I hate the gladiators. The way they grandstand in the ring, the way they try to spare each other from death if they can. I hate the way the crowd roars, deciding whether a gladiator will live or die.
I suppose it’s only natural I should feel this way watching them. I’ve never stood in the sands of the ring surrounded by ranks and ranks of well-dressed lords and ladies and fought for my life. I clean out the dung pits.
“Delivery,” said a gruff male voice behind me.
My attention was pulled away from the fight ending on the sands: Hara and Nazir, Nazir bleeding on the ground from a stab to the thigh. I turned to see four strangers and a dragon in a wheeled cage. I hissed under my breath, irritation/concern/question, a low hiss with a curl at the end. The dragon didn’t move. Had they brought me a dead dragon?
“I need them living,” I told the nearest delivery guard, a man.
“It’s alive,” he said. “Just sleeping.”
I doubted very much if it was sleeping. I measured it with my eyes, nose to tail. Probably as long as me in the body, with an equal length or more of tail. A young dragon, maybe twenty years old, with green-black scales and edges of brighter green around its muzzle, nose and ears. Practically a child. Mars give me patience.
I don’t hate the dragons.
“Thank you,” I said to them. “Wheel it through into the dragon pit, please.”
The wheeled cage moved slowly and the dragon stayed quiescent. I studied it further as the platform with its barred walls and roof moved slowly down the ramp to the pit. Gendering dragons was tricky, but there was something in the shape of his head, a narrowness of muzzle and arch to his ear-fins that said male to me. I didn’t attempt to disturb him until the guards had gone their way.
“Well, welcome to your new home,” I told him, and hissed a gentle inquiry of location. The sort of thing a hunting pack would use, to identify each other.
He snorted. His angry disinclination to identify himself to me at least meant he was awake. That was good.
“I hope you speak the human tongue,” I told him. “The others do, but you’re a mountain dragon, aren’t you? Not one of our forest drakes.”
A golden eye blinked at me.
“If you agree not to savage me, I can give you a bath without the chains. Of course, you can lie and kill me, but all it will get you is a pile of angry guards and a new attendant who will probably assume you have the intellect of a horse. That’s what happened to the last pit attendant. Not that I would blame you, exactly, captivity being what it is…?”
I trailed off, hoping for a sign. He wasn’t giving me much, this dragon. Usually they were either roaring in anger or cowering in fear, not this strange, uneasy quiet.
Finally, he opened both eyes and lifted his head on its long dark arch of a neck to look at me. He hissed once, the shortest word I had yet to understand in their language. Sss, for yes, agreement.
Now to see if he was a liar or a truthteller. So far, I’d found the dragons to be incredibly straightforward – unlike the griffons, who lied their feathery tails off. We didn’t have any griffons right now, the last one having been killed a month ago. I didn’t miss them. I liked the straightforward reptilian disregard of the dragons. At least it was honest. I had seven dragons right now, counting him.
I opened the cage door and gestured him out of it. He left the cage, flexing his wings in the larger space, and I stood prudently back, armed with a pole with a noose on the end. Friendly I might be, but I wasn’t going to let him murder me without a fight.
Still, he seemed more interested in exploring the dim, windowless stone room, wandering the cages, exchanging hisses and wing-flips with the other drakes, until he found the sand pit. He burrowed in and I followed, slipping on my rough gloves and abrading him clean with plentiful handfuls of sand. Clean, he shone like dark water.
“That the new dragon?” asked my supervisor, who seldom came down to the dragon pens. The two long claw marks scarring the left half of her face said why without me ever having to ask. I’d never survive on the sands, it was too easy to sneak up on me. I’d been paying too much attention to his grooming.
“Yes, citizen,” I said, half-turning so I could keep an eye on him, where he was burrowing under the sand with seeming happiness, and watch her as well.
“It’s up. Bring it to the gate.”
“I haven’t even had a chance to feed him yet-”
“Good. It’ll be hungry, then.”
She turned on her heel and left. I hissed to myself, frustration shading into worry.
The dragon hissed inquiry at me.
“You have to come with me now,” I said quickly, climbing out of the sand pit, shedding my gloves and grabbing my pole. “I’ll explain on the way, please.”
I’d dealt with dragons who refused at this point to leave the relative comfort of the dragon pit, and I’d had to wrestle them. Most dragons we got in here were about my weight, the size of a big man, all muscle. This one was more like my weight and half again. I didn’t enjoy the idea of wrestling him. Luckily for my scar collection, he climbed out of the sand wallow and followed me, eyes half-lidded.
I explained as we walked, “You’re going to be fighting a man – or a woman, but a human. They’ll be trying to kill you. You win if you kill them first, the guards will use spears on you if you don’t fight. It’s okay to eat them once you kill them, people expect that. Some of you do, some of you don’t, I haven’t figured out the language to ask why. You don’t get favors or patrons like the humans, so there’s no point making a big show of it, but it is a show, so if you want to show off, do. They don’t know how smart you all can be, so that’s to your advantage – everyone in the pit sort of goes along with keeping that a secret, I hope you will as well? Ah….”
I knew there was more I should tell him, more I would have told him if I’d had time, but here he was at the barred gate down into the sands of the arena, and the guards stationed on the other side made me go quiet.
His short hiss of acknowledgement was all the hope I had that he’d taken in my fast, human speech. The gate opened. He slid through, wings slicked to his shining black back, tail making a soft sliding noise on the sand. His body language was all calm hunting, his frills up and open, alert for any sound.
He was up against a pair, two men with nets and tridents, and I bit my hand to keep myself quiet, not calling advice to him. I wasn’t a trainer, I told myself sternly. I was just the one who took away the dung and brought the meals. The dragons were, fundamentally, not supposed to win. You were supposed to cheer for the gladiators, the humans, the-
One of the gladiators was down, net tangled around one of my dragon’s wings, arm holding the trident pinned beneath a forepaw. I couldn’t see the exact moment when the obsidian dragon bit out his throat, hidden by the bulk of the dragon’s body, but I could see the blood that began spraying, bathing the dragon’s head and the sands in bright red like a legionnaire’s cloak.
He’d been unusually calm so far, but any dragon with flesh in their mouth and the scent of fresh blood had one instinctive reaction, and he was no different. He mantled his wings to hide his kill, and bent his long neck and began to feed. Who knew how long it had been since he’d been captured, how long since he’d fed.
“The other one, the other one,” I was whispering, hands fisted at my sides. “Remember there’s another one-”
The other one was circling behind him, lining his trident up for a clear shot at the dragon’s less-armored flank beneath his wing, where the scales were small and pebbly, not large and smooth like mirrors.
The gladiator drew back the trident to strike.
He launched it into the air.
With a snap, the dragon closed his wings, knocking the trident out of the air and turning in one motion to launch himself at the second gladiator. The second victim, now, as the man turned and ran, dropping his net and sprinting for the edge of the ring. My dragon pursued – was he favoring his left side? Had he caught that trident before or after it had wounded him? I couldn’t tell, he was moving too fast – he was bounding lightly over the sands, a ground-eating trot, head up, back to me.
I looked away when he killed this man, but the arena was quiet enough I thought I could hear his spine break beneath the dragon’s jaws. Dragons like to take the spine, when they can.
I swallowed, and went to the chain to re-open the barred gate to the arena, through which I had been watching, and leaned against the wall, feeling as if it had been me sprinting across the sands, blood on my mind and sand under my claws. I was exhausted.
There was a blank in time, because I came back to myself as the dragon paced past me, ignoring me completely. I closed the gate and hastened after him. He was soaked, absolutely soaked, in blood, from his jaws down his belly and spattered all across his wings. It turned his midnight green scales a glistening black with crimson highlights where they caught the light.
We went down the long ramp that descended into the dragon pens, well away from air or light where the dragons might make an escape by wing. The path and the pens were lit with oil lamps, golden light dim enough that I had to be careful not to run into the black dragon in the shadows of the corridor. Globs of dark flesh were left in the dragon’s messy trail, a scrap of scalp that had been caught on one of his claws. I had a strong stomach, I reminded myself.
“There’s a bathing pool,” I told him. “On the other side of the main chamber from the sand bath.”
My only acknowledgement was that he turned himself in that direction. For the last part, when he wasn’t sure where to go, I put a hand on his shoulder, to guide him. My hand came away sticky and red with blood.
“Here. We’ll get that cleared off you. You’ve worked hard, hah? You did well out there, startled them some, the lords and ladies aren’t usually that quiet during a bout. You’re a fighter.”
Keeping up a low, steady stream of words, I went first into the cool water, backing up and using a hand lightly placed on his neck to urge him that last little bit into the water. He followed without argument or showing tooth, and stood in the water as if he’d forgotten how to bathe.
“All the other dragons here are river dragons,” I told him, “They barely use their wings except to glide, and they mostly take herd beasts. You’re a mountain dragon, aren’t you? Not many big pools up in the mountains to bathe in?”
He didn’t answer, but I wasn’t really looking for one. I got the big gourd dipper down from the wall, and used it to start sluicing cool water down his sides. You couldn’t use hot water on dragons; they ran too hot and they’d overheat and bite your arm off.
The water dripped rosy off his scales, turning the dimly lit pool burgundy. I emptied bucket after bucket over his spinal ridges, his forelegs, his wings, his hindquarters, his tail, and circled back around to his head, which he’d dunked into the water himself. He came up looking a bit more like a dragon and a bit less like a slaughterhouse. I ignored how the water stuck my clothes to my skin, how I was wading in blood. He’d be miserable if I let him dry out covered in sticky, cracking, smelly old blood, and a miserable dragon was a dangerous dragon.
I pulled the chain to empty the pool, and the next chain to open the gate above our heads, letting water pour in on top of both of us, soaking my shirt to my skin and my hair to my head and startling him into a hissing roar, head darting up as if the water was an enemy to be seized and shaken and destroyed.
“It’s just water!” I called over the sound of it falling, but I don’t think he heard me. He had his ear frills pinned back and he spread his wings under the falling, splashing water, letting it clean them more thoroughly than I would be able to in the confined space and with my lack of height. I settled back to watch as he seemed to remember how to be active again, splashing in the falling water as if it was his best friend, not something he’d been trying to kill a few seconds ago.
“You have waterfalls back home, huh?” I asked, when he finally deigned to emerge from the cacophony so that I thought he’d be able to hear me.
He sneezed at me, a friendly, smoky sound. I laughed.
“Well, back to your cage.”
He hissed disagreement.
“I’m not going to lock it,” I told him. “It’s just the people get less uncomfortable if it looks like you’re all locked up.”
He gave me a look that made me feel very edible. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.
“Please? I would like to not get in trouble.”
He huffed, which I took for ‘you are beneath my notice, human peon,’ but he let me guide him back to the cage he’d left what felt like days before but had been mere hours.
Some dragons didn’t have very much personality. I was beginning to understand that he had personality in spades, whether the joy of playing in falling water or the bloodlust of the kill.
I closed his cage behind him, looped the securing chain loosely through the bars so that it looked right, and, laughing at myself for my odd mood, went to refill the lamps. I wasn’t here to make friends. I’d worked here for five years and none of the dragons from when I’d started were still alive. They died of lack of light, they died of rotten meat, they died in the arena, weakened and starved. Things had gotten better since I’d started talking to them, but not by that much. Better me than someone else, right?
I woke the next morning unsure what time it was, but aware I’d fallen asleep in the dragon pen again. One of these days one of them was going to be hungry enough to eat me while I slept, and what a fool I’d look then. I should go get something to eat from upstairs, I thought to myself.
Someone was hissing. More specifically, a dragon was speaking, in rhythmic, hissing, rolling sounds, like water over rocks, like metal being quenched in a fire. It went on and on, some words I knew, some words I didn’t – interrogative, imperative, and lots of little clicking noises and long, sibilant hisses that slid up and down the scale like singing.
I’d known the dragons were smart. I’d known they could talk. No one, living with them, could miss it unless they were stupid or more stubborn than me. I’d just never known – this. This long, low ripple of sound, filling the room and making the low lamp-glow of early morning seem full of secrets. Understanding a few words made it worse, because I caught the chirp of ‘food’ and over and over, the short, sharp hiss of imperative.
Other dragon voices answered him, answers short and simple, but still using words I didn’t recognize.
I stood up from my sleep, curled up against a wall, and saw that it was the new black dragon, punctuating his speech with taps of his wing-claws against his scales and twitches of his ear frills and so many other little movements. He looked alive. He looked energetic.
He looked angry.
He paused his speech, met my gaze and matched it. I stared at him. I didn’t know what to do, even though I knew that staring at any predator is a bad idea – it gives them ideas that you want to fight.
He flicked his gaze away from me, back to his fellow dragons in their cages around the room, as if I was beneath his notice. I’d never been so happy to be beneath anyone’s notice before. He resumed his hissing speech.
Finally, to punctuate or perhaps to demonstrate, he drew in a breath like a bellows and let it out in a narrow, blinding, lance of flame. I blinked after-images out of my watering eyes and saw him flick the door of his cage open with a nonchalant front paw. The chain lay in two pieces glowing orange-white, the middle part a molten puddle, and the lock was little better.
“You’re not a mountain dragon at all,” I said into the silence and sound of dripping metal. “You’re a fire drake.”
He padded down out of his cage, shook out his wings, settled them on his back again. He met my eyes with his golden ones and grinned slowly, showing all his teeth, and hissed a brief, affirmative, sss.
“How did anyone capture a fire drake?” I asked him, feeling strange and slow and wistful. I’d never met a girl and had children, and now I was probably going to die.
He snorted at me, dismissive. Well, it wasn’t like I knew enough dragon for him to answer me. He seemed content to circle around to the other cages, yanking the chains apart and the doors open. The other dragons began emerging, their wings making abortive flaps in the larger space of the pit, but still without room to fly.
He spoke again, and though I didn’t understand the smooth echoing sounds I understood the effects they had on the sickly river dragons, who ceased their flapping and followed him up through the entrance to the arena in solemn single file.
I thought about trying to stop them, I did. I thought about how they’d break something if they were feeling generous and kill me if they were feeling irritated, and I followed at the end of the train of dragons up into the arena. Someone screamed, high-pitched, up ahead.
I tried not to look at the bodies of the dead guards by the melted iron gate. They were in enough pieces that I didn’t have too much trouble pretending they weren’t people. It occurred to me to wonder why I wasn’t running, but something in my stomach knew the answer. If I ran, they’d kill me. They were predators, after all.
The dragons had formed a circle in the pristine sands, beneath the nets that kept them from flying up and out of the arena, flapping their disused wings and speaking in short hisses I mostly understood. Not ready/ready/ready/ready/not ready.
The black dragon hissed a long sibilant question, and I studied the circle in interest to see who would answer, from my vantage by the no-longer-a-gate.
He huffed irritation, and threw his head in an impatient gesture I couldn’t mistake for anything but get-over-here.
Since I didn’t feel like arguing with him would do me much good, I got over there. He asked the question again.
I frowned, trying to parse it.
“I’m sorry – something dragons something something?”
He hissed irritation, and with a disdainful snort drew nine lines in the sand with a clawtip. I studied it helplessly.
He made three sounds. A hiss I didn’t know, a short chirping sound that meant dragons, and the sound that meant question.
“Nine dragons?” I asked.
“Oh! Yes, there are only nine dragons here, not counting you. There isn’t another pen or anything.”
He let out a low, contented rumble.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.”
I wasn’t sure if I meant understand him now, or understand just what had been happening to the dragons. Slaves though our human gladiators were, they were kept in light and air and prostitutes, and lauded with gold and fame when they won. What had our beasts gotten but starvation, darkness, and death that came slowly?
The black dragon sat up on his haunches, drew in a deep breath, and set the net above our heads aflame. More guards were coming, I saw, racing down the steps from the upper ring of the arena, but they weren’t close enough to matter, not even the archers. Not with the net falling around us in flaming pieces – I stepped aside to avoid one falling on my head.
One by one, the river dragons launched themselves into the air. The rust red one who’d been there the longest, with his weak wings that left him lurching in the air and barely keeping aloft. The green female who liked to sniff at me as if I might produce food at any moment. The brown one who hated me, who I didn’t approach or talk to without a tool to keep him away from me. The steel-grey who liked to use me as a pillow. The two blues I could never tell apart. All of them, gone, over the edge of the arching arena wall high above, as if they’d never been here.
Clawed talons like iron bars closed around my ribs, and I offered up a quick prayer to my goddess that I wouldn’t go to too harsh a field of hell for my life’s work. Except the claws didn’t crush my ribcage and all the other things I’d seen dragons claws do. They just held me, as the black dragon launched himself into the air and, wings pumping wildly, started his flight to freedom.
The blood was rushing to my head and the wind was whistling in my ears and an arrow had just missed me, and all I could think was, I guess I don’t get out of being a dragon attendant that easily.