Nimr returned to the holding area with the other gladiators from his new ludus cheering his name. Well, most of them were. Kaeso was sullen and silent- Munatius merely inclined his head in respect.
His victory over Decimus had been unexpected and hard-fought. He hoped that his opponent survived, so one day they could repeat their epic battle, though the medicus was far from certain he would live. Nimr himself felt sore, and bruised, and his own wounds would need tending to. He wished Ekwueme was present to offer his aid- and services.
For all he knew, Ekwueme was here. After all, Crispina was. Ekwu was rarely far from her presence when she travelled, so maybe, just maybe, he would be able to see his beloved, if even for a moment…
“Nimr, Lady Crispina wishes to break words with you.” A helmeted guard announced as he came around the corner. “She awaits your presence at the main gate. I will escort you.”
Nimr glanced at Munatius, who nodded. Nimr in turn tilted his head to the guard, and together they made their way through the labyrinth corridors of the Colosseum.
There were a great many Romans milling around on either side of the gate, representing various sides to the city’s character. Citizens in expensive silks barked orders at virtually naked and dishevelled slaves and street sellers were thrusting their wares in the faces of anyone who passed even remotely nearby. It was a noisy, chaotic scene, and underneath the warm sun Nimr picked up a variety of smells- most of them unpleasant. He could not imagine why Crispina would wish to see him…
And then he saw him. Ekwu, standing beside Crispina. Despite his injuries, Nimr sprinted the final few yards and wrapped his arms around him, planting a fierce kiss upon his lips. Ekwu chuckled and returned his passionate embrace, and the two of them stood there, lost to their love for a moment, before Ekwu realised Crispina was watching, a little twinkle in her eyes.
“Do not stop because of me. I was rather enjoying my observations.” Her fluttery voice was full of gentle teasing. “Nimr, I need to break words and I must do so quickly.” She took on a more serious tone as Nimr stopped to listen. “Your new dominus, Vibius Maccius Metellus, and his brother, Senator Caius Maccius Metellus, are the men responsible for trying to destroy Nepos. They bear a deep grudge against his family, and have been carefully constructing his downfall for years.”
Nimr was silent. These were words that for reasons unknown, did not shock him. Yet it worried him, immensely. He was in the possession of Vibius, right in the heart of his lair, which brought with it great opportunity- and great peril.
“Does Nepos know of this?” He asked after a moment.
“Yes. He wishes to turn the tables on them, but he lacks proof of vendetta. I do not know how you might use this news Nimr, but if you can find a way, I know the Tiger will help put things right. Good luck. Ekwueme, if you have any words for Nimr, now is the time..” Crispina stood back, allowing Nimr and Ekwueme a moment.
Ekwueme looked Nimr up and down, taking in his beloved’s blood-stained appearance. He almost seemed aroused, admiring the Tiger’s look.
“You fought well today.” He began, his voice deep and rumblimg.
“I fought as good as I expected. It was a hard contest- as many things are hard.” Nimr grinned.
Ekwueme chuckled, before his expression turned more serious. “I long for your presence Nimr, for your touch.” He took Nimr’s hands in his own. “Stay safe, watch your back.”
Nimr squeezed Ekwu’s hands gently. “I will. And I will be in your arms again.”
Ekwueme could see the conviction in his eyes and nodded. “I look forward to the day.” He kissed Nimr, softly, and for a few moments life was perfect. Then they heard Crispina clearing her throat, and the moment passed.
“It is time to go.” She said quietly.
“Until next time my love.” Said Ekwueme.
“Until next time.” Nimr smiled weakly.
Crispina and Ekwueme began to move back, into the throngs of people, and Nimr moved back into the arena walls. The guard was waiting for him.
“Now you see brother, not only will the purchase of Nimr weaken Nepos’ house considerably, but it will greatly raise my own.” Vibius poured expensive wine into two expensive golden goblets and handed one to his brother, Caius.
They were polar opposites to look at. Vibius was tall, thin, almost gaunt. His eyes seemed to sink into his face and gave him an erie appearance. His long toga seemed to hang off him. His brother was shorter, and slightly more rotound, though considering his wealth and position he was in better shape than a lot of senators. Much time had passed since they played as children within the falls of their grandfather’s home- and Vibius now owned an impressive ludus, aided by connections to Caius. They were not especially close brothers as adults, but they saw to it that each benefited from their respective positions in some way. They loved each other, even if it was not apparent.
Both of them possessed their father’s intelligence, which made them formidable.
Caius took the offered wine and sat down upon the plush mauve cushions that rested upon the floor of Vibius’ private villa chambers.
“I must say, Nimr was impressive. I had believed Decimus to be the finest gladiator in the Empire. Perhaps I should re-assess that belief?”
Vibius sat down beside his brother. “Oh, I suspect there are those more naturally talented than the Tiger- but the passion, the steel that Nimr brings to the arena is like nothing I have ever seen. He refuses to give in and can be quite unorthodox. I look forward to the coin he will bring.”
Caius snorted. “And I look forward to the ruin it will bring to the House of Nepos. It is believed without Nimr’s winnings that it will be a matter of months before he cannot pay his duties. At that point we will claim his entire estate and cast him out of Rome’s warm bosom.”
Vibius raised his goblet. “I will gladly drink to that.”
Kaeso fixed Nimr with an unrelenting glare as the victorous new warrior returned to the ludus, showered with the adulation of his new comrades. The Doctore, Munatius, looked as impassive as ever. Vibius looked down from his balcony, flanked by his brother Caius. They gazed down upon their possessions with a mix of contempt and pride- and did not notice the thunder in Nimr’s own look.
It was tempting to dispatch both of them at the earliest opportunity, yet Nimr, despite being a ‘mere’ gladiator, knew such action would doom every slave within the walls of the ludus and Paulus would probably point the finger at Nepos as well. The best thing to do- the smart thing to do- would be to find something- anything– that tied the Metellus brothers to crimes against Nepos, but finding it would be easier said than done.
When Nimr had resided within the walls of Nepos’ ludus, he had been given virtually all the freedom he wanted to wander within the villa and ludus. He very much doubted Vibius would extend that same freedom to him here.
Vibius raised a hand to bid his charges be silent, and when they had settled, spoke:
“Today the Tiger Nimr has earned his place within our ludus. He has destroyed the mighty Decimus and earned our respect. In honour of his victory, I have parted with much coin to bring wine and whores for your entertainment. Drink! Fuck! Revel in the delights I have for you tonight!”
It was a cheap trick to ensure the loyalty of his gladiators and Nimr saw through it. Nepos had always taught his warriors to better themselves and his rewards, whilst occasionally involving sex, were not so easily given. The entire ludus did not deserve to benefit from the actions of one, no matter what those actions were…
The gladiators cheered and whooped and their excitement grew as the guards carried in barrels of wine and led in cheap whores, many of whom were already virtually naked. There was no subtlety- the rutting started almost immediately, the girls being led away- sometimes cornered by two or three men at once- to take part in sating the gladiators.
Nimr stood to one side. He struggled not to wince- his wounds had not bothered him at the time but since being cleaned and dressed they actually seemed to hurt more- and the dressings always itch- why must they itch?!
Out of the corner of his eye, Nimr noticed Munatius was also standing to one side, and Nimr thought he saw a faint look of disapproval in his eyes. The Doctore noticed Nimr watching him and that look vanished, replaced by the stone wall that was usually there, before he took his leave, heading within the ludus.
Something piqued Nimr’s curiosity. He moved to follow, but was stopped by a meaty hand slapping down upon his shoulder.
“I see you do not take part in our master’s charitable gifts, even though you earned them!” Nimr span around, finding himself face to face with Kaeso, who was flanked by two other gladiators, who Nimr did not yet know. “Perhaps you prefer cock?”
“What concern is it of yours whether I take part in our Dominus’ offerings or not?” Replied Nimr evenly.
Kaeso’s eyes turned from mockery to anger. “What concern is it of mine?” He pressed a finger into Nimr’s chest. “You come here, full of arrogance, believing yourself better than anyone else, you fluke victory against respected opponent, then you stand here, passing further judgement upon us! Do you not think I notice?” Kaeso prodded Nimr again.
“Does it not occur to you that after a long fight in which I suffered many wounds, I may not desire carnal adventures at this time?” Nimr’s voice dripped with contempt, yet he was worried at how easily Kaeso had read him.
Kaeso sneered. “Your excuse is feeble, and one day I will show you to be feeble as well.”
“As you did on my first day upon these sands?” Asked Nimr casually. From the look on Kaeso’s face, that appeared to strike a nerve.
“You were lucky, and luck never lasts.” Kaeso got right up to Nimr’s face. “You and I have a score to settle, and I will see to it that your blood spills upon the sands, and that you are humiliated for all time.”
It was Nimr’s turn to sneer. “You will try. You will also fail.”
“What is happening here?” Munatius’s deep voice brought both men out of their conflict. “Kaeso, do you not have business elsewhere?” He shot the other gladiator a look that suggested he should find such business- right now.
Kaeso looked pissed. But he nodded at his Doctore, and left with his companions.
“Would they be the allies you mentioned?” Nimr asked of the other men.
“Some of them, yes. You have barely been here two days and already you have shaken up our little world. Kaeso had hoped to fight Decimus one day. Now, given the extent of his injuries, it is unlikely Decimus will ever step foot in the arena again.” Munatius faced Nimr. “So, on top of embarassing him on your first day, you have now denied him a prized fight. You have given him much cause for aggravation and he will almost certainly make good on his threat.”
Nimr snorted. “As I said before, I do not fear such men. Let him come for me. I will put him in his place once more.”
Munatius looked across the ludus sands and then at the red sky, as the sun continued its descent.
“I notice you do not partake in the orgy thrown in your honour.”
“Nor do you Doctore.”
“I do not desire pussy, especially in these circumstances. I feel sorry for those women- rented from one cock to another, used and abused. Yet it keeps morale high.”
“It is but a fleeting, artifical boost. Tomorrow, as today, none of these men will be happy.” Nimr folded his arms. “Our dominus may revel in victory and coin but he sees us as a means to an end, nothing more.”
Munatius cast Nimr a strange look. “Is that not the way of things? We are his property.”
Nimr let out a sigh. “Where I am from, gladiators are respected and valued.”
Silence followed, awkward and uncomfortable. Shrieks of pleasure and lust could be heard and couples, threesomes and foursomes fucked upon the training sands. To Nimr, the scene only sharpened his appreciation for Nepos and his ludus.
“Tomorrow we train again. It will be, as ever, gruelling, tough and painful.” Said Munatius quietly. “If you do not desire these women, perhaps at least some wine to wet your lips, some small token of celebration?”
Nimr got the impression it was less a question and more an expectation. He nodded nonetheless.
“Wine would be acceptable.”
“Come. Let us talk privately.” Munatius led Nimr away, under the watchful eyes of Vibius and Caius, and followed by the angry eyes of Kaeso.
Munatius personal quarters within the dungeons underneath Vibius villa was not especially roomy by any standard. Nimr noted the candles in their holders and the torches in still bigger holders, and a small wooden table that looked old and rotten. The ‘bed’ was a collection of old, discarded pillows and cloth- not unlike the sight that greeted Nimr upon his first night- but Munatius didn’t seem to mind.
“You do not appear to approve of the policies of your new master, and you do not shy from voicing this…” Munatius had his back to Nimr as he poured out two goblets of wine. The bottle he’d swiped from the store room wasn’t of especially good quality, and the goblets looked old and dirty- but beggars- and slaves- could not be choosers.
“I was always taught to speak my mind.”Replied Nimr evenly.
Munatius let out a little laugh as he turned around, handing Nimr one of the drinks. “Speaking one’s mind when one is a slave, even a respected gladiator, leads to ruin.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps that depends on the master.”
“You appear to have grievance with your new dominus. Lend voice to disapproval.” Munatius sat, and beckoned for Nimr to do the same.
He sighed as he sat. “It is not so much disapproval of my new dominus, more… sorrow, at parting from my previous master.”
“You refer to Nepos.” Stated Munatius.
“Yes. How did you know…”
“One hears whispers, slaves and servants catch word of plans and purchases. Your name- and Nepos’ name- have both been mentioned several times in recent weeks.” Munatius took a deep gulp of his wine. “Your feats in the arena came to light through this.” His expression changed. “Nepos treats his warriors differently, doesn’t he?”
“Yes.” Nimr sucked in a breath. “Within his walls, a gladiator is to be respected, and is considered virtually family. At least, I was.” Nimr himself drank deeply from his goblet. His wounds held a dull ache and he wished Ekwueme were here. “Even as a slave I was still a man within the house of Nepos. Here I am but a thing, a toy for my master.”
“A toy you may be, but you are a valued one to our dominus. It is clear you can fight, and this will bring him much coin.” Munatius gulped down his wine. In the firelight, Nimr noticed for the first time the red lines on the other man’s nose and cheeks- it appeared Munatius enjoyed his wine.
Perhaps that was the key…
“You said you have heard word of my former master…” Nimr began hesitantly. “What words were these?” He took the bottle of wine and poured Munatius another drink..
Munatius gratefully accepted the refill and took another sip. “Vibius hates your former master. He depises Nepos. I do not know why nor have I asked. I have heard only that it is a family matter, and that Vibius and his brother seek vengeance for past transgressions- they are also moving those plans forward. They want to hasten his demise.”
The first part wasn’t news to Nimr, but if they planned to quicken their pace, then somehow he had to get word to Nepos.
The only thing he could think of was escape. But how?