Today's Reading

"Never mind." The queen grinned her sly grin at us. "While our boys are away . . . let's throw a party."

Cleopatra's idea of a "party" had been to commission her very own scaled-down version of one of the more preposterous spectacles of Caesar's Quadruple Triumph—a celebratory extravaganza of performances and processions wherein Rome had run riot with feasting and games, beast hunts and contests, for an entire month. Caesar had masterminded a closing spectacle he'd dubbed the naumachia: an actual sea battle, staged in a man-made basin dug into the banks of the River Tiber, with thousands of men—captives taken in Caesar's many campaigns—sailing real warships. The fighting had been fierce. Deadly. And the river had run red for a day and a night afterward with blood.

Thankfully, Cleopatra wasn't that bored.

She'd settled for a nonlethal game of capture the flag, a competition staged between our ludus and the gladiatrices of our rival, the Ludus Amazona—"I'll invite that odious Tribune of the Plebs to lend us his girls for you to fight against," the queen had decided with a wicked grin—and only two boats. The large, lumbering pleasure craft had been provided by one of her wealthier neighbors who owned a villa on the opposite side of the lake from the Ludus Achillea. The queen's slaves had dressed the boats to look like miniature versions of the warships of Rome and Carthage. And we were to perform a spirited reenactment of the historic Battle of Mylea. Wherever that was. "What"ever that was.

• • •

"Fallon!" Elka hollered at me again. "Stop messing around! We're supposed to "win" this fight—"

I opened my mouth to yell back that I wasn't exactly taking my leisure, but Leander shrieked again and lost his grip, tumbling back down into the sapphire water below.

I glanced skyward and sighed.

"Be right back!" I shouted to Elka.

Then I let go of the railing, plunging through the emptiness into the shock of the chill waves below. The armor I wore that day was thankfully light and flexible—leather, not bronze and iron—but it still dragged in the water, and for a few panicked moments I thrashed and kicked my legs, trying not to sink too deep. When I surfaced, gasping, and shook my hair out of my eyes, I could see Leander clutching helplessly at the air, only a few arm's lengths away. I hadn't been swimming in a long time—not since I'd become first a slave, then a gladiatrix—but I'd grown up on the banks of the River Dwr back home on the Island of the Mighty, and I had been swimming like a fish since I was a little girl, almost before I'd learned to fight.

"Stop struggling!" I sputtered as I wrapped an arm around Leander's torso. "Relax—I've got you!"

He went limp, more from relief, I think, than any conscious effort to follow my command, but it made things easier. In fairly short order, I'd managed to drag him back to shipside. I hallooed my fellow gladiatrices and, after a moment, Damya appeared at the railing, blinking down at me.

"This is no time for a swim!" she shouted.

"Tell him that," I said through gritted teeth as a wave washed over my head, making my eyes sting. There was a tang to the lake water, and I glanced over at the remains of the skiff Leander had been rowing. The fragile little craft had been impaled on our boat's elaborately carved prow when we'd run him over. He'd been ferrying over a fresh supply of libations from the ludus stores to Cleopatra's barge and decided to row a path straight through the middle of the battle. Shattered clay amphorae leaked wine that stained the water red—as if in merry parody of Caesar's spectacle—and a few escaped beer barrels floated serenely back toward the shore. Over on the queen's barge, cries of outrage mingled with gales of laughter at the mishap. Truthfully, I thought, it sounded as if the revelers had already imbibed quite enough that afternoon as it was.

"Throw me a rope!" I shouted.

I looped the line around Leander's torso under his arms and waited, treading water, until Damya got him up on deck. Then she tossed the rope back down and hauled me aboard, the muscles of her arms bulging beneath the bronze bands she wore. As I threw a leg over the rail and flopped onto the deck like a landed trout, a ragged cheer went up from the barge across the water for my heroic rescue. I lay there gasping, feeling rather less heroic than ridiculous.

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