Up in the rigging, perched high above my head, Tanis was calling out the positioning of the other ship's flag, which they kept moving around the deck to keep it safe from our attempts to board their vessel and capture it. Tanis was a promising young archer—she'd sworn her oath the same night Elka and I had—but she'd proved herself fairly useless in close combat. So we'd sent her up to the high vantage point where we could put her keen eyes to use.
Every time the ships drew abreast of each other, we exchanged fighters, with some of our girls leaping to their ship and the reverse. Even though the blades we fought with that day were wooden practice swords, accidents happened. Not just accidents. There was still a good deal of bad blood between the Achillea and Amazona ludi. During Caesar's Triumphs, our two schools of warriors had been pitted against each other in a huge pitched battle meant to commemorate Caesar's conquest of Britannia, and there had been bloodshed. Even death. We'd all made enemies that day.
The worst one I'd made had been originally from my own ludus.
A gladiatrix named Nyx.
Nyx had never been a friend. But she'd been sold to Pontius Aquila, the owner of the Ludus Amazona, after Caesar had chosen me over her to perform in the lead role of his Spirit of Victory. It wasn't something Nyx had taken lightly or well. Neither was the fact that, in the midst of the spectacle, I'd bested her—with a little help from Elka and her trusty spear—in a chariot duel.
All of that was more than enough cause for Nyx to hate me.
But I'd taken it one step further.
When Caesar had conferred the ceremonial sword of freedom on me for my performance, I'd asked instead for him to grant that freedom to her. In doing so, I'd effectively had Nyx barred from ever again taking up arms as a gladiatrix in the arena. It was the worst thing I could have done to her, in her mind. The fact that I'd done it for her own good was something that I'd never been able to tell her. She wouldn't have listened anyway.
I hadn't seen her since that day.
Which was probably one of the reasons I still had all my limbs in good working order. Nyx left behind a band of cronies, but, without her driving malevolence, they were about as bothersome as horseflies. In the dining hall or the bathhouse, that is. In the arena, we were all capable—if we weren't careful, and sometimes if we were—of inflicting a great deal of damage. But that, of course, was rather the point. For our spectators and patrons, at least.
I'd long since realized that Roman civilization was a thin veneer. The spectacle of our sea battle with the excitement of the flag-capture challenge was entertaining for Cleopatra's party guests, certainly, and we put on a good show. But it was the thrill of real danger that set Roman hearts racing. The idea that we were willing—and able—to maim and kill for the amusement of the mob. Even draped in silks and jewels, sipping wine and slurping oysters, that's what the men and women on that gilded barge really were. A bloodthirsty mob.
"To that end," I thought, "I'd best get back in the fray and stop wasting time rescuing kitchen boys instead of satisfying that thirst."
I pushed myself to hands and knees to find Leander still lying on the deck, propped up on one elbow and grinning at me. "Thank you, domina," he said, flashing a mouthful of teeth at me. "Thank you for my life."
I rolled my eyes and hauled myself to standing. As kitchen boys went, Leander was more than just a drudge. He was a sly charmer, always chatting up one gladiatrix or another. It had gotten him in trouble—and cost him ten lashes—when Nyx had capitalized on his flirtatious ways to escape the ludus townhouse in Rome one night. All in the service of trying to end my gladiatrix career, and maybe even my life. But Nyx had failed, and I bore no ill will toward Leander.
Just a growing irritation in that moment that he was so very in the way.
The ship heeled over in a tight turn as he clambered to his feet, knocking him off balance and into me—almost sending me tumbling back over the railing.
"Sit!" I barked at him, taking him by the shoulders and plunking him down firmly on a coil of rope. "We're coming around for another attack . . ."
"I'm not afraid." His grin never wavered.