The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(9)

I SEEMED TO be collecting goddesses, I thought, as I nodded to the sentry on the wall and slipped out through the main gate of the Ludus Achillea, into the darkness of the night beyond. Or, perhaps, they were collecting me.

The sword that bumped against my hip as I walked was marked with the triple-raven knot, a symbol of my own goddess, the Morrigan, who had in her wisdom seen fit to send me so far from home to seek my destiny. In my hand I carried a lamp, a replacement for the delicate glass one I’d first received on the night I’d taken my gladiatorial oath beneath the light of a Huntress Moon. This one was rather less fragile, made of bronze and inscribed with the image of the Roman battle goddess Minerva. Around my neck, I wore a silver chain. Hanging from that chain was a pendant fashioned in the shape of yet another goddess: Sekhemet, who bore the head of a lioness and made war upon the enemies of Aegypt. Cleopatra, the queen of Aegypt herself, had given me the charm, and I treasured it. I treasured all of them.

But that night, the pendant lay cold on my breastbone. The new lamp felt heavy in my hand, and the sword on my left hip needed its twin hanging from my right to balance it as I walked. But that blade had been shattered. Broken in two in a fight against the girl whose grave I walked to visit that night.

The moon hung like a scythe in the sky, a slender, gleaming sickle, paler almost than the stars. But my new lamp cast enough light to keep me from stumbling over a tumbled grave marker that had succumbed to age and weather and lay on the ground just inside the low stone wall of the little necropolis. The moment I stepped through the archway into the enclosure, the night breeze died to stillness and the stars seemed to wink at me more brightly. I made my way through the cluster of tombs and statues devoted to departed Romans, most of them from families from the nearby estates that dotted the lush countryside around Lake Sabatinus.

At the far end of the graveyard, there was an enclosure set apart from the rest. There were no ostentatious marble crypts raised over the graves of those who slept in this place. No statues. Just simple stone markers set in the earth. I paused when I found the patch of earth that still bore ghost-faint traces of gray ash—from the funeral pyre that had blazed there months ago. I walked around until I stood between it and another grave: the one I’d first been brought out to stand witness at—along with all the other girls who would become my ludus sisters—for the interment of a gladiatrix I’d never known. It seemed an eternity since that night, the very first night I spent at the Ludus Achillea. Long before I discovered that the hooded woman who’d led the funeral rites was my sister. Before I’d known that I would one day have many more sisters. Before I’d killed the sister that lay in the dark earth now beneath my sandaled feet.

I sank down to sit on the damp, chilly ground and set my lamp beside the grave marker so I could read the name carved there. It was written in Greek, which I’d only just begun to learn, but of course I knew it was hers.

“Hello, Nyx,” I said.

This night was the first time I’d come to visit since we’d burned her body and buried her ashes with her weapons and worldly goods. I brought a small jug and two cups, and I sat for a moment, listening to the mournful fall of a nightingale’s song, before I pulled the stopper and poured out two measures of good dark Briton beer. Not wine. I would never again drink wine with Nyx—not even with her dead and buried—not after the party where she’d given me mandrake-spiked wine to drink. But it would have been rude to come empty-handed. I poured half of Nyx’s measure out onto her grave and set the cup down, watching as the thirsty earth swallowed the libation. Then I took a sip from my own cup and sighed.

“I drink to my enemy,” I murmured, repeating words I’d heard many times in the great feast hall back in Durovernum. “I raise my cup in peace and the hope that when we meet again, we shall be as friends.”

It was an old ritual, one of the oldest of the Cantii, and I’d seen my father enact it many times. Never at a graveside, of course. He, I’m sure, had no idea where most of the bodies of the men he’d killed in battle were buried. But he would speak those words every year on the anniversaries of the battles he’d fought. He would speak them softly to the dark air. To the shades that haunted him.

I wondered, if I said the words right, would Nyx’s shade be inclined to be friendly toward me? The notion almost made me choke on my beer.

Not in this life, I thought, or the next.

Or any of the others after that.

“This is stupid,” I sighed. “We won’t be friends. We won’t ever meet in the Land of the Blessed Dead. I don’t even know where your shade wanders now . . .”

Nyx was Greek, born in the back alleys of a place called Athens and raised as a petty thief by a gang of cutpurses. Caught and sold as a slave, she’d been shipped to Rome and auctioned off in the Forum. And my sister, Sorcha, new-made as the “Lady Achillea” and given a ludus to run by Caesar when her own career in the arena had ended, had seen something in Nyx. A flicker of obstinate spirit, a bloody-minded resilience, some angry spark that refused to be extinguished . . . I don’t know what, exactly. But that was how Nyx had found her way to the ludus.

She’d never really known much love in her life. That I did know. And so when she’d finally found someone to adore, someone to idolize and make proud—someone like Sorcha—Nyx had devoted herself to that cause. And all she’d had to do was hone and shape and harden all of the rage that had been building inside for her whole life and turn herself into a weapon. And she’d done it so well that it had earned her a place of honor in the ludus. Her new home. Her world.

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