"If his dream last, he'll turn the age to gold." --Ben Jonson
November 8, 1584
That bastard Copernicus blinded me. I'm Tiresias now, crawling around on my belly, and no matter where I look, my vision is splintered, blurred. Up, it's clouds, aether, stars and that fat, triumphant gloating sun; down, it's broken globes and anatomy. I need a little faith in an age when the universe won't stay still, when God is lost behind the moon. Can someone lock Raleigh in the closet? It's why I'm an alchemist--we're all cowardly explorers, searching and searching in the same place. Then Aphra tells me about him, about Marsius, breaking off her praises of George Clifford for a prayer to the prodigal at Elizabeth's court.
Marsius. His father was a disgraced English earl who ran off to Spain and Marsius is his son, a bastard and aggressively Catholic but so handsome the Queen almost doesn't mind, even when he does something conspicuously papist and rude, like petitioning her on Philip's behalf to stay out of the Dutch-Spanish conflict. Her ministers mostly flatter Marsius, too, but not for altruism. That died out when Henry VIII exiled God. No, the suspicious old vultures are keeping watch over him, what with Mary Stuart still a prisoner at Chartley Hall and still generating plots after all these years.
It's the stories of his rudeness that attract me. No one is outspoken these days, when the executioner's block is stained red and back-stabbing is the new religion. Elizabeth's not her crazy half-sister, burning heretics for wood, but she has the power to reshape her world with a few simple words, and who could resist the temptation? But Marsius talks back, arrogant and opinionated, and I want to know him, so, curious, I go to Whitehall.
Here, everything is polished, jeweled, glowing, everything except me, conspicuously ugly from the right side down, scarred and ruined like an old church, and I limp, awkward and uneven, into splendor. The Queen, in cloth of gold red as her hair and a mine's worth of gems, sits on a padded red throne under an embroidered canopy, a tapestry woven with the Tudor coat of arms behind her, circled by young men in peacock-hued velvet. To balance this, she's flanked by the Catholic-hunting Walsingham, his bagged eyes sunk in a marble face, and the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hundson, with his prissy mouth and rectangular brown beard, who holds his white rod of office with an unconscious enthusiasm.
"Be good," Aphra says and kisses me, then swirls away in a pink cloud straight for her pet, George Clifford, who stands at the outer ring hungrily looking in.
The room is stuffed with people undulating to an Italian madrigal that Aphra's been humming for weeks, but the crowd thins as it fans out from the Queen, and I see the old jouster Henry Lee first, in a stiff green silk robe with a skirt that falls like rain to his ankles, exposing dainty feet on white laced boots, his eyes narrow and angry. He's near the fireplace talking to a tall dark man who looks like one of Arthur's knights painted by Hilliard, with long strong limbs and a perfect face full of history.
I'm ready when Marsius looks back. No matter what the angle, I know just how to stand so the viewer sees only my best side. As people assure me with an unwitting condescension, I'm handsome enough when the damage is hidden. But it's an illusion, like the lust that softens his full mouth, so I half-turn and give him the ruined side. While he's facing reality, I clump to the sideboard a few feet away and collect a cup of wine. It sings down my throat, stuffed with spices, warming me, and I drink again to clear my head, feeling combustible. It's him, and I wait, measuring the time with sips, before I turn back. He's still staring, and Lee glances over, nods brusquely, then gives me his green back.
The crowd is flowing faster around me as the musicians launch into a galliard, and someone knocks my elbow, splashing my drink onto the rush-strewn floor and the right hip of my doublet, wet and sticky. I escape to a corner haunted by wintery air from a window that peers over a river shimmering with light from the barges sailing people between the banks, from ships sailing to the Indies and America.
"So you're the alchemist." Marsius moves beside me, leaning forward to rest his elbows against the window sill. He wears a silver earring shaped like a dagger, and it swings hypnotically.
"What are you?"
"Depends who you talk to," he says. "Soldier. Bastard. Catholic. Shit disturber." His grin is wide and wolfish. "So what are you doing here? I thought you never came to these things."
"Every now and then I come to please my wife."
"And to check up on her?"
"Don't believe the rumors." I know what they say: that when Elizabeth turned down Alencon's marriage proposal we averted war with France because Aphra serviced the French ambassador in a closet off the queen's dining hall, where she so impressed him with her talents that he composed a song in her honor, ‘La Si-Belle Anglaise au Bouche Rose.' They say she was Sidney's Stella and Spenser's Amoret, that even Robert Dudley, one eye on the royal prize, had Aphra's garter sewn under the one he wore for the queen. Now she's paired with Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland. I gesture at myself with practiced indifference. "This doesn't bother her. She's used to it."
"So, Phaestion, do I believe the rumors about you?"
"If you want." It comes out with a revealing stiffness.
"You didn't know they talked about you? No one's invisible here. They say you hate the court, that you're a papist sympathiser, that--"
There's a shout and a velvet surge as the rings tighten around the Queen. She's flushed under the white powder, and slumps against Walsingham in a way she'd never do willingly, her wig drooping over one eye, her mouth twisted in ugly pain. He has two courtiers help her up and leads them to a side room, kicking the door shut behind him.
"I guess she's sick," I say.
He says nothing, just thrums with some secret elemental energy, so that his earring swings even when he's still. Then: "Makes you think, doesn't it? An aging queen, no heirs, only a Catholic cousin who's been locked up in reserve."
"It's the truth. But you know that, don't you, Phaestion?"
When Aphra, her pet Clifford in tow, trips with excitement toward us, Marsius disappears into the jabbering crowd. Just as my wife reaches me, the anteroom door opens and Elizabeth comes out, her face still moon-pale, but smiling and confident. A loud cheer swells like thunder, and at a nod from Lee, the musicians resume their tune, faster and more frantic than before, and the dancers whirl with epileptic intensity around the room.
Everything is the same, except that he's watching me, partly obscured by someone's feather-trimmed hat.
That night I dream of a dead queen sailing down a blue river, a sun where her face should be, and a newly- crowned king with black hair and a silver dagger earring who fucks me against a window sill. I wake up just as I'm coming, and lie shuddering in the faint red glow from the dying fire. Afterward, I lick my hand clean, then stroke Aphra's blond head as she sleeps peacefully beside me.
It was a mistake, going to court like that, and I won't do it again.
"Lord Marsius is here." My footman, a recent convert to Southwark's delights, eyes glazed from bear pits, brothels and bad actors, announces it sonorously, his voice throaty as a trumpet blow at a Chapman play.
As he bows out, his inspiration strides into my workshop, the slatted floorboards creaking under his weight, strong and confident like the god he's named for. He needs wide plains, fields of blood, not an old attic floor stained with failed elixirs.
"Phaestion," he says.
Since Marsius is Spanish, I get the double kiss, once on each cheek, and when he moves right, his beard tickles my ruined skin. This close, he's warm, despite the November wind, and smells of spiced wine and blood. Through the soft black velvet, I feel the hard muscles from the battles he fought for Philip II in Antwerp. I step back too quickly, my crippled foot dragging, and catch my hip on the table's edge. Tins rattle, bellows shift, and Bacon's Mirror of Alchemy falls, landing with a leathery thud. Dust flies while my face heats, and I bend to pick up the book, placing it between my astrolabe and the twisted horn of a bull seal on a shelf behind me.
He nods at the glass vial fixed over a tiny flame, its luminous contents boiling. "What will that do? Turn iron into gold? Raise the dead? Cure the pox?"
Is he serious? Everything he says comes out spiked with irony. "It's for the queen." With a pair of brass tongs, I remove the vial, pouring its contents into a porcelain box, a blue "R" painted across the lid.
"Don't tell me she has the pox," he says, smirking. "Not the Virgin Queen."
"It's to keep her young." Indiscretion's deadly these days, especially when an aging queen's involved. It's the self-consciousness of the grotesque, compounded by this adulterous attraction. I'm me, but worse even than usual, clumsier, with crooked words to match my crooked steps.
"All that power, and she pretends to be something she's not."
Easy to say when he looks like one of Spenser's heroes. A comparison for every mood, but it's easier to dismiss what I know, and until then there's an itchy fascination, a tick under a dog's fur. I'm the malcontent, then, always scratching. "Elizabeth knows who she is, for better or for worse. It's the people around her who can't accept her limitations."
He shrugs impatiently. "And she panders to that by hiding under the paint."
Is he baiting me? "She just wants to be loved."
"That's always the excuse when people do stupid things."
"What's a better reason, if it works?" The beveled window fragments our view of London draped in black and white banners, the queen's colors, for Accession Day. "The whole city loves her." The church bells are already ringing, although Elizabeth won't pass through the city gates until midday tomorrow. Already groups of shivering musicians cluster on street corners, playing lutes, pipes and tabors fast as their freezing fingers allow, winter-pale mouths open wide to sing Weelkes' newest madrigal, while across the river bonfires puff blue-tinged smoke that blends into the late afternoon sky.
"Be honest for once, Phaestion. Not the whole city. Plenty of people hate her policies." Marsius moves next to me, on my wrong side, and I duck my head to avoid the watery sunlight.
His speech about honesty and ugliness doesn't fool me, and I'm tempted to raise my chin, show the ugly red fissures in my skin to let his disgust teach him a lesson. I don't, of course. Too much experience living in shadow, so I keep my eyes down and casually turn away. The cowardice leaves an aftertaste, rough and faintly bitter, like lemon peel. "Speaking hate doesn't do any good."
"It can, if it leads somewhere. So you're saying you love her? But your family was papist, wasn't it? Isn't that why you live in the city with all the rabble? Because of the queen's views?"
"My family converted years ago, and we live in the city from choice. I've met people here I'd never meet at court, like Walter Cope, who introduced me to all this."
He raises an eyebrow. "And you want to thank him for that?"
"You don't understand."
"Yes, I do."
"You know everything, I guess."
"No," he says, and touches the cross brazenly hanging from a chain around his neck. "Not everything."
"You should take that off, with Walsingham sniffing after everyone, seeing plots in a handshake because of the poisoning rumors. Beheading's in Elizabeth's blood and a Catholic politician working for Philip II makes a nice target."
"You're warning me? I thought you were the malcontent."
"You don't know what it's like," I tell him. "It's the wrong time to be Catholic."
"What about being a crippled alchemist who hides in his workshop and hates the court?"
A thrumming starts in my head, steady like heavy rain, and it curls around his words, so I can still speak, safely distant. "I don't hate the court. Ugliness reminds people of corruption, so I'm not popular at Elizabeth's court."
His laugh becomes a rumble below in the street. "Looks like your wife's back."
Below us, Aphra leaves a coach emblazoned with a red dragon, a footman in red livery helping her over the seething gutter. A gloved hand extends from inside, waving, while a muffled voice calls something to make Aphra giggle. "That's George Clifford's coach. He thinks he's descended straight from Uther Pendragon and plasters the dragon everywhere to prove it."
"I know his coach." Marsius leaves the window and begins to wander around the room. "Looks like your wife knows it pretty well, too."
"I told you before, it's just rumors. Aphra and I are cousins. I lived with her from when I was twelve until we got married. I know her better than anyone."
"So Clifford's just a friend? Just like Elizabeth is a perfect ruler?"
I walk around the table, not letting my foot drag much, and stand at the far end, out of the sun's reach. "Why did you come here?"
"I'm having a party on the Feast of the Epiphany--Twelfth Night. You and your wife can come down for the weekend, with Clifford and a few others. The Queen will come over from Wolvesey Castle."
Downstairs, a door slams, and the house sighs a little. "You could have sent a servant,"I say. "You didn't have to come here for that."
"That's not the only reason I'm here. I also wanted to see you alone." He smiles, stands straighter, flaunting himself. The light dusts the gold-rimmed ebony buttons that start at his black collar and move down his chest, ending just below his waist. With one finger he strokes the lowest button, while his other hand rests against his hip.
I know better than to take it seriously, no matter how my body reacts. Marsius needs a favor, and figures a little charm will encourage me to grant his request, like being ugly means being stupid. "We're alone now. What do you want?"
"I have a problem." He says it quietly, no wasted air, and I can almost see the words rush from his mouth to my ear. Annunciative, like the paintings you see in Italian churches, where it's not enough to know that Gabriel is speaking the virgin pregnant, you have to see it, too.
Only with Marsius is no archangel, and no matter what he thinks, I'm no virgin. "And this concerns me how?"
"Because you're the best one to help me." He's turned coy, which confuses me. Is that the point? "You can take care of my problem for me."
"You're not going to tell me you need a love potion."
He doesn't laugh. "No. The thing is, I've bought a house just outside Winchester, not far from the castle where the Queen stays when the plague gets bad, or she gets bored. It's great, only it's on the river, and the rats..." A perfect actor's shrug follows. "There's one in particular, very stubborn, who just won't get out of the way."
My gut churns. Every few years, someone approaches me with the same ham-fisted allegory that was old when Chaucer's Pardoner used it, and I tell them to go to hell. I look like a villain, so they assume I am one. Stupidly, I didn't expect it from Marsius. "If you have a problem with rats, go to the apothecary."
"I don't want the rat to look poisoned. It has to die what looks like a natural death. No questions that way. Something where the physician can blame bad fruit."
I know which rat he wants killed. The whole conversation's been leading to it: the head rat, of course, she of the red hair, anti-papist policies and pretty Scottish prisoner who'd bring peace, prosperity and popery to England if only the wicked and oppressive Queen didn't wake up one morning. My skin's suddenly slick under my clothes. "You think Elizabeth deserves this?"
"Don't you? A white-faced rat likes pretty things, Phaestion? Pretty, protestant things?"
My impulse is to walk out, and I'm halfway to the door before my course changes, and I end up before the oak cabinet under a painting of Ananias with his hands on the blind Saul. My grandmother rescued it from one of the northern abbeys, and gave it to me before she died. I keep it hidden in here. Saul's young in this, too young, and his head is back, neck taut, eyes closed in ecstasy. I wish I could feel like that now, not sick and anti- visionary. Nothing can cure me either, not even if I call for my servants and have Marsius arrested, or at least tossed out on his ear. It's too late for that, so I turn one of the ornamental knobs counter-clockwise three times, and the lock clicks, opening the cabinet doors. Inside are a dozen shelves, each holding rows of labeled glass jars nestled on felt, bowls of citrine and dragon teeth, packs of crows' feathers and wrinkled snake skins. I remove a jar and take it to my desk, peeling off the label, its yellowed edges curling tightly. With my quill, I make up a new one, fixing it on with a pat of glue. "Here. Consummatum est."
"You're going through with it?" The lilt toward the end suggests surprise.
"You wanted me to be honest, Marsius. And if I'm honest then I'll admit that all rats deserve to die." It's too theatrical, but this is a new game for me. "So take it. Kill your rat."
He holds up the jar to the fading light. "‘Remedia amoris.' The cure for love. You're full of irony today, Phaestion."
"The ultimate cure, and it hits like disloyalty. There's a heat in the belly then a stabbing pain in the heart."
"You sound angry."
I take a breath that goes down awkwardly. "Let's just say I'm conflicted."
"You can always change your mind." He offers me the jar, which is pale blue, but still an apple. "We can forget this happened--at least you can. I'll just find a different source for my poison."
I'm tempted, but I know where my loyalty lies. "No, you keep it." I toss him a leather pouch from a drawer. "Hide it. I wouldn't want you to drink it by accident."
"I'll see you tomorrow then," he says, attaching it to his belt.
"Tomorrow?" Then I remember. "Yes, at the Accession Day celebration. That's not when it's going to happen, is it? I want to know, so I can be there. It's the least I can do."
"This takes planning. A month or two from now, say, at a party..."
Marsius nods. "Plenty of witnesses, and everyone knows that I leave at dawn the next morning back to Antwerp. So that's it. Goodnight, Phaestion," he says, and walks toward the door.
He stands with one hand on the carved frame and studies me. "What?"
I want to give him one last chance to justify all of this, make it noble and meaningful, not dirty and repulsive. "Just...Why? In your own words? No cheap allegories. Just the truth."
"Does it really matter? You obviously have your own reasons. Isn't that enough?"
"Yes, of course. It's just that maybe we see things differently because you're a soldier. Killing's easier for you."
"At least you're not doing it yourself, Phaestion. You're nice and safe--at least as safe as you can be when killing's involved. Take that for comfort."
He's criticizing me now, of all times, when I've just agreed to his dark deal. "You'd rather I did it myself?"
"There's no point getting angry. You're not a player, that's all. You like to hide and let others do the work. I mean, look at this place. It's a hideout."
"Alchemy is work. My conjuring--"
"It's bullshit, Phaestion, the garbage that Faust plays with when Mephistopheles offers him the world. A complete waste of your--"
I'm on my feet. "I don't need a lesson in living from someone with more balls than brains. The only reason your head's still attached to your body is because you strut around, flaunting that perfect--" I realize the mistake too late.
"I didn't think you'd noticed," he says, so mocking it hurts, and steps toward me.
"You arrogant bastard." My fist flies up but he's faster, grabbing it with both hands
That's when Aphra walks in. "What's going on here? Is everything all right?" She moves beside us, looking from me to him.
"I was admiring your husband's wedding band." Still holding my hand, he flicks the ring with his thumb. "A symbol for eternity, right?" He means the snake eating his gold tail. "Do you wear the same one?"
"Yes." She holds out her hand, and the snake winks an emerald eye.
His grip loosens and I pull away, still slowing my heart. "Marsius was just leaving."
Aphra catches his sleeve. "Don't go. We'll be eating soon, and you can join us. It's too cold now for the trip back to Winchester. Spend the night then celebrate Accession Day with us, and leave on Monday."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," I tell her.
"You're worried about his clothes, but you and Marsius are about the same size. He can borrow some of your things. He'd look great in that new outfit you've been refusing to wear to the masque tomorrow. Please, Marsius." She smiles up at him, dimpled and pretty. "Everyone will be so jealous."
Marsius looks at me over her head, while I shake mine. Another mistake. "I'll be happy to stay. It'll give me the chance to spend some time with you and your husband. I don't think Phaestion likes me."
"Oh, that's just his way," she says. "You wouldn't believe the trouble I have getting him to join me at parties. I couldn't believe he actually went the other night."
"Really? Why do you think he went?"
Fortunately, Aphra doesn't know, and shrugs. "Maybe he's finally getting bored with this musty old room. You'll have to get him to do some tricks at your party, though. He does great ones, with lots of explosions and colors. Now come with me, and we'll see about setting you up in a guestroom."
They leave me alone. Hands shaking, I pack the Queen's tincture, the one that will make her young again. She swears it works in the notes we pass. Like Pyramus and Thisbe, we speak only through in fragments, while at her fetes, she rarely does more than nod at me. Polite, but nothing more, just enough to ensure that I don't go sniffing after a Scottish bitch but keep my nose planted firmly in an English rose.
Marsius, that prick, has reminded me of the thorny truth that, like God, there's no room for me in this cosmos.
I'm not hungry, but Marsius eats with enthusiasm, accepting a serving of grape-stuffed chicken, pike with galentyne sauce, and spinach tart. Between bites, he amuses my wife with tales of his life in Spain, and does a parody of cardinal de Granvelle, the notorious red devil charged by Philip II with the rule of northern Europe. Someday, I know, Marsius will make fun of me.
"That's so funny," Aphra gasps, and gulps her wine, patting her spattered chin with a napkin. "Don't you find him funny, Phaestion?"
I don't know what to say so I say nothing, leaving an awkward pause. Outside the wind growls, butting against the panes of colored glass in the window, clawing between the painted oak panels. We need to add a layer of brick between us and the walls; even with the fire, the air in here is dank as a tomb.
Marsius turns toward me. "Maybe he just doesn't like my brand of humor. You don't like political satire, Phaestion?"
"I like it fine."
"Maybe it's the subject? Would you like something English?" He smiles. "Maybe the Queen?"
My body jerks, and I almost knock over my glass, catching it by the stem, so that only a few drops spill on the white tablecloth.
"Oh, my friend George does her perfectly, including that head-tilt she does to hide her second chin." She giggles, toying with the ruby pendant between her full breasts. "It must be awful to get old, when nobody wants you anymore."
I grab an apple and began to peel it with my knife. "I don't think being old is the worst curse."
In the candlelight, his eyes are soft and deep as he leans forward, like they were the first time I saw him, the first time he saw me. "What is, Phaestion?"
"I think it's hypocrisy."
The perfect curlicue of peel breaks, the longer piece falling to my plate. "Don't you find that a little ironic?"
He wasn't expecting a fight, and his smile fades. "What do you mean?"
"You take on every battle face to face? You never do it in the dark? Has de Granvelle ever seen your impersonation? Ever laid a trap for a rat, instead of giving it a fighting chance?"
"De Granvelle and any rats know how I feel. I say what I think."
"Not about all things," I say. "Even you have limits, so you're not in a position to judge anyone else."
"Who said I was talking about other people's hypocrisy? Maybe I meant my own. Anyway, Phaestion, you're just as judgmental. You like to pretend you're better than everyone, but you sit in your dark corner and judge people at least as harshly as they judge you."
"I'm going to bed." I shove back my seat, which screeches against the tiles. "Excuse me."
"But you haven't had dessert," Aphra says, but her heart's not in it. "There's custard tart with lots of cinnamon, just the way you like it." She doesn't like fights and is already turning back to Marsius.
I'm already through the doorway into the Great Hall, servants scattering, and they stay away as I stomp to the staircase. My goddamn foot aches because I'm hitting the floor too hard, and I pause on the landing, one hand on the tapestried wall for support. A maid, arms full of linen, emerges from the chamber at the far end and starts when she sees me then darts past, eyes wide under her cap like she's seen the devil. But I'm not the devil. He's downstairs eating custard tart with my wife.
A fire crackles happily in my room, and, after tossing my clothes on a chair, I climb between sheets warmed with a hot brick. Someone--maybe the girl who made up Marsius' room--has left a caudle on the night stand. It's still hot, and I cup the bowl in my hands, breathing in the smell of ginger and honey before I sip. While I'm drinking, settled back against the pillows, the hearth-warmed cat jumps on the bed, curling in a soft orange ball beside me. It's a perfect scene, and I don't belong in it.
Not because of anything I've done, the screwed-up deal with Marsius. I can't feel guilty for that. It's the power that feels wrong, the power he gave me by asking for poison. He's right about one thing: I don't like to act. I'm not used to it, the responsibility that comes with replacing God, the guilt and anger. God had to experience those things. Why else send his son to earth? Christ said it's for us, for humanity. Not true. It's to ease his father's regret. Same with the doctrine of free will. God whispered it into a disciple's ear to absolve himself, redirecting the blame, so that it's our fault when our lives fall apart, not his. It's a good trick, only I have no son or disciple. Goddamn Marsius, goddamn Tudors. The world works best without the option of blasphemy.
I want Aphra here, and listen for her footsteps. She's the only thing that can distract me right now, but she's busy with him. Aphra needs to be the center, which makes sense in a decentered world. Until she was fourteen, no one else noticed her. Her older sister's the smart one, so smart they hired a tutor for her just like she was a boy, while Aphra was given needle work. In the evening, Diana would recite Latin verses before her parents' friends, while Aphra and I, the house's ghosts, watched from behind a curtained doorway. Then overnight her figure changed, and she came down the great staircase for a party one night, wearing a dress of her mother's, breasts spilling out, hair blond from lemon in the sun.
Then the men came with violets, sonnets and sweetmeats, and she loved it all, not just their attention, but Diana's jealous stares, the wives' malicious whispers. Aphra would sneak into my room and tell me all about it what everyone said, what they wore, and what men had kissed her. I'd lie there, the silk cover pulled up to my chin, barely breathing, hard as a rock, with her beside me explaining how those kisses felt. "You wouldn't believe how good it is," she'd whisper. "I know it's wrong to let them, but once they start, I can't stop."
One day, she showed me.
People always assume that Aphra married me because we're family, but the truth is she wanted to marry me. In our wedding bed, after everyone left, she told me I was special, the only one who really knew her, then took me inside her body. So I don't mind when she flirts with other men, showing off her body, touching them. I'm the one who has her, who get to make love to her whenever she lets me. That's why I can leave her downstairs in the dining room with Marsius, and not worry. It's just that Marsius is such a devious bastard. I could see him taking her pendant in his hand, bending close, his eyes soft again as he kisses her neck, his strong fingers moving lower, his full strong mouth on my skin...Her skin. On her skin.
I was an idiot to let him stay. He's a test that I'm failing, an alchemical experiment gone wrong, because I'm losing power rather than gaining it. Grabbing the pillow, I punch it then shove it under my head, pulling the blankets over me. The top sheet, which felt so soft and warm when I climbed in, is now cool and scratchy, chaffing me like Marsius' beard on my scarred cheek. Is God cursing me for not believing any more? Ever since Whitehall I've been thinking about him, picturing Marsius naked, rutting into me, my legs around his waist. The nights are worst, like now, when this insistent lust drags my hand down or over to Aphra. Only she needs her rest, so I have to touch myself quietly while she sleeps beside me. Abstinence is for monks, and there are no monks left in England.
Even as I wonder what the different Tudors would think of this strange side effect of their purge, my fingers are already closing around the head. Looking at Gheeraerts' portrait of Aphra, her painted mouth pink as the flowers in the tangled bushes around her, I picture it moving over my cock, hot and eager. In reality, she gets bored fast and stops after a few cursory licks. Not that I blame her. What pleasure can she get from it? Only...I can't stop thinking about what it would be like to have him in my mouth, how he'd taste under my tongue, how he'd react to it. My hand's moving faster now, and it feels so good, and I hate it but it's his mouth over my cock now, sucking hard, eager for me, loving it--
The door is opening, the grind of old hinges warning me to roll over and feign sleep. But Aphra stays in the hallway a little longer talking to Marsius. I rolled the wrong way, so I can't tell if they can see me. Even if they could, the blankets cover everything, so well that, shamefully, my hand strays down again, and I stroke myself to the rumble of his voice, stopping only when the door closes.
I hear her undressing, as usual without the maid's help. No one, she says, judges a woman more harshly than another one, and doesn't want to be the subject of servants' gossip. I'd offer to help her, especially when she makes that impatient click with her tongue, but she doesn't like that either. No mystery, she says. There's a rustle of heavy fabric as she frees herself and drops the dress to the floor, with two knocks for each shoe. Finally, she climbs in behind me, cool against my heat, and stays on her back. I'm relieved, because this means she'll let me touch her. Carefully, I turn back, resting my head in the crook of her arm so I can suck her right nipple and stroke the left one, trying to lose myself in the warm baked smell of her body.
"Nice," she murmurs, as they stiffen. "You're always so good to me. So unselfish. I really do love you."
When she starts to moan, I lick my finger and reach down, sliding it between her legs. She's already slick and opens easily, taking me deep, and I rub her there while my thumb moves over her clit. The head of my cock nudges her thigh, and she doesn't pull away, but spreads her legs wider, so I suck and rub harder. With my hand getting wet, and Aphra writhing, I can pretend Marsius isn't a wall away, naked under the sheets, maybe listening to us.
Let him listen. Let him hear how much my wife is getting off on this. I lick my way down Aphra's smooth flesh kneeling between her thighs to kiss each one, then nuzzle her, wetting my cheeks and chin. My finger's still inside her, and I pull it out to open her wide, tugging lightly on her swollen lips, while she wraps her legs around my neck. After ten years of marriage, I know what she likes and push my tongue into her deep as it goes, over and over again, then gently suckle the lips before turning my attention to her clit, plump with blood. Every slow lick brings a moan, so I keep at it until her hips are rising and falling and she's gripping my head. When she's close, breathing like a greyhound on a hunt, I spear her with two fingers.
She cries out, her thighs quivering. "I need you. Do it now."
Shaking my head, I take her clit in my mouth, tracing it with my tongue, fucking her with my fingers. My cock rubs against the sheet, and I need to come so badly my balls ache, but she's not loud enough. Her clit still in my mouth, I flick my tongue across it, while curving my fingers up to meet her body, stroking her like a cat. Another cry, louder this time. She's tense as a lute string, dampening the sheet with her juice, and I move my mouth lower to drink from her.
"Please. I'm dying." She tries to push me away, but I don't stop, just lick and suck until her moans are echoing through the room.
Listen, Marsius. Listen to her. "Hands and knees."
Obeying quickly, Aphra crouches there, her ass full and creamy in the smoky light, and my fingers sink into it as I kneel behind her. Even now, though, I still tease her, rubbing the head of my cock along her creamy slit. She wriggles against me, panting loudly between hot low moans.
"You're beautiful," I tell her. "I can't believe you're mine." That drives her crazy, so I keep it up. "No one's as beautiful as you. Everyone wants you. Everyone wants to be inside you."
"Tell me who," she whimpers, pressing back against me.
I graze her clit with my cock. "All of them. The whole court. The servants. The neighbors. They all want you like this, hot and ready for them." I guide my cock to her sweet wet cunt and start to push.
"Tell me. Tell me who wants me."
"Clifford does," I whisper, as I slide my cock inside her. "And Marsius." Her cries are high and loud, bird calls, and I reach around and finger her clit while thrusting so hard the bedframe groans. "I saw how he was looking at you. He wants you. He wants to be me, so he can fuck you like I'm doing, hard and fast, just the way you like it." She's coming now, clawing the pillow, her cunt pulsing around my cock. "That's it. Come for me. Come for him."
Tangled in guilt, disgust and pleasure, with my wife's body turning hard and male under me, I come, too.
"It sounds," Marsius says, "like you had a good time last night."
"I didn't realize we had an audience." I don't look at him, just pull my hood lower and keep my eyes fixed on the playing field.
"Didn't you? I thought you'd like the chance to prove how good you are."
"I don't need to prove anything."
Below us, Sir Henry Lee is ready, disguised as the Restless Knight, wearing armor etched then painted with blue fleurs de lis and smiling yellow suns that shine brightly even from the stands. His horse, a big roan stallion, wears a matching set, and paws the earth impatiently while a squire in red livery, dragons embroidered on his sleeves, prepares the audience for the Earl of Cumberland's arrival by reciting the opening of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: "It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon when he was king of all England..."
Clifford's coming onto the field now, holding his lance high and his shield higher, the dragon's mouth open in a snarl matched by his brothers on the red armor. Around his waist he wears a gold belt, and from it dangles Aphra's rose-embroidered sleeve. He pauses just outside the barrier, built like a palace wall, scouring the audience for her.
Aphra claps beside me, waving to him. "Oh, doesn't he look good, Phaestion? He showed me his costume before, but here it looks even better."
"You should have the Earl over," Marsius says quietly to me, "so he can hear listen to you fuck her."
As George sees Aphra and bows, I tell Marsius that he's just jealous.
"I think you're right," he says, surprising me. "But can you blame me, after the sounds I heard last night?"
"Maybe it's time you found your own wife, Marsius." It sounds like a warning, and maybe it is.
"Who'd want to marry me? I'm a soldier, not a courtier."
Aphra shifts toward us, smiling. Apparently she was listening all along. "I know a dozen girls here who'd love to be your wife, Marsius. They're all disappointed you decided not to joust. You would've made a great Lancelot."
"I'm no Lancelot. He's too good. Boring."
"He's not that good. He committed adultery." This time I do look at him.
"So you're saying I'd have to do that first to qualify?"
"Don't tease him, Marsius," Aphra says. "Phaestion takes marriage very seriously."
"Don't you, Aphra?" Marsius grins at her.
"Oh, of course. I love my husband. Who else could put up with me? He's a very loyal man." She touches my gloved hand, which rests on my knee. "But if you're not Lancelot then who are you?"
"He's Mars. Who else could he be?"
No one hears me over the crowd's roar and the trumpets' blare as Clifford hits the center mark of the tournament field. He can't come to Aphra first; there are rules even here, so he circles slowly, for effect, the ribbons threaded into his horse's mane and tail streaming, and pauses at the Whitehall palace front window, where the Queen and her ladies in waiting watch. The glass and distance obscure Elizabeth's face, which I almost regret, because she shares my dislike of Clifford, who stupidly observed at a public gathering that, "even with England standing behind her, was never a woman more likely to stay a virgin." Elizabeth, with a royal sense of vengeance, has since snubbed him in a variety of subtle ways, and judging from his reaction, she's found another one.
He's heading now for the judges' box at the west end, where he gives his interpretation of a regal nod. As always, every action feels calculated, like he rehearsed it weeks in advance--which he probably did, preening in front of a mirror. Or better yet, by riding around his courtyard with his servants playing the various roles: an undercook with a red wig and crown as the queen; three grooms reeking of the stables in over-sized feather caps as the judges; and a monkey with a twig seated on a horse to play his jousting partner so George won't look too bad.
Finally, he comes to us and slides off his mount, kneeling with a flourish before Aphra, one hand over his heart. She claps happily then tosses a square of silk to him, which he gathers and stuffs under his belt. Any more clothing from Aphra, and he'll be dressed as a woman. It would suit him, the scrawny blond fop. Not like...
Marsius' knee presses against mine as he leans in close. "If I'm Mars, who are you?"
"I'm starting to feel like Faustus."
"Not Job? I thought you saw your whole life as a trial."
"You shouldn't provoke a man when you're wearing his clothes."
He leans even closer, his lips at the edge of my hood. "You want me out of these clothes, Phaestion?"
"Are you so starved for attention that you care what I think?"
"That's not really answering my question."
"I love my wife."
"That doesn't answer it, either." He drums his fingers on his thighs. "I mean, why not say no? If you do want me, why not lie about it? Why give me the satisfaction?"
"I don't give a damn what you think."
"What if I said I wanted to fuck you?"
My body tenses, muscles so tight they cramp. Reaching down, I rub my calf where it hurts the most. "I'd say you were testing me."
"Why would I test you, Phaestion?"
"Because you want to know if I can be trusted. Isn't that why you're still here? To make sure I won't run to the queen?" I'm sitting up again, my mouth against his ear, our bodies tightly joined, and my cock's getting hard. My body needs a lesson in morality. Did Christ get hard on that mountain top?
"You don't think I'm sincere?"
I snort like Cumberland's prancing horse. "Of course not. I think you like to say things to get a reaction from me and everyone around you. Sure, sometimes that means telling the truth. Other times it means telling them what you think they want to hear, so you can judge them." Sick of his games and my own confused reaction to them, I pretend to care about the tournament.
It's only later at Whitehall, hanging onto the party's shadowy ledge, that I realize Elizabeth might not be the only one getting a permanent cure for love. The palace itself is full of ghosts and anger, a legacy of its theft by Henry VIII's from Cardinal Wolsey and the archbishops of York. He took away God and left nothing, making the room seem deathly cold, even with the heat from a hundred bodies and the Flemish tapestries draped everywhere. The air's probably warmer where Elizabeth sits ringed with panting courtiers, her red hair soft and piled higher than ever. It reminds me of my cat, if the thing ever dove into Aphra's jewel box and emerged stabbed with emeralds and squeezed tight by snaking pearls.
I accept a glass of muscadine from a footman dressed like a shepherd, and head for Marsius, scaring away two pretty young girls who both follow the unfortunate female fashion of wearing ruffs bigger than their heads. "I need to talk to you."
"Here?" He seems bored, scanning the room over my shoulder.
"Yes, here. I want you to know I have no intention of becoming a martyr for the cause."
That gets his attention. "Why would I kill you, Phaestion?"
"You know damn well why. To shut my mouth permanently."
"Don't be stupid. You're not going to tell anyone. You'd be implicating yourself, and you'd be executed for treason, leaving your pretty wife alone. Now can I get back to the party?" He snaps loudly enough to turn a few heads.
"God, you're a prick." I'm about to walk off when he grabs my shoulder.
"Don't leave the party yet. Aphra has invited me to spend the night, so I'll be leaving with you. Seems she likes me, too, especially since the Earl was defeated during the tilt." He gives me a lewd wink then disappears into the crowd.
People snicker then study the ceiling after my glare. At least the masque is about to start, eliminating my need to look busy for the next hour. With cinnamon-flavored breath, the pages extinguish candles, and black smoke swirls up to the ceiling's red panels, while the musicians, in bright blue hats with feathers curling to their jaws tune lutes, pipes and viols, sending a warning series of truncated whistles and bleats above the conversation. Aphra is standing with George, their blond heads together as they gossip, so I leave them alone and find a bench against a wall. It's far enough from the fireplaces that the others avoid it, with too many bum-rolls and trunk hose between me and the action to see what's going on. That's fine. As spectator-sport, the masques are decorative sycophancy and not much else, featuring a virgin goddess who triumphs over papists by the sheer power of her beauty and virtue, with the odd lion or two added for exotic flavor. The Queen loves her little dramas. All hail Gloriana.
To secure royal favor, the audience cheers in all the right places, while groping each other in the melted dark, drunk on Rhenish wine. Someone's virginal daughter always gets pregnant, or a bear dressed like a Frenchman mauls some doddering lord, or a dowager staggers too near a flame with her towering hairstyle and becomes a human torch, ignored by a few peers in a slinging match over whose new American property brings in the most coin. The newest thing among the younger members is to sit next to whatever man's popular that month and jerk him off into a handkerchief, which they then wave to their friends as a victory signal. They say the Marquis of Hamilton's daughter has enough to sail one of Raleigh's ships.
Through it all, Elizabeth sits on her throne, her hair the highest of them all, trapped in a dress so elaborate and stiff that she can't move, watching and tapping her fan to indicate annoyance (one tap) or pleasure (two). She's surrounded as usual by her coterie of male followers: the triumphant Lee, out of armor now but wearing a doublet covered with the same blue fleurs de lis and yellow suns, the dour Walsingham, and the usual bouquet of pretty young men who flick their tongues over the Queen's ego. I've had fantasies of walking into the middle of all the chaos and shouting at them for being such pretentious, empty, useless idiots. Only I know what they'd say: that I'm jealous, and that I'd join in if only I could. Maybe they're right. Maybe--
"Feeling superior, hidden back here?" Marsius drops onto the bench beside me.
I can barely hear him over the laughter and music. I don't want to hear him. "Why don't you leave me alone? There's no point making fun of me now, with the audience distracted."
"I didn't want anyone thinking we're friends, in case there are any questions later."
"We're not friends."
"That's not my fault." He's too close now, his shoulder touching mine, our thighs again side by side, only there are no thick winter cloaks between us.
If I move, he'll know he's making me uncomfortable, so I sit there, fighting the rhythm of his breathing. My goddamn cock reacts to him, like always, and I remember the stories my grandmother told me about monks who'd beat their flesh with sticks to control it. Then I see myself crouched on the ground, wrists crossed in front of me, while Marsius stands naked behind me, a riding whip in his hand. "Go away."
I don't turn, and not just so he sees only my good profile. The noise around us--the blend of musicians' flourishes, the players' lines, the crowd's laughter--has the weird effect of coating my name with real lust. It has to be the noise. I've been fooled before, with girls saying they want me only to run giggling and screaming back to their friends when I try to kiss them. As for lust...That I'm not used to, and why I know it's a lie.
He repeats my name, his beard tickling my neck just under my ear.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Maybe it's God giving me penance for giving Marsius that jar.
"What do you want me to do?" His mouth moves lower to my throat, not kissing, just breathing hotly.
"Stop testing me," I say.
"I wouldn't call this a test."
I can barely hear him, with his mouth pressed against me. "What would you call it?"
Furious with his games, his petty cruelty, I turn. "You know what? I should kiss you, you bastard. Put my ugly face right up yours and--"
It's a shock to feel his tongue in my mouth, what a woman must feel like when a man first puts his cock inside her, not good or bad, just stunningly unfamiliar, awkward, embarrassing. Then he cups the back of my head and starts stroking my tongue with his. A shameful moment follows where I let him do it, taking the pleasure and burying the guilt. But when my hands go up and my tongue licks back, I break away. "You can't do this. I don't want to be like them." I jerk my chin toward the roomful of people. "I don't know why, but you want me to be just like them." I'm not even sure what I mean, but I know it's right.
"You don't know what you're talking about," he says, shaking his head a little, like he's clearing it.
"Marsius, if you want to prove yourself, do it on the battlefield. Go kill a thousand lowlanders in Philip's name."
He grabs my hand and shoves it between his legs. "Does that feel like I'm trying to prove myself?"
His cock is big and hard, and Marsius makes a sound when I touch it, before I jerk away. "That doesn't mean anything. You hang a man, and his cock gets hard." I'm standing, so close to hitting him my fists won't unclench, even when I force them. "And find your own fucking way home."
"I hope you're not going to be like this all weekend." Aphra squeezes my hand under the blanket as the carriage rattles along the road south of Winchester. "That's you." She points to the grim grey cathedral on the left. "And it's not good."
"Why did you come, anyway? Every time you're near Marsius, you get angry, like at the masque. George saw you leave and said you looked ready to burst. I thought you were bad around him, but Marsius..." Aphra shakes her head. "You're pretty fierce, even for you."
"I can't help it. He rubs me the wrong way."
"Just ignore him when he teases you."
Easier said than done, when he's teasing me with his tongue. "That's what you always say. It never does any good."
"I was just trying to help." She looks down, repositioning her feet on the wrapped brick. "Look, Phaestion...Is it because you're jealous?"
"You think I should be?"
"No. But even George..."
"But even George what? But even the handsome and talented Earl of Cumberland has a hard-on for him?"
"There's no need to be like that. George is a wonderful man. He's..."
"He's what? Everything I'm not?"
"That's not what I was going to say. Do you have to be so angry all the time? You're not fun any more. And what has he ever done to you? Nothing. I wouldn't let him."
"He's not going to be there, is he? I can't believe Marsius likes that dissolute ass kisser. He's not going to score any points with the Queen for inviting him here, either."
"Now you're just being horrible. Besides, since when do you care what Marsius thinks? First you hate him, and now you like him. It's crazy." Her head's turned so far from me that all I can see is a blond curl peeking from under her hood.
"Can't you even try to make me feel better?"
"What do you want me to do?"
I almost say, ‘Be someone else.' I don't know why I'm so hard on her. She's a good woman, even when we're acting out a scene from a bad domestic tragedy, and she's spent her life comforting me. It works for awhile then the effects fade and I need it all over again. There's always another mean kid with a cruel laugh and a pointed finger. "Sorry," I tell her.
"Just try to be good this weekend, all right?"
"For you." Then I remember just what will happen this weekend, and my mood sinks even lower. I nearly stayed away, but guilt and obligation are more noisy than a sky full of gulls. After all, I'm the executioner. I'm God.
"We're here," Aphra says, as the carriage pulls left and turns down a lane to the stables flanking the main house, which is four-gabled and three-storeyed, made of pale yellow stone, with more windows than Argus had eyes.
"What ever happened with Marsius' father? I remember hearing the servants talk about it, but I never caught the details." I tap the cushioned seat, trying to remember. "Some kind of scandal, ages ago, during Henry's reign, and the king sent him packing, and kept his house and lands. That's when the old man went to Spain and met Marsius' mother..."
"If it's old news, I won't remember. The past is boring." Aphra's more interested in the carriages she sees lined up in the stables. "George is already here, I see," she says happily and sits back. "You know, Phaestion, he's really nice. You'd like him, once you got to know him. You and the queen. I'm going to try and change her mind this weekend and give poor George a chance, if not at the concert tonight then tomorrow at the fete here. "
"You really believe that's possible?"
She's ignoring me again, staring out at the snow-dusted lawns with their matching fountains. The men she brings around always treat me with the same forced jocularity, slapping me forcefully on the back, telling a few smutty jokes before disappearing with Aphra into the crowd. Afterward, in bed, we talk about them, and she's discarded some because of my opinion. George is really the only one she's kept around despite me, and he's lasted longer than most, because in his own way he's as desperate for attention as she is. They feed off each other, but it seems to make her happy.
The coachman's opening the carriage door now, helping Aphra down. A gate breaks up the waist-high wall surrounding the house, and we pass through it, taking a narrow path between the facade and the lawn to the main three-way staircase, while our servants follow a footman to the kitchen.
"You go ahead," I tell Aphra, my breath sending white clouds into the air. "I want to read the inscription over the door."
She rolls her eyes and goes in, while I pretend to care what's written over Marsius' classical doorway, making a show of wiping the snow from it. "Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt." Men gladly believe that which they wish for. The only reason these goddamn Latin maxims survive is because they're broad enough to sting anyone. A five-year old could see himself in that one. I should know, since I feel about five, lurking out here, stung, with an icy wind scratching through my cloak.
The foyer looks empty when I pull open the doors and step in. Ahead, there's a staircase that leads to a landing, its back wall covered with three tall windows, then veers sharply right, leaving a wide, open space under those right-angled steps, separated from the foyer by three slender green and gold columns. Underneath are more windows above gold wainscoting painted with green leaves and swirling vines, while the floor is diamond-shaped brown tile. A forest grove. He's at the far right window, standing with his back to me.
"Where do you want me?" I ask.
He turns slowly. "I didn't think you were coming."
Even on this grey afternoon, it's too bright in here, giving him a perfect view of my damaged face. I don't flinch. "Well, here I am."
"You don't have to worry, Phaestion. I'm not going to touch you again."
Hearing him say it like that...It's like my history with him is based on a series of chisel strikes. I was whole before I met him, but every time I see him, he says something to chip me. "I know that. Just show me where to go, all right?" Each word clumps like I do when I walk, lopsided and awkward.
A page appears through the doorway to my left, and Marsius turns back to the window, while I follow the boy upstairs. The panels along the left wall, that take up more space the higher we go, are large elaborate scenes from mythology, and I focus on them, trying to guess the stories. A starry flare of lightening, a spying woman in peacock feathers--Jove and Semele. A locked room, a gold rain, and a woman holding a baby--Jove and Danae. A man and women in bed, while a man with the same face fights in a battle--Jove and Alcmene.
My room is the third down. Aphra's not inside, but our bags have been unpacked. Against the left wall stands a huge bed, its red canopy reaching the ceiling, the brocade curtains drawn to show a mattress layered with blankets so high it reaches my hip, and covered with pillows white and fat as swans. I'm suddenly exhausted, my back and foot aching from the long carriage ride, and when the page leaves, I strip quickly and lie down. Too many dreams lately, and Aphra's been cold-shouldering me, so I've slept in fits and starts, waking with a dull head. It's a relief, too, now that things are settled between me and Marsius, with his clear rejection, so with the light faded and powdery like old yellow roses, I relax under the pile of covers. A kind of inevitability is sinking in, making everything seem pleasantly unreal and oddly peaceful, how death should be.
I wake up later, vaguely aware that Aphra's come in with a few servants in tow, but I don't move, too comfortable buried here. Candles are lit, the fire stoked, before someone thoughtfully closes the bed curtains, leaving me wrapped in warm darkness.
The dinner bell drags my eyes open the next time, and when a servant calls for me through the door, I ask him to tell the others to start without me. After that, I can't recapture the perfect mindlessness of my sleep, just lie on my side while thoughts flutter aimlessly through my head, fragments of dreams. I'm not sure when I start thinking about him; it's less like there's a beginning than a slow awareness of lurking images. Marsius is in this bed, naked on his back, thrusting up into my mouth. There are other, darker images below, and I look for them, hand on my cock, because I'm alone, cocooned in here, and no one will ever know.
This time, I'm still sucking him, but his hands are bound above his head and his eyes are open as he watches me. He loves it. He loves everything I do to him, so I climb up the bed and stand before him, straddling his hips. His mouth is already open and his head tilts back, ready for me. When he starts sucking, it's eager, noisy, wet--just a bestial pleasure in being fed. It would be like that with him. Mostly he's very controlled, but if you hit him where he's weak, he loses it. Most people never lose it, running when things get uncomfortable, or avoiding those situations altogether. Marsius wants to avoid them, but sometimes just can't help himself. I'm one of those things to him.
My revelations surprise me so much my hand's fallen from my cock. It's like every thought I've hidden in the last two weeks is surfacing, after quietly organizing themselves inside my head. Only Marsius' words from before bounce back and ruin things: ‘You don't have to worry, Phaestion. I'm not going to touch you again.' So that means what? That he's solved me? That's what he wants me to think, so I'd try even harder to hide my lust from him. He'd be safe that way. Unless his interest was temporary, the kind you have for strange objects. My friend Cope's like that, the one who got me into alchemy and conjuring. In American now, he travels across the globe and collects things like unicorn tails, an African charm made of teeth, the bells from Henry VIII's fool, a sea mouse. His rooms are bursting with them, because he can never have enough. I even caught his enthusiasm, especially for alchemy, this magic that would give me truth if only I mixed the elements right. A hundred failures later, I'm getting bored. Text after text, elixir after elixir, and I'm in the same place, staring at the same lump of iron that refuses to change.
It's all too goddamn complicated, and I rip open the curtains, standing naked in the bedroom, the moon grinning at me through the window. My stomach growls, and I'm suddenly starving, so I dress quickly and head downstairs. The house feels empty, quiet, with only a few candles burning. I'm not sure where the kitchen is, so I wander through gloomy corridors and big cold rooms. A right turn takes me into a long gallery, gilt-framed portraits covering the walls, broken only by the occasional cavernous fireplace with the wind rushing through like giant's breath or unexplored intersecting hall. I look but don't see a picture of Marsius, although in a niche nearly hidden there's a small square painting of a dark-haired woman with a full mouth and shaded eyes who must be his mother. It's hard to imagine Marsius as a boy, until I see the small figure lurking in the background, his face half hidden as he peers into the room. It has to be him at five or six, stripped of strength, vulnerable, a little sad. His little hand curves around the doorframe, white-knuckled and innocent. He's aching because he knows she's dying, can see the skeleton eating through her think skin, but she doesn't see him, just holds back velvet drapes red as her dress and watches a barren road.
There's a draft in the hall which makes me shiver, and I keep walking until the air warms, the smell of roast goose and chestnuts wafts toward me, together with laughter and the clink of pewter. There's a moment where I hesitate just outside the door; the first time people see me, there's an embarrassing awkwardness when they don't know where to look. But I'm hungry and the food smells good, so I step in. A group of servants, my own included, sits around a rough wooden table covered with trays of food, several pewter pitchers and mugs. All conversation stops as they start to scramble up.
"Don't bother. I just want some food and wine. Do you mind if--" I reach onto the table and pick up a slice of cheese pie.
"You don't have to do that," one of the maids says. "I'll set you up a table in the dining room and--"
"No, I'm fine here. If you have a chair and a glass--?" I know they resent me for interrupting them, but to hell with that. "Just go back to whatever you were doing." I drag a chair from one of the walls to the table and pour myself a glass of ale.
They stare at the ground, the ceiling, with a few glancing at each other doing quick eye rolls when they think I'm not looking. A few sit, while others drift toward the door, muttering about getting back to work.
"Hold on," I say to one of the footman. "You dropped this." I give him a handful of silver coins. "And you dropped this," I tell a little maid with crossed front teeth and an apron stiff and white as ship's sail. I wave my hand and a small bouquet of dried flowers appears. She accepts them, her mouth hanging open. "And you," I nod toward a groom, "you dropped these." Another theatrical wave, worthy of Clifford himself, and a pair of dice appears. I toss them onto the table, where they hit the pitcher with a thunk. "Anyone up for a game of hazard? And didn't I hear somewhere that the men of Winchester know the dirtiest jokes in all England? Care to prove it?" If there's one thing I've learned at courts, it's gaming and dirty jokes. The conjuring tricks are all mine, and they work. There's a smattering of applause, a collective sigh, and everyone settles down, while the cook launches into an enthusiastic story involving a blind farmer, his buxom daughter, and three hunchbacks.
I'm on my fourth glass of ale, eating marchpane brought by the maid who took my flowers, in the middle of matching Robert the brewer's joke, with five pence riding on it, getting to the part about the goat and the miller's wife, when we all hear the clunk of riding boots in the hallway, and Marsius walks in.
"What in hell's going on here?"
The servants shoot like marbles across the room, clicking this way and that, but I stay in place and put up one foot on a newly vacant chair. "Don't blame them. It's my fault. I corrupted them." I sound proud of the fact, and I think I am. Proud, and maybe a little drunk.
Marsius is staring at me like I've lost my mind. "What happened to you?"
"I was sleeping. Now..."
"Now you're getting drunk, gaming with my servants, and telling jokes about..." He pauses and his lips twitch. That's when I know I have him, and how this is going to end. "...a goat and a miller's daughter."
"You know what the worst thing is?"
"They're never going to hear the punch line."
Robert snickers then freezes when Marsius glares at him. "So what are you saying, Phaestion? I'm supposed to just let you continue with this corruption?"
"That's right. Unless..."
"Unless you know any good jokes of your own."
"If you tell anyone about this," Marsius tells the group as he pulls up a chair, "I'll drop you down the well."
"Where are the others?" I ask, pouring him a drink.
"They've gone to Wolvesey Castle. The queen's brought in some French singers, so they're listening to that. The bishop's lucky he's in Italy. No one should have to listen to a bunch of castrated virgins singing about turtle doves and roses." He's already got the dice in one hand, a piece of marchpane in the other, and he shudders. "I escaped during intermission. I told her I had to check in on you."
"So that's why you came back?"
"What kind of a host would I be if I didn't look in on all my guests?" He gives me an innocent look and rolls the dice. "Now tell your joke, Phaestion. Everyone's waiting."
Marsius knows a lot of jokes and plays well, although his perfect winning streak ends with a mysterious suddenness an hour into the game, and he proceeds to lose every coin to a very happy group of men and women. Every now and then I'd catch him watching at me.
"We should go to the Castle," he says as the servants begin clearing the table, and I follow him into the hallway. "The queen's going to think you've given me the plague. Can you ride, with your foot, or do you need a carriage?" There's no sympathy, just the usual directness I've come to expect from him.
"I'm okay, as long as I don't have to jump off."
"Good. We'll go alone. The bishop's grooms will take care of the horses." He leans back into the kitchen and calls for riding gear and readied mounts then we walk toward the foyer.
"So how did you get this house?"
He stops short and looks at me. "What do you mean?"
"It just doesn't seem like you."
"What were you expecting?"
"Something less elaborate." We're standing in the well-lit Great Hall, where the ceiling climbs several storeys up and everything is painted gold and green, the chairs and tables, the columns between the numerous doorways, the floor tiles. And hanging on the walls above the molding are massive paintings showing more mythological scenes.
"This was my father's house."
"Your father? But I thought the king..."
"My father got into some trouble and moved to Spain, where he met my mother."
"So he's dead now? If you have the house?"
"Yes, he's dead. What about your father?"
"My father should be dead," I tell him. We're at the foyer, and Marsius doesn't ask for details so I don't give them, just kick off my shoes and pull on riding boots and cloak.
"The road's pretty smooth, but there are icy patches," he says, once we're on the horses.
"I'll be fine." It's colder than I expected, so I pull on my hood and duck down. "I'm not helpless, you know."
"I'd warn anyone, Phaestion. You're used to London, not the backwoods of Hampshire." He pulls his ride closer. "I didn't think you were going to come down at all. From your room, I mean." His teeth gleam in the moonlight. "Or that I'd find you drinking with my servants."
"I told you," I say with a liar's deliberation, "that I was sleeping."
"Not avoiding me?"
"Why would I avoid you? You said I didn't have anything to worry about."
"Were you worried?"
"Come on, Marsius. I'm not going to stay away because of what happened or because of what will happen on Twelfth Night."
"But you wanted to."
It sounds understanding, not accusing, so I nod. "I don't always hide. And I had a duty to come here."
"You sound like my father. He was big on duty. Other people's, at least," he adds quickly.
"Why did he go to Spain?"
"The climate." There must be ice ahead, because Marsius spurs his horse ahead and to the right. Or maybe, as they are with me, fathers are an awkward subject.
I follow him, but more slowly--one crippled foot is enough--and catch up to him as he rounds a bend. "You don't like your father?"
"I did once I understood him, but that took a long time. What about you?"
"He had big fists, and he drank. Not a good combination. After he threw me down the stairs, they sent me to my grandmother's. When she died, I went to live with Aphra and her parents."
"Do you remember it? The fall?"
"Just the blood. It must've hurt, but I don't remember that. Just blood and my mother screaming."
"My mother used to scream, too," he says. "At my father, because he'd always leave her for months, sometimes years. She'd cry a lot, too, at least until she got sick. Then she died and it got really quiet." He's casual, casual as I was, to prove how much it doesn't matter, to prove that we can talk easily about this stuff, even though we never, ever do.
We pull up to the massive stone mouth of the city's west gate, and he nods at the watchmen, who bow and tuck away his coins then we head up the high street. Do they know him because he comes into the city for the ale or the notorious Winchester geese? If it's the whores, what does he pay them to do? Do they suck him? Or does he eat them, spreading their thighs and licking until they come around his tongue? He'd like that, knowing he has the power to make a whore come. I can picture him surrounded by them: one impaled on his tongue, one riding his cock, one licking his balls, one biting each nipple. The room would be steamy, the air choked with smoke and semen, because he'd had each of them, shoving his big--
"This isn't the right way," I tell him. "The castle's right, and we're going left." I sound like a child, but Marsius always throws me off balance.
"I want to make a stop first."
"At the cathedral?"
He's dismounting, and I climb down carefully then tether my horse next to his at a post. As we head toward the cathedral, the ground crunches angrily under our boots and the witchy trees wave skinny arms, like maybe God's a little angry, exiled or not. "Why are we going in here?" I ask.
"You need to ask?" Grinning at me, he tugs on the iron ring to open a wooden door.
Inside there's a haunted quiet with every step fading to nowhere. Marsius walks down the nave, the pale columns shooting higher than the broken candlelight. Despite what he says, I'm not sure why we're here, so I follow a few paces back and trip over an uneven tile. My curse shoots to the roof, and I limp, heavier than usual, into the north transept. I don't see him at first and stand alone, breathing ancient incense, then bend to rub my throbbing ankle, feeling like a misplaced Thomas Becket.
"Over here." Marsius is in a closet-sized chapel to my right, facing the altar. The only light's from a brand, and the figures on the wall move as the light wavers, spurring black horses, raising red-crossed iron shields, tossing spears at pagans whose blue faces contort as they die.
While Marsius kneels, I walk painfully behind him and touch a pool of painted blood. "Crusaders. I guess that's what we'd like to be. Back when it had some glory to it, and it wasn't just murder." To ease the pressure in my foot, I turn and lean back against the cool wall. Marsius is still on his knees, and in profile like this looks grave and still as a funeral effigy. His bent head is so close I can touch it just by stretching my fingers. Is he praying? Despite everything, he just doesn't seem very devout. That's when I see his own fingers are reaching under the altar cloth, as though searching for something. A rustle, then he pulls his hand back, a folded sheet of paper in it, which he tucks inside his doublet. I must make a noise, because he turns toward me.
"Just final confirmation," he says. "For tomorrow." The reminder rips through me, and I go to leave, only Marsius stands, blocking me. "What's the matter? Having a crisis of faith?"
"Something like that." Holding onto the altar, I shift my position. "Aren't you going to read it?"
"You're hoping for a reprieve."
"No," I say. "I want to see this through."
"I know what you mean."
"You want to move on, and so do I. You want to get back to your wife and fuck away any taste of me." He pauses. "You'd do anything for her, wouldn't you?"
I don't answer him. What can I say? Go on about how much I love her, when all I can think about is pushing him back on his knees and feeding him my cock? Maybe if I do it just once, I'll stop thinking about it. But I can't, not to Aphra, who loves me.
"Don't worry, Phaestion. After tomorrow night, we'll never have to see each other again. I'll be leaving for Spain and you'll be safe."
"Is that what you want? Never to see me again?"
"What do you think? Isn't that what I said?" He sounds irritated.
"Right. And you always say what you mean."
"I've never met someone I wanted to hit as much as I want to hit you."
My head cracks against the mural as he shoves me back, but his kiss swallows the pain. He's rough, grinding his cock into me, his tongue thrusting into my mouth, and I'm selfish this time and take it all, touching him everywhere...Until I feel the paper against his chest, and push him back.
"Jesus, you're a stupid bastard," he says, breathing hard and fast. "Just let it happen. It's a fuck, that's all. Just a goddamn fuck." He puts his hand over my cock over my clothes and goes down. On his knees, he rubs his cheek against me, and I put my hands on his head to shove him back again, only his hair is so soft under my fingers and what he's doing feels so good. "That's it," he whispers, still rubbing like a cat. "Give in to it." He's reaching inside now, and his hot fingers are tight around my cock, pulling me free.
His mouth is so close. Just a little taste. Just let him have a little taste. One lick. One long lick along the head of my cock. That's all I want. And there's no deus ex machina to stop it, no priest bursting in, no thunder or lightning, no doves or giant hands, so it happens, because I'm so goddamn weak. And it's unbelievable. Oh God. My life's in my cock, and he's taking it with that hot beautiful mouth, only it's not one lick but lots of them, licking and sucking me like I've wanted for so long. And it's wrong. "I can't do this."
Marsius is on his feet and for once he does hit me, high on my scarred cheek, and my head cracks a second time against the wall. "You're a fucking idiot," he says, flushed and furious. "You're a goddamn stupid crippled idiot with the most fucking twisted moral code I've ever seen. You deserve everything you get."
He's gone before I can speak, and I rub my skull, feeling like Becket more than ever, only I'm alive. Mostly. But I won't listen to my dreams again. Only saints and mystics find the truth there. The rest of us have to learn it the hard way.
There's a toothy wind and a perverse moon that smirks at me over grey clouds. What's worse is that my cock's still hard and wet from his mouth, and I have this strange ache that quivers through my ribs before settling higher. That's the nature of penance: you're not supposed to enjoy it. But my moral code is definitely twisted, because I'm going to Aphra at Wolvesey Castle. I need her to put me back together and make me who I was.
The streets are mostly empty, just a night watchman swinging his lantern in time to his hummed tune, a drunken student from the college, and a stray dog with a torn ear that growls when I get too close. The bells are chiming ten when the porter lets me onto the castle grounds, and a page leads me inside. I've only been to Wolvesey once, dragged here by Aphra, and don't remember much about it, except the tapestries, which are oddly secular for a bishop's palace, full of unicorns, armored knights, and pretty maidens. When I asked about it, the bishop told me privately that his predecessor panicked after the Dissolution and burned all the old tapestries, replacing them with ones more to Henry's taste. Like Whitehall in London, there are empty niches everywhere, with lighter patches showing against the grey stone where Saint Swithin or Saint Giles used to stand before they were added to the pyre.
As we round a corner, there's a blast of music, fast and sharp, and the thump of stamping feet and clapping hands. It's coming from a room ahead on the right. I can already smell the perfume, sweat and beeswax, see the mosaic of color as dancers whirl past the doorway. "You can leave," I tell the boy. When he does, I approach cautiously, and not just because I feel out of place. Marsius could be here, and I want the advantage. I'm not ready to see him, not until I've been with Aphra. But when I position myself at the doorway and glance inside, he's the first one I see, standing beside a window, a gold cup in his hand. No Aphra, though. I risk another look, and see the Queen in a huge green dress with massive billowing sleeves, shoulders and ruff and a skirt wider than the Thames, chains with jewels the size of buoys winding across her chest, her tiny pale face poking out like she's drowning in it. She looks happy, talking to Walsingham and Lee, who catches my eye, then looks away. Still no Aphra. She never leaves a party this early, especially one this busy, so she's got to be around here.
There are a few other rooms further down the torch-lit hall, and one's probably a parlor where the dancers can cool off. The first is an empty parlor stuffed with chairs, paintings and heavy cabinets covered with gold plates and ewers that glint under the moon. The next is a reception room with the same wide window, anchored with a gold throne, lonely and cool. It's empty, too, but as I walk out, I hear a sound coming from the third one, a soft moan.
At first I think she's hurt. Why else would she make that sound? But even as I move to the third doorway and look into a room lit by that perverse moon, I know what I'll see. And I'm right. Aphra is leaning back against a wall, her skirt hiked to her waist, her breasts spilling from her unhooked bodice as Clifford plows into her, stroke after stroke, calling her his sweet cunt, his hot whore, while she squeezes his ass and rocks back into him. If I have any doubt it's not their first time, it disappears when he reaches between her legs to rub her clit and she whimpers that he always knows what she needs.
I want to walk away, but I can't. Instead, I watch Clifford fuck my wife, listen to the sound of his big cock sliding in and out of her, the wet ripe sound of her being filled and refilled by him, the sound of her loving him.
This is how Copernicus must have felt when he stared up at the sun and knew that things would never be the same.
I'm in that empty parlor trying to breathe when Marsius comes in. He knows. It's all over his face, which is stained with pity, but he says nothing. I'm glad, glad too that he doesn't touch me, just stands there quietly. Aphra and Clifford walk past not long after, too close and love-blind. Marsius stays.
I'm not sure how long he's there or when he goes, but it helps somehow.
I get lost on the way back, riding in circles across the muddy fields of Hampshire. At least in a desert it's warm, and you can find some honey and maybe a locust or two. Above, the moon's starting to sag while the grass thickens, grows tall and brittle with winter-death around my horse's legs. He doesn't want to go close, but I dig my knees into his sides until I hear the thin creak of ice. The river's narrow here, the opposite bank twenty feet across, a greyish smear between the hoary lake and the bruised sky. The horse is whinnying now, shaking his head, and I let him back away.
There's an old pilgrim's path along the water that leads back to town, where the yawning night watchman gives me directions to Marsius' place. I ache everywhere and ride low, hugging my horse's neck, letting the coarse hairs scratch my cheek to keep me awake and alive.
The house is closed and tight, with only a footman there to let me in the back way. Aphra's asleep when I go into the room, covers tucked under her soft sleeping face. She looks so young, and I think about how selfish I was to marry her. I told myself that I'd protect her, when I really wanted her to protect me.
"Worried about you," she mumbles when I kiss her cheek, and reaches for my hand.
I sit there in the hazy light, still clothed, holding my wife's hand while she sleeps.
"What happened to you last night?" Aphra stops primping in the glass and waves away her maid's hands. "Your cheek looks tender. You didn't get robbed, did you, and you're not telling me because you don't want me to worry? You got in awfully late."
I pretend the morning light raining through the window is too much, and shield my eyes. "No, everything's fine. Did you...did you have a good time last night?"
She begins to chatter as the maid dresses her hair with pearls fat as teardrops. "It was wonderful. You would've hated it, of course. But I had so much fun. I think it was my dress. I wore that black one with the square neckline that's embroidered with rubies--the one you meanly point out could feed half the poor in London, and their eyes were bugging. I always have fun when I wear it."
The maid attaches a heavy pearl choker around Aphra's neck then bows out. It's all so normal, so completely the same. We've played this out hundreds of times, only now I know that her cunt's tender and swollen from Clifford's cock, and that we've loved each other wrong all these years.
"What about you? What did you and Marsius do? He found you, didn't he?"
"Just went to the cathedral then rode for awhile."
"You're just like Grandmother. Remember how she used to drag us to all those places when I'd visit you? Even George wanted to go in last night. And he doesn't care about stuff like that."
"George? George wanted to go to the cathedral?"
"Phaestion, are you sure you're fine?" She peers at me in the mirror. "Maybe you should go back to bed. You slept so much yesterday. It's not natural."
"You're not mad, are you? I hate when you're mad."
"Aphra, if you wanted to leave me, you could. I wouldn't stop you."
About to walk out the door, she shuts it quickly. Her arms, encased in huge puffed sleeves decorated with silver butterflies, float up then down like she's trying to fly away. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm just saying that if you left, I could survive."
"Don't be ridiculous, Phaestion. I'm not leaving. Now let's go downstairs and forget about all of this. It's too stupid." Her smile is quick and harsh. "This doesn't have anything to do with Marsius, does it?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Because you've been acting strange ever since he came back to England."
"Stranger than usual, you mean."
She laughs weakly and opens the door. "You don't want to talk about it, I guess. You always get sarcastic when you don't want to talk. Let's just go down."
"You go ahead. I think I will go back to bed. I'm very tired."
"That's a good idea. Sleep, and I'll see you later." A kiss to my forehead then the door whispers shut behind her.
There's an oak chair padded with red velvet near the window and I sit in it, taking an apple from a nearby bowl. Its skin is soft and slightly wrinkled, like an old woman's breast, and the juice spills out, thick and frothy. I lap it up and look out at the dull brown waves of earth that spit up the occasional stony building or crabbed grey tree.
So Clifford left the note for Marsius in the cathedral. It's not entirely a surprise, I guess. With Elizabeth dead, Mary in her place, Clifford with Marsius' help can rise up the way he wants. Everyone, it seems, is in bed with Clifford. Everyone but me. That almost makes this easier.
But not easy enough.
"Phaestion! You startled me."
I'm leaving the private chapel and nearly walk into Clifford. I hate being this close to him, smelling the pomade he uses in his hair, the musky warmth that billows from his velvet tunic. "Deal with it."
"Fine." He backs away with a horse's quick, nervous steps. "Sorry."
"I'm on my way somewhere, Phaestion. Can't this wait?"
"I want to talk about Aphra."
He's caught between panic and defiance. "What about her?"
"I know you two are close," I say. He's ready to deny it and I shake my head. "Close as in you're fucking her. I saw it, you sac of shit."
"And? You're not going to tell me to stay away from her, are you? Because I won't. Because I deserve a woman like Aphra. She's beautiful and--"
"Shut up and listen to me." His mouth clamps closed like a rabbit trap. No wonder she likes him. "If you hurt her, ever, I'll cut off your balls and feed them to you." When I reach between his legs, twisting roughly, he yelps like a wounded dog. "Understand?"
"You don't own her. You can't even satisfy her. I love her." He's defiant, his face tight with annoyance and pain.
"You don't even know her." I twist again. "Now get out of here."
His thin lips skewed, one hand on his balls, he scuttles down the hall, doubtless planning my murder.
It shouldn't have taken me this long, but I've got a history of blindness. This has never been about Elizabeth. Clifford has paid Marsius to kill me. That's how he can afford this house, the house that Henry took along with all the land. That's why he said I deserved what I had coming to me. That's why Marsius has gotten close to me.
He's going to kill me so Clifford and Aphra can be together.
I stand there, stunned and stupid. That has to be it. Has to.
A flurry of maids rushes past. "The Queen's here. It's the Queen."
I'm the last one to the dining room, and the Queen is not amused. Her powdery red eyebrows arch and her pointed chin juts out, while she raps the table with her fan. "Lord Phaestion. I'm so pleased you could join us."
"You can see me? Sorry. I thought I was invisible."
Someone titters, and a ladle cracks sharply against a gravy boat, while Marsius, across from me, is quiet. They can all go to hell. I look for the empty chair, and notice that the seating's wrong, because I'm never this close, just to Elizabeth's left. Walsingham, in dusty black, and Lee, who holds his knife like a lance, are several places down the line, and both glare at me.
Elizabeth has old yellow eyes, dead suns that she trains on me. "Your wife mentioned that you're unwell. Use that excuse wisely."
"Why? Is there a limit to excuses, like cats and lives? Does that mean I have eight left?"
"You're no cat, Phaestion. You have only one life. Use that wisely, too."
"Have some food, Phaestion." Beside me, Aphra signals to a trio of liveried servants who pile my plate with pheasant soaked in raspberry sauce, roasted mutton with oysters, and olive pie sprinkled with violet leaves.
The smell hits me hard, and I push it back. "I don't want it."
Aphra pats my hand, her wedding ring clicking against mine. "Come on, eat a little. It'll put you in a better mood. Or maybe the entertainment will pick you up."
"Yes, Marsius," the Queen says. "Where is the entertainment? I hope it lives up to your promises."
I knock the table with my wine glass. "Yes, Marsius, where's the entertainment? We're waiting."
He nods at his steward who takes a bottle from the sideboard and uncorks it. "Let's have some wine first. I had this brought specially from Madrid."
"Do you want me to test it?" I ask him.
"There's no need. It's a fresh bottle." He takes the cork from the steward and tosses it onto the table, where it rolls, leaving a red trail. "The first glass goes to the Queen, as always."
"Of course," I say. "What was I thinking?" That answers my question. Seems I wasn't the target after all. I'm almost disappointed.
The wine is black and viscous in the candlelight, and Elizabeth swirls it in her glass before raising it to her lips. "To my health." She smiles at her own toast and drinks deeply, while glasses clink around the table.
Nothing happens, of course. The wine's not poisoned. The Queen just won't be feeling too amorous for awhile. I relax, settling back in my chair and smile at Marsius, whose eyes are very soft and black right now. "Looks like it's a good vintage," I tell him. "I think I'll have some, too."
Then the Queen gives a little cough. "I don't...There's something wrong..." Her snowy face, normally wrinkled and pale like the flesh of my apple, reddens, and her fingers dig under the chains falling to her chest.
Marsius is immediately at her side. "Come on, Phaestion, Clifford. Let's get her into the next room so she can lie down."
When the others go to follow, the Queen raises a hand. "No. Be fine..." Her skin is hot as Marsius and I help her onto the couch in the parlor. Aphra and Clifford trail behind, standing uselessly near her feet.
"No! I need some vinegar," I tell Marsius as he kicks the door closed and locks it. "It's urgent! Get one of your servants to bring some. If we purge it now..."
But it's too late. Her eyes are closing, those colorless eyelashes dropping heavily while her breath comes in quick, frantic gasps. Marsius goes to her, touches one paling cheek, and shakes his head. "She's dead."
"It's not possible. I know what I gave you. I don't understand." Then I do. He must've made a switch, given her real poison in place of my harmless potion. "You bastard!" I just stand there, panting, my fists clenched, while he stares at me. When he smiles suddenly, I lose it, lunging at him. He's not expecting this, and I pin him under me. "I never wanted her dead!"
He shoves me off, and I fall back, hitting my head, then he's on top of me. There's a loud crack as my weak ankle snaps. "Prove it," he says.
The pain is so sharp I can barely see. "I told her, you stupid fuck. I told her all about you. That first day. I sent her a letter with the youth elixir and told her you wanted to kill her."
He bangs my head against the floor. "That's bullshit! She would've told me."
"Why in hell would she tell you? You wanted to kill her!"
Aphra is wailing, a high-pitched sound and people start pounding on the door, while Clifford moves tentatively closer. "Does it really matter?" he asks. "She's dead. That's what we wanted, right? It's too bad, but it had to happen."
"It matters," Marsius hisses. "He's lying. He tried to poison her once before and--"
I punch him hard in the jaw, and his head rocks back. "I never tried to poison her! She's the Queen!"
He curses loudly, rubbing his chin. "Then how--"
"It was me," Clifford says proudly. "Phaestion didn't know. He never liked me, so I didn't ask him to help out. I just found out where he kept his poison and how to open his cabinet, then helped myself."
Twisting my neck, I look at Aphra, who's paler than the dead Queen. "You helped him," I say to her. "There's no way he would've been able to figure out the locking mechanism. Jesus, Aphra. You helped him."
"I'm sorry." Her voice is high and broke. "I'm so sorry, Phaestion. But I had to help him. He needed me. She never liked him, and he was so unhappy--"
"To be honest, my dear girl, I never cared much for you, either." Elizabeth sits up, adjusting her heavy skirts. "So, how did I do? I've always thought I'd make a good actor, if they weren't all a bunch of thieving whores."
"You were supposed to wait," Marsius tells her, while I stand there, my ankle throbbing, less sure of anything than I've ever been in my life.
Elizabeth sniffs. "This couch is uncomfortable. Oh, and Phaestion is telling the truth. He sent me a note saying how you were going to poison me, Marsius. It was quite a surprise. Here I thought you and I were so close."
"It was a play. It was a fucking play." I'm not surprised, not after the first shock. I should've known, though. Honesty scares us because it means change, and everything out there is changing, so we lie to keep ourselves safe. "And you're a spy," I say to him. "You're a goddamn spy and this whole thing has been a set-up."
"Very clever, Phaestion," Marsius says. "But you know what they say: like father, like son."
"You set me up." I keep saying it, stunned and confused. I can't look at Aphra, who's sobbing beside me, wet thick sobs that I haven't heard since I was a boy.
"I thought you were guilty." He gets up and stands over me. "You were going to send me to the hangman."
"Call your men, Marsius. It's been too long since I've had beheading. It's time to remind the people what happens to traitors." Our lives settled, she stands, a short, plump figure in yards of stiff green silk, her shriveled apple face creased in a smile.
Aphra screams like the sun is exploding.
I say nothing.
"Looks good," the Queen's physician says, prodding my ankle with a knobby finger. "You were lucky. It's healed perfectly--you won't have that limp any more."
It's hard to feel lucky after spending six weeks in bed, but I pay him his coin. "Thanks."
"It'll take you another few weeks before you're wrestling any bears, but you'll be fine. Better than new." He shrugs on his cloak then tugs down his hat, bows slightly and leaves.
Shortly afterward, my footman announces a second visitor. "Sir Henry Lee." His voice is fuller than usual, a bassoon now, because Lee's prowess at the tournaments and his extravagant style have made him a favorite everywhere.
Lee waits until the man's gone, then pulls a chair beside the bed. "Phaestion, we need to talk."
"I'm not ready to ride in any tournaments quite yet," I tell him, gripping a chair back for balance.
"That's not why I'm here."
I shift on the bed. "I figured."
"Have you heard from your wife lately?"
"If you mean since she escaped from house arrest, then no."
"Funny how that happened, isn't it? The guard swore up and down that no one had bribed him to let her out, although he disappeared a week later, and hasn't been seen since."
"Very funny," I say. "I can't imagine what happened."
"I heard a rumor that she caught a boat to America and is living in Virginia under a new name."
"Really? I hadn't heard anything."
"I'm thinking of having my men look into it. You know, Phaestion," he says, leaning forward, "it wouldn't take much to find her and bring her back, so she can face the executioner's axe."
"If you can find her."
"Oh, I've got men working for me everywhere. And your wife was such a pretty woman. It would be a damn shame if she lost her head."
I wait. Let him make his offer.
"There's something you can do," he says slowly, "to make sure it never happens."
"Come and work for the Queen."
It's not what I'm expecting. "What do you mean?"
"Like Marsius," he says. "You go where we send you to gather information, exchange documents."
"You want me to spy for you?"
"You've got the perfect cover. You've always been an outsider, and with the Queen imprisoning your wife, you've got the perfect excuse to change allegiances. And now with your foot healed, according to your physician, you're in a position to help us out. Your loyalty's without question, since you turned in Marsius, and it's not secret that...Well, that's your business. But we trust you."
"Do I have a choice?"
"You know, Phaestion, you might actually like it." Lee has a smooth, guileless face, and a grandfather's white beard, which makes him seem even more reasonable. The devil will look like this, like a benign god. What's worse, is that he makes sense. "We'll pay you, and you'll be travelling to the Continent. You'll have our full license to act out all your fantasies, since the worse you behave, the more they'll trust you. You can drink, hang out at bawdy houses, rant about her Majesty's court, and they'll love you for it. You'll get to reinvent yourself, and save your wife. She won't be able to return, but she'll never be brought to trial here or in America. The Queen has already annulled the marriage, so like you, she'll get the chance for a new life."
"So I get to play the malcontent at your expense. Do I get to rail against you, too?"
"Rail all you want," he says. "As soon as you can walk, we're sending you off to France. It's a pretty easy assignment. You meet a contact in Paris and give him these documents." He reaches under his cloak and pulls out a packet of letters tied with a ribbon, tossing it into my lap. "You'll wait around until he gives you a new packet, which you'll bring back to England. I'll send someone by to collect them when you're back. Understand?"
"I think I can manage it."
Lee nods. "That sarcastic attitude will actually help. No one will have any problems believing you're dissatisfied with the Queen."
"Thanks. I'm always happy to be sarcastic at the court's expense."
"Here's some money for expenses." The leather pouch is stuffed with gold coins. "And one other thing: if you're caught, that's your problem. The Queen will deny everything."
"Are you sure you're up to this, Phaestion? I know the Queen believes in you, and Marsius vouched for you, but..."
"If I'm not, I'll be swinging from a tree in the center of Paris, so don't worry about it." It doesn't seem like such a bad idea, and I think he senses that.
"If you want my advice, you'll go out and get laid while you're there. It wouldn't hurt the reputation you want to cultivate, and you'll find the worse you act, the more they want you. Good luck with it."
Lee is right, as I find out in Paris. The job's easy, and being a bad-ass is even easier. It's even kind of fun. With my foot now perfectly healed, I can move easily, and find that I'm a decent fighter. You learn that pretty fast when you look like me. It's a good thing because I drink too much my first night and get into a bar brawl, the kind with upturned tables, shrieking women, flying mugs. I rage, shout and punch like a madman, impressing the hell out of the innkeeper's daughter, who helps me up to my room after it's over and rides my cock until dawn. She finds my scars sexy, she says, and licks each one, calling me her "bon fort Anglais." I like her for that, and because she has long blond hair, a tight little cunt, and her name's not Aphra but Berceline. When I leave, I give her a few gold coins and she gives me a kiss, and we're almost happy.
On my second assignment, I return to France but stay on the coast in Calais. This is more dangerous because so many Englishmen have settled there and some have heard of me. I tell them that my wife's a whore and so's the Queen, and soon men are slapping me on the back and buying me beer. I'm playing hazard, betting outrageously with handfuls of Lee's gold coins, a bar wench on my lap, when my contact shows up--young, with dark hair and a lean hard body. After I pass him the papers, he offers me his ass, and I take it. It's tight as Berceline's cunt, and he loves getting it rammed with my cock, so I fuck him every night for two weeks. As I'm packing to leave, he asks who Marsius is.
Back in England, I'm invited to the Saint George's Day festival at Whitehall. Lee wants to talk to me about my next assignment, which will be more complicated. In one of his terse notes, he reminds me that public bad behavior is encouraged to shore up my reputation, and I admit to myself that maybe this job isn't so bad after all. I walk into Whitehall where it's not hard to be an asshole because the memories are painfully sharp. The irony is that it makes me popular. The big-ruffed girls, feral with forced virginity, swarm me during one of the masques, the usual godawful fanfare with cavorting shepherds, a virginal heroine and a devoted lover. Their leader, Marquis of Hamilton's daughter Ann, slips her hand into my lap and jerks me off into a small lace square, which she tucks into her bodice, smiling all the while. "The girls will be so jealous," she says. "They're all talking about you."
Her words are familiar: Aphra said them months ago about Marsius. But I'm not Marsius. I'm not sure who I am right now. I do know that the court isn't good for me, so when I show up a month later for yet another fete, I keep my cock in my pants, call Walsingham a limp-dicked sycophant, knock over a table and shepherd or two.
At home, there's a letter from Aphra. She's subdued for most of it, but in the postscript there's a hint of the girl who used to come into my room after parties and tell me all about. "I've met a lawyer who's been around to see me a few times," she writes. "You'd like him. I think he's a good man. He says I'm the prettiest woman in America. And he bought me the nicest pin the other day." Then she asks me to send her things, because the Americans are hopelessly behind the fashions, so her clothes will be good as new.
When I have the servants pack her clothes, I also have them pack up my alchemical instruments. It's another lie I have to face. I'll never find gold, never find the Philosopher's Stone, never find God.
The next day I get a note from Lee, with my next assignment and another bag of gold because he was so impressed with my performance. He complains that Marsius isn't so ready to make a scene--he's been back from Spain for a week and still hasn't come to court.
Then I know what I have to do, and set out for Winchester.
"I hear," Marsius says, "that you're a big hit at court." It's May, and while I waited in this vine-covered parlor, he's been out walking in sun and wet earth. His hair is wild from the wind, there's mud on the edge of his doublet, and he smells like Easter.
"It doesn't mean anything. It never has. You know what it's like."
"Maybe in the beginning," I say. "But it was a dream, and I knew it. It was never about me. I like the job, but I think I'll stay away from court."
"So what do you want?" He leans against the doorway's marble column, arms crossed.
"I need to know if it was real."
"If what was?"
"Everything's always a test with you, Marsius, isn't it?"
"Is that what you wanted to know?"
"Yes." All of these goddamned questions, all of these goddamned hoops.
"Does it matter?" he asks.
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"You're here," Marsius says, "because you want to fuck me."
"That's part of it."
"Part? Come on, Phaestion. You want to prove how good you are. You've always wanted to prove how good you are."
"You want to keep it on that level? All right. Do you want me to prove it?"
When he walks out, I close my eyes, cold and dead like winter. I want to burrow into this red velvet chair, and turn to let the skin-soft fabric kiss my cheek. It doesn't help. Nothing will help. So I have two choices: huddle here, hurting like an orphan because he rejected me, or get off my ass and convince him that he's made a mistake. "Marsius," I call, storming into the hallway.
He's standing on the stairs, looking at me. "Are you coming, or what?"
I wonder then how I'm going to last when he can talk me off. "I just thought...Never mind."
It doesn't happen like I expect. I thought he'd kick the door shut behind us and fuck me hard against the wall, or bent over a chair. He doesn't play it that way, just tells me to sit while he rings for a servant and orders a bath, wine and fresh fruit, while I find a corner and a chair. I'm not me anymore, but who I was. Why did I think that would change? A quick hard fuck would've been so easy, and knowing Marsius, that's just why he doesn't do it.
While the servant rushes off to fill his order, Marsius rests against the window ledge and looks at me. "You can stay for awhile?"
"You've got a lot to prove," he says and flashes me that smile.
"I'll be heading to Paris when I'm finished here, but I don't have to leave for another day or two. So are you going to leave the curtains open like that?"
"Yes, Phaestion. The whole time."
There's a picture on the wall beside him, a man on horseback, tall and wide-shouldered like Marsius. The dark- haired woman is in this one, on the ground beside the rider and reaching up to him, smiling. "Your parents?" I ask.
"Before he went off. He was stupid, you know. Never told her what he was doing for Henry. I found out after he'd kept his mouth shut because he thought she was safer that way. But she would've wanted to know. She thought he didn't love her."
"But he did?"
"Sure. Underneath it all, my father was a very romantic man," he says. "He just didn't like to show it."
"So you don't hate him anymore, even though he hurt her?"
"Do you hate Aphra for what she did to you?"
"Sometimes. But if I'm honest, I have to take some of the blame. I used her to make me feel better. She was the only one who ever tried, and I sucked her dry." It's not bad, talking like this. I can almost pretend we're not in his bedroom, about to fuck for the first time. "You must think I'm pretty pathetic."
"You wouldn't be here if I did."
"And why do you want me here?"
"So I can get you out of my system."
There's a knock, then a row of servants bustles in. Some move the tub before the fire and pour in buckets of steaming water, while others set up a table with wine and food. No one acknowledges me, although I do catch a few smirks. It's those smirks that make it real; it's outside me now, beyond me. He's going to be inside me, and I'm going to be inside him. Then it will be over.
The lock clicks with an aggressive finality, and Marsius walks over to the hearth. "You want to go first?"
"You can," I tell him.
His clothes come off so quickly it's like a snake shedding his skin, then he's naked and better than a fantasy, with those long legs and rounded ass. His cock is thick, a little swollen already, while the hair around it is black as his eyes, and there's a pale scalloped scar on his right shoulder like the edge of a cloud, his only flaw. "How did you get it?" I try not to think about my own scars, which aren't discreet and pretty like his, scars he'll see soon enough. Maybe if we go slow, the light will die. It was never this bright when I slept with the others, just a few sputtering candles to thin the dark.
He stands easily in the sun. "It's not what you think. Nothing romantic. I had these two idiots cousins, older than me. One day when I was seven, they locked me in an empty wine casket in the cellar. I got this trying to break out."
His story disturbs me, and so does his comment. "You think I romanticize you?"
"Yes," he says, stepping into the water. "That's why you want me."
"That's what you think? You're wrong. I wanted you when I thought you were going to poison the Queen. I wanted you when it turned out you worked for her. Whatever you do, Marsius, I want you." The door is made of solid oak, with a black iron strong bar, hinges and lock. It's locked, but I can open it because the key's still there. Just a quick turn of the key, then twist of the black knob, while he's naked and wet, and I'd be free.
"I'm done." There are light splashes, the soft muffled sound of the towel against his skin.
The carpet's plush and shows a leopard and a hawk twined together near the tub's clawed feet. My clothes fall on his, near the leopard's tail, then I'm in the water, which is still scalding hot and slick with some spicy oil that smells good enough to drink. I need a drink because my throat's dry like summer grass, and I slide under the water as a distraction. When I surface, he's there with a glass, a clear one with a blue stem, and the wine is rich and purple, thick with coriander and crushed cloves. The first sip glides down hot and sweet, and I lean back, closing my eyes. Marsius laughs, then walks away, and I hear him at the drapes. While he's padding back to the bed, I get out of the water, drying off with harsh jabs of the fire-warmed towel. The hot water has reddened the scars and they glow, gruesome and loud in the goddamn bright sun. "You like to humiliate me, Marsius,don't you?"
"How am I doing that?"
I throw the towel down and walk to the bed, where he's lying on his side, watching me, always intense. "This whole goddamn openness. The lights. The bath. You, looking like that. Me, looking like this."
"I told you a long time ago that I wanted to fuck you. Nothing's changed."
"Let's do it, then." I'm not prepared when he lunges, knocking me onto the floor, where I land painfully hard. "What in hell are you doing?"
He's straddling me, the head of his cock brushing my stomach, knees tight against my thighs. "You want to fuck or not?"
"I want it, but maybe you and I have different ideas about foreplay."
"Oh, I don't think so." He raises one hand, and I see the velvet ropes from the curtains. "But there's only one way you'll let me do what I want."
"You want to tie me up?"
"You're quick, Phaestion. I'll give you that."
"Go to hell."
"Are you saying no? Doesn't feel like you're saying no." He rubs his ass against my hardening cock. "Feels like you want it."
"Why can't we fuck like normal people?"
"Because we're not normal people," he says. "Now, are you going to let me or not?"
"Fine. If that's what you want..." I'm not fooling him. I see his smile, and he reaches behind, grabbing my cock.
"Tell me you want it."
I'm tempted to lie, but I'm too hard now and his hand feels too good. "I said yes. Now are you going to do it or spend all day talking about it?"
He gets up, his cock jutting out, and nods toward the bed. "Lie down. On your back. Hands above your head. Legs wide open."
"We're not on the battle field right now. I'm not one of your soldiers." I do what he says, though, because some needs aren't worth fighting.
"This isn't how I fuck my soldiers." He climbs over me again and binds my wrists together, then leans forward to wind the ends through a gap in the headboard. "Not long and slow and hot like I'm going to fuck you." I swallow the moan, while he bends over me and licks my ear lobe, and another one grows inside me. His chest, hot like an animal's, presses against mine. "I'm going to make you come so hard."
"What are you trying to prove, Marsius?"
"Can't you just give up for once? Stop thinking." He's licking me again, tickling my neck, but supporting himself with his arms on either side of me, so the main contact's from his tongue and his cock, which keeps sliding across my thighs.
If I stop thinking, a Pandora's box inside me will open up, and I'm not ready for it. "Make me stop."
"Everything's always a challenge with you." With his teeth, he tugs the skin just above my collarbone hard enough to bruise, then licks it better. "I knew you'd fight me even in bed."
"I'm not fighting."
"Of course not." He kisses me fast, a burst of pressure that has me arching for him. "That's better. Show me you want it."
"So you can feel powerful?"
His thumb flattens my nipple, rubbing in circles. "Is that so wrong?"
"Not wrong. Just...God."
His mouth has replaced his thumb, and he's sucking hard now. "You're going to lose this game," he says, raising his head, then he's back on my nipple, teasing it with his teeth and tongue until there's a sweet burn in my balls.
When he moves to the other one and does the same thing, I almost think he's right. "So this is just about winning?" Maybe if I don't look at him, at his flushed face and half-closed eyes, I'll have a better chance, so I study the canopy, the swirls of red silk and darker velvet. He starts licking my shoulders, my neck, my chest, then lowers himself to suck on my hip, and I've forgotten my question when he answers.
"I like to win, especially when winning means fucking you quiet." He's using his hands more now, splayed fingers squeezing my thighs, the sides of my ass, never my cock, which lies silver-tipped inches from his mouth.
"I'm not going to beg you," I says, "if that's what you want."
"You're so close that you're already thinking of begging? Good."
I do want to beg. I want to beg him to take my cock in his mouth and suck the past right out of me. I want to beg him to give my his cock so he can fuck me new. But I can't tell him that, even while he's pulling my thighs apart and sucking the skin on either side of my balls, making my bruised hips thrust. Bodies always betray you, and that's what I tell him. "You're not winning anything if I come. Any body could make me feel like this. Any hot mouth."
A bite follows, sharp and deep. "I know you're lying," he says over my moan. "You wouldn't be here if it was true."
"I betrayed you."
He bites me again on the side of my ass, then reaches up to pinch my left nipple. "I know."
"I hate them, and I did it anyway."
With his palm, he lifts my balls to lick underneath. His hand is hotter than I am, and I melt into him. "I know. You thought I was worse. But..."
"Oh Jesus." He's curving his tongue around my balls now, wetting them, tasting them. "But what?"
"But you had to know that they couldn't get me, since there was no poison. I could deny everything, talk my way out of it." He bends my knees and moves closer, suckling me, and I feel the pull at the base of my cock, which rises off my stomach. "Look how much you want it."
"You betrayed me."
"No. Someone had tried to poison her, and you were a good bet." He pushes my knees further back until they're on my chest, and spreads me wide. "I couldn't tell you I was spying on you. Defeats the purpose." His tongue enters me hot and deep like an arrow, and my whole body shakes.
He's fucking me with his tongue now, in and out, wetting my hole for his cock. The room fades around me--I can barely see anything except his dark head moving between my legs--and my wrists are sore from tugging. His tongue's so deep now, holding me in place, and I'm caught on it, trapped, open, desperate. Then it's gone and I'm empty, close to breaking. But I can't, because I'm winning now, with my words scratching him, and I try not to smirk. "That's not what I mean," I say, "about the betrayal."
"What are you talking about? Goddammit, Phaestion, my tongue is up your ass and you still think I was trying to fuck you to get a confession?" He moves so fast I figure I miscalculated and twist my head from a punch, but instead he swallows my cock so deep he must be almost choking.
"Yes, that's good. Keep doing that." He's mine now, sucking hard now, up and down, loud and wet, grasping my balls around the base and tugging them lightly, then dragging his tongue possessively over them, tasting and learning, before my cock slides down his throat again. The heat's blooming through me, hotter and hotter again, fiery now, Copernican sun blazing and--
He pulls off to straddle me again but lower this time, so the head of his cock almost touches mine. "Nice try. I forget about the sense of humor sometimes. I've got to watch that," he adds, like he's making a mental note of it.
"I don't know what you're talking about." I don't know much of anything, not when he's rubbing our cocks together, and maybe I will beg because it's just sex. That's it. Just sex.
"Of course you don't know, Phaestion." And he kisses me. Under the wine, under the coriander and cloves there's the saltiness of my cock as he slides his tongue over my mine, and I open for it, for the cock I really want but can't ask for. I take it and love it, then shake my head until he stops. "Ready to beg?"
"When I was in France..." I break off and look up at the canopy over us, while he goes quiet. "When I was in France I fucked this boy. Every night. I'd bend him over the table in my room and fuck him until he came. By the time the two weeks was up, the table was oiled with his come."
"You think you can make me jealous? You think I care that you fucked some little slut?" He kneels over me, one hand painfully tight on my head. "I know you thought about me every time you rammed it in. Every time you came in him, you came in me." He's reaching down for his cock, then traces my lips with it, while I lick up the salt. "You know, Phaestion, you talk too much." And he pushes the head in.
To have him there, the tight distended skin that's slick and smooth like the icicles that hung from the rafters at my grandmother's house, only hot and huge, filling my mouth, but sliding in the same smooth way over my tongue. I lick at him, making noise, and look up to see him arcing, his body curved back from the pleasure of my mouth. I have him like he had me, controlled with flicks of my tongue, and I try everything I can think of to drive him crazy, fast and slow licks, into his slit and around the head, hard sucking and softer, hot tastes of him. When he backs away, his cock gleaming, so wet from my mouth it's almost dripping, I can't stop the moan.
Marsius kneels and slaps my thigh, but doesn't say anything, not at first. I'm not sure he can. "I know what you need." He gets up and goes to a cabinet, taking out a small green jar and tossing it on the bed, then comes back and puts his mouth to me again, penetrating me with his tongue, harder now, more insistent, resting one hand behind my right thigh before sliding down to cup my balls, rolling them roughly. With his other hand he opens the jar and pours some of the liquid onto my ass, where it dribbles into me, cool and ticklish. He starts rubbing it in around my hole, just circling, not entering.
I rock into his finger, try to get it inside me, but he just laughs and keeps stroking. "You know," I tell him, "you're right."
His finger slips a bit, and the tip almost goes in. "About what?"
"Sometimes I pictured you bent over for me," I say, "that it was you hot and spread for me." There's a quick, sharp sting as he bites my ass. "Sometimes I imagined it was me there, face down, offering my ass for your cock."
He growls against my balls, then bites me again. "Tell me."
"I thought about your cock sliding into me the way mine slid into him: really slowly, stretching me open, my cock pressing against the rough wood of the table."
That's when Marsius takes my cock in his mouth, and I can't tell him any story, can't do anything but live through his mouth on me. His face is covered in oil, shining and perfect, and I can smell it now, flavored with apples. "Untie me. Untie me, or I swear I'll kill you when you untie me later." My shoulders hurt with the strain as I try to break free. "Untie me now."
"Are you begging, Phaestion?"
"No. I'm ordering you. You want me to beg? Put your cock in me and make me beg."
"Soon," he says, and goes back to my cock.
It's worse now, because he's doing a visual tease, with his tongue sliding along the shaft of my cock, exploring a blue vein, circling the head like I'm a map of the new world. The pad of his thumb is pressing into me now, while he lets my head feel the slick sucking heat of his tongue, the roof of his mouth, the inside of his cheek, the back of his throat. It's texture after texture, and my cock, so sensitive and ready now, accepts every one, seeks them out, only he holds me down with that thumb that's inching higher, opening me...Oh God. A quiver starts somewhere, spreads to my thighs, my cock, through me until I'm vibrating for him, until there's no one but him and there never was, until I'd beg but I can't speak and the only word I know is his name.
Then he stops and stares up at me through those thick lashes, his lips a little swollen and curved upward. "Did you say something?"
"Untie me." My voice gives away too much, and he nuzzles my cock some more, tongue lashing out. I repeat it, forcing down the throatiness. "Untie me."
"Why should I untie you? You love it." More licking, while his thumb goes deeper.
"Because if you don't," I say, "I'll know you're scared."
"I'm keeping you tied up so you won't be able to stop me, not because I'm scared."
"And because you won't lose control if I can't touch you. You want a fair fight, Marsius? Then let me touch you."
"Then untie me. I'm not going to stop you. I'm not going to do anything but touch you the way I want to touch you."
"Fine," he snaps. "I'm not scared. That's bullshit." And he climbs over me, fingers digging into the knots.
"Don't stop me when I try touch you."
"Good." My right hand's free and I take his cock in it, stroking with measured deliberation.
His whole body jerks, and he goes to stop me. "Jesus, Phaestion..."
"Feels good, doesn't it? But you said you wouldn't stop me. Remember that." While he unties my other hand, I lean over and suck his cock, holding him at the base of his cock and stroke him up to my mouth. There's so much power in doing it, in making him moan like he's hurting, that it's almost better than having him do it to me. When my second hand's free, I fumble around behind me until I find the jar, then open it, splashing the oil across his chest, so that it trickles down over his thighs, the dark hair around his cock, his balls, then I start to lick it off, getting it on my face, my hands, my chest. It's tart and sweet at the same time, and I miss his skin, but the slickness of my fingers on him makes up for it, especially when they glide down under his balls and into him, two of them, right into his ass.
The sound he makes...It's like a goddamn animal, so low and vicious, and his cock pulses so hard I think he's going to come in my mouth. I move my fingers slow as I can, because this has to last. It has to be better than anything he's ever had. Better than..."Your first time. Who was it with?"
"God, I could kill you," he says with a groan. "Do you ever stop thinking?"
"It keep things in perspective."
"You say I like to test you, but you never stop testing me."
I move my fingers and he shudders. "It's safer that way."
"Safer? If you wanted it safe, you wouldn't be here in my bed with your fingers up my ass. You would've stayed away, fucking pretty boys who do whatever you tell them." He's sweating, and it mixes with the oil on his skin, all gold and black like a statue in a forgotten church.
He takes a long, shaky breath as my fingers keep stroking. "It was a maid in my mother's house, all right? In a little pantry off the kitchen. I didn't do anything. She got me hard, lifted her skirts and rode me until I came. Satisfied?"
His slick cock slides into my mouth and for awhile there's no sound but my lapping and his pleasure. His hands are in my hair as he rocks into me, faster and faster, and I know he loves it. I know he loves it so much he's going to feed me a mouthful of hot--
I'm on my back, windless. "You bastard! You said you wouldn't stop me."
The kiss is unrestrained, almost vicious, and I give it back, just as vicious, just as desperate, wrapping my arms around him, grinding my cock against him, and it's not just sex anymore, too intense and brutally raw, and I want to take him, to be the one in him, and I roll over him, he rolls back, and our slick flesh slaps, while his teeth sink into my shoulder and he's inside me, winning, and it doesn't matter any more because his cock is huge and I'm dying from it, from the look on his face. He's stroking my cock now, and it's too much, like staring at the sun or having the world shift under your feet, and--
That's when I say it, just as I come in his hand, come all over him, all over me. I can hear the words echoing, flying up like birds or angels and I want to stop them only I can't, just keep coming, thundering it out, semen and bare words, until he bites me hard enough to draw blood and comes while I bleed.
Marsius is sleeping when I leave, and no one stops me when I collect my horse from the stable. Instead of returning to London, I let the spring wind push me east toward Dover to catch a ship straight to France. I'm not running away. It's just stupid to stay, because I'm not like him. That's always been part of the problem.
I want to be Marsius, and I'm not. I've got this weak core, and I need something outside myself to stabilize it. I need him, and he needs no one. That's what I want: to need nothing, to be satisfied with what's around me. I've got an old man's view of the world. Marsius says I romanticize him, and maybe he's right. Maybe I'm more like poor dead Clifford than I know, living in the past. I want a world where things make sense, where you believe what you know, and know what you believe.
I want to be God and will my wishes into being.
Paris is annoyingly beautiful. The rain of the past few days has flushed away the grime and the air billowing past the open shutters smells blue and pure like the Seine that sways in the distance. I've been here three weeks, and I leave tomorrow, not back to England but to Italy this time. As Lee explains in a letter, my duties are expanding beyond a simple courier, which pleases me. It doesn't hurt that I'm starting to respect him and the Queen. Their plans are always smart and detailed, with a minimum risk to all parties involved, even the unwitting Frenchmen who gossip about their rulers. And I'm glad to go somewhere warm, old and beautiful.
I put up my feet on the other chair at this table by the window and pour myself some cider. Gulls, fat with fish, fly above the colonnaded towers of Notre Dame, while the sun, falling low in the west, lazily smears the horizon pink and gold. Someone's playing a flute in the street, an old tune that floats up with the summery perfume from the flowering trees that line the streets in this quarter. I'm tempted to go downstairs into the bar and find a warm body for the night, but I don't, just drink my cider from the pewter cup. It tastes fresh and sweet like the air, and I close my eyes. It's that perfect moment where the world's so clean and bright but with a thread of melancholy, because you'll never see this again. A woman's voice joins the flute, and I think of Aphra, who looked like the singer sounds. I miss her, especially tonight. She would have saved me from the loneliness.
As for Marsius...I touch my shoulder where he bit me. The skin's only a little tender now, a little blue, and when it's gone it will be over. In the meantime, maybe I'll go down and find a man with curly dark hair and broad shoulders, and fuck him one last time, get him out of my veins for good. First, though, I'll have some more cider and watch the sun die.
I tug the bell that rings the innkeeper Pierre, who will send up a new pitcher, some roast chicken and the bread his wife makes every morning. When the knock comes, I stay seated, still staring outside. "Come in." The door opens, then shuts, and he walks in. "Just leave it here on the table. There's some money in the bowl beside the bed."
"I hope the table's clean. I hear they can get pretty sticky sometimes."
I've had too many dreams not to be scared that he'll disappear when I look over. But there he is, grinning at me, tall and very real, with a leather bag in one hand and a laden tray in the other. He drops the pack and places the food and drink in front of me.
"Do I still get to keep the coins?"
"Why are you here, Marsius?"
"The same reason you showed up at my house three weeks ago." He's already taking his clothes off, throwing them in a pile beside the bed. "You going to sit there all night or what?"
I stand, shaking my head. "You don't get it. I showed up there because I'm in love with you."
"I know that," he says, and walks across slatted floorboards that should be a wide field, a plain of blood.
He's solid in my arms, strong and forceful as always, and I keep my eyes open, watching him the way that he watches me. And I start to believe.
Marsius lets me take him against the table, and we spill the cider everywhere, sweet liquid splashes that run into the cracks and grooves of the table, the floor, and shatter a plate or two, explosions of blue-trimmed crockery. I rest my cheek against his slick back while I fuck him, my arms around his waist, one hand stroking his big cock. He says things while I do it, things he'll never say when I'm not inside him, or he's not inside me, and I slow down so that it never ends, that he'll keep saying them. But some things are inevitable, and you have to give in, especially when your lover's coming in your hand, the sun's breathing gold into your eyes, and it doesn't matter that God is dead because you've found someone better.
It doesn't end there, either. This is Marsius, after all, who loves a good fight, so he takes me face to face with a ravaging force, and we watch each other while his cock slams into me and the creaky old table crashes into the wooden wall loud enough to disturb the people in the room beneath us, who bang shoes on the ceiling and shout obscenities.
Or maybe I'm wrong and they're not shouting in anger.
Maybe they're praying.