Crispinus was deposited with the other men in a long, narrow chamber that served as both hallway entrance and antechamber to the arena. He was towards the back of the room, but over the crush of dirty bodies he could make out the top of the gate that separated them from to the sandy expanse of stage where he would put on one last show before facing his death.
Already the spectators had gathered. He could hear the deep thunder of all their voices, could feel their expectation and excitement to see his blood spilled, along with the men he now stood with.
An announcer stepped out and the voices hushed. The order of the condemned's appearances was read aloud. Crispinus listened for his name and gave silent thanks to Aleron when he heard he was to be number eleven. Fourth from the last. He knew it had to have been hard for the guard to get him even that far down the list and he appreciated it even if the crowd didn't. They booed and hissed. A few threw things. They wanted him first. They wanted to see a slaughter.
Crispinus had a long moment to fear the crowd's dissatisfaction would make the emperor change it—he knew the man was here today—but then the announcer finished and went on to talk about other things, and Crispinus breathed easier as he realized his place would hold. Now he would only have to kill three to make it to the end, and then… then he would then be killed by what the announcer had just called the most wild and dangerous lioness ever to be brought to the coliseum.
Please, Kate, don't be out there, he prayed. He would fight and he would survive as long as he could, because that's what Kate wanted and he owed her that, but he had no illusions about how this would end. He just hoped Kate wasn't in the stands watching when it happened.
The gate lifted. The first two men were called: Apollonius and Chilo. Apollonius walked out bravely, back straight, expression stoic. Chilo had to be shoved in by one of the guards. He skittered after Apollonius, hunched and shaking. Apollonius was given a shield, Chilo a sword. To even the odds, Crispinus supposed, pushing closer to the front to get a better view as the gate slid back down.
The announcer called for them to start. Chilo jumped at the yell and swung at his opponent without aiming. Apollonius not only blocked it, but used the momentum to knock the sword out of Chilo's weak grip with the shield. Chilo yelped and tripped over his own feet in his haste to get away. He landed on his back with a loud whump.
The second he started to rise, Apollonius brought down his shield and smashed it right over smaller man's head, again and again until bone crunched and brain matter flew.
The crowd roared.
Quick as that, the first battle was over.
A man named Mithridates was sent out into the arena next. It would have been an even match up, but Apollonius had retrieved the sword and Mithridates had nothing. He dodged well enough but with no way to gain the upper hand, he was eventually felled.
The next two faced the same fate.
Then came Isidorus. He was tall and thin to the point of emaciation, but he was quick. He managed to grab Mithridates' wrist as the man swung the blade for his collar and did something with his fingers that made the reigning champion drop his weapon with a cry of pain. Isidorus then jerked the man forward into a stumbled twirl that put Mithridates in a perfect choke hold. When he finally let go, Mithridates collapsed face-first into the sand and didn't get up. Isidorus picked up the fallen sword and stabbed him through the back, straight into his heart. If he hadn't been dead before, he was now.
He took out the following three with such ease the crowd began to grumble. When the fourth one went down, a beefy man named Glycon, cheers went up only because it meant it was Crispinus' turn to face Isidorus, and surely, the famous gladiator would put up a much better fight.
The gate rose. Crispinus took a centering breath, said one last prayer that Kate was far away, and stepped out into the arena.
The cheers were deafening. Crispinus had rarely seen the stands so full. The heat was a breathless ripple across his skin. The sand crunched under his boots. Here and there were puddles of blood. The bodies of the fallen had been removed between each match by fleet-footed guards, and now it stood empty except for him and his opponent.
Isidorus waited for him in the middle of the arena, his grip easy on the sword. Comfortable. Practiced. More than mere luck had gotten the man this far. This was a master swordsman he was facing.
Isidorus tossed away the shield but stood between it and Crispinus, so that the Crispinus couldn't take it for himself.
"Who knew before my death I'd get to kill the famous gladiator Agallon," Isidorus said, while around them the cheers died down to anxious murmurs. People taking bets, perhaps. "Truly, it is the last moments of a man's life that are the most exciting, don't you think?"
"I wouldn't know," said Crispinus blandly. "I'm not facing mine yet, unlike you."
Isidorus laughed. "Oh, you will be a fun one."
The murmuring grew louder, almost distressed. Crispinus cocked an ear towards the lowest line of spectators, straining to hear…
"He wears a bloody tear on his chest…"
"Did someone give it to him? Who would give a gladiator such a thing?"
"His heart bleeds. Why does it bleed?"
Crispinus looked down and realized Kate's earring was still pinned to his tunica. He'd forgotten it was there, not having noticed it when dressing earlier.
Isidorus was listening too, his expression amused. "Did you wear that little bit of jewelry to purposely make people worry?" he asked.
"If this is all it takes to make them worry than society is in worse shape than I thought," Crispinus replied, not answering. Let them all think he was trying to make some sort of grand statement. He knew what the ruby really was. It was evidence of Kate's love, and he was going to wear it proudly to his death.
The announcer drew a deep breath. Crispinus let his body go loose, balancing on the balls of his feet. Ready for what was coming. Ready…. Ready…
The announcer gave his yell, and Isidorus attacked.
The Temple of Vesta wasn't so much a temple as a little round hut, hardly bigger than a gazebo you might find in a neighbor's backyard. Kate thought it's what the home of the three little pigs would have looked like, if they'd been smart enough to work together instead of each building their own place.
The walls were made out of brick, with metal crosshatched over it. Sticks and straw and some type of dried reed made up the roof, with a small hole at the top where smoke plumed steadily into the sky. The only "Roman" thing about it was the Corinthian columns that framed the entrance.
The entrance that she couldn't enter.
She stood outside the locked temple door with the half dozen or so other women who were waiting to collect fire for the day—she knew it was locked because she had all but broken the handle trying to force her way inside. Each of the women she waited with carried an unlit torch, except one, who carried a copper bowl filled with oil.
This must be what the early stages of a mob looks like, Kate thought sardonically. All they need is a couple pitchforks and they'll be good to go.
If anyone did come by with a pitchfork, she'd be hard pressed not to swipe it and use it to break down the temple door. Where were all these vestales? She'd been standing here for over ten minutes now, just waiting. She told herself not to think about Crispin or she would drive herself nuts, but of course that's all she could do. Was he in the arena yet? Would he fight like she told him to? It was his resignation that scared her the most. She could bring back a whole army to free him, but it would be for nothing if he gave up and died before she could get back.
No. Kate gave herself a sharp shake. No thinking about that. He would fight. No matter what, he would. She had to believe that.
And if this doesn't work? If these vestales never come outside?
They would. They had to.
But the doubt had Kate starting for the temple door again. No more waiting. She would do whatever she had to in order to get inside, even if she had to huff and puff and blow the whole temple down!
It opened just as she was sucking in her breath to yell.
An older vestalis stepped out and nearly ran into her. She carried a small cup of oil, soft yellow flames dancing merrily across the top. Kate jumped back before it could spill on her.
She was thoroughly sick of fire.
The woman was dressed very conservatively, her wraps well made and keeping every feminine inch of her covered. A Roman nun, Kate thought irreverently, and smothered the insane urge to giggle. The misplaced humor told her more than anything else about the fragile state of her emotions right now. Though she was doing her best to stay composed and think rationally, it wouldn't take much to crack her at this point and she couldn't allow that, for Crispin' sake.
"Gracious, child, calm yourself," the vestalis said. "There is enough fire for everyone." She peered at her. "Where is your torch?"
"I don't have one," said Kate. "I'm here for you."
The woman raised her eyebrows just slightly in surprise. "Me?"
"Yes. I need your help. It's urgent."
"Help with what?"
Two other vestales appeared behind her. They too carried small cups of fire. The older woman took Kate's arm and led her off to the side so the others could get by. They made their way carefully down the steps to the group of waiting women, making small talk as they lit their torches and bowl.
"You've heard of the… the event going on right now, at the coliseum?" Kate asked. "With the gladiator, Crispinus Agallon?"
"I don't think there is a soul in this city who hasn't," said the vestalis. "It's not often such a well-known person is executed in such a fashion."
Kate ignored the painful clench in her gut at the woman's words. "Well I need you to stop it."
"Stop it. I need you to come with me and stop it. Please. Before it's too late."
"My dear child—"
"Please! Crispinus doesn't deserve to die like that. He doesn't deserve to die at all!"
The older vestalis gave Kate the once-over she'd been too surprised to do before. Kate bit her lip and fought not to fidget. She knew what she looked like. Her hair was a tangled bird's nest and her clothes wrinkled from lying in a pile on the floor all night. Her bandaged hand was swollen and discolored, and her face, neck and arms were covered in scabbed nicks.
A mess, in other words.
"My dear child," she said again, "though I can see you must have been a great fan of his—"
"More than a fan," said Kate, and feeling nothing less than the truth would suffice, told her honestly, "he's my future."
The two vestales behind her made a noise of sympathy. Apparently, they had finished their rounds and come closer to listen instead of going inside.
The one in front of her was less impressed.
"Be that as it may," she said, "whether or not he is deserving of his fate is not for me or you to decide."
"But you can save him!" Kate cried. "I know you can! It's one of your powers as a priestess of Vesta. If you go and tell them to pardon Crispinus then they'll have to do it!"
The woman looked taken aback by her outburst. She took a step away from her and tugged her robes closer to her body, as if Kate were trying to expose her in some way.
"We've been known to pardon those who would be put to death now and again," she admitted grudgingly after several seconds of tense silence. "But that is for the Fates to decide, not us. If they will us to be there, then we will be guided by their hand to—"
"Screw the Fates!" Kate cried, making the vestales behind her both gasp and the one in front of her purse her lips as if Kate had just shoved a spoonful of olive oil into her mouth. "They can't make you do anything you don't want to do, and they can't stop you from doing the things you want to do either!"
At the older woman's reproachful glare, Kate struggled to tamp down on her frustration. Yelling and putting down this woman's beliefs was the worst possible way to try and win her over.
In a strained but calmer voice Kate said, "Please. You have the chance to make your own fate and save an innocent man's life. I am begging you. Help me save him."
The older vestalis didn't soften at all at Kate's plaintive tone. She drew herself up, tugging her robes even more tightly around her as if she itched to pull them over her head and block Kate from her sight completely.
"We are not tools to be used at your whim, child," she said, her voice soft but curt. "As pitiable as your situation is, I will not aid you. If you think to thwart the Fates, then you will have to do it on your own."
She turned and stalked back up the steps, the cup in her hands shaking slightly. At the doorway, she turned back and in a stiff voice added. "The gods be merciful on you."
The door slammed shut.
Kate stood there, not quite believing what had just happened. She'd had the perfect plan and the perfect opportunity, and she'd blown it. Was Crispin seriously going to die now because of her lack of social skills?
Bitter laughter bubbled up and she let it spill free, though not her tears; she had no right to shed them when this was all her fault. She was cracking, she realized, and felt the panic rise up, wild and uncontrollable. She wanted to hit something, but with only one working hand that would have been her second stupidest act of the day, so she refrained.
Focus, she told herself as she spun away from the temple. There has to be something else, someone else. Maybe it wasn't too late to go find Evodius. Or maybe she should return to the coliseum and see if Scipio made it back with his rescue team. Maybe alone he wouldn't manage it, but with her there—
The two other vestales had disposed of their cups somewhere and were now standing in front of her. Kate had forgotten about them.
"Child?" the one asked again. The term of address sounded ridiculous because the girl had to be at least five years younger than Kate, and her companion even younger.
"Yeah?" said Kate, wary.
The one looked at the other, and they seemed to reach some silent decision together because they both nodded before turning back to Kate. "We will come with you," the older one said.
"You… you will?" Kate hardly dared to believe it, hardly dared to accept the hope swelling in her heart, making it pound.
"Yes. We do not think you can beat the Fates, as you do," she told her solemnly. "If it is their wish that your gladiator should die, then he will, regardless of what we do. But if it would give you comfort to try, than we will aid you the best we can, and the Fates will decide the outcome."
So much for inspiring social change, Kate thought wryly. Oh well. If it would get them to come, they could believe whatever the hell they wanted to.
"Thank you," she said, embarrassed when her voice caught a bit. "You have no idea how much I appreciate you two doing this."
They both bowed their heads in acknowledgement. "Shall we go then?" said the younger one.
Kate nodded, relief and adrenaline for what was to come making her shaky. She headed back the way she had come, unable to stop from breaking into a run.
The vestales followed.
"You're as strong as the rumors say," said Isidorus, impressed. "If I wasn't the one with the sword right now, I wouldn't like my chances."
"You shouldn't like them now," said Crispinus.
His opponent laughed. "Is that so?"
Crispinus dodged another swing of the blade that was intended to slice his neck, but thanks to his speed, only clipped his shoulders.
Isidorus only laughed again.
The stands were silent as everyone watched. Crispinus had never known them to be so rapt before. It was unsettling, how much his impending death seemed to mean to them.
"Shall we end this now?" Isidorus asked, his thoughts running parallel to his own. "Put them out of their misery? And you out of yours?"
"Who says I'm in misery?" said Crispinus.
Isidorus sneered, revealing his first evidence of foul humor. "We are all in misery here, gladiator. Even the people watching. It's why they come. To make themselves feel better, feel alive, feel thankful that they are not the ones down here fighting to eke out just a few more minutes of breath from their pathetic lives."
"My life isn't pathetic," Crispinus said.
"Than I feel even more sorry for you, who has something to leave. Is she very beautiful?"
"What?" The question threw Crispinus off guard for just the smallest of moments, but it was enough. Isidorus saw it and struck, thrusting his sword straight into Crispinus' chest.
It was too fast to evade. Crispinus clapped his hands over the flat sides of the blade even as the tip sunk deep into his flesh. His grab sliced up his palms but slowed the momentum enough that when the weapon hit bone it glanced off instead of cutting through.
The pain swallowed him. When next he could see and breathe and think, he was flat on his back in the sand, his blood flowing freely down his chest, pooling in tiny tributaries between the muscles of his abdomen before spilling down his sides onto the ground.
"As I said, you're as strong as the rumors say," whispered Isidorus. "I'm sorry you have to leave her. A woman wonderful enough to distract you with just a thought is a prize indeed."
"Not… not leaving," Crispinus wheezed, but the pain was too great to say more.
"Ah, but you are," said Isidorus regretfully, raising the sword. "See you in Tartarus, my friend."
Crispinus kicked out. The toe of his boot hit the sword's copper pommel and sent the weapon flying from his opponent's hands. Isidorus stood there, dumbstruck, for roughly three seconds before turning to run after it. Mistake. If he'd come for Crispinus, bare-fisted, he would have had a better chance. Now he'd left himself open for attack.
As soon as he turned his back, Crispinus lunged. The spectators' excited cries gave away the element of surprise, but luckily he was so close that even with Isidorus' fast reflexes, he managed to grab him by the head before he could turn, and with one hard twist, the man's neck snapped and he dropped dead onto the sand.
There was a stunned pause from the stands, then the crowd erupted. Guards rushed out to collect Isidorus' body. Crispinus wiped sweat from his eyes and, pressing a hand to his injury, collected the sword. Adrenaline pounded through him. He could feel the high that he used to get, that sensation of freeness that only surviving death could give you. He let it take him over, let it numb him to the pain of his injuries and thoughts of the future. No more worrying about Kate. No more fearing what he couldn't change. He would fight, he would kill. That's what he'd been trained to do and do it he would.
He was a gladiator again.
Kate could hear the cheering from five blocks away. Standing outside the coliseum, it was deafening. She prayed they were cheering for Crispin, prayed it meant he was still alive.
"This way!" she yelled the women racing behind her.
There was only one guard at the entrance, but he was intimidating enough when he pulled his sword and glared at her speedy approach.
"We need to get inside," she said.
Was he asking for money? She didn't have any of that.
The vestales had caught up with her now. She glanced at the guard and saw that he was gapping at them. So he recognized what they were. Good. If he did than that meant others would too.
Using his shock to her advantage, Kate said, "These women and I need to get inside, right now."
"But—" The man looked at her, horrified. "They're not supposed to be here during a… a—"
"You would deny a vestalis entrance?" she said in the most arrogant tone she could muster.
"But it's not right, them witnessing a—" He couldn't even say the words in front of them.
He wasn't letting them in either.
"Damn you, move!" Kate snapped.
That broke him out of his daze a bit. Kate could have kicked herself. What did she just learn about needing keep her temper when she talked to people?
The guard's gaze hardened. "No. I don't think so."
Kate planted her feet, cocked her hip, and pointed a threatening finger at him, pointedly ignoring the sword he still had raised.
Kate turned. Evodius was running towards her. Thank you, god! Reinforcement.
He stopped dead and did a bit of gaping himself when he saw the two vestales.
"I need to get them inside!" Kate told him. "But Mr. King of the Doors here won't—"
"You brought them?"
He looked from her to the vestales, who were now blushing slightly and looking anywhere but at his mangled face. It made them miss seeing the surprise, wonderment, and horror that all crossed his face when he realized what she was trying to do.
"Are you sure this is a wise plan?" he asked her quietly.
"It's the only plan," Kate told him. "And I'm out of time. So either help me or…" She didn't finish. She really wanted his help.
He thought about it a minute, then blew out a breath and bobbed his head. "Okay. Okay, if you're sure…"
The guard scowled at all of them. "If you think I'm going to let you in now—"
Evodius had pulled his sword and had relieved the guard of his own before the man could even finish his sentence.
He pressed the tip of his blade to the man's neck. "You were saying?" he asked pleasantly. And then in a more serious voice, "Go, Kate."
Kate and vestales went.
Either his opponent, Buccio, had a spirit twin following him around, or Crispinus was seeing double. Not a good sign.
He gave a couple hard blinks and shook his head. Buccio melted back into one person, a lumpy pig-faced man who should have been easier to kill than he was, considering Crispinus was the one with the sword and the experience. But blood loss was making him dizzy and the man was light-footed for carrying so much excess weight.
Crispinus swung his blade again, missed, and cursed foully.
The first man out after he'd killed Isidorus had been easy. Herclides had been an older man who had not even bothered to fight. He'd entered the arena with his head held high, whispering to Crispinus, "Pax" when the gladiator had stepped forward to begin his attack. Herclides had then lowered himself onto his knees, and with his arms upraised, cried, "Know this: I die today an innocent man!" Then he'd nodded to Crispinus, who had proceeded to step up behind him and slit his throat, quick and painless.
At least for Crispinus.
The next had been a younger man, Micon. He'd cowered like an abused dog when Crispinus came after him, and Crispinus had paused out of sympathy and guilt. But the boy had somehow managed to sneak a dagger into the arena with him and pulled it out while Crispinus was busy fighting his conscience. He buried the blade deep in Crispinus' upper thigh, and Crispinus had reacted instinctively and swung, decapitating the young man in one stroke.
Now he faced the last, Buccio, who'd been allowed to keep Micon's dagger after his body had been taken away. It was good for him but bad for Crispinus, who was seeing two of him again.
"Come and get me, you gladiator bastard," Buccio taunted. He had a wet, gravely-sounding voice that turned Crispinus' stomach, or that could have been the smell of death that was slowly permeating the hot, stagnant air of the arena.
What he wouldn't give for breeze right now.
When he didn't step forward, Buccio made his own swipe. Crispinus didn't react fast enough and suffered a long but shallow cut across his chest. Blood he couldn't afford to lose began to run.
Buccio cackled, "Point for me."
Crispinus snarled at him. Glad when it wiped the confident smirk of his opponent's face and replaced it with fear.
It was chaos in the stands.
Kate and the vestales came out halfway up the second level. Most of the people were on their feet. They were yelling, cheering, jumping up and down. She saw one throw a sandal and several others threw grapes. The smell of wine and sweat was a cloying thing inside her nostrils. The two vestales huddle close behind her.
"What do we do?" the older one asked.
Her gaze immediately went to the arena where two men were locked in combat. A heavy set man waved a dagger, fending off his opponent who carried a sword. Even through all the blood and sand caking his body, Kate recognized that determined gate and curly head of hair.
Her heart leapt. It was Crispin! He was still alive! She'd made it in time.
She looked around for the emperor. He was the one ultimately in charge of all this. If she could get the vestales to him…
She spotted his seat and her stomach sank. He was on the opposite side, across the arena, what looked like a wall of guards surrounding him.
The vestales spotted him too.
"We'll never get over there," said the younger girl.
"Fate," said the older, shrugging, though she looked regretful.
"Like hell," snapped Kate. She hadn't come this far just to give up.
A new idea came to her.
"We don't need to get to him," she told the girls. "He just has to see you and know who you are."
"But how do we do that?"
"Like this." And taking a deep breath, Kate screamed, "Vestales! There are Vestales in here! Look! Vestales!"
So it wasn't her cleverest idea ever. Kate didn't care. It worked. The people closest to them saw them and, after a surprised moment, started yelling too. Within seconds, the word was being spread.
There were vestales in the stands.
Down below, Crispinus just managed to avoid getting his hand sliced off. He really was slowing down. Thankfully, Buccio was also tiring. Not from wounds, but from his weight. His breathing was labored as Crispinus forced him to keep retreating in loopy circles across the sand. Sweat poured from him as fast as blood was pouring from Crispinus.
The gladiator pressed harder against the gash in his chest, but it was the deep stab wound in his leg that worried him the most. His steps were squishy from all the blood pooling into his boot, and whenever he put is full weight down his muscles screamed and tried to seize up on him.
Buccio tripped over something—thank the gods—and went down. It was the shield, forgotten and half buried in the sand.
Buccio picked it up and hurled it at Crispinus like an oversized discus, giving himself time to get back to his feet. Crispinus caught it, ignoring the bite of pain as it cut into the slashes across his palm, and sent it flying back, twice as hard.
It hit Buccio in the back of the legs and sent him sprawling. Crispinus pinned him with a boot to his back and steady sword tip at the base of his neck.
The man began to plead, wet, whimpering words where seconds ago he'd been a cocky bastard doing his damndest to kill him. Crispinus knew better than to show mercy this time.
Before he could make the final cut, the man flung himself up, probably in an attempt to knock Crispinus off and escape. But he misjudged and half slit his own throat on the sword on his way up.
Blood sprayed. Buccio fell back down with a choking gurgle, clawing at his throat. Crispinus had half a mind to stand there and watch him bleed out—served him right—but the terror in the man's eyes flooded him with loathing, for the Buccio and himself, and he finished what the man had begun.
It'sover, he thought, flinging away the blood-soaked blade. In a few moments, they would release the lion, and he would let it come. He had fought enough, killed enough. Kate couldn't ask any more from him.
Though it sounded like she was.
He swore he could hear her, and wondered if he was more far gone than he'd thought. The usual cheering that usually rose up after a kill hadn't come. Instead, people were yelling, some angrily, some in a panic, others in awe. And over all of them, Kate's voice, so clear the rest seemed like mere echoes in comparison: "Vestales! Stop the fight! There are vestales here!"
His gaze swept the stands, looking for her, joy and terror at her being there making him even more lightheaded. Why was she here? What in the world was she doing?
The creak of a gate swinging open behind him distracted him. Screams went up, followed by and enraged roar.
The lion had been released.
The emperor knew they were there. He knew! She saw the words reach him, saw him look over and spot them in middle of all the people who clustered around her and the vestales. She saw his pause, could actually see the debate going on his mind.
She saw him lift his hand in the gesture that would spare Crispinus's life.
But not everyone saw. Not whoever commanded the gates. They didn't see.
The vestales screamed.
Kate watched, horrified and frozen, as a huge, female lion rushed out into the ring, roaring and snapping at the air as it took in it's surroundings, all the people, all the yelling. Trapped. Nowhere to hide. She could see its ribs, the way it's head looked too big for its body. And the scars… good god, how long had they tortured it to make it look like that?
It spotted Crispin and roared. It was going to kill him. Out of hunger or fear or feral rage, it didn't matter. If someone didn't do something fast, Crispin would die.
Crispin tried to back away, slowly, but he was wobbly on his feet and that only seemed to incense the lion more. It roared again and began to pursue him, warily but with purpose.
Oh god, thought Kate, oh god, oh god, oh god. She needed to do something, but she didn't know what. Guards who had seen the emperor gesture were now clustered near the entrance, but none were going to go inside and willingly put themselves between a lioness and her prey, armed or not.
"Enjoying the show?" A hateful voice whispered in Kate's ear.
Kate whirled. Valencia stood there, looking as beautiful and ferocious as ever, her golden locks upswept and her outfit perfectly draped around her. She looked as if she were attending some dinner party, not an execution.
"I heard you yelling," Valencia said. "Disgusting that you're still alive, but I guess that's what I get for relying on incompetent gladiator masters. Besides, watching you watch Crispinus die is actually quiet satisfying."
Kate couldn't believe the woman was standing there, mocking her with such pleasure as her world was crashing down around her.
"I hate you," she said, her whole body trembling with suppressed rage. "I hate you so much. I've never hated anyone as much as I hate you."
"The feeling is mutual, believe me," said Valencia, then she looked down at the arena and said in a pleasure-filled tone, "Oooh, there he goes."
The lion had reached Crispin, who was still trying to put distance between them while remaining as nonthreatening as he could be. It swiped at him with one giant paw and Crispin cried out in pain as he grabbed his arm and fell to his knees.
The sound startled the big cat and it sprinted back, just a few feet, before looping around for another go, growling deep in its throat.
"Nice try with the vestales, by the way," Valencia said. "Very ingenious of you. How did you get them to come with you? It's not like you have any money to bribe them, or status, or beauty—not that they'd be affected by the last one, but I felt it important to point out. It will forever be a mystery to me how Crispinus could actually want you when you're such a—"
Kate punched her. She hadn't been able to stop herself. The action sent all new levels of pain exploding up her injured hand and she gasped and clutched it, almost missing seeing Valencia tumble backwards into the wooden guardrail, arms pinwheeling as blood gushed from her nose, and flip heels-over-head over the side.
Her shriek cut through the clamor of the spectators. Kate and the vestales made it to the rail just in time to see Valencia land, feet-first, in the sand, her legs not so much folding under her as snapping on impact.
The lion paused halfway back to Crispin, who lay barely conscious on the ground. Not moving, not speaking. Valencia on the other hand, was still quite conscious, and was shrieking and flailing in unimaginable pain.
The lion hissed, crouched and hissed again. It didn't like the noise, and all Valencia's writhing around was confusing it. The cat started for her, quicker than it had come for Crispin. The minute it was away from him, five guards rushed out. They hauled Crispin to his feet and began dragging him out of the arena. One paused and looked over at Valencia—perhaps he recognized her as the consul's daughter—but the lion had already reached her, and Valencia's screams of terror were cut short as sharp fangs sunk deep and ripped out her throat.
The entire coliseum was in an uproar. Everyone was one their feet, shouting, arguing. Exclamations like, "Gods!" and "Hera have mercy!" were interspersed between questions like, "Did you see what just happened?" and, "Who was that? Did you see?"
Kate pushed away from the railing and tore down the stairs, not caring when the vestales didn't follow. She didn't have time to think about what she had just done, or what it meant that her initial feelings when she had watched Valencia disappear over the side of the guardrail hadn't been horror or regret, but a deep and vicious satisfaction that the woman who had done everything in her power to destroy her and Crispin was finally gone.
All she felt now was relief. Heart-pounding, wing-sprouting relief. They had Crispin. He was alive. Injured, but alive. She would take it. She would take him, far, far away from here where he would never have to fight and kill again. Where she would never have to fear for his life like this, or hers either, for that matter.
Never again. It was over.
She made it to the ground floor and headed for the east gate where she'd seen them taking Crispin. She beat the guards to it, watching as they slowly but steadily helped her gladiator across the arena towards her. She glanced over at the lion, but the cat was still enjoying its kill, and didn't so much as glance their way.
Crispin had come to enough to walk on his own, though he limped and had to lean heavily on two of the guards. Kate called his name and his head jerked up. He saw her and the love and admiration in his eyes when he smiled at her was like a balm to her very soul. They were going to be okay. Miraculously, against all the odds, everything had turned out right.
Unable to wait for him to reach her, she started towards him. Something tangled around her feet and she kicked at it, but it wouldn't come lose. She couldn't take so much as a step.
Kate looked down. Thick green vines were winding their way up her body. They had already passed her knees and, as she watched, looped securely around her waist. She twisted, tried to kick out, but though they were soft and pliable enough not to hurt her, they wouldn't break.
"What the hell?"
"Stay calm. They won't hurt you," said a voice beside her, and Kate turned to see a pretty, petite woman step forward, her young face solemn.
"Who the hell are you? What are you doing to me?" said Kate, jerking her head when one of the vines brushed her chin as it was wrapping around her shoulders.
"My name is Persephone," the woman said.
"Persephone? Like, the goddess of Spring, Persephone?"
Such a simple word. Yes. As if it were of no great consequence. Kate didn't have time to be impressed.
"Well release me!"
"Why the hell not?"
"Because I haven't said she could," said Lachesis, appearing next to her.
Kate cursed and instinctively tried to move away, but of course she couldn't go anywhere.
"Not you again," she said. "Crispin is alive and has been pardoned. We beat you. It's over."
Lachesis narrowed her eyes at her. "Not yet it's not."
She snapped her fingers. A man appeared beside the goddess of Spring. He was very tall with thick dark hair and muscles that could give even Crispin a run for his money. When he looked at Kate, she felt remorse slam into her like a wall of water, soaking her to the bone with regret and making her want to cry. God, what was this?
He looked away and the feeling eased enough that Kate no longer felt as if she was going to dissolve into tears at any second. He nodded to Lachesis curtly. "Fate."
Lachesis gestured to Crispin and the others. They were barely twenty yards away now. The guards seemed to not notice the strange little group forming in front of them, but Crispin did. His smile slipped and his expression became concerned. He picked up his pace but it was still excruciatingly slow.
"Hades," she said. "Go."
Hades? The Hades? Like the God of the Underworld? Of the dead?
He strode out into the arena, directly for Crispin, who slowed at the sight of him. The guards seemingly saw nothing for they walked on, not even pausing as the man passed them by.
Kate struggled against the vines harder. Persephone made noises of concern saying, "Please. You'll hurt yourself."
"Where is he going? What's he gonna do to Crispin?"
"He must fall in the arena," whispered Lachesis, her gaze locked on the two men. "And so he shall."
"No!" Kate watched, horrified, as before her eyes the god of the Underworld became transparent, ghost-like and wispy, with all of solidity of a cloud. He rushed Crispin and the gladiator balked, throwing up his hands to ward him off. But Hades crashed right into him, and Crispin dropped—just collapsed, thud—into the sand.
Kate was yelling but it wasn't words. Pure rage poured out of her. She clawed at the vines, ripping and twisting like a wild thing. She demanded Persephone release her, but the goddess only shook her head and backed away.
The guards noticed Crispin's collapse and rushed back. They hauled him up and his head lolled in Kate's direction. Empty eyes stared back at her. Utterly lifeless. Gone.
Kate stared, refusing to comprehend. "What did you do to him?" she cried. "What did you just do?"
"I did what needed to be done," said Lachesis. She waved a hand at the stands that had gone hushed at the gladiator's fall. "Do you know how many lives will be affected by this?" she murmured to Kate. "How many people his death will inspire? How many beliefs it will change, the paths it will alter? You cannot conceive the depth of influence this will have on society. I couldn't allow you to ruin that. Not for any reason."
Kate didn't hear her excuses. She'd stopped listening after the words "his death." Crispin was dead. Her worst fear come true. After all they'd done, Fate had appeared, and with a single command, taken Crispin's life without so much as an apology.
Kate felt sick. She watched as the guards carried Crispin out. The grief went so deep she couldn't feel it yet. Shock at having tried so hard, and failed so completely, was keeping reality from settling in. Maybe, if she was lucky, she'd stay numb like this forever.
Her redheaded tour guide appeared in front of her then, just as silently and instantaneously as everyone else had. In her anguish, Kate just couldn't work up the ability to be surprised, or to care.
"You're late," said Lachesis.
"My apologies," said Aphrodite, though even Kate could tell she didn't mean it. The goddess of Love nodded slightly to Persephone, who had been hanging back against the far wall. "Spring."
"Did you tell him?" Persephone asked her, voice quiet and sad.
Aphrodite's lips twisted into a bitter smile. "I did. He was not happy with me."
"He will understand in time."
Aphrodite nodded once.
Lachesis gestured to Kate. "Well, goddess? You made the deal. Send her back."
Back. Kate didn't need three guesses to know where they meant. To think, a week ago she would have begged them to do this. Now all she felt was empty. Empty and cold.
Aphrodite stepped forward. Kate slumped under the grip of the vines. "Why did you do all of this?" she whispered. "Why bring me here, make me feel so much, love so much, just to take it all away from me?"
"I'm sorry," was all the goddess said.
Kate dropped her head. "No, you're not."
Footsteps suddenly pounded down the hall behind her. She heard Scipio's voice—Scipio, of all people—call out, "Wait! Aphrodite, don't!"
"You're right," the Goddess of Love whispered to her. "I'm not."
Then she sang her chant, and the world melted away.