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Excerpt: Blood Debts

Book 1.5: Leonidas the Gladiator Mysteries

“The baker owes us money.”

I crawled out of sleep when a slim stick tapped my side and a woman’s voice slid through my dreams. Cassia had learned to use the stick to poke at me, because I usually came roaring awake, ready to murder all within reach.

When she’d first come to live with me, Cassia had shaken me from a dream in which I’d been naked and without weapons, only my balled fists for defense. A man who’d been my closest friend had stabbed at me in rage.

I’d grabbed the arm that had come at me and torn open my eyes to find Cassia in terror, her slender wrist in my deadly grip. I’d nearly broken her arm before I’d let go.

Hence, the stick. 

I was too exhausted this morning for roaring, so I mumbled, “Wha’?”

“The baker.” Cassia returned the polished branch of walnut to the corner and picked up the wax tablet on which she did the household accounts, such as they were. “Quintus Publius. You guarded his shipments from Ostia three weeks ago, and he has yet to pay a thing. He owes us ten sestertii.”

“Mmph.” I scrubbed my face, hoping to sink back into darkness. “Send him a notice.” I settled my head on my hard pillow. “You like to send notices.”

“I have sent him seventeen,” Cassia said. “He ignores them. You ought to go yourself. He will not be able to ignore you.”

I opened my eyes all the way. Cassia sat in her usual place, a stool on the other side of our one-roomed apartment, near the door. She wore a modest sheath of a dress, sandals I’d bought her, and held her stylus poised over her tablet. I always thought of her like that, eyes on the hinged wooden and wax tablet in her hand, stylus at the ready to add a notation.

Her black hair, pulled up out of her face, curled about her forehead and cascaded down her back in one tail. No hairdresser had styled those curls—Cassia was a slave, bestowed upon me by my unknown benefactor, a man who’d apparently followed my career in the arena more ardently than I had. 

This man, whoever he was, had decided I needed looking after, and sent Cassia to be my caretaker when I’d gained my freedom not long ago. Cassia had grown up the daughter of a slave who’d been a scribe to a very wealthy patrician family in Campania. She was here now because, after her father’s death, the master of the house had decided to notice that Cassia had become a woman, and Cassia’s mistress had made certain she was quickly sold.

Cassia didn’t know who our benefactor was either. Everything went through another scribe, a dried stick of a man called Hesiodos, who steadfastly refused to tell us.

Cassia dressed her hair simply, because she wasn’t good at hair, she’d told me, or clothes, or cooking, or really much of anything else, which was why no one had known what to do with her once her father had gone to the gods. Her master had known what he wanted, and so Cassia’s mistress had ejected her. 

What Cassia excelled at was accounts. And noticing things, important things. And driving a man spare so he couldn’t sleep.

These days, I liked sleep. There was no reason to pull myself out of bed—no training, no grand feasts in my honor the night before the games. These feasts had always been wasted on me because I could barely swallow a bite. 

“Tomorrow.” I closed my eyes, seeking the comfort of oblivion.

Often the dreams broke through to haunt me, but sometimes there was nothing. Sweet peace. I must not have slept at all in the years I was a gladiator because now I could not get enough of it.

“Leonidas.” Cassia’s firm voice broke that peace.

This time I came up with a hint of a snarl. “Wha’?” 

“If the baker pays us, we can remain in our palatial surroundings. Otherwise, we’ll be out on the street. And hungry. We can prevent this by prying what we are owed out of Quintus.”

The interesting thing about our so-called benefactor is that he didn’t pay our rent or provide us food. He’d found me this apartment, bestowed upon me a slave no one else wanted, and then left the rest of our living up to us. What this man would demand in return for this uneven generosity remained to be seen.

Cassia trailed off, watching to gauge the effect of her words on me, every one of them reasonable, every one unarguable.

The trouble with Cassia was that she was nearly always right. A man needed money to live. A gladiator in a ludus did not, but I was no longer kept at others’ expense. The animal, freed from its cage, didn’t know how to hunt.

My hint of a snarl turned into a real one as I hauled myself up and off the slab of wood our landlord called a bed. The blanket Cassia must have laid over me in the night slid from my bare body as I rose to my feet. Cassia averted her gaze, her cheeks burning red.

I’d never met a woman shy with men before, one who didn’t openly size up the goods, especially when they took up half the apartment. But then, my experience with women had been in brothels and with those eager to sneak themselves into a gladiator’s cell. Cassia had lived with modest women who’d covered themselves at all times and required her to as well.

Cassia’s head remained bent, her eyes fixed resolutely on her tablet. Maybe she’d caught sight of a mistake in her calculations. No, Cassia didn’t make mistakes. She was simply uncomfortable with so much naked flesh in such a small space.

I’d never noticed my own body much until Cassia’s arrival. I’d thought of male bodies in terms of places to stab—chest for heart and lungs, abdomen for guts, throat for a rapid kill. Women’s bodies were somewhat different—their parts fit with mine for a short time of mind-numbing pleasure to chase away the demons.

Cassia, on the other hand, saw me, Leonidas, the whole person. No one else ever had. Instead of being flattered, I always felt the immediate need to cover myself.

I reached for a tunic and pulled it on. Cassia flicked me a glance, and she breathed out, no mistaking her relief.

I pretended to ignore her while I sluiced clean water from the ewer over my face and looked around for my sandals. There they were, my one pair, in a neat line by the door. Cassia tidied every night after I went to bed—if collapsing onto my mat of reeds on a slab could be given such a formal term.

“Not that tunic,” Cassia said behind me. I felt her critical eyes on my back. “A clean one.”

I halted. No wonder Jupiter constantly fled Juno. She was probably always going on at him about wearing clean tunics and combing his hair.

I’d forgotten—clean tunic on the peg, dirty one on the floor for Cassia to take to the laundry. 

As I put my hand on the fabric at the back of my neck, ready to pull off the offending garment, Cassia said, “No, no, on second thought, you ought to wear that. The wine stain from last night’s meal is the exact color of blood. It makes you look as though you wrestled someone into submission. He’ll pay up like a lamb.”

No gladiator, no matter how much in fear of his life, had ever been as ruthless as Cassia when someone owed her money. Owed me money, I should say. I did the jobs, she kept note of them, and then sent me to bully those who didn’t pay.

Cassia wasn’t wrong, though. We needed the cash or we wouldn’t eat or have anywhere to sleep. I was bad at the basics of life, Cassia was good at it, and so we went along.

I settled the tunic without a word, smoothed my hand over my close-cropped hair, and ducked out into the morning sun.

I’d managed to block out the noise and brightness of the Roman morning while I’d slept, but now they both hit me full force.

Cassia and I lived one floor above the shop of a wine merchant at the base of the Quirinal. It might have been cheaper for us to live in an insula, but I had a horror of those huge blocks of buildings made to house so many living beings. They fell down on occasion, burying all within them. Our apartment had been built for the wine-seller’s mother-in-law, standing empty after she’d passed. We had one L-shaped room and a balcony that was nothing more than the flat roof of the wine shop below.

The street flowed with activity. The current of men in tunics—a few with togas—swept past the wine shop with its amphorae resting in rows neat enough for Cassia’s approval, drawing me with them into the pulsing beat of Rome.

My route today took me past the forum of Augustus, the emperor and god, whom even I’d heard of. Elderly men in the baths would reminisce about how wonderful Rome had been in the golden age of Augustus, and how we’d never see its like again.

From what Cassia told me, we now had more bath houses, a greater abundance of clean water, wares from every corner of the empire, and more relative peace than in the time of Augustus, but I’d noticed that the more gray hair a man had, the more nostalgic he became. Cassia also pointed out that these men could only have been tiny children when Augustus died, and would hardly remember life under his rule.

My steps turned me toward the Subura, an area that ran along the base of the Quirinal and Viminal hills. Smoke coated the air because of the fires perpetually burning to heat the baths for the day. The aqueducts that provided water for baths and every fountain in the city stalked along the tops of the hills above me.

I heard my name on occasion as I walked under the colonnade that shaded the street. This was usual as I moved about Rome—my fights in the amphitheatres had been celebrated. But if I turned aside to speak to every person who hailed me, I’d never reach my destination. If I didn’t return soon with the money, Cassia would give me her sorrowful look and make another note on her tablet. 

“It’s him,” I heard a man exclaim. “Leonidas!”

“Where?” another responded. “No, it isn’t. You’re daft.”

“Yes, it is. That was him. I saw the scar.”

The scar in question cut along the base of my throat and down into my tunic. If the cut had landed with the force intended, my blood would have spilled in a swift torrent, and I would have died on the arena sand. My own strike had lessened the blow, and the other man had died instead.

I am called Leonidas because my lanista, a man who bought and trained gladiators, said I fought with the intensity of Leonidas the Spartan king and his men at Thermopylae. Thus, Leonidas the Gladiator was born. Since I’d been eager to shuck my old name, which had only brought me trouble, I didn’t object. Leonidas I became at age eighteen, and so I remained.

“Leonidas!” The last voice was very young, very eager, and fearing disappointment. “Look!”

I turned my head. A grubby boy stood in the shadow of an archway, holding up a terra cotta cup for me to see. The side of the cup bore a crude sketch of a man who could have been anyone, except for the scratched letters that spelled out, Leonidas. I recognized the word, because it was the only one I knew how to read.

At this man’s feet was sprawled a second gladiator, his fallen trident beside him. The one Greek letter I knew, theta, was scratched beneath him, meaning the man on the ground was dead.

Hot wind swept down the street. With it came the scent of sand, blood, sweat, and the metallic tang of the inside of my helmet. I couldn’t see the thousands surrounding me in the amphitheatre, but I could hear them. The roar of voices, the chant of my name. Le-o-ni-das. The press of air and heat sent sweat trickling down my bare back and legs.

A rush of fear, rage, and desperation came at me, swirling away the packed streets of Rome. I seemed to look through the grill of my eye pieces, the helmet a cage, and saw the trident come at my midsection. A shout left my mouth as I barreled it aside with my elbow, the trident’s point glancing off my helmet. In another second, the man was down, the crowd screaming for his death. Iugula! Kill him!

Sweat poured down my body as air raked my lungs. Someone brushed past me, and my vision swam back. A working-class woman surrounded by her friends on their way to the market parted to flow around me. The gaggle of them laughed together, the soft fabric of a fluttering skirt brushing my ankles.

As the fog began to clear, I crouched down in front of the boy. He was somewhere between five and maybe eight summers, skinny with poverty, teeth half gone, hair brittle and lank. His tunic was threadbare, sandals held on with twine.

Somehow he’d found the money to buy the piece of junk he held, showing one of my forgotten bouts from years ago. I’d forgotten none of them.

I wanted to dash the cup to the ground, tell him to spend his money on better things, but the boy held the cup as though it were precious gold.

Cassia’s voice buzzed like a fly at the back of my skull. Whatever did you do that for, Leonidas? You could at least have given him the price for it, poor lad.

I touched the cup. “It was hot that day,” I said. “The amphitheatre in that town was gravelly, and we had to wear sandals. I had grit in my shoes.”

The boy’s eyes widened in fascination.

“He fought well,” I went on, tracing the fallen body of the man who’d called himself Dionysius. “I was lucky to win. Was almost skewered by the trident a couple of times.”

The boy listened, open-mouthed, dark eyes round with wonder. To him, the fight was a legend. To me, it had been just another day at the games.

I fished a copper coin from the pouch at my waist and dropped it into the cup. “Go tell the fruit seller to give you his best for that—tell him I sent you.”

The boy nodded, his eyes and mouth no less round. I rose and shooed him off. He scampered away, his head high, joy in his step.

I had been that boy once—the memory tapped me out of nowhere. Had nothing and no one, only a few precious things to keep me from complete despair. I watched him bob along until he was lost among the crowd, swallowed by Rome’s million inhabitants.

The baker’s shop was around the next corner, built a little way from the end of a row of shops, an open counter in front where the baker did business. Ovens fired in the back, the wall above them pocked with holes where the bread taken from the ovens would cool. 

I’d come at a lull in the baker’s day. His morning bread would have been finished and fetched by the women or household slaves of this area, giving him time to bake other things to sell, or perhaps doze under the counter. 

Quintus was awake, however, puttering about, a small, bald man in a tunic and sandals. He was wiry, every muscle tight from shoveling bread into and out of ovens all day, his back a bit hunched from the same.

I said nothing as I approached the concrete slab of the counter, noting that the mosaic on the top depicted sea creatures, nothing to do with bread or baking.

I leaned my hands on the counter and waited. Quintus shoved himself halfway into a roaring oven and came back out with an empty paddle and not so much as a burn or singed hair.

“Yes?” he asked impatiently as he turned around. “You’ll have to—”

He halted in mid-word, his parted lips showing me brownish teeth in blackening gums. He snapped his mouth shut and swallowed. “Leonidas.”

I could not have been a welcome sight. I stood two feet taller than the baker and was twice as broad. The famous scar that trailed down my neck symbolized my defeat of death. My hands, now fists, were as big as the stones he used for grinding seeds to paste.

Quintus looked so terrified I feared he’d drop dead on the spot. Cassia would be most put out if I let him die—we’d likely never get paid.

“It’s Cassia,” I said, making my tone apologetic. “She likes her accounts to balance.” 

Quintus gulped. “She is Greek,” he said, as though that explained it.

Desperate, I could have told him. Cassia had a horror of being on the street, wretched and homeless, a dangerous situation that could end quickly in defilement and death.

I tried to feel the same fear and could not. I hadn’t felt anything in a long, long while.

For Cassia’s sake, I was here, badgering a man who thought he’d gotten away with not paying his debt to the second most dangerous man in Rome. That was what I’d heard people call me. I assumed they believed the princeps, Nero, to be the first.

“I’ll take half,” I said. “That should keep her quiet for a while.” I sent Quintus a look that suggested we had to do what was necessary to keep the women who ran our lives happy.

He wet his lips. “I don’t have it.” His face was bright red, whether because he lied or told the truth and was afraid of it, I could not say. “I swear to you, I don’t have it. I don’t even have half. But …”

Quintus trailed off, his flush fading as something like relief took over. “Gaius Selenius owes me money. Quite a bit of it. Part of the shipment you guarded from Ostia was his—I moved it at my own expense. If you go along and pry the money out of him, I can pay you. And a few coins extra for your trouble.”

I smothered a sigh. A disadvantage to being one of the most famous gladiators of the day, even as a veteres, was that other men expected me to do their dirty deeds for them. Rough up a man who insulted me. Find a man who owes me money, and we’ll all get paid.

The fact that Quintus hadn’t gone after the money owed himself meant that Selenius frightened him. Selenius might be surrounded by bodyguards or have a vicious disposition, more inclined to have a small man beaten than pay his debt to him. What luck that I’d come along this morning.

But there was nothing for it. Unless I turned the baker upside down and shook him, I would not return with money today. The thought of facing Cassia empty-handed was not a happy one. 

“Where is this Gaius Selenius?” I asked, resigned.

Quintus brightened. “On the Clivus Suburanus, in a macellum near the Porticus Liviae. His shop is in the middle of the market, by the atrium. He’s a money-changer.”

Better and better. Money-changers were a despised class of men, lumped with usurers and tax collectors. Even gladiators, though we were infamis, at the very bottom of society, had higher reputations.

I abruptly turned from Quintus without a farewell or another word, joining the crowds in the increasing heat of the day. Once the sun hit its zenith, in the sixth hour, shops would close, business would halt, and men and women alike would wander to the baths, to meals, to lounge in the shade and wait for evening. I’d go back to sleep.

Once in the street, I turned down a winding lane toward the Clivus Suburanus. The twisting way was so narrow I could lift my arms and touch walls on either side, and still my elbows would be bent. Despite the stink of refuse that curled in my nose, the tall, crammed-together buildings in this passageway shaded me from the sun. 

At the end of this lane, I turned into a wider, airy street of shops that were doing a brisk business. A tavern served food and drink to plenty of people who’d found time to stop and ingest barley and beans, soup and pork. 

All manner of things were sold on this street—silk cloth from the east, spices and peppers, clay lamps and pots, fruits and vegetables, fresh flowers, sandals, and the baskets to carry it all in. A person could clothe himself, get his dinner, light his house and decorate it, buy his bedding, and purchase a pot for his slops, without ever having to turn a corner. 

I’d lived most of my life in this city, first snatching survival in the streets, then in prison, then in the ludus. The lanista didn’t lock us in; we were free to move about and take odd jobs in the city, as long as we were back in our cells at dusk.

But I hadn’t really seen the place until I’d emerged from the ludus a free man. The city had gained a new tint, the stones a golden glow, the hills a grandeur. Even the fires that constantly burned gave it a scent that I’d come to associate with my home.

I turned at last to the Clivus Suburanus and found the passage leading to the macellum—an indoor marketplace housed within a large building. I ducked in, following the baker’s directions.

This macellum was owned by a patrician who probably lived in a villa in the hills. He’d turned his property into rental spaces for sellers of food and other goods. The main building had shops around all of the outer walls and a few in the middle near the atrium. I had been here before—thick walls and the arched roof kept out the heat, which made it a popular place. 

A niche in a wall inside the main door held a terra cotta carving of an erect phallus, a symbol of fertility—five times the size of any man’s prick and correct in every detail. It was customary to give such statues around the city a rub for good fortune. I gave this one a pat in passing, both for luck and in hopes of sympathetic magic. My phallic instrument had been sleeping as much as I had lately.

The macellum was quieter than usual, only a few slaves in tunics buying wares for whatever household they worked for. Two were Gauls, with very pale hair and blue eyes, wooden baskets on their arms to hold what they purchased for their master or mistress. They were big men, muscular and tall. I was taller than most Roman men, which made people question my ancestry, but these two both topped me by an inch.

They stopped and stared at me as I went by. They might have recognized me from the games or they thought me as unusual as I thought them.

The two slaves finished their transaction across the counter of the stall nearest the main entrance, a vendor of garum, the smelly fermented fish sauce that made Cassia blench. 

As I reached the inner shops near the atrium, all was quiet. It was nearly midday, and most of the vendors in here had already shut down, slipping away home for a nap or to the baths to relax.

Selenius had one of the innermost shops, a square room with a door on one side, and a counter on another, which could be closed off by a series of vertical wooden boards stuck into slots in the counter and locked in place with iron bars. Other shops had already put in their boards, guarding whatever was inside from casual thieves until they opened the next day.

I was relieved to see Selenius’s shop still open. The sooner I made him give over Quintus’s money, the sooner I could drop our earnings in front of Cassia and resume my sleep. 

The mosaic tiles on his counter spelled out words, possibly that this was the place of Selenius. I glanced about for bodyguards but saw none. I didn’t like that. A man who dealt in coins, counting out Roman ones in exchange for whatever people in the far-flung corners of the world used for money, had to be cautious. Coins ran the Roman Empire, and everyone wanted them.

Selenius didn’t appear to be here either. I wondered if someone had run ahead and warned him I was coming. If so, he’d left his shop open to all who might traipse through at this quiet hour. 

There wasn’t much light inside the shop. The only illumination came through the square hole in the exact center of the building, which lit the atrium, much like it would in a rich man’s private house.

I could see nothing in the shadows over the counter, so I walked to the open door that would let Selenius in and out, and peered inside. 

The shop was about ten feet wide on a side, perhaps ten feet high, a perfect cube. There was another door, I saw from this point, a shorter one that presumably led to the shop next door. 

I noted a long bench, which Selenius would set outside when he was open for business—the inside of the shop was for storage and safeguarding his stockpiles of coin. I saw no coin, however, but it likely had been taken away and locked up for the day.

As I ran my gaze over the space, it came to rest on a man lying in an unmoving huddle under the counter. His face, head, hands, legs, and long tunic were soaked with blood, and blood had spread in a puddle that stopped shy of the doorway where I stood. A black line ran across his throat, and his eyes were fixed in frozen terror.

I stood in silence, looking down at the man, trying to feel horror, dismay, fear … but there was nothing. I remained unmoving, as though the entire world had come to a halt, until a small noise made me jerk my head up.

The door across the shop had opened. A boy stood on the threshold, a small lad clutching a cup with my name etched on it. He gaped over the blood at me, eyes wide, and then he dropped the cup, which shattered into the crimson pool at his feet.

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