And so the days wore on. Aura stayed in her room in the West Wing, apart from the times when Melox wanted to do another apparently pointless test or two, and felt her spirit shrivel up. Once they’d insisted she join the rest of the employees, all neatly lined up and in uniform, when they had a very important foreign visitor. She’d even got to wear something –a delicate blue shirt, of a sort – which had made her feel far less vulnerable, and although she’d had to sit there with her shoulders back for so long they’d ached for hours afterwards, it had been a vaguely interesting little diversion from the dull monotony of normality… They’d put her back in her room afterwards, though, and normality had resumed.* * *
The wound on her shoulder, where Yax had bitten her, had scabbed over and virtually healed, leaving behind just a ring of pale scar-tissue, but it served as a reminder to her of what would happen if she tried to damage any of her tormentors again. So long as she did was she was told, she didn’t get hurt – not physically, anyway. Apparently – on the rare occasion she’d dare challenge one of them – they’d been told they could do what they liked with her so long as they didn’t ‘damage the merchandise’, but judging by how Yax had treated her already she didn’t hold out an awful lot of hope…
The weeks passed rather uneventfully. Lar would visit, every now and then, breaking the monotony of “normal” life – not that she felt her life was very normal. She’d grown to like his visits; he never once tried to use her, merely perched on a stool and talked to her, occasionally brought her something to read, like an old newspaper or a magazine he may have found discarded the night before. And not just Lar would visit; the occasional guard would put his nose around the door and chat for a few minutes, and they weren’t all sligs, here - she’d grown to like Del, a tall, skinny young mudokon.
But her hopes of getting out alive were fading. She rarely asked Lar about things any more, it made him edgy, as though he suspected people of listening in. She doubted keep on asking him would do much, either, other than to annoy him; he’d said he’d tell her if anything came up, and she just had to trust him…
Yax was there most evenings. Of all her “customers”, he was the one she loathed the most; he seemed to like to goad her, get her to try to bite him. She wasn’t sure why; perhaps it gave him an excuse to hurt her in return, or perhaps he liked it, as she knew there were a few that liked that sort of thing, just like there were a few that like to tie- No, stop that, stop right there, the sensible part of her mind cut in. Thinking about it will make it worse... Not that she liked any of the ones that visited her, they all, without exception, simply treated her as a piece of meat that they could do what they wanted with…
Jan was in one of the smaller rings, watched by only a handful of bored patrons, trying to despatch a young scrab with only a spear and a knife. At the moment there were no major fights on; Yaaren had practised out here very early this morning and no-one had caught him, which had prompted annoyed noises from most of the guests that had stayed overnight. Jan had gone out to practice later on, and those few that hadn't gone back to bed to wait for this evening's fight were watching him.
Jan had got better at fighting, over the past few weeks, under Arrun’s tutelage – that much was obvious, they’d never put him out in the ring unless they thought he could provide at least a little bit of entertainment for the audience. He'd found that when he was furious, as he was right now, he fought better still.
Yax was the current target of his anger, as he frequently was. The battered old slig used to like to poke fun at him, to tell him – and everyone else in earshot – in explicit detail just what he’d been getting up to with Aura. About how she cried less these days, as though she was getting used to the abuse – getting to like it, maybe, even, he usually added, with a sneer… Jan would tremble in hateful, helpless fury, knowing he could do nothing whatsoever except wish a nasty demise upon the ugly brute of a Gladiator.
When I get out of here, he mused, scoring a lucky strike with the spear and getting it through a chink in the big creature's armoured skin, prompting a yowl from the already half-dead creature. I’m going to sign up for the raid-teams, and first chance I get I’m coming back here to kill that sneering one-eyed brute… He knew it was a vain hope – the old slig was far tougher than he looked, and a far better fighter than anyone would have ever given him credit for just by looking at him, and Jan would likely merely sign his own death sentence by taking him on. The only one he thought capable of killing him in a fair fight was Yaaren; the hybrid usually didn’t go round picking fights with everyone the way Yax did, though, so a fight to the death between them was unlikely…
Strangely, the hybrid didn’t seem the least bit interested in Aurora; when Jan had tentatively asked why, expecting a ringing blow round the ears for being impudent, Yaaren had just smiled sadly. He’d gone on and said, in a low voice, that he’d been brought up as an infant by someone that had taught him the finer points of something akin to chivalry, and that the lady was a ‘rare creature of beauty to be treated with care and respect’. He’d then laughed, wryly, commented about how his former Boss was a drunk who had always had rather “flowery” speech, and that actually he just didn’t think abusing her like they were doing was right. Yes, he’d fight, he’d kill, he even admitted he’d tortured a few prisoners during interrogations after they drugged him up beforehand, but rape was one of the few things that wasn't on his list of things to do.
The other Gladiators, cynical and sneering as ever, said they reckoned he just wasn’t ‘that way inclined’, and got his satisfaction off another guard… Although never in the head Gladiator's earshot, which suggested to Jan that any retribution dealt out in response to the probably-baseless insults would be swift and painful.
The scrab brought him back to the present with a shriek of anger, and he lost himself back in the fight.
Six, nearly seven weeks had passed since they had been caught, and Aura had finally resigned herself to never getting out, not ever, so long as she lived, no matter what Lar said, her spirit pretty much broken. There was no point in fighting; after all, the better she co-operated, the less they hurt her, so she didn’t even argue any more. She lay on her stomach on her bed, facing the door, reading a newspaper Del had found for her – a day out of date, but at least it relieved the monotonous boredom of having nothing else to do… Besides, pretending nothing was happening, that nothing was out of the ordinary, helped keep her metaphorical feet rooted in sanity.
The door creaked, softly – someone had oiled its hinges, at some point, as it didn’t scream like it used to. Aura looked up from her paper and swallowed the last bit of her supper – originally just a bowl of simple gruel, but the guard that had provided the newspaper had added a couple of sweet biscuits, as he felt sorry for her. She’d eaten most of it, but was saving one of the biscuits in an old tin labelled “bandages” in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, with her little bottle of antiseptic and her little tub of painkillers, amongst other things. The little tin held all the little things she’d saved from what one guard or another had secreted into her meal rations – biscuits, a square or two of chocolate, a few boiled sweets in bright cellophane wrappers… comfort food.
Two of the Gladiators walked in – both sligs, tonight; she usually saw Arrun once every other day, and tonight was usually “his” night – with that cocky swaggering gait all of them seemed to have. She sighed, faintly, and folded her paper up.
“Evening, love…” one slig said, idly, closing the door.
She sighed, softly, closed her eyes against the tears, and rolled over onto her back.
It was getting late, and the roar of the excited crowd echoed through even the thick walls of the Pit; Jan was in the kitchen, getting himself a bite to eat before curfew, almost deaf to the sounds, now, he was so used to them. The current evening's spectacle was almost over; it had started just after sundown and now it was getting close to midnight, and Yaaren had gone out a little over an hour ago. He was usually on last, after the executions of prisoners by wild animals, and fights between the lower-ranking Gladiators and so on… Apparently it had been a rather entertaining spectacle, tonight, as one of the genetics labs half a continent away had sent some failed projects over for 'disposal' – Jan felt a little sorry for the creatures, misshapen and miserable already and now forced to fight for their lives. Only one survived the fights – well, two, but the second had been pretty badly damaged and they shot him, so he didn't count – and was now down in the Pit 'recuperating'-
Yaaren stormed in, and smashed his knife down on the table, leaving a smear of dull red from his fingers on the pale wood, an ugly, black expression on his face. Jan caught his rabid stare and flinched away, busied himself back in the toaster; the head Gladiator was clearly upset about something, which was odd in itself… He was rarely angry after a fight, usually instead unsettlingly jovial because of the drugs they shot him full of, which was pretty frightening when you took into account the sheen of blood and sweat darkening his skin…
"Something wrong, Gorgeous?" Arrun asked, glancing up; Yaaren didn't look damaged, but he looked to be in an utterly foul mood.
"Unless you want a taste of my fist, you'll shut your stinking mouth," he spat.
"Woo, steady on, Boss, only asked yer a question…" Arrun waved his hands about, as if to say his colleague was overreacting.
“Yeah, well, don’t, all right?”
Arrun shrugged exaggeratedly. “Sure, sure….” and added, to himself, in a grumble; “you stupid, over-reacting-”
Yaaren wrinkled his lips in a silent snarl and went for his throat, scattering chairs as he lunged. Arrun “eep!”ed and clattered backwards, tripped over the bin, finding two slim hands latching onto his throat.
Jan tried not to watch, not really wanting to lose his life at this stage in the game due to a badly-placed comment… The sounds of scuffling and objects breaking gradually diminished, and then there was the hoarse sound of coughing; Jan chanced a look over his shoulder – there was Arrun, looking rather more the worse for wear, glaring daggers at Yaaren. The other Gladiator had apparently decided Arrun wasn’t worth the time it’d take to kill him and now perched on a stool, his tailtip flickering in barely-restrained agitation.
Arrun pushed himself to his feet, mouthed “watch yourself” to Jan, and slunk off, nursing the bruises flowering at his throat, coughing and muttering under his breath.
For a while, silence reigned. The toaster was resolutely refusing to spit Jan’s toast out, and he was getting uncomfortable, with the angry Gladiator at his back…
Eventually he decided to break the silence. "Uhm… did you want a drink…?" he cringed away from the anticipated retribution.
But there was no violent reaction; Yaaren just shook his head. "No," he sat and fidgeted, for a few seconds, then got back up and paced for a while. "No, no drink. Just want to kill fucking Parink, that's all, an' I doubt you can arrange that for me…"
Jan laughed, nervously. "Uhm, no… what has he done?"
"Changed the farking stimulant they use without letting me test it beforehand – without even farking telling me. Feels like I've got ants crawling round under my damn skin," he fidgeted and grumbled, cleaning his dagger with short, repetitive movements of his tea-towel.
Jan turned his attention back to the kettle. “Uh, dunno if it’s helpful or not, but…” he glanced backwards. “Well, they just sent a message down that the baths are ready, and a hot bath may take your mind off things…”
Yaaren nodded. “Yeah, perhaps…” he sighed, and sheathed his knife at his hip, then added; “if you see Arrun any more, tell ’im to keep out of my way or I might just finish the job I started earlier.” And with that he was gone.
Jan just breathed a sigh of relief, retrieved his toast and headed back towards his quarters.