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Excerpt: A Gladiator’s Tale

Book 2: Leonidas the Gladiator Mysteries

Februarius, AD 63

“I need your help, Leonidas.”

Aemilianus, once my trainer, held up a blunt-fingered hand as I paused inside the doorway to my rooms above a wine shop on the lower slope of the Quirinal Hill. I was just returning from the baths, my scoured skin smelling of oil, my damp tunic clinging to my back.

Aemil gazed at me from mismatched eyes within a sharp face, heavy scars on his half-missing ear. He sat on my stool, at my table. Cassia, the scribe who lived with me, had retreated to the doorway of the balcony and watched Aemil warily.

Aemil had trained me as a raw youth who had strength but no skill, and built me up to become primus palus of his ludus. I’d been a champion, the most famous gladiator of my time. 

Since the day I’d been given the rudis at the Saturnalian games and left the Circus Gai as a free man, Aemil had made it clear that he would do all he could to recruit me to help him teach others.

As I drew a breath to sling him out, Aemil said quickly, “Not to persuade you to return. I need you to help me find someone. Three someones, in fact. Gladiators.”

This puzzled me enough to halt my invective. “Find them?” I wondered if he was asking me to help him round up new fighters. “What gladiators?”

“Ajax, Rufus, and Herakles.” Aemil faced me on the stool, palms landing on his large, parted knees. “Find them, as in find them. They are missing.”

My surprise mounted. “You mean they ran away?” Aemil was tough, but his gladiators ate good food and were housed in moderately comfortable cells. He didn’t practice cruelty on his gladiators, because broken men couldn’t fight, though Aemil wasn’t soft on them either. Few ever tried to flee him.

“Not so much ran away as are staying away,” Aemil said with impatience. “They walked out of the ludus during daylight, off to do jobs, or in Rufus’s case, visit a wife. Then did not return.”

Not unusual for gladiators of high standing to be given leave to depart the ludus, either to work as bodyguards or go home to a paramour or wife. My closest friend, Xerxes, a very popular gladiator, had taken a wife and lived with her on a farm not far from Rome. Marcella still lived there, now that Xerxes was no more.

“They left together?” I asked.

“No.” Aemil scowled. “Stop interrupting. They went, with my leave, not together, and haven’t returned. I give all my men some leeway for sleeping it off before they come stumbling home, as you know, but four days is too much. I suspect they’re in a stupor from drink or fornication, but it’s bad for business if they aren’t where I can put my hands on them.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cassia quietly move to the table, open a wax tablet, and make a note with her stylus.

“The urban cohorts can find them and bring them back to you,” I said without moving.

“I don’t want the cohorts.” Aemil made a noise of exasperation. “If they’ve found trouble, I don’t want them dragged off to a magistrate or the Tullianum. I need them.”

Aemilianus was a businessman through and through. A former gladiator, he taught his men how to entertain while fighting for their lives, and his gladiators won prizes and brought him money and prestige. 

“When exactly did each of them leave?” I did not ask for myself, but so that Cassia could write it down. Her fingers twitched, anxious to record more information. 

Aemil rubbed his close-shaved brown hair. He’d begun life as a Gaul, large and strong, with one blue eye and the other brown-green. A hard man, he didn’t like problems that were too complex.

“Ajax, four days ago, right after breakfast. Rufus, the same day, at the sixth hour. Herakles, that night. Rufus went to his wife, Ajax to enjoy himself in the Subura, and Herakles didn’t say. He’d earned a night of debauchery, so I assume a lupinarius, like Ajax, or maybe the home of some woman.”

Cassia’s stylus scratched in the silence when he finished.

“The vigiles should be able to find them then.” I brushed leftover droplets of water from my arm. I’d indulged in the newly opened Baths of Nero and its fine marble frigidarium. Unlike Cassia, I had no interest in the bath complex’s artwork or the library, but I swam in the wide pools and sweated in the broad exercise yard.

“Did you not hear what I said?” Aemil rose. Taller than most Romans, his head brushed the low ceiling. “I want you to find them, Leonidas. Haul them back to me, and I’ll decide how to punish them.”

He’d terrify them but keep them alive and well, he meant. Aemil had perfected the art of intimidation.

I had to wonder why the three hadn’t turned up again, but on the other hand, I knew they’d have their reasons. All three were strong, capable men, in the top ranks of the ludus, with an arrogance that accompanied it. No doubt they were luxuriating in fine beds while women fussed over them. 

“Why ask me?” I said. They wouldn’t return because I told them to.

“Because you have a slave who is good at finding things out. If the men are caught by anyone but us, they’ll be executed, and you know it. Ajax and Herakles aren’t citizens. You want to see them crucified?”

Ajax and Herakles had been captured after a battle in a far-flung corner of the Roman empire. Aemil had bought them once they’d reached Rome, stripped them of their own names, and given them those of Greek warriors. The two men were not Greek at all, being from a tribe from somewhere in Pannonia, but the crowds at the games liked ancient heroes. 

Roman citizens were allowed the dignity of execution by sword or strangulation. Those not citizens could be killed in varied and horrific ways.

I did not want to see two men I’d known well and trained with torn apart by wild beasts or made to choke on a sword or molten metal. Aemil knew I would not. As I said, he was a master of coercion.

Aemil held my gaze. “As a favor, Leonidas. To me, and to them.” 

Cassia made a soft sound in her throat, one quiet enough for Aemil to ignore, but I understood exactly what the tiny noise meant.

“Not as a favor,” I said. “For a fee.”

Aemil’s mouth turned down. “So said your slave.”

Cassia kept her head bent over her tablet and remained silent.

I lived in this small room, an L-shaped apartment with an alcove that held my bed and shutters that closed off the balcony at night, and paid rent to the wine merchant downstairs for the privilege. I had been freed by a benefactor who’d provided me Cassia and found this place for us, but I had to earn my own keep. According to the go-between for this unknown benefactor, I was to await instructions about what he or she wanted from me.

I’d been freed near the end of December, and it was now the second month of the year, Februarius, a day after the Nones. So far, we’d had no word. 

Cassia spent the time finding jobs for me, mostly bodyguard work for merchants or patricians. She made certain the fee was reasonable and that I was paid. Often those who hired me tried to stall on payment, but Cassia, soft-voiced and modest, could pry coins from the most reluctant of clients.

“We must eat,” I told Aemil bluntly.

Aemil studied the sparsely furnished room. We had a table and three stools, a bed for me, a pallet for Cassia near the balcony doors, and another table that held a shrine to those gone before us. A long cupboard near the table contained our meager possessions, and a rickety shelf above the table held a wooden sword inscribed with my name. The rudis, which symbolized my freedom.

Cassia had brought in a third stool recently, explaining that if clients came to us, they’d need a special place to sit while we negotiated. That stool rested at the end of the table, but Aemil had chosen to take mine.

“I don’t think much of your benefactor, Leonidas.” Aemil folded his arms across his barrel of a chest. “You should be lounging in silk, bathing in milk, and eating pastries and apricots coated with spun sugar. Not plopped on a rough stool gobbling down lentils.” His eyes took on a cunning I recognized. “Come back to the ludus and work for me. You can live in a far nicer home and have whatever women and food you want. I’ll even split prizes won by the gladiators you teach. If Leonidas the Spartan is training the men, I can command an even higher price for them.”

He’d suggested this to me many a time in the last months. I continued to refuse, as I did now.

Instead of arguing, I simply shook my head.

Aemil did not appear discouraged. “One day you will accept my offer. For now, find those Hades-spawned gladiators and drag them home by their balls. I’ll pay you a sestertius for each.”

“A denarius,” I countered. Cassia’s faint nod told me I’d chosen correctly. “A sestertius only buys a flask of wine.”

Aemil’s gaze went flinty. “Fine. A denarius. But only if they’re standing upright and ready to fight. If you bring them back dead drunk and unable to move, the fee is half.”

In other words, he’d hold me responsible for sobering them up once I found them.

I shrugged my agreement. 

“Good. Start right away.” With this last order, Aemil heaved himself to his feet, sent me another sharp look, and stomped out.

I waited until he was down the stairs and into the street, the outer door banging behind him, before I closed the door at the top of the stairs to shut us in.

Cassia had stepped onto the balcony, a flat space that was the roof of the wine shop below. I joined her, and we watched Aemil stride down the narrow lane to the Vicus Longus at its end. Romans on errands melted out of the way of his angry bulk.

I rubbed the top of my shaved head. “I suppose I’ll start at the ludus. The gate guards will know better than most where those men would go. Hopefully, I’ll run them to ground before too long, and we’ll be three denarii richer.”

Cassia was pleased by this, I could see, but she only gave me a quiet look.

I studied her a moment, her light-brown skin, her all-seeing dark eyes, the curling black hair she caught in a tail at her nape to keep out of her way. Her tunic was the plain garment of a slave, bound at the shoulders and falling to feet clad in neat sandals, but she kept it clean and wrinkle-free, as dignified and tidy as any matron.

When my stare went on too long, Cassia’s brows rose the slightest bit, as though wondering why I lingered.

I ducked inside, made certain I had coins and a knife in the pouch slung around my waist, and departed to join the teeming masses of Rome.

* * *

Aemil’s ludus lay in the Transtiberim, across the river to the west. I merged with the crowds on the Pons Agrippae and angled southward once I reached the other side of the Tiber.

The ludus was a large structure of barracks that encircled a rectangular training area. There was space within this makeshift arena for several pairs of gladiators to practice fighting while the novices struck posts with wooden swords, learning to jab and cut.

The wood and stone building had a gate of stout planks, guarded by hired toughs to keep the curious outside. They also guarded against those who might creep in to nobble a favorite by slipping them a draught that would make them sleepy or weak, or even kill them entirely.

The gate guards were young, burly, and fit, and while they might lean idly against the gate as though bored, they were diligent and came alert in a heartbeat.

The man on duty this afternoon was called Septimius, and he hailed me with enthusiasm. “Welcome home, Leonidas. Come to fulfill Aemil’s dreams?”

He asked me this every time I arrived, and I’d ceased bothering to answer. “I’m here to see you, actually.”

“I am flattered.” Septimius was a thick-bodied brute of a man, with wiry brown hair that curled down his neck, dark eyes, and ham fists. He’d quietly let me slip back into the ludus long after my curfew many a time. “Missed me, did you?”

“I have, yes,” I said without feigning. Septimius was good-natured and friendly without being oily, though I’d watched him beat a man to a pulp when the man tried repeatedly to climb the wall to seek out his favorite gladiator. “I want to ask you about Ajax, Herakles, and Rufus. You’d have been the last to see them go.”

“Ah.” Septimius leaned against the gatepost and picked at a tooth with his thumbnail. “Aemil has you chasing them, does he? I don’t know where they are.”

“You’d have let them out. Or maybe Plinius did.”

“Naw, it was me.” Septimius gazed down the street that teemed with slaves running errands for masters, men heading for the nearest popina for wine and games, and plebeian women shopping for wares. On the far corner, a thin, harried teacher tried to keep the attention of six children gathered around him who traced letters carved into boards with sticks. 

“When did they go?” Aemil had told me, but I wanted to hear Septimius’s version.

“Five—no, four days ago. Last day of Januarius, at various times. I remember because Plinius was ill, and I took his shift. They all had passes, and I let them out.”

“But they never came back.”

“They didn’t.” Septimius removed his thumb from his teeth and spat on the street. “If you ask me, Aemil is worried for nothing. They’re most likely spending their prize money from the Saturnalian games. Rufus has been trying to persuade his wife into a better apartment, so he’s probably moving her into a lower floor of their insula. I’d guess that Ajax and Herakles are sleeping off nights of debauchery. Ajax will poke anything that moves. Maybe he got punched for it.”

I had to agree with Septimius. The most likely explanation was that each of the men had been caught up in ordinary circumstances—renting a new apartment or recovering from the aftermath of drink and whoring.

“Did any of them tell you where they planned to go? Besides Rufus, of course.”

“No of course about that.” Septimius grinned. “Rufus isn’t exactly the model of fidelity. But as it happens, he did say he was going home to Chryseis—that’s his wife. Ajax headed for the Subura. Herakles wouldn’t tell me, but I think he has a highborn lover with a villa on the river.”

The gate suddenly was wrenched inward by a massive hand that belonged to a huge gladiator with close-cropped dark hair and hard brown eyes. His name was Regulus, and at one time I’d called him friend. He was now primus palus of Aemil’s gladiators, a position he’d inherited from me.

“Are you talking about those idiots who’ve disappeared?” he demanded.

Septimius took a step back. Regulus made him nervous, as Regulus would beat on anyone when in a pique. Gate guards were fair game to him, and as long as Regulus left them fit for duty, Aemil wouldn’t stop him.

“Do you know where they are?” I asked Regulus.

Not long ago, Regulus and I had been inseparable, drinking together, visiting lupinari together, sparring for the joy of it. That had ended the day he’d begged me to kill him, and I’d refused.

“I know where they’re likely to be,” Regulus said in his usual snarl. “Dead, aren’t they? Dead and gone to the Elysium Fields, like the selfish bastards they are.”

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