Little Monkey, by Chris Bone and Paul L. Mathews
Aemillia swore under her breath as she warmed up, flexing and lunging as she prepared for her morning routine. Did they, she thought, focus on her skill with a knife? Rarely. What about her consummate aim with a sling? Sometimes. Her poise under pressure, perhaps? Or her courage in combat? Never. Instead they lauded her ability to find footholds in the sheer, and her gift for scaling the vertical. And what cognomen did this ability earn her? The Phantom? Maybe the Night’s Stalker? Or how about Diana’s Wrath? No, instead they called her Little Monkey.
Warm-up complete and muscles loosened, she took up her position beside a pot of chalk on the floor. A set of rings were suspended from the ceiling above her. As she knelt and dipped her hands in the chalk she looked out of the palaestra window to see the Probus bridge beyond. The duplicitous beauty that was Rome—and the port of Ostia—dominated the view.
She looked away, rubbed the chalk into her palms, and closed her eyes. Still the port occupied her mind’s eye. It was ten years since she and her family had fled there in the early morning, and she could still see it, vivid in colour and rich in detail. The sea and skyline were aflame with the dawn’s reflected brilliance as they boarded a ship to far-flung Bithynia. Her father—a senator—cried as her mother swore and railed at Rome, spitting in its direction as the ship set sail.
Poor father, she reflected as she opened her eyes to look up at the rings. How quickly he fell from the Emperor’s favour. How easily had he tumbled from his position as a patrician of Rome. How swiftly he and his family had suffered the ignominy of exile.
She sprang upward, launching herself from a crouch and into the air, grasping both rings with strong, calloused hands. And how quickly had her childhood changed, she thought. No more exotic banquets. No more slaves to command. No more expensive gifts. All gone. Just like that. And then so too were her parents, taken from her when their ship was attacked by Cilician pirates on the Mar Mediterraneum, their bloody bodies thrown overboard as food for the squali.
Sweat began to creep down her back and temples as she performed a dozen rotations, eyes closed and mouth pressed in a firm, determined line. This was a hard routine, and the burn in her muscles attested to that. But was she not used to hardship? Did she not prevail in the face of it? Sold as a slave by the Cilicians to a wealthy Cretan wine merchant, had she not regained her freedom by ramming a shard of broken pottery into the merchant’s eye? Had she not fled into the night and used her guile and charm to ease her flight to Epirus? Did she not fall in with a troupe of travelling acrobats and work like the devil to master their routines, to earn the respect of their leader, Pelopidas of Thebes?
Pelopidas. She hung her head and bit her lip as she suspended herself between the rings, arms by her side and legs pressed together and at a right angle to her hips. Gentle Pelopidas, with his fair hair and dirty laugh. He was the troupe’s leader, and he became her protector and lover. She’d always wanted to vault and somersault as gracefully as the Minoan bull dancers depicted in Cretan frescoes, and Pelopidas made her dream a reality. He taught her well, and she became one of the star performers, earning many denarii for the troupe as they travelled around the Empire. And they had spent those denarii together just as they had spent the nights and their passion.
But all roads still lead to Rome, she thought as she lowered herself slowly, the muscles in her shoulders and torso screaming as she held herself, cruciform, between the rings. Her life with the troupe ended the day Pelopidas died, neck broken whilst performing for the Governor of Dalmatia. The troupe broke apart just as her heart did, and she wandered, fought and scraped a living until she found herself back in Rome, the Aventine Hill, and in Crispus’ gang, therein earning the moniker Little Monkey.
Snarling, she dropped to the marble floor, landing poised and feline on all fours as she glared out at the city beyond her window. She was no Little Monkey. She was a leopard, Rome was her prey, and she would take back all that was her father’s, all that was rightfully hers…
…And would she take it back with claws and fangs.