Biting my tongue to stop from crying out, I half rolled over, onto my right side. Awkwardly planting the trident in the sand as a support, I pulled myself into a sitting position, and got my feet over the side. A groan escaped me as I managed to stand. I faced the pulvinar.
Caligula was looking down at me with an odd expression.
‘Imperator,’ I said, and trying to bow, I fell to one knee.
Laughter rose from those nearby.
‘Silence!’ cried the emperor. ‘Taking a knee shows even greater respect than bowing.’
Quiet descended, punctuated by the nervous titters of those unsure if he was serious or not.
I was beyond caring. Slowly, panting, I dragged myself up to a standing position. I wrapped my fingers around the trident shaft, and decided I could make a good attempt of spearing him with it if I had to. ‘Imperator,’ I said again.
‘Your lanista was right.’
Confused, faint – I could not remember the details of my lie earlier – I said, stupidly, ‘Imperator?’
‘You said he saw your potential.’
‘Ah, yes, imperator, of course.’ Terrified that I might have annoyed him, I added, ‘My apologies, imperator.’
His lips twitched with amusement. ‘There is no denying you have balls. I have rarely seen such a dramatic fight.’
I bobbed my head, feeling a tiny spark of hope. ‘Gratitude, imperator. I am honoured to have pleased you.’ The last was nothing more than brownnosing, as my father called it, but I gambled that the pompous prick was so used to fawning and sycophancy that he would not notice.
‘For you to kill the first secutor was remarkable, not least because of his experience. You cost his lanista a tidy sum by giving him iron.’ Caligula chuckled. ‘He looked as if he was sucking a lemon when you cut the secutor’s throat.’
‘Imperator.’ I could not say what I thought, which was, I do not give a shit for the other lanista, or for Rust Spot, who would have opened my throat.
‘That you also killed the second secutor…’ Caligula glanced at the nearest official. ‘Have you ever seen aught like it?’
‘I have not, imperator,’ came the answer.
Heads shook around the emperor.
‘A man could not be blamed for thinking that the contest had been rigged.’
Panic swept through me with the force of a spring tide. Somehow I kept my face blank. Show my concern, and Caligula would attack, like a vicious dog that sees the lone child’s fear. ‘Rigged, imperator? Forgive me, my Latin is not good. I have not long been in Italia.’
He made a little gesture of annoyance. ‘Fixed. The result agreed beforehand.’
Scared that he believed this nonsense, I loosed my emotions. ‘No, imperator, it was not! I fought because I wanted to live, because you, you–’ here I had to quell my rage, my burning desire to hurl my trident at his flabby, white, imperial throat ‘–had ordered that one fighter in every fight had to die. I had no chance – none, imperator, but I wanted to live!’