Night drew down around the walled city of Arena and brought with it cool winds from the surrounding deserts. From the highest house at the apex of the Grand Palestra to the lowest, dwelling in the shadows of its betters, Citizens and plebes alike whispered praise to the cursèd goddess Rilrune for this, a pleasant release from the day’s oppressive sweltering.
Cool darkness came, its breezes brushing the glittering sands of the Empress’s Amphitheatre as though they might wash away the stench of carnage that her madness wrought. The stench of sweat and steel, of fury and fear, death and despair. So much blood and battle. Twelve had died in the Spectacles today. Sixteen the day before. Tomorrow, the sands would run crimson again. But for now, a crispness hung about the theatre, from the arena itself to its tallest stands and its surrounding balconies.
And for a brief time, every Arenian could forget that their Empress was a mad sovereign—powerful, immortal, and bent on bloody Spectacle.
Every Arenian except the men shackled in the cells of the Claim. Vanquished and shamed but spared by the Empress’s mercy, they hung in the sweltering heat below the courtyards of the great gladiatorial school of the Ludus Magnii.
They hung, and they waited to be claimed.
Titian hung by his wrists, his arms stretched over his head, the dangling chains barely brushing his knuckles. His shoulders burned in protest, the manacles biting his skin raw as he strained on tiptoe toward the grates above. Cool breezes played about the iron bars, eddying close enough to heighten his want but remaining elusive and out of reach.
How fitting that Rilrune, the Goddess of Green and Good, Love and Lust, the Great Whore herself should make me wait in torment.
She made him wait for the respite of love. Surely she would make him wait for the respite of a cool breeze. Even now, her favor—the lovers’ leap—hung heavy around his neck, its cord chill against his flesh, its small empty setting of halosteel wire the only coolness in his sweltering cell. He longed to finger it, to feel the pendant’s soothing touch and trace the hollow cage that might one day hold two crystals, one for him and one for his lover. Two crystals.
Two hearts beating as one. One love.
A groan emanated from deep in his throat. There would be no love this coming dawn. Only a rough claiming that would leave him as bereft as any other. And the waiting! Already, the hours hanging here were gnawing at him. Dawn was a jackal’s cry away.
Titian shook sweaty white hair from his face. He would almost consent to being taken if it meant earning his freedom.
His groan turned to a bitter laugh. Consent.
Whether he consented or not, he would be taken. At dawn, the man who had defeated him in the Empress’s Theatre would enter his cell and fuck him.
It was the way of the arena. The victor fucked the vanquished, his seed infusing the lesser man with his strength.
The lesser man…
Titian resisted the urge to fight the unbreakable chains. He was a secutor
gladiator, fighting gladius and circle shield, second to the more flamboyant provocator
and part of a mated Pair. He should be used to this treatment by now.
Caiphon uses my ass enough. If only
I were the provocator. Then I would be the one using him.
But Titian had neither the bulk muscle nor the skill set to fight as a provocator. The largest, most powerful gladiators, the provocators, were a wondrous sight to behold. Lithe and spry, but solid as a siege engine, able to crush a man’s windpipe in one hand, to heft the longspears great distances with deadly accuracy, to take the harshest blows and still remain standing.
Provocators were born, not made.
A large part of Titian was grateful he was in a mated Pairing with Caiphon. It was the “mated” part Titian hated. The part where Caiphon got to use him as he wished, as though Titian were his whore as well as his partner, as though Titian did not have needs and wants of his own.
As though Titian did not prefer to be dominant.
At least at dawn it would not be Caiphon who rode Titian’s ass.
A wave of guilt assailed him. He should be thankful for his provocator. Caiphon was an accomplished warrior, if not a lover. It was he who had chosen Titian from among a stable of other secutors.
It had only been six months, but he and Caiphon had won fast favor in the Empress’s Amphitheatre. Those who did not found only a gruesome death at the hands of the more popular Pairs. But for some reason, the youthful-seeming sovereign appeared to like them. Again, she had granted them the Mercy, and now they languished in the Claim with the other vanquished.
Waiting to be fucked for their failure.
Already, Titian could hear the echoes of grunting and groaning, the sounds of men in rut. It was too early for the victors, but others who had free denarii
to spend, who could afford the proper bribes to fuck a gladiator, had come to barter for man-flesh. Mostly, it was the influential and powerful—councillors and senators who wanted no entanglements beyond the chains in the Claim. There was no shame in such practice.
It was the entire reason for the Claim and the practices that occurred therein. So the greater could empower the lesser and plant their seed deep.
Thus, all gladiators in the Empress’s Theatre grew stronger.
Titian felt strong enough, though he was rarely able to exert his full dominance. Not the way I want to.
He craned his neck to gaze through the bars above and wished the moonlight alone could offer respite from the pent-up heat. And yet he could not blame all his heat on the desert climate.
The claiming wasn’t always unpleasant. If only his victor would want to be fucked instead. Titian shook his head, his white hair falling into his eyes.
It will never happen. A provocator takes. It is for a secutor to give.
The old arena adage twisted its blade into Titian’s heart. He had long ago come to terms with the fact that he might never be truly satisfied. He had no choice. In the Empress’s Theatre, it was fight or fuck. In the Claim, it was fuck or be fucked.
Provocators knew little of equality. They were taught dominance from birth. No self-respecting provocator would allow a lowly secutor to plow his ass.
At least…the man who claims me won’t be Caiphon.
Titian held to the cold comfort that he might experience something besides Caiphon’s monotonous pounding. Which of their opponents would do the claiming? Most often, provocator claimed provocator and secutor claimed secutor, but it was not uncommon for the provocator to take both if he was greedy.
Caiphon often was. He left Titian with no release, no outlet for his dominance. And sometimes, he even threw Titian onto his hands and knees and plowed his ass too for good measure—insult to injury
—Rilrune’s favor bouncing against his chin, empty, hollow, a lovers’ leap bereft of lovers.
Titian gritted his teeth and told himself again, I am lucky to be in a mated Pair. I am lucky he chose me at all.
Strands of his white hair stuck, sweaty, to his cheekbones—a pale accusation, a reminder of his undesirable blood—and he shook them away.
I am a gladiator. I need no love. I need no real passion. I am lucky.
Like all gladiators of House Priassin, Caiphon was a beautiful man, dusky skin and perfect teeth, his hair lustrous, his eyes keen. No doubt, some rich Citizen had paid Remulon, Captain of the Claim Guard, a hefty sum for Caiphon’s ass.
No one wanted Titian, the one the plebes called Dragonhead.
With his white hair, ashen complexion, and eyes so pale violet they too were almost white, he cut an otherworldly figure on the sands. Arenians were a superstitious people. No one would pay to couple with a man whose blood spoke of dragons.
Especially not the ice wýrm Kýrishardansker that had nearly destroyed Arena and its Grand Palestra nearly two hundred years ago.
But they would pay to see him in the arena.
They cheered and screamed to see him in all his glory, in piecemeal white armor, his dragonhead shield on his arm, his white hair flying. Since his first day in the Empress’s Amphitheatre, Titian alone of all the secutors in House Priassin had been forbidden to wear a helm.
He supposed some might pay handsomely for such an oddity. And yet the sounds went on in the Claim, and Titian remained alone. Hanging, burning. His body ached from being strung up and wrung out with unfulfilled desire. Far off, the cry of a man reaching his climax jolted through Titian. His cock was an iron rod between his legs.
He wanted nothing more than to claim a man’s ass, to force him over and shove deep, to dominate him and make him come.
A low chuckle emanated from the darkness. “You seem…frustrated.”
Moonlight glinted off black hair and brilliant, ice-blue eyes, and a man came forward, dangerous as one of the jungle cats the bestiarii
fought. His robes were those of a councilman—finespun, cut elegantly, a glossy black that bore burgundy stripes on the sleeves.
Titian’s gaze caught on those stripes. Three. Only one man in all of Arena wore three stripes. This man was not just any councilman. This was Alession of House Vulpinius, the Empress’s high consul.
Bowing his head, Titian tried to look meek in his chains, but he had never been more aware of his body, yearning, his erection a divining rod pointing right at the man. After all, the consul was beautiful—sleek and dark, rippling with muscle under those robes. Titian had heard the rumor that he bedded each of his gladiators, pleasuring them with perverse techniques that only the slaver-priests of old House Vulpinius could master.
A blush poured like liquid through Titian’s limbs. To take such a man and have him, to make him kneel and to dominate him…
The consul stepped in. “No need to be ashamed. You have a beautiful body, Titian of House Priassin. Though…” His ice-blue eyes blazed with intent as he looked over every inch of the hanging gladiator. “I am sure you do not hear that very often.” Alession ran two fingertips down Titian’s side, over his hip, and then lower.
The man’s touch was electric, hot and cold. It sang through Titian, pulsing in his blood like a live energy fueled by his own body. Alession brushed those fingers against Titian’s cock, and a flash of hot need struck him low in the gut.
With a gasp, Titian pulled back, his chains clinking, the lovers’ leap bouncing on his chest. “What kind of witchery?” His eyes went wide. “The rumors are true. You still practice the dark arts.”
The consul inclined his head as he moved closer. The moonlight was so bright his hair seemed lit by accents of blue-black. His voice was a dark whisper. “You have me there, gladiator. Few who remain in House Vulpinius still remember the old ways.” A smirk curled the corner of his mouth. “And you are Titian of House Priassin. The one they call the Dragonhead.” Deliberately, he ran his fingers through the ends of Titian’s white hair.
Titian shuddered, though he tried to pretend the touch was nothing, that it didn’t affect him. Alession’s movement had caused his robes to fall slightly open, and Titian could not keep his gaze from roaming over the consul’s chest, his carved pectorals and flat stomach. Titian licked his lips.
What would this man look like on his knees, that beautiful mouth wrapped around Titian’s cock? How warm, how wet.
Alession’s chuckle was not unkind. “Your partner leaves you wanting?” He trailed fingertips down Titian’s bare back, and with every inch, Titian was increasingly aware he was sweating. Alession brought his hand to his lips, licking the sweat from his skin. He slid one finger into his mouth.
Titian watched the finger grow damp, watched Alession slide it in and out, licking and sucking it. He felt faint. Caiphon had never… He was strictly selfish, using Titian for whatever pleasure he needed. His ass, his mouth. Some nights Titian felt like nothing more than a horse to be ridden, a receptacle for the man’s seed and desires.
Alession slid his finger out with a pop.
“You are perfect.”
“Perfect?” Titian was bewildered. He felt the blush crawl up his cheeks, knew it made his white skin pink. No one had ever called him perfect before. “For what?”
Alession rolled his neck, dragging his hands down his torso, peeling back the top of his robes as he did so. His shoulders were broad, his chest well-defined. The soft material fell to his waist, revealing his chiseled abs and the trail of dark hair that led from his navel. He stood, displaying himself, allowing Titian to lust after him, to drink in the sight of him.
Alession slid the tip of his tongue out like a serpent tasting the air, tasting Titian’s lust and need. “Perfect,” the consul purred. “A perfect specimen.”
In a flash of darksteel, he was on Titian, pressing a curved ebon blade to his throat. “A perfect victim.”