When her mother and brother are murdered, young noblewoman Accala Viridius cries out for vengeance. But the empire is being torn apart by a galactic civil war, and her demands fall on deaf ears. Undeterred, Accala sacrifices privilege and status to train as a common gladiator. Mastering the one weapon available to her—a razor-sharp discus that always returns when thrown–she enters the deadly imperial games, the only arena where she can face her enemies.
But Fortune’s wheel grants Accala no favors—the emperor decrees that the games will be used to settle the civil war, the indigenous lifeforms of the arena-world are staging a violent revolt, and Accala finds herself drugged, cast into slavery and forced to fight on the side of the men she set out to kill.
Set in a future Rome that never fell, but instead expanded to become a galaxy-spanning empire, Accala’s struggle to survive and exact her revenge will take her on a dark journey that will cost her more than she ever imagined. Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan is available June 28th from Tor Books.
Gods of my country, heroes of the soil,
And Romulus, and Mother Vesta…
Preservest, this new champion at the least
Our fallen generation to repair…
Here where the wrong is right, the right is wrong,
Where wars abound so many, and myriad-faced
Is stirring; neighbouring cities are in arms,
The laws that bound them snapped; and godless war
Rages through all the universe.
Rome, Mother Earth, 7798 a.u.c
Every night the same dream—a blast wave of atomic fire raced across the surface of a distant ice world, an inferno that would envelop the planet’s capital in a matter of minutes, transmuting sturdy buildings to slag, consuming three and a half million lives with the same dispassion as it liquidized steel and stone. But before that could happen, I had to bear witness.
Mother ran toward me as the bright firewall rose up behind her, rapidly gaining ground. Ever Stoic, her face registered no fear, only a dread urgency—there was something important she had to tell me before the fire claimed her—but I was trapped behind a wall of thick, dirty ice, entombed alive in it. In place of words, all that reached my ears was a dull, brassy drone.
Mother tore out her hairpin and used it to scratch two words into the ice, but they appeared back to front, and I couldn’t read them in time because my little brother suddenly entered the scene. Aulus’ small body was trapped in the press of stampeding citizens as they fled the city, his eyes wide with panic. Mother turned from me and rushed to aid my brother, hair flailing behind her, the tips of the tresses catching fire as the burning wind rushed over her. Arms outstretched like a dragnet, she made an instinctive but futile effort to catch Aulus and wrap him up before the thermal currents scorched them both to ash. The ice was the only thing protecting me from the unstoppable fire, yet I battered it with my fists, clawed at it until my fingernails splintered and snapped. I fought to stay, prayed to Minerva that I be consumed with Mother and Aulus, disintegrated by heat and light.
* * *
I woke in a fevered state, burning up, heart racing, breathing rapid and shallow. The silk sheet was drenched in sweat, clinging to my body like a hungry ghost. The urge to sit up and grasp for a lungful of air was strong, but instead, I kicked the sheet off the end of the bed and lay there, tears stinging my eyes, forcing my lungs to take the slowest, deepest possible breaths.
A clear golden light bathed the high ceiling of my bedchamber, the kind that follows a summer dawn. The gilded cornices that skirted the ceiling’s edges bore seventy-one cracks of varying lengths, and I slowly counted each one in turn until I could breathe normally and all that remained was a residual choleric anger—the outrage that any human being must experience at witnessing the murder of loved ones. The sharpest sword dulls with repeated use, but the dream never lost its cruel edge. My ears still rang with the sound of Mother’s voice trying to penetrate the wall of ice between us. No instrument could replicate the unsettling drone that poured from her mouth. The closest analogy I could come up with (and in the aftermath of the dream each morning, I had plenty of time to turn things like this around in my mind) was the sound of a living beehive submerged in water.
I sat up on the hard edge of my bed, ignoring aching muscles and the patchwork of bruises that peppered my body, still tender from my last match. My cameo lay on the bedside table, projecting a holographic scene into the air on endless loop—the sky was blue, a field of golden wheat blew back and forth in the wind behind them. Mother was playing with Aulus out front of our country villa on the Amal Coast, throwing a ball for him to catch. Her hair was tossed gently this way and that by the summer wind. It was the same as mine, that hair. Jet-black and dead straight with one curvy bone-white shock that originated in the roots above the right forehead and ran all the way down like a skinny waterfall tumbling over a shiny onyx pillar. My brother was laughing. Some of his teeth were missing. He was nine years old. I’d taken the video myself the day before they left on what was supposed to be just another one of my mother’s research trips. Aulus was on holidays and had bothered Mother for weeks to take him with her to Olympus Decimus until she finally caved in and agreed. I was seventeen years old, busy with my final year of studies at the Academy, and had no intention of tagging along as a glorified babysitter. So I was sleeping soundly in my apartment in Rome when, fifty thousand light-years away, the talon fighters of House Sertorian’s attack fleet peppered the ice world with their bombs.
Seven hundred and fourteen days had passed since. For almost two years their deaths had gone unavenged, their spirits tossing and turning in Hades’ dark caverns.
Slowly rising from the bed, I allowed gravity to ground me, feeling my weight sink to my feet, finding each sore muscle on its journey, letting the pain signals pass over me. On day seven hundred and fifteen, when dawn stretched out her rose-red fingers, I would journey down Via Appia with my team, cheered on by the city before boarding a carrier that would transport me to Olympus Decimus to join in the Ludi Romani, the emperor’s great gladiatorial games. There, on the ice world where Mother and Aulus had been killed, I’d either suffer their fate and be killed or survive and triumph, with the men responsible for the bombing dead and bloody at my feet. Then Mother and Aulus would be at rest and the dream of fire would depart, leaving me to the embrace of a cool and silent sleep.
Peeling off my nightdress, I hurriedly threw on a loose fitting training out and snapped my armilla over my forearm. My armilla—a long utility bracelet bordered with gold piping and inset with a small monitor, input pad, shield, and holographic projector eye—was thin and comfortable, like a second skin.
I strode from my bedchamber, down the hall toward the center of my apartment, past the shrine surrounded with holographic busts of my ancestors, until I reached the atrium, where the open-roofed courtyard provided the most available vertical space. Tapping the panel on my armilla, I projected research nodes into the air about me. A dozen screens presented notes and files, media streams from all corners of the empire, studies in history, tactics, law, ancient and modern arms and armor—my research. A sharp turn of the wrist unhitched the screens from the device, leaving them hanging in space. My hands swung through the air, managing my information like a conductor leading an orchestra. First I scanned the morning news on the vox populi forum. I had keyword alerts set up, but you couldn’t anticipate every eventuality. My mother had taught me self-reliance and critical thinking—“Never trust technology to cover every base, Accala. Always make the extra effort to bring your brain into the equation.”
I brought the day’s arena schedule to the fore and read it again. The final trial rounds were being fought in the morning. There were two places out of fifty-six still undecided. Vacancies in the teams of House Calpurnian and Flavian. It would all be decided before noon, after which the final team complements would be announced in full. In the afternoon there’d be speeches (the galactic audience would be watching eagerly via the vox populi forum from the most distant corners of the empire) followed by the contestants’ private dinner. The speeches would be the most unbearable part of the day. The game editor would release some clues about the obstacles and challenges in the coming events, then senators and committee officials would follow with dreary speeches designed to remind the empire of their value and importance. Finally, each gladiator would occupy the podium for a few seconds and state his or her hopes and reason for fighting. I loathed public speaking, but there was no way out of it; the audience demanded a predeparture speech from the gladiators. It added spice to the games, gave the audience a chance to decide whom to back, and aided a vast network of bookmakers in the sharpening of their odds. So I’d be brief. I’d speak of Viridian honor, of avenging the souls of our fighters and colonists who died at Sertorian hands. I’d thank Marcus for training me, be conciliatory to my fellow Golden Wolves who’d missed out on a place, and I’d bite my tongue no matter how much the Sertorian contestants or the withered chauvinists of the Galactic Committee for Combative Sports riled me. I wouldn’t mention my personal goals and grievances, no ammunition to give anyone cause to disqualify me.
Switching back to the vox populi forum, I scrolled the latest news items. Locally the Festivities of Minerva on Mother Earth were already coming to a close in the southern hemisphere. There was coverage of our own dawn service at Nemorensis. A special report detailed a new Sauromatae revolt on their worlds near the galactic rim—rioting on the streets, a magistrate from House Arrian killed in an explosion, but the local legion already in the process of restoring order. Five thousand and one already dead. One Roman magistrate and five thousand blue-scaled Sauromatae, most of them extended family members of the rebels who were executed as both punishment and deterrent. No surprise. That was how barbarian uprisings usually played out.
The main news, as expected, was about the coming Festival of Jupiter, the most important and extravagant holiday of the year, and its games, the Ludi Romani, which were always the most eagerly awaited and most hotly contested. Long ago we’d learned that the key to sustaining a galactic empire lay in delivering a never-ending serving of bread and circuses. Emperors and politicians talked about honor and tradition, but all the masses wanted was to be fed, employed, and entertained in peace. Then the whole system ticked over. As one holiday festival ended, you had to wait only a week or two before the next one started up.
Scanning through the multiple streams of media coverage, I listened to brief snatches of discussion on strengths and weaknesses of the gladiators, the rules, and various contests that might be brought into play, but it was all speculation until the emperor’s officials announced the nature of the course. And the prize. They couldn’t stop talking about it, the greatest prize ever offered in the empire’s long history.
Satisfied, I tapped the panel on my armilla to shut down the information nodes. Once the sun set, I’d be home free, on track to depart the galactic capital with nothing but the tournament to focus on. Until then though, my father still had the time and the means to try and derail me. He’d been suspiciously silent on the topic of the coming tournament, refusing to discuss the matter or acknowledge my part in it, and so I’d set aside the whole day to manage any potential disaster that might rear its head. I’d sacrificed everything to secure my place in the coming games, overcome every hurdle put in my path. Nothing was going to stop me from fighting in the Ludi Romani. That was my fate. It was set in stone.
I headed to my training area. My green steel trunk, packed with armor, auxiliary weapons, warm clothes, and cold-weather survival equipment, was waiting for me by the door, ready to be shipped. Written on the side in neon yellow was A. VIRIDI—an abbreviation of my name. Father gave me the trunk for my eighteenth birthday, two months after Mother and Aulus were killed. He hoped it would carry my belongings to the home of my future husband, but I had no mind to play the part of a broodmare and make noble babies with an influential senator. Happily, though much to my father’s consternation, when the news of my first fight in the arena broke, the suitors who’d been lining up to pay me court dried up like a drought-plagued riverbed.
My training area had once been the triclinium, the living area where guests could recline on comfortable couches, but it contained no divans, couches, daybeds, or hand-carved crystal side tables bearing expensive, exotic fruits. Viridians are practical, functional people by nature. We do not seek comfort or decoration in our rooms, but even so, my large chambers were decidedly spartan compared to the others in the family compound. A plain wood table held two bowls—one containing olives, the other honeyed figs—a pitcher of watered-down wine, and the sling case that held my combat discus, sharp-edged Orbis—only the bare essentials required to sleep, eat, and train.
I ran through my calisthenics without arms or armor, visualizing my enemies. Sidestep the incoming javelin thrust, kick the opponent’s knee, lock and disable the weapon arm. A finger strike to paralyze the trapezius and finish with a sharp folding elbow technique to the back of the neck to rupture the medulla oblongata and bring on heart and lung failure. Next, catch a steel whip on my forearm and counter with a high kick to the throat to crush the larynx, followed with a scissor-leg takedown.
* * *
An hour passed before I was satisfied that I could move freely from my center of gravity without any residual tension to obstruct strength or speed. I bathed, dressed in my stola—white robes with a twin trim of gold and emerald green, a gold embroidered wolf on the breast marking me as a member of House Viridian—and went to my ancestral shrine to make offerings to Minerva so that she would pour her blessings and favor upon me.
Before I could start my initial libation, an incoming news alert flashed on my armilla’s screen accompanied by a sinking feeling in my stomach. A newly posted story revealed that two Sertorian gladiators had died overnight, one from a sudden illness, the other murdered by an obsessive fan, leaving the Blood Hawks with two vacant slots that had to be filled by the end of the day to make up the standard team of eight. Additional trials had been hastily arranged by the committee as the rules stated that all the slots needed to be filled before the teams departed for the arena world. My hands shook, fingers fumbling to bring up the list of Sertorian competitors. Titus Malleus and Gorgona were the sudden fatalities. I mouthed a quick thanks to Minerva that my targets had not been removed from the field. Just the same, it didn’t add up. Those gladiators were at the top of their game, two of the best, their health and safety carefully managed by a team of physicians and attendants. The report went on to say that the Sertorians were desperate to find suitable replacements and had even been considering gladiators from allied houses. A quick check of the Golden Wolves team list showed my name still there, right after our team leader and trainer. The galactic betting pools confirmed that the Blood Hawks were substantially weakened. No longer considered the outright favorite, they were now rated third to last. No bad news at all! A weakened Sertorian team would make my job all the easier.
Kneeling, I looked up past my ancestors to the alabaster statue of Minerva that crowned the small shrine. Beside me, in a sapphire bowl that rested on a tripod, were dozens of small figurines, each the size of my thumb’s tip and formed in the shape of a bull. For each figurine I deposited in the shrine’s incinerator, an instantaneous signal would transmit to one of the empire’s many temple worlds, ordering that a dozen live bulls be slaughtered on my behalf and burned as an offering in the name of my chosen deity. To ensure an auspicious day and a victorious tournament, I planned on dropping in every last one of them, but just as I gathered up the first handful, a so chime sounded, giving me a second’s notice before the doors of my chamber slid open and Bulla, my bronze-skinned Taurii body slave, came barreling in on large hoofed feet. She snorted and pulled herself up, stamping her right hoof on the ground. Her pierced cowlike ears pricked up with excitement. “Lady Accala! Domina! You awake? Domina, you awake?”
Gods, but Bulla could be intimidating when she moved at speed—an eightfoot mountain of muscle in a green tent dress, cinched at her broad waist by a thick belt with an iron buckle. Bulla’s fine fawn-colored fur was combed over the jagged battle scars that covered her body in a futile attempt to mask them and so soften her appearance, but there were so many cicatricial scores running against the natural line of fur, some like white worms, others purple and swollen with scar tissue, that it only made her look more formidable. She caught me by surprise; I thought she might have been my father come for a showdown over the tournament, and I accidentally dropped the handful of figurines, sending them scattering across the floor.
“No. As you can see, I fell asleep at the altar,” I said in an irritated voice.
“Oh. Then you wake up. Wake up. You must.” Taurii do sleep on their feet, and sarcasm and sharpness of thought are not a strong point of the species. Bulla had been my mother’s slave and served first as a matron then as pedagogue to my brother, seeing him safely to and from school. After they died, Bulla shared her grief by lowing outside my room night after night. That didn’t comfort me at all of course, but she was fiercely loyal to my mother and had nursed both my little brother and me. I could hardly allow Father to send her to the slave markets when she found herself without a position.
“I’m awake now,” I said. “What is it?”
“A messenger come from the Colosseum. From the Colosseum. They turn him away at the gate but I hear him call out your name, domina. I push the guards away and ask him what he want. What do you want I say?”
“That’s strange. Why would they bother to send someone in person?”
“The man says your lanista, Marcus, he try to send you message after message, but they all blocked.”
My armilla still showed nothing out of the ordinary. I ran a quick diagnostic and discovered that some incoming frequencies were being weakened to the point that my armilla couldn’t pick them up—a customized signal jam. A quick power boost to the armilla’s receiver, and just like magic the screen flickered, and communicats and alerts came pouring in, accompanied by warning alarms. Seven messages from Marcus alone, and he’d never written me one before that day. They all said the same thing.
Come quickly. The committee is moving to scratch you from the tournament. I’ll do what I can.
I quickly flicked to the list of confirmed Ludi Romani contestants I’d checked only moments before. With the signal block removed, it contained one vital alteration. My name, Accala Viridius Camilla, had a line running right through it. I’d been scratched. The match to find my replacement had already been held that morning, and my second cousin on my father’s side, Darius Viridius Strabo, had been confirmed.
My head felt light and dizzy, like someone had taken my feet and spun me upside down inside my own body, and I leaned back against the wall to stop from falling. This was impossible news. The Golden Wolves needed me. I had three more wins than Darius and seventeen unbroken victories in the galactic league. I was a crowd favorite and the Viridian team’s best shot at victory.
It was Father’s doing. It had to be. As an unmarried woman, I was still subject to his will. He was trying to sabotage all my hard work, still trying to force me into a mold of his making. How would he have done it? Call in a favor or two with the senators who served on the committee and order the security staff to jam certain incoming transmissions of my armilla. I was outraged, partly at his sneak attack—I’d always considered him too noble to do anything other than confront me directly—and partly at my own ineptitude—how could I not have seen it coming? So focused on a potential attack that it never occurred to me that the fight was already over and I’d lost.
My hands tightened into fists, so tight that my flat nails bit painfully into the flesh of my palms. The pain helped focus my thoughts. There were still trials under way at the Colosseum. The committee would be there. I could plead my case, try to get the judgment against me overturned. More important, Marcus would be there. He’d know how to turn things around. With his help I could fix this.
“Is Father still in the compound?” I demanded as I rushed to my dressing room.
“He left before the sun rise up,” Bulla said, thumping along behind me. “Off to the Senate house to talk. To talk at the Senate.”
“Then quick, fetch my fighting clothes, help me dress.”
“You already dressed, domina.”
I threw off my stola. “Fighting clothes first, then robes. You know what I mean.”
“You going to fight, domina?” Bulla asked, gathering up the robes as she followed after me.
“You’re damn right I am.”
“That not going to make your father happy. Not happy at all.”
“His happiness is just about the farthest thing from my mind right now.”
“Domina, do not let your father know that Bulla was the one to tell you,” she said as we entered the dressing room. “Not Bulla.”
“You have nothing to fear from him.”
“I fear he will send me to the slave markets. The slave markets or worse.”
Bulla and I had something in common. We were both subject to my father’s will. He could legally kill us both if he wished, though with me he’d have to show reasonable cause, not that that would be a problem. A noble-born woman entering the arena. In the eyes of any magistrate, I’d already given him more than enough. “Nonsense. He’d have me to deal with if he did that.” I pulled back my thick black hair and wrapped it into a knot at the base of my neck while Bulla hurriedly laid out my garments.
A form fitting base layer of fine, flexible alloys over which I pulled cotton trousers and a short silk tunic. Next my armored running shoes. Last of all I rewrapped my stola. And then I was up, striding through the training area, grabbing my weapon case, slinging it over my shoulder as I headed for the balcony.
“Breakfast!” Bulla protested. “You must eat.”
Before I could get past her, three thick, blunt fingers closed about my arm in a stonelike grip.
“Humans tire and die easy,” Bulla said, “and you are only a calf of nineteen summers. Don’t tire and die. Eat.”
Bulla was right. Food was fuel. Snatching up some honeyed figs from a bowl on the table, I stuffed them into my mouth.
“What you do when you see the enemy?” Bulla asked.
“I spear them on my horns. I pummel them with my hooves.”
She nodded, satisfied that I remembered her Taurii maxims, and released me.
“Make sure you know who friend and who enemy before you charge,” she called out after me. “Except with Sertorians. With them you kill first. Kill first, ask questions later.”
Excerpted from Wolf Empire: Gladiator © Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan, 2016