Today's chapter has Luca remembering a time in Ancient Rome when he and Cass were both gladiators-in-training. They discover the fighting style their lanista (owner) has chosen for them, and they also discover the extent of their feelings for each other. Back then, Luca was living a real earthbound life and had not yet become a guardian. He's also trying to manage (with limited success!) the added complication of his growing attraction to Devin in the present day.
You can catch up on earlier chapters by using the New series label at the top of this post, and thank you very much for reading 💕
13 A Memory
coped with the overnight and weekend solitude reasonably well so far. The quiet
and the darkness of the library, my favorite place, were welcome and necessary after
the sensory overload of a day spent in high school. It was relentless. Mina’s politics
and plotting gave me a headache, and the new-student spotlight showed no signs
of dimming yet. I had to concentrate every second just to blend in.
Such a peculiar
objective: to be one of the crowd. As a guardian I strived to be noticed,
hoping that my assignments would sense the light and the magic I offered. I was
permitted to show them the opportunities built into their life paths as long as
I didn’t compromise their free will.
difficulty didn’t just lie in the fine line between the showing and the
telling. It took years of training before Light Mages could navigate the
earthbound dimension without a physical covering. There was no chance of making
a connection by accident, and certainly not as easily as the one I’d made with
Devin. Everything was dark and heavy here.
It was necessary.
Deliberate. The struggle of being earthbound became real when there was no
guarantee of salvation, and no certain reward for choosing well over choosing
badly. Life lessons didn’t count if they were learned with a visible safety net.
to find a way through her darkness alone. The stakes were so high, yet I
couldn’t tell her anything. As far as she was concerned, I was just Avi, a new
student with questionable social skills and a fear of physical contact.
her to think that I was also a time-traveling magician of some kind did bend
the rules a little, but it didn’t break them. I remained hopeful I could make
this work and leave him empty-handed. His earlier text message had
spurred me into taking a risk. It seemed to have paid off. Please. Please
let me succeed.
left, I stayed where I was, not willing to venture into the corridor until it was
dark outside. I knew the janitor’s routine and how to avoid him. While I was
waiting, I exchanged messages with Devin, congratulating him on making the team.
He asked if we could meet up over the weekend.
“I’ll skip Mina’s party and come see you
instead,” he wrote.
“And what would we do?”
flushed as soon as I’d tapped Send. It had been an honest question but reading
it back on the screen it looked more like an invitation.
“Whatever. You choose.”
My mind immediately
provided one or two unhelpful but appealing suggestions. I wanted to see him
even though I was afraid of the insane chemistry between us. I also felt
ashamed at the thought that I’d nearly kissed his sister. I would end up
helping neither of them at this rate. I was behaving more like one of my
assignments than the guardian I was supposed to be.
“I’ll think about it,” I typed.
“No. Not about what to choose. I mean I’ll
think about whether you should come,” I added.
that sounds even worse.
“I mean, whether we should meet.”
like the flush of embarrassment had spread to my entire body. Devin replied
with a single smiley face. The winking one. I stared at my phone. Shit. I
need a cold shower.
I got up
and left the room. If I kept exchanging messages with Devin I was in danger of
inviting him here right now and to hell with the consequences. I wandered the
empty school for a while, dispersing any echoes of negative energy I
encountered. It was basic guardian housekeeping, and a good distraction.
inevitably ended up back in the library, where I settled in for the night. There,
amongst the books, the separation between the earthbound and magical dimensions
was thinnest and magical energy was easy to obtain. It was the only sustenance
a biography of a nineteenth-century author whose publisher had once been an
assignment of mine. Henry Austen, with some help from me, had persuaded Thomas,
my assignment, to publish a novel written by Henry’s sister. The legacy of that
simple decision was still alive more than two hundred years later. Surely no
one reading her story could be in any doubt. Every life path matters.
The potential is infinite.
I knew he
disagreed with me. Although he was happy to exploit the opportunity of our
arrangement, he thought I was mad to risk so much for what he saw as so little.
Maybe I am mad. Given the scarcity of qualified guardians, the High Council
would be outraged if they had any idea what I’ve done.
When I was
about halfway through the book, I put it down on the carpet. This was the time
of night I looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure, when I would
deliberately revisit another memory of Cass. I had the vain hope that if I
desensitized myself to everything that had happened between us, then I would be
more able to focus on her current manifestation when we were together. Admit
it, Luca. You just like torturing yourself.
started, the memories took on a life of their own, becoming irresistible in
their intensity. There were times I was afraid I wouldn’t return from the Ludus
Magnus in time. I imagined the librarians unlocking the doors in the
morning to find their pale-green carpet and veneered shelves replaced with
stone walls, dust, and the oppressive heat of Rome in summer. If they were really
unlucky, they’d walk straight into a sparring match and get a rudis in
trained a lot. I was always hungry. Unfortunately, gladiators were vegetarians,
and our meals were modest. Meat was too good for the likes of us. It was the
worst food I’d ever had, even though I’d been a slave all my life.
called us the hordearii—the barley men. Sometimes the more well-known
gladiators would be given gifts of food by their fans. It was small comfort
compared to the dangers we faced, but it’s surprising how important small
comforts become when you have nothing else.
started out as my small comfort. She ended up becoming my everything.
thought back to the day we’d been assigned. Our group stood in three rows of
six, squinting into the early evening sun. “The first part of your training is
over,” said the lanista, surveying his property impassively. We’d
learned the hard way to keep our expressions as deadpan as his.
will now complete your training in the style I have chosen for you. An
honorable death awaits, but only if you master these skills. The mob does not
applaud incompetence. It will jeer you on your way to the afterlife if you
paused, making sure we understood. “Those in front, step forward. Retiarius.”
There was a murmur of discontent, and the lanista raised an eyebrow.
“Problem?” He tapped the knife attached to his belt with impatient fingers and
everyone immediately fell silent. He gestured for the first row to step aside.
gladiator fought with a net and a trident, wearing no body armor. Death was
usually messy and painful, though the agile fighter had a fair chance of
survival if his aim was good.
now in front. Secutor.”
the retiarius, the secutor, his customary opponent, was armored
up to the hilt and carried a large rectangular shield and a gladius
sword. The superior weaponry and the protection it gave was balanced by its
weight and lack of maneuverability.
was one row left. The row containing me and Cass. Which type would we be
assigned to? I didn’t know which to wish for. I could succeed at either. Then I
brightened. At least if we were in the same row, we wouldn’t be fighting each
other. That was something to be grateful for.
stared at him blankly. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been
repeated Julius, the boy next to me.
The lanista scowled. “Isn’t that what I said?” We all nodded, keen to
avoid being on the receiving end of his temper.
hearing is damaged, you are of no use to me. Well… is it?” He leaned closer,
pulling out his knife, and Julius, who was still nodding, froze in place.
it is, then. You will begin tomorrow. Do not embarrass me.”
he’d stalked off, his cloak flowing, the six of us looked at each other. Cass
seemed really mad. “I didn’t even know he’d bought some new horses,” said
Julius. “I hope I haven’t forgotten how to ride.”
be stupid,” said one of the others. “We’ve only been here eight weeks. You
don’t forget that fast.” He offered a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Although… if you have forgotten, that will make you easier to kill.”
right. Eques fights eques. It’s a better spectacle that way.
stomach churned. I went to stand next to Cass and brushed the back of her hand
with my fingers. She returned the pressure for a second before giving me a
violent shove. I fell against Julius, who swore loudly when we both landed in
you two. Always at each other’s throats. I’ll be glad when one of you kills the
the Ludus had settled into the quiet of the evening, I crept out of my
cell and along the edge of the training arena until I reached the farthest
corner. The shadows were empty. Cass wasn’t there yet. Maybe she wouldn’t meet
me at all. I knew her pretty well by now, and she hadn’t just been angry
before. She’d been scared.
against the wall, drawing up my knees. Eques. It made sense, on
reflection. The eques gladiator entered the arena on horseback, and I
was a good rider. He used a sword and a spear. I was skilled at both. He was
like a combination of retiarius and secutor. It would suit me. Except…
Cass would be eques too.
she’d sliced into my face with her sword, she had stepped up the animosity
toward me. Day after day with no respite. I barely held onto my temper. It was
only the determination that it would be my choice if and when I lost it,
not hers, that stopped me from exploding.
one day, I’d caught her staring at me. The longing on her face was enough of a
shock to make me drop the bowl I was holding, and I gasped with pain when hot
stew landed on my legs.
time I’d turned back, she’d gone, but I’d already decided to confront her. I
asked her to meet me when everyone was asleep, overcoming her initial refusal
by threatening to tell the lanista she’d been stealing.
talked much. I’d said, “What the hell is going on between us?”
replied, “If you don’t know, you’re even stupider than I thought you were.”
at each other. I’d taken a step closer. She’d taken a step. Then another.
Suddenly we were kissing. Neither of us was very good at it that first time,
but it didn’t seem to matter. It was like the first sip of water when you’re
desperately thirsty. At first your brain can’t process how amazing it feels,
but then you go slightly crazy and try to drink the entire well.
stolen meetings had followed. Although we kept up our fighting in front of the
others, in private we became close. We only talked about the present. The past
was too painful and the future was too uncertain. We had no time and no reason
to take it slowly. She was smart, and funny, and beautiful, and I already knew
I’d fallen in love with her.
It was hard to stay awake. The air was warm and I was exhausted from a long
day’s training. My head fell forward and I dreamed of horses.
urgent whisper blended with my dream for a few seconds before my eyes opened.
“Hey. Where have you been?” I said, and yawned.
would not go to sleep. He kept the whole cell awake talking about what
might happen tomorrow.”
her fist against my jaw in a pretend punch and scowled. “Nice to see you were
so worried about me you couldn’t even remain conscious.”
into her hand and she uncurled her fingers, pushing them into my hair and
stroking the back of my neck.
I murmured. “How can I make it up to you?”
about to kiss her when she moved away. “You can teach me how to ride a horse,”
she said. “That lying bastard who sold me told the lanista I was an