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Once their conveyances were taken away, their little company moved forward. Amelia felt like some kind of sacrificial offering being dragged to the altar. It didn’t help that they were walking over a long red carpet made solely of silk sheets. She expected them to catch on her shoes, but they didn’t. Probably because every five feet or so there were people crouching on either side, holding the fabric in place and adjusting it when it was ruffled.

Amelia swallowed back a wave of nausea. These had to be slaves.

Soren noticed her looking. “They’re getting well paid for the service they provide,” he said.

Gaunt faces, sunken eyes, clothes immaculately clean for the celebration, but the colorful strips of cloth tied around their arms for decoration weren’t quite wide enough to hide the bruises. The crowd’s cheering wasn’t quite loud enough to disguise the shouted commands and insults when someone failed to adjust the silk fast enough.

“Tell me,” she said, “how much do they pay you? What is the current price of a human soul?”

“You think coming here has changed me.”

“Oh no, I am pretty sure the way you are is precisely why you came here in the first place.”

“Then you’re afraid coming here will change you.”

Amelia gritted her teeth. “I don’t plan on staying long enough to find out.”

Soren didn’t twitch, as if what she thought or planned was completely irrelevant because she had no hope of succeeding. “In any case,” he said, “this place doesn’t make people the way they are; it merely enhances traits already present. You’d be surprised how meticulous we are in our recruitment.

“For example, our mutual friend over there.” He inclined his head toward the front of the entourage, where Gabriel walked tall and proud ahead of them. “He is special, you know.”

You have no idea.

“Any street thug can be dressed in a costume and pitted against an opponent in the arena. More often than not, they will fight to the death, probably for the sheer pleasure of it. Amateurs clubbing at each other with sharp bits of metal. They draw blood, the blood draws a crowd. Doesn’t take much more than that.”

His voice grated on Amelia’s nerves. She wanted him to shut up so much, she was willing to try making him and risk the consequences. But apparently he was in a chattering mood, like a gossipy hen over a pot of tea and cookies.

“But Gabriel, he has courage. Strength. Some would say showmanship. These are traits not easily found among the general population. He was chosen for the arena quite deliberately because of them. And he has flourished here. Rome didn’t make Gabriel, Dr. Chase. It made him better.”

“That should be your new catchphrase. Come to Rome! Reach your highest potential. And then die.”

“You just described life,” he said. “Isn’t that what we all strive for? To reach our highest potential? And then, of course, everything comes to an end some time.”

“Right. You just expedite the process. An entire lifetime, fast tracked to what, ten years, if that?”

He merely inclined his head.

“And that so-called potential you mentioned. What exactly is that? Being the best slave you can be? Moaning the loudest you can while dying of some disease that wouldn’t be an issue in proper society?”

“Show me a city without disease, Dr. Chase. Show me one where people don’t rob, or steal, or fight for money. What you speak for so passionately is an idea, nothing more. It can never become reality because of one simple, painful fact of life.”

“And what is that?”

“That human beings are essentially animals. With base instincts, needs, and wants. Greed, hunger, lust, even misery. All of these things are ever present in our makeup. Some manage to suppress them with intellect, but most take pleasure in drowning themselves in one or the other. I believe they call it instant gratification. People get what they want, when they want, by any means necessary. You’d be surprised how many times that translates to violence in some form or another.”

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