Part Two

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Vetera's timber and stone amphitheatre was no grandiose structure like those in Rome and other cities, but it had numbers inscribed over the various entrances. Piso opted for the more central second, the best option for finding his friends. Inside the narrow staircase that led up towards the banked seating, the clamour from the spectators was deafening. The timber planking above Piso's head shook with the impact of hundreds of hobnailed sandals, and the air rang with cheers, ribald comments and laughter. There wasn't a fight going on, he thought. Too many men were laughing. As he emerged into the open air again, his gaze fell first – as it was supposed to – on the circle of sand that formed the amphitheatre's centre. Half a dozen dwarfs in ornate, fantastical armour and carrying weapons were chasing a flock of clipped-wing cranes around the arena. Ridiculous and outlandish, Piso couldn't help but chuckle.

'You can do better than that!' roared a soldier several rows of seats away. 'Kill them!'

'What's crane taste like?' shouted another.

'Never mind crane, my friend here wants to eat dwarf!' retorted a wit to Piso's left.

Spotting his friends several rows back, Piso worked his way towards them.

'Happy?' asked Vitellius.

'Aye. I placed a couple of bets.'

'Please tell me you didn't throw away all of your pay,' said Vitellius, rolling his eyes at Julius.

'Not all, no.' Piso's fingers cupped his much lighter purse.

'You're not borrowing money from me for the next four months,' warned Vitellius.

'Or me,' Julius was quick to add.

'What kind of friends are you to doubt so fast?' cried Piso. 'If I win – when I win – you're the ones who'll be looking for loans, not me.'

Julius scoffed, but Vitellius raised a placatory hand. 'You do come out on top sometimes, it has to be said. I will hold my counsel until the fight's over. When is it on?'

'It's the last bout. I've bet on a murmillo who's to face the local champion.'

Vitellius groaned. 'I take it back. Your money is good as lost.'

Julius hailed a passing drinks seller. 'Over here! My friend needs to get even more drunk.' He cast a wicked look at Piso. 'Best to be out of it entirely by the time you lose.'

'Screw you, Julius,' retorted Piso, but without heat. 'Just get the wine in.'

Slurping the vinegar-like liquid, they watched the cranes being pursued and hacked to pieces one by one. Much hilarity ensued as several dwarfs smeared blood on their faces and using cut-off wings, proceeded to flap around the arena's perimeter. Coins and pieces of bread rained down on the little performers; one soldier even lobbed a skin of wine down. Desultory applause rose from the audience. Bowing and scooping up their scant rewards, the dwarfs made another circuit before vanishing into one of the doors that gave onto the circle of sand.

The master of ceremonies, a paunch-bellied veteran and sot nicknamed Rufus because of his blotchy purple nose, took to the sand without delay. Spectators' patience in general was poor, and legionaries were no different. Cries of 'Bring on the next act!' and 'Where are the gladiators?' were already filling the air.

'Brave soldiers of Rome!' cried Rufus as slaves began clearing up the bloody, feathery mess that comprised the cranes' remains. 'After the delights of the dwarves–'

'Delights?' bawled a legionary in the front row, his position only a man's height above the sand. 'It was a fucking stupid display!' Scores of men yelled in agreement, and with expert precision, he hurled a ripe plum, which split as it struck Rufus in the midriff, staining his already grimy tunic. 'Show us some decent fighters, and quickly!' threatened the legionary.

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