Imperial game

by Tym Greene

Thanatos the bull, finest of all the gladiators of Commodus’s Rome, is singled out to face the manly emperor himself in the arena. But first the emperor must inspect his opponent and ensure he is worthy of such an honor.

Added: Feb 2022 4,408 words 734 views No votes yet

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The stone bench beneath Thanatos’ haunches was colder than usual, and the thin cotton of his loincloth did little to insulate. He took a deep breath, giving his full attention to the wind singing through his nostrils. He had learned the trick from one of the other gladiators, a fellow bull whose dewlap and milky hide marked him as having come from the distant eastern lands.

It hadn’t helped the foreign bull—he’d been dispatched in a fight many years ago—but Thanatos had learned to take full advantage of the calm and focus before every fight. Especially this fight, especially on this day. He took another lungful of air, trying not to think about anything else. Strategy and planning were all well and good, but in the arena, when the blood hit the sand, a plan would have tangled him up quicker than a retiarii’s net.

Even with his eyes closed, the big black bull’s ears twitched, catching the gentle sound of pad on stone and the soft squeak of a wooden wheel on a wooden axle. “Hello Quadratus,” he rumbled.

“See, this is why I love being your trainer. Even out of the arena, you’re always a gladiator. Not like some of those pups who drink and brawl and whore and wake up late for training the next morning.” Thanatos had to smile at Quadratus’ grumbling. The one-armed wolf was as cynical as Cicero, but he was also the best trainer in Rome.

The best trainer in Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana, Thanatos mentally corrected himself. Earlier that year the Emperor had renamed the city, the months of the year, the senate, and even the people of Rome themselves, casting the mantle of his name across the whole of civilization. Thankfully, politics never entered the arena. Of course, there were senatorial sponsors of this or that fighter, and games had always been scheduled to commemorate significant events and civic holidays, but the machinations of government felt to him as distant as the wheat fields of the Nile.

“He wants to see you,” the grey-muzzled wolf said quietly. The tone in his voice made the bull open his eyes and look at his trainer quizzically. Of course, there had always been whisperings at night, murmurs in the gladiators’ stables, comparisons of conquests: which high-born nobles gave the best feasts, which patrician wives would pay the most for a vial of gladiator sweat, and which were best in bed. Thanatos himself had quite a few notches in his belt, though he never named the ladies…or men.

Whether aging senators hoping for an infusion of virility or young upstarts desperate to prove themselves in bedroom combat, there seemed no shortage of Romans vying for the favors of their favorite gladiators. He met his trainer’s gaze, an eyebrow quirked, a question un-asked. The one-armed ex-soldier nodded, putting his right hand on the bull’s shoulder. “When you’re done, come back here and I’ll help you kit up.” A tilt of his head indicated the wheeled cart with its pile of gear.

Thanatos rose, rolling his broad shoulders and stretching his back. He clopped through the stone corridors beneath the Colosseum, passing slaves and functionaries dashing about as they worked the unseen magic of the Games. Unhurried, the bull continued to the rooms where savages from the far-flung realms of the Empire were kept before their debut (and demise) on the sands above.

Guttering torches and dripping water were the only sounds in this particular corridor: the wildmen had already been slaughtered that morning, and only the faint exotic smells of raucous hyenas, erratic zebras, and placid giraffes lingered to remind one of their presence. The last room, however, was still occupied. Braziers burned bright, gleaming off the armor of the two Praetorian Guards who stood to either side of the door.

Thanatos bowed to the dogs, their noses twitching and eyes narrowed. “I have been summoned.”

Immediately, one of the guards brightened, jabbing his fellow in the side with an elbow. “It’s Thanatos, all right. I’d know you anywhere. I saw you defeat the Nubian rhinoceros last year, what a triumph!”

The black bull smiled. “Thank you; he was a worthy opponent. And I was not unscathed.” He flexed a bicep, showing the fine pink line in his hide where the rhino’s horn had grazed him.

The other guard cleared his throat, and again they stood at attention. A knock on the fine wood paneling of the door—out of place in the labyrinthine corridors—and a gruff grunt replied from the other side. “Our lord is ready for you,” the guard translated.

Thanatos pushed through the portal, and found himself transported to a palace finer than any senator’s domum or rich merchant’s villa. The room, roughly thirty cubits square, was originally identical to the others he had passed, designed to hold anywhere up to twenty savages until a ramp in the ceiling would descend and they would lope up to the arena floor above. Now, however, the floors were swept and polished, the walls draped in thick tapestries of purple and cloth-of-gold, and fine furniture of exotic woods littered the space. A large brazier stood in each corner, warming and lighting the room.

In the center, dominating all, stood a massive construction. From the thick cushions and draped fabric, he supposed it was a bed, but it was easily four times as big as the dining couches he’d seen in noble houses, and dwarfed the simple string cot in his own stall in the gladiatorial stables. Flopped amid the upholstery was a male form, almost as large as Thanatos himself.

The form rose, white hide gleaming in firelight that also caught on the gold laurel wreath perched between the stallion’s ears. The long muzzle was of course familiar to Thanatos—to every Roman citizen, as well as most of the peoples of the world—since this was the face stamped on every coin minted for the past ten years.

Thanatos bowed low, feeling oddly-exposed before this god of a man. “My lord, you summoned me?” Cedarwood smoke stung his nostrils.

“I did,” the voice was haughty, laconic, and aristocratic in the extreme, but with a nasal pitch that made it sound as if the speaker were about to whinny. “You are to be the first gladiator I fight in the Plebian Games this year.”

“An honor, my lord.”

“But first, I wanted to size you up, to ensure that you are worthy. Rise, let me look at you.”

Thanatos obeyed, standing with his hooves spread, his arms at his sides. The white stallion slid from the bed, his long tail trailing behind, and strode towards him. The Emperor Commodus was indeed the fine figure of masculinity depicted in the various statues scattered across his city. Unlike the bull’s massive bulk—the result of natural brute strength and hard-won battles—the horse’s body looked like marble come to life, muscles sculpted with artistic precision. The only blemish on the pristine form was the dark grey of his thighs, belly, and groin, as though someone had dusted the imperial jewels with charcoal dust.

The Emperor walked around the gladiator, inspecting him from all angles. “You were not at the banquet last night.” He reached out a long hand. “I had intended to honor all of the gladiators.” Thanatos tried to stifle an involuntary shudder as a fingertip grazed the hide of his left buttock, apparently testing to see whether the bull’s thick rump were the result of muscle or fat. From the way the fingertip became a gripping hand, the Emperor was not disappointed. “Indeed,” the high voice murmured, “you are first among your brother gladiators, a fitting opponent.”

“T-thank you, my lord. I only eat water and oats before a fight, sir. I find that anything else will—” There was a hot exhalation on his cheek, a brushing of horsehide across his back, as Commodus leaned in. Thanatos could smell the sweet wine on the horse’s breath as he nuzzled close. It was all he could do to remain motionless as the Emperor’s tongue licked across his cheek, rubbing the hide the wrong way as he gathered up the taste of bull sweat. The tongue continued along his neck, down his spine, stopping just above his tail. “Remove your loincloth.”

Obediently, he hooked his thumbs in the top edge of the fabric swaddling his nethers and tugged it down, letting it slide down his legs to puddle around his hooves. The horse reached between the thick-veined thighs to heft the sac that dangled free and heavy. Fingers stroked hairless black skin, gripped and tugged and pinched. Panting, Thanatos glanced down: already the first few fingers of his length had emerged, glistening like a new pink scar on his belly.

“Turn around,” the Emperor commanded. Thanatos obeyed, and was surprised to see the look of hunger, unmitigated and unashamed on the horse’s face. The tongue emerged once more, licking lips that parted as the long neck arched up. “Don’t move.” The mouth opened wider, and engulfed the narrow tip of the bull’s cock.

He willed his body to remain still, even when the blocky teeth brushed against his sensitive flesh. The mouth opened wider, however, and soon the bull sighed in relief as lips covered teeth. The Emperor wasn’t as skilled as some of the whores and courtesans (and eager senators) Thanatos had enjoyed over the course of his career, but what he lacked in skill he made up for in enthusiasm and control.

It felt as though the Emperor wasted no movement, as though each lick and slurp, each bob of the head, were as deliberate and thought-out as the speeches he gave to the Senate. A well-studied rhetoric of cocksucking. Hands reached back, each one filling itself with a gluteus, fingers gripping and pulling, sliding their way through his hide, under his tail. It was all Thanatos could do to keep it from lashing at the encroaching digits.

The imperial tongue poking into his sheath, gliding between taut flesh and flexible skin, brought his attention back to the fore. Hot breath steamed his belly as the mouth coaxed him out to the very last finger-breadth.

He forgot himself, placed one hand on the statuesque shoulder, the other behind the white-maned head, giving himself up to the sensations of cock and sheath and suck and lick. He grunted, lowed, and allowed his whole body to tense up, focusing every breath and heartbeat into his center, like a lead weight dropped into a sheet.

Commodus lived up to his name: commodiously, he gulped every drop of the bull’s essence. Pulling off with one last lick of the retreating shaft, looked up at the gladiator. “Remove your hands.” The order was quiet, but firm, the voice of a man who expected to be obeyed unconditionally.

Thanatos let his limbs drop—he’d half-forgotten they were there, and hadn’t noticed the way he’d been gripping the horse as he came. “Sorry m’lord,” he slurred, blinking as he tried to regain his equilibrium.

“Get on the bed.”

The bull obeyed, and flopped down on his back. Sweat began to soak into the pillows and linens.

“Flip over,” came the command, the stallion rotating his left forefinger in midair. Again, Thanatos obeyed. Suspecting what was to come, he tucked his knees under him, raising his ass to the stone ceiling and the cheering throngs in the stadium above. He’d caught a glimpse of the Emperor’s shaft emerging from its sheath and could smell the arousal wafting off him.

The hands once again toyed with his buttocks, this time pulling apart the muscular globes to reveal the cleft between. Thanatos said a silent prayer of gratitude to Fortuna that he had visited the baths—as was his habit—to prepare himself before the game. His prayers were redoubled when he felt the whuffing beneath his tail: the emperor would find nothing offensive down there.

“Sage?” Commodus said as his nostrils took in the aroma of freshly-washed bull. “Olive oil,” he added as his fingers glided over smooth skin. “Mmm, and basil,” he hummed after taking a long lick across Thanatos’ taint.

“All correct, my lord,” he replied, suppressing a moan: few of his partners had ever lavished him with such attentions. He could not contain his gasp when the horse’s tongue delved deep into his pucker. One hand gripped his thigh, spreading his legs wider, while the other pulled his tail high. Breath as hot and steamy as a Roman summer night ruffled his hide and warmed his tenderest parts. The tongue was now licking with a virile vigor, plunging in so deeply that he could feel the horse’s teeth pressing against his hole.

The emperor pulled away, leaving the gladiator’s backside with a hungry clenching ache, a need that was quickly filled by a finger coated in something cold and slick. Thanatos gasped as it pushed in, and caught the aroma of olive oil and lavender. Some of the senators who had enjoyed his company had preferred the same mixture as a lubricant to aid their pleasure.

He couldn’t help but wonder if the emperor had had his way with them as well, had taught them his ways, or if they’d had their way with him instead. He knew he’d likely never know; to ask would not only spoil the mood but would likely be considered treasonous. Given the circles in which he sometimes moved, Thanatos suspected that there was little the emperor might have done that would surprise him, sexually, at least.

Other Romans seemed to think differently. Senators’ wives and courtesans complained—sprawled on sweat-soaked pillows after the bull had finished pleasuring them—of the high import tariffs on Aegyptian cotton and Hibernian wool. Soldiers in the taverns grumbled about the lack of wars to fight. One artist, who had paid Thanatos for an evening’s pleasure and a few hours of sketching his body, bemoaned his boredom with the imperial form, sculpted for countless public commissions. The bull simply shrugged, letting them vent their spleen: none of these things affected him.

The finger had been withdrawn, replaced with a broad flat heat that pressed against his hole, bringing him back to the present, back to what mattered. He relaxed, allowing Commodus’s shaft to squeeze in. Both men moaned in unison at the pressure, like fitting two thousand spectators into a theatre built for fifteen hundred. With an almost-audible pop, the head was in, followed by nearly a cubit of horseflesh, stretching Thanatos wide. Even though he’d just cum, his shaft pushed out once more, leaking on sheets of imperial purple.

“Tell us,” came the voice from above him, “what you think of our glorious empire.” The shaft paused, began to withdraw, then slid forward again. It was all the bull could do to keep from moaning like a cheap back-alley whore, and took all his discipline to marshall his voice.

“M-my lord, your empire is,” the bull struggled, trying to form rational sentences, “vast, and peaceful.” None of his paramours had ever wanted talk, beyond the usual curses and epithets. “You—oh sir!—your name is whispered in the streets … with reverence and awe. No ill word is spoken of you in market or senate.” He bit his tongue to keep from begging in a way that would have been unbecoming of a gladiator of his prestige.

The horse sweating above him continued his slow, calculated thrusts; thirty-one years old, he combined the vigor of a younger man with the experience of a sage. There was no denying the strength in the fingers that gripped Thanatos’ shoulders. “You are a Hercules reborn, my lord, a—” he tried to remember the wording of the inscriptions he’d seen on the imperial statues. “A god among men, a wise and just ruler.”

“Yes, I am,” the emperor whinnied, his shaft pulsing as he paused between thrusts. With a sudden, desperate edge to his voice, he continued: “Thank me.”

“Sir?”

Thank me,” he grunted, “for the wonders I have done.”

Thanatos felt the arousal drain from his body: this man rutting him had the power of life and death. If the back alley whispers were true, the bull wouldn’t be the first person—slave or citizen—put to death for disappointing the emperor in bed. Thanatos had believed that by remaining aloof from current events he was protecting himself from intrigues as well as maintaining his focus on what truly mattered: fighting.

Now he struggled to dredge up anything that might appease his emperor. “Thank you, my lord,” he began slowly, stalling, pacing himself the way he would in the arena, “thank you for all the games you have called for your people. It is an honor to fight for you, for the people of your great empire. Thank you, my lord, for the empire, and the peace of all nations.”

Thanatos tried not to grimace as cold horse sweat dripped down onto his back. The smell of the braziers’ cedar smoke—resinous and cloying—was beginning to make him nauseous, or perhaps it was the way his innards were shifted by the emperor’s thrusts. His own shaft had fully withdrawn, taking with it the last of his arousal. “Thank you, my lord, for feeding the populace during the food shortage a few years ago, and for aiding your city after last year’s fires. You are a father to your people and an example to all leaders.” Already he knew he was grasping at straws.

“Yes, my empire is perfection,” Commodus muttered to himself, blowing hot air across the gladiator’s neck. “My rule is perfection…my body is perfection.”

“You have remade the empire in—nngh—your own image, my lord, strong and powerful.” The bull searched every corner of his memory, desperate for an overheard snatch of conversation, a senator’s offhanded comment, a remark echoing through the baths. “You replaced the senate.” The horse paused, as though waiting for Thanatos to misspeak, to let slip some criticism. “Replaced them,” he continued hastily, “with younger men, of your own choosing; men you could trust to support you in all things, to enact your will.” The humping continued anew, the flare feeling like a millstone in his gut.

Just as the bed was beginning to creak from the thrusts, Thanatos felt the juddering horseflesh above him, felt the powerful thrusts and the slap of the imperial balls against his own.

With a bestial whinny, Commodus plowed home one final time, his flared head stretching the bull almost too much, his hands gripping thick hide over thick muscles, sea-foam sweat dripping down his neck and chest. As soon as it had come, it was over, and he dropped from the bed with a soft clop.

Thanatos remained where he was, sore and afraid he might leak on the fine purple fabric if he moved. “Clean yourself up,” the emperor said, throwing a rag at the bull’s head. He was wiping off his own body with a piece of fine linen that even a senator might not have been able to afford. Once he was clean, the horse simply tossed the fabric into the nearest brazier, filling the room with a smell like burning leaves. At his insistence, the gladiator did the same.

The emperor seemed to have forgotten he was there, and was brushing out the tangles from his long white tail. Thanatos stepped back into his loincloth and approached the door. “My lord?” He turned, standing at attention as he waited to be dismissed.

“You may go. Ready yourself for battle.”

“Yes, my lord.” He backed through the door and trotted past the guards without pausing. The cold dank air of the sub-arena corridors had never felt so welcoming. He hurried to the gladiatorial stables, eager to sponge off the past hour, to cleanse himself of the smell of sex and the feeling of having been the emperor’s toy.

A grey-furred right arm reached out from the shadows, grabbing Thanatos’ shoulder. So engrossed was he in ruminating over what he’d just been through that his warrior training failed to alert him to the presence of anyone else in the dark corridor. “It’s time.”

The bull let out an unmanly yelp and turned to face his attacker. When he saw the familiar grizzled muzzle, he relaxed slightly. “Quadratus, surely not. I need time to prepare, to clean myself and calm my mind. How else will I be able to focus on fighting?”

“Your…meeting with the emperor took longer than I would have liked. I imagine he’s up there now, announcing the next part of the games,” the wolf’s single hand gestured at the stones barely a cubit above their heads. “And once he finishes, he’ll expect you ready to face him.”

They rushed back to the wolf’s wooden cart, laden with the gear of a murmillon. Thanatos stood still once more as head was enclosed in a bright bronze helmet, the grilled front protecting his face, and cages enclosing his ears. His horns fit through holes in the helmet and were capped with more bronze. Then they strapped on a right arm guard and shin guards, with a thick burlap kilt covering his loincloth.

Thanatos slid his left forearm through the straps of his rectangular shield, its weight familiar as the faint scent of its crimson paint. He looked forward to the gleam of sunlight on the polished bull’s head shield boss, and grinned as he remembered the number of times he’d used that glitter to temporarily dazzle his opponent. His right hand reached out by habit, fingers clasping around the hilt presented to him.

He froze, looking down. Sure enough, even in the flickering gloom, he could tell that beneath his hand was not the well-worn ebony haft of his favorite sword, but the rough oak of a new-forged gladius. Thanatos, growing worried, touched the sword’s edge. “This is not my sword. Quadratus, it’s dull!”

“I know,” he replied in a subdued voice, not meeting Thanatos’ gaze in the guttering torchlight. “It’s not up to me.”

“The emperor ordered this.” It was not a question.

“You are the best gladiator in Rome, Thanatos.” The wolf seemed almost on the verge of tears. “Remember your oath.”

As Thanatos mounted the ramp towards the sunlit arch and the arena floor of the century-old Colosseum, he spun the hilt in his fingers, trying to find some angle that was comfortable, but to no avail. He waited inside the portal, listening to the speeches and the sound of what must have been eighty thousand citizens, all of them breathing, eating, muttering, moving.

He allowed the cacophony to wash over him until it was no more meaningful than the ocean’s roar. “I will endure to be burned,” he said under his breath, “to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.” The gladiator’s oath, binding them together as brothers in arms, slaves to honor and iron and sand. Its familiarity steeled his resolve, and he stepped out into the light.

Around him rose the tiers of Roman society. The senators, Vestal Virgins, and imperial box had the best seats, barely a dozen cubits above the sand. Behind them were the noble families, then the wealthy merchants. The remainder of the stone benches, rising up to touch the clouds, were filled with the ranks of poor citizens. To a man, they stood and cheered when they saw him enter, the din ringing in his helmet.

And then the emperor stepped onto the sand, which had been cleaned and swept after the carnage of that morning. Crisp November light gleamed from his gilded armor, which looked as though it had been designed more to highlight his Herculean physique and less to protect it. Of course, he knows what he’s up against, Thanatos thought bitterly as he felt the blunt sword’s unfamiliar balance.

The crowd clamored for blood.

This was a spectacle unheard of in all of Roman history. Never before had an emperor trod the sands, and risked his life, for sport. But Thanatos thought he could see a hunger on those faces that went beyond simple spectatorship. He wondered how many of them were secretly hoping that he would best the emperor himself. A part of him wanted to—he could do a lot of damage, even with a blunted blade—but knew his duty. He would not be the one to wrest power from the horse’s grasp.

As the two opponents faced one another across the broad white expanse, the band started its martial beat. Gladiatorial combat was always accompanied by music, and Thanatos had become accustomed to the dance, even as the tempo varied to fit the action. Drums kept time—step, boom boom, step, boom—and the straight trumpet blatted its few notes, entwining with the more-harmonious curved brass horn. It was the water organ that carried the haunting melody, often the last thing his opponent would hear as he finished them off. This day, he knew, would be different.

Thanatos stood, stance wide, and focused on his breath, feeling the chill air flowing through his nostrils. Soon it would be winter, but the sun still warmed his black hide. He could feel the sand crunching grittily beneath his hooves as his tail swayed from side to side. His armor’s weight was familiar and reassuring as he took his first step forward.

“I will endure.”

The crowd’s roar, the thousand voices of dozens of species, drowned out the music, the clash of metal on metal. It was a roar that could be heard echoing through the streets of the metropolis, emptied for the games.

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