Only then did I look down, and probe at my wound with the fingers of my left hand. I was somewhat relieved to feel a neat, lipped wound just above the hip. It was a ‘through-and-through’, to use the surgeons’ term, and if I was lucky, none of my guts had been sliced.
From far away, I heard roars of ‘IUGULA! IUGULA!’
I came back to the arena. To Sextus, lying a few paces away, his eyeholes fixed on me.
Heartless whoresons, I thought. Despite my anger, the spectators would get what they wanted. If I hesitated at all, it might be me who received iron, not Sextus.
I walked over and placed the trident prongs at his throat.
His index finger went up in the familiar gesture. ‘Missio,’ he said, and then laughed. ‘Caligula is a cocksucking cunt,’ he added. ‘He’s not going to grant mercy.’
‘He is not.’ At last, sure of victory, I allowed myself to feel the sorrow I had denied until now. Sextus was my friend. My brother-in-arms. My fellow gladiator.
None of that mattered.
To have any chance of survival, I would have to kill him.
The shouts of the audience continued, relentless, as the summa rudis and his second came to stand by me. They glanced at the pulvinar, and the second said to me quietly, ‘That was some fight.’
I ignored him.
Caligula was ready. He jerked his thumb at his throat.
The crowd went even wilder. Objects were being thrown into the arena. Coins, mostly, but also lucky amulets, and even a homemade wreath.
‘Ready, brother?’ I asked Sextus.
He nodded. ‘Shall I take off my helmet?’
My heart wrenched. He was not doing it so I had to stare him in the eyes, but to make my task simpler. ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘The blade will not slip.’
I dropped the trident and stuck out a hand. He took my grip, coming up into a kneeling position.
‘You’re a tough one, Midir,’ he said, and let his arm fall to his side, a final gesture of submission.
I clasped his shoulder as I moved around behind him. My dagger was still in my right hand. ‘So are you,’ I said, cupping his chin. ‘If you weren’t missing that finger…’
I cut his throat. Hot, bubbling blood covered my fingers.
‘Habet! Hoc habet!’ The spectators yelled and shouted.
Forgive me, I said in my head. It was you or me, Sextus.
He did not answer. He would never answer anyone ever again. The last of his life gouted and sprayed from his throat, covering the sand before us.
Sick to my stomach, I let him down gently, rolling him so that he lay gaze to the sky, not into the dirt, like a criminal. I averted my eyes from the gaping slash that had sent him to the next life, and looked to the summa rudis. Now would come the emperor’s acknowledgement of my double victory. There would be a wreath, purses of coin and more adulation from the crowd, which was still cheering what I had done.