Author: Gary Cuba
Location: Eastover, South Carolina
Gary Cuba lives with his wife and an uncountable number of dogs and cats in a rural area not far from the Congaree National Swamp in South Carolina. His stories have appeared in Jim Baen's Universe, Fictitious Force, The Late Late Show, AlienSkin, Atomjack, Drabblecast,
and other venues. He currently serves on the Baen's Universe staff as an editorial associate. He unwraps his inner world on his website, www.thefoggiestnotion.com
Flavius Marcus Turtella lowered the point of his sword against the throat of the fellow gladiator who sprawled on the dusty ground before him. The man at his feet was spent, bloody, suffering from a half-dozen or more wounds. He had fought valiantly, but Jove had smiled on Flavius this day.
The defeated man raised his hand weakly, ad digitum, acknowledging his defeat to the roving referees. The ultimate disposition of his fate now rested in the hands of the game's sponsor—in this case, the Emperor himself. But Flavius knew it was rare for a downed gladiator to be summarily killed in the coliseum, so long as he had fought well. They were simply too valuable to waste. Even so, paying sponsors always had the power to act in a capricious manner—and the crowds seemed to be titillated by that uncertainty.
The victorious gladiator, his foot set upon the scarred chest of his prostrate opponent, looked up at the Emperor's booth to receive his final command. The Emperor, swathed in finely embroidered robes, was distracted by a nearby ongoing contest. Fine, Flavius thought. I can wait.
His eyes drifted across the width of the open booth, taken in by the magnificence of the imperial family. They eventually came to rest upon a very young girl playing with a tiny straw doll at the family's feet, dressed in her simpler child's attire. That must be Octavia, the youngest issue of the Emperor and his present wife, Cletia. A fetching tot, he thought, studying her curly blond locks. The three-year-old cherub seemed out of place in this crass, noisy, bloody venue. The girl looked a lot like his own daughter had, who Flavius had not seen for ... was it ten years, now? A wave of nostalgia overcame him, and his vision glazed for an instant.
But for no more than that. Nostalgic feelings were a weakness in his trade; it only distracted the eye and the hand. Better to forget the past, and look forward to a future when his soul might finally ascend to heaven in Mithras' chariot, there to await eternal reunion with his own beloved family.
He glanced back down at his defeated opponent, checking to make sure the man had not been granted a second spirit and changed his mind about the match's outcome. No, he continued to lay still. The man stared up at Flavius, his eyes saying what his throat was too parched to utter: All honor to you, my brother; make it quick, if it comes to that. Flavius had known this man for years, had trained with him. In any other profession, he would have counted him as a friend. But not in this one. There were no friends here, only opponents. He would only find a comrade when he felt the sandal of another fellow gladiator on his own chest, and awaited his own turn at death.
Flavius raised his head, and still the Emperor watched the other contest. The gladiator began to feel impatient, if only because he knew his defeated opponent felt so. It was not wise to allow the man's wounds to bleed for too long, as it would only slow his recovery to full fighting form again--or even worse, make such recovery impossible. He looked again at the small child, Octavia. She glanced up from her play and caught his eye; the little girl grinned widely, her rosy cheeks beaming in the sun. The gladiator smiled back at her, and he felt a warm wash of emotion flood through him. Such a pretty child, he thought. So innocent, so like my own sweet little angel.
Octavia produced a wee dagger from the depths of her robe and sliced off the head of her doll with one quick motion. Her pleased giggle cut through the noise of the crowd like an arrow.
The Emperor suddenly looked down to see what had so amused his daughter, chuckled, then turned toward the waiting Flavius. The supreme ruler of the glorious Roman Empire raised his eyebrows, cocked his head and shrugged his shoulders in the apologetic manner that any doting father might effect. He flashed a hand signal to the gladiator.
Flavius removed the head of his opponent with a single deft, powerful stroke of his sword, then lifted the bloody mass from the stained dirt and held it up toward the imperial booth. The child screeched in glee.
"For you, little angel," he said, his voice choking.