Bread and Games
She shouldn’t be here, pouring alcohol into his wounds, wiping sweat off his forehead. But the cell is dank and noxious, he’s going to die without medical attention, and Leopold isn’t going to call for a doctor for the sake of a freshly trained gladiator gravely injured in his very first fight—hardly that valuable an asset yet, with no political points to be scored either. Still, if someone happened upon her here, the wife of a senator, the domina of the house, the scandal would end Leopold’s career in a heartbeat, and he in turn would end her.
Regina can’t leave the man though, not when it’s her fault he’s lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood in the first place.
It stains her stola, his blood, paints the cream silk crimson. She slips out of it and bunches the costly fabric under his head, propping it up on her lap. It brings his face closer to hers, enough so that she can make out his features in the near-darkness: the black eye blending into a bruise on his cheek, the torn lip swelling rapidly, and the cut running along his jaw. She sponges filth and gore from his stubble, strokes with trembling fingers over dimples that don’t show (she’s seen them winking at his son though, so she knows of them, and besides, Roland has a matching pair she’s become quite familiar with since she’s taken the boy under her patronage), lingers with her thumb making slow passes over his cheek.
He stirs at that, blinks dazedly, and struggles to bring her face into focus.
“’M dead?” he slurs, and she shushes him at once, tells him no, he’s very much alive, and will kindly remain so. He smiles weakly, flashing a hint of the dimples she has yet to stop stroking.
Regina fights to push the brimming tears back, but then he reaches to touch her cheek, soothing her when he is the one very nearly bleeding to death, and she turns away, a handful of treacherous tears spilling forth. He strokes and caresses, nimble fingers fiddling with her hair, and suddenly the carefully coiffed do comes apart, dark locks cascading down her back. She glances at him, utterly puzzled, and all he does is smile, fully this time, and card his fingers through her tresses while his other hand holds up a gold pin triumphantly.
Once a thief, always a thief.
He has no place in the arena, and she put him there, thinking she was doing him a favour, saving him from jail, from exile, from leaving his son an orphan to starve. How stupid of her, how terribly cruel. He doesn’t belong in this world, doesn’t have the killer instinct or the ambition to spur him on on this precarious career path.
“Thank you,” he says, and Regina’s heart clenches, “for saving me again.”
He’s always thanking her—with his eyes, with a smile when no one is watching, with a respectful bow of his head when in public. He thanks her for saving him, and she curses herself for having, however inadvertently, doomed him to an even worse fate.
He has bread aplenty to feed his son and himself now.
In the arena, however, he may end up paying far too dear a price for it—the ultimate price.
But not today.
Today, he will live.