“Sometimes I think that an angel sent you to me,” Don Federico murmurs half-aloud.
Carlo laughs. “That seems unlikely,” he says. Feeling thirsty after their exertions, he has gone to the table to pour himself a cup of wine. The act of love makes him restless; he wants to spring up immediately, to be up and doing. Don Federico, however, is seized by a temporary lassitude and then becomes talkative; it seems to loosen his tongue like too much wine. Sometimes he says odd things, but then, Don Federico is an odd man.
“I have told you,” Federico says seriously, “that I loved a noble lady of Seville. Heaven took her from me; she is with the angels now. I was thinking of her that day when I met you. I asked her to pray for me, to grant me mercy.”
“You saved my life that day,” Carlo points out. “If anything, it was my guardian angel who sent you to me.” He drinks and lets his eyes linger over Federico’s form as he lies in the bed. Loose strands of black hair stick to his forehead and there is a sheen of sweat in the hollow of his throat, while his strong arms are now relaxed, resting at his sides. It is a body marked by the scars of honorable battle, for Don Federico Herreros, captain of the Grenadiers, is brave as well as pleasant to look upon. Carlo would not desire him if he were a coward.
“You have never asked me about my past,” Federico says softly, “or my family. There are reasons I cannot speak of it, but I swear you would have no cause to be ashamed of me.”
Federico is showing every sign of sliding into one of his melancholy moods, and Carlo determines to head him off. “If you wanted to marry into my family,” he says flippantly, “I would have to consider your origins. As it is –“
Federico shudders at some thought of his own. “I was alone, in despair,” he continues, his eyes fixed on Carlo. “And that angel sent me a friend. I know it cannot be, but sometimes I think your voice has the timbre of hers, or I think I see a fleeting resemblance to her in your face. And then I believe that Heaven wishes me to find consolation.”
Carlo frowns, though not at the possible blasphemy. He dislikes the thought that this mysterious woman, this dead woman, should try to touch Don Federico through him. “I assure you,” he says, “that I am neither a woman nor an angel. I didn’t think you would have any doubts, but if I need to prove it to you again –“
The first time is after a battle, when the two of them have retired to Carlo’s tent to drink and celebrate the army’s victory. Carlo still feels his blood thrumming in his veins, the body’s pleasure in being alive after having passed so close to death.
“Come, sit,” he says, pushing Don Federico toward a camp stool. Don Federico crosses one long leg over the other, and Carlo finds himself admiring the shape of his well-fitting boots, letting his gaze move upward from his calves to the swell of his thighs in their trousers. That is not likely to lead anywhere useful as a subject of investigation, he tells himself as he pours two cups of wine and hands one to the captain. And yet, the sight of Don Federico turning the cup between his strong fingers is distracting.
“Perhaps I will visit the women later,” Carlo says carelessly. “I find my blood is hot after a battle. Will you go with me?”
The captain frowns. “No,” he says, “I do not – No.”
“Oh?” Carlo inquires. “Have you already found a friend here? Some lively Italian lady --?” He finds himself tensing for the captain’s response.
Don Federico shakes his head. “I have loved only once,” he says quietly. “A brief happiness – but fate took her from me.”
“Did she leave you for another lover? A shame, if so.” And poor judgment on the lady’s part, Carlo thinks, glancing over Don Federico’s muscular frame.
“Don Felice! You never met her, and so I will forgive you. Her heart was faithful and pure. She was like an angel.”
The flush of indignation along Don Federico’s cheekbones is most attractive. Perhaps that is why he yields to a perverse impulse to ask, “And what is it like, to enjoy an angel?”
“Don Felice, enough! I approached her with honor and reverence. I barely dared to kiss her hand.” The captain stands to go.
“I was jesting,” Carlo says quickly. “May not friends jest with each other?”
Don Federico hesitates, but sits down again. He takes a quick swallow of wine. Carlo watches the motion of his throat and thinks that this is absurd. He could find a woman among the camp followers for the price of a few coins. Or if that lacks savor, there are women enough in the town who would smile upon an officer in uniform. If he wants to feel a man’s body striving beneath his, there are ways of arranging that, too. So why Don Federico--?
“There is another way,” Carlo finds himself saying. He keeps his voice light, as if it is a matter of indifference to him. “When I was at the university at Salamanca, it was common for the students to give solace to each other.”
“Is it not a sin?” Don Federico asks seriously.
Carlo laughs. “Perhaps,” he says. “But I have a confessor who understands that soldiers do such things, and he does not give too heavy a penance.”
Don Federico looks into his wine cup, as if hoping to find an answer there. He nervously slides his thumb back and forth along the cup’s rim, and Carlo almost misses what he says next. “I have never known the pleasures of the flesh,” Federico says very quietly. “With woman or man.”
Carlo draws in his breath sharply. “That is easily remedied,” he says.
Perhaps he should suggest a visit to the camp followers again. But the captain is oddly skittish, shying away from anything that may lead to joy. No, his first impulse was better. “It is a thing friends may do for each other,” Carlo says. “And are we not friends?”
A succession of emotions pass over Don Federico’s face. Surprise, hesitation, hope. “Are we?” he asks, almost shyly.
“Without a doubt.” Carlo cannot tell what Don Federico is thinking, but he doesn’t seem to be displeased. “If you would trust me with your education in these matters –“
Yes, the flush across his cheeks is most attractive. “I will gladly be guided by you,” Federico returns. He does not smile, but there is a new warmth in his eyes. Carlo resolves to make him forget his melancholy. Is not that the act of a friend?
His own pulse is beating wildly, as if he were about to face the enemy’s fire again. He takes Federico’s arm and draws him to his feet, pulling him close. After a time, they move to Carlo’s cot. Though Don Federico never studied at Salamanca, he proves to be an apt pupil.
Another time, the army camps in friendly territory long enough for the two of them to go exploring. The late afternoon sunlight pours down, and the sky is a brilliant blue. They pause on the banks of some Italian river – Carlo neither knows its name nor cares – and let their horses graze in the lush grass along the bank while they enjoy the cooling breeze from the water. The river is clear and tempting; without words exchanged, they strip off their clothes and wade in.
Carlo returns to the bank first and sits to let the sun dry his skin. He should unpack the food they brought, he thinks lazily. But then he glances toward the river. Federico is standing hip-deep in the water, his head tilted back. Droplets gleam along his skin and the sunlight bathes him with gold. Carlo draws in his breath, suddenly dizzy with desire. When Federico speaks, it takes him a moment to register the words. “Among the Incas,” he says, “they believe that the sun is a god.”
Carlo does not care about the Incas or their beliefs. “Come out of the river,” he demands hoarsely.
Don Federico wades back to the bank, looking around for the source of trouble. “Is something the matter?” he asks seriously.
Carlo stands and goes to meet him. He pulls Federico’s body to his own and kisses him so fiercely that their teeth click together. Federico returns the kiss with equal passion. Carlo slides his hands along Federico’s back, the smooth curve of his buttocks. He traces the scar where a musket-ball once grazed along his side. That could have taken Federico -- his Federico! -- from him before they even met, but it did not, he thinks with fierce delight. He nips at Federico’s throat for the pleasure of feeling Federico gasp and shiver against him.
Federico’s touches in return are gentle. He is always so careful of his strength, until he loses all control in the heat of his passion. Carlo means for that to happen before long, and his breath quickens at the thought. He reluctantly disengages from Federico long enough to fetch the oil from the saddlebags. Federico spreads their two cloaks on the grass for a sylvan bed.
Carlo does at last apply the oil as intended, though he keeps getting distracted as Federico kisses his jaw, his shoulders, his throat. His stubble scrapes pleasantly against Carlo’s skin. Every touch is pleasurable, but Carlo is too aroused to delay for long before he pushes Federico down and sheathes himself to the hilt in his willing body.
Federico groans and frantically grabs at Carlo’s shoulders, his breath coming in quick gasps. Carlo leans his face against Federico’s neck and breathes in his scent. He presses himself closer, wanting to feel Federico’s skin all along the length of his body. Carlo pushes hard into him, with increasing urgency, while Federico moans wantonly and moves against him with every thrust. Carlo can feel the sun warm on his back. They are both slick with sweat.
He digs his nails into Federico like talons, drawing lines down his tanned skin, and is rewarded when Federico cries out and bucks desperately against him in a way that almost makes him lose control. His strong hands grip Carlo’s back with bruising force. Another few hard thrusts, and Federico groans out brokenly, “Ah – Felice, please –“ And that is enough to send him spilling over the edge into ecstasy.
When he comes back to himself, he pulls out and looks at Federico. The man is trembling, his eyes wide and desperate with need. Carlo smiles slowly and reaches down to take Federico’s hard length in his hand. His palm is damp with sweat and traces of the oil he used, slippery against Federico’s hot flesh. Federico whimpers, arching into his touch, and twists his fingers in the cloaks beneath him. “God in Heaven --!” It takes only a few strokes before his entire body jerks upward and his seed spills across Carlo’s hand and his own stomach.
Carlo props himself on one elbow to watch him as he recovers. Federico’s eyes are closed, his head thrown back in abandon. Carlo rests a hand on Federico’s chest, feeling the other man’s heart beating wildly. Carlo does not like to lie still after lovemaking, but when Federico sighs and lets his head fall against Carlo’s shoulder, Carlo decides he can allow it this once. He strokes Federico’s skin, tracing patterns on his chest while his breathing and heartbeat slow. And if his lips press softly against Federico’s hair, there is no one to see.
The surgeon and his assistants have carried away Don Federico, leaving Carlo with three things: Don Federico’s blood on the front of his uniform, a solemn promise, and a growing, terrible suspicion. His mind insists on picturing the moment when Don Federico fell wounded at his side, when Carlo dropped to his knees beside him and sought desperately to find a pulse. He brought Federico safely from the battle, but there is no guarantee that he will live.
His over-active mind sends another image, sharp as a sword-thrust: Don Federico lying pale on the stretcher, the moment before he fell unconscious, when he reached out, looking at Carlo or something behind him. His eyes lit up, and he murmured a woman’s name. Leonora.
The silence in the room seems to echo. A thousand details, insignificant in themselves, suddenly come together to form a dreadful and inescapable certainty. Carlo tries to push it away. There must be countless women in Spain named Leonora. And yet – Once again he hears Federico’s voice, his soft melancholy tone saying “I loved a noble lady of Seville . . .”
The key he received from Federico is digging into his palm. He hastens to open the secret compartment of the valise. His fingers find folded paper, and he draws out a sealed packet of letters. He struggles with temptation for a long moment before setting the packet aside. He has given his word as a man of honor.
But he must know. He searches again. Something round, with the cool touch of metal – He draws out a miniature portrait in a silver case. Why does he hesitate? He must have certainty. He opens the case with shaking hands.
The features of the portrait are only too clear. Carlo knows them well. Leonora di Vargas, disgraced daughter of the former Marquis of Calatrava. Carlo’s sister.
For a moment, there is a darkness before his eyes, and he clutches the portrait so tightly that he bends the frame. The accursed Indian Don Alvaro – he who shamefully murdered Carlo’s father, who seduced his sister and stained his proud family name, who fled like a coward – those deeds are the work of Don Federico, his friend.
It seems impossible. He knows Don Federico for a brave man. Until a few moments ago, Carlo would have defended his honor at sword’s-point against any man in the army, Spanish or Italian. But all the details fit together as neatly as a syllogism at university. He shuddered at the name of Calatrava. And there is the final damning proof, the portrait, here in Carlo’s hand. There can be no doubt.
If he holds any lingering affection for Don Federico, for the man Carlo thought he was, it is his duty to crush those feelings ruthlessly. To rouse his hatred, he tries to imagine them together, his sister and her vile seducer.
Did Lenora gain his rare smiles? Did she twine his dark hair around her slender fingers, trace the lines of his scars? Did he look at her with that same expression in his eyes in the moment before he reached his pleasure, pleading and desperate yet strangely exultant? The thought fills him with disgust and fury. How dare he, how dare that despised vagabond even think of such a thing? He feels bile rise in his throat.
And yet, the man might be dying. Carlo’s cold, hollow feeling at that thought is surely because he would be deprived of his revenge. His anguish stems from the thought of the dishonor to his family’s proud name. No, the wretch must live! Live, to die by Carlo’s own hand. Nothing else will satisfy him.
The surgeon appears again, finally. Carlo surges forward to grip the man’s shoulders. “Well?” he demands harshly.
“Good news,” the surgeon answers briskly. “Your friend will live.”
Carlo staggers back and falls into a chair. “Thank God,” he gasps out, “thank God.”
The late afternoon sun slants through the window, outlining the man who stands there in gold. It reminds Carlo of another time by the river, but he hardens his heart against it. He knows the truth now.
Hardly paying attention to what he is saying, he inquires after Don Alvaro’s state of health – well enough to fight a duel? Alvaro’s confusion is perhaps understandable, but Carlo does not wait long to enlighten him.
Perhaps this is their fate; perhaps everything, from the first time they set eyes on each other, was only meant to bring them here to this moment when Carlo fixes the other man with a terrible look and proclaims: “I am Don Carlo di Vargas.”
He lets the words hang in the air, along with what he does not say: I am the son of the man you murdered, brother of the woman you seduced, whose honor you violated. And that should be the end of it, should make clear that there can be no more friendship or loyalty between them as long as they live, but the other man – not Federico, he reminds himself, but Don Alvaro the Indian – still tries to explain, to make excuses. There can be none.
“Leonora looks down upon us as an angel in Heaven,” Alvaro says earnestly. “Surely she –“
“No,” Carlo says through his teeth. “She is alive.”
Carlo feels a surge of intense hatred at the way Alvaro’s eyes widen. Is he so glad to hear news of his beloved? “Not for long,” he returns savagely. “She has defiled our family’s honor, and she must die.”
Alvaro is utterly still for a moment. He braces himself and looks at Carlo with resolution. “Listen to me,” he says with a slight tremor in his voice. “I gave my word as a man of honor to marry her. Let me fulfill that pledge, and I will be as a brother to you.”
“Do brothers do such things as we have done?” Carlo sneers. “Perhaps among your people. She shall die, and so shall you. You will never see her again.”
“I have pledged my word to Leonora. I cannot break it!”
“Your word is worthless. Draw your sword.” Carlo advances on him as he says it, until he is nearly backing Alvaro against the wall.
Alvaro looks back at him without fear. “Don Carlo. We swore friendship to each other, and we have kept that oath in the face of death. And you are Leonora’s brother. That, if nothing else –“
Carlo surges forward and grabs Alvaro by the front of his shirt. Alvaro braces one booted foot against the wall and pushes back; they go crashing together to the floor. In a moment, Carlo has Alvaro pinned beneath him, the buttons of Alvaro’s uniform jacket digging into him uncomfortably.
But something is not right. Carlo knows every inch of the body now pressed against his; how to bring him to pleasure, and how to hurt him, and sometimes both at the same time. He knows Alvaro’s strength. He has felt it while clasped in his arms, seen it displayed on the battlefield when Alvaro flung himself forward against the enemy, blood-stained sword in hand. Alvaro is strong enough to break free from his hold but he does not, and that knowledge adds new fuel to Carlo’s anger.
Before Carlo realizes what Alvaro intends, he reaches out a hand to touch Carlo’s cheek. Carlo jerks his head back as if burned. “You dare --?” He feels suddenly off-balance and does not understand how it happened.
“I cannot believe that there is nothing but hatred in your heart,” Alvaro says softly. “Let us be joined together one more time, and then I will believe you, if you can still speak such words.” He meets Carlo’s eyes unflinchingly while making this entirely shameful suggestion, and Carlo burns to prove him wrong.
Their swords are in the way. Carlo undoes both their sword-belts and shoves them aside in a tangle. He ignores Alvaro’s involuntary motion as Carlo’s hands accidentally brush across his hips. Alvaro’s uniform jacket, too; it is already half-unbuttoned from the heat, and Carlo tugs it loose and tosses it aside.
Alvaro is unfastening his breeches, but too slowly. Carlo roughly tears Alvaro’s clothing aside. He seizes Alvaro’s hip and shoulder, gripping with painful force and digging his fingers into his flesh. The other man tenses but allows it. Carlo pushes Alvaro face-down; he does not wish to see his face. Let his cheek be ground against the floor, let his proud head rest in the dust.
Carlo spits in his hands and quickly applies it; that would be enough to prepare the way. He straddles Alvaro, forcing himself violently into Alvaro’s body. “You will not,” he gasps out between thrusts, “you will not ever dare approach my sister again. Never, never, never!” He grips Alvaro’s hair and pulls his head roughly back; in his frenzy, he bites at Alvaro’s throat like a wolf. Alvaro makes small sounds and twists beneath him, though Carlo is not sure whether it is in pain or pleasure.
At last Carlo reaches a shuddering release. He lies atop Alvaro for a moment, regaining his breath. “You are right,” Alvaro says very softly. “I cannot seek out Leonora. She is an angel, and I, I am a sinner –“
Carlo pulls away from him. “You will not even say her name,” he states flatly. He puts his clothing to rights without looking at Alvaro. He stands too quickly; his legs tremble, and he sways on his feet before he can control it. Did Alvaro see that moment of weakness? “Tomorrow,” he says, “as you are a soldier, you will face me in a duel. There I will avenge my honor.”
“You must face me,” Carlo says implacably, “or you will be branded a coward before the entire army.”
Carlo ignores him and walks out, taking care that his step is steady. Alvaro is an enemy, he tells himself, with a treacherous nature. It would be unfitting to feel pity. And both their parts in this were written by fate long ago.
There is only one way this can end. Tomorrow Carlo will take his sword and once again challenge Alvaro to a duel. If the man tries to flee, Carlo will pursue him to the ends of the earth without mercy. The honor of his name, of his family demands it.
Yes, Alvaro must die; he has sworn it before Heaven. He imagines Federico’s – Alvaro’s – blood staining his sword. He is a brave man, and it seems a pity to deprive the army of his valor. But the general will understand. Any man of honor would understand. Will Alvaro’s dying eyes have the same pleading look as in the moment of pleasure?
This will end in Alvaro’s death, or his. There is no other way.