells that were no doubt filled with men and she felt a momentary twinge of alarm. If they put her in a cell full of desperate men there was no telling what could happen. One man probably wouldn't be a threat to her, but a dozen men...

They dragged past all of the normal cells to an isolated hallway that dead ended. There was a single door and they shoved her through it. Climbing to her feet, she was relieved to discover that the cell they were putting her in had only one occupant. A boy that was sitting on the ground, quietly reading a strange looking book. At first glance he appeared to be a tiny Hun.

The boy looked up as they shoved her inside the cell and locked the door behind her. He blinked, confused. One of the guards started speaking in Greek with a cruel tone, "Here something for you, Shinji. Have fun."

The boy seemed confused. "What?"

The guards ignored him as they laughed and walked off, talking together jovially.

-

Her first instinct, of course, was to smack him around a little bit. She can hardly be blamed for this, taking into consideration that it appeared to her that the guards had more or less given her to the boy as a sexual gift, though this wasn't, in fact, the case. Ignoring the rash impulse to use violence, she forced herself to consider the implications. If she beat him, he would bleed. If he bled, he'd probably get gangrene and stink up the place.

Asuka examined the boy skeptically. She was quite sure that she could take him, even in the worst of scenarios. The guards, being men, must have assumed that he was stronger because he was male. Men always seemed to assume that women were weaker by default.

Seeing that he wasn't a threat, she started conversing with him, speaking in a semi-friendly tone. "So, what makes you so important that you get your own cell?" she asked, her voice lightly laced with sarcasm.

He didn't meet her inquisitive eyes, nervously staring at the wall. After a moment he said quietly, "I'm a gladiator."

"'Gladiator?' What does that mean?"

She knew what gladiators were, of course. She had read about them many times in books, however, it was to her advantage to pretend that she knew nothing of Rome.

"It's just… fighting," he said, not sounding too sure of himself.

That he was lying was obvious to her. Even if his tone and expression didn't give him away, she knew that there was no way a scrawny kid like him could survive in a fight against a grown man. That was something that Asuka could do, of course, but that was different.

"You're joking, right?" she asked, her voice heavy with skepticism.

He shook his head. "No."

She examined his slight frame again, puzzled. "Who do you fight, eight year old girls?"

He shook his head, finally meeting her eyes. "More like eight foot tall men."

His tone wasn't very convincing, but she somehow had the strong impression that he wasn't lying. It sounded more like he was just nervous.

She snorted. "They don't even come that big. You're obviously lying."

He sighed through his nose and started reading through the book that was still in his hands, saying nothing.

"Well, aren't you the mysterious one," she said, shaking her head in disgust. "Putting on airs is so pathetic."

Asuka inspected the room briefly, noting that it was nicer than any place she'd ever lived. Not that she'd lived in a lot of nice places. "There's only one bed."

"You can have it," he said, obviously not wanting to argue.

Asuka couldn't decide which was more pathetic; his tone, or his attitude in general. For someone who claimed to be a gladiator he didn't sound very confident. "What's wrong with you, anyway? Have these Roman bastards broken you already?"

"No, they haven't," he said, his weak voice not carrying the strength of his statement.

She changed the subject.

"Hey, what's that book? Those letters look weird. Almost like runes."

He looked up from the book. "It's Chinese. From China. No one really knows about it here."

She found herself interested. She'd traveled around quite a bit, and enjoyed learning about far off places. "Chinese? China? What sort of place is that?"

"It's very... different."

"How eloquent. Come on, explain it to me. What are the people like?"

"They're kind of... secretive."

She glared at him. "You'd fit in well. all right, whatever. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. What about that book? What's it about?"

"It's about 'The Art of War'."

"'The Art of War'? Can you actually read it?"

The letters looked difficult, even to her. Besides that, the boy seemed too young to be able to read well.

Resigned to his fate, he sighed and closed the book. "Most of it, yeah."

She looked at him expectantly, her arms crossed.

He drew back, confused. "What?"

As if it were the most obvious thing in the world, she said, "Aren't you going to read a passage? It'll give us something to talk about."

He shrugged, uncaring. "All right." He opened to a random page and started reading:

"The doctrine of war is to follow the enemy situation in order to decide on battle. Therefore at first be shy as a maiden. When the enemy gives you an opening be swift as a hare and he will be unable to withstand you."

Asuka nodded. "Sounds like common sense. Only a fool rushes into battle when there's no need. What's the point of writing a book about something everyone knows already? Read something else."

Shinji flipped to another page and read another passage:

"Generally, management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization."

Asuka laughed. "Obviously he's never tried to organize a barbarian horde. 'Management of the many' takes a whole lot more than just a little organization."

"You call your own people barbarians?" Shinji asked, surprised that a girl as confident as her would be self deprecating in any way.

She nodded. "We serve warrior kings. We wear animal skins. What would you call us? Read something else."

Shinji shook his head and closed the book. "I'm sick of war."

She winked. "Well how about some love then?"

Had the situation been a little different, Shinji might have blushed and stuttered something out. He was a little distracted, however, by his own impending execution.

"Hello? No reaction at all?" She had been trying to get a rise out of him, but the comment had drove him further into his shell instead.

He stared forward, avoiding her eyes. "I have something on my mind."

She humphed. "Whatever. Anyway, I'll show you what I was talking about." She concentrated for a moment, looking at the ceiling. She then started speaking in a measured tone,

"Birds have their mates, fish in the cold mid-ocean,
Thrilled by sexual emotion,
Find partners, hinds follow stags, snakes clasp snakes,
Dogs couple, glued together, the ewe takes
Pleasure in her tupping ram, the heifer's full
Of desire for her covering bull,
The snub-nosed she-goat happily bears
Her stinking billy, and heat crazed mares,
Though separated,
By miles from stallions, swim streams to get mated.
Act, then. Only a strong dose of love will cure
A woman with an angry temperature."

She winced. "It loses something in the translation, I think."

"What was that? Who wrote it?" asked Shinji, his cheeks slightly flushed. The poem had affected him where her "love" comment hadn't.

"A passage from 'The Art of Love', by Ovid. It sounds a lot better in Latin, though. Did you like it?" She smiled, glad to have gotten a reaction out of him.

"It was... eloquent." He wasn't sure how anyone could properly praise erotic poetry without sounding like a pervert.

She chuckled. "You know, I've got an angry temperature. You think you could cure me with a dose of love?"

He sighed. "Somehow, I doubt it."

She nodded. "Smart answer, but pretty boring. Didn't you say you were a gladiator? You should have more confidence than that."

He smiled, very slightly. "I thought you didn't believe me about that."

"Confidence is even more important when you lie," she assured him.

Shinji slight smile widened into a casual smirk. "If confidence is needed for lying, then I must be telling the truth."

"Hmm, you could be right. Where are you from anyway?" she asked, examining him for a third time, "You're obviously not Greek or Roman and you're definitely not from any of the Germanic tribes. I thought you were a Hun at first."

Shinji looked puzzled. "Germanic tribes? Who are they?"

Asuka waved the question off. "Goths. You know, barbarians? That's just what the Romans call us. So, like I was saying, where are you from?"

"I come from a country far away called 'Riben'. I don't even speak the language, though. My people are barbarians, like yours."

She nodded. "Okay, so what's your name?"

"Shinji."

She smiled in a friendly and polite fashion. "Nice to meet you. My name is Asuka."

"Asuka?" he asked, surprised. It certainly wasn't a barbarian name, but that wasn't what had surprised him. The word 'Asuka' actually sounded vaguely familiar, and he felt as if he should have recognized it.

She scowled at him angrily, "You'd better not make fun of my name. I don't know where it comes from, okay?"

"No, I wouldn't... of course not... I'm sorry." Shinji stumbled through the apology, as he was wont to do. Asuka ignored him.

She walked over to the iron door, tapping on it soundly with one finger.

Turning back to Shinji, she asked, matter-of-factly, "So, now that we're properly introduced... how are we going to escape from here?"

End Chapter One