The Alchemist's Measure
by Kitty Fisher
Even though it was not long past noon the street was quiet, almost empty of people. Those who did brave the icy streets hurried along dreaming of warm fires and long sleep-filled nights. Nobody loitered today; the winter weather was far too unforgiving.
It was the first day after Twelfth Night and London was recovering from the month of wild festivities that the recent return of the King had allowed. Following ten dour years of Puritan rule, of ten years without any Christmas at all, the excesses had been heady and very, very sweet. Not that the King himself had been able to enjoy them: his yuletide had been spent at the bedside of his sister Mary as he watched her die, eaten alive with smallpox.
From behind the shelter of a high, mullioned window, Lord Raymond Doyle stared morosely down to the street and was thankful he was indoors. His imagination easily conjured the bitter cold that scraped skin raw, and the biting north wind that howled around street-corners to make mockery of the warmest clothes, and he shivered convulsively. Within four walls was the best place to be; even though there had been snow before Christmas, it was far colder now.
The streets were icy, the temperature merely echoing the bitter cold that held him, body and soul in its grip; the terrible frost caused by the sudden withdrawal of Charles' favour.
Doyle gripped the flesh of his upper arms, hugging himself with bone-white fingers as if to wake from a dream. Sadly he knew there was no waking from this; this was no nightmare sent merely to torment his sleep. After eleven years of friendship and patronage, of riotous laughter and drunken revels, the Royal favour had been recalled, leaving not even a trace in its wake. Charles was from this time forth a stranger, an exalted presence who might deign to notice such a minor member of his court if exceptional circumstances prevailed. Truly, the cold that warned of sleet and ice and the darkness of the winter clouds, all were as a summer's afternoon to the chill that gripped Doyle's heart.
Inside Doyle's house it was not quite warm, though the thick walls held the worst of the cold at bay. The windows rattled in their surrounds letting in draughts of bitter air, the chimney smoked slightly for want of a sweep and the comforts were few, yet the fire burned brightly, the crackle of the flames a comforting counterpoint to the eerie moaning of the wind as it whistled around the eaves. The tall, narrow building had been in Doyle's family for a hundred and fifty years, though now most of the rooms echoed emptily. The once loved contents were gone: furniture; silver that had been hidden while the house was in Parliament's hands; paintings that had been rescued from the damp and spiders in the attics; almost everything apart from the contents of a few small rooms had been sold off to finance the last year's revelry in the sure knowledge that once the coronation was over Charles would replace it all. It had proved a false security indeed.
Doyle sighed and turned away from the window and belatedly remembered he was not alone. A woman, beautiful in a pale English way, paced the unpolished floor-boards at the far side of the fire. Enclosed in his own world of self-pity, Doyle had long since stopped listening to the torrent of words that spilled from her lips. It was difficult to see in her form the instrument of a perfidious Fate, but in truth, she was just that.
"...you are nothing but a wastrel, an ungodly, frivolous jackanapes who deserves nothing better than to die unmourned in a ditch. You gambled away the last remaining shreds of your mother's fortune, you've wenched and whored your way across Europe in pursuit of that dilettante we now have for a King. If you ever had any good qualities, none are obvious now. You laugh in the face of all good advice..."
The continuing tirade was the only sound in the large room apart from the crackle of the log fire and the occasional insistent banshee-howl from the rising wind. His shoes sounded on the bare boards as Doyle walked to the fire-place and stared deep into the flames. He was very tired; too exhausted to make even one rejoinder; too numb to listen or care. A month ago he would have ranted and raged, argued with the recital of insults and accusations. But a month ago he had thought himself secure in the King's favour; a month ago the future had looked to take care of itself; a month ago he would have no more considered marrying this shrill-voiced harpy than spit in the eye of Charles himself.
The thought brought with it a wave of nausea and he straightened, lifting his head to watch her, anything to distract his mind. Curvaceous, pale haired, dressed in the height of fashion, she was yet without doubt the least appealing woman he had ever had the misfortune to meet, let alone be engaged to be married to. Lucy York did not look like a harridan come to blight his life, but that she was. A world away from the demure beauties of court, she had a certain charm and could be diverting company -- or so it was said. Since Doyle had known her, all she had let him know of herself was the depth of her dislike for both him personally and the world in general. The years spent entirely in the company of men whilst her once soldier father took her to the south Americas and made his fortune had given her lips a command of language not usually associated with the fairer sex and, to her betrothed at least, she had no qualms about exercising it.
She turned in a flurry of amber silk, the candle-light catching on the pale sheen of her shoulders. Animated with anger she should have been an arousing sight, but the swell of her breast and the sweetness of her ankle inspired nothing in him but dismay. This woman was to be his wife. There was nothing in the world he desired less.
Straightening, Lord Raymond ran his fingers through the weight of his hair and wondered, with mild curiosity allied with a faint sense of admiration at the extent of her vocabulary, when the tirade would end.
It was after noon and they were supposed to be discussing the final preparations for their nuptials -- an occasion that was only a week away. It was a subject that pleased neither of them. Yet she had done nothing to try and call it off. For the first time he realised that there was something awry in her reaction. Watching her, truly considering her for perhaps the first time, his face was bleak, the very bones appearing brittle beneath the dead-white skin. Why? Suddenly he had to ask: "Why are you really marrying me?"
His words, the first in a long while, stilled her voice and for the first time Lucy York stood and faced him. Despite the early hour the winter skies created the illusion of dusk and his features, turned away from the windows, were lit only by the fire's erratic light. Dressed in the elaborate silks that court demanded he was elegant, poised. Long chestnut curls spilled in profusion over the pale froth of his lace collar and the ribbons that decorated his person were bright and gay. No one could tell that the clothes on his back were the last any tailor in London would make for him until his mountainous pile of bills was settled. No one except Mr. Augustus York, who had made it his business to know and Lucy, who made sure that her father shared all the information he discovered.
Lucy hesitated and mistaking her silence Doyle repeated the question. "In truth, why are you marrying me?"
Aggrieved at the interrogation, she snapped: "You know full well that I'm marrying you for your title and what rags remain of your lands."
"Are you? If you despise me as much as you say -- at such elegant length if I may say so," he sketched a courtly bow, "I'm sure that your doting father would have given you to someone else -- someone less...debauched." He smiled coldly. That was one of her favourite descriptions of him; it never failed to amuse, perhaps because it was so apt.
"I...I always do as my father bids me." Lucy moved and sat in the high backed chair by the fire's side and straightened her shoulders; the perfect, obedient daughter. He could see that her colour was heightened.
His curiosity finally piqued, Doyle appeared more animated than he had for weeks. Augustus York was one of the richest men in England, if not the world. Soon to be created an Earl as an inadequate thanks for the help he had lavished financially on the new King, he could have commanded a duke for his daughter. Yet when Charles, in the spirit of disposing of two matters in one regal decree had suggested Doyle, York had agreed with every appearance of enthusiasm. Which, as everyone who had ever met him knew, meant that his daughter agreed with the marriage as well.
His brain finally alert, Doyle took in the flags of colour on both of her lovely cheeks and asked: "Where do you think I spent this morning?"
The apparent change of subject took her by surprise, yet she answered sharply, her mood untempered by being put off-balance. "Drinking, whoring, gaming -- any of your usual pastimes."
"Wrong. I've been standing in a cold, dusty corridor at the Palace, waiting for the tenth day in succession to see if maybe, just maybe, the King will deign to see me." He caught the surprise and fleeting dismay on her face. Everything fell into place and he spoke cruelly: "If it is Charles' bed that you're seeking, you won't find it through me." He watched as bright red flooded her face and smiled -- this was a jest to set them laughing in Drury Lane; a jest that could almost have made him laugh himself. "Poor Lucy, having to marry a wretch like me only to find that I've slipped quietly out of favour. A year, even six months ago, you might have got your wish, but now..." He shook his head and took a deep breath. How could he have been such a fool to be taken in by her outrage at the King's immoral behaviour. Of course it was immoral. It wasn't Lucy York who was warming the royal sheets. "Gods, to think you, the ice-maiden, are a whore like all the rest of us!"
"Bastard." Her eyes were narrowed with venom at his soft laughter.
"No, many things but not that, my mother married my father before the entire court at least fifteen years before producing me -- it's about the only merit that can be laid at their door."
"I wasn't... Don't play games, you know what I meant." For a lady, she spat remarkably like a cat.
"Sadly, yes, I do." He paused, then said more kindly than anything before: "I didn't realise, though I should -- he is a most attractive man."
"Yes." For a moment her eyes softened and she touched the locket that sat in the curve of her breasts. Then her lashes flickered and she stared up at him, her quick gaze surprising a fleeting, quickly masked expression. Colour flooded her face and catching a sharp breath she hissed: "So that is the way of things, I ought to have guessed. An attractive man indeed. Hah! Has he had you, had enough of you in fact, is that is why you are out of favour? Sweet Jesu, I wondered why you had no fondness for women!"
He pushed away from the mantle and stood over her, his temper flaring to match her own. "The only thing I have no fondness for is hypocrisy; you rant and rail at me for being a rake while panting to be in the King's bed? If it wasn't such a farce I'd be tempted to weep."
"Sweet heaven, you haven't even the grace to deny it. At least what I want from him isn't an abomination in the eyes of the Lord."
"Much you would care about it even if it was. Yet what I want is. Perhaps you have something in common with him after all -- Charles agrees with you, he intends on being a Good King. No more dalliances with any but women, no more boys, no more illicit trysts away from the eyes of the court."
"Good. Perhaps he's seeing some sense."
"Sense? Oh, Lucy, how little you know." Bitterness made him vicious. "Still, perhaps you will be in luck after all, there is always the fact that he relies heavily on your father's gold to take into account. Why not thank the family properly by getting a royal bastard on you?"
Lucy smiled a little smile of complacence, though her breathing was fast and light, angry.
"That's what you want, isn't it?" Doyle almost struck her, his hand clenching as he looked at her beautiful face. "Be thankful that there is no way I can get out of this accursed marriage or I would, taking my lands, my town-house that is falling down around my ears for lack of funds to repair it, and my dead friendship with Charles with me. You know, it is only the hope that by doing what he asks and marrying you that I can salvage something from the wreckage of my life; at least the restoration of my property, if nothing else. I will wed you, but I will never bed you; that is my bargain. You can flaunt yourself as Lady Doyle; you can try and insinuate yourself between Barbara Palmer and the King's favours and, God help you, try and keep them once you've got them, but your children will never be mine. There, is that a bargain, or does it finally want to make you call this farce of a marriage off?"
"And anger his majesty?" Very white she bit her lip then stood, carefully smoothing her skirts, forcing a smile. "Of course not. Besides, with the rags that are left of your inheritance allied to the Sandling property that Papa bought when he returned from the Americas, we will own the largest estate in Buckinghamshire. Not even the fact that I am marrying a self-confessed sodomite can take the gilt off that prospect."
She smiled graciously as he flinched at the word, then went on, now totally composed. "I think you are a vile, unspeakable worm. However, I want you and what you will bring me and I always get what I want. Remember, if your brother dies childless, and he is no longer a very young man, then I will be a duchess. This marriage is a bargain, one in which, as far as I can see, you are getting a very good deal: my family's gold in exchange for your family name."
"I don't want your gold."
"Don't be ridiculous! Why else are you here?"
Doyle shook his head, mute with confusion. The reasons he was still here were many, but just for gold? No. The very idea was shocking, making him see the situation as others would. What could he say though -- nothing. So he kept silent, letting her triumph continue.
"Papa will restore all your house to a magnificence worthy of my presence and, with luck, I shall be Queen in all but name at court. Papa will even settle that mountain of debt you are being dunned for, so don't complain too long or loudly, for all the growing licentiousness of court there are still a few churchmen who would be scandalised if they knew the truth about you." She patted him on the side of the face, quite hard, before walking to the door. "Besides, what makes you think that having you in my bed is a delightful prospect? It isn't. I think your bargain is an admirable one. As long as you don't bring the stable-boys into the house. I'll see myself out. Good-day."
A few hours later it truly was dark, the rain-clouds bringing night hours before its time. Michael Murphy, officially valet to Lord Raymond Doyle but in reality much more, most of the time unpaid, quietly entered the room with a taper and a fresh branch of candles.
His master was seated by the dying embers of the fire, dishevelled and part of the way through the last bottle of brandy. Murphy sighed and quickly set about lighting the room and feeding the blaze until the air lost its chill. Throughout, Doyle remained lost in his own private thoughts, only the occasional movement as hand brought goblet to mouth proved he was awake.
The two men had shared many things, from the inglorious defeat at Worcester eleven years before, to the pains and occasional delights of exile, to the excitement, hope and eventual despair of return. They knew each other as well as any two men might. If, on occasion, the tall form of the manservant might share the master's bed, who was to know or care?
"My lord?" Murphy spoke softly, cautiously. "Raymond?"
Scarce used, the name roused the other man and he looked up, focusing slowly before smiling, his eyes touched with sadness. "Michael, you always have looked after me."
"That is an edge that cuts both ways, my lord."
Doyle assayed a smile, but it fled unborn. "Maybe, maybe not. And I can't even pay you; a fine reward indeed." He glanced away, staring hard at the pewter tankard, his knuckles white around its solid form. "Do you ever regret that we didn't die on the field at Worcester?"
"Michael, you have such unassailable good humour I sometimes wonder how you bear with me."
"I can bear with anything but self-pity."
Doyle flinched as if the words had been a blow. "A friend indeed, you always cut to the heart of the matter. I am sorry." He tilted his head back, closing his eyes. "It was so long ago, a lifetime ago. I dreamed of so much... We were little more than children."
"At Worcester?" Murphy received a faint nod in answer and considered. "Eleven, no it must be near twelve years ago, we were youths, not children. Though in truth, we grew old that day beyond our years -- how did we ever think we might win?"
Doyle shrugged, after so long it didn't matter, the fire of his youth had been burned away long ago. "If I had died..."
"No! You must not speak like that, please." A deep frown creased Murphy's straight brow and he crouched at his master's side, reaching for a hand and holding it tight, making Doyle look at him. These dark, frightening moods took Doyle sometimes and the cure of old -- of their wanderings in Europe -- would have been to take him to bed and tease the ill-humour out of him. But since their return, since the withdrawal of Charles' favour, there had been no indication that Murphy would ever be required in the great bed again. Yet Doyle needed something, someone. To Murphy that was clear as the brightest light of day.
"I'm not myself." Doyle reached forward and held the strong face with one hand, staring deep into the concerned blue eyes. "Ah, Michael, I'm not fit for company this evening. Forgive me?"
"How could I do else?" The look that passed between them was enough and Murphy glanced away, twisting to place a swift kiss to his master's outstretched hand.
Doyle reached hurriedly for the goblet, but an unsteady hand misjudged the distance and the last of the brandy spilled dark and cold across his breeches. "Damn it all!" For a moment Doyle stood, staring at the ruin of his last truly good suit of clothes then hurriedly began wiping at the silk, cursing fluently.
"Stop that, you'll make it worse. Quick, take them off while I fetch you another pair from the press." Murphy left the room, checking as he went that Doyle had begun undressing.
Kicking off his elaborately buckled shoes, Doyle stood on stockinged feet and slipped out of his wide breeches. The expensive silver and grey suit with its flirtatious ruby ribbons disgusted him. He stripped of the doublet and threw it onto the floor. All it now served was as a reminder of the days spent in pointless petition, of days spent grinding his pride into the dust. He had sold the last of the silver candle-sticks to bribe the tailor into making it and had been convinced that its elegance would persuade Charles to change his mind. How could anyone dressed to such a height of fashion not be an adornment to any court?
But Charles had not seen him once.
If facts were to be faced, then marriage was his only option; surely it would be better to be in England than abroad where not only would he know nobody, but he would be a pauper as well. The thought was not new, but depression settled in a deeper cloud around him. He despised himself, seeing his behaviour as pathetic, little better than that of a coward. He was trapped, held by gilded fingers that were slowly stripping him of everything he had ever valued, including his self-respect. Lucy believed that gold was his greatest incentive in marrying her; how many others would see it the same way? And how near to the unpalatable truth was it, anyway?
Shirt unbuttoned, half naked, Raymond walked thoughtfully around the shabby room touching the threadbare furniture; a chair that had been his mother's; the desk his half-remembered father had used. The only family member he had no memento of was his brother -- the illustrious and extremely wealthy Duke of Windlesham. The fifteen years that separated them were too many and there was no love lost between the brothers at all. Lord Raymond had been thrown into the world to make his own way with a small settlement and parcel of lands direct from his mother, and without a single word of encouragement from his brother. Doyle didn't care though. He would rather be dead than live in the puritan morality that surrounded Windlesham House.
Slumping against the wall, Doyle felt the tension screaming in his muscles. The brandy seemed to have had the strength of water and its spirit hadn't taken even the edge off the turmoil that clouded his thoughts. Lost in abstraction, it was only after a while he realised exactly what his hands had found and were toying with.
He was suddenly very still, his skin as pale as the fine, white linen of his shirt.
Almost of their own will his fingers moved, caressing the hunting-crop, flexing its supple length, testing it. His tongue wetted lips instantly too dry.
Looking up, his eyes met those of Murphy. The valet was standing in the doorway, an old, worn suit of clothes over his arm. The glance held for a long time, until overwhelmed by the affection and pity in the deep blue eyes, Doyle looked away, throwing the whip to the floor, his face suddenly burning with shame.
Putting the clothes down, Murphy stared at the harrowed countenance before him and spoke very softly, very carefully. "This may not yet be a city of vice, yet even here there is somewhere you could go."
Mutely, Doyle shook his head.
"It's very good...very exclusive. They pride themselves on their discretion."
"No!" He flung the word in a shout, then stood quite still and closed his eyes. "Besides, I have no money left at all."
"I have enough saved. It was for a rainy day. Well," Murphy paused to listen to the beating of rain against the window, "it seems to be pouring today. Please." He held out a leather pouch that sagged around its meagre contents.
"Oh, Michael, Michael." Bereft of words Doyle sank into a chair and covered his face with trembling hands. He sat for a long moment, his breathing harsh, painful. When he finally lowered his arms his face was wet.
"My lord you must, please." Murphy knelt at his side and urged with all his might.
"You know I cannot, I promised Charles. You know how he reacted when he found out about my...secret."
"What loyalty do you owe him?"
"He is my King."
"But not your God. Your conscience is your own. As are your needs."
"You make it all sound so simple. Ah, if only it were."
"It is. Here is enough money for a night that will cure you of these ill-humours. When your brain is once again clear, then you can decide what is best to do. I know you, my lord." Murphy gently placed the pouch in Doyle's lap, his hand sliding to cup the lax weight of cock and balls. "You know I would do this service for you if I could, but we've proved it does not work; I love you and want to please you, but I cannot hurt you." Regret was bright in his soft voice. "I am sorry."
"No, never say that, the sorrow, the bitterness is mine. How can you fathom this shameful compulsion when I, who burn with it, cannot." He took Murphy's broad hand in his own and held it tight. "Do I not disgust you, my friend?"
"No. We all have different ways and yours are no worse than many. At least no one has to die for you to find pleasure."
"God, no!" Doyle laughed in surprise, the momentary humour easing the tension. Perhaps this dark lust was not such a sin after all. And Charles had only hinted; it had hardly been a royal decree. He sat for a minute, his mind chaotic; need vying with sense. Then his fingers, somehow, were clutching the purse.
When he spoke, his voice was dry and dusty: "Where is this place, Michael?"
The sedan chair worked its way slowly along the congestion of Long Acre. Whores and mollies, boys and beggars, the street was a market place of the flesh. William Bodie, long a stranger to his own country, grinned at the spectacle. A few more years and it would be as if the Puritan regime had never been. Perhaps London would be worth keeping an eye on; one day it might even be worth returning to live here. One day.
The chair swayed as the bearers turned into Lad Lane, the filth here deeper and the street merely earth packed tight. At the end of the lane they entered an alley, emerging in a narrow, paved square. Bodie got out and paid them off. As they clattered away, their curses at the foul weather fading, he looked up, peering through the rain at the tall house, seeing the light spilling from nearly every casement. For Miranda to be this prosperous, times really must have changed.
Excitement rolled in his blood as he took the steps leading to the solid door two at a time. Every time he visited a new bawdy-house his blood sang with hope; hope that here, finally he would meet the opposite of himself, the half to make him whole. Perhaps this time he would find someone who could match his dark lusts; someone who would mirror his own strange desires.
It had been a long while since his last indulgence of his whims. Work had kept him too occupied to be beguiled by pleasure, though he had dreamed about it, anticipated this night through all the weeks of exertion and responsibility. Rumour had reached him about this establishment and as soon as he had heard who was running it the decision was made. As soon as he was free, Bodie had headed for England. Even if this was, as so often happened, to be yet another night of half-pleasures and unfilled desires, it would still be worth it just to see Miranda again.
With a fist he banged hard on the door and waited, sure he was being inspected from a hidden peephole. Then the door was pulled back and he was surrounded in perfume and lace, being kissed soundly by painted lips. "Bodie, my sweet. I wasn't expecting you, when did you get back? Come in, come in."
He stepped over the threshold with a wide grin, fending off another kiss in order to untie his long rain-spattered cloak. A servant bowed and took both cloak and hat.
Bodie turned and took the proprietress in his arms, giving her neat waist a tight squeeze. Then he stood back and whistled approvingly. "Life here must be agreeing with you, Miranda, you look eighteen if you look a day. And as for the get-up..." He whistled again.
"So glad you approve, sir." A dimple appeared under the layers of paint and powder as the owner of the establishment simpered and curtsied. The fact that she was a man took away nothing from her splendour; if anything, her height merely added to the magnificence of the wigged and ribboned spectacle.
Taking his arm, she wiped her paint from his face with a lace handkerchief and drew him in to her own private parlour, sitting him by the fire before fetching him a glass of wine, saying: "You don't look too bad yourself. I presume you bought this lot in Paris?" She tweaked at where the fine lawn of his shirt peeked through the lacings of his doublet. "You look good in it; all that jaunting around doesn't seem to have done you any harm."
"None at all, especially as it was extremely well rewarded. Which is probably just as well, this place looks like it will cost me a fair portion of my last pay." He sipped the rich old wine, his eyes taking in the elaborate furnishings, the tapestries and the erotic paintings. "I'm glad you've found your feet here, Miranda, being abroad with all those foreigners never did suit you."
"No. God bless the King, that's what I say. I thought I'd never be able to make a home in my own country, yet here I am and, let me tell you, doing very nicely indeed."
As her hands were dusted with diamonds as well as powder, Bodie could believe the claim. Dangling from each ear was an emerald and the stuff of her gown had probably cost more than his entire wardrobe. He grinned. "Better than five years ago in Venice?"
They laughed together. "I'm still not sure what crookery you used to get us out of that situation." Her deep, vibrant voice was warm with remembrance.
"Miranda! How could you, I did nothing illegal at all..." They both laughed again, until Miranda had to dab carefully at her eyes with a scrap of lace, complaining that he always disordered her paint.
"Do you ever appear as a man here?" Bodie inquired, his smile fond.
"No. I'm saving my breeches for the day I have to make a fast retreat."
"I hope it never comes. London needs someone like you to liven it up, especially after the last few years. There must be enough frustrated men here to keep you in business for a lifetime."
"Longer. The day we opened we almost had a queue! And that was all from word of mouth; you know I never advertise."
"You don't have to. I presume you brought all your regular boys with you?"
"Of course, though I don't know why when all they do is complain about the cold."
"They'll get used to it. Anyone I might take a fancy to?" Bodie tried to appear casual, but Miranda saw through the calm disguise.
"And I thought that you had come to see me. Bodie, I'm mortified!"
"No you're not!" He narrowed his eyes slyly -- two could tease. "Unless your tastes have changed since we knew each other last?"
"No my dear, I still like to be treated like a lady in every way and I certainly don't want bruises on my skin. It costs me a fortune in creams to keep it this soft."
"And worth every penny -- I wouldn't dream of putting a single mark on it." He raised his glass gallantly to her.
"Thank you, my sweet. Now let me think, it's early yet so there's not that many in." She consulted a sheet of paper.
"Is your business still entirely with men?"
"Yes. Though there's a few mollies installed upstairs, some men do like petticoats, especially if there is a nice stiff prick under the flounces." She fluttered her eye-lashes coyly.
Putting the paper aside Miranda looked at Bodie. He was her oldest friend, the one who never criticised or scolded. She wanted to offer him something perfect, something to say thank you for all the times in the past when he had helped her out. The list of whores was no help though and she bit her lip. "I'm sorry, but I think my boys will all be too young for you and the older ones aren't of the right persuasion. Why do you have to be so awkward; I suppose you do still prefer men?"
"Yes, and I still also prefer my partner to not be a whore. I was hoping you might have one of your paying guests to offer me."
A gleam of speculation brightened her eye.
He stood and went to her side, kneeling in mock gallantry at her feet. "I know that look, you flirt. Who is he? Miranda my love, tell me that he'll suit me. You're not trying to set me up with an ancient raddled old rake are you?"
"You'd only ignore him if I did. No, I've a new client coming in tonight. He's well known in certain circles, he spent the last ten years with Charles' court in exile. He comes highly recommended, his manservant knows Medway's, which is how he heard about me. I asked a few discreet questions of Medway who whole-heartedly vouched both for him and his peccadilloes." She raised a pencilled brow suggestively.
"So, Lord Medway is still around. It must be true that only the good die young." Bodie shook his head and stood up, returning to his seat opposite her and crossing his booted feet at the ankle.
"Still around and richer than ever. I'm not complaining." She put out a white hand and carefully inspected the largest diamond.
"Minx." Bodie looked at her fondly, then the expression on his face hardened. "Is this man one of his cast offs?"
"No, the word is that if Doyle is anyone's cast off, it is the King's." She waited for Bodie to be impressed.
He wasn't. "Don't be ridiculous, whoever heard of our revered monarch indulging himself in the sort of games that are played here?"
"No one. Though apparently whilst in exile he learned to enjoy both sexes in his bed. Rumour also says that all that sort of thing is over; becoming King seems to have made him more particular."
"And this royal catamite is trying to drown his sorrows in a sea of excess. He's probably a pampered, painted little know-nothing who'd faint away as soon as I really hurt him. What's his name, anyway?"
"I shouldn't say." She fluttered her lashes at his look. "But as it's you, his name is Lord Raymond Doyle. He's Windlesham's younger brother."
Bodie whistled. "Poor bastard."
"Poor, penniless bastard. Windlesham will hardly bank-roll him, not unless he intends on becoming a monk. And if the King really has tired of him, I doubt if he'll be able to afford many nights here, so you ought to make the most of him."
"Who says I'm going to make anything of him?"
Miranda smoothed the bright gold of her skirts with one hand and peeped at Bodie through her lashes. "You've never met him, have you?"
"You know I've spent hardly any time in England and none at all with the exiled court."
"Well, he's not as you might imagine."
He watched her for a moment, his strong fingers toying idly with a lock of dark hair. "You think I'll like him, don't you?"
She smiled and sighed softly to herself at the picture of brooding intensity that Bodie made. The dark clothes fitted him perfectly, their lack of adornment sombre, close to Puritan. She imagined him with Doyle; the darkness next to the butterfly brightness of Doyle that she'd glimpsed so often at the theatre. He would be a perfect foil for Bodie. If they were as well matched in the privacy of the upstairs room, then she would be giving Bodie a perfect gift. "Yes, I think you'll like him very much."
"In that case I bow to your better judgement." Bodie sighed and told himself not to expect too much. Miranda was selling her wares, she would say anything. Besides, it had been a long time since Bodie had found anyone to match his ardour for such esoteric delights. He frowned, his face closing, darkening. "I wonder if your lordling really does know what he's letting himself in for?"
"Apparently so." Miranda shrugged, not particularly caring one way or the other. "Though from what Medway said, I doubt if he is an old hand. You should be able to teach him a trick or two."
"If he can take it."
"Poor Bodie, your tastes are far too extreme for most. 'Tis a shame you prefer not to pay for your amusements -- whores will do anything."
Bodie grimaced in distaste. "I know, it must have been all those years of paupery that gave me this taste for pleasure freely given."
She tutted. "Thank heavens that most are not like you, or I would be out of work." With a smile she stood and bending over him placed a light kiss on his cheek. Her eyes held a hint of regret that was quickly masked and she straightened, holding out a hand. "Come, for old time's sake I'll show you to the best room, have it on the house as my gift."
"Sweet Miranda, thank you." He brushed her cheek with a kiss and smiled.
"Though if you come back tomorrow, you pay like all the rest."
Bodie laughed, amusement and affection in the sound.
"I'll show you up. When his lordship arrives, I'll bring him to you."
They walked through the ostentatiously decorated hallway, up the stairs and along a corridor. She halted outside an elaborately gilded door.
"I won't come inside. If you require anything there is a bell to call a servant, or if you come to the door, Jacques there will get you what you need." Miranda nodded to a black page boy who stood at nervous attention at the end of the corridor. "Enjoy yourself, my love. Don't damage him too much -- I have no love for running away, as you know. Besides, the Channel in January..." she shuddered. "So, be careful."
"Regretting that you've allowed this to happen?"
"No." But she didn't look him in the eye, if only he wanted to bed in the ordinary way... Still, there was no point thinking like that. She touched his sleeve. "Enjoy yourself." And she left him, the ringlets of her hair swaying as she walked.
A roaring fire made the room very warm. A table was set up with an array of bottles and glasses. Pouring himself some wine Bodie stripped off his doublet, unfastening his shirt. The room was large, lit by several branches of candles. Walking around, Bodie snuffed a few of them, muting the too-bright light. Apart from two heavily carved chairs by the fire-side, the main furnishing was the bed, a dark oak four-poster without drapes. He tested it, leaning his weight against an upright; the frame scarcely creaked. Bodie nodded to himself, moving away. Everything was of the highest quality, even the floorboards were covered with a carpet, its pile so thick that his boots were silent as he walked.
The chamber was splendid indeed and, considering what it was, quite tasteful. A selection of erotic paintings decorated the walls; a hugely phallused Zeus taking a protesting Ganymede; an orgy of shaven headed monks; a man being beaten by a masked figure as another laboured away, his cock plundering the willing arse.
Dragging his gaze away, Bodie opened the lid of a deep oaken chest. Breath suddenly tight under his ribs, he fingered the contents: supple leather restraints; a fine selection of whips, crops and switches; a bridle complete with bit; lengths of velvet, silk and leather; even a variety of feathers. Choosing a selection he put it all onto the long trestle table that ran under the curtained windows. On the table was a box. Curious, he opened it. He was smiling as he lifted out its contents; a large leather dildo that could only have come from Venice, a place where they appreciated the finer subtleties of lust.
Lifelike, yet larger than seemed humanly possible, the shaft was carved with sinuous veins, its flaring head smooth, tapering to a rounded end. Bodie shivered, imagining its hardness pushing into his arse, opening him to release the sweetest pleasure. Carefully placing it back in the box, Bodie swallowed and closed his eyes on another image; that of the phallus sliding with difficulty into a bound and oiled body. Perhaps that would happen tonight. He pressed a hand to his cock, feeling its heat and response. If only he knew what this lord was like. If only he were here.
Close to an hour later, Bodie was seated by the fire, deep in thought when there came a knock at the door. Almost going to rise he stopped himself and sat back down in the chair, resting his wrists casually on its arms as he called aloud for whoever it was to enter. There was the sound of a brief exchange of soft words outside the door and Bodie had a moment to again wonder what sort of dog Miranda had landed him with. Ugly and old was still his bet, a fop with skin so soft it would bleed at the first touch. Bodie curled his lip in scorn. He had been accused before of having too particular a taste in these matters, but he didn't care to take just anyone to his bed, nor to lavish the care of his whip on any back. Though from time to time, of necessity, he had done both.
Then the door opened. The man who stepped into the chamber was so unlike what Bodie had envisioned that he found himself silent, eyes feasting on the slender figure standing self-consciously against the closed door.
He was, in truth, quite beautiful. Clean-shaved, his face was pale, a slight, almost exotic cast to the tilt of the eyes, the shape of the bones. Long hair that could only be his own fell in a curling, lustrous mass about broad shoulders and a straight back. The man stood straight and calm, a touch of arrogance in his bearing. A wide and pliant mouth was almost smiling, humour and return of interest echoed in the clear gaze.
At once, Bodie no longer had any doubt about the pleasures of the night. Here was no painted pansy, no raddled, thin-skinned fop. Bodie took a deep breath and relaxed jaw muscles he hadn't realised were tight. Now, if only the needs and passions were as perfect as the outer man. Well, there was only one way to tell. He lent back and stared insolently at the visitor. "So," his voice was soft, seductive. "You like the feel of a lash across your back." It wasn't a question.
"It seems I must, or why else would I be here?" The smile was in the voice as well, though a slight unsteadiness threaded through the confidence, belying its strength. Bodie felt a curl of lust in his loins.
Bodie sat forward, letting his shirt fall open and the light from the fire catch on the broad strength of his chest. "Oh, Miranda caters for a multitude of deviations here, as long as you have no yearning for the fairer sex, that is." He raised an eyebrow in gentle enquiry, pleased that the man's eyes were transfixed by the display.
"I find my pleasures where I may, 'tis the way of the world." The eyes fought their way back to Bodie's face. He cleared his throat. "But I prefer a man."
"Yes." Bodie breathed in pleasure. "What is your name?"
Bodie was amused by the casual dispatch of the title, but gave nothing away. "My name is William Bodie, you may call me Bodie. This night while you are mine I shall call you Raymond. It sounds foreign on an English tongue, your mother must have had fanciful leanings." He paused, then went on in the same even voice: "Do you like to be fucked?"
"Yes." Very simple.
Bodie watched as the elegant figure stepped closer to the fire. This was always the most difficult part, to gain control, to gauge the temper of this stranger and to use it. Up close he could see lines of tension on the smooth features, dark pits of worry under the curiously slanting eyes. An edge of uncertainty there as well, deep in the sombre gaze. Bodie shivered as heat flooded up through his body. "Take your clothes off, I want to see you naked."
It seemed Doyle was about to speak, but instead began to strip off his clothes. After a while he stood in a tangle of clean linen and old lace, of shabby velvet and crushed lawn. With the fall of cloth the scent of lavender eddied around the chamber.
Naked he was quite superb: long, finely muscled limbs; a neat, inviting arse and a cock that though only half awake held great promise. Bodie stood to face him. Moving very close he tangled his hands in the mass of hair, pulling it back, holding its silkiness behind the long neck and grasping it tight. They were of a height, though his boots gave Bodie the advantage. With a glint in his eye he bent his head and placed his lips to where a pulse was beating unsteadily under warm skin. As if sipping dew he stood for a time, the feel and smell and wary stillness of the other man acting as an aphrodisiac, spiking the air itself with desire. Opening his mouth, Bodie bared his teeth, biting, wrenching the curls back with one hand as he feasted on the exposed throat. When the copper-sweet taste of blood seeped deliciously into Bodie's mouth, a low moan of need escaped from his victim.
Bodie raised his head and held the stranger's eyes with his own. Dilated, desperate, they pleaded with him.
"Who did Miranda tell you I am?"
"She said nothing except your name and that you are not in her pay, that you don't belong to her."
"I belong to no one. Did she also tell you that you are her gift to me, that this night I can do what I will to you, even though you are the one paying?" With his free hand, Bodie took hold of Doyle's cock, it reared into his palm.
Doyle's voice was suddenly breathless, "She said you would do what I want."
"And what do you want?" Bodie asked the question, no longer afraid of the answer.
"To be bound, beaten."
Bodie licked the slight welling of blood at Doyle's throat and whispered: "Can you meet me in this, accept what I need?"
"Yes. I..." Raymond licked his lips and tried again. "I crave this more than any other pleasure, I need..."
"Shush." Bodie stilled his words with a kiss that merely glanced upon dry lips. "I know. I know everything." He whispered the words close, burying his face in the sweet-smelling hair, revelling in these tantalising moments before it would begin. His fingers were weaving through the curls, they were so long... "We'll need to tie all this back." And he left Doyle standing, unsteady at the loss of support.
"This should suffice." Bodie returned quickly with a strip of leather and used it to tame the wild profusion. The touch of skin was smooth and the straight back was unmarred. Curious, Bodie asked: "When did you last indulge yourself?"
Doyle cleared his throat. "A while ago," he shook his head as if unsure. "Two years, maybe longer."
"Too long." Bodie sat back down in the heavy oak chair and looked up insolently. "We'll begin with an easy task -- take my boots off."
Doyle hesitated. Then he bent his knee and one by one pulled off the long boots, placing them neatly away from the fire. Expectancy was making him breathe shallowly, sweat beading his lip and brow. He knelt back, hands pressed to his thighs as if to stop their trembling.
Bodie considered him, then asked, "Do you fear me?"
"No, I thought not. Then why do you shiver?"
"I don't know."
"Perhaps you fear yourself. Is it that you want this too much or perhaps that I won't be good enough?"
"Both." Doyle breathed the word almost silently, he looked up, an agony of half-suppressed need shadowing his face.
Bodie realised that he wasn't the only one here to have low expectations of how the night would turn out. Surprise and the first hint of elation, of hope, tingled in his gut. Perhaps tonight really would be good. He hesitated, then to his own surprise stripped off his shirt, kicking the chair back to kneel at Doyle's side. "I do know what you want. I have felt the same need myself, burned with it. See." And he twisted so his back was to the fire.
Doyle hesitated, then spoke very slowly, "Yes, I see." The pale skin was woven with an old tracery of silvered scars, they pulled across the finely delineated muscles like a web. Very gently Doyle touched the warm skin, feeling his way like a blind man through the old stripes. Wide-eyed, he began to speak: "I've never..." Then stopped in dismay, shaking his head.
Bodie turned back, his face very intent. "You have scars yourself, I saw them when you stripped, yet you see the difference in those I bear from your own?"
"Yes." The single word was hoarse. Then more surely he went on, "I've only dreamed of what I want, I've never really found it. These," he touched the scars on Bodie's muscled back, "these are different. I don't think I have ever...lost myself, not enough."
The oblique sentence made total sense and Bodie stood up. He held out his hand. "Come, I'll take you to another country, one you've never been to before except maybe in your dreams."
When Doyle was on his feet Bodie paused, then struck him across the face.
Raymond gasped, though the sound was taken away by Bodie's kiss. They shared the bitter-sweet taste of his blood, though in truth the kiss itself was more shocking, more soul-shaking.
Cloudy eyed, Bodie stepped back, denying confusion. "Go and stand by the bed."
With a slight stumble, Doyle obeyed, standing quite tame as Bodie fastened his wrists to manacles set high in one of the posts.
Left alone he caught his breath, then Bodie returned and laid an intimate hand on the cleft of his arse. "I should fuck you now. Do you know how enticing you look?" Fingers found Doyle's anus, toyed with it, then moved further on, making him spread his legs as his balls were played with. His cock was still hard.
Bodie smiled again, a slight giddiness of desire darkening the room, but he stood away. Twisting the instrument he had chosen between his hands, teasing its short, wide strands with his fingers, he nodded to himself. This flail would be perfect, nothing too intolerable to begin, a gentle introduction. No blood, not even very much pain. That would come later.
As the first stroke hit, Raymond gasped in shock as the lash burned his skin. The hand that beat him was very skilled, building slowly until he could no longer hold himself still under the onslaught. He couldn't escape the whip that was slowly turning his skin to fire, couldn't control the twisting of his body as it danced under the lash. Yet after a while there was no need. The pain enfolded him, cushioning him; his thoughts turning to thistle-down, scattering, leaving only a single reality. The reality of sensation.
After a long while Bodie stopped. The only sound in the room was the harsh breathing of both men.
Bodie threw the flail to the floor and massaged his arm, grunting as muscles remembered how exerting a pastime this was. Stepping closer he examined his handiwork, feeling Doyle flinch as fingers touched his heated skin. From shoulder to thigh the skin was coloured a burning red, individual lash marks only discernible at the sides, the edges. Bodie nodded, pleased. He lowered Raymond's wrists, holding him, waiting until he found his feet before moving a pace away.
"That is the beginning." Bodie was shaking slightly, a feeling close to pain swelling his cock. "Kneel here."
Despite the hurt, Raymond knelt gracefully at Bodie's feet, his thoughts still scattered around the solidity of the other man's presence. He swallowed hard, saliva filling his mouth as the most perfect cock he had ever seen was presented to him. Without needing to be asked he took it clumsily into his mouth, groaning deep in his chest as the heavy flesh pushed inside, its pungency making his head swim. It was big; he had to work it carefully, easing his lips around it, wetting it with saliva as he sucked, almost coaxing it into his mouth, breathing around its bulk when he could as he lost himself in the rhythm, letting himself be used, giving his mouth and throat as a gift to this stranger. The pleasure was so intense; this fullness, this submission. Doyle was lost in the act of giving himself when suddenly Bodie was coming and all control was taken away as hands found his head and held tight. He gagged, the cock spurting deep in his throat, pressure taking away air and light, the pulsing going on forever inside him. He was close to panic, choking, when the convulsive grip loosened and mercifully the softening flesh slid wetly from his mouth.
Bodie shuddered and opened his eyes. Doyle still knelt, supporting himself on one hand, he was coughing, wiping eyes and face. Crouching by his side, Bodie touched his chin. The damp face tilted upwards and cloudy, green eyes met his own. Bodie nodded, wiping his own mouth with a shaky hand. "Very nice. Now stand up."
Doyle obeyed, chest heaving as he fought for breath. He gasped as Bodie kissed him again, opening his lips wider as Bodie's skilful, sly tongue licked his own taste from the warmth and wet of the open, enticing mouth. Strung out with need, Doyle sobbed and pushed into the offering, reaching out to hold the solidity of flesh, his hands clutching at arms and shoulders, wanting it all.
The desperate passion sent a fresh surge of lust into Bodie's groin. Still partially erect, his cock began to swell once more, spearing to meet where Raymond's wept into the air.
Wrenching himself away, Bodie cuffed Doyle again, the fresh pain meant to restore sanity. His own at least. This was not to be a common coupling that any man could buy in the street. His own needs were as precise and extreme as Doyle's. It would not do to be blind to them.
Bodie wiped his hand across his mouth and took a deep restoring breath. He carefully fastened his breeches. "I could take you now, but we would both regret it." It was strange, but he wanted to regret nothing of this night. "Put your hands behind your back."
Bemused, slightly dazed, Doyle obeyed and found his hands being tied expertly.
"I'm going to gag you."
"No!" Raymond turned his head quickly at the words. "No, I don't like it."
"Who said that it mattered what you want?" Bodie held a length of silk in his hand as if weighing it. "Do you want to scream?"
Bodie almost laughed. "You think not. Wait another hour or so and we will see." Discarding the cloth he held himself close to the bound man, pressing against the nakedness, feeling the heat shimmering off the reddened back. He whispered through escaping curls: "You will scream, you know. There is no shame in it either. Pain is something that touches deeper in you than anything else except maybe joy. So, be thankful." He stepped away. "I am giving you both."
Bodie brushed his fingers against the protruding buds of brown nipples, smiling as the sensation shot straight to Doyle's cock and he shuddered. "I'm glad you like that." He continued gently, then began to pinch, digging his nails into the tender flesh, pulling them tight, twisting hard. Doyle was gasping from the pain, reflex tears forming under his lids. Then, knowingly, Bodie went back to gentling, caressing, barely touching the heated skin. Pain returned to pleasure. Bodie smiled as the man before him began to sway, eyes half-closed, lost in the searing pleasure.
Abruptly, Bodie stopped and sat down.
In the firelight, Raymond was beautiful: arms bound tightly behind his back; eyes hazy with sensation; nipples raw, reddened; cock hard. He was the very stuff of delight, of dreams, of at least Bodie's dreams. Bodie frowned, a faint sense of dismay touching his thoughts as he remembered with regret that they only had this one night.
"Turn around, let me see you." Bodie watched eyes widen as the words sank in and the thin skin coloured at the humiliation. Bodie waited, then said very quietly: "Do it."
Reluctantly, Raymond obeyed, turning in a slow circle under Bodie's gaze, swallowing hard as he watched the seated man pleasure himself lazily, his strong hands toying with his own cock.
"Kneel down." Again there was a moment's delay, then the long limbs obeyed. Sliding to the edge of the chair, Bodie touched Doyle's face with one hand, grazing the mouth with his thumb before forcing it inside. Doyle shuddered but took it, then one by one each of Bodie's fingers until they were all accommodated in his mouth. He sucked them hard, saliva dripping from his wide-stretched lips.
Withdrawing his hand, Bodie wiped it on Raymond's face. Then, drawn by an irresistible impulse, kissed him again.
It was ridiculous. The kiss sent his control spinning away, his cock pulsing against the rough wool of his breeches. Though if looks were a guide, Doyle was in no better state. This wasn't right. It wasn't what either of them wanted. Bodie put his foot to Doyle's chest and sent him sprawling to the floor.
"Go and get on the bed, lie on your belly."
Struggling off the floor, Doyle obeyed.
Bodie hated the fact that his hands were trembling. He went to the table and took a deep draught of wine to calm himself then he released the bound arms and stretched Doyle spread-eagled across the bed. Throughout, Bodie was silent, saying nothing as he tied each slim wrist and ankle to a bed-post. When it was done, Bodie took up a heavy strap.
The thrashing was the hardest Doyle had ever borne. Only the memory of his words held his cries still-born; teeth biting hard into the pillow. The skill was masterly, leaving him racked and sobbing, mindless, burning with both pain and desire, flung far into the other country that Bodie had promised. The world had shrunk to the limit of the strap's touch. He only existed because of the fire that licked at his flesh, because of the man who laboured over him.
Bodie just stopped before he lost control. His eyes were almost sightless. Wiping sweat away with an unsteady hand he stepped off the bed. He went to the fire and added a couple of logs, building up the blaze, concentrating on the task rather than the harrowed, ragged breathing of the man behind him. Task completed, he stood for a long time in silent contemplation of the twisting flames before returning to the wide bed.
Doyle was watching him through pain-narrowed eyes. His skin was slick with sweat.
Bodie frowned, stripping off the remains of his clothing before climbing onto the bed to straddle the prone body. Sobbing, Doyle arched against the new pain, biting his lip until it bled.
"Do you still think you won't scream?"
"Yes..." The word was a hiss of strain.
"I should place a wager with you, but I don't take money on certainties." He bent and licked the welts, salt from his sweat stinging the abused skin. Doyle gasped and twisted hard. Bodie slapped him lightly across the shoulder and watched, captivated, as he steadied himself.
Captive and captor. Bodie shivered and rubbed his cock against the dark cleft between Raymond's buttocks. Captive and captor, which was which? Was there in truth a difference? He shook his head and moved. With a few deft pulls, Doyle was released and manoeuvred ungently onto his back. Bodie once again straddled the racked body, soothing it with a gentle hand, tracing over the straining ribs, down across the concave belly to where the sex lay lax under his own. At his touch though it twitched, beginning to respond at once.
"I thought you said you would make me scream?" Harsh and pain-threaded, the words startled Bodie out of his reverie.
"Yes." Bodie considered. "But from agony or delight?"
The question held them both silent. Bemused, Bodie bent forward and kissed the swollen mouth, lapping gently at the taste of blood. He sighed, surprisingly content.
In the end it was Doyle who spoke. "Whichever you want."
For a second Bodie was confused, then he remembered the question to which those words were an answer. He answered slowly, truthfully. "I think I want it to be both."
He felt Doyle's shiver through every sinew in his body. It burned lust through him.
Twisting away he went to the table, ignoring the bereft call that followed him as he searched among the confusion of straps and paraphernalia. There, he knew it was there.
Reaching into the selection of whips he pulled out a long hunting crop. Silver-topped, fashioned of the most elegant cream leather, it was slender, three feet long and quite vicious. He took it back and held it before Doyle's eyes.
"I'm going use this." He could see Doyle swallow convulsively. There was finally fear in the taut face, the bones sharp under the sweat-damp skin, though he kept himself quite still. After a moment, with a last flickering glance from the whip to Bodie's implacable face he turned over, pressing his belly into the bed and his face into his arm.
Positioning himself by the side of the bed Bodie slowly traced down the existing welts with the crop's tip, his body responding as Doyle fought to remain still. "Five strokes only." Even without seeing the mobile face Bodie could sense the relief, knowing the other man had expected more. "But you shouldn't have turned over."
Bodie smiled as Doyle jerked with shock.
It was a lot to ask. To keep still, unbound, exposed. Very slowly though, Doyle turned, shifting until he lay once more on his back, the softness of his body exposed, open to whatever whim Bodie might wish to indulge. He clutched the bed-cover with his fingers and shivered, pain and anticipation making sweat bead on his skin, trickle from his hair down the pallor of his face. He closed his eyes.
For Bodie, there was one thing that held his gaze, Raymond's cock was swollen, weeping with need. He smiled and tapped it with the whip. "Do you still not want a gag?"
"No." The word was expelled on a harsh gasp.
"Five strokes. I promise you it will be enough."
Bodie positioned himself and held his indrawn breath, then as he let the whip fly breathed out, putting all his weight into the stroke. It hit across the sparsely-haired chest, breaking the skin. He gave Raymond a brief second to collect himself then cracked the whip down again: a welt sprang up across the fine skin of both thighs and slowly turned from white to red.
Bodie paused, listening to the harsh, erratic breathing. The third and fourth strokes marred the high chest, one biting accurately across a nipple. Doyle's body almost left the bed, the tendons straining in his neck as he spasmed with pain. Tears were streaming down his face and he was whispering under his breath words that were indistinct around the gasping need for air. Bodie could tell he was close to the edge. Not much more would break him into a thousand pieces.
Bodie was close himself. His cock was hard, balls tight drawn into their sac. Doyle's arousal was still obvious too, the flesh distended, dark red with need. Bodie bared his teeth and struck the fifth blow.
Doyle screamed, the sound as shocking as the harsh crack of the whip against naked flesh. He arched into the pain, the scream breaking into sobs as he shuddered and came, his seed spilling high into the air, spattering his chest and belly, the opaque liquid turning dark as it met and mixed with the brightness of blood.
Bodie tossed the whip onto the floor and climbed onto the bed, intent on one thing only. He took Raymond in his arms to turn him, then stopped, gentling his grip. Considering, his curse was quite mild. With a rueful smile he settled himself around the lax body, drawing what he could reach of the covers about them both. His cock still ached but he wasn't a boy, he knew that there would be time enough to satisfy its needs later. Besides, he wanted to fuck this man when he was awake, when they would both appreciate it. After the last few hours Doyle deserved that at least.
The room was almost dark, most of the candles had guttered and the fire had burned low. Time must have passed without his noticing and he was lost as to what hour it might be. Not that it mattered. He breathed deep, smelling sweat and sex, and the faint fragrance of lavender. The scents were soothing and very soon he too, slept.
There was a moment of disorientation as he drifted away from sleep, then the limbs wrapped around him shifted against his back and remembrance flooded sharply, deliciously through him.
With a smile Lord Raymond Doyle explored his body, flexing muscles, touching his skin with a gentle hand, being careful not to awaken the sleeper. His back was sore, his whole body stiff. Despite it all though, his mind was very calm; the terrible despair that had gnawed at his every waking hour and tormented his sleep was gone, replaced by an overwhelming sense of peace. It had been a long, long time since Doyle had experienced such serenity. Long ago and far away.
The stranger -- no he wasn't that -- he was William Bodie, and he had more intimate knowledge of this body than almost anyone else in the world. Doyle smiled. Well, whoever he was, he was asleep, his breathing heavy and even. Doyle moved cautiously, not wanting to awaken the other, but needing to find an easier position. He shifted, wincing as skin pulled against skin.
Idly, with one hand he traced the path of a weal across his chest. It hadn't bled very much, the blood already turning dark, drying. He pressed his fingers to it, feeling the echoes of the night's pain deep in his body, marvelling.
It was strange to be with someone who understood. More than that, someone who had experienced both ends of the whip. The scars on Bodie's wide back were incredible, inflicted by a master of the art. Who had it been? Curiosity encompassed him. He wanted to know everything about this man who had so skilfully given everything that Doyle had desired; the alchemist who had taken away the pain, transmuted it into pleasure.
Risking another move, he turned to face the sleeper. Yes, he was quite beautiful. In repose the sensual face was more austere, less harsh than when its owner was awake. It was framed by sleek black hair that moulded the fine skull, trailing silkily down to touch the smooth chest, almost to the small, untouched nipples. Raymond touched a dark lock, feeling its silk. As fashions demanded, it wasn't very long. Perhaps it was kept so for a reason; was he a soldier? The muscles that rippled so enticingly when he moved could be from the exigencies of soldiering. Wherever they came from they had been worked for, the flat belly was tight with muscle. Doyle touched the swell of biceps, shivering at the surprising softness of the skin, at the reaction of his own flesh. There was no one who had ever made him feel like this. Not Murphy; not even Charles.
For the first time the thought brought no bitterness, the memory of his King consigned to oblivion. Even the image of Lucy failed to disturb this new-found tranquillity. He would marry her, then forget her. If that was what it took to survive, then so be it. As long as he could visit here from time to time, then that was all that mattered.
How often did Bodie come here; where did he live? Would he want to meet again? Now that was a question.
The sudden intensity of the thought seemed to transmit itself to the sleeper, for Bodie stirred and his eyes flickered open. He showed no surprise at finding himself staring into the eyes of the man he had just beaten, merely smiled crookedly and pulled him closer.
At Doyle's soft exclamation he stopped, instantly contrite. "I'm sorry, are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. You just took me by surprise."
Bodie hesitated then relaxed, knowing none of the damage was truly serious though Raymond was going to ache for a while. "You would be more comfortable and warmer if we actually got into bed. Besides, the sheets won't pull so badly as this wool."
Doyle nodded and stretched warily. The room was chill to his skin. "We should feed the fire before it goes out completely."
After all that had gone before, the normality of such simple concerns should have been out of place, but no awkwardness arose between them. The serenity that Doyle felt was obviously shared by his companion; there was no constraint to shadow the time, no pressure to end the night.
Bodie carefully unwrapped them from both the cover and each other. He hissed as the chilled air hit his skin. "God, it's cold! Why couldn't I have met you in mid-summer? Go and get into bed, I'll be back in a moment."
Doyle needed no encouragement. Shivering, he slid between the sheets, burrowing into the warmth their bodies had created. He watched placidly as Bodie first put wood on the fire, then moved around the room lighting fresh candles from the guttering remains of the old. The brightness was warm, chasing shadows as Bodie quickly came back to bed and burrowed under the sheets.
They lay close, content, the crackle of the fire a comforting counterpoint to the renewed pattering of rain on the windows.
"When did you change?"
Coming out of the blue, the question confused Bodie. "What do you mean?"
Doyle touched his arm with a gentle finger. "I mean when did you become the one who wields the whip, rather than the one who suffers under it?"
"I don't know, it just happened. A long time ago, anyway."
Doyle nodded, letting his thoughts drift unanchored in a sea of tranquillity until another question drifted into his head. "Who gave you those scars? Do you mind me asking?"
"No, I showed them to you, why should I mind your interest? It was also a long time ago, he was someone I would have done anything for, did do everything for. He was my master in all senses of the word, the one I looked up to, wanted to be, wanted to be loved by. Perhaps I changed when he died. He was so skilled he could make me come with one stroke of the whip. Mind, he could make me weep or scream with just the same ease. When he was gone I couldn't give myself to anyone else, not in the same way, yet I still needed the same sort of release. Eventually I found that I was not alone and that if one knew the right places any and every vice could be indulged. So I became like him."
"Did you love him?"
"As much as it was possible. He was rich, powerful and in direct blood-line to the throne, while I was his servant." Bodie sighed. "Yes, I loved him. I was very young, I grew up in his service."
"You must have been very beautiful." A feeling close to jealousy swelled in Doyle's throat as he imagined Bodie as a youth. He resented the rich, powerful man who had mastered all this strength without really knowing why. "You still are."
Bodie cocked a scornful eye-brow. "You jest. I am a soldier, my hands are calloused, my skin scarred, I might be a world away from ugly, but handsome, never."
Doyle ignored the denial and smiled. "I wondered if you were a soldier. Which regiment," he paused, then hurriedly added, as he remembered the situation. "If you don't mind me knowing?"
"I don't mind at all, but I am not a soldier in that sense. I work for the Duc d'Orleans, he pays my wages."
"What sort of work, are you a spy?" Raymond said it in jest, but Bodie's reaction took the humour from his eyes. "A spy. I think you must be the first I have met." He began to move away, confused by the mute acknowledgement.
"I'm not spying here, so you don't have to worry that you're sleeping with a traitor."
There was so much amusement in the rich voice that Doyle stopped and looked deep into the eyes that were laughing good-humouredly at him. They were very blue.
Bodie explained, "The Duc is only interested in what goes on in France. I promise you that."
"I believe you." And oddly enough, Doyle did. He laughed, embarrassed. "I am sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"Shush. Forget that you spoke, it really doesn't matter. Come here." And he stretched out one arm and drew his companion close, being very careful not to hurt. "Now, you know everything about me, what of yourself?"
And somehow, despite the brevity of their acquaintance, Doyle found himself telling this stranger everything, from the joys of his life in exile to the bitterness of the present and its enforced choices. Everything except the shaming truth of quite how destitute he really was.
"...but I shouldn't complain. I never even pretended to myself that Charles cared sincerely for me. I just wish that he had found me less of a harridan to marry." He sighed deeply.
"Why not just give it all up, leave? There are other countries apart from England."
"I know. Yet despite myself I do owe Charles a certain debt for all those years. And besides, I'm getting too old to fight for my living, or whore for it. What else could I do, who would want me? If I applied as a tutor to some country squire's sons I would be laughed away from the house. My reputation is hardly savoury." He shrugged and winced belatedly. "No, I do not want to be a pauper -- this last six months have shown me that, not that things are that bad yet," he hurriedly revised.
"Wouldn't your brother assist you?"
"My brother would just about pay for my funeral, that's all the money he'd ever give me."
Bodie sighed. Hard as he tried he couldn't see a way out of Doyle's situation. Besides, it was clear he had made his mind up. Even living with a shrewish wife would be better than living from hand to mouth: something he hinted at, but for some prideful reason wouldn't acknowledge. Bodie couldn't bring himself to reveal that he knew the truth, Doyle's secrets were his own.
The room was getting warm again and Bodie pushed back the covers. Levering himself up on an elbow he glanced around, realising why he could see Doyle more clearly. Dawn had broken whilst they talked, the room revealed by a cool light that filtered through the curtains. "It is another day. They'll be throwing us out soon."
Doyle looked past Bodie into the room, seeing the candle-light dimmed by the insistent day creeping past the curtains. He realised that in the distance were the muted sounds of servants bringing the house to life. It must be late. A house like this would not keep early hours.
Weighted by pleasure, by lethargy, he wanted to remain where he was, to stay in this bed forever. Still, that was impossible. There was no more money, so it was not to be. Perhaps it was even for the better, such pleasures could be addictive.
He glanced back to Bodie, surprising a fleeting look on the perfect face that was almost unfathomable, perhaps an illusion caused by the strange intensity that filled him. But if it wasn't... A wave of what could only be sentiment overtook him and he reached up, laying his hand close to the bristled chin, stroking it with his thumb. "Thank you for everything." His voice was almost sad, almost bereft. "I know that I have no more claim on you, that you must be eager to get on with your day, but I would beg one last request."
"Your skin wouldn't take any more." Bodie smiled. "Not tonight."
An answering amusement glanced across Doyle's features and he shook his head. "I know, but I want something else."
"Your wish is my command."
Bodie shivered, the request as seductive as a kiss itself. He bent, pressing his body carefully along the other, waiting for the slight indrawn breath as the contact brought the skin to life, then he kissed him. At their first touch passion kindled and they were both trembling, suddenly on fire with need. Bodie moaned, holding a hand to the long throat as his tongue pushed deep. He could feel a pulse beating unsteadily in the hollows under his fingers.
"My God!" The sound of a voice broke them apart in shock. "My God, Bodie, you still have the stamina of a bull."
"Miranda! You could have knocked!" Bodie hurriedly dragged the sheets over their nudity. He pulled both hands through his hair in disgust, trying to quiet the hectic beating of his heart, the insistent pulsing in his loins. "What hour is it?"
"Near mid-day and I need to prepare the room for its next visitors. So, I'm sorry my loves, it is time to get up." She smoothed the bright sarcenet of her gown and came closer to the bed, inspecting both its occupants with an impudent eye. "Very pretty." She nodded to Doyle. His hair had come unbound in the night and he was a complete picture of licentious abandon with his swollen mouth, heavy-lidded eyes and abused skin. "It looks like you enjoyed yourself, Bodie."
"I'm going, I'm going." She sashayed away, but peered around the door before closing it. "I'll send Jacques along with some hot water. If you are very quick there might even be time for another...."
"Miranda!" Bodie roared but she was gone, her laughter dimmed by the stout oak door.
He sat back and glared. Trust her to destroy what had begun to be perhaps the most interesting moment of the night. She must have some sort of sixth sense. He ground his teeth and cursed, only halting when he realised that Doyle was out of bed and opening the curtains. "No, wait!"
"You heard her, she needs the room."
Bodie was on his feet. "We have a while, she also said that."
"I know." Raymond turned and after a brief hesitation walked into the warm arms that were open for him. He bowed his head onto the broad shoulder and sighed to himself. Why did it feel so unaccountably right to be here? How could it? He closed his eyes and collected himself, there was no point in day-dreaming, this was just a fancy. This was, after all, farewell.
He stepped back. "I really must be going, my manservant will be thinking me lost."
"Does he know where you are?"
"Yes," Doyle sighed. "He knows."
"Then stay, for a while at least, please." Bodie coaxed, coming close to the other man, touching him, shivering himself as goose-bumps raised across the warm skin.
"I can't." The words were almost a whisper. "Though if I could..."
The knock at the door startled them both and they broke apart. A wide-eyed Jacques came in, carrying a steaming jug of water. He hurriedly placed it down before scurrying out, his eyes glued until the last minute to the livid marks on Doyle's body.
Doyle moved, distancing himself from the intensity of the other man. Hastily he found his clothes, struggling into them without care, heedless of the pain, deaf to all protests. He was sweating, slightly dizzy when he'd finished, but he was armoured.
"I must go. I..." It was impossible, he shook his head and without looking back went to the door. If he hesitated before opening it, it could just have been in Bodie's imagination.
Alone in the room, Bodie stood and stared at the door, a sensation close to grief turning in his belly.
It was ridiculous though, to be so entranced by one night. He turned away from the door and walked over to where the servant had left the water, putting both hands on the table, bending over the slowly curling steam as if seeking to read the future.
What he was feeling must be the result of tiredness, of hunger. That would explain the shakiness in his limbs and the gnawing pit in his stomach. There was no other answer. Half-convinced, he straightened and began to wash, cleansing himself of the night's sweat. Breakfast and then sleep was all that was needed to set the world aright; he wasn't a callow boy yearning after his first love.
But as he dressed memories of the night came back to delight him and his thoughts were full of the bewitching stranger.
About to leave, he paused and looked around the room, seeing the tumbled bed and the discarded whips, remembering the moment Raymond had screamed in ecstasy. He shivered. No, food was what was called for, what was needed to dispel this melancholia. Bodie left the room and clattered down the stairs, whistling loudly as he went, almost as if to ward off the shadowy presence of spirits.
Michael Murphy softly drew the door closed behind him and took a deep breath. His master was asleep. Lord Raymond had arrived home, exhausted and damp from having walked back from the bawdy-house, too purse-pinched even to afford a hackney or a sedan-chair for that scant half mile.
It was a wonder that he hadn't been assaulted on the streets he had looked such a state; hair in wild disorder, clothes awry and face bruised. Murphy had hidden his concern, allowing himself only the mildest of remonstration before guiding his master up to his bed-chamber and stripping off the wet clothing.
Measuring his own unenthusiastic words carefully, Murphy had listened to Doyle speak in the warmest terms of the man he had spent the night with. William Bodie. The name meant nothing, though according to Doyle the man hadn't been a whore. In Michael's eyes what he had been was quite vicious. Murphy had salved the raw skin and tried to hide his horror at the deep lash-mark that streaked across the slender hips.
When Doyle was almost asleep, his enthusiasm lulled by the soothing attention, Murphy had even dared to inspect him intimately, expecting to find the same sort of abuse that the rest of his body had suffered. Surprisingly there was nothing, almost as if he hadn't been taken at all. Doyle had realised what was happening and roused himself. Sleepily he had reassured his friend. He would be fine after a few hours sleep. Just fine. There had been no anger at the inspection, merely amusement and a faint expression of what could possibly have been regret.
At that, Murphy had tucked him in and left. Retracing his way to the tiny kitchen that was his home, he threw the bloodied water away and set the cloths on one side to be washed.
Sitting himself down in front of a small but very welcome fire, Michael re-read a note which had been delivered that morning. It was directed to his lordship but, thinking it a summons or a nagging letter from one of the creditors, Michael had opened it anyway. He had been very wrong. It was from Augustus York, imperiously commanding his daughter's future husband to be ready for the marriage ceremony, not next week as had been agreed, but tomorrow.
He should have given it to Doyle when he returned home, but beneath the exhaustion he had somehow looked so content that it would have taken a harder man than Michael Murphy to spoil this brief happiness.
It was a crying shame that such a fine man had to marry such a woman as that. Momentarily, he considered consigning the paper to the flames, but checked himself; burning the letter wouldn't change the reasons why the marriage was going ahead. It would only anger Mr. York. Something Murphy itched to do, but for his master's sake couldn't quite risk.
If only that miserable brother of his showed even a modicum of family feeling then Doyle could at least be solvent. In time he would come to terms with the loss of Charles' favour. He would even come to terms with being back in an England he no longer recognised. Unhappily, none of these things were really possible without money. Maybe not untold riches, but a sufficiency at least. Unfortunately as things stood, one was as much a dream as the other.
Murphy sighed and scraped back his chair, standing to stretch his spine. If the wedding was to be tomorrow then a thousand things needed to be done, not least going to inform the tailor of the new arrangements and waiting if necessary for the wedding finery to be hurriedly finished.
He shrugged glumly into his cloak and peered out of the grimy window. It was still raining. Wishing a pox on the clouds he let himself out into the weather, turning up his collar and cramming his battered and faded hat onto his head. Perhaps there would be enough coppers in his pockets to buy something nice for supper, half a rabbit maybe, something to celebrate their last night alone. With a resigned shrug he headed down the narrow street, oblivious to the still man watching from the shadows of a house just along the way.
The decision to see Doyle again had been made that morning, even before Bodie reached the bottom of the stairs he had known what was wanted. And self-denial had never been one of his greater virtues.
The hardest part had then been knowing how to find Doyle. As a stranger Bodie belonged to none of the London clubs, was known in none of the fashionable coffee-houses and didn't even have the ear of any servants he could bribe into parting with the location of Doyle's residence. In Paris the situation would be different; here he was all at sea.
Disconsolately sitting down to breakfast opposite a merrily ribald Miranda, Bodie had ignored her until he realised belatedly that if anyone knew where the elusive lord lived, she would. After teasing and flirting with her seemingly for an age, she had relented, admitting that she did know where her client lived and, for certain intimate favours rendered, she was willing to part with the information. Bodie had felt scant hesitation, Doyle was worth this price and it was Miranda, not some nameless street-hawk as it had so often been in the past.
Bodie had left the brothel and headed straight for a coffee-house, drinking the dark brew until the bitter taste lingering in his mouth was burned away. He sipped his last cup slowly, shuttering his thoughts to everything but that simple task.
An hour later he was standing in the shelter of a recessed doorway a few houses away from his quarry's, watching through the blur of rain, waiting for he knew not what.
Convincing himself that all he needed to get Doyle out of his thoughts was to meet once more and this time to complete what had been unfinished that morning, Bodie had arrived at the house and only then considered that maybe the other man wouldn't feel the same way. Doyle had, after all, left precipitously. Perhaps he was content with the pleasure he had found in that one night?
But Bodie couldn't believe that. Too much had remained unspoken, hinted at without being voiced, for Doyle to feel nothing at all. Though if last night was the sum of the intimacy they were to enjoy, then so be it. It would be enough to just see him again, to talk, to understand something of his complexities, to perhaps even be friends.
Bodie knew he was being a fool, but reason had little to do with it. Though quite what he would describe it as, he wasn't sure.
He stretched, easing the tight muscles in his neck. He had been standing in the doorway too long, with the smell of stale piss rising disgustingly in the damp. A decision would have to be made sooner rather than later. Chewing his lip in frustration he kicked the wall. At that moment a man stepped out of the house he was watching. Shabbily dressed in a long, out-moded cloak, it could only be the servant Doyle had mentioned. Bodie waited but the house remained quiet, no movement at all discernible behind the grime and rain smeared windows.
With a quick decision Bodie waited until the tall figure disappeared round the bend of the street, then he ran lightly across cobbles, splashing with muttered curses through the mud and filth to bang loudly on the door. There was no answer, not even after a second knock. Either Doyle was out or he was asleep, the latter being hopefully far more likely after the fatigue of their long night.
Bodie shivered as a raindrop trickled its way past his collar. What he should do was go away but something held him, drew him in. There was a brief moment of indecision then his hand, almost of its own volition, was trying the door. To his amazement, it opened as he turned the iron handle. For a heart-beat he stood still, then with a quick look around nipped through the opening, closing it fast behind him.
Surprisingly, the hallway was completely bare of furniture. A single cloak was draped over the end of the bannister and apart from that there was only a layer of dirt coating the bare boards and scuffed wood-panels. Unfastening his black cloak, Bodie tossed it over the one already there, adding his hat to the pile before walking slowly through the downstairs rooms. Apart from one room that was obviously lived in, and even that was hardly luxurious, they were completely bare, with large sections of panelling mysteriously missing from the walls. Bodie frowned. Miranda had been more right than she knew about the parlous state of the Doyle finances.
Crossing the bare floorboards, he peered out of a window; still no sign of the servant's return. With a shrug Bodie dismissed him, going back into the hall, pausing briefly before starting up the stairs. He tried not to make too much noise with his booted feet as he climbed; he didn't want to awaken the sleeper. Hesitating at the top of the first flight Bodie considered then headed with certainty for the only firmly closed door.
Cautiously, a smile flirting with his lips as he imagined Doyle's expression when he awoke to find him there, Bodie turned the door-knob, wincing as the hinges gave a muted creak. He listened. There was no sound at all. Grinning, he slipped inside.
There he stopped and held very still. A sword-point rested vividly on the soft skin of his neck.
"Keep your hands where I can see them." A voice enforced the immobility and Bodie, chin kept high in the air, obeyed, holding his hands well forward, away from the sword that hung from his own side. He flinched as the door was kicked closed behind him.
"You!" The blade dropped away and a naked figure moved into Bodie's line of sight. "What are you doing here?"
"Surprising you." Bodie ruefully rubbed his throat and sketched a smile. "Sorry."
Doyle sheathed his sword and shook his head, running fingers through his hair in bemusement. "You'd be sorrier if I'd spitted you with this." He tossed the sash and scabbard into the corner before disguising his confusion in a slow inspection of the visitor. He sighed. "Have you had any sleep at all?"
"No." Bodie closed two of the paces that separated them. "I've been trying to find you."
"Why?" Doyle smothered a wave of exhilaration, managing by force to keep his voice even.
"Because we have unfinished business. We must have, or why else can I not get the thought of you out of my head?"
Doyle moved, wrapping himself in a tatty brocade gown, tugging at his long, tangled curls until they lay outside the collar. Being clothed seemed to restore his sense. "It was a good night, perhaps it is just that?" He sat down, very self-contained.
"It was more, you know that."
Doyle closed his eyes and was silent, admitting nothing.
"You know that silence equals assent. Besides," Bodie hurriedly went on before Doyle could decide which insult to use first, "we didn't finish what we had started when Miranda so inconveniently interrupted us."
Green eyes flashed open, glaring. "Is that all? You invade my house, almost get yourself spitted on my sword-point and make fanciful declarations, all because you want to indulge your base appetites by fucking my arse?"
"No." Bodie crouched at his side and took a long-fingered hand in his own. "I'm not sure what really brought me here." He smiled suddenly, the shy humour taking away the hardness that set his features. "Except that I have never felt quite like this about anyone and I couldn't let you go without seeing you again. I do want you, be certain of that, but I want other things too: to talk to you, to get to know you, just to be with you. It all sounds mad, I know, but...." He looked up, beseeching understanding.
Doyle let no expression taint his words: "Which is it, friendship, brotherhood, witty conversation or sex?"
Bodie brought the hand to his mouth and kissed it. "All of them."
"All at once?"
Bodie started, then looked up to see a wryly humorous twist to Doyle's mouth. He cocked his head to one side, then said, as if expounding some great discovery: "Yes, why not?"
They both laughed for far too long.
When they stopped the atmosphere had changed and they sat quite content in each others' company. From his place on the floor Bodie stroked his thumb over the back of his companion's hand. The wrist was raw where Doyle had pulled hard against the bonds used to fetter him through the night. Bodie kissed the laceration, murmuring as he did so, "Are you really all right?"
"Yes, you have a...masterful touch. I ache, but in truth I don't care."
Bodie watched the volatile face and saw no lie. Doyle appeared content, the thin face having lost the pinched aspect that had stolen some of its looks. Today he was lighter, easier, his skin smooth in the dusty winter light. Quite why this man should mean so much so quickly was a mystery, yet he did.
Bodie sought for words that would explain everything but found none. He stared at the intricate pattern woven into Doyle's oriental gown and frowned. Until a long finger hesitantly stroked his cheek in enquiry. At that Bodie shook himself and met the impassive green gaze. "Raymond, will you bed with me, here and now?" He held the hand clasped in his own tighter. "I know what it looks like, but I intend you no disrespect. It is just that if you are to marry and I am never to see you again, then I want to know you, to remember more than one night in a whore-house as the sum of what we meant to each other." He paused, averting his eyes, his cheeks flaming. "Gods, why are words so clumsy..."
"I'm not sure what you want. Are you saying that you want me to fuck you?"
Bodie could only nod.
"Even though last night you had such control over me that I would have done anything you wanted, taken any hurt or humiliation you cared to inflict upon me? Even though you know that I wanted, needed that?"
"Yes, perhaps because of that need, because I understand and know that you are no man's slave...because I..." Bodie shrugged and with a quick movement stood up and paced to the window, leaving the sentence unfinished. The silence behind him gave little hope. His face burned with shame; he had never said such things...meant such things. And Doyle probably thought him a lunatic.
Bodie was about to turn and beg his leave when a hand touched his shoulder.
"You can talk to me afterwards."
Wide-eyed, William Bodie turned, still unsure of everything. Somehow there was only reassurance in the steady gaze that returned his own. A reassurance threaded brightly by desire.
With a sigh, Raymond slid his arms around the stiff body and drew it close. He skimmed his lips over the pale chill of face and neck, murmuring softly, feeling tension melt from beneath the skin, waiting until a moan escaped before letting their lips meet.
The kiss was very sweet, very long. When they parted, both men were heavy eyed, languorous.
Silent, Lord Raymond Doyle went to the disordered bed and slipping out of his robe climbed slowly between the sheets. Shivering both from the chill of the room and from anticipation he watched while Bodie stripped off his clothing then, with a shrug of apology, paused to add more of the broken-up wooden panels that served as fuel to the fire.
When Bodie came to stand by the side of the bed, Doyle held open the covers for him to slip inside. They settled side by side, merely looking, barely touching, yet both men found their hearts beating faster, their skin prickling with an impossibly fine awareness of each other.
Raymond twisted a soft strand of Bodie's dark hair around his finger and whispered: "I'm glad you came. I was dreaming about you, then when I awoke you were here. I'm sorry about this." He rubbed his thumb over the drying trickle of blood at Bodie's throat.
"Don't be. Tell me instead why you ran away this morning?"
"Because I am too proud." Doyle sighed and offered the truth. "You see I have no more money. Until I sign my life away to the York family I am as penniless as the meanest beggar in the street."
"It wouldn't have mattered, I have money and would have paid willingly if I'd realised that was the reason you wanted to leave. I..."
"Shush! It doesn't matter at all now, because you are here anyway."
They kissed, the same strange sensation running wild through them as when they had kissed before. There was little need for play, their bodies ready almost before the long kiss ended.
They whispered soft words to each other, touching skin against skin until the anticipation had them shivering at the slightest touch. Bodie knew when it was time. He turned away from the warm embrace, burying his face in the pillow, offering himself wordlessly for whatever his lover desired.
"I'll hurt you." Doyle's voice, so close to Bodie's ear was cracked, uneven. "I can't take you dry, wait..." and he was gone.
Bodie sighed as moments later the warm body returned. Then cold oil anointed his skin and a finger eased its way inside.
"Bodie..." Another finger joined the first. "If you could see how beautiful you are." Kneeling between the parted thighs, Doyle bent and kissed the white curve of arse while working his long fingers deep, touching the pleasure inside, making Bodie writhe. "More than I ever dreamed of..."
The fingers slid from their tight embrace and Bodie knelt eagerly as Doyle positioned himself, pushing back with a carnal cry as the cock-head speared his body. Bodie was panting, back arching with need and discomfort as the invader worked deeper, oil easing the passage until the harsh prickle of hair and the press of bollocks against his arse told him he had it all. Head down, a drip of sweat trickling down his cheek, Bodie smiled in triumph.
Pressed to the living heart of his lover, Doyle paused, his hands stroking the heaving flanks, his voice a soothing counterpoint to the momentary pain. Bodie's flesh was very tight around him; the pleasure sending him dizzy, making him blind. The world dwindled to the smell of sweat and sex, to the sound of harsh breathing, of need. He flexed the muscles of his groin and groaned, throwing his head back before pushing deep, revelling as Bodie met him and passion exploded between them, blanking out the world as they took up the age-old dance. The same rhythm pulsing through them both; the same fire igniting their blood; the same wild need joining their voices in a single cry as they came, seed spilling from Bodie the moment Doyle shuddered and filled the empty space around Bodie's heart with heat.
Bodie finally stirred when the lax cock slipped with soft contentment out of his body. He groaned and twisted, relaxing with a sigh as weight lifted off him. A kiss was pressed to the skin between his shoulder-blades and Doyle was gone. "Hey, come back..." Bodie slurred the words and raised his head, catching the sight of Doyle unselfconsciously wiping his cock before getting back into bed.
"Lie down again, I think you might need a mop-up."
"The sheets need it more than me."
"Well, move over and we'll see what we can do."
Bodie obeyed, letting Doyle carefully dry between the cheeks of his arse, then do the same for his belly.
The sheets were beyond hope, so Bodie lay back, resigned to drying them with the warmth of his body. Doyle was still intent on finding things to mop. Bodie took the linen from him and threw it on the floor. "Will you keep still? I want to appreciate how good that was, not do the house-keeping!" He grinned at Doyle's expression, then he sobered and spoke very seriously, touching a bare arm with tentative fingers. "It was good you know. The best."
"You haven't been fucked for a long time, if ever."
"If that is a question, then no, you weren't my first, but yes, it has been a while." Bodie stretched, then drew Doyle down into his embrace, holding him tight. "I wish..." He stopped himself and chewed his lip, letting his fingers toy absently with a stray chestnut curl that had trailed across his chest.
"What do you wish, my friend?" Doyle asked and stilled Bodie's fingers with his own, holding them tight.
"The impossible: that you were not getting wed. I know I have only known you for so few hours, but..." He swallowed. "I am sorry, I must be getting foolish."
"No more foolish than I."
Bodie held very still as his mind absorbed the words. He tried interpreting them in different ways but couldn't. His own words all died still-born on his tongue, so he moved, bringing his eyes level with Doyle's, surprising a look of sadness, of longing on the beautiful face.
If there was a way, then maybe... Bodie fought the surge of hope that burned savagely in his breast and asked earnestly, "Then come with me to France. I have lands, small it is true, but enough to support the two of us in something approaching ease. There is nothing for you here, so why not? What do you say?"
Doyle hesitated, then closed his eyes briefly before opening them to answer: "I cannot."
"Why? You don't love her and she seems to care nothing for you." He stopped abruptly. "Or is it that I have this all wrong?"
"No, Lucy means nothing. I want you more than anyone I have ever met, you pleasure me more than any I have ever bedded with. I could imagine living with you and finding life very sweet; getting to know you, building a life that would be ours, but," his eyes pleaded for understanding, for absolution, "there is the King."
"You told me he had dismissed you, so why is there a problem?"
"Because I still owe him, because...oh, I don't know."
Bodie sat up the better to see Doyle's face. "You still love him, don't you?"
Doyle took a deep, uneven breath and levered himself upright, facing Bodie across the rumpled bed-linen. "Do you want the truth? Well, it is this: long ago when I was young, I loved him very much. It took me a long time to realise that he only cares for himself and that despite all the avowals and promises, I meant nothing at all. In fact, I had never meant anything to him. I was a diversion, a delightful way to pass the time. It was a hard lesson for me to learn. Perhaps one I have not fully mastered despite knowing now that he could never care for someone like me: a younger son, a wastrel, a grown man. He enjoyed me while his interest lasted, now he has other concerns; those of being what he thought he would never be -- King."
"Then why should what he thinks matter so much to you?" Bodie was mildly bewildered.
"Because I would be going against his express order and, well, he is still my King." Doyle shrugged, then thought better of it as his shoulders protested.
"But why should he make such a demand?"
"Because he would not want you to have me."
"Even though he doesn't want you himself? The callous..."
"No, he isn't that bad," Doyle interrupted, then ruefully went on. "Well, I don't know, perhaps you are right, perhaps he is. Maybe that was why he wanted me safely wed. I might, it is true, be reading all the signs wrong but I have known him for a long time. I should have remembered, he never gives away his toys, not even when they bore him."
Bodie sat forward and took Doyle's face between his hands, smoothing his thumbs over the skin, feeling the stubble already beginning beneath the silk. "Then you owe him nothing and you certainly don't have to ask his permission, do you? Don't be foolish, see him as he really is. What can it matter now what you do?"
Raymond wasn't allowed any quibbles; Bodie continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "We would be in France before he knew it and even he could not touch you there. In ten days or so we would be home and you could see how beautiful the land is, though you would have to wait until spring to see it blossom and late summer to see it as its best, when the oranges are hanging sweetly on the trees and the vines are full." Urgent, he met the wide eyes and tried to force acceptance of his plan by willpower alone. "It is a warm, lush country, you would love it, I know. Come, we could be in France by the time your wedding is due to take place and there would be nothing he could do. You did say it was next week sometime?"
"Yes, next Thursday, a week away. I don't know..."
"Say yes." Bodie coaxed, dropping his hands to the wide shoulders and giving them a little shake. "Charles cares nothing for your happiness, but ridiculously, I do. I want you, my lord, I want you very much and I want you to be happy. If you can convince me that you will be even half-way content here then I will say no more. Otherwise, come with me."
At that Doyle laughed, though there was strain threaded through his warm voice. "I have no money at all, my title is that of a younger son and is worth nothing. I possess some clothes, a horse worth less than the cost of feeding him, a good sword that has forgotten what it was forged for and a servant who will probably want to run you through, so how can you think me a good bargain?"
"Lucy was going to accept you despite all that. Besides, I'm not Croesus you know, it won't be a life of complete idle luxury."
And somehow they were kissing, this time with an intense, clear affection that transcended even the sharp knives of lust that the touch so quickly brought. They wriggled back under the covers, wrapping themselves in scent and skin and sweetness.
His thoughts in a jumble, Doyle could only really register the singing weightlessness that seemed to have taken over his limbs. He felt light as air, grounded only by the strong arms that held him so close. That Bodie could feel the same was almost impossible to believe, but the wild grin that faced him proved it.
After a while they managed to speak again.
"So, will you come with me to France?"
"Yes. Though I'm sure the moon has turned me mad that I could even be contemplating such a thing."
"At least we'll never be bored in bed."
"Sweet heaven, yes!" Doyle laughed. "I'm glad you decided to pay Miranda a visit last night. I have a lot to thank her for."
"Indeed." Bodie smiled ironically and hid the expression by bending to kiss one of the marks he had imprinted on a sensuous curve of shoulder. The feel of skin under his lips was intoxicating and he forgot the indignity of that morning in the pleasure of present delight. His lips found the place where two lash-marks crossed, the skin had broken and was now healing cleanly, the taste somehow sweeter than the smooth flesh surrounding it. He shivered and the kiss travelled to Doyle's mouth and they fed on the richness of taste and sensation. When Bodie spoke again, his voice was throaty. "I could have travelled to the ends of the earth to find someone such as you, yet you fell into my arms like a gift from Dame Fortune. Have I really only known you since last evening?"
"Since I walked into that room," Doyle acknowledged, "unsure of who or what to expect and my chin nearly fell to the floor when I saw you."
"Because you were so perfect. And after meeting Miranda I wasn't at all sure what to expect."
"An ogre in yellow satin petticoats."
Doyle shrugged and grinned. "The image did flash through my mind."
"Poor you. I had forgotten that you hadn't met our dear Miranda before."
"He...she is quite something. Did she tell you where I live? I'm curious because I know I didn't tell you my direction."
"Yes, after a little persuasion and a spot of blackmail, she told me."
"Blackmail?" Doyle was frowning.
"Nothing serious, a joke from our shared past." Bodie decided to change the subject. "I need to piss, where do you hide the chamber-pot?"
"Under the bed." Doyle watched as Bodie stepped onto the floor and bent to search under the high bed-frame. He put the china pot on a table and used it with a sigh. The sound awoke Doyle's bladder and with a humorous curse aimed at the grinning Bodie, he too got out of bed, shivering in the comparative chill.
They touched hands briefly before Bodie went to rebuild the fire, commenting: "When I looked around downstairs I wondered why all the panelling was off the walls."
"Mmm, it burns better than empty air. If it had run out, Michael and I planned on taking up the floorboards and using them." Raymond returned the pot to its hiding place.
Still crouched in front of the fire Bodie twisted slightly and watched absently as Doyle climbed stiffly back into bed.
"Would you be fit to travel tomorrow?"
"Yes." Doyle was plumping up the pillows, his back towards Bodie.
"The journey will be hard going at least until we get to France. From Calais we can take a leisurely pace, though that is a long ride away."
"Bodie, I'm tougher than you seem to think. I won't fade away at the first sign of hardship."
Bodie wriggled back into bed, wrapping Doyle in his fire-warmed limbs. "Get off your high-horse, I'm not suggesting you will. I'm just concerned, after all I am the one who caused the problem."
"And very nice it was too. God, you're warm, come here." Raymond wrapped himself neatly around the accommodating limbs and sighed in contentment. "I do appreciate your concern, but there won't be any problem, you know. Michael can oil my back before we leave and besides, I'll have all of tonight to recover, unless you have other ideas." His hand snaked to Bodie's groin, cupping the weight of cock and bollocks hopefully in his palm.
"Oh, no, you don't! You need as much rest as you can get and I've a feeling that means me being out of your bed." He looked at Doyle and the wounded expression on the unsmiling face almost made him laugh. "Don't look like that. It's just that if I stay, I won't be able to keep my hands off you, regardless of what you want or what I think is best. You are a very seductive man, my Lord Raymond, too seductive for your own good."
And he was, very much so. A sudden wave of doubt washed over Bodie. Would someone like this want to give himself to just one person? There was much they needed to say, to understand, to ask. Still, there would be time enough in France. The attraction was so strong between them it was impossible to believe it would ever wane. Life had shown his there were no certainties, it was wrong to imagine there were, only hurt lay that way. Yet for all that, Bodie looked at his companion and somehow there was no strangeness in thinking words like forever, like love.
"What are you thinking?" Doyle asked, bringing his lover out of the reverie.
"That we have a long way to go."
Doyle considered. "Too long?"
"I don't think so, do you?"
"That's all right then."
They smiled at each other and settled into a companionable tangle of limbs, until after a while Bodie groaned.
Immediately Doyle asked, "What's the matter?"
"I forgot I promised to leave. Sleep is something we both need if this journey tomorrow is to be anything but a trial." He listened for a moment to the wind, then burrowed closer into his companion's warmth. "Unless you want us to take a week to get to Dover we should ride. The Post-road will be passable if we change horses often enough."
"That will be too expensive, won't it?" Doyle was uneasy, his rash agreement hadn't considered the practicalities.
"As I said, that is not a problem." Bodie shook his head at Raymond's consternation. "Can you not, for this once at least, swallow your pride? We need to get to France, I can enable that. It is very simple. However, what about your baggage?" Bodie shifted, his brow creasing with concentration as the list of all that was to be done suddenly unfurled in his mind. He propped himself on an elbow. "I could hire a coach for it to follow on after us, though goodness knows how long it would take, and..."
"Bodie, Bodie, slow down! First of all, I will endeavour to subdue my pride, as you call it. Go ahead, lavish money on me and see if I care, though I promise this -- as soon as I can I will pay you back, agreed?" He waited until Bodie sighed the sigh of one much put upon, then continued. "I'm not giving you a choice anyway. Secondly, what do you think I need a coach for? A coach!" Raymond laughed. "What I have to bring would fit on the back of a pack horse. And there is Michael of course, if he'll come."
"If he'll come?" Bodie raised an enquiring eye-brow.
"I couldn't force him, we've been through too much together -- I have known him since we were children," he explained.
"Do you bed him?"
"Sometimes we have bedded together." Doyle's inflection underlined the difference. "That's why I need to talk with him."
"Why, wouldn't he approve?" Bodie was curious, after all Doyle had said that they slept together, so the servant couldn't be a puritan.
"Because he doesn't approve of this." Doyle put a hand to his own chest and traced the whip-mark that ran from one shoulder, treading through the sparse copper and bronze curls to the other arm.
Doyle reached up and touched Bodie's face, rubbing his hand gently across the stubborn chin. "Don't look like that. There is no need, I promise. Michael loves me in his own way, but not as a lover. I care for him and he for me. He is my friend, he is loyal and we have warmed each other on cold nights but that is all. If it comes to it and he wishes to remain here, then I will still come with you."
To Bodie the words were a statement of intent, as close to being a declaration as he was likely to get. He took Doyle's hand and brought it to his lips, holding it there for a long while. When he raised his head it was to ask: "What time will you be ready tomorrow?"
"Eleven?" Doyle suggested. "I know we should leave at first light, but if I need to pack and sleep..."
"Eleven will be fine. If need be we can sleep at an inn on the way and look for a sailing the day after. We may be in a hurry, but things are not desperate." Bodie smiled and chastely kissed Doyle's cheek before climbing out of the warm bed. He dressed slowly, his body still languorous, content. As he moved the aching echo of Raymond's presence inside him made his skin tingle, his lips smile and his cock twitch reminiscently. Pausing before the finality of pulling on his boots, Bodie stared for a moment into the flames. The twisting brightness showed him no hint of the future, no augury at all. Bodie nodded to himself and grinned at his own fancy. Then with a supple move he stood and finished dressing.
Doyle stayed where he was and watched appreciatively, sighing sadly when the last inch of skin was covered. Bodie grinned, not at all put out by the inspection. Pulling the sash across his body he settled his rapier comfortably on his hip, then returned to sit sideways on the edge of the bed.
He took Doyle's hand and shook his head, a bemused smile warming his face. "I'm not dreaming all this, am I?"
"If you are, then it is a dream we must be sharing."
They kissed, very slowly, savouring each other until Bodie pulled back. "I'll be here tomorrow, be ready."
Doyle began to pull back the sheets but Bodie stilled his hands. "No, I'll see myself out. Keep warm and get some rest, it will be tomorrow very soon." And he walked to the door, managing somehow only to return for three more kisses before walking slowly down the stairs, donning his cloak and hat before setting off, light of heart, for his lodgings.
Alone in the room, Doyle found it difficult to rest, his thoughts in turmoil. He stretched out in the rumpled bed and smiled to himself, pleasure and anticipation singing through his blood. Tomorrow it would all be over. Tomorrow he would be away from all the strain and the bitterness.
His soft, joyous laughter echoed through the empty room. That he should have met Bodie now. Fortune must be truly in his favour. Another week and there would have been no hope at all. For none of it.
How could it be possible? How could he even exist? How could anyone know the things Bodie knew, be so right in the way Bodie was right? Perhaps after all he was an alchemist, possessed of the secrets of the universe, possessed even of the secrets held close and dark to Doyle's soul.
The idea didn't even make Doyle smile. It was no jest, it was quite simply the truth. He curled onto his side and buried his face in the pillow, it still smelt faintly of the amber scent that Bodie used.
Tomorrow. He sighed, his thoughts scattering towards sleep. Tomorrow.
Doyle dreamt of warmth and a sun-filled landscape that undulated gently into the distance. He was walking through orange groves, plucking the ripe fruit, peeling it, sucking the sweet juices into his mouth, letting them run unheeded down his chin to splash brightly on the white linen of his shirt. His hands and face were sticky, but as he went to wipe them a strong body stilled the movement and began to lick him clean, sucking his fingers one by one, licking delicately at the fine-webbed membrane that curved between finger and thumb, running the very tip of his tongue under the nails. In his dream, Raymond smiled, the weight of desire burning quickly through his blood, flooding his thoughts and his lips were forming the man's name again and again, "Bodie..."
"Shush, I'm here."
Weight dipped the bed and Doyle fought his way out of the dream to find the lover he had conjured by his side. "Bodie, you came back." His voice was slurred from sleep but his arms were reaching up, drawing the sweetness of the other man close.
"I couldn't stay away. I got to the tavern where I was staying, paid up, collected my bags and came back. You, my dearest, were fast asleep, a troop of guards could have marched through here and you wouldn't have stirred."
"I must have known it was you." Doyle's smile at the disbelieving look this comment induced was broken as he yawned widely, his jaw cracking. "What hour is it?" The faint glow from the fire was the only illumination, the other side of the curtains showed only darkness.
"Late, midnight perhaps."
"Midnight. How long have you been here, how long have I been asleep?"
"Hours." Bodie grinned at the sleepy dismay that crossed Doyle's face. There was a crease running down his cheek where it had been pressed to the pillow while he slept. Bodie found it ridiculously endearing.
Doyle roused himself and pushed a stray curl out of his eyes. "Hours. And what have you been doing?"
"Watching you -- which was what I wanted to do earlier when you woke up and nearly spitted me on your rapier. I didn't want to wake you."
"Why? You would have been much more comfortable in bed rather than sitting in that chair."
"I was fine, I kept the fire fed." Bodie had kept watch and in fact been quite content just to be here. He was much happier than he would have been in his chilly inn room.
Raymond yawned and stretched gently, easing the muscles of back and shoulders until they twinged. He settled back and asked, "Why don't you get into bed now? You must be tired."
Bodie had in fact been dozing when the dreamer had awakened him. He smiled in acknowledgement and placed a chaste kiss to the sleep warmed cheek before standing up to undress. He slipped easily beneath the sheets and went into welcoming arms. Raymond was very warm, very soft-skinned, very pliant, his hands stroking as he enfolded Bodie in his arms. Bodie sighed and settled, then asked, "Why were you dreaming of me?"
"I was eating oranges in the sunshine. I was very happy and you were there, you were licking the sticky juice off my hands and I wanted you very much. I was saying your name and then you were here, as if I had magicked you out of the air. Do you think that will work every time?"
"Yes, because I'll always be here." Bodie hesitated, then went on very slowly. "I don't intend on going far away from you at all. You've got a shadow, my lord -- a shadow for as long as you want."
"That could be a very long time, good sir, a very long time indeed."
Their eyes met and a cool, clear understanding passed between them. A pact that was more than friendship. Even more than the heat and passion it served to bind them together, to encompass their reality, to give them firm foundations. The doubts that either man might have felt disappeared, melted away like dew in the morning light.
There was no need to say anything. Fitting together like the matched pieces of a pattern they curled limbs into limbs. Skin sighing against skin, their breath whispering promises into tangled hair, they drifted gently to sleep.
The next person to tiptoe up the dark and bare stairwell was Michael Murphy. He listened at the door to his master's bedroom and was reassured by the sound of gentle breathing. Nodding sagely to himself he soft-footed his way to his own room and there in the darkness drank the last bottle of wine the jubilant tailor had thrust into his eager hands. It had been a bastard of a day, waiting for the wedding-suit to be hurriedly finished had been the least of it, and tomorrow would be even worse. Lulled by the claret he did finally sleep, though his dreams were ragged and unsettling and he awoke early enough to see the first faint glimmer of dawn.
Shivering with the cold Murphy hauled himself out of the tangle of sheets and slowly made his way to the bare kitchen, all the while damning the blacksmith labouring away in his head. Breath clouding in the air around him he morosely, and optimistically, inspected the cupboards. There was nothing at all to eat and nothing to drink but water. Cursing, he built up a fire from the ashes, heaping the last of the fine apple-wood panelling from the dining-room onto the flames before sitting down to warm himself, wishing all the time that today wasn't about to happen.
He was still there, staring moodily into the flames when, close to an hour later, Lord Raymond joined him. Michael watched his master covertly; Doyle was dressed in a motley selection of clothing to ward off the cold, his long hair was freshly combed, tied neatly away from his face, he had even shaved, his skin was still reddened from the unforgiving cold water. He looked quite serene and content. It was going to be very hard to break the news.
"Michael, I've--" They both spoke at once then laughed.
"Michael, I've got some good news for you--"
"Has the wedding been put back again?" Michael interrupted eagerly.
"No, I've... What do you mean, put back again?" Doyle frowned warily. "That implies it had been brought forward." He sat down on the high-backed oak bench that had been set at an angle to the fire, stretching his booted feet towards the flames.
"It has." Settling awkwardly in his chair, Murphy glumly inspected his shoes, anything rather than see Doyle's face when he gave him this news. He swallowed hard and took his courage in both hands. "I thought the letter was just another one dunning you for money, so I opened it. I wouldn't have done had I realised, you know that. Well, here it is," he reached and handed over a folded missive that Doyle merely glared at. "It's from Mister High-and-Mighty York. He says the wedding has to be tomorrow as he's being called urgently out of town and won't be here next week. I didn't have the heart to wake you, not with that news anyway. I've been out to see the tailor, at least your new clothes are ready -- I left them in the hall." His words tailed off and miserably he added: "I am sorry." He raised his eyes and looked as sheepish as if the bad tidings were his own fault.
But Doyle wasn't reacting in a way he'd imagined, instead of being furious he was laughing. Confused, Michael tried to talk but Doyle wouldn't stop, until tears were streaming down his cheeks and he was breathless. "Oh, Michael, it must be a jest from the gods! What time?"
"Eleven in the morning."
That sobered Doyle as if a bucket of freezing water had been poured over him. "Sweet heaven, I must tell Bodie."
"Ah." Doyle recalled that Murphy knew nothing of what had happened. He hesitated, listening for footsteps, then said, "Michael, I know it sounds insane but I'm leaving the country today." He saw the tall figure stiffen and hurriedly went on. "The man I spent the other night with came here yesterday and stayed, he's upstairs now. It is madness I know, but I have promised to go to France with him."
"My lord!" Murphy shook his head and tried to find something to say that wouldn't sound shocked or bitter. "When you have just met? You don't know who he is or anything. Is it wise?"
"No, it isn't wise at all." Doyle smiled, a heady recklessness he hadn't shown since his youth brightening his eyes. "Michael, he is everything I want. He doesn't even care that I am poor as a church mouse; he wants me just as I am. He is handsome, companionable, and delightful in bed. I know that may not be the most important reason for wanting to be with someone, but it certainly helps." Suddenly he grinned and lent forward in his chair. "You'll like him, I know you will. And he'll like you."
"Are you saying that I'm invited, that you want me to come along?"
"How could you doubt it?" Doyle sat back, dismayed. "I thought it was obvious that you were invited. I've been fighting the assumption that you would definitely come because I was worried you wouldn't care to live abroad again. You might be tired of living among foreigners and I would understand. Though to be honest I feel as much a stranger here as I have anywhere in the past ten years. Please come, you would have stayed with me after my marriage to Lucy, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, though it would have been different."
"Yes," Doyle nodded in acknowledgement, "it would have been very different."
They looked at each other, the subtle shifts between master and servant, friend and friend, that had always eddied about their relationship moving once more. They had grown up as companions, the servant-boy the only friend allowed to the young lord by his family. They knew everything about each other, cared deeply for each other. Their friendship had survived many hardships and would undoubtedly weather more.
Murphy smiled slowly. "You were always a rash fool, my lord."
"Better a rash and happy fool than a staid and miserable wise man, wouldn't you agree? Michael: the man who once charged a whole company of Roundheads without waiting to see if anyone else was with him." Doyle relaxed and grinned back at his friend's outraged expression. "See, I'm not the only fool around here."
"I was carried away by the heat of battle!"
"Well, I've been carried away by the heat of...passion." Doyle covered his momentary confusion with a laugh. "And at least from Cupid's darts you won't, as I did, have to spend the better part of a week digging shot out of a wounded shoulder."
"No, but I expect I'll be patching up some other sort of wound." Michael tapped lightly at where the whip-marks were hidden by Doyle's clothing.
"Touche." Doyle grinned, then stood. "Come up and meet him."
"I suppose I'd better." Michael grimaced.
"He won't bite."
Doyle tutted. "Idiot. Come on."
They left the warmth of the kitchen and climbed quickly through the cold, echoing rooms and stairwell to the bedroom. Murphy held back as Raymond went into the bedroom, waiting until a voice beckoned him before following.
Bodie was sitting up in bed looking dishevelled and sleepy. He yawned broadly as Michael entered then smiled. "Sorry, I think I must have gone back to sleep." His heavy-lidded eyes slid satedly over Doyle's body before being dragged across to his companion.
"William Bodie, may I present my manservant, companion in many a misfortune and valued friend, Michael Murphy." Doyle performed the introductions with a flourish. "Michael Murphy, William Bodie."
He watched while the two of them eyed each other warily. In the end, Murphy took a couple of paces forwards and bowed, saying: "Good morning, sir."
"It is at that." Bodie returned the bow as well as he was able. "Though I'd rather you called me Bodie, I'm not used to being deferred to, unlike his lordship here."
"Less of that," Doyle interrupted with a laugh. "Michael uses all sorts of names for me, not all of them complimentary. He's been very careful not to give me an inflated opinion of my place in the world."
"Quite right too." Bodie grinned, his eyes lingering on his lover before sliding back to Murphy. "I do know that you are his friend. I wish that you will be mine too. I care for your master very much, despite our brief acquaintance."
"If you are my lord's friend, then you will be mine," Michael took a deep breath and glanced between the two men. "Though it could take a mite longer than the couple of days it has taken the pair of you."
Bodie lent forward. "Does that mean you have agreed to come with us?"
"Yes, sir. Bodie." Murphy corrected. "I couldn't let him go without me, what would I do?" Murphy looked down. "Besides, I'd be glad of anything that got him out of the tangle he is in at the present."
"Even running away with a degenerate like me?"
"Yes," Murphy looked up to meet the straight gaze defiantly. "Even that."
Pleased with himself, Doyle suddenly remembered the real problem. "Bodie, there is something you should know."
"Don't tell me, Murphy has twelve children and insists on bringing them with us?"
"No, idiot." Doyle chided, though they all grinned and some of the reserve in Murphy melted away. Raymond went on: "Augustus York, my esteemed and soon to be disappointed father-in-law, has informed us that the wedding has been brought forward -- to today."
"Today!" Bodie sat bolt upright and cursed. "Why?"
"Some whim to prove that I dance to his tune, no doubt."
"Well, he can whistle. How soon can you be ready?" And Bodie was out of bed, pulling on his linen, reaching for his breeches.
Doyle turned to Murphy. "Will you pack up what little is left here and meet us in Calais? The speed we'll be travelling at will be dangerous and there is no need for you to risk your neck."
"What do you want me to bring?"
"My clothes and whatever you think we could sell that's light enough to carry. Apart from that I don't give a damn, the creditors can have the last of the furniture. Oh, and bring as much as you want of your own stuff of course. If you hire one pack horse, that should do don't you think?"
Wanting to say yes, Michael hesitated, then flushed as Bodie slipped a handful of coins into his hand with the question, "Will that be enough?"
Murphy counted the silver; there was more than he had seen in a long time. "Thank you, yes, ample." He looked to Doyle, waiting for a nod before closing his hand around the coins.
"Good. Raymond, are you ready?" Bodie asked.
Doyle stood and looked around him, seeing nothing he cared about apart from the two men. "Give me ten minutes, there is little I need to bring apart from the necessities. Michael, leave my own horse with the stables, he will be better off here than left at some god-forsaken wayside tavern. Hire us two animals who look as if they'll cope with the roads."
"I'll be back as soon as I can." There was no need for him to be told twice; Michael wanted them all out of the house before the wedding party began to arrive. "I may as well organise my own horses while I'm there. I want to be on the road following you as soon as I can." And he was off, clattering down the stairs, banging the front-door behind him.
It was very quiet when he was gone and Doyle went to Bodie, putting both arms around him, giving a gentle squeeze. "I'll pay you back, every penny."
"If you want, but I won't be counting. You are welcome to anything and everything I have."
"Everything." Bodie was tempted by the full mouth. He could feel his own lips drawn towards it but there was no time. He sighed. "How do you do this to me? I could bed with you here and now, despite everything. Madness. We have no time, so get moving."
Doyle obeyed, kissing Bodie on the nose before going to rummage in a cupboard, finding a pair of well-worn saddle bags. Efficient and fast he filled them with the most essential items he would need for the journey. Just as he fastened the last strap a loud banging at the door reverberated through the house.
Bodie frowned. "It can't be Murphy, not yet."
Doyle was at the window, peering down into the street. "No, it isn't."
"Then who..." Bodie was beside him, frowning into the street, seeing an expensive carriage and an array of liveried servants. "Who is it?"
"My wife-to-be come calling. Probably to check that I am not blind-drunk or intent on wearing rags just to annoy her. She'll only be expecting the worst."
"Well, I don't suppose the news that she is going to get will make her very happy. If you are going to tell her, that is."
"What other option do I have?"
Bodie considered. "You could pretend that all is well and just slip away."
Doyle shook his head. "No, that would be too cruel. Besides, I want to see her face."
"And that's not cruel?" Bodie laughed, reaching out to bring his companion close, teasing a curl with his finger.
"I suppose it is. Perhaps I want some revenge for all the humiliation and condemnation she's heaped on my head over the last month. At least it will be in private; she won't be embarrassed in front of the entire wedding party." Doyle briefly kissed Bodie's lips in reassurance, then pulled away as the banging sounded again from the door. "I'd better go down. Do you want to come?"
"I wouldn't miss this for the world. After you..."
Lucy York walked into the house as if she owned it and all its contents. Seating herself in a flurry of demure blue silk before Doyle's empty hearth she looked scornfully at the man she intended to marry and spoke, not giving any time for introductions, barely deigning to notice the second man at all. "At least you aren't drunk. Though I suppose you and your friend spent last night in celebration?"
Doyle almost smiled at the heavy emphasis on the word friend. "Yes, we did."
As she opened her mouth to reply, Raymond stepped forward and stood directly in front of her, holding up a hand to still her words. "But not why you think. Not because I have got sight of the York fortune and certainly not because I was looking forward to our proposed nuptials. I spent last night celebrating the fact, Lucy dear, that I would never see you again." She gasped and tried to speak but he continued over her. "Let me finish!" The never before heard harsh tone stilled her voice, though her eyes eloquently spat her feelings. "I admit these celebrations were a trifle premature as I am in fact seeing you now. But this is it: after this morning's pleasant meeting I will be gone. Perhaps I should introduce you to my friend and travelling companion; Lucy, William Bodie, though he prefers to be called just Bodie. He is also my lover."
"Lover?" The word scarcely formed itself on her lips before she was standing, outraged. "You idiot! I should have known that today of all days you would play the fool, the buffoon..." but her words petered out. Doyle was shaking his head, the expression on his face close to pity. She whispered, "You aren't fooling."
"No, I am, probably for the first time in my life, deadly serious. I want to be with this man more than anything. More than you, more than my place at court, more than the fabulous wealth of your father. Do you understand that? I don't think you could."
"You..." Words were too civilized. Instead Lucy York gave a moan of anger and lashed out, striking Doyle hard across the face. At least, that was what she intended. Instead a strong hand gripped her wrist, arresting its passage and she cried out, turning to meet a pair of very angry blue eyes.
"No, my sweet, keep your pretty nails to yourself." Bodie eased his grip, holding her easily, waiting until she was calmer before cautiously releasing her and stepping away, respecting Doyle's need to finish this alone.
"You bastards! I hope you both rot in Hell." She rubbed her wrist and blinked back tears of frustration.
"Maybe we shall, but at least we won't be spending this life in purgatory. You care nothing for me, you have told me so on a hundred occasions." Raymond shook his head, seeing nothing but fierce anger in her face. "Your pride will mend, my life would never have done."
"Won't be able to do a thing." Doyle shook his head. "I'm leaving in a few minutes, if you hadn't arrived so early you would have missed me and wouldn't that have been such a shame."
"How can you talk of shame! When you and he... It's disgusting. My father won't let you..."
"He won't have any choice, I'm leaving not just you, but this whole rotten country. By tomorrow I'll be further away than even your father with all his money can reach. Goodbye, Lucy, I'd like to say it was a pleasure knowing you but I cannot lie. I do wish you luck though, you and Charles deserve each other and I'm sure you'll find some other way into his bed."
Lucy York's face was pulled into a mask of ugliness by the spite and anger that filled her. Bodie saw only the mask of hatred and wondered why Doyle considered her a beauty. Even dressed in threadbare garments that were patched and frayed, Doyle had more dignity, more true beauty than this woman would ever have. As he watched she stood up and walked to the door, her gait slightly unsteady almost as if she was drunk on outrage.
"Raymond, you will regret this, I promise." She paused by the door and collected herself, standing very straight. "One day I will have everything I want and that will include Charles' favour. When I am mistress of this land I will repay you for this humiliation. I promise I will see you grovelling at my feet begging me for forgiveness. You will beg for a kind word, grovel for the right to be allowed to kiss my shoe. If you are very lucky I might even grant it. I won't say goodbye, because this isn't." She glared scornfully at the two men, encompassing Bodie in her hatred. "Adieu, though I doubt if God cares anything at all for your kind. Sleep soundly while you can, Raymond. And remember to watch your back."
Without another word she turned and left, leaving behind a cold draught, almost as if the ice of her heart had touched the air.
Bodie took Raymond's hand and kissed the chilled skin. "You are well out of that relationship. What a vixen."
"A vixen indeed. Bodie?" Doyle pulled his arms out of the warm grip and crossed them around his body. "What do you think of her threats?"
Bodie shrugged. "York has no power in France to touch us. I live and work under the protection of the King's brother and once we are there we can just disappear. If she goes straight to her father now, he could perhaps mobilize his men today; it depends on how efficient he is. Whatever, it means we must be gone, now, or they will catch us before we reach safe haven. And York can just about do what he wants within this island's shores, so hurry."
"I'm going." Doyle hesitated, then couldn't resist seizing a kiss. The touch eased the numbness caused by the bitter exchange and with a sigh he opened his mouth, giving utterly of himself. Bodie held him tight, murmuring, touching, reassuring. They only parted when Michael burst into the room.
"I've just seen the York carriage, was she..."
"Yes, she came here." Doyle answered tiredly. "And now it really will be a flight to the coast. Are the horses ready?"
"Then we must go. I'll collect my saddle-bags. I'm sorry to leave you all the work, Michael. To be safe, you should follow hard on our heels, at least until you are the other side of the river, just in case there is more than simple ill-will directed our way."
"I'll be on your tail in a couple of hours, don't worry about me. Good luck, my lord. Fortune favour you." Murphy held his master's shoulders and kissed him, smiling fleetingly at Bodie before saying: "I'll get your bags, wait here." He turned and was gone.
Bodie watched Raymond. He hesitated then cleared his throat awkwardly. "Ray, it will be all right. Michael won't be in any danger. The York's won't bother about a servant who could belong to anyone. In a few days we will all three of us be in France."
"France. Yes, you are right." Doyle wiped his hand unsteadily across his mouth and relaxed slightly, shaking his head, his thoughts still centred guiltily around Lucy. "Gods, why didn't I expect her to react in such a way? I should have known how she would see things, with what venom she would respond. It serves me right for gloating. I was so pleased to be rid of her that I didn't anticipate..."
"How could you know that she would be so vicious? Don't berate yourself. What I do think is that if half her threats were true, then we should be gone, as soon as possible."
Doyle nodded and turned as Murphy came back into the room asking, "Ready?"
Both Bodie and Doyle nodded.
In a few short minutes they were on the way, heading for the Dover road and safety. Michael saw them off, urging speed and good-luck upon them. He waited until they had rounded the corner at the end of the street, then hurried in to complete his own preparations.
For Lord Raymond and Bodie the long journey was desperate. They spent a good amount of time looking over their shoulders, waiting for a pursuit that both were sure was there. They had the advantage now, but with the roads so bad nothing could be guaranteed.
The going was very hard and a decent speed was impossible. They hired fresh mounts as often as they could, their animals foundering quickly in the deep mud that passed as roadway. At each stop they urged haste on the stable-boys, Bodie greasing their palms to still their complaints. Scarcely pausing for a tankard of ale, refusing all offers of food in their need to be up and going, they travelled as if pursued by all the demons from Hell.
As night drew on though the going steadied as the ground hardened, the mud freezing as the temperature plummeted. The darkness made their speed hazardous but eventually, filthy, exhausted, nerves stretched to the limit, they finally rode into Dover close to eleven hours after they had clattered thankfully across London bridge.
After such an appalling day they were prepared for anything. However, luck had not abandoned them completely. The night was quite dark but the harbour was a hive of lantern-lit activity.
Bodie climbed off his horse with all the ease of an octogenarian, straightening with a groan as his back protested. He was soaked to the skin, cold and utterly drained. Looking across he could see the weary slump to Doyle's shoulders. Walking around until he stood at his companion's side, Bodie tugged at the mud-encrusted cloak. "Hey! We made it."
"Yes." Raymond dragged off his hat and wiped his eyes. He looked down at Bodie and from somewhere dredged up an answering smile.
Bodie handed over his reins. "Wait here and I'll see what I can find out." He made his way along the quay, then walked up a ramp set against the side of an ancient coaster that was loading a mix of barrels and bales.
"Good evening." Bodie doffed his hat to the one man wearing a good coat who he presumed must be the captain. "Where are you bound?"
The reply was short, barely polite. "France."
Bodie could have wept in delight. "Can you take two passengers? We can pay well." He added hastily as the man turned away.
"What be your idea of well?"
Bodie shrugged and kept his fingers crossed. "Whatever you want."
The man stared from under bushy eye-brows, the shadows from a swaying lamp chasing across his face. The summing up went on forever, but eventually he asked. "On the run are you?"
About to deny it, Bodie hesitated. His clothes and urgent manner would call him a liar if he tried to say otherwise. He shrugged and nodded. "My friend was due to marry today, he changed his mind. Her father is trying to change it back."
The captain hawked and spat on the deck. "Women! Come back aboard at dawn, we'll sort out a fare for your passage then. I can't waste time now."
As the man walked away, Bodie had to blink. Had he heard aright? The truth of it dropped like a penny and he was running down the slippery gang-plank, calling to his companion. "He'll take us but they don't sail until the dawn tide."
Doyle turned away from his inspection of the dark sea-water that lapped against the wooden pier and blinked hard. "We could get some rest, maybe clean up a bit." He slid unceremoniously off his horse and scowled at it. "I don't like ships much, but anything is better than having to get back on this spavined nag." The nag in question snorted and eyed him back lugubriously. "Let's get rid of these and find somewhere that'll provide hot water."
"You'll be lucky."
"I know. Still, if you don't ask..."
"I'm not asking for anything of the sort, it's after midnight!"
"Oh, I'll do it, just find me a landlord to sweet-talk."
Half an hour later they were settled in the best room at the White Horse and hot water was on the way.
That it was the best chamber said little. It was small, dingy and smelt quite strongly of stale beer from the inn below combined with assorted odours Bodie didn't care to identify. Yet for all its worn and battered appearance, a fire blazed merrily in the hearth and a wide bed awaited their attentions.
Seated by the welcome warmth Bodie, his stockinged feet propped on another chair, was undoing the lacings to his doublet with fingers stiff and sore from the journey. When a knock came at the door, he started. "Hello?"
The inn-keeper's voice filtered through the wood. "I've the food you asked for, my lords." Bodie grinned to himself at the man's obsequiousness and opened the door. He took the tray from the man's hands, handing over a coin that to the landlord's eyes glittered very nicely in the lamplight. Behind him a boy, thin and long faced like his master, was carrying two buckets of water. The inn-keeper said eagerly, "We had the water on to heat anyway, I thought you might like this rather than wait."
Doyle's voice floated lazily from where he sat slumped across the bed: "Quite right, thank you indeed. Now, we'll be leaving early to catch the tide, can you see that we are woken?"
"Of course, sir, my lord. I'll have some breakfast for you. There's nothing worse than sailing on an empty stomach. And if there is anything else you might want...?"
"No, you have been most kind." The landlord preened visibly at the noble's words and bowed out of the room, almost scraping his nose on the floor. "It was no effort, a pleasure in fact. Good night."
"'Night." Bodie bolted the door behind them and turned to lean against it, grinning widely at his companion. "I think he would have offered you his first born if you'd asked for it. Does your manner always have that effect on people?"
"My manner? No, it's my title that usually gets results. This hovel would never see any of the rich who pass through here, let alone any of the nobility. I wonder what he'd have done if I'd said I was a duke?"
"Offered you himself."
"What a ghastly thought. I'm far more interested in you."
"Ar, but I be not for sale, m'lord." Bodie bowed low, his imitation of the landlord leaving much to be desired. "But if 'e fancies a sheep, Oy've 'eard there's good'ns round here abouts."
"Bodie, remind me never to let you go on the stage."
"You wound me, my lord. I've always fancied myself as a thespian."
Raymond stood up, pacing slowly to Bodie. "You have undoubted talents, my sweet and I think when I have washed some of this accursed mud away you could exercise them. I haven't touched you in hours..."
"Ray, no..." Bodie was fending off the eager arms that sought to wrap their way around him. "You must rest, we have an... Oh, damn it..." His last words were taken into the warmth of Doyle's mouth and they kissed.
After a while, Bodie rested his head on a damp, linen clad shoulder and sighed. "Where do you get your energy? And how do you infect me with it? A minute ago I thought myself past any interest other than food and sleep. Now, ah!" He groaned as a hand pressed itself to his groin, lust spiking immediately.
"I'm rarely too tired for pleasure. And this is a pleasure, isn't it?"
"Yes." Bodie hissed the word, then gulped as the skilful hand abandoned him.
"However, before we do anything, I'm getting clean." Doyle disregarded his companion's sorrowful mien and carefully stripped off his shirt. His back was stiff, aching. He determined to ignore it.
Bodie couldn't. "Are you all right?" He stepped close and skimmed over the bruises with gentle fingers.
"Well enough. After you've taken my mind off things you can rub some oil into the skin, that will ease it." He poured a good measure of water into a large earthenware bowl.
"Then I'd like to make love. I'm serious." Doyle straightened, dripping water and reached for a linen cloth to dry his face.
"Ray... How could I refuse, you know I only have to look at you to want you. But are you sure..."
"Bodie, I am very sure. Now go and pour us some ale while I finish here."
In a while, both as clean as they were able, they lay side by side in the old bed. The rain had begun again, beating against the window's narrow panes in a gentle rhythm, the sound a counterpoint to their breathing. Neither spoke of what would happen if pursuit caught them before the dawn tide; there was no need. The future was in the hands of Fate and together they laid their trust in her kindness.
Instead of fretting, they touched and whispered sweet nothings between long, deep kisses. After a while Bodie used the oil Murphy had so thoughtfully packed and eased the worst of his lover's discomfort, working the pain away from the aching back with magic fingers. The slow massage went on for a long time. When he eased the warm oil lower, there was no protest, merely a soft, muffled sigh.
His own breath was coming s fast, shallow as Bodie trickled oil into the darkly shadowed cleft. With one finger he worked it deeper, touching where the skin changed and puckered against his touch. He let out a breath as Doyle shivered at the sensation and eased his legs apart, offering himself to Bodie's gaze.
"Go on, I want you very much, please Bodie."
"Don't talk. Take me, here and now. I don't want to wait."
"No." Suddenly Bodie understood. If they were to be caught, then there might never be another moment. He nodded even though Doyle couldn't see and poured oil into his palm, spreading its warmth on the lancing need of his cock.
When Bodie slipped a finger inside, Raymond shivered, then moved until he was kneeling. "Take the finger away, Bodie. I want more of you than that." He pressed his face into the sheets and spread his buttocks, urging his love with whispered endearments, whispered obscenities.
The finger left him. Bereft he knelt in utter submission. Then with pain and need, with gentleness and passion, all the emptiness was filled. He moaned as the cock speared his flesh, twisted wildly under its onslaught. Pleasure as intense as he had ever known raged through every sensation. There was no thought, only the moment. When he came it was with every part of his being, the joy compounded by the shout that echoed in his ears as Bodie too succumbed and heat flooded his insides.
Pressed so deep into his lover that there was no distinction between their flesh, Bodie opened his eyes and shuddered. He held his weight away from the kneeling man by strength of will alone; every need now cried out for collapse. Slowly, very slowly he eased away from the tight heat, shivering as the withdrawal made Ray moan in protest.
Pulling the covers up, Bodie drew Doyle close, encompassing him with his arms. He stared blindly at the ceiling and tried to steady his breath, then buried his face in the disordered curls. Words he didn't recognise were forming in his throat, forcing their way out.
He spoke them, then tried again as nothing but a frog-like croak emerged. "I love you." Was that his voice? It must be. The words made sense of the wild confusion of his thoughts, of the wild need that had driven his lust. "I love you." Yes.
"Love you too."
The words were muffled, dragging with sleep, but they made Bodie's heart jump wildly and a broad grin cross his face. Strange what you found when you were least looking for it. Strange and wonderful.
Wakeful, he stared at the ceiling's wide timbers for a long time, until the fire died and they blended into the shadows. He eventually dozed off, his light sleep very close to waking, his senses full of the night, of the man in his arms, of the silence.
When the landlord knocked discreetly at the door he was on his feet, calling out a reply
It was time. From now on the world would never be the same again.
He roused Doyle and smiled at his irascible early-morning temper. Nothing could dampen his spirits today. They dressed and hurriedly breakfasted, collecting their belongings before walking quickly down to the sea. The 'Daydream' was ready. They went aboard and found a nook by the stern, keeping out of the way as the ship slowly crept out of the harbour.
England took a long time to fall away behind them. They watched the high, white cliffs, that had risen out of the morning mist to stand sentry to their farewell, gradually diminish and fade.
Shivering in the cold they stood close, content, at peace; touching but not touching under the crew's curious eyes. There were no regrets. A joy quite pure sang through the smiles they couldn't hide.
As one, they turned away from the distant shore. Forward was where the future lay. Forward. There was nowhere else they wanted to go.
-- THE END --