by Thamiris

by Thamiris

"In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade  death."  --Michael Platiensis

In the winter of 1451, under a starry sky, a dance began in Siena.  That first night, all the townspeople were invited to join, and soon a thousand had.  Merchants and princes, peasants and priests, swayed to its mortal rhythm, then swooned in their partner's bony arms, last breath exhaled in a rapturous sigh.  They left behind corpses with bruised and blackened skin, red welts at the throat and groin, like bites from a cruel lover.  Ecstacy and oblivion at once.  Easy to be jealous of a death like that, when life, the real monster, made you bury friends who leaked sunflower-yellow pus from every orifice, like overripe fruit squeezed by the hand of God.

Every day, wailing mourners snaked through the town's cobbled streets.  Four black-robed monks headed the procession.  Three shuffled along, bent under the weight of a wooden coffin, its lid nailed tightly shut.  The fourth held an image of the arrow-filled saint Sebastian, who stared down plagues in Milan and Genoa.  Around each man's neck hung a cloth sachet filled with lemon leaves to ward off killing fumes that stank of putrefaction and wormy earth.  Squinting, you could see that air hovering above them, a green cloud like a demon's breath.  Or maybe it was God after too many green apples.  Someone had to be stealing from that tree; new knowledge was everywhere.

Even while the monks demanded mercy, whorish Death thinned the cortege, gathering more lovers to his fleshless breast.  Along the line of grief, shops stood empty, often with their wares decaying in windows like haunted eyes: hard, round loaves of bread, gnawed by rats' teeth; olives, dry and wrinkled like a drowned witch's eyes; bouquets of black-hearted poppies and wild yellow day irises, crumbling to brown dust.  But the apothecaries stayed open, selling poultices, sachets, and charms at outrageous prices.  The barber-surgeons conspired with them, recommending mustard seeds to sting the plague's eyes, and a linen bungful, once worth pennies, now cost more than an enameled cross.  People traded with the seeds, gambled with them, like they were coins or marbles.

Pardoners joined the act--and it was an act, like the Commedia dell'arte, with all the pathos and high comedy, the pageantry and trickery.  They set up shop on every second corner, selling miracles.  "The thigh of Saint Catherine herself," one would shout, pulling a pig's bone from his leather satchel. "One touch, for a mere handful of gold, and you'll be safe to Doomsday."  True, if safe meant dead.

The moans of lovers sometimes drowned the pardoners' cries, as couples rutted in every alley.  They stood with hands splayed against brick walls, surrendered, while someone, anyone, it didn't matter who, just please fuck me don't stop can't think all dead my father my mother my son.  The best pleasure hurt because it quieted the panic, better than wine.  People opened wide for that, too, emptied wine cellars, cleaned out vintners' shops, pouring streams down gullets until they collapsed like corpses.  Even in their stupor, they sucked the bottles' green mouths, like giant babies, like swimmers in Lethe.

In the cemeteries, hunchbacked gravediggers worked ceaselessly, faces grimy and smeared with sweat.  Their shovels moved in time with the bells of Torre del Mangia.  A hundred churches picked up the rhythm, clanging a warning to the countryside beyond the city wall.  By ordinance of the council, the city gates had been locked.  Around the gates, a fire burned, a perfect gold circle, like a ring of hell, or a wedding band.  Til death...

The terrified people fed this ring, so maybe it was more of a mouth, a huge, fiery hell-mouth that greedily ate the offerings tossed from the ramparts.  They sacrificed the ugly, the dead, the diseased, but also all items contaminated with memory.  So bile-smeared sheets burned beside twists of dried roses, bottles of let blood beside tiny baptismal gowns, fetid bandages beside button-eyed dolls--and anything the dead had touched, because poison leaked from their fingers.   Even pitted fruit, said by some to be the plague's cause, fell into the flames.  The devil lived in the tiny cracks and crevices, and for an instant, when bursts of peach, cherry, and apricot sweetened the air, you could hear the devil scream.

But the flaming mouth liked faith best, and ate that with a blue-tinged smile.

High on a chalky hill, from a skinny lancet window in the tallest tower of the Palazzo Valdimontone, Cardinal Guerradio watched his town die.  God's idea of irony: throw a bone to the exiled cardinal by sending him to Siena, then kill everyone off.  Someone should tell God that cosmic irony peaked when a bunch of hammer-happy mortals did a number on his son.  Not that Guerradio cared about people's suffering.  Everyone suffered.  Suffer on Earth, be rewarded in Heaven.  Fine in theory, but by the time Death came calling, you blamed God for the torture, and had racked up enough sins to guarantee a very hot eternity.

Today had not gone well.  When faith disappeared, the people looked for a scapegoat.  With God too distant, what better target than him?  Walking down the Duomo's wide nave after the morning service, he'd overheard two poulterers blaming him for the pestilence, a man and wife, fat and juicy as the chickens they sold for a king's ransom.  What profit the Gemellis didn't eat, they wore: stuffed into matching tawny velvet, like overripe peaches, every inch of visible skin shrouded with dead men's gold.  They'd shown up late for mass, strutting down the nave, necks extended, heads bobbing and weaving.  See and be seen.  And now the hypocrites had the balls to cluck disapproval over him.  The plague--cluck--was God's punishment on the city for accepting a cardinal exiled from Rome. Guerradio's handsome exterior--cluck--hid vile corruption.  Wherever he walked, a shadow--cluck--fell like night.

Pretty poetic for chicken farmers, Guerradio thought, and went to pass them, content with a hard stare.  But then the light glinted off the male Gemelli's necklace: a choker of twisted gold wire, with an eagle dangling from the center.  Only last week it was around the neck of a man who'd just buried his wife and infant daughter, leaving him alone with a young son.  A fair exchange: a family heirloom for a chicken.

When the couple stared back, eyes hard and unblinking, Guerradio noticed something else.  "If I'm the devil," he said into the husband's ear, "then you should've shown some respect.  It's too late now."  And pointed to the spreading, blue-black bruise on Gemilli's plump arm, revealed by the fallen peach-colored sleeve.

Gemelli turned milky and sank to the inlaid floor.  His wife caught him, tears pearling in her eyes, while her horrified shrieks flew like ravens--since chickens can't fly--to the gold stars on the vaulted ceiling, if not to the ears of God.  Guerradio left them like that, locked in a tumbled embrace: a pieta worthy of Masaccio, if he'd developed a sense of humor.  Outside on the crescent of steps, he paused.  A fragrant breeze left from last night's storm swirled around him, blowing his scarlet robes.  Breathing deeply, Guerradio closed his eyes.  Was that a sign?  Was God finally going to punish the guilty and--

Mud splattered his cheek, running in thick, streaky brown smears down his cope.  A cluster of boys gathered stonily before him, unflinching even when he advanced.  They waited until the last second before tearing around a corner, all except one, who slowed, turning back.  Skinny, with a bird's face set in stiff lines, he wore the rich burgundy livery of the tanners' guild, oversized clothes taken from a dead father, uncle or neighbor.  His dirt-smeared fingers identified him as the culprit.  Another face-off, then the hostility broke, and the boy's face became disordered, mouth skewed and lashes batting tears.

"Stop killing us," he pleaded, before hurrying after the others.

Back at the palace, Guerradio kicked open the doors, shouting for a bath to be drawn, then stormed upstairs, servants scuttling crablike from his path.  The muddy red cope felt weighted with lead, and he threw it across the room, just as the servants arrived.  While one gathered his soiled clothes and the others dumped steaming buckets of water into the copper tub, Guerradio tugged three times on the silken cord beside his bed.  One short pull, two long.  They all knew what it meant, and minutes later came a discreet knock at his door.

Amadeo entered first, the fallen angel with his fair hair and a favorite's smug smile.  His mother, Guerradio's cousin, sent her son here a year ago, for guidance, when the boy claimed to see a dead saint.  And Guerradio had guided him alright.  The first night, he'd gone to Amadeo's bed and taught him about true ecstasy.  Now, the boy did whatever Guerradio told him, with whomever.  No more visions.

The second boy, Baccho, was another cousin, more distant, and no visionary.  The little slut had arrived at the palace a practiced cock-sucker.  With his taste for the good life, he'd go far in Rome, especially with that talented mouth and pretty face.  And he knew his place, unlike Amadeo, who'd started to get ideas about his importance in Guerradio's life.  Even now, Amadeo stood too close, and Guerradio stepped away.

With the last bucket empty, the servants left, and the boys, familiar with the routine, stripped quickly.  While Guerradio stepped into the tub, sighing as the water crept over him, Baccho opened the cedar chest, removing towels, a small blue bottle, and a yellow bar of sandalwood soap.  When he returned, Amadeo helped Guerradio slide down until his hair was wet, until water ran in silvery lines down his body.  Neither boy asked about the mud, not even when, reverentially, they smoothed the soap over his skin, leaving no spot untouched.

Their practiced fingers only irritated him today, and Guerradio stood so abruptly that waves splashed over the tub's sides, wetting the edge of the Virgin's blue dress in a nearby tapestry.  His skin felt raw, vulnerable, and he stepped onto the sable fur before the fireplace.  "Don't bother," he snapped, when the boys reached for the towels.  "Oil me."

Baccho broke the bottle's seal, pouring amber liquid onto his palm, before handing it to Amadeo.  They passed it back and forth, covering every inch of him with oil, not stopping until Guerradio gleamed like a bronze Bellini.  Their skin also began to glow, as the oil dribbled down their arms, spilled onto their legs, collected like liquid gold between their thighs.  The aroma of crushed peaches filled the room, clean and sweet, like an orchard in summer.

Irritation flowed muddy and thick inside him, so Guerradio locked his fingers around the boys' skulls, directing them to their knees.  When they sank willingly, lips parted, their eagerness offended him, even as his cock filled with blood.  He began to thrust with deliberate force into a warm mouth, pushing the other one down to his balls.  Pleasure came, though oddly cool and distant, like the view of Heaven from earth, and his frustration grew.  "Stand against the wall," he said to Amadeo.  To Baccho: "On your knees behind me.  Use your tongue while I fuck him."

As Amadeo positioned himself against the wall, head bent in supplication, his hands left a golden sheen on the ivory inlay.  "Dirty slut," Guerradio said, spreading him wide with one hand.  He entered easily, and the muscles rippled along the boy's back. He wanted to slap him, but the angle was wrong, so Guerradio bit one smooth shoulder.  Amadeo had trembled like that the first time, thinking his god was fucking him.  For weeks afterward, Amadeo believed the nightly visits were more visions.  By the time he understood, he didn't care, and let Guerradio fuck him anywhere: against a striped column in the cathedral, in the narrow confessional, even on the altar, dripping with consecrated wine.  When a warm tongue penetrated him, Guerradio, remembering, almost began to enjoy himself, although another ghostly memory rattled somewhere deeper.

Then Amadeo moaned, "Fuck me harder, Guerradio. You know you want to.  You know you love it."

With a sharp hiss, he shook off the boys and moved to the massive bed, falling onto his back, his cock red and hard.  "Ride me," he told Baccho.  "Now."

While the boy climbed up and slowly lowered himself onto Guerradio, Amadeo moved to the bedside, hair tumbling around his flushed, confused face.  "Eminence, what should I do?"

"Nothing," he said sharply.   "Put your hands behind your back and watch us.  Move, and I'll excommunicate you."   Quiet obedience followed, although the boy's cock was swollen and leaking silver drops.  After that, Guerradio refused to look at him.

It took him an hour to come.  By then, sweat pooled on the red silk sheets, and the boy impaled on him whimpered incessantly, the latest burst of his semen drying on Guerradio's chest.  Beside him, he could hear Amadeo's soft, jealous moans, but the pleasure stayed hollow.  Shoving Baccho off, Guerradio sat up, turning at last to Amadeo, whose hips swayed with his need to come.  "Lie beside me," he said to Amadeo.  "He'll suck you."

With a relieved sigh, the boy scrambled up and lay down, legs spread wide, head always turned toward Guerradio, who propped himself up on one elbow.  "Do it slowly," he said to Baccho.   "Get him ready to come, but stop just before he does.  Then I'll tell you what to do."  He stroked Amadeo's nipples, feeling him curve, then gasp, as Baccho's tongue found the head of his cock.   "Slower," Guerradio warned.  "He's already close.  As slowly as you can."  To Amadeo, trembling beside him:  "I want you to beg me for it.  Not him.  He means nothing.  I control this game.  Beg me to let you come."  He put his face close to the boy's, staring into his blue eyes.  Eyes that had seen a saint.  "Beg me."

"Oh god... I ... Please.  Let me come."   The words floated from him like a broken prayer.

"That's not good enough.  I want more."   But he hated Amadeo, too, for giving in to him.

Amadeo groaned.  "I dream about you.  Always.  That you love me and only me.  And every night when you don't call me, Baccho comes into my bed and I pretend it's you."

"Better."  Worse.

"Yes.  Oh yes... I loved you since the first time, when you sucked me all night, and I thought you were an angel, or another saint.  Your hair was so soft, and your mouth even softer.  But your cock... It was hard.  Harder than anything I'd ever felt."  Each breath faltered, and he rocked into the mouth on his cock.  "I'm going to--"

When Amadeo arched, quivering in the air, Guerradio pushed aside Baccho's busy mouth.   "That's enough," he told the boy, who sat up, licking his lips.  To Amadeo, whose eyes and mouth were open, vulnerable with disbelief:   "Go back to your room.  Don't let anyone touch you and don't touch yourself.  Baccho'll watch, and if you disobey, you'll have to leave here forever.  Understood?"

Sitting up, Amadeo reached out a tentative hand, and Guerradio waited.  Then it fell to his side.  "Yes, Eminence."  Awkwardly, Amadeo rose to his feet, his wet, engorged cock jutting out.  Even after he tossed on his robes, it stayed hard.  Still, he said nothing, asked no questions, and Guerradio pointed to the door.  After they'd gone, he went to the diamond-paned window.  No, not a good day.  Whores, cretins and chicken-farmers.  Hard to believe he'd seen Siena as a sanctuary.

Still, with the red sun skulking over the hills, the city slowly transformed: a wave of shade hid the decay, showing only the tiers of golden-brown buildings, like a honeyed wedding cake.  So different from the squalid chaos of Rome, with its jumble of old and new.  Pure, he'd thought, when he first rode through the tall city gates.  And for days afterward, toyed with thoughts of... not redemption, exactly.  But change.  The desire didn't last long; some things weren't meant to be.  Some things were written so deeply they scripted your life, no matter what, made you act out the same events, over and over, until you died.  Everyone had his own beginning.  In principio...

It's not that he blamed Mortregno.  Look what his uncle's lessons had done for him, after all.  Guerradio had learned not to trust every idiot who came along.  Not to believe, like a gullible fool, in anything but himself.  A handy trick when living in Rome.  And when Amadeo showed up, Guerradio had given in to necessity and taught him in the best family tradition.

As night dissolved day, Guerradio shifted, then stared in surprise at the glass, which distorted his reflection, casting back a hungry demon: all sunken cheeks and mad, bleak eyes. He blinked, and the glass showed the truth: he looked handsome, youthful, sensual.  A face worthy of a great artist.  Yes, he thought, why not immortalize himself forever in stone?  Make the statue part of a public dedication ceremony to the church.  Remind the people of his role in their lives.  But which sculptor?  Della Quercia was dead, and Ghiberti an old man past his prime. Donatello... Guerradio shuddered.  Look at the stuff coming out of his studio.  No, too unpredictable.  He needed someone young and talented, who cared about beauty.

Recently, Mortregno had raved about the sculptor who'd carved his funerary monument, saying he'd fallen in love with the image.  Not necessarily a great testament, since Mortregno was a supreme narcissist, but he did have impeccable taste.  He'd sent some drawings, too, simple charcoal ones, and they'd been impressive.  Excited for once, Guerradio left the window for his desk.

Like a lover, the chair's plush red velvet stroked the naked skin of his ass and thighs, and his cock grew hard again.  Taking a quill from a silver box, he dipped the tip in thick black ink, and begin composing a letter to Mortregno, asking for details about the sculptor.  Della... Something Greek.  Della Corintia. Guerradio realized only after he'd melted a square block of red wax and stamped it with his signet ring that there was no way to send it, not with the diseased town sealed off.  He needed a miracle.  Fat chance. God was still on holiday, and didn't answer his own mail anyway.

Behind him, a walled recess broke the flow of gold and red damask.  Guerradio turned to the altar there, to the triptych showing scenes from Saint Sebastian's life.  A gift from Mortregno, years ago, before he sent Guerradio off to Rome.

The left panel showed the saint, dressed like a soldier, during his first visitation.  While others looked on, divine light spilled down on him, and a beautiful man, appearing from nowhere, gave Sebastian the kiss of peace.  Beside them floated the young man's words, "You will always be with me."

On the right the plague raged through Pavia.  Sebastian stood beside a demon, all black wings and claws, who carried a spear and struck down entire households. This time, Sebastian had struck back, and an arrow burst the demon's full belly, which spilled out a stream of red hearts.  As he lay dying, the townspeople gathered in a circle, watching.

The third central panel showed Sebastian's ascension.  One hand tied to a dead tree behind him, Sebastian, knees buckling, stood on a hill high above a red-roofed city.  An arrow pierced his throat, and thin trickles of blood ran from both ends down his naked chest.  Two more tore into his skin: one in his side, the other high on his left thigh. Sebastian's ecstatic face was turned toward Christ, who'd appeared again, although Christ fixed his own gaze firmly at the viewer.  His hand, which should've reached toward Sebastian's free one, instead extended outward, fingers splayed, as though reaching for something beyond the picture.

Guerradio dropped to his knees before the altarpiece, head bowed in mock-humility.  "Please," he said sarcastically.  "I'll give you anything."  When he looked up, the angle created the illusion that Christ's hand reached for Guerradio's heart.  "That's why my prayers never worked? I was supposed to promise you my heart?"  His hand went there, and bumped the gold-link chain holding the heavy crucifix, which had shifted left when he bent.  "Of course.  My mistake."   Standing, he removed the necklace and tossed it to the altar, where it clattered noisily at Christ's feet.  "But don't hold my breath, right?"

Christ said nothing.

The next morning, he awoke startled from a dream.  Images contorted in his mind, then flattened and faded.  Only impressions remained, of blood, semen and a broken heart.  Drained, Guerradio stared up at the ceiling's tiles, orienting himself by the red and black squares with their cinquefoil centers.  Something was wrong... After months of furious clanging, the church bells had quieted, and the opaque silence crowded him so heavily that Guerradio wondered briefly if he'd died during the night.

With a startling clap, sound returned, as a fist smashed against his bedroom door.  "This better be good," he called out.

Gabriel flew in on a sweep of black robes.  "They say the plague's ended!  For the first time in months, no one died in the night."  He crossed himself.  "God's finished punishing us."

"We'll see.  The heralds have cried wolf before.  Desperate people believe anything.  The end of the plague, the coming of a saint--"

"You're wrong.  Can't you feel it?  The air has changed.  Even yesterday, after the storm, I sensed it."

Guerradio snorted, then leaned back against the red silk pillows.  "Of course you did, you old fool.  Next you'll be telling me an angel told you.  Look, I have something more practical for you to deal with, if you're right.  That boy Amadeo," he said.  "My cousin's son.  Get rid of him."

"Did he steal something?  Otherwise, I'd think twice about sending him away.  Remember, his mother didn't depend on the family connection when she sent him here; she paid a hundred gold florins.  And he's a hard worker, besides.  He doesn't have visions anymore, but he'll still be an addition to the Church."

"I don't care about the money, or about the Church.  Get rid of him now."

"With this miracle, you could show him some mercy.  After all, he's served you well, and he's still innocent, no matter what you've done to him--"

"I didn't ask for your opinion.  I want him gone within the hour."  Guerradio got up and walked to the tall cedar cabinet near the altar.  Grabbing the key from a shelf to the left, he unlocked the door and reached into a wooden chest.  "Give him this," he said, tossing the leather pouch at Gabriel.  "There's the hundred florins, plus a little extra for his services."

The steward caught it, staring down with ill-concealed disgust.  "If he's a whore, you made him one."

"Jealous?" Guerradio ran a hand over the hard curves of his naked body.  "You're a little old for my taste, but since you're here and apparently willing--"

"One day, you'll have to pay for real." Gabriel shook his grey head.  "You're not a bad man, not at heart.  There's still hope--"

"I'm already paying with lectures like these.  Stop fighting me and get rid of him."

"You want to talk practical?  Then think about this: the servants will talk, and the townspeople are already suspicious and a little hostile toward you.  Wait awhile before you send him away.  Let things cool off, return to normal."

"I won't change my mind," Guerradio said.  "But fine," he added, with a heavy sigh.  "He can stay for now, until I'm back on top.  Now get out and let me sleep.  Go pray that I'll get what's coming to me."

"I'll pray for the end of the plague."

"I thought it was over."

"One of them, anyway,"  Gabriel said.

No one died that night, either, or the next, and Siena unfurled like an orchid.

Farmers drove laden wagons into the city, setting up stalls in the market square for huge bouquets of wild flowers, barrels of ripe red apples, round wheels of soft white bocconcini, baskets of plump mushrooms, jars of sun-yellow honey side by side with clusters of purple grapes.  Their wives, wearing simple black and brown dresses, strolled through the crowd, some carrying trays of fresh panforte sprinkled with cinnamon, some with artfully arranged slices of rich Parma ham.  Beautiful on the surface, but a closer look showed that people moved furtively, eyes darting, looking for a full-bellied demon and a spear.

A troupe of musicians played a lively madrigal in the square, thumping tabors and strumming lyres.  The begging Franciscans on the corner chimed in, singing in bright, clear voices a devout version of the same tune.  "Qualis est dilectus tuus..."  But, caught up in the music, they sang faster and faster, louder and louder, more Dionysian than divine.  And it spread.

Clothiers hummed it, as they displayed imported rolls of brocaded cloth, silks and velvets, feathers and fur trim, lace and pearl buttons.  Carpe diem, and do it with style.  Buy, buy, buy before the next plague comes.  Next door, chandlers picked it up as they strung ropes of candles in a thousand colors and sizes, and lit a thousand more, so that their stores seemed visited by angels.  Rich angels. With all the dead, candles were in short supply; each corpse required at least five lit in memory (the Sienese had ostentatious tastes).

Beside them, jewelers, hammers clinking against precious metal in time to the desperate beat, fashioned brooches studded with rubies, bracelets choked with sapphires.  Immortal jewels for mortal flesh.  Colored stones to erase other colors, like devil's breath green and sunflower yellow.  In the glaziers' shops down the street, where they puffpuffpuffed life into incandescent glass, and the sun shone through delicate blue goblets, long-necked rose vases, fragile mauve pitchers.  Delicate like human skin.  Too delicate--and the fashion turned to thicker glass, solid, clunky.

While the town rang with denial, streets were swept, shop signs repainted, buildings splashed with buckets of water, fountains refilled and topped with water lilies, flowers replanted, and brass fixtures polished.  A different form of oblivion.  Not staving off death, but denying it.

On the third morning of this glorious rebirth, Guerradio turned from his window and gave his letter to the steward, and it went out with the first post in months.  He received a response from Mortregno within a week and read it on a bench under a lemon-tree in the palazzo gardens.

My dear nephew,

I gather you outlived the plague.  Not such a surprise, really; you always were a survivor.  Look how you came out of the Roman fiasco.  The pope's niece and nephew?  I was betting on excommunication.  Instead, you end up bishop of Siena.  How did you manage that?  On your knees, I imagine.  You always did have a very skillful mouth; even your worst enemy couldn't refuse you.  I taught you well.

As for the sculptor, you'll be very pleased with him.  His work is powerful, and della Corintia himself is beautiful as sin, although marred by a strong streak of virtue.  I was otherwise occupied at the time, or I would've shown him the error of his ways.  But I'm sure you'll manage to convince him.  No one has your talent for seduction.  Or is that corruption?  Lately, though, I haven't heard anything of your exploits.  The gossips are strangely quiet.  Are you losing faith?  How disappointing.

Della Corintia, your future conquest (we hope) has just finished a commission in Naples for the Brancacci; I'll send a note telling him of your interest. Take on the challenge, Guerradio.

Yours in God,

H. di Mortregno
Bishop of Naples

The letter annoyed him, and he crumpled it in his hand.  No question that Mortregno had tried and failed to seduce della Corintia.  The grapes were so sour his uncle had spit the words onto the page.  Few people said no to the Bishop of Naples, and when Mortregno suffered, the world suffered with him.  Not that he gave a shit about others' pain: witness his conspicuous silence during Guerradio's troubles with the pope.  Without the interference of Cosimo de Medici, a very convenient lover, Guerradio'd be selling himself on a street corner.

Let Mortregno think he'd been exiled for deviance, although he should know better.  Half the papal court had their cock up somebody's ass, including his holiness Nicholas V, who'd been fucking Giovanni Strozzi since he'd tutored the boy years ago.  No, what pissed off the pontiff wasn't Guerradio's little romp with his relatives, but his public condemnation of Nicholas when his holiness had fled Rome during its own outbreak of the plague.

But Mortregno was happiest believing every rumor; he thrived on it.  If his uncle wanted a story, then Guerradio'd give him one.  A lesson in belief and temptation to tell his young disciples, his bastard children: how the wicked Cardinal Guerradio seduced a handsome sculptor, body and soul, then destroyed him.

A myth for the ages.

Guerradio watched the white clouds sail like ships across a blue river.  Every time horse-hooves rattled the cobblestones in the palazzo's courtyard, he'd glance out the window. The fishmonger distracted him, and he watched him unload the day's catch from heavy baskets slung across his nag's back.  Next, a surgeon arrived to bleed one of the undercooks, followed by a small group requesting permission to build a chapel to Saint Sebastian in the Duomo.

For the next hour, he listened to two over-earnest aldermen and their zealous wives vowing that the martyr, blood dripping from the hundred arrows piercing his flesh, appeared to little Piero (maybe the older man's son, maybe the younger; he wasn't sure) as the boy lay dying (Guerradio envied him).  The weak child offered Sebastian a summer peach (just what a man pierced with a hundred arrows needed), and in gratitude, the saint tossed the fruit in the air, where it turned into a dove.  The bird then flew to every house in town, chasing away the plague-demon (how this flight was verified, Guerradio was a little unclear). When the dove returned, Sebastian turned it back into a peach, and ate it.  The saint saved one piece for the boy, but when little Piero touched the slice, it burned his fingers, and he dropped it to the floor.

One of the women produced the little brat from beneath her fur-trimmed green skirt, who clutched in his grubby hand a shriveled lump with a brown feather stuck in its center, and Guerradio snorted.  "Doves are white," he pointed out.  "This feather comes from a sparrow.  An underfed one, at that.  If we build a new chapel, it'll be to honor the saint, not embarrass him."

As Piero began to wail, and his family sputter, Guerradio left the reception hall.

By day's end, dusty gold light flooded the courtyard below.  Through the open window, Guerradio smelled orange blossoms, as he watched, tapping a finger against the shutter's smooth cypress edge.  The bells had chimed seven, and soon it'd be too dark for travel.  Had della Corintia changed his mind?  Someone could've talked to him, told him stories.  Maybe even Mortregno, just to up the stakes.  Although, from their brief correspondence, della Corintia didn't seem easily scared.  He'd challenged Guerradio's original price for the statue, demanded an entire room fitted to his specifications, and rejected his would-be patron's suggestions for the pose with a dismissive, "I'll decide when I see you."

Guerradio had nearly pitched the letters into the fire and abandoned his plan for seduction.  Only Mortregno was right: it'd been too long since his last conquest.  Longer since he'd exerted any effort.  If he ever had.   A smile, a touch, a whisper... He'd bedded half of Rome on that simple principle, within the church and without.  Who could resist a priest who looked like the devil?  So he'd glutted himself on eager lovers.  And this sculptor'd be no different.  Mortregno would have his juicy story within a week.

Bored, about to give up his watch, Guerradio stilled at a horse's low whinny, the steady clop of iron shoes on stone. The hair caught his attention first.  Falling in loose waves, the color of Sienese brick, it was rich, almost ostentatious, and Guerradio knew he'd win this contest.  Only a whore at heart would have hair like that.  He imagined the soft curls brushing his inner thighs as della Corintia sucked him.  Even if he had the face of a butcher, it would be an amusing moment or two.

His breath had steamed a pane of glass, and his hand, rubbing it, must've caught della Corintia's attention because he looked up, directly at the window.  Guerradio moved back abruptly, the swiftness of that backward step hurrying his heart.  And, yes, maybe he was a little startled.  He could admit that.  When Mortregno had said that della Corintia reminded him of Guerradio, he'd assumed in temperament.  Not in looks.  The coloring was different, and della Corintia had no beard.  Maybe broader through the shoulders.  That fucking Mortregno.  Always playing games.

Below him, a small assembly of household staff converged at the courtyard's center: Gabriel came from the east wing along the arcaded cloister, dodging statues, while two young servants scurried from the kitchen, and a groom from the stables.  Della Corintia jumped easily to the ground, as the boys unstrapped the leather packs from his horse, then the stableman led the animal away.  While Gabriel introduced himself, Guerradio studied his guest.

He was dressed like a second or third son in plain clothes that showed off his assets: long, muscular legs in tight black hose, those wide shoulders and a flat stomach under a short blue doublet belted at the waist.  No hat.  Black leather boots.  The only decorative touches were the ermine cuffs and the knife that hung from a belt over one lean hip.  Guerradio kept watching, even as Gabriel led the sculptor under the loggia.  Powerfully beautiful. And very different from his usual lovers: older, confident.  That showed in his purposeful stride, the straight line of his back, the lift of his chin.

When the shadows closed over della Corintia, Guerradio retreated from the window.  Without thinking, he pulled three times on the cord, and, moments later, Amadeo appeared.  Guerradio didn't bother to remove his robes, simply lifted them above his hips and exposed his hard cock to Amadeo, who sank quietly to his knees and took it into his mouth.  Closing his eyes, Guerradio pictured another tongue tasting him, lapping at his balls.  With surprise, he heard himself moan, a guttural, bestial sound.  Amadeo reacted to it, sucking harder, quickly stroking the shaft with one hand, cupping Guerradio's balls with the other.  Grabbing the boy's head, he fucked the hot mouth with near violent force.  At the last second, suddenly aware of his desperation, he pulled his cock free and came on the boy's face, smearing it with streaks of cream.

Still shaking, he shoved Amadeo back onto the bed and climbed up next to him.   Lying at his side, still in his robes, Guerradio made the boy jerk off while he licked the warm semen from his wet cheeks.  As Amadeo tensed for his orgasm, he bent the boy forward, so that he spurted his own seed onto his face, and Guerradio, hungrily, licked that up, too.  Then he nodded toward the door, and Amadeo left, never saying a word.

Alone, Guerradio poured himself a glass of red wine, swirling it around in his mouth before swallowing.  Standing before the round mirror that hung inside the cabinet, he smoothed his hair, then his cope.  Perfect.  Della Corintia would be on his knees within the week.  Excited despite his orgasm, he left the room.  On his orders, Gabriel had deposited his charge in a private dining room off the Salone dei Sole, a smaller reception hall on the main floor cleared for della Corintia's work.  Only a few torches lit the room, scattering shadows across the frescoed walls.  He walked to the end, gave a cursory knock at the marble-framed door and walked in.

Della Corintia sat at a square table beside a view of the orchard, his back to Guerradio.  "I'm fine," he said in a low voice.  "The food's great.  What I want to know is when do I get to meet the infamous Cardinal?  Do I have to book an appointment, or what?"  He turned and saw Guerradio in the doorway.  Briefly, he looked surprised, then got to his feet.  "Sorry.  I thought you were the steward.  He's been hovering over me like I'm a virgin on her wedding night."

"I would've welcomed you personally, but I had some business to take care of."

"I'm glad you're here.  I've been looking forward to this."  Della Corintia stared at him, eyes slightly narrowed.  "You're not what I expected," he added, almost to himself.

"What did you expect?"  With della Corintia this close, Guerradio smelled wine and oranges, and wanted to slide his tongue into that ripe, tart mouth.  It happened, sometimes.  That kind of overwhelming physical response.  He'd better be careful, or Mortregno's story would be a boring one.  Veni, vidi, vici.

"You don't look like a cardinal.  I didn't expect you to--" he broke off.  "Sorry, Eminence.  That's what I call you, right?  I'm just talking to myself.  It's been a long day.  The road through San Gimignano was closed because of the plague, so I had to take the longer route."

"What didn't you expect?"  He rounded the table and took the other seat, pouring himself some wine from the near-empty decanter.  Della Corintia, he knew, never stopped watching him, doubtless having the same intense physical response.  It couldn't be one-sided.

"You can call me Iphicles," he said, sitting back down.  "And I didn't expect you to look so much like me.  It's kind of strange, like seeing a different version of myself.  A darker one."

Did he mean darker in coloring, or something else?  Hard to tell with him.   "Like brothers," he said.  "It surprised me, too.  Mortregno didn't say anything about it."

"Your uncle likes his games.  And you're nothing like my brother.  Actually, that's not quite true.  He's a priest."  Iphicles finished his glass, and Guerradio filled it.  "Not high up the ladder like you, though.  He travels a lot, preaching, doing good."  There was a shift into irony.  "He's in Bavaria right now, fighting the Moravian heretics.  My mother's very proud."

"But not of you?"

"Now she is, I think.   My stepfather's a sculptor, and I apprenticed with him, but only after--" he paused, smiling wryly, "a pretty wild and stupid youth."

"Not everyone can sculpt.  Anyone can preach."

"I've heard you're pretty good."  At Guerradio's raised eyebrow, Iphicles leaned forward, the red hair covering his face while he picked up a peeled orange.  "At preaching, I mean."

"Don't believe everything you hear."

Iphicles began to spread open the fruit, and Guerradio noticed the roughness of his fingers, the small nicks, and thought about them on his cock.  "You're saying what I've heard isn't true?"

"Depends on what you've heard.  I've  made a lot of enemies, and not just in Rome.  It's politics.  Destroy the opposition with rumor and innuendo.  I ignore it."

"So you didn't have a threesome with the Pope's niece and nephew while he was delivering the Christmas service?"

It was New Year's, but Iphicles didn't need to know that.  "I was their tutor," he said, with appropriate solemnity.

"Sorry.  I've had too much to drink, and I've been traveling all day.  I don't usually ask cardinals, even exiled ones, about threesomes.  If you want me to leave, I understand.  I should know better--my brother always gets tense when I talk about sex.  He steps behind an imaginary pulpit, and the judgments start flying."

"It'll take more than that to shock me.  I've heard some confessions straight from Sodom and Gomorrah. It's in our nature to sin."   When Iphicles smiled back, Guerradio almost laughed.  One kiss, right now, while Iphicles was half-drunk, a little melancholy, and they'd be in bed.  The last thing Iphicles needed--and what he'd want most--would be to sleep with a notoriously indiscriminate cardinal.  Maybe that's why Iphicles had come here, as a test, to see if he could resist Guerradio.  So he'd play along, even though his cock was harder than granite.  Let Iphicles come to him.   He stood.  "I'll let you finish your meal and get some rest."  A little rejection, to make Iphicles sting a little, make his need grow.  "We can meet in the hall at nine tomorrow and figure out what the statue'll look like."

"Oh, I already know what I want," Iphicles said, biting into a plump slice of orange.

A fine spray burst from the fruit, and a drop landed on Guerradio's bottom lip.  He licked it off slowly before responding.  "And what's that?"

"A variation on how you were sitting just now.  A throne instead of that chair.  Leaning forward, one elbow on your knee instead of the table, while you rest your chin on your fist.  Your legs slightly spread, one foot extended.  Somewhere between plotting and pondering.  Almost frowning.  Very, very intense."  He ate another piece of orange, causing a second sweet flare.  "I'll tell you now that the pose'll hurt your back."

"But that's how you want me."

"Yes.  You can fight me if you want, but it won't do much good."

The balls on this man... "No, I'll do whatever you want."

"Good.  Then I'll see you in the morning.  Goodnight, Guerradio."

That night, Guerradio dreamed of  heart-shaped oranges and blood, and woke the next morning with semen smeared on his thighs.

Guerradio arrived in the Salone dei Sole as the bells rang ten.  Iphicles sat on a long bench beneath the three tiers of arched windows, bent over a sketchbook, and didn't notice him.  His rough fingers guided the charcoal over the white paper, and Guerradio glimpsed his own face before he joined him.

Iphicles looked up.  "You're in my light."  He smiled away the edge.

More disregard for rank.  Guerradio decided to ignore it, and sat down, settling his robes.  "So what do we need to do?"

"Just sit here," Iphicles said, eyes darting between Guerradio's face and the book on his knee.  "I went out this morning and spoke to the stone-cutter.  He's actually got a few blocks of black marble already in his shop.  Donatello'd ordered a few, but told the mason to shove it when he found out about the price."  With his thumb, he brushed a spot on the page.  "So it's going to cost you, but it's worth it. Originally, I was going to use white marble, but last night in bed I thought about it, and knew it had to be black."  He spoke without yesterday's warmth, business-like.  "He'll send it over soon as he's paid.  It'll take about a day to set it up here."

"I'll have Gabriel take care of it.  And why black?" Guerradio pictured Iphicles in bed thinking about him, jerking off to his fantasies.

"There's the coloring, obviously, your hair and eyes.  But you've got this power thing--" he stopped and shrugged.  "I'm not good at explaining my reasons.  You're very... You've got this physical presence.  You couldn't walk into a room without everyone noticing."

"You didn't notice me."

"I knew you were there."  He gave Guerradio a slow smile, then lifted his sketchbook.  "I've got a really rough outline of the pose, the throne you'll be sitting on, and the frame itself.  I've kept it pretty simple, classical.  No floating cherubs or anything like that.  I want the focus to be on you."

Guerradio watched the quick, sure hand.  "You probably think it's arrogant of me to commission a statue of myself."

"It's what you all do, right?  The Church is all about that.  A big show to impress the people.  No offense," he added with a grin.  Then: "People always say that when they're being offensive, don't they?  Look, I respect what you do.  I spent years watching my brother make an impact.  He makes people care.  You're doing that too, but in a different way.  You're kind of like me.  You make people care by showing them something that's bigger than themselves.  What heaven could be like.  Could you turn your head a little to the right?  That's perfect."

"Is that why you sculpt?" he asked, turning toward the window.   "To show people heaven?"

"No, that's just an advantage.  I'm not my brother.  I do it because it feels good.  It's the only thing I've ever done that feels good and doesn't upset my mother."  Another grin.  "Even my brother mostly approves, although that's because my stepfather explained about the heaven part.  Doesn't preaching make you feel good?  Head a little further right."  Iphicles reached out, pressing his fingers lightly to Guerradio's chin.  "That's better."

Through the windows, Guerradio watched the sun glinting off the fountain's blue water. "Preaching works when someone listens.  Most people are in church for the wrong reasons.  It's an excuse to be seen, to watch your neighbors, to guess about other people's sins."

"So why'd you become a priest?"

"Saint Sebastian.  I used to dream about him.  That he was in my room with me."  Saint Sebastian, who looked, oddly enough, exactly like Guerradio's uncle.

"But you don't dream about him anymore?"

"No.  Not since I was young.  You get older, you stop having those kinds of dreams."

"What kind of dreams do you have now?  Are they all religious?  Or...?"

Guerradio heard the slight pause.  "Are you asking me about sex?"

"Subtle, I know.  But yes.  What about sex?  I could never be celibate like that.  Sex is important to me."

"It's important to everyone.  That's why we give it up."

"Turn toward me.  That's good.  And that makes sense.  Kind of like a gift to God."   Iphicles put the sketchbook on the bench beside him and stood up.  "I need to stretch for a minute."  As he moved, his knee caught the book's edge, knocking it to the floor.  Some of the leaves, unbound, spilled onto the yellow and black tiles.

Guerradio watched Iphicles pick them up.   "What's this?"   It was an unfinished sketch of a man lying naked on his back, thighs spread, one arm shielding his eyes.

"A failed project," Iphicles said, on his knees.  "It's Samson, before the men come to cut off his hair.  After he's spent another night--the last night--with Delilah.  But I'm having real problems with it, even though I can't stop thinking about it.  That's one of dozens."

"Why isn't it working?"

"I'm not good at sketching or sculpting without the thing in front of me.  I need to see it, see how the light hits it, the curves and angles.  It used to drive my stepfather crazy, but I think it makes my stuff more real.  Anyway, I always use live models, mostly young whores, because no one respectable wants to show their body to the world.  Unfortunately, they're not big enough for what I need here.  I mean, this is Samson.  He's got to be big, long-haired.  Strong.  Physically, he'd be like you."

A nice, fat opening.  Iphicles couldn't come out and ask.  He had balls, but asking a cardinal to pose naked, sprawled and obviously just fucked hard, was too much, even for him.  But he wanted it: still on his knees, Iphicles stared up, all wide-eyed and unbelievably innocent, the picture of supplication.  Guerradio imagined lifting his robes and leaning back to be convinced.  Not that Iphicles would do it.  He'd snap out some mostly-polite rejection, and chalk up Guerradio's name right above Mortregno's.  And a quick ‘yes' to the implicit question would ruin everything.  Instead, Guerradio simply said, "I get the sense from your sketch that you feel sorry for Samson.  He's so open.  Vulnerable.  I always thought he got what he deserved."

Iphicles moved back onto the bench, any disappointment hidden.  "Really?  Why?  He loved this woman so much he gave up everything for her.  He knew she'd betray him.  He had to.  But he told her his weakness anyway.  It was a deliberate sacrifice."

"He did it because it was easier than fighting with her.  He just gave up.  That makes him weak.  That was always Samson's problem: he wanted to be good, but it took too much effort."

"That's what he told himself.  But he was full of shit.  He didn't want to admit how much he cared about her.  So he complained a lot, got all superior, then just... gave himself to her.  That's what I want to show in the sculpture.  If I ever do it.  How much he wanted to give himself to her, in spite of everything."

"That's a very romantic view.  Not realistic.  The story's about lust and weakness."

"To me, it's about love and strength."

Guerradio began to wonder if Iphicles was worth all this.  He had a houseful of beautiful young men eager to please him, and didn't need this arrogant artist contradicting him on every little point.  "I've got meetings," he said, standing.

"Sorry.  I didn't mean to offend you.  It's just how I see him."

"I'm not offended.  I've just got things to take care of.  That's all."  Guerradio glanced back down at the drawing.  Not bad.  "If you need anything, talk to Gabriel."

"I need you," Iphicles said, with a small laugh.  "But your duties come first."

He peered into that handsome, familiar face, looking for irony.  But Iphicles' eyes had gone wide and innocent again.  The bastard.  Guerradio got up, and walked a few steps, then turned back.  "Maybe we should have dinner alone.  To talk about the sculpture."

"I'd like that."

Then he'd see just who was in control here.

"... the week-long carnival celebrations, Eminence?"

Guerradio looked at the mayor and realized he'd been caught daydreaming about Iphicles, lying naked and open for him.  "I'm sorry," he said stiffly, "what was the question?"  Not that he really cared what the pompous ass had to say.  But carnival would be the perfect time to take Iphicles-- if he could last that long.   His skin felt itchy, distended like ripe fruit, aching for a mouth, for rough, precise hands.

Apollonare's blond brows arched.  "I asked if you'd donate the wine for this year's carnival.   In the past, bishop Pontormo always--"

"Yes, fine.  I'll have my steward send it over."   Better than listening to another of Apollonare's unsubtle sermons on his predecessor's virtues. Pontormo's chief talent, apparently, had been to stuff his tongue up Apollonare's ass and lick deep.  He couldn't complain, though.  That sycophantic trait had worked to Guerradio's advantage.  When Cosimo de Medici requested that his protege be named the bishop's successor, Pontormo had lifted his cassock and bent over--then thoughtfully fallen downstairs three days later, snapping his neck.

At least that's the story Cosimo had told Guerradio in bed.  "God works in mysterious ways," he'd said afterward, with a wolfish grin, before pushing his cock inside Guerradio.  "Consider it a debt repaid.  You helped me during my exile, and I helped God set things right."  That had been the last time: in a bizarre cosmic joke, Cosimo, the second most cynical and corrupt man Guerradio ever met, actually fell in love with his new bride, and severed all ties with his former lovers to please her.  Mortregno was the only one left--

"... let the participants in the Feast of Fools have full run of the cathedral?"

Guerradio leaned back and tapped his fingertips on the table's curved edge.  "Fine."  God, he loathed that part of the festival, where some drunken ploughman paraded around in cardinal's robes, imitating him.  "Anything else?"

"Don't forget that it's our tradition to reserve the first day of carnival for confession, so everyone can enjoy themselves that night--and for the following week--with a clean slate."

Another of bishop Pontormo's brilliant ideas, it'd only encourage the idiots to sin.  Then, at confession, they'd miss the major ones, like Apollonare did.  Or tried to.  Dressed like a Florentine whore in a green silk tunic under a sable-lined blue cloak, hair perfumed under a red cap topped with more feathers than a peacock, fingers crammed with jewels bigger than his balls, he proudly confessed his vanity, itemizing the cost of each gold tassel, each embroidered pearl.  No mention of his recent lobbying for a harsh new tax on bread, which came suspiciously close to his recent acquisition of yet another married lover (who hadn't been mentioned, either).   And nothing about how the lucrative new Venetian commission for cork-soled shoes went to the drapers' guild, headed by Apollonare's cousin, and not the cordwainers', where it belonged.

Unsympathetic, Guerradio took petty revenge by doling him out unusually heavy penance, under the guise that vanity was really pride, the worst of the seven deadly sins, and so deserved an extra tour around the Duomo on his knees.  The crawling always ruined Apollonare's parti-colored hose, which snagged on the tiles' rough edges.  Lately the mayor had been expanding his confessional repertoire.

"--didn't believe in harsh physical penance.  A few Hail Marys, and he was happy."

"I think the solution's to sin less," Guerradio said, approximating Iphicles' mock-innocent expression.  Judging from Apollonare's scowl, so deep his bottom lip subsumed the top one, he got it right.  And made a mental note not to scowl the next time Iphicles flashed it at him.

"Oh, and I nearly forgot.  Bring your sculptor to the banquet tomorrow night.  I might have some work for him."

The first of the post-plague extravaganzas, so he had to go.  At least Iphicles could distract him.   "We'll see you there."  With a bow worthy of Pontormo -- if the old fool had understood sarcasm -- Guerradio left the Palazzo Pubblico.

In the piazza del Campo, the people ambled through the market, like a scene straight from the Lorenzetti fresco in the town hall, and Guerradio decided to walk.  Couldn't hurt to let the people see him without an entourage.  He could win back his detractors, get back on top.

For a few silver coins, a boy led his horse back to the palace, while he headed along the loggia della Mercanzia.  Here, the money-lenders' shouts mixed with the clink of lira tossed onto scales, the rasp of sharp quills in ledgers.  He walked slowly under the arcade, accepting the polite nods sent his way, enjoying the chaos.  Passing through the final arch, Guerradio paused at the statue of saint Sebastian, which stood on a small bronze ledge against a tall column.  The saint's chest above his white heart glowed from the touch of ten thousand hands seeking a cure during the plague months.

Without thinking, Guerradio reached up and covered the shining marbled skin, feeling the nipple against his palm.  This Sebastian was strong and broad-shouldered, more man than boy, with only two arrows piercing him: one in his throat, the other in his bare thigh.  The handsome face tilted sideways and upward, shifting from pain to ecstasy.  Iphicles, Guerradio thought.  He'd look like that when he was coming.  And he let his hand slide down over the curved hip, along the thigh, around the arrow-head.

Reluctantly, he stepped back and turned onto the via di Citta. Twenty years earlier, the former mayor, Apollonare's father, had commissioned artists and sculptors to renovate the oldest quarter, and, like other streets in the area, murals and statuary decorated the narrow, three-storied buildings, vying with hanging baskets of bougainvillaea.  His favorite goldsmith worked here, and Guerradio entered his shop, the bell tinkling above the door.  He ordered a gold crucifix from Fucino to replace the one still lying on the altar in his room.  As they talked, Guerradio absently traced one of the alchemical symbols painted onto the oak counter top, and Fucino caught his hand.

"I haven't seen this one before," he said, studying the ring, running a fingertip over the arrow head carved in onyx.  "It looks a little tight, but the work is expert."

"I've had it for years, but forgot all about it.  I found it this morning."

Fucino's wife, who'd finished serving another customer, joined her husband.  "Beautiful work, Eminence, but my mother always said arrows were bad luck.  Because of Saint Sebastian.  He was her favorite saint, after the Virgin.  Funny thing is, I saw someone this morning out on the street who looked like him--at least like the Sebastian on the loggia della Mercanzia.  I'd never seen him before.  Maybe it was a vision."

Her husband rolled his eyes.  "I think the saint has better things to do than visit you, you silly cow.  Besides, didn't you tell me he was heading to the brothels?"

She gave him an affectionate slap on the arm, blushing under her black headdress.   "Shhhh... You shouldn't mention those places in front of the cardinal."

"The cardinal's a man of the world.  After all, he's heard your confessions."  Fucino winked.  "What could possible scandalize him now?"

"After your wife, not much."  What was Iphicles doing at the brothels?  Looking for models?  Or getting his cock sucked?  Probably both.  Hard to tell, though, with Iphicles and his guilt.  Thank God he didn't have any.

"Who gave you the ring?" she asked.

"My uncle.  The bishop of Naples."  That first night.  Right before Mortregno had fucked him.  A  bribe to shut up and take it, he realized later.  Much later.

Fucino glanced behind him as the bell rang above the door.  "If you ever decide to sell it, let me know."

"I'll probably do that.  It doesn't really fit anymore," Guerradio said, and walked back out into the warm Siena afternoon.

The bells rang six by the time Guerradio returned to the palace.  Instead of going upstairs, he went directly to the kitchen.  Three undercooks shared the main table: one sprinkled lemon juice on the long, silvery body of a trout, another cracked brown-shelled eggs into a mixing bowl, while the third stuffed little tarts with mascarpone and olives.  At a wide counter beneath a wall covered with hanging brass pans, a fourth woman, white sleeves rolled high on plump arms, plucked a capon, a pile of cloves nearby.  A fat tabby at her feet swatted stray feathers as they floated to the stone floor, then ran as another servant marched past to the fire, balancing a dish of baby artichokes in an orange sauce.

Smiling with satisfaction, Guerradio looked around for Gabriel and saw the steward emerging from the cellar, a bottle of wine in each hand.

"Everything will be ready by eight," Gabriel said.  "The small dining room off the garden is ready.  I suppose this means--" he drew closer to Guerradio, and his voice dropped, "that I should keep everyone away while you make a new conquest?"

"Save that look for Iphicles, when he's sculpting one of the patriarchs.  And yes, I want some privacy, but not for the reason you think, old man."

Gabriel made a rude snuffing sound.  "Don't tell me you've suddenly reformed.  Unless you're put off because you can't push him around."

"I can't push you around, and you're still here, despite your threats to go and live with that old friend of yours, safe from me and my evil ways."

"One of these days, I'll do that, and where will you be? Just be careful, Guerradio.  You've got Amadeo confused enough.  I don't know what he'll do if you take up with this sculptor right under his nose."

"That's not my problem.  And, like I said, I'm not going to be taking up with him."  Not yet, anyway.

"Somehow," Gabriel said, "that worries me even more."

Two hours later, Guerradio entered the dining room.  Iphicles was there, sketchbook beside him.  "I hope you don't mind serving yourself," Guerradio said, sitting down at the laden table.  "I don't like a lot of servants running around while I'm trying to eat."

"That's fine."  Iphicles put the charcoal and book on a free chair beside him.  "About ten of them were here before you showed up, getting everything ready.  I don't know how you stand it."  He cut a piece of fish, then passed the dish to Guerradio.

"It's expected," he said, pouring wine for Iphicles, then himself.  "If I don't have them, people will think the Church is in trouble."

"You mean, if you had your choice, you wouldn't have them?"

"They make my life easier, I'll admit that.  But sometimes they get in the way."

"I guess it's different if you're born to it.  My father died when I was a kid, and my mother didn't have a lot of money.  Even after my stepfather came along, she kept things pretty simple.  Still does.  My wife brought in a few servants when we married, but they avoided me.  I think I had a reputation as difficult."

"You're married?"

"Was.  She died a few years ago.  The plague."  Iphicles toyed with the stem of his glass, then looked up.  "She was in love with my brother, but he wouldn't have anything to do with her, of course.  I thought marrying her would... I don't know.  Make me more like him.  This was before I realized that if I wanted to be good, I'd have to do it the old-fashioned way."  He ate a tartlet, licking the soft cheese from his lips.  "I don't usually talk about her; it reminds me what an idiot I was.  Maybe it's because you're a priest."

Guerradio bit into the flaky trout and tasted lemony butter.  "I'm not here to judge you," he said, swallowing.

"No offense, but priests usually do.  That's their job.  But it doesn't feel that way with you.  Not that you strike me as the most tolerant guy around.  Just not uptight in the usual way."   He tore off a piece of bread from the round loaf, dipping it in the sauce on his plate.  "With Gabriel's help, I checked out the thrones around here, and I found one I liked.  He's been great, actually.  Nice guy.  Everything's fixed with the mason, too.  The stone'll be here in three days."

"I've been thinking," Guerradio began slowly, "about your statue."

"Don't tell me you've changed your mind.  Trust me--it's going to be amazing."

"Not that statue.  The other one.  Samson."  The main course finished, he rose, and Iphicles followed him into the smaller salon off the dining hall, overlooking the garden.  Even with the candlelight, the dark outside hid the flowers, but their sweet perfume flowed in through the open window.

"I looked around today to see if I could find a model for the Samson and bring him back to Florence with me," Iphicles said, dropping onto the couch.  He'd brought his sketchbook, and placed it on the table, beside a bottle of wine and two glasses.  "No luck."

The trip to the brothels.  Had he fucked one of the whores on his search?  As he sat beside him, Guerradio found himself looking for bites marks along Iphicles' throat above the black tunic's square neck.  "I was thinking about what you said yesterday.  About the side-effect of your sculpting.  That it showed people heaven."

"Like how you live."  Iphicles, who'd been drinking, put down his glass, and waved an arm at the walls, covered with frescoes of exotic birds, all red, green, black and gold.  "It's some wild bird cage."

"My uncle has a private room in his palace painted to look like a brass jar," Guerradio said.  "I hated that room.  Look, Iphicles, I thought I could help you out.  What you said made sense to me."

"How?"  Iphicles asked, turning to face him.  "You know someone who'd be willing to model for me?  You saw the drawings.  It'd have to be someone ready to show everyone his body."

"Well," Guerradio said, deliberately hesitant, "what about me?"

"You?  You'd be perfect.  I knew it as soon as I saw you.  You have to know that.  But I can't ask you to do it.  While I wouldn't advertise who'd done the modeling, and Samson's face is partially obscured by his arm, someone might recognize you.  There'd be a scandal..."

"It was just a suggestion.  If you don't think I'm right--"

"Guerradio, like I said:  you're perfect.  The hair.  The body.  Even with those long robes on, I can see what you'd be like.  But your reputation--"

"My reputation can handle another scandal.  Either you want me to do it, or you don't.  Which is it?"

"If you're sure, I'd love it.  But you know that people are going to talk.  About us.  They'll say--"

"--that we're lovers.  That's fine.  We'll know the truth.  This isn't about anything sordid between us.  It's about God."   Was that too much?

But Iphicles was nodding.  "I saw the perfect piece of stone today.  Smooth white marble.  Not a single scar.  I'll need to do some sketches first, though.  Work out the details."  He glanced at the sketchbook, then back at Guerradio.  "Look, would you mind... I mean, if you're sure about this, I'd like to see you.  What's underneath."

"Alright," Guerradio said, shutting the door.  He kicked off his boots, then stood, grabbing handfuls of red cloth and pulling the cope over his knees, his thighs, and finally over his head.

"I... didn't realize you were naked under that."

"The robes are very warm."  If Iphicles didn't stop looking at him like that, he was going to get hard.  There was something very arousing about being alone with him, naked like this.  "Am I what you're looking for?"  He knew the answer, could see it on Iphicles' face.  But Guerradio wanted to hear it.

"You're incredible."  Iphicles got up.  "Can you lie down here?  On the couch?  So I can see how you'll look in the pose?"

The couch was long and wide, the padded cushions covered with dark red silk.  Guerradio lay back, feeling the fabric slither against his skin.  "Is this right?"  He crooked his arm, shadowing his eyes, but still able to watch Iphicles.

"Could you spread your legs wider?  He has to look wanton.  Vulnerable."

Guerradio deliberately parted his thighs only a small space.  "Better?"  When Iphicles said nothing, he dropped his arm.  "Are you alright?"

"Yes, sorry.  I was just... It doesn't matter.  No.  You need to be wider.  Let me know if this gets too awkward.  This must be strange for you."

Actually, it was, to be exposed like this, watched and admired.  Usually by now he would've pulled Iphicles down between his thighs, or onto his cock, and be half-way to orgasm.  Not lying here with the cool breeze hardening his nipples and Iphicles standing over him, chewing on his lower lip, about to touch him.

"Wider," Iphicles said.  "Do you mind... Look, Guerradio, I'm not used to dealing with naked cardinals.  If I'm going to get anything done, I have to treat you like my usual models.  That means positioning you exactly as I want."

"I knew what I was getting into when I offered.  Do whatever you want."

"Good."  Iphicles moved to the foot of the couch, then bent down, putting his warm hands lightly on Guerradio's thighs, and used his thumbs to gently push them apart.  "That's better.  Except..."  With another light touch, he took Guerradio's cock, hanging between his legs, and moved it onto his thigh.

Startled by the intimate contact, Guerradio arched involuntarily, blood rushing into his cock.

Iphicles stepped back.  "Shit. I'm sorry.  You probably weren't expecting that.  I'm going to be excommunicated for this, aren't I?"  But there was amusement under the discomfort.

"I just wasn't expecting you to touch me there," Guerradio said, half-rising on one elbow.  "You warned me."

"Do you mind if I open the other window?  It's hot in here."

"Go ahead."  It would give him time to calm down--which is probably what Iphicles intended.  Christ.  That one touch had nearly made him come.  He reached out for the wine glass and swallowed deeply.  Maybe this wasn't--

"... such a good idea," Iphicles said.  He looked faintly flushed.

Iphicles' uncertainty changed his mind, putting him back in control.  This was exactly what he wanted.  "Why not?  We're not doing anything wrong.  I'm sorry if my reaction embarrassed you."

"Oh, ‘embarrassed' isn't exactly the word I'd use.  But you're right.  We're not doing anything wrong."   Quickly clearing the table, Iphicles sat on the edge, sketchbook in hand.  "Let's try this again.  Arch your back a little.  No, more.   Arm a little higher.  And move your--yes, that's right.  Thighs open just a little wider.  Tilt your head slightly away from me.   There.  That's it."

The pose was surprisingly comfortable, and Guerradio closed his eyes, listening to the charcoal's scratch as it moved across the page, to Iphicles' measured breathing, his occasional muttered exclamation.  Lulled by the warmth, the food and wine, he'd actually begun to drift off when the scratching stopped.  Lifting his hand, Guerradio saw Iphicles watching him.  "Are you done?" he asked, after a minute or two.

"Yes," Iphicles said.  "Just wondering how I'm going to convince people that I didn't sleep with you.  No one's going to believe it, not when they see this.  You looked too fuck--like you've been in bed with someone all night.  My brother's going to give me the mother of all lectures."

Guerradio sat up, not bothering with his clothes.  "He won't believe you?"

"If you could see how you looked right now... Here."  He handed over the sketchbook.  "I'm a much better sculptor than artist, but you can see it even in these."

Iphicles was right.  Even in the quick drawings, he looked sated--no, glutted--from sex.  "Do I really look like that?  Or is it the way you've drawn me?"  He'd never seen himself after sex.  Only during.  And the effect was different.  This was how a lover would see him.  Christ, what a turn-on.

"You look like that," Iphicles said, and his voice slid down.  "Even with the robes on.   Without them... It's hard to believe you're a cardinal."  His hand kept moving over his own thigh, stroking, squeezing.  "This is your last chance, Guerradio.  You sure you want to keep doing this?"

"I liked it," he told him honestly.  "It was relaxing, once I got over the surprise.  We can come here in the evenings after dinner, when I'm free."

"I really appreciate this, Guerradio.   I don't know how to thank you.  Any ideas?"

"When I think of something, I'll let you know."

That night, Guerradio had a dream.

He was a boy, barely fifteen, lying in a narrow wood-framed cot under a blanket, blinking his child's eyes in the filmy moonlight.  His chest hurt a little, where he'd struck it on that branch, and he reached beneath the covers, pressing his fingers to the tender skin.   Something else had woken him.   A rustling sound.  Wings, he thought.  A bird had flown in through the window... Although when he looked, the window was closed.

Then he saw the shape beside his bed.  A man, only not a man.  Then the figure stepped closer, and he knew what'd caused the whispering sound.  Not wings.  Arrows.  One in his heart, one in his thigh.  Even in the dark, he could see the black trickles of blood. Too terrified to breathe, to call for his mother, he stared up, into the pale face of the most beautiful man he'd ever seen.  "Iphicles," he said, as the man reached for him.

Guerradio woke for real.  At least he thought it was for real.  No one stood beside his bed, although his heart seemed to ache a little, and he rubbed away the pain.  The action made his nipple hard, then his cock, so he reached for it, squeezing the head.  It felt tender, too, but when he started stroking the length, that touch of pain added to the pleasure.

He thought back to the birdcage room, the red silk couch, and Iphicles' hand on his cock. Only this time, Iphicles didn't let go, but bent and began to suck.  When the swollen skin glowed wetly, Iphicles stood, stripped quickly, then straddled him.  Guerradio's fingers moved faster, harshly, the way Iphicles would fuck him.  He imagined Iphicles' desperate guilt, and came hard, crying out.

"That was an interesting night," Iphicles said the next morning, back on his bench.

"What part?  When you were drawing me? Or after?"

"Both.  I've been thinking about Samson forever.  I always felt sorry for him, but attracted to him, too.  If he hadn't given in, if he'd just stayed strong, the story would've lost me.  Ever had a fantasy come true?  That's what it was like.  Everything just came together.  You must've felt something like that when you saw your saint for the first time."

Guerradio sat down, his robes falling beside him like wings.  The dream came back.  "It's different in the dark.  When you're young.  You don't really understand it.  It's too much."   The silence alerted him, and he looked up, saw Iphicles watching.  "What about after you'd left me?"

"After... I took the new drawing to bed and thought about what I wanted from him.  From the sculpture, I mean.  From Samson."

"And what do you want from him?"

"Submission.   The sense that he's deliberately giving himself up.  But still strong.  I don't want to lose that."

"It sounds like you're in love with him," Guerradio said.

"You're probably right."

"But he's weak.  How can you respect that?  He gives in to this traitorous whore, who's only using him.  He ends up blind and humiliated."

"To me, that makes him more interesting.  I can't relate to anyone too perfect.  I'm not perfect.  It's not all love and forgiveness with me.  I hate some people.  I get jealous and petty and mean.  I do really stupid things, when I know better.  Sometimes I just can't stop myself.  Like Samson."

"He let himself be tricked.  She came to him, used his lust against him, and he fell for it.  It's pathetic."

 "Maybe, but that's part of his appeal for me.  He's believable.  It's the martyrs I don't get, the ones who leap in front of the arrows.  It's just so abstract, to sacrifice yourself for some ideal.  But to open yourself up for another human being--that I can relate to."  Iphicles looked up from his sketchpad.  "So, is tonight still alright?  I need more sketches.  Or have you changed your mind?"

Christ, he was irritating.  Every conversation turned into a battle, except that Iphicles never seemed to notice.  "I said I'd do it.  I'll be there."  About to walk out, Guerradio turned back.  "I almost forgot.  The mayor's invited you to join us at his banquet tonight."

"I'll be going with you?"

"With me, and a few members from my household."

"I'm not good at these big dinners.  Be warned."

"Don't worry about it.  Apollonare won't even notice.  He'll be too busy studying his reflection in the silverware, or thinking of ways to raise taxes to keep his mistress in fur."

Iphicles laughed.  "Sounds like an idiot."

"He's one of the worst, but at least the food's always good.  Maybe you'll get a few commissions out of it.  We'll leave at seven."  Remembering that he was supposed to be offended, Guerradio gave a brief nod and left Iphicles sitting on the bench.

"Amadeo seems very attached to you," Iphicles said as the two rode together in the carriage.  "I think he was disappointed when you told him to take the other coach."

"He's spoiled.  He thinks he can get away with murder because we're related.  I've been planning to send him on to Rome.  He's learned all he can from me."

"Poor kid.  I don't think he's going to be happy about that."  Iphicles shifted on the seat, looking out over the hills.  "The light here's incredible.  Different from Florence or Rome.  I'd love to set up a studio here."

It was almost a shame, Guerradio thought, that Iphicles wouldn't get the chance.  He'd just slink back to Florence, tail between his legs.  "Why not?  I own the land here.  I could rent you a plot, if you wanted."

Iphicles glanced back and smiled.  "That's tempting.  But I think it'd only contribute to the rumors about us that you'll be hearing soon enough."

Looking at him, Guerradio wanted to make those rumors true and fuck him right here in the carriage, against the red velvet seat. "I told you: I don't care about gossip."

"What do you care about?  I mean, other than God."

"That's a hard question to answer.  What do you care about?"

"My work.  My family.  That's about it.  I move around too much to keep a lot of friends, and I was such an assho--such a troublemaker as a kid that I didn't make a lot, anyway.  What about you?"

"I care about people who deserve it," Guerradio said.

"Aren't you supposed to care most about people who don't?  Those ones who need saving?"

"It doesn't really make a difference if I do or I don't.  Priests only represent God.  As long as we point people in the right direction, our beliefs don't count."  The bumps in the road punctuated each sentence.

"That's pretty cynical."

"That's theology."  Like Iphicles, Guerradio watched the last traces of orange and red bleed into blackness.  The new dark carried a melancholy stillness on its violet-edged wings.  "I guess you could say I care about the people who don't ask for it.  Who don't force anything from me.  Who give without expecting something in return."  He touched Iphicles' shoulder, his thumb brushing bare skin above the tunic's neckline.  "We're here."

The wheels' rattle over rough cobblestones drowned out Iphicles' gasp, but Guerradio felt the small shudder before he pulled away his hand.  Was Iphicles always this responsive?  He wanted to test him, peel off his clothes and lick every inch of his body, watching what happened when a tongue moved over the hollow of his throat, the curve of his hip, the head of his cock.  Skip the party and go fuck Iphicles under those lemon trees behind the palace.  But that wouldn't make a very good story.  Not the right kind of story, anyway.

The carriage pulled up beside a large flat-faced building, torches burning at the main doors, candles at each window.   They climbed out, the others from Guerradio's household joining them, and were escorted inside, through long corridors that twisted like golden snakes.

"The mayor doesn't believe in holding back, does he?" Iphicles whispered in Guerradio's ear, as they finally passed through a doorway into an enormous courtyard.

Directly ahead, a four-storey wall had been painted like the porticoed entrance to an ancient temple, with a series of receding arches that led to a massive fountain under a cloud-strewn blue sky.  This entrance was supported on either side by four red marble columns standing on square white marble blocks, bas relief covering their surface.  The right and left walls were identical: a molded cornice above a row of balconies with spectators watching the guests arrive, and beneath that, boxed silk canopies suspended by gold chains over tables piled a storey high with gold platters, ewers, cups, bowls and dishes, like offerings on an altar, blindingly bright under the blaze of a hundred braziers, a thousand candles.

"He thinks he's a god," Guerradio said.  "The mistake of naming your offspring after Apollo, then giving him whatever he wants.  And he always holds his parties out here, so we'll all buy into his myth.  See?  Look at his servants."

Apollonare had dressed them like Roman priests, in short white tulle gowns and flat leather sandals laced up their calves, wreaths in their hair.  They carried trays of filled wines glasses across the courtyard's huge green and gold tiles, hips roiling to the rhythm played out by a group of musicians.

The mayor himself, draped in violet and green velvet, his own wreath made of gold leaves, nodded at Guerradio, but didn't move until his eyes flicked over Iphicles.  Then he advanced with a viper's smile, tongue lashing his lips.  "This must be the sculptor," he said.  "You'll have to sit next to me.  I would've set a place for you there if I'd known Cardinal Guerradio was going to listen to me for once and bring you."

Minutes later, they were all seated, Iphicles to Apollonare's right at one of the long tables in the courtyard's center, with Guerradio at the other, winched between Amadeo and Poggio Roverella, a doddering clothier.  Payback for the harsh penances.  Guerradio listened with half an ear as Poggio rambled on about his new bride, a girl thirty-three years his junior.  She sat across from them, flirting wildly with a disinterested Amadeo, whose right hand kept straying under the table between Guerradio's thighs, even when he pushed him away.

Usually, at big affairs like this, he ordered Amadeo to play with his cock, then met him in some pre-arranged dark spot for a quick, rough fuck.  Not this time.   Not with Apollonare coiled around Iphicles, ready to swallow him whole, while Guerradio was relegated to the second table and the bleary-eyed Poggio.  During it all, the oblivious old man babbled on, comparing his wife's charms to each dish served.  There were a lot of dishes, and Poggio was no poet.  Trapped in a hell of Dantean proportions, Guerradio drank plenty of strong red wine and watched the banquet unfold.

While a company of young actors performed classical myths, the feast opened with fresh green almonds, split and served on vine leaves, cold roast carp dressed with sugar and rosewater, tortellini stuffed with pumpkin and dribbled with parmesan, marinated anchovies sprinkled with pepper, leeks in an almond and cinnamon sauce, and broad beans cooked with bay leaves and garlic.  Poggio, with a love-struck sigh that smelled of rot, confided to Guerradio that the beans were like his wife's rather bulbous brown eyes, glistening with love for him.  Guerradio flinched, and stuck with the almonds.

The second course consisted of stew with pancetta, spinach and thyme, tarts stuffed with pureed chickpeas, and candied violets in deep-fried pastry.  The latter dish sent the old man into paroxysms of joy, his liver-spotted fingers trembling as he lifted each one to his lips.  Her nipples, he confessed, guzzling more wine, were like these little flowers, purple and velvety.  Guerradio considered informing him that the description was unnecessary, since his wife's yellow silk dress showed them to advantage, but Amadeo's snaky hand distracted him.

After some raw fennel to clear the palate, the servants brought out the third course, which featured sea bass in a white sauce decorated with pomegranate seeds, lampreys baked in a pie, rolls of veal spread with fennel seeds and marjoram, chicken stuffed with green grapes and topped with fresh mint, and a faux ham made of salmon in gelatin.  Guerradio's stomach turned a little when Poggio lovingly compared the pork to his wife's haunches, and he glanced over at the other table to avoid staring at the wobbly pink mess.

The view didn't improve.  Apollonare, who'd been ignoring the other guests all night, was still leaning close to Iphicles, lips practically on his ear.  Even from here, with the music and talk, Guerradio heard Iphicles' low laugh.  He wasn't the only one: a number of people were watching, whispering behind their hands.  Apollonare's neglected new mistress, after all but stripping for his attention, stormed out with her husband, of all people, but the mayor didn't seem to notice.

That jackass Apollonare was going to ruin his plans.  How would it look if the mayor had Iphicles before Guerradio did?  Mortregno'd laugh himself sick--

"Enough," Guerradio hissed to Amadeo, roughly removing his hand.  "I'm not in the fucking mood."

"I just thought--"

"I know what you thought.  Leave me the hell alone."

That stopped him, and Guerradio sat silently, watching Iphicles, while the servants cleared the table, then brought bowls of lemon-scented water and fresh linen napkins, and the actors, wearing the masks of tragedy, performed the story of Echo and Narcissus.  Then the final course arrived, which set off Poggio, quite drunk by now, who saw his wife's lips in the plum tarts, her fingernails in the sugared almonds, her toes in the candied orange.  When Iphicles and Apollonare disappeared from the courtyard after that, Guerradio nearly offered Poggio another use for the candied orange.  He'd misjudged Iphicles, who apparently had all the willpower and discrimination of a bitch in heat.  A manipulator, too.  A game-player.  A whore with--

"Is something wrong?"  Amadeo asked.   "You seem angry."

"I'm fine," Guerradio said, and when Poggio next opened his mouth to sin against all poets, Guerradio turned to him and snapped, "Guess you missed the eleventh commandment: ‘Thou shalt not bore thy dinner companion to death.'"   The old man's pink-gummed mouth dropped open, but Guerradio was past caring.  He spent the rest of the night talking to Poggio's violet- nippled wife, keeping one eye on the door and drinking glass after glass of thick Rhenish wine.  The two men returned near midnight, and stayed together until Guerradio sent a servant to tell Iphicles they were leaving.  Not bothering to take his leave, Guerradio, drunk as Poggio, walked out, with Amadeo and the rest of his men in tow.

"I'm riding with you this time?"  Amadeo asked.

With a sharp nod, Guerradio got into the carriage just as Iphicles walked out the door.  "Leave," he snapped at the driver, who cracked his whip.  To Amadeo: "Don't talk."  He leaned back against the cushioned seat, legs stretched out, eyes closed, more than a little drunk... And saw Iphicles embracing one of the slim columns in the arcaded library while Apollonare took him in the ass.  Guerradio himself had done just that with Amadeo a few months back, figuring the library was the last place a bunch of drunken men and women would wander into.  Apollonare, that idiot, who'd need a map to find the room, could've thought the same thing.  Or maybe he'd fuck Iphicles on his own bed, licking his ass clean afterward.  Guerradio had done that, too, with Amadeo, following it with a glass of wine.

The real question:  why hadn't Iphicles fucked him?  He'd been lying naked on that couch, and all Iphicles did was move his dick, not suck it.  Mortregno must've felt like this when Iphicles turned him down.  Unless... Unless Mortregno, that old warlock, had fucked Iphicles in every corner of his palace, spilling enough cum in him to float a dozen galleons.  Maybe the old bastard had set Guerradio up from the start, telling him that crap about being rejected, then paying Iphicles to keep it in his pants for everyone except him.  Just another little lesson in betrayal.

Guerradio's carriage was the first to return home. Once inside, Amadeo turned toward his room, and Guerradio stopped him.  "Where do you think you're going?"

"You didn't seem interested at dinner.  And I saw the way you stared at...It doesn't matter."

The servants prepared a bath, and the two of them drank more wine together in the copper tub, although Guerradio's world had softened.  Not his cock, though.  His cock was hard, lying thick and wet across his belly, but he wouldn't let Amadeo touch it.  "Get the oil, then go kneel on the bed," he told him.  "On all fours."

Amadeo obeyed, his hard body gleaming in the warm firelight, and placed the bottle on the bedside table before crouching on the silk sheets, his cock hanging stiff and ready.

"Slut," Guerradio said, putting his wineglass beside the oil and climbing up behind him.  He took another sip, then rubbed the oil onto his hands.  With one slick finger, he rubbed the tight hole, and Amadeo, well-trained, opened for him with a little thankful gasp.   But when he started to speak, Guerradio slapped his ass, leaving a red stain.  "No talking, or I won't let you come."  Then he eased the finger back inside, until his knuckles pressed against the pale skin.  "You want more, don't you?  You're used to something bigger."

This time, he added a second finger.  No resistance.  The little whore's ass was used to it.  Spreading it for everyone.  Bastard.  "Still not enough.  How ‘bout this?"  Three fingers now, stretching the ring.  "Nice.  But still not enough."  Did he mean for Amadeo, or for him?  It didn't really matter.  So he began to work four fingers in, slowly, watching the hole widen as they disappeared inside.  "That's it," Guerradio said, when his thumb lay flat against the crack of Amadeo's ass.   "You'll let me do whatever I want, won't you? Let's try the whole hand this time.  You're ready for it.  Just stay relaxed.  It'll only hurt at first."

A few strokes across Amadeo's leaking cock, more oil on his fingers, then he was ready, balling his fist.  "Take a deep breath."  And Guerradio started pushing, twisting his hand.  Still no protest, only moaning, as Amadeo rocked back against him.  The top half of his fist was in now, and sweat ran like tears down his cheeks.  Everything seemed so hot: Amadeo's body, tight around his hand, the air, thick with cedar smoke.  "I'm giving you the rest now.  Just relax."  Guerradio braced himself against Amadeo's hip and shoved.  Resistance, tension, then release.  "Yes, that's it."  With his free hand, he brushed aside the damp curls falling into his eyes.  Beneath him, around him, Amadeo trembled, his skin fever-warm.  "Tell me how it feels," Guerradio whispered, touching the boy's hard cock.

"It feels... Oh God.  Incredible.  So tight.  Hurts, but in a good way.  Feels like you're claiming me."

Incredible.  Iphicles' word.  That bastard.  He'd show him.  "How's this?"  He spread his fingers, stroking, and Amadeo's limbs seemed to liquify, his head falling to the pillow.  Sweat pooled on his back, rolling like waves down the slick skin, dampening Guerradio's wrist.  And he made choked, cut sounds, like stained glass breaking.

Guerradio pulled back his fist, then pushed forward, taking Amadeo's slippery cock in his other hand.  "You're ready to come, aren't you?  Don't.  Not until I tell you."  He withdrew his hand, ignoring Amadeo's moan, and grabbed the silk rope keeping the bed-curtain open.  "Put your hands behind your back."  When they were tied, Amadeo's cheek still resting against the pillow, Guerradio reached for the filled wine glass.  Holding it between Amadeo's legs, he pulled the boy's cock back, soaking the head, then bent and sucked it clean.  "Yes, you like that."   But Guerradio needed more, needed to be the center, the sun.  God.  "You can talk now, but don't come."

"I love you.  Need your cock.  Inside me now.  Please.  I love you.  Fuck me.  Hurt me.  I love you."  Their sense smeared, the meaning in their rhythm.  Like the shuddering, the litany went on, natural now as breathing.

"That's better," Guerradio said, and dipped his finger in the wine, spreading it around the needy little ring.  He encouraged it with his tongue until the tension left and it opened for him.  Lifting the glass, warmed by his hand, Guerradio carefully poured the remaining red wine into Amadeo, whose prayer broke, only to start again in Latin.  It was from the Office of the Dead, and Guerradio thought what a strange, pathetic, needy boy Amadeo was, as he shoved his cock inside him.

He knew Amadeo was coming, could feel it in the shattered cadence of his body, but it didn't matter anymore, not with his cock on fire.  Thrust after thrust, swimming in pleasure, in wine and sweat and come, he forgot about everything else, just fucked the eager body under him, fucked him hard and deep, fucked Iphicles until--

No, he thought too late, and came, betrayed again.

Amadeo paid for it later.  Guerradio turned him on his back the next time, his wrists bound above his head, and licked his cock until he was huge and swollen, then fucked him again.  Afterward, sleep, more wine, more sex.  It went on until dawn, until Amadeo was covered in semen, blue bruises and bites marks, until all he could say was Guerradio's name.  Finally, he untied him, ordered Amadeo out, then collapsed onto the wet sheets, into a sleep deep and dark like death.

Guerradio woke up alone, head pounding, stomach knotted, and staggered to the privy just in time.  Back in his room, he drank glass after glass from the water pitcher now beside his bed, then crawled back under the covers.  About to drop off, he heard the door open.  Not Gabriel.  He wasn't in the mood.

"Looks like you had fun last night," the steward said.  "You look almost as bad as Amadeo."

"Go to hell."

"You'll have to get out of my way first.  You planning to get up anytime soon?  Iphicles was asking about you."

"Fuck him."

"When you didn't show up this morning, he went into town.  He said something about seeing Apollonare.  At first, I couldn't figure out why. Then I heard that he and the mayor hit it off last night.  The servants are all talking about it."

Guerradio tried not to react, but Gabriel must've seen something.

"Things not working out like you planned?  Finally met someone immune to your charms, and you can't handle it?"

"I told you: my plan wasn't to jump into bed with him.  And who said he's immune to me?"

"But there is a plan?"  The grey head shook.  "Of course there is.  But it looks like you'll have to change it now.  If he was so eager for you, he'd be the one covered with the bruises, not Amadeo."

"Gabriel, why don't you get the fuck out of here and let me sleep? Everything's going according to plan."  If anything, it made him more determined to break that whoring prick Iphicles, get him to beg for his cock despite Mortregno's bribe.  "Nothing's changed."

"No, I suppose it wouldn't.  Not with you."

The sanctimonious tone snapped through him.  "You're right.  I do need to make some changes.  Get rid of Amadeo.  It's time.  He won't leave me alone.  If it'll make you shut up, write a letter to Cardinal Melozzo, telling him I'm collecting on the favor he owes me.  And don't lecture me.  I'm sick of listening to you.  You're like an old woman."

Gabriel shrugged.  "I don't know, Guerradio.  Maybe it's for the best.  Although the boy won't see it that way.  He's in love with you."

"That's his problem.  Have him gone within the next few days, or you're going with him.  And set up a private dinner for me and Iphicles.  Make yourself useful for once."   Guerradio rolled onto his side, closing his eyes.  The door slammed shut a minute later, leaving him alone.

Dinner time.  And time to pay Iphicles a visit.  Hopefully the whore hadn't worn himself out on Apollonare's cock.  But then, Guerradio didn't need him hard, just willing.  He'd bend him over the windowsill in the bird cage room and fuck him all night, until Iphicles found God.

On his way out, the crucifix on the altar caught his attention, and he stopped before it.  "Don't really need this anymore, do you?"  he said to Christ, whose hand still reached heartward, unsatisfied.  "The plague's over."  Placing it around his neck, Guerradio walked to the small dining hall, deliberately late.  Let Iphicles wait.  The bastard needed a lesson in humility.  Besides, if Iphicles was hot for Apollonare, he'd like a little neglect and humiliation.

"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," Iphicles said, taking another mouthful of the half-eaten stuffed chicken.  "Hope you don't mind that I started without you.  I waited for awhile..."   He shrugged.

Rude bastard, Guerradio thought, taking his seat.  "I can see the temptation."

"It wasn't exactly temptation.  More necessity.  I was hungry, so I ate.  Kind of like Eve, in the garden."  Iphicles glanced up at him and winked.  "I know, blasphemy.  I got into the habit of it, just to annoy my brother.  What can I say?  It was petty revenge.  Don't you ever do things just to annoy someone?"

"I'm a cardinal," Guerradio said, and saw Iphicles' mouth twitch.  "Fine.  Yes, sometimes I do things just to annoy people.  But they ask for it.  Why?"  His stomach still shifted, but he was getting hungry, and took a slice of tart stuffed with figs, apples, pears and raisins.

"Come on, Guerradio.  I'm not blind.  Last night, sending a servant to get me, not coming personally to say goodnight to Apollonare... You had to know that'd bother him.  And you did it for that reason.  To piss him off."

"Fuck him."  It shot out before his mind could catch up.  But hearing him defend that pompous moron was too much.  And now Iphicles was laughing.

"That's what I mean.  You don't like him, and you don't really care who knows it, cardinal or not."  He sounded admiring, which didn't make sense.   "Like with that drooling old man, when you lost it with him.  You gave him a chance to shut up, and when he didn't take it, you stuck it to him.  I don't think that Apollonare was any more happy than the old man."

Good.  "I gather Apollonare offered you a commission."

The smirk flashed again.  "Among other things."

"Seems like my warning about him yesterday didn't have much of an impact."

"So you think we're lovers?"

"I hadn't given it much thought, but the servants were talking...Hard to miss it."

"Good," Iphicles said, with a wide, shit-eating grin.  "I was hoping they would."

Guerradio wanted to smack him.  Obviously, he'd made a serious judgment in error about Iphicles, who was an immoral slut, happily flaunting his mischosen conquests.  Giving up on the food, he turned to the wine, but struck to a light, dry white.  If this little pissant wanted him to ask about Apollonare, he could wait not only until hell froze over, but Christ and all the saints were skating on it.  "You're finished here?  If you want to do some work on the Samson sculpture, that's fine with me."   Hardly enthusiastic, but it was the best he could manage through the annoyance.

"That'd be great.  But I want to explain about Apo--"

"Save it for confession," Guerradio said, pushing back his chair, which scraped the floor.  "Let's just get to the sketches."  Spicy breaths of pine from the burning logs scented the small room as he walked in.

Iphicles joined him, sketchbook in hand, and shut the door.  "Ready when you are," he said, sitting on the low table before the couch, legs crossed.

Walking between Iphicles and the couch, Guerradio pulled off the heavy robes, but kept his boots on.  "Do you mind if I open a window?" he asked.  When Iphicles nodded, he walked across the room, stretching to unlock the latch, then leaned out.  A few deeps breaths later, his nipples hard from the night air, he walked slowly back.  Iphicles' eyes never left him, even when Guerradio sat on the couch, right in front of him, and tugged off his boots.  "Is there a problem?" he asked.  His turn to smirk.  Maybe Iphicles spent the day with Apollonare's cock up his ass, but that hadn't changed anything.  Only a pound of Mortregno's silver kept him from--

"Let's get started," Iphicles said casually, flipping open his book.  "Lie on your back, same as the night before.  Legs apart.  Head turned.  Hand over your eyes.  And your--"

"I remember."  Guerradio reached between his thighs and moved his cock, the heat from his hand swelling it a little.  Fine.  From his hand, from anger, from lust.

"It's too bad you can't..."

"Can't what?"  Like he didn't know.  Under his arm, he'd seen the slow sweep of Iphicles' gaze.

Iphicles kept drawing.  "Keep your cock like that.  Half-hard.  Like you're dreaming of your lover.  Of Delilah."

"I don't know..." Guerradio said.  Too much touching to keep it like that, and he'd be coming all over his hand.

"I guess I shouldn't have asked.  Talk about pushing my luck."  He looked up with a quick grin that faded to the same dark look of lust.   "I'm going to hell anyway, so it can't hurt to ask.  Doesn't someone talk about how our bodies are gifts from God, and we're supposed to enjoy them for that?"

"I don't think touching myself while you draw me is what they had in mind."

"If it's your reputation, don't worry about it.  I--"

"Iphicles, I told you that doesn't matter to me.  It's more--"

"I get it.  Touching yourself is against the rules.  And obviously I can't do it for you."  He paused, so close to breaking that Guerradio could almost see the cracks.  "How about I just talk to you?  That's within bounds."

"Alright."  Guerradio bent his arm over his eyes and waited.  No sound, then the charcoal slid over the page, rough like a cat's tongue.  It went on for a few minutes, before Iphicles spoke.

"The summer I was fourteen, my mother dragged me and my brother to visit some old aunt who lived in Otranto, on the coast.  I didn't want to go.  I told her it was because I didn't want to leave my friends, but I didn't really have any."  His voice was quiet, whispery, like the story came from somewhere secret.  "Looking back, it was more that I didn't want to spend time with them.  I knew the relatives would all love my brother and wonder what went wrong with me.  That's how it turned out.  He's the younger brother, too, which makes it worse.  So there I am, bored and lonely, although I can't get away from him.  He's always around, and I know that if I go any place fun, he's going to tell Mom."

Even with the window open, the air felt humid, and Guerradio began to sweat.  "Go on," he said, voice equally low, inviting.

"I head out to the beach.  Nothing better to do.  It's hot, really hot, and it's making me sleepy.  And there's something else, another feeling I can't make sense of.  But I keep walking.  The beach is empty; everyone's inside, out of the sun, except me and my brother.  We get close to the water and take off our clothes.  I know he'll tell, the brat, but it doesn't matter.  It's just too hot.  He goes toward the water, but I'm too sleepy, so I lie down on my back, using my bunched-up clothes as a pillow.  But the sun's too hot on my face, and I roll over onto my stomach.  The sand feels good, really fine and smooth against me, and that other feeling starts to come back, stronger now."

Guerradio was caught between the two scenes: Iphicles here, watching him, wanting him, getting off on his memory, and Iphicles then, tanned, naked and desperate, about to come for the first time.  And Iphicles was getting off, bribe or not.  "Keep talking."

"I can hear my brother playing, but it's far away.  The gulls are louder.  The surf's louder.  I can feel everything, too: the breeze, the spray, and the sand.  Especially the sand.  It feels so good that I wriggle against it a little.  There's more heat, but it's inside me now, spreading through me.  Especially down there.  Between my legs.  I've felt it before, lying in bed at night, but my brother's always there, always asking me what's going on.   Now, for once, I'm alone, and I'm not going to stop.  I don't think I can.  It's rushing too fast through me, and all I can do is grind against the sand."

"Yes."  Guerradio wanted to move, wanted to pull Iphicles on top of him and feel that heat.  Only he couldn't.  This was a contest, a battle, and Iphicles had to lose, had to break first.  But lying here, not moving... It almost hurt.  Iphicles' voice had gotten rougher, rhythmic, like he was speaking in a lover's ear while inside him.

"My heart's pounding and my muscles are tightening.  My whole body's waiting for something, needing something but I still don't know what.  It just feels... oh ...  It just feels so good.  Too good.  I figure these hot lines of pleasure running through me are really angels' fingers, lifting me up.  I'm floating higher and higher, and I wonder why no one told me dying would be this perfect.  Then it happens and I know that I've reached Heaven, that I've found God, that I'm inside him.  And it's... God... I'm sorry..."  Iphicles moaned, soft and low, his breathing suddenly fragmented.

Guerradio, painfully hard, sat up.  "Are you alright?"   One look at Iphicles' flushed face and he knew.  He'd come right here, right now, remembering, looking.  God.   When Iphicles, still panting, only nodded, Guerradio stood up and drew on his cope.  "It's been a long day," he said again, nearly forgetting he'd spent most of it in bed.  But he had to get out of there.  Had to come.  "I'll see you tomorrow, Iphicles."  Guerradio made it down the hallway and halfway up the stairs before he leaned back against the wall and stroked himself to orgasm.  It took seconds, and he stayed there, licking semen from his fingers, and thought of a boy finding God.

"He's gone," Gabriel said, as Guerradio ate a slice of melon from the plate before him.

"What do you mean, gone?"

"To the stonecutter's.  He said something about arranging to have a second piece of marble sent here because he couldn't choose between them."

So that was how Iphicles was going to explain the extra material.  "Did he say anything else?"

"Like what?"

Guerradio shrugged, taking a sip from his mug.  "Just asking."

"You never just ask.  What's going on between you two, anyway?"

"I told you: nothing."

"Because he's too busy with Apollonare?"

"He's with him now?"

"He did say something about going by his place, yes.  I think Iphicles might be doing some work for him, too."

"Work... On his back, maybe."

"You're jealous."

"You really are losing your mind, old man."

"You can't believe that Iphicles might prefer someone else to you.  You're used to playing God in your own little kingdom, and it burns you to know someone's refusing to worship you."  Gabriel leaned across the table, gripping the edges.  Little flecks of spittle collected at the corners of his mouth, like white-capped waves--a sure sign the steward was seriously angry.

"Who said he's refusing?" Guerradio asked, squeezing a plum to test its ripeness.  "And why're you so riled up?"

"Because of...  Speak of the devil," he muttered under his breath.  "This is your mess, Guerradio; you clean it up.  I'm going to get this place ready for the mason's men, then some additional things for Carnival.  Your costume's hanging in your closet.  Not what I would've chosen..."  Gabriel left, still muttering.

Amadeo sat across from Guerradio, reaching for the fruit.  "I talked to Gabriel this morning about taking a room closer to yours."


"So I can spend the night with you.  Every night."

"You think I want this?"

"Ever since Iphicles showed up, I've been a little confused.  You've been spending all this time with him, and the way you two acted at the banquet, watching each other the whole night, I thought maybe... Well, that doesn't matter.  Because then he went off with Apollonare, and everyone knows they're lovers now, and we spent the night together, and you did all of those things to me...You gave me proof."  With a quick look around, Amadeo stood and raised his robes high, revealing purple bruises shaped like butterfly wings on his hips and thighs.

Guerradio recoiled, then realized the cause. Not the plague.  He'd made those marks last night.  "That's not proof of anything except that I fucked you hard.  I could've been fucking anyone."  But it hadn't been anyone.  It had been Iphicles.  Iphicles, who was ruining everything, like some kind of plague.

"Why else would you do what you did to me?  You have to love me.  You made me come so many times--you never do that.  It made sense of everything."

He should never have gone near this kid.  The obsessive kind always got things screwed up, always took everything for a sign of something greater.  They could find meaning in shit.   "I don't love you, Amadeo.  I fucked you because you have a good ass.  You've never been more to me than a good ass, or a hot mouth.  Deal with it.  Now get the fuck--"  A loud crash vibrated through the building.  "Just go.  I've got things to take care of."

The robes fluttered down.  "Later, then."

As the men moved his throne down a hallway toward the Salone de Sol, a pulley had slipped, and the large marble piece crashed into a wall, leaving a dent the size of a giant's fist.  The mason's stone made it through intact, although the noisy chaos lasted until sunset.

To escape the mess, Guerradio spent the day in the counting room with his reeve, organizing his tenants' lives.  He agreed to two marriages, disallowed a third because the girl was telling everyone she'd rather drink lepers' pus than marry (since Saint Catherine, every bride who didn't like her parents' choice in husbands trotted out that excuse, but this one seemed sincere), paid the surgeon's bill for a young farmer with an abscessed tooth, evicted an entire family for missing their rent (in post-plague Siena, anyone who couldn't drum up any florins had to be terminally stupid), and arranged for extra provisions, including wine, cheese, ham, candles, and firewood, for the peasants during Carnival.

With Malanno's head buried in the account books open on the table, Guerradio wandered to the window and saw Iphicles return around noon.  Even from this height, he looked rumpled: hair wild, full sleeves crushed.  Probably reeked of come, too.  Apparently last night wasn't enough for him.  A rapier pricked Guerradio's spleen, spilling bile through his veins.  Fuck Mortregno, that Judas, and his silver coins.  Bribe or no bribe, Iphicles should be throwing himself on Guerradio's cock.  He obviously had no control, fucking Apollonare with the discretion of a bitch in heat, and coming all over himself in that hot little room.

Then Malanno began talking about building a new ox-shed on the southern property, and Guerradio forced his attention to more mundane matters.  But whenever the fast-talking reeve paused for breath, or to adjust a figure in the accounts, he remembered the hot, embarrassed look on Iphicles' face after he'd come.  He was cracking.  He had to be.

"Iphicles," Gueraddio said, with a short nod.  He'd skipped their dinner together, eating instead with Malanno, but left word that Iphicles should wait for him.  Now Iphicles stood at the window, elbows propped on the sill, chin in his hands.

"Guerradio."  Iphicles slowly unbent and walked toward him, eyes a little hollow.  "I didn't think you were coming."

"You always say that.  Why not?"

"I thought maybe I'd pushed you too far.  That you'd wake up in the morning and think, ‘what the hell's going on with this guy?'"

"Were you trying to push me too far?"

"No.  I don't know.  Maybe," Iphicles said, flopping onto the couch.  "I guess I'm trying to make sense of you, and I can't.  Because I'm sculpting you," he added.  "Just trying to understand my subject."

"What don't you understand?"

"You're not afraid to speak your mind.  You don't put up with bullshit.  You're very physical.  It's--look, I'm going to be honest."

Guerradio undressed.   "I'm used to that by now."

"I don't understand why you're a priest.  It doesn't make sense to me.   It's like every part of you is designed to be something else, and I can't figure out what's keeping you here."  He waved a hand around him.  "Maybe you have some profound beliefs, but that's not what I see when I look at you.  It's just that...  I don't know.  If I met you in different circumstances, if I didn't know you were a cardinal, and you were just a man, you'd be someone I could...  Fuck, I don't know what I'm saying here."  Iphicles picked up his sketchbook.

"If I was someone like Apollonare?"

"You're nothing like him!  He's an idiot.  I'm only using him to--"

"Are you ready?"  Guerradio stood before him, naked.

"I want to talk to you about Apollonare," Iphicles said, as Guerradio lay down.  "I feel like you cut me off whenever I try.  I don't understand that, either."

"I'm not cutting you off.  I just don't like him.  I told you that from the beginning."

"I know you did.  That's why--"

"Iphicles, drop it.  I know all about you and Apollonare.  Can we just get on with it?"

This time, when Guerradio moved his cock, it stayed flaccid.  This was stupid.  He should leave, and get some repulsive old sculptor to do the monument. Who needed some young, beautiful, over-sexed whore asking him all of these questions and confusing everything?  Iphicles could make him crazier than anyone he'd ever met--

"Keep your hand there."

"I can't really do that," Guerradio said, although he didn't move his hand from between his legs.

"No, wait.  I'm not asking you to jerk off or anything.  This isn't about sex, right?  It's just about bodies.  And I need something from yours."

Christ, finally.  A good, hard fuck would clear the air between them.  Make things normal again.  Stop him feeling like--

"For the sculpture." Iphicles knelt beside the couch, then placed his hand on top of Guerradio's.  "I won't do anything.  I won't move it.  Just keep it there to encourage you.  Just for the heat.  I know what heat and pressure can do."

"Oh God."   Guerradio couldn't stop the words, or the tensed curve of his back.  "Not about sex," he repeated, sitting up.  What a lie.

"It's not about that between us.  It can't be.   It's just bodies."

The tip of Iphicles' thumb was actually touching the head of Guerradio's cock.  That slight contact made his blood flow like a stream through his veins, and he hardened under his fingers.  Under Iphicles' fingers.  God, it felt good.  Real.

"The first time someone touched me, I was about Amadeo's age."  Iphicles' voice barely stirred the air.  "He was my best friend.  I'd been dreaming about him for weeks before that.  Hot dreams.  Wet ones.  Couldn't remember the details when I woke up, but every time I looked at him, I'd get hard.  Funny thing was, it wasn't just sex.  I loved him.  He'd stood up for me, taught me things..."

"Then he betrayed you?"

"No, nothing like that.  See, he was married, and he loved his wife.  But he loved me, too.  And he wanted me.  Even I could tell that.  He never touched me, though.  He'd let me get close, especially when we were alone, but he'd always pull back.  At first, I thought he just didn't want me, but then I clued in.  I'd catch him watching me.  The usual stuff.  I guess I was kind of obsessed with him."

"So he seduced you?"

"No.  He wouldn't do it.  It was driving me crazy.  I jerked off all the time, but it didn't help.  Then his wife had to go away.  A sick relative or something.  I didn't care.  That first night, I sneaked out of my house and went to his bed.  I'd taken off my clothes, and when he tried to push me away, his hand slipped on my skin and his arm went around me...  I kissed him then, and he gave up."  He took a long, quavering breath.   "We fucked all night, and it was better than my dreams.  At dawn, he told me to go home, so my mother wouldn't worry."

Guerradio couldn't speak any more, only listen to that smooth, low voice while their hands covered his aching cock.

"I went straight to bed, but couldn't sleep.  I was just so fucking excited.  As you've probably figured out, I don't exactly get along with my mother and brother, so for the first time, I had someone for me.  Finally, I passed out, and my mother let me sleep.  I think she thought I was sick or something.  When I woke up, it was dark again, so I got cleaned up, then went back to him.  Hell, I ran to his place.  I had to be with him again.  You know what that's like?"

The hand on his pressed down, and Guerradio nodded.

"I kept picturing him lying there, waiting for me. But when I tried his door, it was locked.  I must've stood there for an hour, turning the handle over and over, not getting it, thinking there was some trick, that if I moved it just right, the door'd open.  You're so stupid when you're young.  Eventually, I gave up and went to a window.  I decided that he'd locked the door out of habit, or maybe his wife'd come home.  Only, when I looked inside, he was there.  He told me to go away, that if I ever came back, he'd kill me.  I didn't get it, even when he closed the shutters in my face.  I went back the next night, and that time, he came outside.  Only it wasn't to be with me.  He hit me.  Said I'd made him betray everything he believed in.  It took me years to understand what he meant."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"I don't know.  To explain things.  To you.  To me.  I'm trying to make sense of this."  Iphicles pulled his hand away.   "There are things I should do, and things I shouldn't, but whenever I'm around you, it's all fucked up.  Hell, I'm going to bed.  I hear you've got some kind of long day tomorrow--confession for everyone before Carnival starts.  Maybe I'll see you there."  And he walked out, not looking back.

Stunned, then furious, his cock near bursting, Guerradio got up.  Machiavelli had nothing on this guy.  And he could fucking smell Mortregno's cum-sticky hands in this, see them stuck up Iphicles' ass, cueing his lines.  Before Iphicles' exit-stage-right, Guerradio had actually conjured up something that stank like sympathy.  What a fucking idiot.  Iphicles' sad, sexy little story, the teasing touches... He'd played this out a thousand times, and had a thousand lovers fallen into his arms, begging for him.  There was something about Iphicles...

Like Mortregno.  The first time Mortregno came to him, Guerradio been at his uncle's palace only a few days, enough time to get homesick for parents who didn't miss him.  Mortregno had grunted at him, then disappeared, and everyone else had pretty much left him alone in that strange, brassy room, with a ceiling painted like a lid.  That was fine, he'd told himself.  He was used to being alone.  Even if this room looked like a jar, and he was trapped in it.

That night, he'd woken from a dream, gasping for air.  Something in his mouth... The room stayed blacker than hell even when he opened his eyes, which terrified him.  A blindfold, he'd realized later.  In his mouth, a salty cock.  In his ear, a voice like melted beeswax, sweet and smoky, that clung to the words.  "Worship me."

The next morning, lips swollen, ass sore, cock tender, Guerradio had tried to make sense of it, and decided a saint had visited him.  Who else could mix that kind of pain and pleasure?  And it had to be Sebastian, his favorite, the one who kept away the plague and died with arrows piercing his heart.  Not teeth biting him, or a cock penetrating him, but arrows: Sebastian trying to show him what it felt like to die and go to God.  He took as confirmation the ring under his pillow, with the arrowhead at its center, instead of a heart.

How could anyone be that naive?  Pathetic.  Anyone that gullible deserved what he got.  And fuck Iphicles for reminding him about this.  Through the open window, the church bells rang for vespers.  Still early.  Good.  He needed to get out of here; his throat had closed, and the air smelled brazen.

After speaking to the sacristan at the Duomo about the items the church would lend for the Feast of Fools, Guerradio walked into the tiny chapel of John the Baptist.  Here, everyone left him alone, probably thinking he went in to pray.  Or maybe they were avoiding him.   Who the fuck knew anymore.  He lit a candle, then sat on a bench before the altar, head bent, and thought about the coming night.  A hand on his arm interrupted his reverie, and Guerradio turned, expecting the sacristan.  Or--

Instead, Amadeo sat beside him.   "I've been looking for you.  I missed you."

"Actually, I'm glad you're here.  We need to talk."  He saw Amadeo smile, and something turned inside him, a spring wound too tight.  "I want you gone.  Tonight.  You can stay with a friend of mine in Rome.  But you can't stay with me anymore."

"It's him, isn't it?"  Amadeo asked quietly, flushed and more serious than the saint gazing over his shoulder from the fresco.   "You're in love with him.  Not me.  I'm not good enough.  But I can change."

"I'm sure you can.  But that won't make me love you.  Nothing will make me love you.  And don't be an idiot.  This isn't about Iphicles.  He's got nothing to do with it."

"It's like you knew, though.  Like you've been waiting for him.  Ever since the plague stopped, you've been waiting.  Please, let me touch you one last time.  Come in my mouth.  One last time.  Please.  I'll do it just the way you like."

His pulped ego won, although Guerradio tried to credit lust.  Except Amadeo's familiar desperation scraped open a memory, and he needed sex to wipe up the blood.  "Just this one time.  And it means nothing.  You mean nothing."  He got up, Amadeo trailing behind him, and stood in a dark corner, hitching up his robes.  "Make it good," he said, leaning into the cool stone wall, as Amadeo knelt on the floor.

Outside the chapel, the voices droned, soft and steady, but Guerradio could still hear the wet sounds as Amadeo sucked the head of his cock, his fingers closed tightly at the base.  Seeing him suck so sweetly only increased his irritation, so Guerradio closed his eyes and pictured another tongue trailing in slow circles around the head, other hands stroking his balls.  But when he reached down, it wasn't Iphicles' long curls under his fingers, and he pushed the hot mouth away.  "Bend over the font.  Or get out."

Amadeo obeyed, tugging down his hose, and spread his legs wide as he clutched the font's marble rim.  "I want you inside me.   I didn't think you'd--"

"Shut up," Guerradio said, and roughly shoved his cock into Amadeo's tight hole.  "Shut up and let me fuck you."  It felt good, and he thrust deeply, hard as he could.  At Amadeo's cloudy sounds of pleasure, Guerradio rammed harder.  "I'm not doing this for you."  No matter how hard he rammed his cock inside him, the low, hungry moans continued.  "Don't you fucking come," he warned too late, as Amadeo gave a little tremor, like a man returning to God.  That rhythmic clasping broke him, and, against his will, Guerradio came, too--hot, sharp arrows shooting into the trembling body beneath him.

His breathing took minutes to slow, and they stayed like that while Guerradio sucked air into his lungs, fingers bruising, rebruising, Amadeo's hips.  Finally calm, he stepped back, then pushed Amadeo aside to dip his hands in the font, letting the holy water clean the semen from his cock.

"How I feel doesn't matter, does it?  I don't matter.  I've never mattered.  It's always been you and him.  You and Iphicles."

Guerradio shook his head.  "You think you're in love with me.  You've told me that.  You're not.  And even if you were, it wouldn't matter.  I don't love you.  You have a decent tongue and a better ass, and for awhile I didn't mind putting my cock there.  That's all.  A hundred boys could replace you. Now grow up and get the hell out of here.  I've wasted enough time with you."

"Don't go.  I'm sorry I brought him up--" He closed his fingers over Guerradio's sleeve.  "I'll do anything you want.  I'll suck your cock whenever you want.  I'll suck your friend while you watch.  Anything.  Just take me back."

When the words lit a fuse of memory, Guerradio lashed out.  The blow caught Amadeo high on the cheek, and he slumped back against the wall.  "I'm telling you one last time.  Collect your stuff, then leave for Rome.  I'd say it's over, only it never began."  His robes dropping like a curtain, Guerradio walked back into the church's heart, looking over his shoulder for Saint Sebastian, come to stop the plague.

An hour later, Guerradio stood at his window, watching Amadeo's departure.  Gabriel led the boy to the courtyard, where a saddled mount waited.  Amadeo's face was slick and clear like glass, his shoulders slumped.  He moved very slowly, like his bones ached, and glanced up constantly at Guerradio's window, obviously hoping for a reprieve.  None came, and Amadeo walked his horse to the palace gate.  He waited there, until the gatekeeper jerked his head impatiently to the road outside.  As Amadeo left, Gabriel finally looked up at Guerradio, shaking his head in terse little movements.  Then he turned back toward the retreating boy and crossed himself.

"Fuck you, old man," Guerradio said softly, even as the steward went inside.  He had nothing to feel guilty about.  Nothing.  Amadeo wasn't a child.  Just naive.  Now he was cured, fit for a harsh world.  He'd needed this.  Look how Amadeo'd misinterpreted their situation, making it into something it wasn't. Mortregno had played out the same parable with him, and look where Guerradio was now.  It taught him strength and self-sufficiency. He'd never survive otherwise, and that's what it was all about: survival.

Christ seemed to laugh at him from the triptych, pointing a ghostly finger, as always, right at Guerradio's heart.

A somber day, all black cloud and edged breeze, the kind of day, the poets said, that wore God's anger.  Guerradio had dreamt of God, only God had wavy red hair and a chisel in his huge fist, and had fucked him on the church floor.  And beside him, a handful of hearts in one hand, stood Mortregno, watching.  Now Guerradio walked along that floor, in a church that rustled like a rookery.  Looked like one, too: everyone robed in pre-orgiastic black, morose expressions barely masking glee.  Confession today, then, beginning tonight, a week of indulgence to rival Lucifer's first week of freedom.  A farce, and his honor to lead it.

His sermon stank of brimstone and hellfire.  They wanted it that way: to hate the church, feel strangled by it.  Any excuse to sin.  So he played to them, raging from the altar, until their faces twisted with resentment.  Afterward, as he fed Christ's body to the townspeople, Guerradio looked for Iphicles and saw him sitting with Apollonare, shoulders touching.  A poor draper had the host pushed halfway down his throat before Guerradio regained control.  If he did regain it.  Maybe he should give up, admit defeat, and fuck Iphicles raw.  Either that, or kill the son of a bitch.  So what if he fucked him?  With his past, he'd already given Mortregno enough stories to fill a--

This time, the unlucky victim was a greasy-haired grocer, who gagged on the wafer scraping his tonsils.  Because there he was.  The devil himself.  Mortregno.  Come to watch, no doubt, cock in hand.  Mortregno always did like a spectacle.  Even better: a conquest.  His conquest.  And his uncle was rubbing it in now, soulless eyes sliding from Guerradio to the two twined on the bench, smirk wider than the Ponte Vecchio.  When did he get here?  Fuck.

Guerradio hurried through the line, nearly skipping an elderly woman, who squawked with embarrassing clarity.   In the aisle before him, Apollonare leaned into Iphicles, whispering.  His blood turned to mercury, beading and rolling under his skin, blistering it.   Fury-blind, Guerradio walked to the confessional and saw instead a narrow room painted like a brass jar.  "Adoratio mei," the choir sang, voices like summer rain, and the door swung open.  Inside, dark swallowed light.  Breathe, he thought, breathe.  Fuck them all.

One by one, the people came and told him secrets.  Most lied, although they were easier than the few honest ones.  But he passed out punishment by the handful. When Apollonare knelt in the sin-box next to his, and talked about every vice but Iphicles, Guerradio ordered him to crawl to Saint John in the small northern chapel -- did the air still smell like semen? -- and beg for forgiveness.  Where was Mortregno?  What was he doing?  With Iphicles, no doubt.  Probably fucking him behind a pillar.  Kissing him.  Licking him everywhere...

Hours later, he'd stopped listening to the guilty voices and doled out the same penance to adulterers and visionaries.  Outside, the choir still sang, muted by the wood.  Life was like that.  Clear voices, then muted, as the door swung shut with a soft clack.  Only this time it wasn't a mercer who'd cheated his customers, or a grocer who'd sold rotten fruit.

"It's me," Iphicles said.  "I need to talk to you."

The mercury danced along his veins.  "This is confession."

"I know.  I'm here to confess."

But he stayed quiet for a minute or two, and it made Guerradio twitch.  "You want absolution?  Fine.  I absolve you.  Say ten ‘Hail Marys' and pray for forgiveness."

"I haven't confessed yet."

"It doesn't matter--I know what your sins are."

"The thing is, Guerradio, I don't think you do.  It just seemed so obvious to me, but I finally realized last night that you're not getting it."

"I get it," he snapped.  "I'm not blind."

"Look, this is my confession, so let me talk.  That's how it works, right?  I talk and you listen?"

"Fine. I'm waiting."

Beside him, Iphicles shifted.  "It's just kind of complicated.  The same day I got your letter offering me the commission, a second one showed up."

"From my uncle.  Mortregno.  I guess you saw him.  You know he's here."

"Yes, I saw him.  I've been with him.  But I'm not ready to talk about that yet. I want to start with the letter.   In this letter, he told me all about you.  Or so I thought.  All about how you fucked people as a game.  About how I should come to see what I'd look like if I was rotten to the core."

So Iphicles had known all along.  Well, that's what he'd figured.  Fucking Mortregno.  "So what?  You're here to give me a lecture?  Remind me of my vows?  Don't waste your time.  I'm not going to change."

"No, Guerradio.  You don't understand.  Fuck, I knew this wasn't going to make sense.  Just bear with me.  Forget about why I came to Siena.  I can untangle that later.  Let me talk about what happened when I got here--"

"I told you: I know what happened.  Everyone in Siena knows what happened.  You and Apollonare are lovers.  You can skip the details."

"Guerradio, could you shut up and let me talk?  When I met you, something happened.  I wasn't ready for it.  It was intense and--"

"You wanted to fuck me, and my uncle paid you not to.  Or maybe you just didn't want to.  Either way, you were conflicted.  Get over it.  People like sin, even people like you.  Are we done now?"  He heard the sound of a fist hitting wood.  Good.

"Goddammit, Guerradio, listen to me.  We need to talk--"

"I've heard enough.  You want penance for your lust?  Because you want me?  I'm not the one you should be worrying about.  I'm not the one you're fucking.  So here it is.  Go kiss the one you're in love with. Whichever one it is.  Apollonare, Mortregno.  Whatever.  One kiss that lasts all night.  And that's it.  No touching, nothing.  Just one long kiss.  Cleanse your lust.  Make it pure."  Guerradio left the confessional, and stood, blinking in the light, before hurrying outside.

When Guerradio returned to his room, Mortregno was there, standing before the altar.  "Nice," he said.  "The trick with Christ reaching out is clever.  Looks like he wants to pluck out my heart."

Guerradio moved beside him.  "He wouldn't be the only one."

"I saw Iphicles go into the confessional.  So now you know I told him everything."  And Mortregno smiled.

"I figured you'd told him about me.  To scare him off.  If you couldn't have him, no one could.  The world according to Mortregno.  Did you bribe him, too?  That's what I figured."

"Bribe him?"  Mortregno laughed.   "I'll admit that never even occurred to me.  So he stayed away, did he?  Didn't want to dirty his hands on you.  Still, you must be losing your touch, Guerradio.  Getting weak.  After all, I started pretty simply.  Just told him how you amused yourself."

"Typical.  Have a contest, without telling me."

"I didn't think you needed any advantages.  Apparently, I was wrong."

"Fuck you, Mortregno."

His uncle turned toward him, running the back of his hand along Guerradio's cheek.  "It's been too long.  I just hope you haven't gone soft down here, too."  He reached between Guerradio's thighs, squeezing his cock.

Guerradio smacked his hand away.  "I'm not in the mood."

"Not saving yourself for the pretty sculptor, are you?  He'll never touch you, you know.  He can't.  He feels too sorry for you now.  God, those are the easiest ones to deal with.  Hit their guilt, and they'll do anything you want.  Or not, as the case may be."  Mortregno must've seen something in his face because he laughed.  "Oh, this is perfect!  You mean you don't actually know what I told him today?  You think I just told him what an immoral whore you are?  Like I said, that's where I started.  But that was too easy, Guerradio. When I saw him today, staring up at while you preached, I decided to shore up my victory.   Don't you get it?  I told him everything."

A lightning strike must feel like this, Guerradio thought.  You melted from the inside.  He couldn't move, or he'd crumble in a pile of ash.  "God, I hate you," he said.  "You're the plague."

"I had nothing to lose.  What do I care if Iphicles hates me?  So I told him the truth: how you came to me as a boy, and I tricked you into thinking I was a saint to fuck you every night, how you'd come for me, worship my cock, and all along you thought it was for God.   Thought I was your favorite saint.  Hell, I am your favorite saint."  His smile widened.  "Then how I told you the truth one day, in front of the others... I knew he'd pity you and never touch you, because in his mind, that'd make him like me.  Just using you to get off.  All in all, a brilliant plan.  How about a victory fuck?  For old time's sake?  I've missed that sweet ass of yours."

He swung his fist, but Mortregno sidestepped the blow, and Guerradio stayed in place, breathing deeply.

"You know," his uncle said, "if I didn't know better, I'd say you were in love with him.  What do you care what he thinks?  Or is it just the shame of having someone else know how naive you were?  I wish you could've seen your face that first night, Guerradio.  So confused to wake up with a big cock in your mouth.  So desperate to believe that you sucked me dry.  So--"

"Get over it.  It was years ago."

"Years, but doesn't it feel like yesterday, Guerradio?  Don't you dream about it?"

"No.  You know what I dream about, Mortregno?  Him.  Iphicles.  I dream about him inside me, about his cock in my mouth, in my ass.  Every fucking night since he's been here, that's all I've dreamed about.  Him and me.  Over and over and over."

Mortregno blinked, a single flutter of dark lashes.  "You're lying."

"You'd like to believe that, but even you have to know I'm telling the truth.  He showed up, and I took one look at that face... It's not just about lust, although I want him.  Fuck, do I want him.  But it's more than that.  I'm in love with him.  I've never said that before.  I'll never say it again.  You have to know what it costs.  That's why I'm telling you.  You lost."

"Hardly. He's not here, bent over for your cock."  Mortregno sounded angry, even though his face stayed statue-smooth.  "He stayed away before, and he'll stay twice as far now."

"I know.  But that doesn't matter.  You wanted me dead inside, like you, and I'm not.  That's what matters.  Now get the fuck out, Mortregno."   Guerradio opened the door and folded his arms across his chest.

Mortregno shrugged.   "Think what you want.  I know I won.  I saw Iphicles' face when he found out.  I think he would've hit me, too, but I didn't stick around for it.  He'll never go near you, and without me, you'll be alone forever."

"I've always been alone," Guerradio said, as his uncle walked into the hallway.  "You made sure of that."   He slammed the door hard enough to crack the plaster moulding above it.  How did everything get so fucked up?  Nothing made sense anymore.  Or maybe it never had.  He walked to the window, then closed the shutters.  He'd spent too much time watching, playing God.  He had to think now, order his thoughts.  Figure out what--

At the knock, he threw the door open, ready to fight, and saw Iphicles standing there.  "What are you doing here?"  Christ, he wasn't ready for this.

"Don't you know?"  Iphicles asked, and walked in.   "You told me to come here."

"I told you to..."  Then he remembered.  "But..."

"Guerradio, I don't want to talk about this.  You gave me my penance, and you said to keep it pure.  That's what I'm here to do.  I don't want to talk about it.  I don't want you to say anything.  I just want to do this, like you said.  One kiss."  And Iphicles stepped toward him, putting his arms around Guerradio's neck.  "Don't talk.  I need to do this."

He wasn't sure how, but his arms were around Iphicles' waist, their bodies pressed together.  Words soared and swooped in his mind like gulls over an ocean, never settling.  Too much at once.  Chaos of feelings.  Then Iphicles' lips touched his, soft and warm.  Guerradio's eyes closed.  Too much to think.  Too hard to look at Iphicles, who knew... Fuck. Who knew everything.

Why had he picked a kiss?  Why hadn't he just told Iphicles to stay away from his lover?  And why was Iphicles here, not with Apollonare?  Or that plague-ridden serpent, Mortregno?  What did he want?  Was this another game?  Had Mortregno told him to come here?  Iphicles' hand was on the back of Guerradio's head, rubbing lightly.  The tenderness confused him even more-- or maybe it was pity. God, he hated that word.  It was for old women, with its two ugly, prissy syllables.   A chasm away from lust and need, what he wanted from Iphicles.

If he opened his mouth a little wider, he'd taste Iphicles' tongue. Was this punishment?  His own penance, for every evil thing he'd ever done, to stand here and be kissed by Iphicles, whose lips were ripe and full, and tasted like orange, although there'd been a bowl of peaches outside his door.  After the plague, everyone wanted pitted fruit.  Funny.  It should be apples.  This was temptation, after all.  Or hell.  Something moral about desire and retribution.

Guerradio shifted, and changed the angle of the embrace, bringing Iphicles close--too close-- against his cock.  Not about sex... How could a single, innocent kiss make him feel like this?  His cock was swollen now, hungry and aching, and he needed to come.  But he didn't want Iphicles to know, and tried to pull back.  Iphicles kept up the pressure between them with his hand on Guerradio's skull, as though asking... For what?  A sense of power?

Could someone die from a kiss?  Only if Iphicles was the plague, that lover you always saw on the walls of churches, leading people to his dark bed.  But that lover was a skeleton, thin and bony, and Iphicles' chest was a solid weight, his heart beating quick and sure beneath it.  Iphicles' eyes must be open now, because Guerradio could feel the light tickle of lashes against his cheek every time Iphicles blinked.  What was he looking at?  What did he see?

Another move, as Guerradio slid his hot right hand against the velvet of Iphicles' tunic.  Not a caress, but it felt like one, and he froze, embarrassed.  The whole thing was embarrassing.  Stupid.  He was an idiot for letting it go on.  What was he thinking?  So what if he broke the kiss?  What would it matter?  But he couldn't do it, and tried to figure out why.  Winning.   If he broke the embrace, he'd be admitting his weakness.  Not just that.  Be honest.  If he broke the embrace, he'd never get this close to Iphicles again.  He wasn't ready for that.  At least let him have this.

This time, it was Iphicles who shifted, and for a moment, Guerradio panicked.  But the kiss kept going, timeless now.  The new position brought a matching hardness against his cock, and he almost made a sound.  Instead, it came out as a sigh, a sigh Iphicles must've felt.  Why was Iphicles' cock hard?  Just a physical response to the closeness.  Maybe lust.  Maybe Iphicles would think the kiss could end now, and not understand that overcoming the need was part of the original penance.

When Iphicles didn't move, Guerradio decided to open his eyes.  It didn't help.  Not with Iphicles staring right back at him.  Feeling dizzy, Guerradio shut them again, although they sprung open when he felt something wet on his lips.  Iphicles, mouth dry, had run his tongue across his lips.  Oh, Jesus.  If they did it at the same time, their tongues would touch.  Tongues and cocks...

Go back to the beginning.  In principio...  Make sense of this.  Why was Iphicles here?  Why had he come to Guerradio, and not to Apollonare?   What had he said, exactly?  ‘Go kiss the one you're in love with.  One kiss that lasts all night.  And that's it.  No touching, nothing.  Just one long kiss.  Cleanse your lust. Make it pure.'  Was Iphicles in love with him?  Was that why he was here?  Is that what the confession was about?  Iphicles trying to be honest?

Another shift, and their cocks rocked together.  His own lips dry, he licked them, and felt something rumble through Iphicles.  Is that why Mortregno had told Iphicles everything?  Because he thought that Iphicles loved Guerradio?  ‘When I saw him today, staring up at while you preached, I decided to shore up my victory.'  And so Iphicles had come to him, which must mean...

Another lick.

He was going to come, just standing here.  But what could he do?  He couldn't touch Iphicles, and Iphicles couldn't touch him.  Fuck.  How could a man have a mouth that soft?  It made thinking impossible.  What would it feel like if they were both clean-shaven?  If they--

An idea came to him.  A way to break the impasse.  "You're absolved," he said against Iphicles' mouth, then stepped back.  Iphicles was flushed, skin shining, and he seemed dazed.  "Carnival starts when the sun sets.  In less than an hour.  You can leave in the morning, but tonight you need to have a drink, then find a lover in the crowd.  Make love to him all night.  Then you can go."  And he guided Iphicles to the door, a hand on the small of his back, then closed it behind him.

It started to feel like a dream, the edges darkened, the center bright and intense.   Moving with the fluidity of dreams, Guerradio found himself before the mirror hanging on the cabinet, a pair of scissors in his hand.  His hair fell to the floor, snip after snip of dark curls piling there.  His beard followed, and he used a straight razor, which left his cheeks smooth as a boy's.  His costume hung inside the cupboard, and he pulled it out, dropping his robes to the floor.  The Lover, a figure from one of the romances.

Quickly, he drew on the red hose, then the leather shoes with their long, pointed toes.  Over that, a green tunic that skimmed his thighs, followed by a short cloak, with wide sleeves cut like wings, also red. His mask was simple: a smiling man's face that covered half his own.  Dressed, he went to the altar cradled by the niche.  "So I was right the first time."  It was the heart all along.  Didn't gods always need a sacrifice?  "I think I still owe you this, though," Guerradio said, and placed his crucifix at Christ's feet.  "And I'm done with the ring."  He tugged it from his finger, ran one last finger over the arrow in its center.   Ready, he thought, and crept quietly from the palace.

Even as he began the walk down the hill toward the town center, Guerradio heard the wild music:  a thousand pipes, a thousand drums, pounding out a rhythm.  In the growing dark, torchlight flickered and danced, literally danced, as men and women carried burning brands through Siena, bodies swaying to the beat.  Everyone was out, celebrating the plague's death, celebrating life and their healthy, strong bodies.

By the time he reached the Piazza del Campo, his heart had caught the cadence.  Iphicles... He needed to find him, if he'd come at all.  Guerradio, mask held high, pushed through the crowd, until it trapped him, and he whirled around the square, past princes, queens, emperors and gods, past a man made of glazed sugar, a pig roasting on a spit, musicians dressed as mermaids, a bear on a chain, past couples touching, kissing, fucking...

Then he saw the hair.  That glowing, red hair.  Iphicles, a bottle of wine in one hand, his eyes half-closed, face still flushed.  He seemed lost, unsure of himself, and Guerradio broke through the crowd to reach him, always keeping the mask high, unrecognizable, with his new clothes, shaved face, shorn hair.

"Come with me," he whispered in Iphicles' ear.  "I've been waiting for you."  When Iphicles resisted, Guerradio took his hand.  "I want you.  I need you."  He led him into a narrow space between two buildings, dark and warm, then gently pushed Iphicles against a brick wall.  "You're going to fuck me now," he said, taking the bottle from him, and putting it on the ground.  "Just give up everything and fuck me."

"I can't.  There's someone else.  I love him--"

Good.  Iphicles thought Guerradio was a stranger.  "That's right.  Don't think.  Do it.  Fuck me.  Pretend, if you want.  Just fuck me."  And he ran his hand over Iphicles' cock.  A slight twist, and he'd freed it, hot and stiff.  "Let me get it wet for you," Guerradio said, dropping to his knees.  Light-headed, shaking, he took Iphicles' cock in his mouth, licking and sucking until he could hear moans above the music.  Then he stood up, eased down his leggings, and leaned face-first against the wall.  "Put it in me.  Now.  Fuck me."

At first Guerradio thought that Iphicles wasn't going to do it, then he felt the head of his cock.  "Jesus," he said, when Iphicles began to push.  It hurt, stretched him wide, but he pushed back, wanting it all inside him.  "More.  Give me more."

"I don't think I can do this," Iphicles said, his voice breaking.  "You don't understand."

Desperate now, Guerradio reached around and grabbed Iphicles' hips, giving a hard tug just as he thrust back.  They both gasped as Iphicles' cock slid in fully.  "Too late to stop," Guerradio told him.  "So do it."  He began to rock back and forth, ignoring the pain, taking Iphicles deep inside him.

"Oh fuck," Iphicles gasped, fumbling for Guerradio's cock.  "I can't..."

"Touch me," Guerradio said.  "Feel how hard I am for you."

Iphicles seemed to lose it then, ramming his cock inside Guerradio, jerking him off with equal force. And maybe because it felt so good, or maybe he was sick of pretending, but Guerradio heard himself say Iphicles' name in a low moan.

"How do you know my--Oh Christ...Oh Christ..." And Iphicles kept repeating it, until the name changed, and he thrust harder and harder, his fingers tight and hot around Guerradio's cock.  "I should've known.  That mouth... Even without the beard... Jesus.  You cut it off.  Like Samson.  I can't stop, Guerradio.  It's too good.  Fuck."

"Don't stop, Iphicles.  Come inside me.  I want it."

"Why are you doing this to me?"

"Feels like you're doing it to me," Guerradio said, and laughed.  Only the laugh sounded choked and breathless, like a sob.

Iphicles spread his legs even wider and gripped the edges of the bed, like an offering.  Or just a man getting his cock sucked by his lover.  "Tell me, Guerradio."

"You know, you bastard.  Why do you think I'm here in this inn with you?"

"Because you're playing some kind of... God, that feels good... Some kind of game with that sick fuck of an uncle of yours."

"I thought you were playing the game.  Not fucking me, even though you knew I'd fuck you.  How could you not know?  Then going off with Apollonare, that prick."

"You saw how much I wanted you.  I fucking came for you, you bastard.  Seeing you lying there, open and naked for me..."  Iphicles moaned again, low and long, as Guerradio licked him.

"So why didn't you fuck me?"

"Because it wouldn't have meant anything to you.  Because I was trying to prove something to myself.  That I was strong.  That I could resist you.  That's why I came here.  A kind of test for myself.  And I failed... Oh fuck... Guerradio, I'm going to come --"

"Not yet," and he slowed down.  ""You'd better tell me everything."

"You mean you're actually going to listen to me this time?" Iphicles asked, and raised himself up on an elbow.  "Because I need to get this all out.  I should've done it after the kiss, since you shut me up during confession, but I couldn't think straight."

"You can think straight now?"

Iphicles laughed.  "Not exactly, but I need to talk, so let me do it. Don't interrupt me, or I'll hurt you." And his words came tumbling out.  "I came to Siena because I was curious about you.  I'd heard the rumors, and then Mortregno, that evil bastard, sent me a letter, saying they were all true, and that if I wanted to see myself at my worst, to go to Siena.  So I did.  I wasn't expecting my reaction to you.  When I turned around and saw you that first night, I almost came.  It was mindless, stupid, really, like I was some kind of animal.  But it happened every time I saw you."

"I know what you mean," Guerradio said, and rubbed his cheek against Iphicles' cock.

"Guerradio, listen to me.  I couldn't fuck you, though.  Like I said, I considered it a test.  I've done some stupid shit in my life, acting without thinking, and I wanted to see if I could finally act like I'm expected to.  Instead, I'm asking you to pose naked for me, touching you, coming in my hand because I'm so turned on by you, dreaming about you... Maybe you shouldn't touch me now.  I'll never finish.  I still want you so much."

"Keep talking.  I want to hear everything."

"Don't get too comfortable, Guerradio.  Once I'm finished, it's your turn for a full confession."

"Yeah, yeah.  Just keep talking."  But he couldn't stop touching Iphicles, and ran his hand over one hard nipple.

"I'd better make this fast... So you were this test, and I was failing.  I was thinking about you all the time, dreaming about your cock.  Ok, that's not all.  It makes it sound like I only wanted to fuck you, when it's about more than that.  I'm in love with you.  I think I knew it when we went together to Apollonare's, and you sat across from me in the coach--"

"Apollonare.  That idiot.  I hope you enjoyed him, at least."

"You think I fucked him, don't you?"

"It's pretty obvious."

Iphicles grinned.  "That's what I wanted everyone to think.  Because of you.  Because of the statue of Samson.  If everyone thought that Apollonare and I were lovers, they'd think that the Samson was him, because you can't really see his face."

"You were worried about my reputation?"

"I told you that.  I know it's bad enough already, but I didn't want to make it worse, especially because you were helping me out.  You've dealt with enough shit.  Which brings me to Montregno."

Guerradio rolled to the edge, then got up, walking to the window.  "You don't need to go into this."

"Yes, I do.  I gather he told you that he spoke to me after confession?  You know he told me what he'd done to you?"


"When he told me, I wanted to kill him.  I still do.  It made me sick.  And it made me sick knowing you've done the same thing. But I can understand you this way.  You'd done some pretty fucked up things, and had some pretty fucked up things done to you.  Me too.  We all have.  This just helped..." Iphicles shrugged helplessly.  "Just helped make you human to me.  You weren't this big, evil cardinal anymore.  You were just a man.  That's who you are to me right now."  He got up and joined Guerradio at the window.  "I wanted you to know that, when I kissed you.  I wanted you to know that none of it mattered.  When you broke the kiss, just before I gave in, I figured maybe what you felt for me was just physical.  Just lust.  Like what you felt for Amadeo, or anyone else."

"Amadeo... I guess I should fix that."

Iphicles nodded.  "I shouldn't tell you this, because you deserve to feel like crap, but Gabriel sort of interfered.  He went after Amadeo and sent him to live with some old friend of his.  He'll be alright.  But you should talk to him.  You owe him that."

"You really do know everything, don't you?"

"Not everything," he said.  "Not how you feel about me."

"Iphicles, I'm here, aren't I?  You have to know what that means."

"It could only mean that you want to fuck me."

"I do want to fuck you.  But that's not why I'm here."

"Just say it.  There's no one here but you and me, and I won't tell anyone."

Guerradio leaned over and whispered into Iphicles' ear, then stepped back.  "Happy now?"

"It's a start.  The rest can wait."  He pulled Guerradio to him, and their mouths met, only this time Iphicles was open for him, and Guerradio pushed his tongue in.

When was the last time he'd kissed somebody?  Now, twice with Iphicles.  Why had he ever stopped doing it?  It was incredible.  So intimate, being inside a lover like this, making Iphicles moan and shake with just the tip of his tongue.  And when Iphicles slid his own tongue in, Guerradio ground his hips against him.

"I've been thinking about kissing you since the first night, when you licked the orange spray off your lips.  After you left, I went upstairs and jerked off--just thinking about kissing you," Iphicles said.  "Of course, once I saw you naked, my fantasies got a little more elaborate."  He pushed Guerradio onto the window ledge, pushing open his thighs with his rough hands.  "But even when I thought about sucking your cock, or about my cock in your ass, I always pictured us kissing."  Kneeling, Iphicles took Guerradio's cock in both hands and brought it to his mouth.

"You're a romantic," Guerradio said.  "I knew it.  No one could love Samson like you do and not be a romantic."

Iphicles laughed.  "You're not going to fight me on that now, are you?  Time enough for it later."  And his tongue rounded the head of Guerradio's cock.

"None of this feels real."

"It's not good?"

Guerradio shook his head.  "It's great.  It's just... I don't want this to play out like every fuck I've ever had.  You down there, me up here."

"I think I know what you mean.  Lie down on the bed.  I want you to feel good, and I want you to know it's real."

The tangled sheets were damp and cool against his skin, and he lay there, waiting.  Iphicles climbed over him, and they kissed until his lips felt sore, until he knew Iphicles' mouth.

"Is that better?"  Iphicles asked, looking down at him.

"Yeah, but--"

"Don't move."  Iphicles moved off and turned around, carefully sliding his cock between Guerradio's lips, while he raised himself for Iphicles' tongue.

Better than the straight blowjob.  Guerradio couldn't get enough of Iphicles' cock, loved the salty taste, the musky-sweet smell.  But he wished they could fuck each other at the same time, that--

Iphicles sat up.  "I know what to do."   He bent over the side of the bed and picked up his leather belt, separating it from the pouch.  "Put your hands together over your head."


"Don't fight me, Guerradio.  Everything doesn't have to be a battle.  Trust me.  I know what I'm doing."

So Guerradio let Iphicles bind his wrists.  "I hope so," he said, when the leather strap was pulled tight.

"That's your cardinal voice," Iphicles told him with a grin.  "Just don't use it during sex."  He'd opened the pouch and was breaking the wax seal on a small bottle.  "This should relax you a little."  The oil dribbled onto his cock, splattering like amber rain, before Iphicles began to smooth it in.  "I think you're ready now."

"What are you--"

But Iphicles was already straddling him, then easing down onto his cock.  "How's that for mutual?  Now fuck me, Guerradio.  Fuck me hard."  Leaning forward, Iphicles kissed him.

When he came, Guerradio thought about God, arrows and Iphicles, about death, saints and redemption.  "This isn't going to work."

"I know," Iphicles said, his semen hot against Guerradio's belly.

They slept tangled, and woke to fuck again, and again.  At some point Iphicles untied the belt, and Guerradio held him hard when he came.

Just before dawn, the bells of Torre del Mangia began to ring.

"There's something going on outside."

"The plague," Guerradio said, half-sleeping.  "Fuck that.  Just stay here."

"I have to see."

When Iphicles got up, Guerradio followed him.  Arm in arm, they looked out the window into the town square.  Standing near the bonfire, revelers circled a man who lay dying, an arrow through his chest.  Their voices drifted up, covering Iphicles' whispered, "Mortregno."

"...terrible accident..."

"...boy dressed like Saint Sebastian..."

"...playing with arrows..."

No one seemed to know who the dead man was.  A stranger, dressed like a bishop.  A Moor, with turban and scimitar, pointed to the corpse's closed fist, and a fox used a furry paw to pry it open.

"...half-eaten peach..."


All sound dissolved, as the fox hurled the fruit into the bonfire still burning in the square's center.  This time, though, the devil didn't scream.  He was already dead.  But the people below wanted to be sure.

"...not enough..."

"'ll be back if we don't..."

Then a quartet of men, masks covering their faces, picked up the body and tossed it into the fire, where the flames ate it with a blue-tinged smile.

"It's over now," Guerradio said to Iphicles, and his words found an echo below.  "Let's go back to--"

Iphicles' kiss swallowed the rest.

The End

"Vicious and deadly pleasures do not render a man happy; nor does opulence, which is the inciter of lusts; nor empty ambition; nor frail honors, by which the human soul, being ensnared and enslaved to the body, is condemned to eternal death."  -- Lactantius"

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