“I didn’t just come here to look at a bridge and chat about slavery,” said Zeke. “You’ll be hosting a party at your home in a few days.”
“I will?” asked Hugh.
“Don’t worry, all of the arrangements are being made. It won’t cost you a dime, and my father wants invite all of those who essentially paid for your home to be built. There will be food, wine, musicians… basically a good time.”
Hugh just stood there silent for a bit, then said, “Oh.”
“Actually, I wanted to also invite you to have a drink with me.”
Zeke smiled. “Now, if you aren’t too busy.”
They walked into the city and happened to pass Theoson. They invited him along, and he agreed, somehow managing to sound grumpy about it.
“There’s only one place to get a drink in this city where you will fit comfortably,” said Zeke.
Theoson grumbled something under his breath.
Zeke chuckled. “That’s right, the Drinking Hall.”
“You didn’t tell me I’d be spending my afternoon with a bunch of drunken soldiers and sailors,” said Theoson.
“Since when have you had a problem with soldiers and sailors?”
“It’s the drunkenness I can’t stand. Those who are slaves to pleasure can never truly be free.”
Zeke laughed. “Those who are slaves to their strictness can never truly be free. You need to learn to practice severity in moderation.”
Theoson grumbled again.
Hugh had to duck down to enter the drinking hall, but the high vaulted ceilings left ample room once inside for him to stand.
“What are you drinking, Hugh? Wine or beer?”
“Whatever’s cheaper,” said Hugh.
“One keg of beer for my friend here,” he said to the barkeep. He turned to Theoson. “What about you, what’s your drink of choice?”
“My favorite drink is the one someone else pays for,” he replied.
“And a skin of wine for my friend and I.” Zeke looked top Theoson. “You better be thirsty, because I’m a lightweight.”
Hugh downed the keg before Theoson or Zeke finished a goblet of wine. Zeke ordered him another and the whole hall watched as he drank it in a matter of seconds. He belched loudly, then said, “Okay, I think I’m good.”
As a lute and pipe band played, Zeke and Theoson got progressively drunker. Before long, Zeke began singing, and soldiers nearby joined in. It was something about how women from different places made love. Hugh just sat there, smiling and laughing at times. Even Theoson sang a verse about a woman who would lick you down there, but it wasn’t the down there you were thinking of… whatever that meant.
Before long, people tired out a bit and just sort of sat around, nursing a cup of whatever they were drinking. The musicians had left and conversation took the place of singing. Zeke made it a point to talk to everyone there, asking them about themselves and just listening to everything they said.
“I’ve never met a man from the Vernal Isles,” said Zeke. “Is it true you don’t have seasons there?”
“Oh, we have seasons,” said the man with the haggard and pock-marked face, shaved head, and dark skin. “But we only got two, not four. One is like spring here, with everything blooming. It’s never cold, even during the months of your winter, and it’s never hot, even during the months of your summer. It rains practically every morning, then it is sunny and cloudless almost every day. Except… during the storm season.
“For about two and a half or three months, during what are your late summer and fall months, we are bombarded with occassional rain and heavy winds. Some years, it’s not too bad, but other years… well, every fifteen or twenty years or so, there is a storm that knocks over nearly every single tree on some or most of the islands. The only ones that survive are saplings. Homes are destroyed, roofs collapse… it can be a terrifying and deadly trade-off for living in paradise.”
Zeke shook his head. “It sounds harrowing. You must have a strong sense of community.”
“Oh, we do,” he replied. “Some homes are still standing after centuries, while other people’s homes are rebuilt almost every year, but we all chip in to help those affected. Everyone knows everyone else, not like here.”
Zeke smiled. “It was a pleasure chatting with you.” He got up and moved across the room to speak to someone else, and Hugh followed. He went around the whole room, listening to each for a bit.
There was yelling at the other end of the hall, near the bar. “You aren’t shit, Theoson. You’re a has-been.”
Zeke excused himself and went over. “What seems to be the trouble?” he asked.
“Stay out of it, midget,” said the man yelling at Theoson.
“No, stop, my poor sensitive feelings.” Zeke put his hands up in mock defence before hopping up onto seat between Theoson and the man, then pointed at the man. “Get my friend here two more of whatever he was drinking.”
“Yeah, get him more drunk,” mumbled Theoson. “That’s always the solution for a man who has lost his senses.”
“You don’t look like a sailor or soldier,” said Zeke.
“Maybe because I’m not,” said the man.
Zeke squinted at him and leaned in closely. “I’ve seen your face before… Varius?”
The man nodded.
“Ah, I almost didn’t recognize you without your armor.” Zeke turned to Hugh. “He’s a gladiator.”
The man nodded.
Zeke spun around on his stool and leaned his back against the bar. “So tell me, new friend, what is my old friend here saying that has you so upset?”
“I told him the truth,” said Theoson.
Zeke raised his eyebrows and looked at Varius. Varius licked his lips and looked like he was trying to calm down. “He said –”
“I said,” Theoson interrupted. “You don’t defeat men, you only slaughter other slaves. I defeat men, because I am a man.”
Varius closed his eyes and balled his fist. “I’m not a slave, and not all gladiators are slaves.”
“You most certainly are a slave,” said Theoson. “You don’t even decide who you murder in the pit. Your handlers just throw some poor sap into the arena with you and you chalk up another win.”
“I could decide to kill you,” said Varius.
Theoson threw up his hands like he was afraid. “Oh no! Again, that doesn’t make you a man. Even a snake could make such a threat.”
“Now, now,” Zeke said.
“I could knock you out with one punch, old man,” said Varius. “I would pay a solid gold coin just to hit you one time, right in the face.”
“If you can afford it, I would be happy to oblige,” said Theoson, who got up and squared up to Varius.
Varius spit on the ground, stood up, and without any hesitation socked Theoson right in the jaw. He staggered back, almost falling, but he stayed on his feet and stood up straight again, laughing. Theoson walked out of the hall, laughing, and Zeke shook his head.
“You don’t want your money?” Varius called out to Theoson, who was now at the door. “I can put it on credit for you at the barracks so you can get yourself stitched up.”
Theoson just left without looking back, and Varius went back to drinking.
“Well… that ended better than I could have hoped,” Zeke said. “Tell me, Varius, I’ve always wondered… why keep risking life and limb in the arena if you’ve already won your freedom?”
“Look at me,” he said, turning to face Zeke. “It’s what I was born to do. I’m no good at anything else, and there’s nothing like working only fifteen or so days a year.”
“Oh, come now. I’ve seen the training you guys go through. You only perform fifteen days a year, but I happen to know you work every day.”
Varius chuckled. “Maybe. It hardly seems like work. I’ve done it for over a decade now. I don’t even know anything else. Besides,” he took a sip, winced, then looked right at Zeke, “The pussy is great.”
“Ah, now you’re speaking my language,” said Zeke, smiling. “For a second there, I thought you were just some sort of crazy person who enjoys pain.”
“No, I’m just a crazy person who loves women throwing themselves at him.”
The door to the hall opened and Theoson came in, and he had big leather gloves on his hands. He walked right up to Varius and blindsided him with a fierce hook to the side of his head, sending him to the ground. Theoson then jumped upon him and landed blow after blow to Varius’ face.
“Do something!” Zeke said, looking at Hugh. Hugh grabbed Theoson by the shoulders and lifted him up. Varius quickly stood, bleeding from his lip and nose. He spit out a tooth, then lunged for Theoson, but Hugh held him back.
“You son of a whore!” yelled Varius, struggling to escape Hugh’s grasp.
“There’s ten punches, put it on my credit,” said Theoson.
Varius shook himself free of Hugh and stormed out of the hall. Theoson laughed hysterically, then took one of the cups Varius was drinking from and chugged it.
“You know,” said Zeke, shaking his head, “I have a reputation to maintain, not that I expect you to understand what that means.”
“I know more than you about reputations. Why, my reputation was the reason I had to do that.” Theoson took off the gloves and set them on the bar.
“Are they weighted?” asked Zeke.
“What, these? Naw, they’re padded sparring gloves. I bought them at the barracks and told them to charge it to Varius. I didn’t want to hurt him too badly.”
Zeke shook his head and turned to Hugh. Hugh just shrugged. There were a few awkward, silent minutes before a group of armed guards walked into the hall.
“Theoson,” said one of them.
Theoson kept drinking, though he raised his hand.
“We’re here to arrest you,” said the guard in front of the others.
“On what charge?” asked Theoson.
“You assaulted Varius.”
“You’re saying one of the most decorated gladiators in the city can’t defend himself from an old man?” asked Theoson. “I’m sure he would appreciate that bit of information being a matter of public record.”
The guard sighed. He walked up to Theoson and put his hand on his shoulder. “Fine, public drunkenness, then. Come on.”
He shrugged off the guard’s hand. “You’re arresting me… for drinking in a drinking hall?”
The other guards crowded in and each grabbed a limb, so that four of them dragged him out by his arms and legs.
“Wait, wait!” screamed Theoson. “I have something to confess.”
“Yes, what is it?” asked the head guard.
“I also fuck at whore houses, and I shit in the public toilets.”
“Alright, let’s go,” said the guard ahead of the others, who dragged Theoson out.
“Oh, and I get my hair cut at the barber’s!” yelled Theoson, right before they had him outside.
Zeke looked at Hugh and smiled. “Never a dull moment, with that one.”
To be continued…