Dawn came, molten and stifling, threading silvery fingers through the iron grates of the dungeon at the Ludus Magnii, and wakening the captives beneath the courtyard. Soon their moans and mutterings would be overpowered by the shouts of men-at-arms—novice gladiators and their masters—risen at first light to train at Arena’s most glorious sport.
But until the sun crested the high tier of the ruling House of Zaerus and shone down on the main amphitheatre, the captives—yesterday’s vanquished—had only their shame to keep them company.
Shame and the knowledge that their conquerors would come to stake their Victor’s Claim anon.
Lucan moaned, the shadow of the iron lattice like a brand across his face. Even the dank dimness of the Claim was no proof against the scorching temperatures of Arena, Land of the Desert Kings. The heat needled Lucan to full wakefulness, but it was the heavy rattling of his chains that sank dread deep into his gut.
This was not the first time he’d been jailed in the dungeon of the Claim.
It was not the first time he’d been granted the Mercy.
As a gladiator, he was an expensive commodity, and the Empress, blind though she was, did not believe in wasting life. At least not a life that brought the masses to her Grand Amphitheatre to spend their bronze triens
. In the gloom, he twisted, chained to the sweaty stone wall, alone with his humiliation—the humiliation of losing to an opponent, of being left alive.
It would not be the last time.
He would suffer the Mercy again before his career ended—when he finally took the iron of another, better man into his flesh. Until that time, and for as long as the blind Empress sat the throne of Arena and ordered Spectacles for her amusement, Lucan’s life was not his own.
If only I could compete in a
true Spectacle as a real gladiator instead of as one of the Unnamed.
Lucan’s heart soared at the very idea. A real Spectacle with real honor attached. Not just these second-rate Diversions.
But Lucan had no notion of how to change his fate. His house had neither the denarii
nor the trainers to mold him into a proper gladiator. Oh, he fought with net and trident like a retiarius
gladiator, but he was not skilled enough to be worthy of that title.
The morning’s heat cast him in sweat, making his wrists slippery in the manacles, giving him the illusion of being able to escape. He groaned as he remembered the blasting sun of the Empress’s Theatre, the screams of the bloodthirsty throng in the stands. The theatre’s curved walls augmenting each shout, each cry, until it seemed he was swathed in victory. How they’d cheered for him as he struck his opponent a devastating blow with the haft of his trident, dropping the man to his knees.
How those cheers had turned against him when the man—a lowly noxii
criminal— recovered. A quick lash of his spear, and down Lucan went. The impact stole his breath, dazing him just long enough for the battle to turn, for his opponent to seize the day.
Two rapid punches. His victory dashed in the brightness of shooting pain.
And then it had been Lucan struggling in the sand, choking on the blood from a broken nose.
I should have used the prongs instead of the haft. I should have spilled his guts
. The masses always wanted guts and gore. They had screamed for Lucan’s gory death. But the Empress had denied them.
The arena was fickle.
The Empress even more so.
Even now, her white image was branded in his mind—her skin so fair it was marble in the sun, her chestnut-brown hair flowing in a breeze so high it touched only her; her jade-green eyes sightless yet all-seeing, for it was said the Empress was touched by the Doomsayer, Master of Souls, and that she kept his secrets behind her eyes.
She had raised her left hand, palm level with the earth, and in the deafening hush of the crowd, had tilted her thumb downward.
“To the ground!” came her herald’s shout.
Lucan’s opponent had obeyed, and his gladius speared the ground instead of Lucan’s nape.
He had avoided the iron. It had been narrow, his escape from death, and the masses had not liked it. Lucan, slave and man-at-arms of House Pineus, was favored only for his beauty in the arena. Once that had been spoiled by blood and the broken nose, the plebes had turned.
Now, the injury throbbed, lighting Lucan’s skull in dashes of pain, dull and then sharp. The manacles bit into his wrists, and he chided himself for his poor showing. To allow a downed man to take him! If only his initial cast with his net had been true. Lucan’s cheeks burned. He knew what the plebes said in the back alleys—that retiarii
like him were inferior fighters, better at snaring women with their looks than they were at snaring trained men with their nets. Humiliation seared through him, hotter than the sting of his wounds, harder than the throbbing of his broken nose.
If only I could somehow afford proper training!
Then he would prove them all wrong, prove that he was a true retiarius, worthy of being among the ranks of gladiators, worthy of being Named, and just as skilled as the shield-bearing secutor
gladiators and the flashier myrmidons.
I am more than just a pretty boy with a net and trident.
“Golden,” the masses called him in homage to his fairness—blond hair and golden eyes, the likes of which were rare in Arena. “Golden!” they screamed when he was victorious in the Diversions.
It was not enough.
Lucan wanted to compete in a full Spectacle—a real contest of arms between trained gladiators. He wanted to earn his name. To hear them shout “Lucan! Lucan!” instead of “Golden!”
At eighteen years, he was strapping, muscular, and quick. All he lacked was the training that would catapult him from the ranks of lowly Unskilled man-at-arms to celebrated gladiator. The truth stung.
Lucan of House Pineus was good, but he was not great.
He would never win his freedom in the Empress’s Theatre. When his beauty faded, he would die like countless others before him, his body hooked and dragged through the sands by the jackal-headed priests of the Doomsayer, stripped and burned, his ashes boiled down into tinctures squabbled over by the weak and infirm. His armor sold to the diseased, the leprous, the depraved, and the dissolute.
His soul would go to the Doomsayer’s Abyss a failure, to be a slave even in the underworld and wander the Harrowing at the behest of the victorious. That was the fate of Lucan of House Pineus.
And as for House Pineus itself…it was two triens from ruin.
The morning sun beat down through the grates, and the stench of burning wood and flesh crept across the courtyard of the great Ludus Magnii, and into Lucan’s cell. Even now, the Doomsayer’s priests burned the bodies of those who had been denied the Mercy.
With a groan, Lucan writhed in his chains. He would almost rather be among the vanquished dead than this—shackled in the Claim, his humiliation to be witnessed by the passing students of all the gladiatorial schools.
Any moment now, the novices would throng the courtyard, fresh from their morning exercises, and jeer and poke at yesterday’s defeated. Thankfully, the grates were too narrow for stones, but it was not uncommon for the novices to urinate on failures of the arena, especially the Unskilled. Lucan could only hope his victor would want a more private claiming and close the privacy screen below the grates.
If he pleased his victor, he would be released.
The thought brought a taste of copper to his mouth. He remembered his last victor, a hulking man named Agrippa. He’d held Lucan down by the back of the neck while he’d plowed him in hard, fast strokes. Lucan had been deliciously sore after the pounding. Fire scalded his cheeks.
He hated losing in the arena, but sometimes the punishments were worth it.
His cock stirred beneath his loincloth, and he licked his lips, breaking the crust of sand and blood from the arena. He hadn’t been plowed like that for a long time.
He needed it.
His arms stretched over his head, he could not even touch himself to bring relief. He struggled uselessly, but struggling only increased his need. The chains were heavy and thick, designed to be burdensome. He rather doubted that even his strength could pull them from their moorings high above. His wrists ached from supporting his weight while he slept. He flexed his fingers to restore the blood flow. Sweat crawled down his back and shoulders.
How much longer will I have to wait?
It was then Lucan realized he was not alone. Only a few feet away, swathed in shadow, stood a figure. A man, by the shape of his silhouette. His preternatural stillness, his very presence gave Lucan a nasty jolt. The door to the cell had not opened. How could the man have gained entry?
A shiver as of sinister fingers traced Lucan’s nape and crawled across his overheated flesh. Rumor crept into his mind, words whispered only in the darkest, most shadow-thrown corners of Arena. Slaver-priests. Slavecraft—sorcery.
It was rumored House Vulpinius had continued their dark practices, that they stole into the Claim in the dim hours and spirited away the vanquished to turn them into mindless slaves. But those tales… They were just rumor. Dark legend. Nothing more.
Lucan strove to keep his voice from shaking. “Who’s there?”
The man moved, the shafts of sunlight cutting across him, revealing fair skin and hair so black it glinted with accents of deep blue. Smugness quirked his full lips. He wore a fine tunic, its thick and dark crimson stripes designating him a noble, but his chest was broad and his arms were bare, his biceps cut and corded.
This was not Lucan’s victor.
Yet, this man was beautiful. Beautiful and dangerous.
Lucan licked his lips. “You’re not Adrian Vulpinius.”
“No. But I am a noble of his house, and he does as I please.” The man’s deep baritone sent a thrill of desire stabbing into Lucan’s belly. His nipples hardened just at that silky voice. “He’s plowing some virgin boy from the House of Lucia.” The man’s smirk grew to a lascivious grin.
A tiny thread of panic wormed through Lucan. “What do you want of me, then?” He craned his neck to glance at the grates above. The novices were late this morning. They were never late. And the guards? Another glance at the cell door revealed only a dusty passage beyond his tiny barred window.
The man chuckled. “House Vulpinius has no shortage of denarii. I am sure the guards of the Claim are deep in their cups. Or the asses of the virgin boys of Lucia.”
Lucan stopped struggling. “I suppose House Lucia will have many fewer virgins this day,” he said sourly.
Another chuckle. The man began circling Lucan, appraising his naked and bruised flesh. “Certainly the great and golden Lucan of House Pineus is no virgin.”
“No. Nor am I great.” Lucan fought to keep still, to keep from staring.
“No.” The dark-haired man paced, sleek and powerful, predatory as one of the great black cats brought in from the far reaches for the bestiarii
to battle. He leaned against the wall, putting his arms behind his head. The position made his biceps bulge. “But you could be. A true gladiator. A true retiarius. You would like that, wouldn’t you?”
Lucan raked the man with his gaze. Beautiful, influential, and now the key to Lucan’s freedom? It seemed convenient and too fortuitous for his fate to have turned so easily. Still, he had to hold his eagerness back. “What slave wouldn’t want a chance to train as a gladiator, to win victory, glory, perhaps even a chance at freedom in the Grand Melee?” He cleared his throat before his voice could crack. “You must have a ploy in mind. And a price.”
“Of course.” A deep rumble rippled through the shadows about the man. The darkness swirled at his feet, and the threat of sorcery made Lucan recoil.
“I’ll not cheat.”
“Of course not.” The man waved that off as though it were absurd. “The Empress herself keeps a sorcerer on her staff to ensure the Spectacles are not rigged.” He leaned in, trailing strong fingers across Lucan’s shoulder. “Do you want to know how I know this?”
“Yes,” Lucan whispered, though whether he was agreeing to the question or the man’s arousing touch, he barely knew.
“I am that sorcerer.”
In a flash, the man was upon him. Lucan was slammed against the wall, his head cracking back, his chains shrieking. An ebon blade pressed to his throat. “Quiet now, slave, or I’ll end your life instead of putting it to good use.”
Teeth gritted, Lucan struggled in vain, sweat breaking over his bare chest. He was a slave, but he was certainly not this
man’s slave. “I belong to House Pineus.”
But even as he said it, he knew it would offer him no shield against this man’s predations. House Pineus had once been a noble house, boasting the most prestigious gladiatorial school and turning out champion after champion in the Empress’s Grand Theatre. For five years running, the primus palus
among all the gladiators had been a Pineus man. But that was before Etrius Pineus, the house patron, had bankrupted the gladiator stables by building his own secret arena—an illegal affair that saw most of his holdings seized and Etrius himself put to death among the other noxii in the Empress’s Theatre. Soon after, his house crumbled, his four sons arguing like petty fief-lords, unable to make even the most basic decision.
House Pineus was in its death throes. There would be no mercy for it, its patrons, or its slaves when the four brothers lost their last bronze trien.
And the black-haired man knew it. He smiled, and the rumble rippled darkly through the shadows. “House Pineus wagered its last denarii on your victory. Now the house burns at the whim of your victor’s master.”
The man’s words jolted through Lucan, the scent of burning wood and flesh abruptly thick in his nostrils.
“House Vulpinius owns you now,” the man said, his voice sultry through his smirk. “You are my property, and I will bind you as I will.” He raised a hand, and sudden sorcery blazed there, a black fire in the dimness, as though darkling fireflies danced on his fingertips.
A gasp escaped Lucan. Slavecraft. A slaver-priest. House Vulpinius had long ago mastered the dark magicks, but rampant use, particularly for personal gain, was outlawed in Arena. So was poaching another house’s slave. He thought about crying for help, but this was the Claim. Though they were slaves, men-at-arms and gladiators had laws all their own. Anything could be bought and sold in the Ludus Magnii—fame, fortune, another man’s claiming.
And Lucan was just that.
“Do not worry, Lucan the great and golden. You will still be getting plowed this morn.” The man trailed one fingertip down Lucan’s chest, lightly scattering beads of sweat.
Lucan shivered, and a low moan escaped him, nearly lost in the rusty creak of the chains. “No.”
The man’s smile gleamed in the dimness. “I think you’ll find your body disagrees.”
Snapping back to himself, Lucan jerked away, only to fetch up against the wall to which he was chained.
The man pressed forward, blade and hand at Lucan’s throat, shoving him against the stone, the dagger tapping urgently against his jugular. “Calm yourself, slave. I only want a taste of you.”
The sound of his voice, lusty and lascivious, shuddered through Lucan. It had been weeks since he had last enjoyed a man’s touch, a man’s taste, a man’s mouth on his cock. But this was a member of House Vulpinius. Slavers, dark priests—they had been granted a pardon from the Empress, but everyone knew they still practiced their dark arts for their own gain, still enslaved, still tried to manipulate the winnings of the theatre to throw favor on their house.
And this was the Empress’s own man. Looking again at the fine robes, Lucan gave a jolt as he realized… Dark burgundy stripes, four of them. The consul.
This man was second only to the Empress herself. It seemed she truly was blind, at least partially by choice.
“Who are you?” Lucan heard the tinge of fear in his tone and hated it, but the slaver-priests could steal a man’s will, imprison his soul, make him do anything.
“Alession.” A glint of icy blue eyes told Lucan he was right to fear this man— slaver, consul, changer of Lucan’s fate. “Alession of House Vulpinius. Consul to her Imperial Majesty.” He turned the knife slowly, digging the tip into Lucan’s chest. A trickle of blood slipped down his pectoral and over his muscular abdomen. The heat of it was sensual, smoldering. Lucan writhed at the end of his chains.
Slow as a dream, Alession bent his head, his mouth opening, hot breath steamy on Lucan’s skin as his tongue chased the red rivulet, licking the stain from Lucan’s flesh.
Lucan could not help the breathy sigh that escaped him, his starved skin shivering at the lustful touch. These past weeks without the touch of another man had rendered him weak, needy. His mind whirled. Alession was tonguing the crimson bead from his pectoral, kissing lower, his lips teasing the nipple erect.
His pale blue eyes eager and hungry, Alession watched Lucan’s muscular frame writhe on the hook. “When I’m through with you, you’ll beg to be my slave.”