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The Legacy of Androva Series

New Book, New Series, Thirteenth Chapter ⚔

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

I had 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.
The 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.
Cass had 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.
Allowing 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.
After Cass 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?
I 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.
Gods, that sounds even worse.
I mean, whether we should meet.
It felt 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.
I 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 I needed.
I chose 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.
Once I’d 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 the face.
We 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.
Citizens 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.
Cass started out as my small comfort. She ended up becoming my everything.
I 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.
“You 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 fight badly.”
He 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.
The retiarius 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.
“Those now in front. Secutor.”
Unlike 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.
There 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.
“Final row. Eques.”
We stared at him blankly. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been expecting that.
Eques?” repeated Julius, the boy next to me.
“Yes.” The lanista scowled. “Isn’t that what I said?” We all nodded, keen to avoid being on the receiving end of his temper.
“If your 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.
“N-no,” he whispered.
“Good. Eques it is, then. You will begin tomorrow. Do not embarrass me.”
When 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.”
“Don’t 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.”
He’s right. Eques fights eques. It’s a better spectacle that way.
My 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 the dirt.
“Gods, you two. Always at each other’s throats. I’ll be glad when one of you kills the other.”
After 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.
I leaned 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.
After 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.
Then, 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.
By the 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.
We hadn’t talked much. I’d said, “What the hell is going on between us?”
She’d replied, “If you don’t know, you’re even stupider than I thought you were.”
We’d stared 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.
More 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.
I waited. 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.
“Avi. Avi! Wake up.”
Her urgent whisper blended with my dream for a few seconds before my eyes opened. “Hey. Where have you been?” I said, and yawned.
“Julius would not go to sleep. He kept the whole cell awake talking about what might happen tomorrow.”
She pushed 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.”
I leaned into her hand and she uncurled her fingers, pushing them into my hair and stroking the back of my neck.
“Sorry,” I murmured. “How can I make it up to you?”
I was 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 expert.”

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