"Come with me to the festival." Marcus set the pail of fresh milk on the table. "You haven't been to town in days. You need to get out of the house, away from cleaning and chores. Come with me."
Eve placed a thin cheesecloth over the top of a large glass jar, picked up the pail of milk and began to pour it through the cloth, filtering out the particles of dirt and stray hair.
"I'm fine with staying home." She said quietly. "I don't mind the cleaning and chores."
"I know you don't mind it." Marcus said. "But everyone needs a day off."
When the jar was full, Eve peeled off the soiled cloth, placed a clean piece of cloth over the top and wrapped a band around it to hold it in place. She set the jar aside and grabbed another empty one, repeating the process with the remainder of the milk in the pail.
"I don't want to go to town." Eve told her brother. "You go, have a good time."
Marcus came and stood beside her. "Are you afraid you'll see Rhonan?"
Eve stiffened. A funny, disturbing ache squeezed her chest and sent a tingling tightness creeping up her neck into her jaw. "I'm not afraid of seeing him. I really don't care. The man means nothing to me. I don't know why you keep trying to make something of nothing."
Marcus shrugged and looked down at her. "I'm not so sure it is nothing. You seem get tense and defensive every time you hear his name."
"I do not." Eve snapped, then winced at the sharpness as well as the defensiveness in her tone. Marcus was right, of course. She did tense up whenever Rhonan was mentioned. But she wasn't afraid to see him. Why should she be? Granted, she found the man sexually stimulating...but that was just flesh. And if she couldn't resist the flesh, she would not still be a virgin.
Marcus was staring down at her, the weight of his eyes were like bricks on her shoulders. Her brother was a very perceptive man, especially when it came to her. He read her like a book, regardless of how hard she tried to keep the pages from turning. Sometimes she believed Marcus knew her better than she knew herself. And if that were the case...
"Why is that every time I talk to you lately," Marcus said, drawing her back. "You just fade out on me?"
Eve glanced up, blinked. "What?"
"My point exactly." Marcus smirked. He pushed away from the counter. "So. Are you coming to the festival with me?"
Eve shook her head. "No."
"As you wish." Marcus chimed and left the kitchen.
Eve finished with the jars of milk and set them aside. A deep breath she hadn't known she was suppressing, suddenly escaped her, relieving her of her strength as well. She sank down in a chair at the table and rested her head in her hands. She was so tired, but when she tried to sleep she was tortured by her dreams. Sometimes they were dreams of her father's death. Other times, dreams of Rhonan's touch. Now and then, her dreams forged and she saw Rhonan's face on the gladiator who took her father's life. That dream was the worst. The one she awoke from sobbing uncontrollably and aching so bad it overwhelmed her with nausea. It was that dream the reinforced her resilience to put Rhonan from her mind.
Of course, he wasn't the one who had killed her father. But after discovering Nero's seal on his arm...he had begun to represent that gladiator in her dreams, and at times even in her conscious mind.
Eve could hear Marcus in his room, rifling around. She hadn't told Marcus about Rhonan being branded. What would he do if he knew? Would he still think Rhonan was the man for her? How could he...after what had happened to their father? How could he be in favor of her having anything to do with one of Nero's warriors?
Marcus was coming back towards the kitchen. Eve slowly raised her head - and stiffened suddenly as Marcus stepped into the doorway.
"What...what're you doing with that?" Eve trembled.
Marcus held up the sword in its sheath. "It's father's sword."
"I know it's father's sword." Eve rose slowly from the table, her legs shaking. "What are you doing with it?"
Marcus shrugged and grinned, drawing the sword from its casing. He swung it around slowly, with grace and skill. "I'm going to enter the games."
Eve lunged around the table and grabbed the handle of the sword, halting it in a mid-arc.
"Be careful!" Marcus lowered the sword.
"You are not entering the games." Eve said stiffly, her eyes burning. "Don't you dare."
Marcus frowned and returned the sword to the sheath. He set it on the table and looked at his sister. "What is wrong with you, Eve?"
"What is wrong with me?" Eve repeated incredulously. "Our father died with this sword in his hand...while engaging in a game."
Marcus gripped her shoulders gently as tears stung her eyes. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "These aren't those kind of games, Eve. What happened to father was a grave injustice, orchestrated by an evil man. I'm not really going to be fighting, it's just for show. For the entertainment of the crowd."
"That's what they told our father." Eve whispered. Her voice was shaking.
Marcus pulled her into his arms and held her tight. He kissed her hair. "Eve, I promise, this isn't anything like that. It's just a street show, that's all. No one controlling anything."
Eve pulled away and moved around the table. "Why do you need a real sword then?" She stared at her father's sword, images from the past flashing through her head. He'd fought so hard, fought so well. But not well enough to defeat a seasoned gladiator.
"Real swords are always used." Marcus said. "But no one is actually struck. It's a game of skill and precision. The fighting is meant to look as real as possible without it actually being real. The players train extensively for this. I've trained for this."
Eve's head snapped up. "What?" She breathed. "When?"
"Whenever." Marcus said. "I grabbed time here and there to get training in."
"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Eve asked tightly.
"Why?" Marcus chuckled. "This is why. I knew how you felt about sword fighting, in any form. You wouldn't have let up on me until I quit."
"Yes." Eve hissed. "That's right. Father always told us - if you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword. What happened to him was not his choice. But you have a choice."
"For God's sake, Eve." Marcus snapped suddenly. "Calm down. It's just a fucking game." He grabbed the sword off the table and stormed towards the door. "I don't need your permission. You know, we'd both be a hell of a lot better off if you'd pull that stick out of your ass and confess what's really bothering you. Because your problem isn't with the past. It's with the fact that you're in love with Rhonan and you just can't admit it to yourself."
Marcus left the house, slamming the door behind him. Eve stared after him in shocked silence. Marcus never shouted at her. Rarely even got upset with her.
His words stung as surely as if he'd physically slapped her. As her shock slowly faded, indignation rose in its place. She was not in love with Rhonan. How could he even think that? She didn't even like the man.
But her earlier thoughts pressed at her mind.
Marcus knows you better than you know yourself.
Rhonan stood beside the other other gladiator. The man was shorter than Rhonan, muscular, and well skilled. He had seen the man fight. Rhonan didn't fear the man and would defeat him, if Nero declared they go to battle. But he didn't believe that was Nero's purpose for calling them here. A dread of something worse weighed heavily on Rhonan.
Nero sat at a thick polished table, eating fruit and roasted duck. Rhonan's face pinched with disgust as juices from both the fruit and the meat dribbled from the corner of Nero's mouth. The man ate like a pig.
Rhonan's hands were clasp behind his back, his body rigid and face hard. The shorter gladiator, though standing at attention, didn't resonate the same depth of hatred for the governor. Of course, it had been his choice to be branded and owned by the filthy hog. And that alone made it impossible for Rhonan to respect the fighter.
Nero finally wiped his mouth, slid his chair back and stood. "Today the street games take place." He said as he began to pace back and forth before the two men. "Most of the participants aren't worthy of my time. But occasionally a young man emerges on the streets with the potential to compete."
Rhonan's brow furrowed tightly. "Compete?" He spoke low, tight. "Compete where?"
"The arena." Nero said. "In the exhibitions. Fifteen days from now."
Rhonan's temples began to throb. Nero's plan was to pick a kid off the street and throw him into the arena with a gladiator?
"The two of you will be the featured gladiators. So I'm allowing you to go out and choose your opponents."
"I only fight gladiators." Rhonan growled low. "I won't go into the arena and face off with a boy."
Nero smiled dully. "Your nobility is honorable. But you have nothing to fear. It is simply a show. Entertainment for the people."
"I know how you entertain the people." Rhonan snapped. "And I will not pick a kid off the street and usher him to his death."
Nero's smile slowly faded like melting ice. His eyes turned to hot coals. "You will do whatever I tell you to do. Your will is no longer your own."
"I will not battle a kid." Rhonan hissed.
"Then choose a man. One who can fight." Nero said quietly. "But you will come back with an opponent. And if you do not, I will choose one for you."
"Why not let the gladiators battle?" Rhonan asked tightly. "Why bring in men and boys off the street?"
Nero smiled then chuckled. "I give the people what they want. It gives them a rush to know that any one of them could be the one in the arena, facing down his own impending death."
"You are a filthy pig." Rhonan growled deeply.
Again, the smile drained from Nero's face. He moved close to Rhonan's shoulder and spoke low. "You would do well to show respect to your master. Our contract depends on it. Of course, if you wish to breech that contract, you can die a slow and painful death watching me fuck your dear Eve into submission. The last image you will see in this life is my cock beating all dignity from within her until all she knows how to be is a whore."
Rhonan's jaw clenched with enough force to make his head pound and throb. His hands loosened from behind his back and hung tense at his sides, his hands flexing into tight fists. His chest rose and fell with the force of the rage swelling inside him.
"And the last sound you hear..." Nero hissed from behind Rhonan. "...is your lovely Eve screaming in pain and anguish as I rape her repeatedly...then give my men a turn at her."
The gladiator standing beside Rhonan chuckled. "I'd fuck her."
Rhonan's elbow nailed him in the side of the head before the man even registered Rhonan's movement. He dropped hard and convulsed on the floor. Rhonan was barely aware of his own actions when he was suddenly gripping Nero by the throat, his face twisted in rage.
"You so much as look at Eve." Rhonan spit close to his face. "And I'll rip your fucking head off with my own fucking hands."
Nero's throat worked beneath Rhonan's tight grip as he dug his fingers into Rhonan's hand, trying to pry him loose. "Release me...now..."Nero croaked, his eyes burning. "Or you can...consider our contract...void." A strangled laugh squeezed up his throat. "And Eve...will go back...on the market. And we both know...you won't be around...to protect her."
Rhonan's hand squeezed just a little tighter then suddenly released. Nero staggered away a few feet, coughing and massaging his throat. He glared at Rhonan. "If you were just another fighter...you would be dead now."
The other gladiator crawled to his feet, a bit unsteady. Rhonan shot him a deadly look and the man kept his distance.
Nero coughed hard and wiped spit from the corner of his mouth. "Go. Now. Choose your opponent."
Rhonan stood unmoving as the other gladiator turned and walked away in obedience, his steps a little off center as he rubbed the side of his head.
"I know you're no pussy." Nero said coldly. "But it's time you faced reality. I've got you by the balls and holding you over a cliff. You learn to follow orders...and Eve will be left alone. But..." Nero stepped forward and thrust his finger in Rhonan's face. "But if you step across that line again...it's over. I won't have you killed. I will have you chained up where you can hear her cries and screams as me and my men fuck her until there's nothing left of the woman you sold your life for."
Rhonan swallowed tightly. Every instinct inside him told him to kill Nero now. Take his chances. But he knew if he made one wrong move, if he were caught...Eve would be the one to suffer for it. Even with Nero dead, those loyal to him would see to it that Eve paid for Rhonan's sins.
"Are we understanding one another?" Nero asked quietly, his voice chipped with ice.
Rhonan clenched his jaw tighter and nodded slowly.
"Say it." Nero hissed.
The words were like rocks in his throat and they tasted like shit as he ground out each one. "Yes...we understand one another."