“There are places for the dead. Among the gods. Or in the underworld.”
Where would Rana go? Where would Thessala go?... She'd wondered about that before. It would have been strange if she didn't, given that she fought in the arena and risked her life almost every day. Death had still seemed like a faraway concept, until Rana died. And now Thessala wondered if people with different gods went to different places. Or no place at all. Rana belonged with her gods, if there was a choice. The underworld did not feel like much fun.
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Only that… Thessala… I also… love you.”
Thessala sighed again, not trying to hold back the quiet tears anymore. They should have done all this sooner. When Rana was alive. Maybe things would have been different then. But neither of them realized this in time.
"I don't want you to go." Thessala admitted, looking at Rana as if she was about to disappear. "But... I don't want you to get stuck in-between either. I want you to... I don't know." she sighed.
"No brothels for me. My wife... her former master owned a brothel. He wasn't kind."
"Fuck him" Thessala stated with conviction. It felt like the solution to everything tonight. It sounded like Manius loved his wife, and she deserved better than a brothel, and being lost in a damned earthquake.
"I'll go home. You can walk with me if you want. But I don't need a guard."
"Sure." Thessala fell into step next to him. Guard or not, it gave her something to do. She needed to do one thing right tonight, and if all it was was to walk Manius home and make sure he got into a bed, then she would take it. She could worry about the rest tomorrow.
Rana moved closer, and they kissed, and for a moment Thessala even forgot that he was staning in a dark ludus hallway, making out with a spirit. Even though it was nothing like kissing a living person, it was Rana, and that made it different than everything else she'd felt before.
Eventually, they broke the kiss, and Thessala looked at Rana warily, as if she could disappear any moment from her arms.
"Do you... love me?"
Thessala let out a small sigh. She would have been wary of those words too, if things had been much different. But now there was nothing to lose, and not much time left.
"I love you." she whispered, looking almost sheepish of admitting it. "I'm sorry. I..." what else was there to say? Thessala sighed, touching her forehead to Rana's "Do your people... have a place? Where you go?"
"You did what you could."
And it had not been enough. Thessala doubted that would ever stop hurting. Even more so, now that she knew Rana was still here, her spirit anyway, and she knew exactly what happened. How close it had been. Thessala wondered what it felt like to die.
Rana smiled at her and touched her arm. Thessala felt a tear roll down her cheek. She was not the kind to cry.
"I think... I need you to tell me something. Or you need to tell me something. I don't know if there will be another chance."
Kissing a spirit was nothing like kissing a living person. There was no warmth, or taste to it. But she could feel it, as she pressed her lips against Rana's. It was part memory, from the time in the arena, and part hope, and either way, it explained better than she could in words, knowing there might not be another chance.
"I know. I heard your voice."
Thessala's breath caught too. She heard. She had been so close... she almost made it. Almost. But she didn't. That almost, that hair's breadth distance between life and death, was impossible to think about.
"I'm sorry." She'd meant to say it. She'd said it a thousand time when she was alone. But this time was the first time she knew Rana was listening.
"Can you... feel my hand?"
There was a light touch on her arm. Cool, almost cold, but it made her skin rise with goose bumps as she looked up at Rana. Their eyes met. Thessala did not dare move or look away, afraid Rana would disappear.
The voice was clearer now. Thessala opened her eyes, and she could see Rana, even in the dim light of the corridor. She looked real, the shadows masking how incorporeal she really was. If Thessala had any doubts before, she was sure that Rana was here now.
"Thessala... what is wrong? What do you need from me?"
"Fuck if I know" the gladiatrix sighed. The rush of the fight was ebbing away, and her bruises and scrapes were beginning to smart. She was quiet for a while, looking at Rana, wondering how long before she faded away. "... I tried to get to you, you know. I tried to break the door down..."
"None taken. I'm sure you could do better anyway."
"Don't sell yourself short" she said with the honesty of drunk people, slapping Manius on the shoulder "It ain't your fault you have a penis."
Thessala did not dislike penises in general, but she was definitely not in the mood for one right now. Manius seemed like a good man, though. A good man who got a tough break, and probably deserved better, like everybody else.
"Maybe I should leave you to do that on your own. I doubt you need a guard."
"I don't" Thessala agreed "But you might. Are you good? You should be good. You look like a... good man. I will walk you home. Or to a brothel or whatever."
"Spirits still cannot read thoughts, then" Thessala smiled a little. It was time to focus on the fight. It was strange, knowing Rana was there, on the edge of her vision, even though others did not seem to see her, or notice her. It was going to be difficult to fight, knowing she was right there. But Thessala had a job to do, and she did not want to fail in front of the whole arena.
"I have not been gone at all. So why should I be gone when you're done? I'm here."
The other gladiatrix did not know what hit her. It wasn't fury, exactly, but it was definitely desperation, and the fight was over almost too quickly, fast enough that Thessala knew she was never going to hear the end of it from the lanista later. There was blood on the sand again, and the Germanian gladiatrix looked at her in wide-eyed shock as she limped out of the arena. Thessala was breathing heavily, blood drumming in her ears along with the cries of the audience.
She discarded the swords as she walked out, and made it to one of the side corridors before she leaned against the cool stones of the wall, trying to decide if she was truly going insane.
"... still here?"
"I... don't know?"
There was noise from the spectators as the winners of the previous fights were paired up. Thessala turned, looking at a tall Germanian woman walking her way. Her opponent looked ready to fight, with a lance and a smaller shield; she was bloodied, but not enough to be called off the sands. Thessala turned the swords in her hands.
"Do you think there is? Or is there something... you need from me?"
"I needed a lot of things from you" Thessala said quietly, with sadness in her voice, facing her opponent. She needed to focus on fighting if she wanted to live. This fight was not for killing, but accidents did happen when someone got careless. ""Will you still be here when I'm done?"
"No... if you are, I am too."
Well, that made no sense whatsoever, and Thessala did not care at all, because Rana was laughing. She had always laughed easier than Thessala, and the sound was so real she wondered if the rest of the people in the arena heard it too. They were carrying the wounded away, and someone was bringing Thessala a new pair of swords, to replace the ones she'd left in her opponent. But she was still looking at Rana, who was standing a lot closer now.
"You... miss me? But I am right here. I do not know why, but I never left."
She looked real. Not quite... material, but it was her, and not some illusion. But if she was a soul, a spirit who never quite left this world and she didn't know why... she was something people whispered about. Thessala reached out, wondering what would happen if she touched her, but just then the man with the swords reached her. It was time to fight again. "Is there something you need from me?" Maybe she hoped there was.
Fall had come to Rome, and with it, the Ludi Augustales. In honor of the divine emperor, grand events were organized, the arena was decorated and the rows of seats filled with people, from the most august imperials and the Vestal Virgins all the way up to the women and slaves in the top rows. Every gladiator in all the ludi who could fight was put into the schedule; the most famous ones as often as it was possible, provided they did not get seriously injured or killed along the way.
It was the first games since the earthquake Thessala was to participate in.
The other gladiatrix facing her in the arena was someone whose name she did not bother to learn. She rarely bothered to learn names since Rana. They were not the only duel in the arena; there were three other pairs scattered around the sands, for extra spectacle. Still, Thessala felt like she was being watched. Not by the thousands of people in the seats... maybe by the gods? She shook her head, the beads and amulets twisted into her hair tinkling. She raised her two swords, crossing the blades in front of her.
Might as well get on with it.
Thessala had a whole table to herself. Not that the popina was less busy than usual, far from it; but the last guy who came over and tried to start something with her got a glare and a hissed Thracian curse that made him retreat at double speed. Thessala did not look like her usual self - her costume destroyed in the earthquake, and her will to put on her witch persona drowned in the drinks she'd been having since that day - but the way she looked now, with her hair tangled and the circles under her eyes apparently looked even more threatening than an intentional performance.
Everyone could go fuck themselves. Even the gods.
Especially the gods.
The buried Rana. She was gone. So were others from the ludus, some she missed and some she did not care about except for the way the gods decided to do away with them. All of it was shit. Thessala drank like a barbarian, nursing her cup and nursing the pain she still had in her ribs.
Whoever came over to her table next better be very brave. Or very dumb.
Early May, 75CE
Apparently, the things that rich nobles got up to in Rome differed very little from what went on in Greece. To the girl's chagrin, one of Deia's first assignments as a slave and prostitute at the Elysium was to make an appearance at a low-level noble's home for a party, as eye-candy for those in attendance. Though Deia had to wonder why the noble hadn't sprung for a worker at the Domus Venus; they were apparently more sought after than her companions at the Elysium. The only conclusion was that he was either not as wealthy as he made out to be, or he was cheap but wanted to appear like he had the wealth to spare in order to get a prostitute to stand on a platform for a few hours, and then, perhaps, bed a few of the guests. Time would tell.
Also to her annoyance, Deia was responsible for walking to the house herself, accompanied by a couple of the musclemen who guarded the prostitutes at the brothel. She was new to Rome, so the way confused her a great deal, and she was nearly in tears from frustration by the time they got there. She couldn't even read or write her own home language, Greek, let alone Latin. She could speak it, but the locals here were not very friendly. But at last, they arrived and Deia was shown to the main room of the house, where she would be displayed. For the journey, she had worn modest enough clothing, but once she was at the house, it was time to wear what one would expect a prostitute to wear. She was shown to a back room after her tour so that she could change in peace. She thought she was alone, so she sat on the floor, rubbing a hand on her forehead to try to ground herself. This was her life. She had to keep up her appearances.