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There was too much work to be done, and too little time in which to get it done. Aithne and the other house slaves had been awake since long before dawn preparing for the toga virilis of Numerius, son of Calavius. Excitement filled the house, and the exhibition between Crixus and Spartacus only fueled the energy. Aithne had asked Naevia for an explanation, but the question only seemed to agitate her. It was only through the gossip from the other slaves that she learned why everyone seemed to be awaiting this fight with abated breath.
"Crixus was the Undefeated Gaul until Spartacus defeated Theokoles. Crixus was in the arena, but it was Spartacus who killed him," one of the other slaves explained. "Crixus will be eager to prove himself, even if it is simply an exhibition match."
Aithne nodded, continuing with her given task. They were replacing all of the wall hangings and curtains with the finest silks in the deepest, boldest colors—all to impress the magistrate. The floors had been scrubbed and an area in the main hall had been cleared to serve as the sparring area. The villa was warmer than usual; the slaves had been in the kitchen since well before dawn, preparing the dishes to be served and the heat had radiated through the rest of the villa.
Sweat trickled down her body as she changed the window dressings on the balcony overlooking the courtyard where the gladiators were sparring. The sun was beaming down on all of them, making the air dry and dusty once again. When she looked over the edge of the balcony, she could see Spartacus giving the boy—who was soon to be a man—a lesson in swordplay. It took great restraint for her to bite back her laughter at the thought of the boy wielding a sword. Gladiators aside, she remembered warriors that carried weapons of similar size to the lad.
"Aithne!" Lucretia's voice wasn't shrill as it could be on occasion, but the slave woman jumped just the same. Of course, the moment she flinched, Aithne hated herself for it. She had promised herself that she wouldn't be cowed into submission by Lucretia and there she was cringing at the sound of her voice. She vowed to change that, and made her way towards where Lucretia was waiting.
Lucretia was studying the vibrantly colored dresses that made up her wardrobe, studying each one intently as if she was unsure of which one to choose. Her hair was twisted and flattened on top of her head, and her red wig was waiting to be worn.
"Soon Numerius will come in from his lesson with the gladiators. I want a bath drawn and ready for him when he comes in. Understood?"
Aithne nodded subserviently and slipped away to draw a bath for the young man. She slipped quietly down to the kitchen, barely noticed in the flurry of activity going on. In the kitchens, she found some of the others already heating the water; vase by vase, they carried it to the bathing chamber, ensuring that the young man would have clean, warm water for his bath.
As she was putting in the last of the water, Numerius strode in, followed by his attendants. Dust and grime from the courtyard clung to his thin, boy's form. Aithne remembered her home with boys his age wielding swords—real swords in real battles—and was disgusted. This boy was going to grow older and follow in his father's footsteps, going into their governing body where he did nothing but talk. They became men who talked, not men of action. What was the purpose of discussion if it never resulted in action?
She turned to quietly slip away when she heard the boy gasp. Her thoughts immediately turned to danger and she looked back, wondering what could possibly have happened in that split second. Instead of seeing danger, she saw Ilithyia standing at the end of the bathing pool, her intent written all over her face.
Immediately, Aithne tucked herself safely out of sight. Knowledge was power; she had always known the fact and its importance seemed to have multiplied tenfold since he became a slave. Knowledge was all that a slave had to bargain with—and that was only when exchanged with the proper person. Still, grown women did not make advances on boys who were barely men without some higher cause; perhaps she could discern Ilithyia's purpose.
"Clean?" Ilithyia's voice was strong and purposeful, though Aithne doubted that the poor boy could discern it. "Or do you yet require a hard scrubbing?"
The innuendo was not lost on Aithne, though she remained quiet. It was not so shocking—not after the comments she had heard on her journey to Capua from her homeland.
"No, I am—I am—" Numerius stumbled over his words, unable to finish the sentence for shock of having a woman join him in his bath. Ilithyia laughed at his discomfort.
"Yes, you are. Nothing more sensual than a warm bath," Ilithyia said, her voice smooth as the softest silk. Aithne did not dare move from her hiding place to look, but she could hear movement in the water and doubted that it was a boy. In his shock, he was more likely frozen in place.
"Mmm…the water caressing your skin…Your eyes seem rather fixed." From the tone of Ilithyia's voice, Aithne was hardly surprised that Numerius would be staring at her. She was certain that is exactly what the other woman had intended.
"Apologies," Numerius said, clearly embarrassed.
"None required. This is your night, Numerius. One that occurs but once in a man's lifetime."
"I am filled with much excitement." Numerius's incidental—and most likely accidental—use of innuendo caught Aithne off guard. It took all her self-control and discipline—of which she had in large supply—to stop herself from making a sound.
"Of course you are. Your life unfolds before you; many glories, many honors, many pleasures. The choices you make tonight will ripple through time, altering fates and destinies. So much rests in your hands. And I would see them properly filled."
She really was going to do it, Aithne realized. Ilithyia really was going to have sex with the boy. Until that moment, she had truly believed that it was all about catering to him, about making the boy feel powerful and important. Now, she was certain that whatever it was that Ilithyia wanted, it must be of utmost importance to the other woman or she would not be willing to go to such lengths. The more important it was to Ilithyia, the more Aithne wanted to know about it, no matter how much the methods of achieving the act appalled her.
She could hear the rustling of fabric and the sound of it hitting the tile floor. There was the sound of someone moving in the water—Ilithyia, probably. She must have been disrobing before stepping into the bathing pool. The sounds grew louder as Ilithyia moved towards Numerius. The boy gasped, and Aithne could only imagine why.
"You will follow on the path of your father before you," Ilithyia murmured. "You will hold men's lives in these hands; this very night you could have power over life and death itself."
There was a grunt of disappointment from Numerius before he gasped, "I do not understand what you mean."
"Your exhibition match tonight—"
"Crixus and Spartacus are to fight, but there will be no killing," the boy said.
"With Crixus fighting, certainly not. He is past his prime and Spartacus will easily best him. It would be hardly any battle at all, and certainly not fitting for a man that will do such feats as you. Varro has much promise, though."
"Varro?" When Numerius speaks, the word is more of a gasp than an actual question. A feeling of dread settled in Aithne's stomach as she recognized where the conversation was going. Varro, the closest companion and confidante of Spartacus.
"They would put on a showing worthy of your status, and when it is finished…you will have power over their lives. How many men would be able to say that on the night they became a man, they also knew the power of death?" Ilithyia purred, her voice just loud enough to be heard over the sound of the water against the side of the bathtub. There was the wet smacking sound of skin-on-skin,
"Th-the p-power of death…"
"Show them what a man you are. If you are man enough to order his death on the night of your toga virilis, imagine what you will do with the rest of your life…"
Anything else that Ilithyia would have said was lost amidst Numerius's low groans of pleasure and Ilithyia's obviously false louder cries. Her face a mask of neutrality slid over Aithne's face as she turned and quickly walked away before anyone else could approach and notice that she had been listening.
With her head down in a subservient posture, she began to walk swiftly towards the ludus. Before she could get there, Naevia stepped into her path.
"Aithne, Domina requires your presence."
"Naevia, now is not the time. I need just a few moments—"
"There is no time. Domina is anxious for the ceremony and it is not best to keep her waiting. She will be unkind if you do not come now," Naevia said quietly, her voice urgent.
"I suppose she will have to be unkind to me, then. There are things more important than this ceremony," Aithne replied as she turned on her heel and walked away.
In her haste to reach the ludus, she did not mind her posture. She walked with long, strong steps and her head held high, her confidence more like that of a champion gladiator than that of an enslaved woman. When she reached the ludus, the guard stepped into her way. His face had not healed from the burns she had inflicted, but was instead an angry red color and covered in blisters.
"This is not your place, slave," he told her, his voice authoritative.
Aithne smiled bitterly. "Indeed. That is more true than you know. But now is not the time for wordplay. Allow me to pass."
"I believe that your domina has need of you. Perhaps that is where you should be going."
"Your concern is misplaced. Let me pass," Aithne answered quietly, her voice dangerous.
Instead of moving and allowing her to pass, the guard grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder. She kicked and hit, but the only place that her fists or feet could come in contact with were covered by his armor. He carried her swiftly through the villa and into Lucretia's chamber before Aithne finally found a weakness: his ear. She grabbed and pulled swiftly, separating the lower half of his ear from the side of his head. Blood flowed down the side of his neck and onto his armor.
"What is the meaning of this?" Lucretia demanded, clearly affronted.
"She was trying to get into the ludus when you had need of her."
"Thank you for delivering her to me. See yourself back to your post," Lucretia ordered, staring at the blood on Aithne's dress and hands. The guard nodded and saw himself out. Lucretia crossed the room in three strides and struck Aithne across the face.
"What are you doing?" she hissed. "Our home will soon be full of people and you are trying to get into the ludus to have one more fuck with Spartacus? It is not a death match he goes to, but an exhibition. You would only damage his concentration."
Aithne knew that she should bite her tongue and wait for her moment to tell Spartacus later what was going on, but she could not guarantee she would be given the chance. "Domina—"
Lucretia cut her off once again with another slap to the face. Aithne did not so much as blink or move her hand; she stood stock still, her face an unreadable mask. When she finally spoke, she was quiet and emotionless.
"What do you require of me, domina?"
"You are to be present during the exhibition tonight. Bathe yourself quickly; a new dress is waiting on your cot in the slave quarters. It should cover the worst of your unseemly scars."
"Yes, domina," Aithne replied neutrally.
"This event must go as planned. If you do so much a breathe in a way that I dislike, I will have you dragged into the courtyard and flogged. Is that something that you simple-minded fool can understand?"
Aithne nodded and quietly slipped from the room, heading back down to the ludus. As reached the stairs, she could see the guard back in his place and knew that she was never going to be able to pass. She tried the back stairs to the ludus, but found that they, too, were guarded. All balconies or routes to get out of the villa were blocked. Her only hope would be to reach him during the evening before his match.
After she bathed and pulled on the dress, she was given orders to go report to the kitchens, where she began carrying out the food and arranging it on tables. Wine was also in plentiful supply. As the guests began to show up, she was relegated to standing quietly beside one of the tables to fetch wine or more food as it ran out.
When the gladiators arrived for entertainment, there was a gasp from the revelers. They all froze to watch the processional of nearly naked men with sleek, smooth muscles. From beside the table, Aithne watched them closely, noting the carefully neutral look on Spartacus's face. It was an expression that she knew well. She looked around, but Lucretia was standing too close for her to move. Finally, one of the vases of wine needed to be replaced and she quickly slipped away.
On her way back up, she walked quietly behind the line of gladiators. She stopped directly behind Spartacus. "Ilithyia spoke to the boy. He is going to make you fight Varro to the death."
"She is a cat absent claws," Spartacus replied.
"Do not be so sure. She was rather…persuasive with the boy. You must take utmost caution."
He nodded, as though taking her words into consideration, though she knew that he was not. It was a look she had seen on many a man's face when he was pretending to be listening to his wife. It was a look that got men killed in battle when they would not listen to a female scout. She shook her head angrily.
"Gratitude for last night," Aithne said, though it was clear in her voice that she was still anxious about the impending match.
"The man overstepped. You merely made correction. Batiatus hardly would have believed that a woman could inflict such damage."
"Still, I thank you."
"It is unnecessary. I would have done the same for any woman." His voice was short and clipped, clearly wishing for an end to the conversation.
She stared him in the eye and shook her head. "You are an ass."
Having done all she could, she returned to her place by the wine table, listening to various bits of conversation. Women gossiped about Licinia's disappearance; men talked about political matters; the boys were staging their own battles in the corner.
When Batiatus stepped up to make his speech, Aithne could not find it in herself to listen to his speech. She was too busy staring at Varro and Spartacus and wishing that they would listen. Hope burned within her that Varro would drop to his knees in a coughing fit, but no such thing ever came. Instead, Batiatus's speech continued on, the gladiators staring levelly ahead.
"A contest between the present and the past. Spartacus, champion of Capua, step forward. Crixus, former champion, ste—"
Numerius interrupted Batiatus, his voice confident and firm. "Wait. I fear Crixus has seen his best days passed. I would have Varro fight in his place."
Silence fell over the room and Aithne could not take her eyes off of Spartacus. He stared at her, his jaw clenched tight. Varro did not move.
"You are the editor, young master," Batiatus said, acquiescing. "Your will, our hands. Varro, step forward."
Varro stepped forward, both of them staring at Aithne. She tried to keep her face blank, but knew that she was failing miserably. She only hoped that no one of importance noticed. She could see them smiling at one another, the bond of brotherhood written all over their faces. Obviously, they did not believe what she had told them. She only hoped that, for once in her life, she was wrong.
On Numerius's words, they began to battle, smiles on their faces as their swords clashed. They slashed and stabbed and blocked with their shields, moving too quickly for the untrained eye to really focus on what they were doing. It was different from the way that her people fought, Aithne noticed with interest. Perhaps if both the Thracian and Varro survived the fight, she would inquire.
Blood splattered the floor as Varro got in a glancing slice. Both of them smiled again, boyish smiles. Varro rushed past Spartacus as his blow missed, and the other gladiator caught him across the back, sending Varro to his knees. Once he was down, he barely got off his feet again before Spartacus had him back down, sword held to his neck.
"His flank," Aithne whispered, and could see them saying the same thing.
Applause filled the room as Batiatus spoke again. "Spartacus, still the champion of Capua. And Varro—a formidable opponent—one to watch closely in the arena. Come, Numerius, pass judgement on our fallen warrior."
The boy raised his arm, his thumb held sideways as he thought. With a slow, deliberate look to Ilithyia, he turned his thumb downwards.
The reaction was intense and immediate. Ladies gasped, in horror or delight—perhaps it was a bit of both. The smiles faded from Varro and Spartacus's faces as they looked to Batiatus for instruction. If the gladiators had been able to, they would have plead for his life.
"Apologies, Magistrate, this was agreed this was an exhibition only, not a fight to the death." Batiatus tried to reason with the politician, but he was having none of it.
"Numerius has made his decision. I will reimburse you the price of the man."
Aithne gasped, horrified. Despite the fact that she had known it was coming, that she had known and seen death before, she was still appalled at the callousness of the man. Reimbursement for a person's life. On the floor, Varro and Spartacus looked equally confused, their faces pleading for mercy.
"Procede," Batiatus announced. Aithne clenched her jaw tightly to keep from moving, her attention focused on Spartacus, who had not moved since the order was given.
"Do we have a problem, Batiatus?" Calavius asked.
"I said proceed." This time Batiatus was cold. When Spartacus still refused to move, the dominus nodded to the guards, all of whom grabbed their swords and began to move towards the gladiators. Aithne's heart began racing as she looked around for any sort of weapon that might be of use. A knife was lying on the table, but it was too dull to be of any real use.
Her eyes were drawn back to the floor. Neither gladiator had moved, but Varro was saying something to Spartacus, his expression pleading. Forgetting her post, Aithne moved closer to hear.
"…They will kill us both. They will kill us both," Varro said quietly.
"There is always a choice," Spartacus answered.
Before anyone could say another word, Varro reached up and grabbed the sword, pulling it downwards and pushing it into his own flesh. Blood splattered as the sword tore through flesh and muscle; more flowed past Varro's lips as he said something more to his friend. Finally, Spartacus pushed the sword deeper, finishing his opponent and friend.
In a daze, Spartacus's arm was raised above his head, though he was obviously not thinking of anything but his dead friend on the floor. The guards led him away, the remnants of tears still on his cheeks. Only after he left did Aithne realize that there were tears on her face, also.
"Wipe the tears from your face," Lucretia hissed as she passed. "Spartacus will need tending. See that he forgets this…misfortune."
Aithne did not even manage a polite response—or any response at all. She walked quickly—too quickly—from the villa and down to the ludus. The way to Spartacus's cell was now familiar, and even if she hadn't known the way, the agonized sounds would have been clue enough.
When she pushed open the door, she found him on his knees, cradling his bloody hands to his chest, tears streaming down his cheeks. Immediately, she dropped to her knees beside him, running her hands through his hair comfortingly. He slid his arms around her a burrowed in close to her, his head buried in her shoulder. All she could do was sit there and hold him as he slowly cried himself out.
"I killed him. I killed my only friend," he finally whispered, his voice hoarse.
"It will get better," she replied soothingly. "It will."
He studied her face with wide eyes, his arms still wrapped around her. "How can you be certain?"
Tears spilled over from her own eyes as she heard the vulnerability in his voice. Vulnerability that no one else would get to see.
"Because I killed my husband."