I almost missed seeing the Spaniard the first time he fought in the arena. I seldom spend any of my time at melees-such a waste of prime flesh. But that day I was in a mood. A spilled cup of wine, a torn hem, a broken bauble - trivial things, true, but enough to drive me outside the walls of my estate and to the arena for some sport, before I strangled one of the servants.
Violence first, I thought, and then perhaps the other. I was in luck, as it happens; the German was included in Proximo's group of amateurs, I suppose to make up the numbers. He would be in a fine state after the battle; he would be humming with energy. He always was, following an afternoon of bloodletting.
I enjoyed him a great deal then; he was one of my favorites. Although he cared nothing for me one way or the other, he always smiled when he saw it was I waiting for him in that cell that was slightly better furnished than the remainder of the barracks. Not because I'm easily pleased (I'm not), nor even, I think, because of the coins I always left for him, although he liked those well enough. I think it was because we understood each other. I didn't require fawning, or false admiration. He was plainspoken, tactless, totally honest. I liked that. And my appearance had never caused him any hesitation, not even the first time. I appreciated that as well.
He was also generously blessed by Nature, a fine quality in itself. And his natural enthusiasm lent it's own charm to our dealing together. Taken altogether, a very satisfactory man.
I analyze too much, perhaps; but this is my hobby.
For one like myself who grew up in Rome, the incredible boredom that plagued me in miserable Zucchabar would have been crushing without an outlet of some sort. I am unable to perform many of the activities other women occupy themselves with, and find many of those left to me distasteful, and so I chose to indulge my interest in the gladiators of Proximo and the others.
I noted their styles, their skills, the weapons each preferred. I knew the number of kills; I could tell you who would be nervous before a match and who would be overconfident. I could enumerate the placement of the scars on their bodies and what weapons had put them there. I could analyze for you their performances in - and out of - the arena.
There are a few others in Zucchabar who pursue this same hobby, it is true. I suppose I pursue it more avidly and more often than the rest.
But then I can afford to - I am a rich lady.
At least by the standards of this sandy slice of hell; certainly rich enough to buy the services of any gladiator here, whenever and as often as I wish.
Proximo sought me out after his fighters were finished. It wasn't difficult for him to find me; I purposely wear bright colors and flamboyant trimmings. Perverse of me, I know. Those who pass me on the street would avert their gaze, and so I wear red - "Ignore this, you pig," - when really, being stared at is the last thing I want. I no longer waste my time trying to understand why I do what I do.
"Greetings, Lady," Proximo said, "and are you now interested in our little preliminary matches?"
I couldn't tell if he was mocking me or not. Probably not - he's too shrewd a businessman to take the chance of alienating one of his best customers. I noticed he was careful to seat himself to my right. It amused me; I had not thought him squeamish.
"Not the most exciting battle I've ever seen."
He inclined his head. "Not much here to your taste today, I'm afraid."
"You mean of the few that are left? Why do you waste them that way?"
He ignored that as the idle question it was; for Proximo, the answer to every question that began with "Why?" was money and we both knew it.
"Except perhaps the black. Did you notice him? He might not be quite domesticated yet, although he's caused no problems. Or of course the German is available. I believe you have said he's always satisfactory."
"What about the other one? The black's partner?"
"The Spaniard?" He made a dismissive gesture. "I wasn't even sure he would fight. He's one of those who have difficulty settling; he may be a problem. He's stubborn."
"You did notice that even without a weapon, he killed his first man quicker than the black who had a sword?"
He lifted an eyebrow. "Could have been luck."
"It could have been," I agreed. "You say he's difficult - then he has not always been a slave. What was he before?"
He shifted uncomfortably on his seat. "He had the mark of the Legion on his arm when I bought him."
"So...a soldier, then. And you were not sure he would fight?" I laughed. "Proximo, you're a thief. Are you trying to divert my interest or fix it? Are you trying to drive the price up? How are you planning to fleece me? Or do you have some other lamb in mind for the Spaniard?"
"You wound me, Lady," he said, placing his hand over his heart. "I have no thought but for your comfort and entertainment."
"Don't forget my purse."
"That, too. Truly, Lady, if I was sure he wouldn't be troublesome, I wouldn't hesitate. I'm not one to turn away profit, you know. But if you become unhappy with the services I provide....." He left the sentence unfinished and shrugged. "At best, I think he would be...less than entertaining."
"All right, Proximo, the German will do," I said as I stood. "And the black or his partner another time."
"The black, perhaps. The Spaniard really isn't the sort of amusement you prefer."
Of course it was that remark that made me determined to have him.
"Really," I said and the smile left my lips. "We must be much closer than I thought if you know me so well that you can say what I prefer."
The old weasel pursed his lips and decided it was safer not to respond to that. "I will send the German."
"Have him bathe this time."
Proximo inclined his head again, waved at the flies with his ass's tail, and I left him.
Another thing I liked about the German was that he was so predictable. His routine never varied. There were no surprises.
He would enter the cell, smile, say "It's you," in that absurd accent of his. He would ask what I wished, I would tell him, and he would do that for me. Then sometimes we would do what he wished to do.
And that night was no different. It was I who was different, less appreciative, perhaps. I was distracted. The look on the Spaniard's face when the last man was dead, and the crowd was roaring its approval, kept coming into my mind at odd moments. I didn't know how to characterize it, and it bothered me. Some men are stolid and show little emotion after a kill. Some men seem to be stunned at having killed. Some men are simply overjoyed to be alive. Some men, like the German, enjoy the applause, and play to it. I didn't see any of those reactions on the Spaniard's face. It was curious; he didn't expect the reaction of the crowd. The black was also mystified, but I thought perhaps that was cultural. It was a small mystery, but it would nag at me until I explained it to myself. Or until he was killed.
"Was there something else you wanted?" the German asked.
"No," I said. "Yes - talk to me."
"Talk? About what?"
"Tell me about...the other two men left alive with you after the melee this afternoon. I've not seen them before."
He told me what he knew. He laughed when he spoke of the black man, Juba; he said there was a fire inside that one. He would make a fine gladiator. He grinned at me when he said that, and I had to smile back.
"The Spaniard?" He shook his head. "He is difficult. He will not practice. He took blows but would not strike back. He hardly speaks, and when he does, it is mostly to Juba. Maybe he thinks he should not be a slave. I have seen men who cannot accept it. They usually die."
"He fought well today."
"Yes, I was surprised. I suppose he didn't want to die after all."
"Thank you." I patted his wonderfully large chest, and caressed it for a moment just because it is so fine, and placed the coins in his hand. I used my right hand; if he had displeased me, I would have used my left, but of course he hadn't, and the scars and misshapen fingers wouldn't have bothered the German, anyway.
"Do you want me to stay?"
"No, I will be going back to my house, but thank you."
If he left first, he always said, "You will send for me again," and gave me a smile before going out the door. This time, he came back to me and kissed me once before leaving.
Sometimes I feel a certain affection for him. Maybe I am easy to please.
The Spaniard fought again in three days time. This time he was given a sword and a shield, a helmet and leathers; and a proper opponent. All of us who follow the fights were interested to see what he could do. I chose a seat as close to the ring as I could get. I am considered eccentric because I don't sit with the other ladies of my station; but you really can't see more than the gross blows and slashes from there. Why even bother? I want to see.
What I saw was totally unexpected.
The first thing he did after coming into the ring was to throw his helmet to the side. Foolhardy, then, I thought, disappointed. He stood still for a moment, and I realized he was watching his opponent move. I knew the other man in the ring - he was a local fellow who danced a lot when he fought, was seldom injured, and enjoyed killing immensely. The Spaniard began to move slowly to the side, around the outside of the ring, while Rufo taunted him and gestured to him to come to him, to fight. He led Rufo for several yards, watching him, watching him, and Rufo followed, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet until he became frustrated, and charged.
It was so quick - the Spaniard ducked under Rufo's slash, stuck his sword between the man's ankles at an angle, pivoted and thwacked him on the back of the head with his shield - all in one fluid motion. Rufo whirled, fell on his back, and before he could move again he was dead.
The crowd was quiet - we were all surprised. Rufo had had 37 kills. The Spaniard yanked his sword out of the body and walked calmly across the barely scuffed sand to the gate. He wasn't even breathing hard. The roar erupted only after he had gone through.