The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(10)

My unexpected intrusion into that world had not gone over well.

I took a sip of the dark, bitter beer and shook my head. “I fear for you, Nyx,” I said. “There was nothing but hate in your heart when you died. I saw it in your eyes. And I’m truly sorry I was the cause of so much of it.”

I would have petitioned Nyx’s gods to take away that hate from her in death if only I knew who her gods even were. I thought about it for a moment, swallowing another mouthful from my cup. What did I know of Greek gods?

All I knew was that the Romans worshipped virtually the same pantheon, only with different names. Were they really interchangeable, I wondered? The divine beings who, in spite of their own wars and ruins and tangled relationships, did their best to guide us mortals through our muddled and messy lives? I’d even heard Caesar call my own gods by Roman names. Was Lugh really Mercury in another guise? Were the Morrigan and Minerva sisters, or cousins, or one and the same? Maybe my Blessed Lands and Nyx’s Elysium, Elka’s Valh?ll, and Neferet’s Aaru were all the same thing. Or maybe they were lands whose borders touched . . . blurred, like traveling through a mist from field to forest. Whatever the case, I didn’t think it would necessarily do to ask the Morrigan to watch over Nyx in the afterlife. But maybe I could find a deity a little closer to entreat.

To that end, I thought about the coming morning. Sorcha had invited me to attend a ceremony at Caesar’s temple of Venus Genetrix with her in the city, during which he would dedicate certain treasures to the goddess: spoils of war, including a breastplate—a magnificent piece of armor decorated with river pearls—seized in his Britannia campaign. Sorcha and I were the only ones who knew that it had once belonged to her. In her mind, I think she’d framed it as a kind of honor, but I wasn’t so sure. Apart from the dedication, I saw nothing interesting about a bunch of priestesses standing around chanting and fogging the air with incense, and I still hadn’t made up my mind whether or not I’d go.

But . . . Venus was the Roman goddess of love—Nyx’s Greek fellows called her Aphrodite—and so maybe she was a goddess worth making the acquaintance of. I already had a surfeit of war goddesses. I smiled to myself and decided that, the next day, I would go to the temple, and I would offer up a prayer to Venus that she might put love in the heart of my dead enemy.

“My tribe believes it’s never a good idea to drink alone.”

The voice in the darkness startled me from my reverie, and I looked up to see Elka standing there. I hadn’t even heard her approach. She hunkered down beside me and pulled a wineskin out of a sack she had slung over her shoulder.

“Leaves you far too vulnerable to malevolent spirits,” she said.

“I’m not alone,” I said, tilting my cup at the ground in front of me. “I’m visiting a friend.”

“Well then, so am I.”

I snorted. “You hated Nyx.”

“So did you.” Elka grinned and twisted the stopper out of the wineskin.

“To be fair,” I said, “she did try to kill me.”

“On several occasions, ja.” Elka tilted her head and poured a stream of dark liquid down her throat, wiping her mouth with the back of one hand. “It’s not an uncommon reaction, little fox. I remember trying it myself once or twice.”

“If you’d really tried to kill me,” I said, “you’d be the one sitting here drinking alone. And I’d be the pile of ashes lying under all that dirt.”

“Pff.” She waved away the notion. “It would have been a rash decision. After all, I never would have made it this far without you.”

“Of course you would have.”

Elka raised a pale eyebrow in my direction. “Don’t underestimate your ability to kindle the fires of determination in those around you, my friend.”

I laughed. “That doesn’t really sound like a compliment.”

She grinned and took another pull from the wineskin she’d brought for the occasion. “More a statement of fact,” she said, then changed the subject before I had a chance to argue or backhand a compliment in return. “How’s Cai?”

I sighed and took a drink of my own. “Performing in two days’ time.”

“I know that. Quint and I are going together into the city to watch the games. That’s why I asked.” She glanced at me sideways. “I meant how is he?”

“I honestly don’t know.” I shrugged, avoiding her inquisitive stare. I hadn’t had any contact with Cai since he’d reported to the Ludus Flaminius. “He won’t see me. He won’t even write to me. I’ve sent messages, letters, but they all come back with the seals unbroken. I’m seriously thinking of visiting the ludus and demanding a visitation with Cai from the lanista himself. He’s been courting Sorcha’s favor for months now, after all. Wants to arrange a joint spectacle.”

“What better draw than a disgraced hero of the legions?” Elka shook her head. “Cai’s more infamia now than you and I ever were.”

“And it’s all my fault.”

“It’s his father’s fault.” Elka’s voice turned stern. “No one else’s. Least of all yours.”

“Then why won’t Cai even see me?”

“Maybe he needs to win in the arena first,” she mused. “Think about it. From respected decurion to reviled gladiator is a far way to fall.”

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