I'm not totally happy with this chapter but I'm sick of poking at it. So I am surrendering the damn thing to LJ and moving on with the story.
(One of my New Year's resolutions was to be less self-deprecating. Ahem. It's a work in progress?)
CHAPTER 12 cont'd
Lyonesse was still in a state of convalescence after Bacchanal. Bedraggled streamers hung from lampposts; broken bottles winked in the noonday sun. Street-cleaners crept along the boulevards, sweeping spangled litter into the gutter. Robert passed two dogs wrestling over a spent firecracker.
Robert took a detour that sent him around outer edge of the Commerce District, where vendors gathered in the open courtyards to hawk their wares over the plash of public fountains. Robert found the bookseller without trouble (the cart was, as usual, not overly disturbed by an abundance of customers), and after much deliberation he settled on a new comedy by a popular author. Slight stuff, but Luca would surely appreciate the distraction. Then, thinking of Luca's thin arms, his hollow cheeks and painfully protrusive ribs, Robert bought a fat penny-cake frosted with chocolate. Armed with presents, he squared his shoulders and marched into Paradiso.
Robert had never been in the pleasure district before nightfall before. He was shocked to find it bustling with activity. Whores, male and female, free and slave, leaned out of brothel windows, shrilling enticements to passerbys. Men with their hats pulled low dawdled in doorways, shifty-eyed, scanning the street for a pretty face, a cheap fuck. Courtesans lounged on patios, fluttering their fans and giggling at nothing. Robert thought of Maman sprawled glassy-eyed on her dressing room couch, burbling with laughter as a customer lifted her skirts. These women had the same pocked skin and dreamy smiles. Robert averted his gaze and hurried on.
A withered old doxy stood on the corner, breasts cupped in her palms. When Robert went by, she dropped one saggy tit to snatch at his sleeve.
“A crown, m'lord—”
Robert shook her off. He was shocked at the intensity of his disgust.
“Fairy!” she shrieked after him.
Robert tried not to see the children, crouched beside pimps or walking along the avenue. He tried not to see Luca in their faces, at once too young and far, far too old. He kept his eyes fixed firmly ahead and did not see, did not see, did not see, all the way to the Harlequin.
The tough from the other morning stood sentinel at the great gilded doors. When he saw Robert he ducked his head, though not low enough to hide his sneer.
“Welcome back, my lord,” said the tough. “You got an appointment?”
Robert presented the calling card Boq had given him, stamped with a harlequin diamond. The date and hour were written in a shaky flourish of purple ink.
The tough took his sweet time examining the card. Finally he shrugged in assent and shouldered open the door.
“Hope you enjoy him,” said the tough. “My lord.”
Robert was met in the foyer by a boy who wore nothing but bangles and a collar. The boy didn't speak. He led Robert silently through dim corridors. When they passed other clients led by other whores, Robert pretended to be very interested in a painting or a painted vase — anything to avoid looking too closely at the men. Afraid, perhaps, that he might see too much of himself in their faces, as he had seen too much of Luca in those of the child streetwalkers.
The boy led Robert up the flight of stairs that led to the tower where he had visited Luca yesterday. Then the walls of the waiting-parlor had been upholstered in blue velvet; today they were swathed in gold. Robert checked to make sure the book was tucked into his vest, the penny-cake safe in his coat pocket. He scrubbed a hand over his face, then smoothed back his hair. He wished the parlor had a mirror.
Careful, Robert told himself. You're getting as vain as Francis. The thought galled him into pulling the bell. Immediately the answering toll sounded. Robert opened the door and entered.
And there was Luca. He knelt on the bed, as he had yesterday, arms folded behind his back, thighs spread, expression carefully blank—only now, seeing Robert, Luca's face lit with joy. For a moment neither of them spoke. They simply stared. Then Robert let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and Luca made a noise, and they were both scrambling across the room to meet each other.
“Did you miss me?” Robert asked, stupidly.
“Yes,” said Luca, voice muffled against Robert's chest.
Robert tipped Luca's face up. Luca parted his lips, expectant, and Robert took the invitation to lean down and kiss him.
“I missed you too,” Robert murmured, running a thumb over Luca's chin.
Luca went pink-cheeked and ducked his head. “May I take your coat?” he asked, almost shyly.
Robert nodded and Luca began to unbutton him, starting at his collar. As his fingers moved down, Robert became aware of an unforeseen problem: Luca's hands on his body, the smell of his hair, the flush of pink across his chest, all contrived to cause an increasingly obvious bulge in Robert's breeches. Damn. Robert shifted uncomfortably and hoped Luca wouldn't notice.
No such luck. When Luca reached the buttons over Robert's groin he paused. His hand lingered, cupping the outline of Robert's erection. A brush of his fingertips across the straining placket nearly had Robert coming in his breeches.
“Uhn – ah, here, let me,” Robert said quickly, pushing Luca away. He turned awkwardly to hide his hard-on, fumbled his coat open and dumped it unceremoniously on a divan. He had a moment's confusion upon hearing the crunch of wax paper, then remembered, belatedly, the penny-cake in his coat pocket.
“Damn,” said Robert, pulling out the rather squashed cake. “This was supposed to be a gift.”
“Oh,” said Luca in a small voice. He gazed at the cake with an expression of such desperate longing that Robert was afraid he might fall upon it like a wolf.
“It's for you,” said Robert, in case it wasn't clear. “To eat.”
Luca looked faint. He licked his lips and reached out, slowly, cautiously, casting quick glances up at Robert through his lashes. He held the cake in his palm and probably would have been content to look at it all day had not Robert cleared his throat encouragingly. Luca closed his eyes and ran his tongue along a curl of chocolate frosting. He tested the crimped rim of the cake with his teeth; then, delicate as a mouse, took the first bite. His expression of pornographic bliss did nothing to diminish Robert's erection.
“Thank you,” Luca managed to say once he had swallowed. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you...”
“Eat,” Robert ordered.
Luca obeyed. He devoured exactly one third of the cake in excruciatingly careful bites. Then he wrapped the remainder in wax paper and, to Robert's bemusement, trotted over to the bed and hid the packet underneath.
“One part for Ganymene's altar and one part for Asher,” Luca explained in response to Robert's questioning look. “My page.”
“The boy who fetched me backstage the other night?” Robert recalled scabby knees and a sulky expression. “He played a nymph, didn't he? I remember him as being rather uncooperative.”
“He's green,” said Luca, too quickly. “Debt-bound. His father sold him to cover the money he owed over some bad loans.” Luca bit his lip and Robert winced, remembering the tang of copper from yesterday's kiss. “He wants to go home,” Luca said, almost to himself. Then he shook his head. “But he'll learn.”
“Like you did?” said Robert before he could stop himself.
“Asher isn't like me.” A proud, fretful smile. “Asher's brave. He fights. I never did.”
There was a moment of silence. Luca stared at the floor as he wound and unwound a braid around his wrist. Robert, watching, could not help but wonder how many men Luca had helped out of their coats and touched through their breeches. Would he have fought them, if he could?
Abruptly, as if banishing an unwelcome thought, Luca shook his head. “May I offer you a drink?” he asked, formal as a butler. “There is wine. I could call for food if it pleases you, sir – Robbie – Robert.”
Robert cocked an eyebrow. Luca's hand flew to his mouth. He laughed weakly.
“I'm nervous,” he admitted. “Can you tell?”
“We must endeavor to make you more comfortable,” said Robert. He threw himself onto an overstuffed couch and kicked his legs over the hassock. “You can start by sitting down. Here. Next to me.”
Luca, giggling, jumped up next to Robert and threw his arms around his neck. There was a smudge of chocolate frosting at the corner of his mouth; Robert thoroughly enjoyed licking it away. Luca sighed happily, fingers tangling in Robert's hair.
“You taste like sugar,” Robert mumbled against the curve of Luca's cheek.
“You smell like smoke,” Luca retorted.
Robert laughed. “It's a filthy habit, I know. Kissing me is about as wholesome as snogging an ashtray.”
“No, I like it. I like everything about you.” Luca hesitated. Then he said quietly, “Master says you paid the protection fee.”
Robert touched one of the healing suck-marks on Luca's throat. “Of course I did,” he said. The words came out fiercer than he meant them to. “I won't have you hurt.”
“I'm so grateful, Robert. For all of it.” Luca's hand moved from his hair to his chest, then down to stroke his thigh. The touch was so light it almost didn't register. It took Robert a moment to realize he was hard again.
“I would show you,” Luca said softly.
Robert was struck at once with two conflicting impulses. The first, to rip away the scrap of silk around Luca's hips and ravish him senseless; the second, to bury his head in his hands and groan. Gods, what had he done except bring Luca a little food and treat him like a human being? Certainly not enough to merit the worship in his eyes. But Luca felt so good against him, palm sliding up his leg as a hot mouth brushed across his neck, and Robert wanted him urgently, achingly. He took a shuddering breath and tried to clear his head enough to disentangle ethics from desire. It was far more difficult with Luca's hand on his crotch than it was in Professor Gregory's philosophy class.
Then Luca pressed his lips to Robert's ear and murmured, “Please, sir. Use me.”
Shock hit Robert like a bucket of ice-water. Use me. An image flashed through his mind: Luca spread open under the beast from the satyr play, sobbing as that monstrous cock slammed into him again and again. Only now the beast's hands were Robert's hands, his cock was Robert's cock, and he wore Robert's face, rabid with pleasure.
Bile rose in Robert's throat. He leaped to his feet.
“I almost forgot! I brought a book for you. Here.” Robert snatched the book from his vest and shoved it at Luca. “It's a comedy. Very funny. Well, I assume. I haven't actually read it. Perhaps I could borrow it once you're done.”
Luca's eyes went wide. He looked from Robert to the book, the book back to Robert.
“Oh,” Luca whispered. He sounded as though he might cry.
“I don't suppose you're able to visit the bookseller's all that often,” said Robert lamely.
Luca shook his head. His chin was trembling. He touched the book with such reverence, he might have held a golden idol and not a cheap little folio bought from a shabby cart in the Commerce District.
“I don't deserve this,” Luca said in a voice so small Robert almost didn't hear. He took a deep breath. “Robert, I have to tell you something. My master asked about you.” The words came pouring out of him in a rush. “There are people he answers to – maybe they pay him, I don't know. His contacts, he calls them. I think they're important. I – Robert, I think he might be afraid of them. They want to know about your friends, and your lovers, and —” He broke off and searched Robert's face, desperate. “Please don't be angry! I didn't tell him anything important, swear it!”
“I believe you,” Robert said. He ran a hand across his forehead, trying to make sense of what he'd just been told. Gregori Boq was acting as a cat's paw for some shadowy agents in unknown employ. And they were interested in Robert. Right. Well. That had implications he didn't even want to begin to think about. All he knew was that his life had just been made vastly more complicated, and he did not like it.
“He can't make me say anything,” said Luca earnestly. “I'll cut out my tongue, like an Occidental spy.”
Robert grinned despite himself. “And where did you learn about Occidental spies?”
“From a book,” Luca admitted.
Robert laughed, feeling an almost unbearable rush of affection. Even with all the years they'd lost Luca was still the same little boy who would curl up at the foot of Robert's bed with an encyclopedia that weighed as much as he did.
“What will happen if you tell your master nothing?” he asked.
Luca tried to hide his shudder in a shrug that did not quite succeed at nonchalance. “It doesn't matter.”
“It matters a great deal, actually,” said Robert.
Luca shrugged again and looked away. He caught his lip between his teeth and bit hard enough to make Robert flinch in sympathy.
“Don't, sweetheart,” Robert said, touching the corner of Luca's swollen mouth. “Please don't hurt yourself.”
Luca blinked, bewildered. He felt where he had bitten himself and looked surprised to see the bead of blood on his finger.
“A filthy habit,” Luca echoed. He hugged the book to his chest and blurted out, “I'll understand if you don't want to see me anymore.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” said Robert firmly. “You couldn't keep me away if you tried. Anyway, with all the trouble we've been through together I'd be rather disappointed if everything became easy for us all of a sudden. Now, listen. I think I know what you can tell your master…”