|The Song Of The Redbird, or The Fable Of The Crow And The Peacock
Second in a series of three (hopefully) and the thematic non-counterpart to The Ballad Of Barefoot Robin. While they take place in the same world, at more or less the same time, the two stories are worlds apart in terms of their atmosphere and sense of humor.
The accompanying illustration is by GlassShard and is very, very NSFW.
Warnings: grim, decadent, filthy, violent, unpleasant.
Pompous little fop was the first thought to come to Sir Henry Kensington's mind, the first time he laid eyes on James Trelawney.
Henry was standing against the wall, nursing his wine and watching the fete with blase' eyes, waiting for such time as he could make his excuses and leave without giving offense to his hostess or infuriating his social-climbing wife. In God's name, he had better things to do than attend this miserable party, but his bloody hostess was only a duchess in her own right and the King's youngest sister (God save the King!) and her useless dandy of a son and his fawning entourage had flounced in for the season, which of course required a splendid celebration to be thrown, which in its turn required the presence of Sir Henry in his official position as sheriff of this absurdly huge tract of the duchess' lands. Of course.
Meanwhile, out there on the roads bandits and highwaymen flourished, cattle thieves stole brazenly in and out of even Henry's own lands, pirates raided the coasts on all sides, and even the humblest and most God-fearing of men schemed and plotted to evade their tax burden and lighten the purses of othersand Henry, aching to be doing something of use, preferably elsewhere, was instead trapped here in this overheated room in his best clothes, breathing perfume and sweat instead of fresh air and listening to the twittering of brainless, thoughtless birds. It was galling. It truly was.
And then the crowds parted like the Red Sea (as crowds so often do) and Henry caught his first glimpse of James, although at the time he neither knew the man's name nor cared to know it. Ignoring the rest of the party the young man had flung himself negligently across one of the huge overstuffed chairs by the fireplace, leaning against one of the fat arms with one leg thrown high across the other, not so much eating a tart as demolishing it: he was idly picking it apart with his fingers (Henry could see the glint of lacquer on his manicured nails from here) and popping the bits into his smirking mouth, one at a time, pausing every so often to brush crumbs off his brocade-encrusted waistcoat. His slippered foot swung in midair, occasionally inconveniencing passersby.
Henry's lip curled and he hid it behind his glass. The little peacock. Little popinjay. His hair might have been copper once, and had probably hung about his face in raggedy curls when he was small, but now it had been cut fashionably short and carefully tousled (Henry was abruptly aware of the negligible weight of his own queue, just brushing his shoulders) and the result had been powdered to a perfectly unnatural shade of peach. And the cosmetics...! More than Henry's own wife was wearing, for a fact, and she'd never had the lightest hand. Heavier still now that she was over forty and afraid for her fading looksHenry tore his thoughts away from that particular path and returned to his study of the young man across the room. White face powder and some kind of pinkish lip tint at the very least, and the heavy black lashes about his eyes couldn't be natural, not with pale eyebrows like thoseoh, and a beauty mark dotted beside one eye, to round out the look. The overall effect was... not unpleasant, precisely, but far more suited for the glitter of court than the dull reality of the headland.
Some small part of Henry was tugging at the back of his mind, whispering for attention, and Henry paused to indulge that demand. The target of his scrutiny remained just where he was, sprawled across the chair in his shameless, lazy display, ignoring the rest of the party going on around him in favor of his half-eaten pastry... but every few moments the King's nephew or another member of his entourage would come swirling up, laughing, and try to coax him out of his chair, and every few moments the young man would laugh, speak a few words, and dismiss them with a flutter of one beringed hand (graceful but limp-wristed in the lacy froth of his cuff).
And yet they did not stop trying. It became a wonder to Henry that his new young friend was able to spare a moment to pick at his tart. A young man of some popularity, then. Some influence, at least as measured by the ninnies. The King's nephew was a mincing young fool, not that Henry would dare breathe this opinion aloud, and yet he was utterly absorbed in his own rank and position; for him to pay even laughing court to another young man was... noteworthy. Henry duly noted it.
Across the room the young man paused and looked up, apparently sensing unfriendly eyes upon him. He scanned the room, one eyebrow cocked curiously... their gazes met. Henry fell still, his glass still touched to his lips, and then looked away. After a moment he risked a glance back in that direction and discovered that the young man was still watching him, his lips curved into a meaningless smile, his eyes a startling blue under the heavy black fringe of his lashes. Piqued, Henry refused to look away again.
It degenerated into a staring contest. Other guests would occasionally drift by, but when they had passed the young man would still be looking at him, and Henry would be damned if he was going to be the first to look away. Childish, certainly, but at the moment, he couldn't bring himself to care. Without looking away the other man felt along the top of his tart, breaking off a bit of crust and putting it in his mouth, his fingers pressed lightly to the bow of his pink little lips. Henry's nostrils flared at the display.
Another of the young man's friends came dashing up to clamor for his attention, but this time the young man didn't even look in his friend's direction; instead he gestured languidly at Henry and said something. The other man blinked and looked over at Henry, then back, shrugging. Henry could laugh. Of course they didn't know who he was. Some sour old crow all in black, that's what they'd think of the likes of him. He wasn't even twice their age, but that was old enough to a young man's mind, wasn't it?
His eyes still locked on Henry's the young man said something else and waved one hand, and his friend nodded and dashed away. Now Henry did laugh, faintly. He was no carnival lip-reader but the words go find out had been clear enough. Still smiling, he raised his wineglass to the young man in a silent toast. The other man's little smile went crooked; being without a glass at the moment, he broke the rest of the crust off his tart and raised it in answer, then bit off half of it with a little flash of teeth.
For all that he remained largely unimpressed with the little fop, Henry was almost enjoying himself now. He'd always had something of a taste for contests of willthe young man's friend came darting back to kneel at the foot of the armchair, breathing heavily. He spoke; after a moment the young man lost the staring contest, turning amazed eyes on his friend. Henry's own smile turned thin and unpleasant. "Yes, you mince, I am someone of importance in this duchy after all," he muttered into his wine.
As if he had overheard, the young man looked back at him, his eyes narrowed in thought. The squint made him look less pretty, emphasizing the narrow foxy planes of his face as it did, but Henry found that he preferred it to the constant playacting, if only for its honesty. Then, deliberately, the young man set his plate on the floor by the chair, abandoning fully half his decimated tart to its fate. Taking his friend's hand, he rose gracefully to his feetand for a moment, onto his toes, as if he were a woman, preparing to dance.
Crossing his arms, Henry lowered his head bullishly and waited for the young man to come confront him. Spoiling for a fight? Perhaps. Instead, the young man and his friend vanished into the crush entirely, and Henry did not see him again that night.
When it finally came time to leave and Henry was making his excuses to the duchess with his wife silently sulking by his side, he paused and asked the question that had been lurking in the back of his mind for hours. "There was a young man, one of your son's friends, I believe, a little fellow with reddish hair...?"
"Oh, you must mean James," his hostess said, laughing. "James Trelawney. Clever boy. I believe he's a baronet? Why do you ask?"
"No reason," Henry said. For a moment he considered asking her not to mention his interest to the young man, although it would certainly be about as effective as asking the sun not to rise in the morning. The duchess was an inveterate gossip, as were most ladies of her agehe dismissed the idea. Let her tell him. What did Henry care? "I thought for a moment he looked familiar, that's all."
James and his effrontery proved to be no more than a momentary diversion, however. There were the roads to keep safe, after all, and Henry's was no sinecurehe rode out with his troops every night, often returning with the dawn stinking of gunpowder, horse, and blood. Fortunately he and his wife had moved into separate rooms following the birth of their third and last child, so his nocturnal habits need not disturb her much-needed beauty rest, or, indeed, whatever else she chose to do in her bedchamber.
His own rooms were spare and dimmed with heavy curtains, decorated with an eye towards comfort. Henry slept during the mornings and did whatever was necessary during the afternoons, saw his family at dinner, spent an hour or so with his children afterwards, and then rode out in pursuit of his duty, only to come home at dawn and do it all again. Good enough... yes, it was certainly that. Now, if only last year's poor harvest had not made bandits and highwaymen out of what seemed to be damned near an entire generation of farmers, everything would be in order.
It was in pursuit of that very order that Henry mounted his horse and left his home, that night a scant week later. Henry's one great passion in life was for order, bloodless and calm; a place for everything and everything in its place, that was for Henry. He despaired of his goal, of course, but still, it behooved him, as a man, to make the attempt. And make it he did, every day and every night. That night was no exception.
His men, eight of them, waited for him at the crossroads, mounted on the swiftest horses that Henry's money could buy. A stranger might have taken them for highwaymen themselves (the irony of it) in their drab, dark clothes, their scarves pulled up over their faces and their hats pulled low; the duchess' subjects knew them for what they were. Henry had never been one for bright uniforms and martial traditions. They made of one a target, even in the moonlight.
Henry cantered his own gelding into the center of the ring, tugging his scarf up over his mouth and nose. He nudged his horse's side and it stepped in a slow circle, allowing Henry to look over his men, one by one; approving of what he saw he nodded brusquely and touched spurs to his horse's flanks, leading the way down the wide, hard-packed north road at a slow trot. Wordlessly, his men fell in line behind him, careful to keep to the duchy's excellent roads and avoid the ruched and predatory heath that lay in wait to both sides.
Sir Henry enforced all the laws of the land with an even and stern hand, and above them all, one simple rule of his own: never alone. Never would one of Henry's men ride out alone, not even to escort a single unconscious prisoner back to the jail. Two, at least, for every duty, no matter how small. On that night? Three left behind to shepherd four snuffling adolescent cattle rustlers to the magistrate's, and two more to deal with the body of a single bandithe'd seen forty from the backside, that one, and already his eyes had been misted with cataracts, but when cornered and ordered to surrender he'd attacked with such desperate fury that one of Henry's men had been forced to draw to defend himself (and he'd be ribbed for it for days after, Henry was certain), and so it was only with three of his men that Henry rode around the bend in the road and face-first into the waiting tableau.
The riderless horse stood quietly not ten feet away, cropping grass, but it was the body in the weeds by the side of the road that drew Henry's eyes first. White as it was, it caught the moonlight, glowing with it like an angel come to earth. Henry reined up sharply, and behind him his men drew their swords, wheeling about as they did to watch in all directions. With a terse nod, Henry dismounted to kneel beside the sprawled body, pulling off his glove to touch two fingers to the pulse at the throat.
Not a body yet, by God's grace. Still a man, still breathing. Whoever had attacked him had stripped him of everything but white shirt and breeches, sometimes roughlyspots of blood stood dark on his knuckles where rings had been torn offleaving him just barely clad and unconscious by the side of the road, for less discerning predators to scavenge at their leisure.
Henry glanced at the horse. It wore no saddle, but damp whorls in its neat coat suggested that it had, until recently. Its bridle still dangled from its mouth, reins trailing along the ground. Truly a chivalrous highwayman, this oneHenry's lip curledleaving his victims both enough clothes for basic decency and enough horse to return home. Leaving his victims alive. What a fool.
A faint breath shivered against the inside of Henry's wrist and Henry glanced back down, recollecting to himself his duty. Curling his hand against the fallen man's cheek Henry turned his face to the skyand found himself face to face with James Trelawney, his face composed and soft, as if in sleep.
For all that half the powder had dusted out of his mussed hair and the extravagant cosmetics were smeared across his face, it was undoubtedly him. Some bandit had had a rich and lucky haul, thenHenry dismissed the sneering thought as unbecoming and patted James' cheek to see if he'd wake. James' kohl-heavy eyelashes fluttered and he made a tiny sound, like a mouse, but he did not deign to come around. Henry sat back on his heels. A personal guest of the Duchess' attacked and left for dead on the side of the road required very careful handling, lest his disturbance engender more responsibility than one man could bear alone.
"Weathers, collect his horse," Henry said. They were the first words he had spoken in nearly two hours, and they sounded immensely loud in the silence. One of his men dismounted. "Smith, to me." Another dismounted, as well. While the one trod carefully after the horse, making soothing noises, the other came to kneel by Henry's side. Henry dropped his voice to a low and growling murmur. "Once I have mounted, lift himcarefullyand bring him to me. Be as gentle as if he were your own sister. Gentler. Much may depend on it."
The man glanced at him, then nodded, asking no questions. Henry rose to his feet, firmly ignoring the ache of several hours on horseback, and swung wearily back into the saddle. Once he was settled he nodded to his rider, who gingerly slid his arms under James Trelawney's shoulders and knees and stood, with a grunt. James sagged bonelessly against his chest. "Careful, sir," the man said, his voice low. "He's a mite heavier than he looks."
Henry looked at him sharply, then nodded, holding out both arms to accept the burden. And it was true: James was short and slim both but still oddly heavy, and as limp as he was in his swoon it was like cradling a hot water bottle of prodigious size. Carefully, with his man poised to assist, Henry arranged James across the saddle in front of him, curled in the crook of his arm like a sleeping child. James' head lolled against his shoulder and his bare legs dangled from the shoulder of the saddle. Henry nodded and pulled James tight against his chest, picking up his reins in his free hand.
Behind him, his riders remounted, one of them now leading James' horse by its reins. Henry walked his horse about in a careful half-circle. "We ride for my manor," he said shortly. Henry nudged his horse's side and set off down the road at a slow and gentle walk, the better to avoid jarring his passenger.
It was a slow journey, made all the slower by the silence. The two riders who bore no burdens wheeled fore and aft, keeping an eagle's eye out for danger; in the middle, at a walk, rode Henry and the man leading James' horse. Henry kept his eyes on the road ahead, his mind awhirl. He'd expected the little fop to stink of roses, or of lavender, or of whatever damnable flowery muck was popular this season. Instead he exuded only a faint and pleasant scent, some sort of dark spicy smell that Henry could not place but found himself rather intrigued by. It wasn't what a man should smell like, for certain, but had he met a woman with that scent, doubtless he'd have looked at her twice, or more than twice... Henry glanced down at his burden. James' face was half-hidden against Henry's chest, just the side of his narrow fox's face visible, gleaming white by the light of the setting moon. His mussed hair hung in curls now, just as Henry had known it would. It was certainly a different James than the one Henry had last seen, and without thought he tightened his arm further, pulling the unconscious man close against him.
Although it took the better part of half an hour to reach Henry's home, James was still in his swoon when they arrived. Henry could not fight down the chill of apprehension. If he did not wake soon, it was possible that he would not wake at all; Henry had seen it happen, and to better, stronger men than this one. And if he did not wake then there would be a storm to face from the Duchess, and from her damnable sonHenry dismounted using the block in the courtyard so that he need not hand off James to another at all. Better that the responsibility should fall on him alone.
Cradling James against his chest with both armshe was heavy, and soft, like a womanHenry turned to his men. "See to my horse, and to his," he instructed. "Then go. Meet up with the others, then be dismissed, in the King's name. Speak to no one of this." He paused and put some fire into his voice. "No one."
His men glanced at each other with trepidation, but in the end they were too accustomed to obedience to question him. One rode forward to take the reins of Henry's horse, leading it to the stables behind the house. The others followed in ones and twos, one towing along James' own horse.
Henry did not pause to watch them go. Instead he spun, his greatcoat flaring out behind him, and strode for the door, rapping at it awkwardly until the yawning butler had it open. "Wake the kitchen boy," he said brusquely, pushing past the butler. "Tell him to make tea. Strong tea, for two, and put a goodly dollop of brandy in it. Tell him to bring it to the parlor, and then bring me my wife's sewing kit." The butler hesitated, his wide eyes on the white apparition in Henry's arms; Henry's eyes narrowed, his voice cracking out like a whip. "Go!"
The butler backed away a pace or two, then turned on his heel and hurried towards the kitchen. Henry watched him go, then made for the sitting room. It was dark, the fire banked for the night, and it was mostly by memory and by feel that Henry groped his way to the sofa and laid James down upon it. His fumbling fingers found the hearth-rug, folded up under one of the nearby chairs, and he flicked it out and let it settle onto James. It had not been a particularly cold night, but a man brought this low might catch a chill from anythingHenry whirled and grabbed the poker, stoking up the fire until it blazed. Damn James Trelawney anyway! Had his escort fled when he was attacked? Worse, had he been riding the roads alone? Apparently the little peacock had no better sense, and now not only was he like to die but to smudge Henry's name in the doing of it
There came a knock at the door and the butler hurried in, sewing kit in hand. Henry took it from him and dismissed him absently, his mind already awhirl with his options. Carrying the kit to the fire Henry turned its contents out carelessly on the rug, pawing through the bundles of thread and rolls of canvas, in search ofah! His fingers closed on a small glass vial and he thumbed off the top of it, baring his teeth at the reek of spirits of ammonia.
Henry was not a praying man. Stiff-necked and proud he acknowledged his debt to God but preferred to answer to himself, and yet he breathed a short and angry prayer as he brought his wife's smelling salts under James' nose. "Wake," he growled, like a command.
For a heartstopping moment, nothing. Then James' brow wrinkled and his nose twitched and his head rolled from side to side, trying to escape the awful stench; Henry kept the vial close, however, and finally James' eyes fluttered open. In the firelight they were a purple so rich as to almost be black, in contrast to the rest of him. Henry's relief was immense enough to blot out his irritation, for a moment. He spread his hand out on James' chest. "Know that you're safe," he said, before anything else.
"Safe," James said groggily. "Am I?" His voice, also, was not what Henry had been expecting, not a squealing falsetto but a rich tenor, even thick as it was. "Am I safe with you?"
"I am Her Grace's sheriff," Henry said in answer, nonplussed by the question. "You were attacked on the road"
"Yes, attacked," James said, his eyes focusing. "I was... attacked." Weakly he brushed away the smelling salts, then stared at his trembling fingers, bare and bloodied as they were. "I was robbed..."
"Robbed and left for dead," Henry said shortly, removing his hand from James' chest and standing up. Capping the vial he dropped it unconcernedly into the mess on the rug. Behind him he heard James draw in a shocked breath, and he thought for certain that the mince would follow it with a wail, or a scream, or a lamentation of his lossbut for the third time that night James surprised him, letting out his caught breath in a mere unsteady sigh, instead. "Your horse is safe in my stables," Henry said, his voice turned abrupt in his startlement. "And there'll be tea, shortly."
"Thank you," James said, and that was the biggest shock of all, gratitude direct from the mouth of a courtier, even one so minor as a baronet. James shuffled about and sat up, pulling the hearth-rug about his shoulders, gingerly lowering his bare feet to the floor. Henry covertly studied him, making a show of dumping the contents of his wife's sewing kit back into its basket to cover his scrutiny. James looked even smaller and somehow elfin, huddled in the rug as he was, with his hair in ruddy curls about his streaked face and his feet and legs bare; like a gypsy child, or some sort of fire-headed fairyHenry snorted at himself and this uncharacteristic flight of fancy.
"The tea will be a minute," he said, standing up. "There's a bath along the hall if you'd like to clean up."
James nodded and also rose to his feet, unsteadily, the hearth-rug falling to puddle on the sofa. "Thank you," he said again, turning to go. And then he staggered sideways towards the fire, listing two rapid steps to the right, and Henry lunged forward to catch him before he could dash his scant brains out against the mantelbut James caught himself against Henry's shoulder even as Henry caught James' arm. Henry was grazed by another tendril of that sharp, dark fragrance, and for a moment James hung on him as heavily as he had in his swoon. "Oh," James said weakly, shaking his head. "I... your pardon, sir..."
"Go sit down," Henry said, more sharply than, perhaps, he should have. "I'll have the boy bring you a basin instead"
"No," James said, groggy but firm, his fingers flexing on Henry's shoulder. "It's passed... I shall look after myself." And again he straightened up, his hand flashing from Henry's shoulder to the back of one of the armchairs. Slowly he made his way across the room, his fingers darting out to catch whatever was near to steady himself. By the time he crossed the threshold he was almost walking normally again. Henry watched him go, bemused. What sort of courtier disdained servants?
The kitchen boy edged in shortly thereafter with the tea things, setting them on the sideboard as directed and scuttling back out. Belatedly Henry divested himself of his hat and greatcoat, putting them aside (the butler would find them and put them away tomorrow) before turning his attention to the lamps. Surely for a guest of this magnitude his household budget would not scruple at a little lamp oil.
He was standing at the sideboard, scowling down at the tea things, when James finally reappeared. (Henry had almost begun to wonder if James had not passed out again, or fled into the night with some mania upon him.) The change was enormous: his face was bare of cosmetics and lightly flushed from scrubbing, and his hair was clean and wet, scraped straight back from his forehead and yet already beginning to droop about his face and ears in perfect coppery ringlets. What little clothing he still possessed had been straightened; the raw spots on his knuckles had been cleaned.
"Much better," James murmured, padding silently into the room on his little bare feet. Henry's thoughts went sour on the instant. Yes, the change in James was enormous, was it not? The newly arrogant expression on his face was familiar, as was his insolent carriage; the complete dismissal of his near-nudity was less familiar, but entirely unsurprising.
"Have a seat," Henry said with as much grace as he could muster. "I'll bring you some tea. And then I must ask you some questions."
"Of course, sir," James saidno, he purred it, his rich voice going thick and cool, like cream. Henry's fingers spasmed on the teapot's handle. What impertinence was this? "I understand that there must be... questions," James said, still in that unnerving purr, and filching the hearth-rug from the sofa he curled up in one of the massive armchairs, tucking the rug neatly about his lap and (mercifully) hiding his bare legs and feet from view. Henry's lip curled, but he hid it via the simple exercise of pouring tea for them both. After a moment of thought, he added cream to James'. In a way, the man had asked for it.
James accepted the teacup with casual grace, murmuring thanks. If he disdained either the cream or the brandy, it did not show; he curled his fingers daintily about the cup and held it close, breathing in the rising steam. Henry took the seat across from him and spent a moment in silence, holding his own cup and studying the apparition in front of him.
The firelight dyed James' pale skin and white shirt both the same fiery color as his hair. Now he was a fire-sprite, enspelled into temporary docility by an offer of tea and hearth-rug; he glowed that same ruddy orange all over, the color flickering and shifting as the fire rose and fell. And his eyes were still that rich, deep purple shade, dark against the unrelieved flame of the man. Dark and fastened brazenly on Henry's face, watching him watch James, while the fire-sprite's cup rose to his lips...
Henry shook his head, forcing himself back to the present and dismissing his wild fancies. He had read one too many fairy-stories to his daughters, that was all. "Tell me about your assailants," he said instead. "How many were there?"
James closed his eyes, becoming for a moment flame entire. "Five," he said. "On horse. They wore cloaks and masks, I'm afraid. I did not see much."
"Cloaks and masks," Henry said, not bothering to hide his sneer. "Highwaymen. Romantic fools, the lot of them. At least bandits are more honest about their villainy."
James' eyes opened again, and after a moment, he laughed, a clear and mocking little sound. "True, it's true," he said. "Cloaks and masks and pretty speeches before I was clubbed down and robbed. How very refined."
"And your escort?" Henry asked, already suspecting that he knew the answer.
And he was not disappointed: "I had none," James said, neither ashamed nor embarrassed. Indeed, he still seemed amused, like this was all some great game. "Foolish of me, to think that a swift horse and a rapier would be enough to see me through. Perhaps I should have huddled in a cloak myself!"
"Perhaps," Henry agreed, exasperated. "Or perhaps you should have not gone unattended in the first placein God's name, sir, the roads on the headland are unsafe past dusk, despite all I can do to make them otherwise! What madness brought you out so late and alone?"
No sooner had the words left his mouth than he knew what the answer must be. And again he was not disappointed: James' chin rose slightly, baring his throat to the firelight. "I had an assignation," he said, as simply and clearly as that. "Doubtless I have missed it by now. Such a pityI was quite looking forward to it." By the end his voice was a throaty shadow of his original purr, and he laughed, mocking them both.
"A tryst!" Henry exclaimed, by now not bothering to hide his foul temper at all. Like as not it would come back to haunt him later, but by God he was worn and strained, and this cunning little songbird in the chair opposite him was determined to goad him"You endangered yourself and nearly brought the wrath of the Duchess down upon us all for a mere tryst? In God's name," he spat. "I certainly hope she was beautiful, at least."
Instead of answering, James merely smiled, smug as a cat. The silence stretched between them, marred only by the crackling of the flames, and too late Henry realized what was not being said"I have no interest in... beauty," James finally said, closing his eyes and sipping at his tea. "I thought it worth the risk at the time. However, it seems I underestimated the danger. I shall not do that again."
"See that you don't," Henry said, his voice made abrupt and harsh by his discomfiture. Was this sort of filth so commonplace at court that a catamite like this one might sit calmly and admit to it, if not in so many words? No wonder he tarted himself up like a whore! "Tell me of these 'pretty speeches'," Henry commanded, grasping at the first straw he came across in order to give himself time to recover.
"Ah." James took another sip of his tea, then delicately placed the cup back in its saucer, resting in his lap. His constant amusement finally faded into the background, to Henry's general unspoken relief. "Three of them drove me into the other two, who had been waiting ahead. After they had pulled me from my horse and pinned my arms, one of themI took him to be their leader, for his cloak was red instead of blackcame to look at me. After he had looked his fill, he smiled and told me that the Redbird was grateful for my generosity, and then I was struck across the back of the head. And I knew no more until I woke under your gaze." He paused, considering Henry with narrow-eyed cunning, and then added, "Sir."
"The Redbird?" Henry repeated, ignoring the slight as best he could. "Be damned. Another highwayman with dreams of infamy and tavern-songs. Still, they might give themselves pretty names all they liked, as long as it kept them from preying upon my roads. What was taken from you?"
James shrugged. "My waistcoat and hose, my belt, my boots. My sword in its scabbard. My rings" he fluttered his bare and scraped fingers "of which none were particularly irreplaceable save my signet. My brooch, my" he reached up and touched his ears "my ear-rings, and of course, my purse, although I carried little enough coin in it."
"And the saddle from your horse," Henry added. James closed his eyes and dipped his head in acquiescence. By this point Henry once again had the reins firm upon his temper, and so he was able to go on calmly enough. "I will do everything in my power to retrieve what was stolen from you," he said. "I can promise nothing. If the items have been taken elsewhere..." He trailed off there, waiting to see if his failure to promise a miracle might eke out some sort of childish tantrum.
Instead James picked up his teacup and drank the last of his tea, tipping his head back until the front of his throat was taut. "I thank you for your efforts on my behalf," he said, when that was done. "If anything can be recovered, I will be grateful to you for itbut I have my life, and I will be content with that."
It did not come as a surprise, precisely, but still it completed a sea-change in Henry's mind: a fop and a mince James might be, Henry had come to realize, but not a silly one. Not a fool, despite charging out alone into the night, which could fairly be ascribed to a simple lack of understanding of the realities of the headland. Well, he'd had a harsh lesson, and Henry was suddenly certain that James had learned well from it. The flashes of intelligenceand more, that odd simplicitywere unsettling, given how little mind Henry had originally ascribed to the man. "There is one more thing we must speak of," he said slowly, wondering precisely how to broach the subject.
"You would prefer that the Duchess not hear about my little misadventure," James said, as if he were reading Henry's mind. Suddenly he was neither amused nor purring, his eyes narrowed, his fox's face alive with cunning.
Henry bowed his head, at least in part to hide his discomfort. "I would not have put it so baldly," he said.
James waved a dismissive hand, turning his head to stare into the dying flames. "In fact, my thoughts were moving in that direction as well," he said. "It is my wish that neither the Duchess nor her son find out that I left the guest-house at all. If you will take me to my horse, sir, I will ride him home before the break of day, and then no one need be the wiser but you and I."
"You cannot ride like that!" Henry said, startled. "You are hurt, you have neither saddle nor boots"
"And yet I will ride, and well, if you give me but a leg up," said James. "The Duchess' manor is not far, and I am more a horseman than I look, sir."
Henry hesitated, but in the end, he gave in. It was too tempting. The perfect solution to what plagued him. "As you will, then," he said. "And if I should recover any of your belongings? What then?"
"I am in the red room," James said, after a moment. "You are in the Duchess' employ; surely you know of the colored suites in the guest-house. They are her pride and joy, as she will tell anyone who will listen, often at excruciating length."
"I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, but it so happens that I do," Henry said. "The red room, on the back side of the east wing."
"The very same." James paused, steepling his fingers in front of himself, as it turned out marshaling that infuriating amusement again"I will leave the garden doors open for you," he finally said, in that voice rich as cream. "Be welcome to my rooms, sir... and come and go as you will."
Henry hesitated, suspicious. The words rang false to his ears, the invitation overly generousbut perchance he was still unsettled, from earlier. And what of it if the mince was alluding to certain un-Godly practices? What of it, indeed? Would he somehow manage to overpower Henry if his disgusting overtures were repelled? Henry, who was very nearly half again his size? Ridiculous. "Very well, then," Henry said, and he stood. "It will be dawn soon; if you plan to go, go now."
"Indeed." Transferring his empty cup and saucer to the small table beside his chair, James also rose. The hearth-rug fell to the ground and he daintily stepped clear, leaving it where it lay. "If you'd be so kind: lead the way, sir."
The stables were quiet and warm. James had followed Henry without complaint, despite how cold and damp the cobbles must have been on his bare feet; now he stood laughingly murmuring to his horse, who stood with his neck proudly arched, one iron-shod foot pawing nervously at the cobbles. It was a fine horse. As fine as Henry's own, perhaps finer, and Henry was a fair judge of horseflesh"If you would, sir," James said, turning his attention away from the horse.
Henry nodded, brusquely, and laced his fingers together, offering the makeshift stirrup to James without a word. As delicately as a dancer James stepped into his interlocked hands, and once again Henry bore that oddly heavy weight in his armsthen James was astride his horse, balanced despite the lack of saddle, and Henry cradled his bare foot for no reason at all.
As quickly as he could, Henry dropped James' foot and stepped back. "You know the way?" he asked, his voice abrupt.
"I do," James said, his low voice throbbing with malicious humor. For a moment he gazed down at Henry's upturned face, his own face sly and cunning... then he brushed two fingers over that mocking smirk of his and reached out to touch them to Henry's forehead. "For your kindness," he said lightly, and then he touched his heels to his horse's bare flanks and the horse leaped away like an arrow.
Henry watched it go, glowering, carefully not reaching up to scrub away the burn of that little touch until James was out of sight.
The kiss burned on Henry's forehead for days thereafter. Occasionally he would come back to himself while sitting at his desk during the long afternoons and realize that he was rubbing two fingers lightly over the spot, as if there was still something there for his curious touch to discoverno matter how blackly he scowled at himself and dragged that hand away, eventually it always crept back, in the very moment that Henry's attention wandered.
And even as the kiss burned on his skin, so did his memories burn in his mind. His vague distaste for James had soured into outright dislike, that pompous little brat and his constant mockery, his arrogant disregard for his dishabille... and yet when Henry lay abed, his mind drifting before he fell asleep, often as not he found himself thinking of James pressed to his chest, in unconsciousness as trusting as a child; or of James' bare legs hanging limp from his saddle-horn, his toes pointing towards the ground; or of James catching himself against his shoulder and leaning there for a moment, wholly dependent on Henry to keep him upright; or of James' narrow face in the light of the fire, shifting with eldritch speed from mocking to cunning and back; and always, always of that maddening scent. Often he was so near to sleep that even his reflexive anger could not wake him again, and so he would fall asleep with James lazing in the forefront of his mind, only to feel dirtied upon waking.
He could not let it go. Henry, who had once killed a man with his bare hands and slept peacefully not two hours later, so unbalanced by a few mere flirtations? What was a kissnot even a kiss, but the touch of two fingers that had been kissedin comparison to some of the dark deeds he had done in the name of his office? Why did the kiss burn his skin when no spray of blood had ever done so?
And yet, it did. Indeed, he was poring over some papers and unconsciously touching the tingling spot on his forehead one overcast afternoon when one of his men stepped into his office, down at the magistrate's. "Sir, there's a... development," he said, hesitantly.
Henry jerked his hand away from his forehead. "Go on," he said, his voice gruff to cover his embarrassment.
But the man did not go on. Instead, he turned around and eased the door shut, then crossed the room to where Henry sat, and by the time he arrived Henry was entirely alert; this sort of nicety from one of his men was uncommon enough. "Sir," he began, "there was a fight down at the Brown Woman"
"Skip the details for now," Henry snapped. "Get to the meat of it."
His rider saluted. "We've recovered a few items that may belong to the baronet, sir."
Henry paused; his breath and heart paused right along with him, for the better part of a second. "I see," he said, finally. "Who had them?"
"Wat Stone, sir." His rider's disdain was clear enough. "Tried to sell them to one of the baronet's own friends, he did. Only to the bloody Earl of Staffold!"
"One of the Duchess' guests was in the Brown Woman?" Henry said, aghast. "In God's name! Do these little fools want to die?"
The man shrugged, as if to say that the peccadilloes of the nobility were none of his concern. "At any rate, sir, his friend recognized one of the rings and started bellowing for the guard, and a fight broke outthe earl's fine, sirand when it cleared Wat was dead as a stump, serves him right."
"Good riddance," Henry said. "And what of the baronet's... items?"
"I have them here, sir," his rider said, fishing a suspiciously fine and lace-edged handkerchief from his pocket. It clanked when he set it down; Henry reached out and brushed the edges aside, revealing a small pile of jewelry. In the midst of it a simple gold signet ring winked, the initials JYT worked into its design.
Henry considered this bounty for a moment, then swept the handkerchief back across the pile and made the whole thing disappear. "Good," he said shortly. "Well done. See to Wat's body, as quietly as you can. I'll handle these myself."
"Sir," his rider said in undisguised relief, bowing himself out. Once he was gone, the clump of his bootheels faded into silence, Henry pulled out the handkerchief again and surreptitiously brought it to his face. The dark fragrance was dim now, all these days later, and there was the piggish stench of Wat mingling uneasily with it (much as oil mingles with water), but still, it was there. Henry closed his eyes and breathed it in, the mark on his forehead tingling.
Wat hadn't done this. He washad beena cringing, slinking lout of a man with no bravery of his own but a few very good hiding places; Henry and his men had hounded him before, knowing very well that Wat was something of a middleman, but had never been able to make anything stick. Well, now he had picked up the wrong handful of ill-gotten gains, and paid for it. No one would miss him, least of all Henry, who was tending towards the idea that perhaps they ought to award the foolhardy earl a medal for services rendered.
No, Wat was nothad not beenthis Redbird. And now he was unavailable to answer even the most pointed of questions... with a sigh, Henry pushed back his chair and stood up, the handkerchief and its contents vanishing into one pocket of his greatcoat. At least he could return this handful of prizes to its rightful owner, a duty that he did not cherish, but one that would serve to salve his pride a bit. Henry plucked his hat from the rack by the door and stepped out into a gray and blustery day that threatened to pluck the hat from him in turn.
Stray drops of rain skirled into Henry's face and made him squint against the brisk breeze. It was a typical afternoon on the headland: it would drizzle and threaten for hours, making life unpleasant but never quite managing to rain outright. Ducking his head, Henry trudged against the wind to the stables.
Just as he rode out again there came a low and sullen rumble of thunder, and his horse danced nervously a pace or two to the left; a good horse, a fine horse, but skittish and spirited, requiring a gentle touch one moment and a taste of the crop the next. Henry patted the horse's neck and made soothing sounds and the horse eventually calmed, although his ears swiveled anxiously.
By some stroke of poor luck, the misting rain was in his face for most of the trip. His horse shied at every rumble from the clouds above, exasperating Henry immensely. This foolish chunk of horseflesh had lived and worked through many a storm and just today had taken it into his head to be unnerved by them; indeed, he balked and reared at a low stile that he'd never so much as blinked at before, and Henry was forced to resort to the riding crop before the horse would consent to leap over. "Damned beast," Henry muttered, shielding his eyes as best he could. "Don't you think I like this, either."
He rode in a wide circle about the Duchess' manor, a lone horseman in black on a chestnut gelding, a completely unremarkable sight. The guest-house stood a fair distance back, separated from the main house by the Duchess' famous gardens; in Henry's opinion the manicured gardens were a bunch of overly-fussy French nonsense, but they would prevent anyone in the main house from seeing him approach. Still, best to be careful. He gave the guest-house a wide berth as well before turning sharply and quirting his nervy horse over the low garden wall.
The garden doors to the red room were indeed open. Not just unlocked, but open, the heavy red curtains billowing out like an invitation; Henry snorted and dismounted, tossing his horse's reins over a stone cherub's upraised arm. Thunder rumbled overhead as he strode down the short path and up the three shallow steps to the red room's small balcony, brushing aside the curtains with the riding crop that he had forgotten he was carryingand froze on the threshold, suddenly and completely unable to breathe.
The man sprawled naked on the bed had not seen himwould not see him, by the grace of God or of the silk blindfold that he was wearingbut still his head turned blindly from side to side. "Is someone there? James, I thought Iah!heard something"
"Did you?" James Trelawney said, his voice rich with disdain. He knelt equally naked and shameless astride the other, fondling his own stiffened cock with one hand and drawing the fingers of the other down along the belly of the man beneath him. "I heard nothing but the thunder, Richard. And if you're hearing things, then obviously I haven't enough of your attention" and his hips rolled forward and the muscles in his buttocks tightened (Henry was painfully aware of itcould not possibly have missed it!) and the man underneath him cried out before falling shudderingly still.
Henry's blood roared in his ears. And still he stood stupid and frozen in the doorway, unable to tear his eyes away, let alone retreat. If he stayed here they were certain to see himif he tried to leave they would undoubtedly hear him goas if in answer to Henry's worst fears James glanced towards him, betraying not a jot of surprise or embarrassment. Indeed, his cruel little smile was almost exultant. One hand drifted languidly up and James laid a finger across his lips, warning Henry to silence.
Henry could not even nod to acknowledge the shushing, although his ears heated. James looked away, back down at the man he held pinioned between his thighs. "Richard," he crooned, letting his hand drop to the man's stomach.
"Ah, God, James, please" Richard's head rolled from side to side and his fingers clawed at the bedspread, but in all other respects he was as still as if staked out. James held him in a catamite's filthy parody of a lover's grip, this Richard's prick sunk deep into his fundament; it had somehow reduced the other man to a shivering husk, unable even to reach up and seize James, let alone use him as such a position demanded. Despite his embarrassment, Henry could not help but bare his teeth in distaste. What sort of weak, bloodless excuse for a man was that?
"Richard," James purred again, rolling his hips forward in a single, long motion. Beneath him, Richard sobbed. "Beg me again."
"Please!" It was almost a wail, immediate and abject. "James, I'll go madplease, I beg you!"
"Ahhhh," James breathed, reaching up to flick one manicured nail against one of Richard's nipples. "There we are. Slowly, then."
Richard's hands leaped from the bedspread to James' hips, finally, now that he had been given permission (permission!). Underneath James Richard's hips rolled up, his skinny flanks already shuddering with restraint as he fought to be slow; James leaned back and let his head loll back on his shoulders, smiling mockingly at the ceiling. The hand on his cock made one lazy pass along its entire length. James' eyes closed.
And Henry stood in the doorway, trapped as neatly as a bear in a pit, unable to enter or to leave, unable to stop watching the foul spectacle. Richard quivered and sweated, pressing his shoulders into the bed and pushing up into James, who was as languid and calm as ever even as he toyed with himself. "Please," Richard gasped again. "James, I can't stand it!"
And James laughed. "Can't you?" he asked, closing his hand into a fist about his own prick. "Well, then, if you can't: do as you will."
With a gasp of relief Richard's hands turned into claws on James' hips, and without further ado he slammed up into him, no longer slow, no longer careful, no longer gentle. James' eyes inevitably returned to Henry, still trapped in the doorway. His mouth opened, but instead of saying something, James moaned, thick and soft, moaning directly at Henry, the brazenness of it bringing a surge of angry blood to Henry's cheeks (and when was the last time he blushed?). Beneath the pliant and receptive James Richard was working himself into a frenzy and grunting like a pig, thrashing about under James with neither grace nor dignity, clawing at his hips and leaving short reddened scratches laddered up and down James' pale thighsJames moaned again, louder, and his hand flashed out, urgently waving Henry away from the door.
It broke the spell of paralysis on Henry like cold water dashed in his face. Of course, with Richard so... distracted... he could finally retreat unhearddisentangling himself from the blowing curtains Henry slunk a few quiet steps back, wedging himself in a corner of the balcony out of sight of the door.
He could no longer see James' performance, but he could hear it clearly, and it made him clench his teeth and squeeze his eyes shut. The little chorus of moans spiraled up, both of them now, Richard's the uncontrolled wailing of a dog with its leg in a trap and James' the pleased purring of a cat in the sun, and beneath it all the simple, prosaic sound of flesh slapping against flesh, and the sly, dirty little wet soundsHenry bit his tongue until it bled. He could leave, but then James would think he had fledthe very idea incensed Henry to the core of his being. No, he would stay, and damn them both.
Abruptly it ended, Richard crying out in his extremity; a moment later came the soft, self-satisfied groan of James' own crisis, a throaty sound that in its very intimacy brought the blood back to Henry's cheeks. He rubbed a hand over his face and grappled for self-control. That he should have been forced to witnessthat he should see and hear!
In the room beyond, two men were breathing hard. After a moment Henry once again heard James' laughter, low and pleased and taunting, and then the broken and awed murmur of Richard's voicewhile Henry could not make out the words from here, the fawning note was clear as crystal. Repulsed yet oddly, coldly curious, Henry tilted his head, all the better to hear. He was amply rewardedor chastisedfor his spying with another of those disgusting wet sounds, this one long and drawn out and accompanied by a gasp from someone (Henry suspected Richardif James had ever made a single uncontrolled sound in his life, it would be news to Henry) and then the bed creaked one final time as a body thumped heavily down into it. Then all was silent save for the faint susurrus of murmuring.
Blood roaring in his ears, nerves tingling on knife's edge, Henry pulled his hat down to shade his eyes, and waited. The murmurs from inside rose and fell, pillow-talk that eventually turned petulantalthough Henry could only hear one word in five, it was easy enough to recognize that James was attempting to rid himself of his bed-partner (and why not? he'd had what he wanted of the boy, hadn't he?) and Richard was inclined to cling and pet and chatter and perhaps wheedle his way into a second bout. Henry had to restrain the urge to spit.
It took quite a whileto Henry, standing in a poorly sheltered corner with the mist blowing over him, it felt like half a yearbut finally the murmurs turned into the thump and rustle of someone stumbling about and getting dressed, Richard having been convinced to go. And then there were the drawn-out goodbyes, during which James sounded almost as exasperated as Henry felt; finally the door shut, James throwing the bolt without waiting for Richard to get a polite distance down the hall. Henry heaved out a deep breath and throttled back his temper with both hands. He would turn over James' things and go, and then he could put this whole sorry, disgusting mess behind him.
From inside the room, soft footsteps. Henry's head came up. "He's gone," James said clearly, his voice only slightly muffled by distance and heavy curtains. And Henry... without realizing that the tell-tale sound was one that had been absent, Henry straightened up and ducked through the gap in the curtains, entering James' rooms as indeed he had once been invited to do.
James was waiting for him, running both hands through his disheveled hair and putting his curls back to rights. Only a tiny and especially cold-blooded bit of Henry's brain noted this, however, for James was also still entirely naked, drying spunk smeared across his belly and running in glistening sluglike trails down the insides of his thighs, his dormant cock a neat little Grecian curl in a nest so pale a red as to be almost blond"In God's name, sir, clothe yourself!" Henry choked out, only just barely not reeling back a step. He could not even summon his anger, as shocked as he was by the vulgar display.
James' little smirk was immediate, coy, and triumphant, all at once. "No, neither in God's name nor in yours," he said lazily, curls tumbling from his fingers to hang in his eyes. "I'd only soil anything I put on, and laundresses do gossip so. The sheets will be difficult enough to dismiss"
Ah, there, there was Henry's anger, roaring up from the dimmest, most primitive part of his hindbrain and clawing to be set free. "Clothe yourself," he hissed, forcing the words out through his gritted teeth, the leather of his gloves creaking as his hands bunched into fists. "I've already seen more of you than I ever cared to, and I will... I will not be insulted like this!"
James sniffed, a little moue of distaste replacing the mocking smile. "Insulted," he said disdainfully. "It's only a prick, sir. The only way it could insult anyone is by failing to rise to the occasionsurely that's not why you're upset!"
Henry's thwarted, stifled rage froze him in place as neatly as if he'd been turned to stone. So angry was he that he could not even think of a suitable retort; it would all come out as snarling, in any case. Deaf to Henry's furyperhaps he thought Henry merely taken aback by his boldnessJames shrugged. "Surely you've seen one before, sir," he said. And then he paused, that maddening little smile surfacing once more. "Or have you?" he asked, his voice so rich with malice that he nearly sang the words. "Perhaps you haven't. Or perhaps you've forgotten what they look liketell me, was it your wife who had you castrated?"
With a throttled roar Henry struck James full across the face with his riding crop, every last bit of his rage fueling the blow.
The force of it spun James halfway around and he reeled back, the white mark on his cheek rapidly turning a livid and angry red. Henry, suddenly panting in the wake of the strike, was momentarily paralyzed by the immensity of the actdear God, out here they hanged men for lesser offenses than striking a noblemanbut the gasp that was torn from James' throat sounded wrong, not a cry of pain at all...
James caught himself, barely, on the edge of the bed. He, too, was gasping for breath all of a sudden, his eyes fluttering nearly closed, his untouched cheek nearly the same vivid red as the one marred by the fat, swollen welt... and his cock twitched and rose slightly from its bed of curls, its head sniffing blindly at the air. James reached up and touched his cheek gingerly, hissing in air. His crooked little smile was tremulous when it appeared again, but appear it did. "Well struck, sir," he breathed, even his barest whisper still loaded down with taunting laughter. "Would it please you to strike me again?"
Henry opened his mouth to deny it, perhaps even to apologizeand then lashed out and struck James across his other cheek, instead.
This time the blow only snapped James' head to the side, a second welt appearing to balance the first. James gasped again, the sound broken and somehow anticipatory, and his cock rose further. A drop of blood formed at the corner of his open mouth, where Henry's riding crop had ever so slightly torn the skin; the tip of James' tongue flicked out to collect it, completing the picture of Henry's dismay.
"What is this?" Henry snarled, striding forward and seizing James by the chin, forcing him to look up and meet Henry's eyes. In retrospect, a poor idea: James' eyes were half-lidded with lust, and his tongue flickered freely along his bloodied lips, and he exuded that dark scent in passionate waves, and somewhere in the middle of his baffled, frightened rage Henry felt himself begin to respond"Are you mad?" he said, swallowing to clear his throat. Unable to bring himself to touch James further Henry brought the riding crop up, touching the leather tip to James' twitching cock and lifting it, slightly. "What is this?"
The eager little whimper that James made then nearly undid Henry entirely, although it did nothing whatsoever to unman him. "Don't you know?" James breathed, laughing, still laughing, laughing at himHenry dropped James' chin as if it had scalded him, retreating a step, the riding crop held ready before him like a sword, like defense, trying desperately to ignore James' fully erect prick, trying to ignore his face.
James' insolent eyes dropped to the front of Henry's breeches and lingered there (with a gaze like burning) for a long moment before rising again. Henry's ears heated. "Hit me again," James purred, and Henry resisted for only a moment before the riding crop lashed out again and left a long diagonal mark across James' bare chest. After that, it was easy, too easy, and Henry's mind vanished in a bellowing torrent of fury; dimly he was aware of grabbing James' wrist and jerking him around, of laying the quirt across his back and buttocks until he was striped with red like the coat of an exotic animal, while James arched forward and shuddered and groaned like he was dying... the thick little sounds pierced through Henry's rage and sank their claws deep into that part of him that was still fundamentally animal, and abruptly he threw James forward against the edge of the bed and dropped his riding crop, fumbling with the front of his pants.
He almost, almost woke from his trance when his clumsy fingers were rubbing the head of his own cock against James' ass, trying to ascertain where it should fit"There, there," James said in a thick whimper, rising up onto his toes and pushing back against Henry demandingly. The head of Henry's cock popped into him, as easily as that, and Henry bit down on his own gloved wrist to muffle himself as he drove in the rest of the way, his passage made easy by what remained of James' earlier fuck. Later, perhaps, that would disturb or disgust him, but now it was just one less thing that stood between him and his goal.
Henry's hand slammed down on James' back, pinning him to the bed like an impaled butterfly in a collection. He ground the smaller man forward hard against the edge of the mattress, James' bare and striped back spread out before him like a tiger-skin rug, James' hands catching and pulling at the rucked-up covers in great, greedy handfuls. Henry could hear himself grunting but he could not bring himself to care. Even when one of James' hands pulled free and vanished, he didn't care. He cared only about bending James over that bed and wiping that insolent smirk off his face, about finally, finally conquering that sneering little arrogant brat, about mastering him physically if he could not do so any other way, about... about...
His crisis, when it came, was powerful enough that it threatened to drag him down into unconsciousness, fueled as it was by so many years of scanty, joyless, purse-mouthed coupling for the purposes of engendering children followed by several years of none at all save the occasional whoreHenry slammed into James one final time, hard enough to lift the smaller man's feet from the floor entirely, before his climax burst within him like a river in full flood, sweeping him clean away. He bellowed hard enough that his throat would be raw later, and he did not hear himself do it at all; he was equally unaware of the ecstatic, urgent groan that mingled with his own roar, although he noticed James writhing under him, if only vaguely.
As quickly as the mania had come upon Henry, it faded away. James was still slumped forward over the mattress, shuddering; Henry slid out and away, wincing at the sudden and unwelcome loss of pressure, and stripped the worst of the mess from his prick with one gloved hand. He wiped his glove clean on the fouled sheets and turned away, focusing all of his wavering attention on the process of tucking himself away and buttoning upsoon enough he would be asking himself what in God's name he had just done, but for now his mind was a stunned machine, coldly working to first extract him from this mess.
A thump from behind him made him turn. James had sagged down the side of the bed to sit heavily on the floor, sprawled sluttishly out on the rug with his legs flung wide. The whipmarks on his cheeks and his chest were livid, red and raised, and Henry was briefly glad that he could not see James' back; the mess between his thighs had attained another level altogether, as had the mess on his stomach. Even as Henry watched James raised his spattered and befouled hand to the level of his eyes, examining the leavings of his own climax with narrowed, calculating eyes. Finally he purred out an ultimately contented sound and let that hand fall again.
Henry abruptly turned away and fished the handkerchief from his pocket, setting it down on the dressing table with a thump. "Your jewels," he said, his voice abrupt. "Sir."
"Ah, so that's why you came," James said, sounding so content and smug that Henry might have struck him again, had James not been sitting on his discarded riding crop. "I had wondered."
"Did you think that I had come for pleasure?" Henry asked acidly, reaching down to rip his crop free. "Were it not for my duty I would not have cared to spend another moment in your presence."
"Ah, well." James belatedly pressed his thighs together, running his clean hand through his hair and setting it to tumble in the way that he seemed to prefer. "Whether you meant to come for it or not, now I believe you have come for pleasure, haven't you, sir?"
Henry's ears burned. "I have nothing more to say to you, sir. Good evening."
"Come again, whenever you like," James said, and it would have sounded like an idle entreaty if it had not sounded so filthy. "My doors are always open to you, all of them" Henry hunched his shoulders and headed for the doors, but James' lilting, mocking voice followed him all the way out onto the balcony "and I will be glad to entertain you, after my fashion"
By the time Henry's bootheels hit the path, his stride was swift enough to almost qualify as running; fortunately, it had deigned to rain in earnest by that time, so perhaps he could be excused.
Disdaining to return to his office at the magistrate's Henry rode straight for home, breaking a habit of years-long standing for the first time in memory. The servants were shocked to see him, as were his children, but Henry swept past them all without a word, fiercely intent only on his quarters. His wife was nowhere to be seen, which Henry could only count as a small favor.
He bolted himself into his rooms and, after a moment's thought, lowered the siege bar across the door as well. Stripping himself as he went he flung his clothes carelessly away, leaving a trail of black littered across the floor behind him; with an oath he threw his fouled smallclothes directly into the fire without a moment's thought for the expensive linen. They caught with some sputtering, momentarily brightening the room.
Naked, cringing away from his own skin, Henry closed himself up in the tiny water closet that adjoined his room. The basin was already full, filled by some efficient servant to await his usual evening return; grateful for even such small favors Henry seized the soap from its little shelf and scrubbed himself clean, then scrubbed himself raw, his skin red and tingling by the time he deigned to stop. In truth he did somewhat fear the poxwho knew how many unsavory diseases the little whore hadbut mostly he was simply determined to strip even the last traces of James from his skin.
Now that he was safely at home and the whole sordid scene had concluded, his mind was starting to gingerly prod at the possible ramifications of his idiotic loss of control. As little as Henry cared to admit it, James could cradle Henry's life in the palm of his hand if he so chose; the returned jewelry would prove to anyone that Henry had been there, and the stripes on James' cheeks alone were worth his life. Well, no, in all probability not his life: James was only a baronet and Henry was a knight, but that still meant disgrace, exile, transportation, possibly even a challenge to a duel if James or his friends were particularly foolhardyHenry shuddered and dabbed at his raw and shrunken prick with a bit of toweling, hissing at the sting.
And yet... perhaps not. James' demeanor had been anything but vengeful, and he had his own little secrets to keep. Henry could only suppose that he would not be challenged publicly, lest a whole hornets' nest of revelations come spilling forth. And so, inevitably, his mind moved on to pick at a much thornier question: what had he done? In God's name, what had driven him so? Henry was a rational creature. Indeed, he prided himself on it. And while he did indeed have a vile temper and knew it very well, in the past he had always managed to control himself, channel his fury into productive endswhere had that roaring chaos come from?
Fretting furiously at the question, Henry finished drying himself and dressed again, clean linen beneath his clothes. The greatcoat went on like armor and he spent an extra minute or so carefully rehanging his rapier at his hip, as if to reassure himself that it was there, before plucking a clean pair of gloves from his dresser and feeding the fouled ones to the fire.
By the time he let himself back out of his rooms his wife was waiting, unkempt and nervous in her dressing-gown, the door to her rooms closed firmly behind her. Her expression was fearful behind its customary unhappy scowl. Henry could almost laugh through the sudden bile in his throatso he was not the only one who had had an afternoon dalliance! What would he find if he forced his way into her rooms now? Or who? "You're home early," his wife noted carefully.
"Only for a moment," Henry replied. The fear faded from her eyes, at least partially, he noted bitterly. "I'll be home for supper, as usual," he added, and pressed past her without another word, heading for the back door and the path to the stables.
And if he had thought the kiss burned under his skin... his raw and reddened skin healed quickly enough and yet still Henry felt as if he stood too close to the fire that was James. He had never been so utterly aware of how his clothes touched his skin before. Memory and guilt alike drove him to constant distraction, until Henry thought that he must be destroyed, pressed flat by their weight. His attention was woefully divided, save when he forced it to be otherwise, and his anger was quick to flare and hard to controland time was to prove no balm.
On the roads, at night, he grew ever more implacable, and his own men looked upon him with a new wariness. He struck a captured thief only once, however. In the very instant that he backhanded the man, it summoned James to his mind as if by magic, and Henry discovered himself to be short of breath and growing hard. Thereafter he was harsh, but laid hands on no one. The Redbird and his men struck again, on the roads far to the north where the headland narrowed almost to a point; he eluded the patrols without much troubletruth be told they were thin on the ground up there in any caseand Henry himself was too distracted to do more than curse the man's name and order the patrols increased.
And still James occupied his thoughts, dirtying his mind, as Henry constantly worried at the problem that he embodied. It would have driven a lesser man mad. Henry kept telling himself that, little realizing how close to the precipice of madness he himself wandered. He took to cutting his evenings with his children short, vanishing into his own rooms after dinner to fortify himself against the night ahead. He'd always scorned the actual use of drink as weak; now he embraced it, hating himself for it.
He woke with the phantom of James; he slept with the dream of James. He ate and rode and drank and by God pissed with the illusion of James. And always, always he fretted at the problem of James and the attraction that burgeoned there, until one night the answer finally deigned to dawn upon him, unfolding implacably in his whisky-dulled mind like a seedling pushing up through a crack in a stone, patient and undeniable. Time and again his mind had returned to James pushing eagerly back onto him, writhing about under him; and was it not that, even more than James' sex, that so differentiated that encounter from those others of his experience?
His wife had tolerated him in the name of begetting children, but had been cool towards his diffident advances and merely resigned to the actual act. In that, she had not been alone; neither of them had ever been greatly pleased with the other. His few occasional whores had been purchases, bought and put to use, not a one of them particularly enthralled by him. James... James was a canny one, cruel and capricious by turns, but not only was he receptive, he was hungry... The problem lay in James' damnable enthusiasm for the sport. That was all.
After that, it was only a matter of time. Perhaps James and his blasphemous ardor would have faded from Henry's mind, had Henry not dug up those memories in every spare moment and lashed himself with them anew; perhaps they would not have faded at all, for Henry, by this point, was mad with his obsession. He barely knew what he did on the night that he abruptly dismissed his men an hour before the dawn, citing only 'something he must do'. He rode to the Duchess' manor alone and unescorted, beyond realizing the irony of it, although his hand hovered ready above the hilt of his rapier. As if sensing his mania, his horse balked at nothing, not the stile, not the low garden wall, carrying him unquestioned towards his goal.
The curtains, dyed purple by the setting moon, still fluttered bravely in the wind. The doors were still open, open for him, waiting for him. Beyond them all was darkness. Henry dismounted and once again flung the reins of his horse over the cherub's upraised arm; for a moment, then, he came back to himself, standing belligerent and frightened on the crushed stone path with his feet planted wide. If he went forward now there was no turning back
he went forward, mounting the low balcony steps and brushing the curtains aside.
Henry could see nothing. What little moonlight there was was broken and filtered by the blowing curtains; he could barely sense the edge of the bed, and it was half memory that placed it where it was. The figure in the bed breathed audibly, however, first regularly in sleep and then differently as some sixth sense woke him. "Who's there?" James said, his voice thick with drowsiness and entirely unafraid.
Henry said nothing, merely waited. After a moment a match flared and a lamp caught; the little flame was entirely inadequate to light the entire room, but revealed James at his most elemental, the fire-sprite from Henry's memory now somehow small and innocent in his night-shirt. "Sir," James said, sounding neither surprised nor, for once, amused. "You've come back, then."
"You knew that I would," Henry said lowly.
"Yes," said James, drifting closer, the lamp in one hand. "I knew." He did not stop until he was within arm's reach, only then reaching out to put the lamp on his dressing-table. He was so slight, so small, and he still bore traces of that dark scent
Henry looked away, letting his eyes dazzle on the flame instead of resting on James. The fragrance he could not so easily escape. "I didn't," he said. "I didn't know. I fought it. I loathe you"
"and I treasure that," James said. "You'll not scruple to strike me, because you despise me and care nothing for my good graces. There'll be no begging from you. Youyou'll take."
"Will you give?" Henry demanded to know, finally looking back at him.
"Only if it pleases you to receive," said James, his voice light but devoid of mockery. "What would you have of me, then? Tell me what you want."
Henry did not hesitate. "I want to kill you," he said.
And now, finally, that cunning little smile resurfaced, lancing into Henry's maddened soul like it was a boil. "Ah, well, there need be no sin between us, sir," said James, reaching down to guide Henry's hands about his throat.
When it was donewhen James finally dragged in a choking, rasping breath and shifted under him, then let his legs fall from about Henry's waistit was as if a great weight had been lifted from Henry's mind. He felt free. No, he felt freed. The maddening itch was damped, the constant fury of memories had faded. Under him James was coughing, small, painful, tearing sounds. Henry pulled free, one last long low scrape against his nerves, and reached out to turn the lamp down. Neither of them need see the aftermath, not just yet.
"Come tomorrow," James whispered from behind him. His normally rich voice was thin and scratchy.
"Be silent," Henry said, already fumbling at the front of his pants, doing them back up. "I'll come if it pleases me to."
A hand landed lightly on the small of his back, and a moment later, fell away.
He bruised so easily under Henry's hands; that was the first thing. That fine, soft skin and the thin layer of padding underneath it rendered James sleek and pleasant to the touch, like a well-fed pet. Bruises sprang up black and purple wherever Henry chose to inflict them, vivid against the pink of his flesh, muddying to a dull and yet not unpleasant brown a few days later.
James wore the handprints like a necklace for a week, hidden, as he laughingly informed Henry one afternoon, behind well-tied scarves and high lace cravats; two days later he wore a matched set wrapped around his hips as well, livid thumbprints sunk deep into the concavity of his belly and matching fingerprints garish on the upper curve of his ass. One nipple vanished in a black smear.
Henry too was not left unbruised, but James used his mouth instead of his hands: a constellation of round marks littered Henry's collarbone and stole up the side of his throat. When James made for a bit of throat that even Henry's high collar would have revealed, Henry had cursed and slapped James away. James' cheek had been a vibrant pink for the rest of the evening, his ardor correspondingly warm.
At first Henry came only on the occasional afternoon, stealing a couple of hours between his duties and his dinner. "Come back tonight," James said once, lying sprawled in his half-wrecked bed and avidly watching Henry dress. "Late, after the moon sets. I'll wait up for youor let you find me asleep, if you prefer."
"Don't presume so," Henry said, shrugging into his greatcoat. "Tonight I intend to ride the northern roads with my men, not dally with you."
Henry's conception of 'depravity' seemed, in comparison to James', as innocent as a schoolboy's; that was the second thing. There were no ways barred to him at all, it seemed. James introduced him to strange foreign ways of making love with hands and mouth and thighs, teaching Henry how to fuck nearly anything that could be induced to close about his prick, and then, while Henry was still gasping and adrift in the aftermath, apologized to him for boring him with such mundane tricks.
Like a perverse pied piper James led Henry down ever-darker paths, never quite giving him a chance to catch his breath. The blindfold reappeared, now bound about James' own eyes, and Henry learned of the pleasure to be had in catching him by surprise; soon there were bonds, too, tight about James' wrists and ankles, and Henry fucked a James reduced to begging him for his own release, since he could do nothing for himself. The cords left bracelets of bruises, and James would bring them to his lips thereafter, seeming to revel in them.
Henry took to leaving his own home directly after supper once or twice a week, arriving at the guest-house just as the sun set and spending a twilight hour or two in James' ardent company before leaving to patrol the headland. On those nights he was as sharp as a blade and as calm as a stone, James' ministrations refreshing him and relieving him of both anger and need.
"Once more," James begged, reaching up from the bed to catch at Henry's swordbelt. "Don't undress, once more just as you are!"
Henry cursed James without real heat, peeling his fingers back and shoving him away. "Enough! In God's name, I must ride from here clear to the eastern border tonight and I am already sore."
The cords and blindfold were only harbingers of what was to come; that was the third thing. For Henry, whose imagination had never stretched so far nor so deep, the addition of accoutrements was entirely a novelty (initially unwelcome) and left increasingly distressing images burnt indelibly into his mind like woodcuts:
James reduced to helpless, gasping spasms of laughter by the touch of feathers to his skin, which Henry had irritably dismissed as foolishness and toys but had come to appreciate in the hour since, particularly when a certain stroke made James choke on his own laughter and arch upwards;
James bound and shuddering as Henry tilted the fat candle, white wax falling like burning rain to patter onto quivering flesh until he was burnt and splattered from shoulder to thighs, constellations of hardened wax clinging to his pink and tender skin;
James jerking and tightening about Henry's prick every time Henry struck his naked back with the twin-tailed quirt, the fat welts lightly outlined with blood by the time that Henry was satisfied;
James waiting for him, already nude, flushed, and writhing, impaled on some sort of clever ivory thing that hummed when wound and stretched him wide, so that by the time Henry deigned to pull it free and use James himself, sliding in was as easy as mounting a woman;
and finally, the delicate little silver blade that James had offered him, a tiny, cruel, curved thing as sharp as a razor, that had so unsettled Henry by its very meaning that he had struck it from James' hand without a word to ring like a bell on the floor and be lost to their ken entirely. "In God's name, I have my limits!" he snapped.
"And now I know where they are, sir," said James, cradling his slapped hand to his chest. The little knife was never mentioned again.
Unable to help himself Henry turned his face from his very duty, next. The last hour of the night was always the quietest, was it not? Well, then, why not dismiss his men an hour early on the occasional dawn and ride to the guest-house, waking James from his sleep?
It pleased Henry to do so, to force James to wake and service him just because Henry wished it. And it added yet another facet to the complicated puzzle that was James: in the afternoons he was insolent and languid, goading Henry with his mockery until Henry shoved him down and forced him to stop; in the twilit evenings he was eager and hungry, forever shocking Henry with his inventiveness and sheer desire... but in the small hours of the morning he was perfectly, flawlessly subservient, abased before Henry's male smell of horses and gunpowder.
The James of the dawn quickly became Henry's preferred James, although he would rather have killed himself than admit to it. To stand against the wall while James knelt at his feet, to grab handfuls of those silky curls and force James' head down on his prick, to fuck the waiting mouth until he came in throttled quiet, and then to leave without further ado... the James of the dawn was simple, unchallenging, and fulfilling.
"I'll not come tomorrow," Henry said hoarsely, touching his thumb to the corner of James' reddened mouth and dabbing a bit of his own spunk away. "The magistrate bids me escort the pay-roll north from HuntingdonI shall be occupied."
"Come when you can," James said, soft and imploring, and then he turned and took Henry's thumb into his mouth, sucking it clean.
'Bedding' had never been more of a euphemism than it was with James; that was the fourth thing.
Occasionally it was the floor, hard and unforgiving despite the lush rugs underneath them, usually on such evenings when Henry was possessed of such a roaring lust that he could not tarry an instant. When it was done James would be like as not scraped raw by the carpets, burnt on his back or on his knees and palms; it only inflamed him, as Henry had known it would.
Or the furniture: the red room was lavishly furnished according to the Duchess' own rococo tastes, and soon enough there was not a single chaise nor chair nor table that had not seen hard use under them. Exquisitely-turned wooden chair legs cracked under the sheer force of their ardor, expensive silks were now stained with come and blood and spittle, and one table broke entirely, dumping James unceremoniously onto the carpets and opening a long, shallow gash across his shoulders. He had not even broken stride, simply thrown his legs around Henry's waist and lifted himself back into place, climaxing with an urgent groan even as his own blood ruined the rug under him.
Once they ventured as far as the great tub in the washroom adjacent to James' quarters, Henry lazing in the bed like a king while James called for servants to bring the hot water and fill the basin. Henry did not like it: for all that it rendered James as slippery as a fish upon him it also forced a certain economy of movement upon them both (lest the water end up on the floor, instead). While James eventually brought Henry off with his hands, it hardly rippled the surface of the water, let alone shook the earth. They did not bother with it again.
But the gardens, oh, there were a thousand hidden places within the gardens for trysting and it seemed to Henry that James must know them all. (How he knew them all Henry did not like to think, for it made him grow dark with some emotion he did not dare recognize as jealousy.) At first unnerved by the shameless exposure and the possibility of discovery, Henry soon grew to enjoy the little expeditions to a certain extent. It was not until one lowering afternoon that he truly learned to appreciate the gardens; they fucked on the grass in a tiny clearing in the midst of the carefully-tended 'wild woods' in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, raindrops striking Henry's back with the force of tiny fists, James' hair going ruddy and sleek and pooling on the grass underneath him as he thrashed. Thunder shook them both, loud enough to interrupt their heartbeats, loud enough to make James gasp and instinctively cling to Henry for protection, just as Henry instinctively pulled him close to offer that protection. Even as James cried out in his extremity lightning struck, close enough by to make their skins prickle; the world went white and so did James, no longer a fire-sprite but a creature of pure light, and then the thunder shook the world around them and James clung to Henry's back while Henry came, as well, his roar of approbation lost in the noise.
They fucked in the stables in a pile of hay, distressing and exciting the horses; they crawled onto the roof of the guest-house and fucked amidst the chimneys, the wind cold on their bare skin. They fucked in the rose arbor, Henry accepting a cut rose from James only to strike him with it and leave scratches littered across his skin; they picked their way gingerly across the heath to the sea and fucked on the beach, coating themselves with sand that turned up again for days.
And yet still it was always the bed they came back to, for it was warm, comfortable, and private, and so well-outfitted for catering to James' whims and Henry's needs. "It will do for me," as Henry said. "I am not so starved for novelty that I will disdain it."
Lost, ensorcelled, fascinated, by the height of summer Henry found himself parting those red curtains nearly every day. No matter when he came, James was there, awake or asleep, waiting for him, welcoming; such constant easy access could spoil a man, turn him soft and complacent, turn him needy. Henry, rapidly growing accustomed to sating his lusts almost the moment that they kindled within him, soon bitterly begrudged the duchy any duty which kept him away from James for more than a day.
It did not occur to him to question his luck. So James was always there? What of it? Every languid inch of James screamed of an aimless, coddled life; perhaps spending entire days lazing about his rooms was normal, for him. It was none of Henry's business if he wasted his days, as long as he was there to welcome Henry. Indeed, Henry would have been startled had James not been there when Henry came for himand come for him Henry did. And come, and come, and come...
And yet Henry did not entirely neglect his duties. Quite the contrary. Indeed, he took a joy in his work now that was wholly unlike the grim and tight-lipped pleasure he had once taken in enforcing the natural order. Now he threw himself into the hunt much as he threw himself into the bedding, and thieves cowered before a man whose very passion lay newly in hunting them down; he made half again as many arrests as before, driving his men unmercifully until they complained of exhaustion. Still he drove them and himself alike, fierce with the lust for the hunt, as if through sheer will he could bestride the headland and own it, conquer it. And at the end of the day, or the beginning, or the middle, he strode into James' quarters as if he could fling the very headland at James' feet in sneering pride, much as a heathen savage might throw the bloodied corpse of a man-eating lion before his woman: to prove his might, his worthiness, his prowess.
These, then, were Henry's finest hours. The headland lay open and submissive before him; so did James. He had never felt so sharp, so hungry, so awake, so powerful. Only one thing rankled at him still, wounding his fierce pride and sullying his savage new enjoyment of life: for all that he held the headland in an iron grip, he could not catch the Redbird. Somehow, in some fashion, the Redbird still eluded him. After all, Henry was only one man, and there was only so much of the headland he could cover in a single night; his path and the Redbird's had simply failed to cross.
"I'll have him," he growled to James one evening, stroking James' naked flank absently, barely aware of the soft skin under his palm. "Sooner or later his luck must fail, that's all."
James' wet mouth lifted from Henry's collarbone, smiling. "I believe you," James said, his own hand falling to cup about Henry's balls, making him hiss and shift. "What chance does he have against you? You'll teach him to fear you yet."
"That I will," Henry said, his voice gone rough. "Enough of that. I want you on your belly."
And in the end it was all for naught; that was the fifth thing, the most shocking of all.
James' bruises faded and Henry did not replace them with new ones. Where once he had slapped and struck, now he stroked and caressed, James purring underneath the touch as if it were just as satisfying as the pain. The toys grew dusty, unused in their drawer (save for on rare occasions when Henry's needs grew sharp and specific). And while initially Henry had looked solely to his own pleasure and left James to find his wherever he might, now he drew a certain amount of enjoyment from forcing pleasure upon James: making James writhe and thrash and cry out and climax, warmed by the dark awareness of having been the one responsible for the reaction.
Soon it seemed only natural to turn some of James' filthier tricks back upon him, fueled by every little gasp of shock and recognition, egged on by James' groans; the very same tricks that in James' hands (and mouth) were submissive offerings were tools of subjugation in Henry's. It was a strange alchemy, but one with which Henry could not argue. To pin James to the bed and suck him into his mouth, it was domination of the simplest sort: one that left James shuddering underneath him, unable to fight back, unable to resist.
Henry found himself experimenting with slow, and with gentle, and a thousand other words like them that he had never before cared to associate either with bedding or with James; now he was the one who made suggestions and James the one who followed them, still as eager to please as he had been when Henry's words were orders.
There was only one place that Henry refused to go, more out of superstition than anything else. While James might (with his blessing!) put his mouth anywhere else on Henry that he pleased, Henry drew the line at being kissed on the mouth. The gesture was part of the wedding sacrament, and as little as Henry cared for his wife or his marriage these days, it suggested a level of commitmentof feelingthat Henry still did not feel for James. For his part, James did not try but the once, and even then it was not so much a simple gesture of love as it was an extension of his exploration of Henry's jaw. Henry immediately cuffed him away, knocking him to the bed; before James could rally Henry pinned him down and took him harshly, as in the early days. James did not mention it, nor did he try again.
The early-rising summer sun was rising in the east by the time Henry fell exhausted to the bed, on the day that the last barrier (save one) fell behind him. "Bah," he said, glancing out past the billowing curtains to see the morning lit in pale yellows and pinks beyond. "It'll take everything I have just to get dressed again, let alone ride that confounded beast home. You're too damned demanding, with that hungry mouth of yours."
"Then stay, sir," James said offhandedly, stretching out alongside Henry with his coppery curls hanging fetchingly in his eyes. The bedclothes had been pushed off to form soft hillocks on the floor, but for the moment, neither Henry nor James made a move to reclaim them. "The bed is large enough to sleep two, and I hardly mind."
"Like hell I will," Henry saidor meant to say, but the words did not quite make it past his lips. Indeed, he was exhausted. Instead his eyes slid slowly to half-mast, his body relaxing into the mattress, soft as clouds. "Don't think I'll make a habit of this," he said, too sleepy even to growl.
"No, sir," James murmured, but Henry was already asleep beside him.
A passing voice in the hallway woke Henry a scant hour or two later. Blinking, he lifted his head from the pillow, momentarily unaware of where he was, aware only that he lay curled about a warm and welcoming body...
He held the sleeping James pulled back tight against his chest, one arm draped possessively over James' waist, the other stretched out underneath James' head. James slept as prettily as he fucked, head pillowed on Henry's arm, his pale little body a sinuous curve against Henry's, one hand curled loosely on the pillow in front of his face. Occasionally he made a little noise in his sleep, soft and pleasant.
Henry lay quiet for a moment, considering this, considering the way that James' shorn hair lay like tamed fire on the back of his neck. James' hip rose just beneath where Henry's arm lay, and without thought Henry lifted his hand and stroked the curve of it, making James make that noise in his sleep again. I am lost, Henry thought, but even that realization was not enough to jar him back to wakefulness. Henry pressed his face to the back of James' neck, breathing in his fill of that glorious scent, then settled his arm about James once more and drifted back off, entirely, startlingly content: that, then, was the final thing.
Henry woke at his accustomed hour, quite alone in the unfamiliar (and yet familiar) bed. For a moment he lay muzzy and fuddled, uncertain of where he was; memory intruded eventually, as it does. Henry sat sharply upright, the bedclothes falling away.
Of James there was no sign. Of course: it was nearing noon, and less nocturnal creatures than Henry would be at their midday meal. The room was empty, the garden doors still open to let in the sluggish summer breeze. Henry's clothes had been picked up, smoothed, and draped neatly over the back of a chair (by James' hand, almost certainly, for who else would be allowed into James' rooms while Henry was in residence?).
Sliding from the bed and wincing at his soreness Henry padded off to inspect the bath, a certainty growing in the back of his mind. And he was proven right: a basin of clean water, still warm, waited for him there. Henry did not question his luck, merely plucked the rag from its rack and washed himself, eyes closed against the light of the day.
James did not return, and Henry was not sorry. Having slept here was tender enoughGod spare Henry from trading little intimacies! James was a tool, a toy, a thing of great utility yet, in the end, only a thing, no matter how precious. Henry had no stomach for anything more. It was quite welcome that James should choose not to inflict his presence on Henry now, when he was not wanted.
Henry dressed, frowning a bit. Perhaps he'd ride home first for a change of smallclothesah, in God's name, his poor horse had been tethered outside all night, with only grass and fountain water for sustenance! What had he been thinking? Of course he'd go home first, if only to stable the animal properly. Bitterly chastising himself, Henry plunged through the curtains and out into the summer's day, where his horse waited, half-wilted by the heat.
He rode the poor creature home at a walk, patting its shoulder encouragingly as it plodded along. It was a slow journey, giving Henry ample time in which to be angry at himself. To use James was one thingthis little love-gesture was quite another. He'd not do that again, even if his horse was snug in the Duchess' own stables.
He rode his staggering horse into the stables and dismounted, shooing away the stableboy and seeing to its care personally. Stroking the curry-comb over the horse's sweat-streaked coat was a pleasant enough task, and left his mind free to wander; it wandered (as indeed it was prone to do) to James, and to those things that they had done, and to those things that Henry still wished to do. For a moment he entertained the fancy of taking this very curry-comb to James' sweat-streaked hair when James lay quiescent and subdued across Henry's lapthen he snorted and dismissed the notion. "I'm no one's lady-in-waiting," he muttered to his horse, who flicked a tired ear in his direction.
Once his horse was clean and curried, with fresh hay and water, Henry closed the door to its stall and paused to mop the sweat from his forehead. His queue lay heavy and stifling against the back of his neck, as damp as the horse's own coatperhaps he was the one who could benefit from some currying! But that idea was even more ridiculous than the last, and he forgot it even as he strode across the flagstone courtyard that separated the stables from the house proper.
The house was quiet. His children would be in the nursery, attending to their lessons (or by God they ought to be), and his wife was... well, it didn't matter. The servants were tending to their duties while the sun was high. Time enough for gossip and idleness after the sun had set, Henry supposed.
His own lunch waited for him in the kitchen, as it always did. Today, instead of pausing on the way out to eat it, Henry paused on the way in. The chicken pie was acceptable. The food was always acceptableHenry knew very little about food, but his cook was given to making ample amounts of simple fare, which usually suited him fine. (On occasion James would produce this little tidbit or that one, exotic fowl or ridiculous spun-sugar fancies or tiny, ornate pastries; Henry ate them, but always with the nagging sense that he did not appreciate them as they were meant to be appreciated. And this, in its turn, made him sullen and angry: in God's name, was he to be humbled by sweetmeats now?)
After washing his hands in the kitchen basin, Henry left the kitchen, heading not out towards the stables as usual but up the stairs towards his chambers. And stopped, halfway up, one hand on the banister; his wife stood at the head of the stairs, fully and imposingly dressed (for once), with her back as straight as a ramrod and her face as set as stone. "You're home, then," she said, her voice chilly.
Suddenly infuriated by being forced to look up at her, Henry stalked up the stairs to the landing where she stood. "Not for long," he said, once they stood opposite each other on even ground, each one of them clutching a newel post in one hand as if it was all that kept them from flying at each other in a rage.
"Not for long," she repeated, her upper lip curling. "Yes, it's never for long these days, is it, Henry?"
"What business is it of yours?" Henry shot back. "In God's name, woman, I am a man grown and entitled to do as I like."
She paused. Her eyes crackled with hate. "None," she finally said. "It's none of mine, as long as you've got the sense not to get your doxy with child. Have you, Henry? Have you at least that much sense, since you're displaying little enough otherwise?"
Henry snorted out a dry and barren laughthe thought of James swollen with child was ridiculous enough, but that his wife should have brought this image to mind! "I expect I have," he said. "As have you, I see. Or are you too old and dried to need worry about such things any more?"
She flinched back, fear flickering across her face and vanishing again. "How dare you!" she cried, when she could.
"I dare because it's true," said Henry. "God alone knows how many times you've put the horns on me by nowI refuse to believe that you can count that high." His wife, shocked, fell back a step; intoxicated with this sudden power Henry dropped his hand from the newel and took a step forward, crowding her back down the hallway towards her rooms. "I provide for you and the children because I swore before God that I would," he snarled, "and I shall continue to do so no matter how many men you bedbut don't expect me to remain chaste just because I can't have what's withering between your legs."
His wife was white, clutching at the railing for support as she backed away from him. The words spilled from Henry like pus from a long-festering boil. The relief was staggering. To finally say these things aloud! "I see," he said, driving her back another two paces. "You can fuck as much as you like" the unaccustomed profanity from Henry made his wife suck in a shocked breath, her eyes as round as two coins "but when I choose to do the same, it cuts you to the bone! In God's name, woman, why should I be held to a high standard while you rut like a pig in mud? I should have sought relief elsewhere a long time since!" He was roaring now. He couldn't help it. It felt so good "In the future, keep your hypocritical views on the matter to yourself and get out of my sight!"
With a small sound, his wife swayed backwards, then collapsed in a swoon, her skirts billowing out around her like a puddle. Henry stopped where he was, the toes of his boots not an inch from the edge of her silks, and glared down at her inert form. As quickly as it had come his rage fizzled away, leaving him awash with triumph, clean and empty as a successful penitent on his knees before Godhe turned his back on her only to confront all three of his children, poking their heads out of the nursery door, their eyes alike round with fright. Henry heaved out a breath. "Get the salts, Genevra," he instructed the oldest girl, "and bring your mother 'round."
The eldest nodded, frightened, and all three of them vanished into the nursery, the door swinging itself shut behind them. Henry rubbed one gloved hand down his face, feeling stubble there, and then stalked down to his own rooms to clean up and change, leaving his wife on the floor behind him.
The glow of triumph accompanied him as he rode his son's horse to the magistrate's, leaving his own horse to rest and recover. Indeed, he was borne into the building on a rising tide of... call it joy, for that was what it was, a most uncommon thing indeed for Henry. He had never felt so calm, so free: was this what came of vomiting out his rage instead of throttling on it?
Even the constant paperwork could not quite dull his spirits again. And the day, it seemed, could only get bettera couple of hours into the day one of his men poked his head into Henry's office, crying, "The afternoon patrols have caught Nat Minster! Coming out of the back door of a tavern, sir, went down without a fight!"
"Ha!" Henry cried, slapping his desk with an unaccustomed surge of joy. "That's one cattle thief that won't plague us again! And his men?"
"Rounding them up now, sir," his man said, startled by Henry's effusiveness but too pleased to be discomforted by it. "All the fight went out of them when Nat was taken, to hear them speak of it."
"Wonderful," said Henry, meaning it. "Well! There's no need to ride north tonight, then, is there? We'll ride to the west instead, make a short night of it" and stop in on James on the way home, he added, to himself. Already his groin was tightening pleasantly at the thought of it.
"Yes, sir!" his rider cried, saluting. Henry dismissed him, a most unfamiliar smile on his face.
But first there was the rest of the day to be got through, and then dinnerhis wife was absent from the table, having taken dinner on a tray in her room instead. It did not surprise Henry in the slightest. His children, not having that option available to them, ate at table with him but were unusually subdued, still frightened by the fight that they had witnessed that afternoon. It was a quiet meal, Henry chewing his way stolidly through his food while his children picked at theirs and darted glances at each other and at him.
It was insupportable. After dinner he took his children, all three, into the parlor (as indeed he used to every night before the advent of James) and made every effort to have a pleasant evening, reading aloud to them while his daughters did their needlework and his son played with his wooden horses by the hearth. At first things were strained between them, but eventually the unusual tension dissipated, thanks in no small part to the fairy-storiesfairy-stories were his daughters' favorite, even now, and the author had a certain dry turn of wit that amused even Henry and made his son burst into peals of laughter.
By the time Henry rose to go it was as if nothing had happened, save for the absence of his wife, which had been no uncommon thing even in the old days. His children begged him to stay just a few minutes longer, to read just one more story, Father! and for once he indulged them, amused beyond words that their 'one more story' was a tale of a fire-sprite, trapped upon the end of a candle by a poor but clever boy and forced to bring warmth to his hovel all winter long. It made him think of James (but these days, most things did) and of candles, and as such, it was easy to refuse their requests for yet another story and stride out to the stables. An simple night's ride to the west and an early dismissal for his men, and a visit to James before bedperfect. A perfect day.
His men, all eight, waited at the crossroads, sitting tall in their saddles with pride and eagerness. At first exhausted by Henry's energies, they'd come to feed on them as well, grown fat on praise and overjoyed to see such a difference in the headland. "To the west, tonight," Henry said, cantering into the center of their circle. "And an early night in the bargainwe'll have earned our sleep." He pulled his kerchief up over his face and waved his men forward, trotting his horse down the western road for only a moment before allowing his horse its head and galloping off into the night with a sound like thunder.
At the beginning of the summer it would have been an eventful night, the darkness alive with the desperate and the criminal. Now, with summer sliding back down from its zenith, it was quiet as the grave. Quiet, and safe. It made Henry proud. This was his doing, all of it. The headland was rapidly coming to heel; soon it would be as safe as the tamed lands about the capital, and the Duchess' approbation would be endless. Perhaps she'd push her brother into making Henry a baronet as well. Perhaps a true baron! Wouldn't that be splendid, to outrank James on top of everything else? Wouldn't that put the final touches on Henry's triumph?
Such were Henry's thoughts, sharp and dark and eager, as his mounted patrol swept over the hill and into history.
The halted coach on the valley floor listed to the left on a broken wheel, the coach-horses gone, the unconscious passengers strewn about the road. Four black-cloaked figures moved among them, stripping them of their valuables while their horses waited; a fifth still sat mounted on a splendid grey, overseeing their activity. Under the moonlight his cloak was as purple as venal blood, which meant that it was red"The Redbird!" Henry bellowed, on fire with his luck, and the black-cloaked figures below jerked upright before racing for their horses. Henry bared his teeth in anticipation of the hunt, kicking his horse into a full-out run, his men close behind him baying like hounds.
The old Henry, the orderly one, would have left a man or two behind to see to the passengers; the new Henry, lusting for the chase, led his men sweeping by. No man of his would be forced to miss this hunt! One passenger was already standing, leaning against the coach's side for support. Good enough. Henry and his men thundered after the Redbird's fleeing troupe, hunched low over the necks of their mounts.
What a chase that was! The Redbird knew the roads here well enough, but no one knew them as well as Henry. The Redbird's men rode fine, fine horses, but Henry had paid for the best horseflesh in all the land. The Redbird needs must flee, but Henry needed only to chase himand the Redbird scrupled at the taking of lives, while Henry most certainly did not.
As the Redbird and his men bunched up to ride pell-mell through a narrow bit of the path, Henry jerked the flintlock pistol from his belt and steadied it on his wrist, firing into the melee. One riderin black, more's the pityjerked upright before tumbling from his horse, rolling over and over in the dirt before coming to rest in the ditch. "Weathers! Woods!" Henry shouted. Two men peeled away from the pursuit, their horses bearing down on the figure lying in the ditch, whether he was man or corpse. Henry and his six thundered on.
Encouraged by Henry's actions, enflamed by his success, one by one his men drew their pistols and fired as well. One horse screamed and went down, kicking; his rider was unable to jump free in time and was half-crushed under his flailing horse, his own screams mingling with the beast's. "Smith! Fairisle!" Henry shouted. Two more men turned their horses, riding towards the awful din. Henry and his four thundered on.
With no time to reload, it became a matter of bringing the Redbird physically to bay. Abruptly Henry's encyclopedic knowledge of the headland threw up an image; he cursed and lay about his horse's hindquarters with the crop, furious that it had no more speed to spare. If the Redbird should reach the crossroads ahead!
But reach it he did. The Redbird's gloved hand flashed, left, then right; as smoothly as if they'd rehearsed it a thousand times he and his two remaining accomplices split up, one down the left road, one down the right, and the Redbird down the middle. Henry snarled against the neck of his sweating, straining horse and flung his own gloved hand out, left, then right. "Tucker! Danvers! To the left!" he bellowed. "Hawk! Ericsson! To the right! The Redbird is mine!"
"Sir!" one of his men dared to cry, even as they bore down on the crossroads. "Not alone! Never alone!"
"He's mine!" Henry roared, digging his heels into his horse's flanks even as its hooves struck the crossing. His men, conditioned to obedience, sprang away in pairs down the roads both left and right. Henry, alone, thundered on.
Now it was only the man in the red cloak before him, the cloak fanning out behind him like a great, billowing flag. It was almost quiet now, only the pounding of their horses' hooves to be heard. Henry bared his teeth and urged his horse on, his mood dark with an unholy glee, for well he knew where this road led: to nowhere. In another half a mile it would peter out on the rising heath. Soon enough he'd bring his man to bay, and then an already perfect day would become something transcendent.
The Redbird fled before him, bent low over the neck of his magnificent grey. Despite his rising triumph and his fierce concentration, Henry knew a moment of respect; despite the best efforts of his gelding, despite everything, the Redbird was slowly drawing away from him. What a horse; what a rider! What a pity that it would avail him nothing. Henry grinned murderously and murmured encouragement to his horse, who laid its ears flat and pursued eagerly.
The Redbird breasted the last hill. Now he must clearly be able to see the end of the road in the valley ahead, and the treacherous folds of the heath that lay beyondyet he did not falter, did not slow. Henry was unable to believe it. Surely he would not risk...
But he did. Even as Henry's own horse swept over the hill the Redbird spurred his grey off the end of the road out onto the heath itself. Madman! The heath was no safe place to ride a horse at a walk during the day, let alone at this breakneck pace with only the moon for light! What a shame, what a waste, to ride such a glorious horse as that to its certain deathand even as he thought it Henry lashed his own horse after, the smooth gallop breaking into a stumbling, arrhythmic struggle that jolted him in the saddle. Damn his horse and damn the Redbird's. Henry would not be denied his victory, not so close, not if it meant the death of every horse on this Godforsaken headland... "Stand to!" he bellowed. The Redbird did not.
Indeed, he almost escaped. With a seeming sixth sense for the terrain he flung his horse headlong at the rucked-up heath, the reins sawing at the grey's mouth as the Redbird pulled it this way and that, bounding in a crooked line from safe foothold to safe foothold. Henry's respect grew to something close to admiration, even as he fought to maintain and close the distance between them. A half-hidden fallen log that would have killed any other ten men the Redbird both saw and leaped in time, the grey's muscles bunching and stroking smoothly, for a moment a horse frozen in flight... Henry marked it and kicked his horse over it as well, growling under his breath. What a chase! A story to tell his men, to tell his children, to tell his grandchildren some day! As long as he caught the Redbird, that was. A story ought to have a proper ending.
And, in the end, it did. With a shocking suddenness one of the grey's front legs plunged halfway into the groundan animal hole, perhapsand its momentum did the rest, snapping its foreleg with a brittle sound that carried cleanly even to Henry's ears. Shrieking its pain the horse catapulted end over end like a circus acrobat, the Redbird leaping free even as the horse tumbled, landing neatly on his feet in a cat-like crouch. The horse hit the ground and rolled, bouncing off the rocks, a victim of its own powerful headlong charge. Eventually it stopped rolling, then slid another ten feet or so, coming to rest in a screaming, flailing, thrashing heap, so panicked that its convulsions propelled it entirely off the ground again and again.
The Redbird turned his back on the ruin of his magnificent horse like it was nothing, whipping a thin silvery rapier out from under his cloak and awaiting Henry's oncoming charge. Henry snarled and drew his own blade, spurring his horse again, intending to ride the bastard down like an animal. Too late the Redbird saw what he intended. Too late Henry saw the Redbird's desperate calculations. Henry's horse reared, screaming, one iron-shod hoof striking the Redbird's temple; the Redbird drove his rapier deep into the horse's exposed breast even as the horse struck him down. Henry's horse choked on its scream and staggered back, pulling the grip of the rapier from the Redbird's relaxing hand. Henry barely had time to kick his way free before his wavering horse fell, wheezing and drooling bloody foam, the hilt of the Redbird's rapier still jutting from its once-proud chest.
Henry staggered to his feet, gasping for each rattling breath. Beside him his horse lay dead or dying, with not a thing he could do to save it; fifty feet away the Redbird's horse screamed and thrashed on, filling the night with horrible noise. Between the horses lay the Redbird, inert and silent, his red cloak (maroon in the moonlight, like dried blood) draped over him like a blanket. Despite the horror of it, Henry's chest swelled with roaring joy. What a chase, indeed. What a story!
Picking his way across the heath to where the Redbird lay, Henry hooked a boot under his ribs and flipped him heavily over, exposing the man to the night. Without the illusional bulk of his ridiculous red cloak he was smaller than he'd first appeared. He wore riding leathers as plain as Henry's own, but even finer, in rich greens and browns; his riding boots rose to mid-thigh, black leather gleaming in the moonlight. A black bandit's mask covered his eyes and hair, plain and unadorned, but obviously silk. Henry stared down at the unconscious Redbird, upper lip rising in a sneer. This was the highwayman who'd eluded him for so long? This helpless little thing? This... popinjay?
Henry abruptly went still. A thought was battering at the back of his mind, but he dared not let it in. And yetand yet what else could he do but remove that mask and prove himself either wrong or right? In the end he dropped to one knee beside the Redbird, reaching up to strip away the bandit's mask with fingers gone numb and shaking
it was James. Of course it was.
After a long, sick moment, Henry pushed himself back up and went to kill the Redbird's screaming horse.
The heath was silent for several seconds before the crickets started to sing again. Drained, Henry stumbled back to the corpse of his own horse, rifling the saddlebags with unsteady hands until he located the manacles that he always carried. The rest, he left. His men would find it here eventually and know what had happenedand who else would come to this Godforsaken place?
He made his way back to where James lay, still unconscious. Henry was immensely relieved by that. For all that it would make his retreat from the heath that much more perilous, he refused to even countenance the idea of waking James now; instead he clapped him in the manacles, not wrist to wrist as usual but wrist to ankle. No one, no matter how mythical, could run very fast hunched over like a turtle, and by chaining James in an ouroboros Henry was able to heave him onto his shoulders and wear him like a mantle. Grasping James by his dangling limbs, Henry set his mouth in a grim line and picked his way back the way they had come, creeping along at a snail's pace, too aware of what lay between him and the road to move any faster.
The heath immediately reached out vegetable limbs to snare him and rolled out loose stones to trip him, opening treacherous pits almost directly beneath his feet half a hundred times. James was heavy on his shouldersbut James had always been heavyand the heath hated them both, wished them both as dead as their horses. Henry staggered on, dropping to one knee on more than one occasion, sore and heartsick, too stunned by this turn of events to do anything more than put one foot in front of the other and hope that this step would not be his last.
The last fifty feet were the worst, because he could see the road in front of him, yet had to pay attention only to the blasted earth under his feet and the loose scree that threatened to send him tumbling down the hillside. Finally his boots hit good, solid, hard-packed earth and Henry could almost weep for reliefhe had charged his horse out across that without a thought? Madness. Now he staggered only because of James' dead weight across his shoulders. He lowered James to the road's surface for a blessed moment, stretching the soreness out of his limbs, wiping the sweat from his brow.
There was an inn just half a mile or so to the south, Henry knew. It would do as a stopping place until Henry could send for aid during the light of day. Heaving James up onto his shoulders once more Henry set out, hoping against hope to see some of his men riding towards him.
In this, he was thwarted. He saw no one at all during that long walk, only first the heath around him and then, in the distance, the lights of the inn. The sight lent strength to his faltering limbs and steadied his footsteps. James was as heavy as a millstone about his neck, but Henry bore up under his weight with new resolve. Soon enough he would have to carry him no further, after all. Soon enough James would cease to be his problem entirely. The stray thought brought him no comfort, and he sank back into his unthinking, plodding, animal state, eyes fastened on the lights in the distance.
The innkeeper's head jerked up as Henry booted the door open and strode in, pushed too far to display even the pretense of good manners. "I'll have a room," he snapped, "one with sturdy bars across the door and window. In the King's name, by my position I command this of you."
The innkeeper glanced at the red-cloaked phantasm flung unconscious and limp about Henry's shoulders, and his throat worked as he swallowed. He bobbed his head nervously. "Sir Henry," he said, his voice faltering. "Of... of course. I'll have my wife turn and change a bed for you"
"Now!" Henry barked, aggravated beyond measure. "In God's name, I do not care about the bed! I must have the room now!"
Shrinking, the innkeeper snatched a lantern off the bar. "This way," he said, and hurried up the stairs, Henry stumping heavily after him. The corner room he showed Henry to was small and spare, but came equipped with both siege bars and a heavy lock on the door; the innkeeper pushed the key into Henry's outstretched hand with a nervous gesture. "Will you require anything else, sir? I can send the girl up with food, or to light the fire"
"No," said Henry, pushing his way into the room and dumping the unconscious James on the bed. "Leave the lantern and leave us." Hastily he corrected himself: "Leave me."
The innkeeper crept far enough into the room to put the lantern on the mantel. That done he backed from the room, his eyes wide; he whirled around only once he was back in the hallway and hurried off, his felt slippers almost silent on the boards. Henry did not so much as pause to stretch out his aching muscles, but turned, slamming the window shut and dropping the bar across it. The door followed, Henry turning the key in the lock before barring it, as well. The key he put under the lantern's base, as far from the bed as possible. Then he turned back to James.
He unlocked the manacle from about James' ankle and clapped it about the sturdy crossbar of the bed's headboard, instead, leaving James manacled to the bed by his left wrist. The red cloak he stripped off and threw in a corner, followed by the empty scabbard of James' rapier and, after a moment of thought, James' ridiculous tall boots; willing himself to be unmoved Henry patted James down, seeking additional hidden weapons and finding none. If James had had a dagger secreted about his person, it was gone now, fallen or removed.
James groaned in his sleep, a soft and whispery sound, full of promise and memory alike. It froze Henry in his tracks for three full seconds before he broke free of his paralysis, turning his back on James. Determined, he saw to the banked fire; never had a simple inn fire had quite so much attention so fiercely trained on it. The fire was sluggish but eventually it rose, filling the room with firelight. Henry turned back to James once more, stripping off his gloves.
Without access to a vial of saltsand wholly without that fine scruple that had so informed his last encounter with an unconscious JamesHenry brought James around via the simple expedient of slapping his cheeks until his eyelashes fluttered and he groaned again. His eyes drifted open, a deep, drowning purple in the firelight, gazing heavy-lidded up at Henry without a trace of recognition. Henry stared down at him, waiting for his reaction: fear? Anger? Sulking? Bargaining, perhaps, or pleading
James abruptly focused upon Henry, awareness flooding into the depths of his widening eyes. The corner of his mouth twitched once, then again, then without warning he yelped out a laugh directly into Henry's face. Henry twitched back, startled. "So, sir," James said, his voice alive with pointed merriment, "it seems that I am not safe with you after all!"
Nonplussed, Henry chose instinctively to retreat, half a step. James squeezed his eyes shut and fell to laughing again, his free arm clamped across his stomach, his legs kicking in the air. The swaybacked bed creaked beneath him. "Are you mad?" Henry finally demanded. "Do you have any idea of what will happen to you now?"
"Ah, God, you've caught me," James said, no answer to anything at all. His laughter tapered off but his face remained both merry and secretive, the smile on his face crooked and infuriating. Henry longed to slap it awaybut of course James would appreciate that, wouldn't he? "And here you said you'd be riding north this night! Something about a cattle thief! Ah, well played, sir, I fell for it completely!"
"Nat Minster fell to the afternoon patrols," Henry said, so completely rattled that he took refuge in the truth. "We had no need to ride north after that, so I rode west instead. That's all."
"It was an accident?" James said, his laughter now incredulous. "By God, sir, if I were you I'd not admit that so freely!"
"Be silent!" Henry snapped, backhanding James across the faceJames' eyes grew half-lidded and heavy on the instant, even as his head snapped to the side and his cheek darkened, and despite everything Henry felt himself respond, once again. "You'll hang for this," Henry said, panting slightly. "Baronet or not, the penalty for highway robbery is death."
"Will I?" James said, rubbing his blasted cheek with his free hand, still holding on to that terrible smile. "And what will happen to you, do you think?"
"To me?" Henry said scornfully. "What would happen to me?"
"Hah," said James, and his smile grew cold, flat, and vicious. "You're a slow brute but you've never been a foolthink, sir! Put aside the question of me and think! If I am the Redbird: who were my men?"
It was as if James dashed a bucket full of iced water in his face. Henry froze on the spot, knowledge of his predicament unfolding in his mind like a poisonous flower. James was silent for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was soft, almost kind. "Poor Edward," he said into the stillness. "You shot him right off his horse despite all I could do to keep the two of you strictly apart. What will his mother say to that? Do you still think she'll praise you, sir? Or do you think she'll see you hanged beside me?"
Edward: the Duchess' son, the King's nephewdead at his hand, almost certainly. Abruptly Henry sat in the room's one chair, gasping. "And Richard," said James, a thread of amusement creeping into his voice. "Crushing him under his horse like thathe's only an earl, sir, but still, I doubt anyone will approve..."
"Why?" Henry mouthed, unable for a moment to access his voice. Then it came back, if hoarsely: "Why? In God's name, sir, the five of you have everythingwhy would you resort to robbing the roads like common peasants?"
"For fun!" James declared. "For the risk, for the excitementit was my idea, sir, every bit of it, but they loved it. Romantic fools, the lot of them, so easy to steer. Why on earth else would we have come to this blasted backwater? For the scenery?"
Henry was mute, frozen, too taken aback even to be enraged. James' voice purred on, threading in and out of his ears like a foul vapor. "But you, siryou were a treasure, and an unexpected one at that. Sate your simple lusts and in exchange you'd more often than not let slip your plans for the night! I thought sure you'd whisper to me of any traps you might lay for the Redbirdafter all, wasn't I his victim, too?but you laid noneyou laid me instead! Hah! I snared you too tight!" James paused, pushing himself up until he sat against the headboard, folding his legs under him. His face shone with a fierce and wild joy, so different from the indolent expression he customarily wore. "But by God, sir: I'd have missed you when we left. You learned your lessons well."
"Be quiet," Henry muttered, wiping one hand down his face and clearing away sweat.
"I thought bedding you would be a chore, an onerous dutyhah!" Beaming now, completely mad, James stretched his free hand out towards Henry, as if he somehow expected Henry to take it"How little I knew, sir! A glorious brute, a willing brute, so angry... I've never met anyone like you, sir. I want you even now."
"Be quiet!" Henry spat, slapping James' hand away. "So it was all a ruse, then? Your own robbery? Wat Stone?"
"Yes, yes," James said impatiently, reaching out for him again. "I made myself into the practice hunt, to assure myself that these spoilt brats could do the necessaryby God, sir, they showed me! The headache I had after, and my poor knuckles!and then I had Richard pay your Wat Stone to deliver my jewels to Georgehow startled I expect that peasant was when George turned upon him instead! As for the rest" he paused, his fingers flexing in midair "well, sir, either you would come to return what was mine or you would not, and either way I should have learned something important about you."
Full to bloated with pride he babbled on, eager to finally lay it all out, to show off, to lay before Henry the vast reaches of his mad scheme. But Henry was no longer listening. His eyes remained fixed on James, so fierce, so concentrated, so uncontrolledJames laughed wildly at one point during his recitation and Henry flinched away from the wholly unfamiliar sound. This was not the James he had been bedding all summer long. This was James with all his languid pretensions and fine manners stripped awaythis was James at his most elemental, the fire-sprite turning on his supposed 'master' and burning him to a crisp. And it was true in more than a metaphorical sense: even now Henry burned for him. Burned for him as he had in those first, angry days, burned to pin him down, to shut him up, to triumph in the only way currently available to him...
He dismissed the unbecoming thought with a growl and a shake of his head. "Do you not care?" he asked, interrupting James' litany. "In God's name, at least two of your companions are dead or wounded, and you're bound for the gallows yourself!"
James paused, at first piqued by having his recitation interrupted, then resigned to it. A small and secret smile curled on his face. "No," he said. "To hell with my so-called 'friends'. Social-climbing fools, the lot of them. Children, leeches, sheep. And as for me? Let them hang me. What do I care?"
"And what of me?" Henry asked before he could stop himself. He winced, but since it was already said, he did not stop. "What of my doom? What of my ruined life?"
"Ah, well, I do regret that," said James, his manic good humor fading a bit. "I did my best to keep you free of it, if only for our own sakes. If only you had ridden north, sir. I wish that you had."
Henry snorted. "Fine words," he said.
"Truth," James insisted. He stretched his hand out towards Henry again, imploringly. "Unshackle me," he suggested in a voice barely louder than a breath. "I've more money than I know what to do withwe'll go south, sir. Together. My baronetcy abuts the southern coast, I'll hide you for as long as necessary"
Henry spluttered, now completely taken aback. That James should suggest! "You are mad! Even should I want toand I assure you that I do nothow could I trust you after this?"
James shrugged. "I suppose you couldn't," he said lightly. "Doesn't that make it more interesting?"
"Interesting!" Henry choked off the explosion after that single word. It didn't matter now. "Get some sleep if you can," he said gruffly, crossing his arms across his chest. "In the morning I'll see you delivered to justice."
"Is that all?" James said, and suddenly he was purring again, and despite Henry's resolve the animal in him sat up and took notice, sniffing the air. "Not even going to bed me one last time before you have my neck stretched? Not even to say goodbye?" He shook his left hand; the chain on his wrist rattled. "We've even a toy or two, for old times' sake..."
"Be quiet," Henry said, suddenly weary of him, of his games, of his madness.
James laughed at him. Such a merry sound. "Well, if you won't indulge me, I suppose I'll have to indulge myself," he said, reaching up to flick open the topmost button of his leather jerkin. The little motion riveted Henry's eyes like nothing else. James undid the next, and the next, and the next, until finally his jerkin hung open in front, revealing the firelit white of his shirt and the buttons of his suggestively-distended trousersHenry jerked his eyes away, finally, staring blindly into the fire.
He could not close his ears, however. Just as before, even when he could not see, he could still hearthe soft pop of trouser buttons unfastening, and then the leathery slither, and the little gaspbut this time, the only thing that stood between him and looking his fill was his own will, and tonight his will seemed not steel but gossamer. Henry's neck creaked as, unwillingly, he turned once again to stare.
James lay back against the headboard, unbuttoned and undone, trousers shoved down to his hips, prick in hand. His eyes were closed, his mouth open, his prick a fire-dyed orange against the black leather of his glove; he stroked himself slowly, lazily, drawing it out. His groan was a throttled thing.
With the image of James' self-abuse burned into his eyesindeed, he suspected that he would see it there for the rest of his life, however long or short that might turn out to beHenry jerked his head away again. But James had always been a canny thing"Oh, sir," he whispered over the tiny leathery sounds. "Won't you come help? Or must I fuck myself with my own fingers in place of your prick? They're not nearly so nice"
"Shut your mouth," Henry said. His voice was uneven and thick and he hated himself for it, even as he yearned towards that bed with an angry vehemence that was near physical in its force.
"Make me," James purred. "Give me something to shut it on. Or just hit me. I know that you want to"
"Shut your mouth!"
"But I can't!" His hand was moving faster now, the little slithery leathery sounds seeming to fill the room, and his voice was almost a wail. "In God's name, sir, once more before I die!"
The blasphemy was what jolted Henry from his chair. He'd always tell himself that. "Shut your lying bastard mouth," he snarled, lunging for James with his hands in fists
James rose to meet him halfway, already smirking, his free right arm whipping about Henry's neck and pulling him down. "Shut it for me," he suggested, laughing under his breath.
It was James. It was not James. Under that soft skin, so easily bruised, slim and wiry muscle shiftedHenry found himself thrust into a sitting position at the head of the bed, socked into the curve of James' trapped left arm with the rest of James astraddle his lap. The smell of him, dark and animal, roared over Henry like a wave. Sucking a bruise into existence on the side of Henry's throat James fought with his undone jerkin, eventually wriggling out of it and shoving it down to dangle, forgotten, on the chain of his manacle. His right glove fell to the floor. Henry groaned and caught two great handfuls of James' white shirt.
"Take it off me," James said thickly. It was not a suggestion, but an order. And Henry found that he did not care: the muscles in his arms bunched and James' shirt split along the yoke and down the sleeves. Henry shredded the shirt from James' back, removing it in tattered pieces, littering the floor with it. "My trousers," said James, now breathless with need and joy, his pale skin pinkened from the tearing. "I want to be nakedstrip me naked, Henry!"
It was the first time he'd ever spoken Henry's name. And he'd never danced astride Henry's lap with such taut fierceness beforeHenry swept James up and dumped him into his lap, stripping off the undone trousers with one hand. Instead of waiting for Henry's pleasure James kicked himself upright again, throwing himself back astride Henry, his cock pressing eagerly into Henry's jerkin and spotting the leather.
James ground himself forward. "Now you," he said, his rich voice almost a growl. "Just as you are!" His free hand clawed at the front of Henry's own trousers, savaging the buttons and caressing Henry's prick right through the leather, making Henry bellow in surprisewhat was this? Who was this? Where was the lazy, submissive James he'd learned to enjoy?before his trousers gaped open and his own prick sprang forth. If Henry was of two minds about this rutting, his cock was of only one: James took it in hand and squeezed it and Henry groaned and bit James' shoulder, hard enough to bring blood bubbling to the surface.
James laughedand bit him back, those sharp little white teeth fastening on the lobe of Henry's ear. Henry roared in shock and cuffed him away. James swayed, his cheek reddening, the chain of his manacle clinking behind Henry. "Not to your liking?" he said teasingly. "Allow me to try again!" And he spat into his own hand as neatly as any peasant might, cupping his palm over the head of Henry's cock and wetting it before rising onto his knees and pushing it down and into placehe bayed aloud as he drove himself down onto Henry's cock, taking it to the hilt in a single, vicious motion.
Now Henry found himself on more familiar ground and his hands grappled with James' hips, pulling James down against himaflame with a new madness James might be, but this, this was largely the same. Squeezing his eyes shut and sinking his teeth into James' shoulder again, Henry fucked James backwards until his left arm was stretched to its limit, the chain so taut that the bedstead was beginning to splinter.
"Harder," James snapped, grinding his hips down with a rapid side-to-side motion that forced Henry in so deep that he feared for a moment that James might split about him. "I'll have more from you" Henry bared his teeth and attempted to comply, but apparently it was not enough to meet James' demand; he shoved Henry back against the headboard with another of those astonishing displays of strength and went mad in his lap, riding Henry fast and hard enough to bruise them both.
It was too much. Henry's roar died muffled against the broken skin of James' shoulder as his crisis exploded upon him, sunk so deep in James' ass that he thought his prick must shortly burst from James' throat. And JamesJames gripped Henry's hair and hauled his head up, and before Henry realized what he meant to do James' mouth had battened onto his.
Appalled, Henry froze. The fierce kiss battered at him even as James thrashed atop him, James willfully (gleefully!) destroying the last barrier between them. And when James stiffened and shot onto Henry's jerkin a moment later Henry swallowed that urgent, ecstatic groan, felt it shiver on his tongue and hum in his chest.
They fell still, gasping. James pulled away, his tongue flicking against Henry's one last time before running over his own wetted lips. "As last hurrahs go, quite fair," he murmured, his voice gone rough. "Still, we've another couple of hours, if you'd care to try and top it"
"Get off me," Henry said, shoving at James' shoulder.
Laughing again, crazed in his merriment, James rose onto his knees and let Henry's prick fall from his catamite's grip. He swung away to curl prettily up on the bed. The manacle chain clinked. Henry stood, unsteadily, tucking himself away and straightening his clothes without devoting much thought to it. Behind him, he knew, James was naked, splattered, chained to the bed...
Stalking to the fireplace he retrieved the door key from under the lantern, turning around to toss it onto the bed between James' bare feet. A dig in his pocket reclaimed another key, the key to his manacles, and Henry tossed it after the other. "Get out," he said unsteadily.
For the first time since James woke, he stopped laughing. "Sir?" he said, leaning forward to pick up the key to his manacles and study it.
"Get out," Henry repeated. "Take your things and go. I don't care where. Just get out of my sight."
James was bright enough not to protest. Indeed, he said nothing. Henry turned around, staring blindly into the fire while behind him the manacle cuff clinked and leather rustled, James freeing himself and sliding back into his clothes, those that were left. Finally all behind him was silence, but Henry did not bother to turn around. Perhaps he did not dare. In truth, he did not care which.
"Trelawney lies on the southern coast, close by to the cliffs," James finally said, breaking the silence that stretched thin between them. It was this, then, that made Henry turn around, this simple little statement; it was spoken neither in the mocking, laughing tones of the past hour, nor in the lazy purr of the past months. It was plainly spoken. For all that James was still amused, he spoke with the voice of a man. Not a peacock, not a ninny, not a madman, just a man.
James stood by the bed, dressed again, although his arms were bare under his jerkin. His cloak reversed to a plain and mottled brown, and that was the side he wore outwards now. "Go to the port of Chesapeake," he said, still in that unadorned voice; his smile might have had something of the cunning smirk about it, but less so than Henry had expected. "Ask after me there. The keep is small, but well-knownany street vendor can point you there."
"Why would I?" Henry asked, and although he meant to sneer the words they came out too low to be anything but a question, plain and simple.
James shrugged, still smiling. "Should you decide to," he said. "In the end, sir, as in the beginning, what happens now is entirely up to you." And he stepped forward, rising delicately onto his toes, as if he was a woman, preparing to dance; this time Henry saw it coming and yet he let it happen, only closing his eyes as James caught his face in both hands and kissed him again.
The first kiss between them had been fierce, and rough. This one was gentle, ripe with promise, and all too soon, it was over. Henry, his eyes still closed, heard first James' heels thump back to the bare boards and then the key turn in the lock. The door opened, and then shut, and as the scent of James faded from the air Henry knew himself alone. "It never was," Henry told the air, his voice choked with some emotion that he dared not place. "It never was up to me, not really."
Without opening his eyes he groped his way across the small room, finding the small chair and collapsing into it. The reality of his current position fought to crash in on him, and stubbornly he fought against it, even as he sat in the ashes of his life and felt the headland slip through his fingers, the wounded lion vanishing into the brush. This morning, waking curled about James, he had thought himself lost; while Henry was, overall, a realistic man and not prone to flights of fancy, still now he found himself entertaining the horrifying notion that, perhaps, he'd been found instead.
COMMENTS:The Song Of The Redbird was, unfortunately, far too long to appear in Shousetsu Bang*Bang.