CLEOPATRA, QUEEN OF Aegypt, was bored.
And so I found myself hanging from the deck rail of a galley, cursing loudly in the moments before my vessel was rammed again by an enemy ship and I was thrown into the waves, sparkling with sunlight, far below. This, I thought, was not how the campaign was supposed to go. My shipmates and I—all students of the Ludus Achillea, foremost academy dedicated to the training of female gladiators in all of the Republic of Rome—were supposed to be victorious in this, our very first nautical outing.
Instead, we were getting kicked all over the waves of Lake Sabatinus by the girls of our rival academy, the Ludus Amazona.
I struggled to look up to see who was calling me.
It was Elka—usually the first to notice whenever I got myself into trouble. I would have hailed her back, but I was too busy not letting go of either the railing or the hand of Leander, the ludus kitchen slave, whose life I was preoccupied with trying to save.
Leander couldn't swim. He'd made that abundantly clear, even over the din of battle. So it was a bit of a mystery as to how he'd even wound up flailing around in the water in the middle of our mock sea battle, a spectacle staged at the behest of the queen of Aegypt.
The spectacle, itself, was less mysterious.
Gaius Julius Caesar, Consul of Rome, legendary general, owner of the Ludus Achillea, and Cleopatra's paramour, had been gone from Rome for the better part of a year on another military campaign. Cleopatra, ensconced in his estate on the western bank of the River Tiber—but expressly unwelcome within the walls of Rome itself—had been driven to her wits' end with restlessness.
So she'd packed up her entourage and headed north up the Via Clodia, to a private villa nestled on the banks of Lake Sabatinus, where her restlessness could, at the very least, enjoy a change of scenery. And the company of her dear friend, my sister Sorcha. Or, as she was known in Rome, the Lady Achillea, former champion gladiatrix and current Lanista of the Ludus Achillea.
One morning, not long after Cleopatra had arrived with a full entourage in the lake region, Sorcha dragged me along with her to an audience at the queen's behest.
"I'm positively languishing with tedium!" Cleopatra had exclaimed that day, over roast peacock and raw oysters, served on the deck of her pleasure barge. "I want to have a celebration. A triumph of our very own to commemorate the new ownership of your ludus . . ."
For my part, I'd turned a surreptitious glance on Sorcha to see how she was reacting to Cleopatra's suggestion, but my sister just nodded and calmly sipped at her goblet.
"Impending new ownership, Your Highness," she said. "Once I receive the papers from Caesar—"
"Pssh." Cleopatra silenced her with a wave. "They're on their way, I'm sure. And then you too will be the queen of your own domain, my dear." She paused to choose a honey cake from a tray. They were sprinkled with gold dust and sparkled in the sunlight. "Men shouldn't be the only ones in this wretched Republic who can stage a spectacle to flaunt their accomplishments," Cleopatra continued. "And you, my darling Sorcha, are definitely accomplished. As is your extraordinary sister."
She turned one of her beguiling smiles on me then, and waved for my wine cup to be refilled. "The Optimates fight the Populares because they are afraid," she said. "Afraid of change, of innovation. They are afraid of Caesar, and they are afraid of me. Caesar is a god among men, and I'm not shy about reminding him of that. They fear his power. And so they lure him into wars far away from my bed and company. It makes me waspish. Forgive me."
"Nothing to forgive, Majesty," I said.
"Of course." She chuckled, licking honey and gold dust from her fingers. "You, Fallon, understand my restlessness. It was unkind of my lord to drag your handsome young decurion with him all the way to Hispania."
I felt my cheeks reddening at the mention of Caius Antonius Varro. But, in truth, I'd been feeling a bit waspish myself about his protracted absence. I steadfastly ignored the eyebrow my sister raised in my direction.