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Hemlock & Wine

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The sins of Sodom are not rare in the universities of Europe. They play their part in the muddle of vices that characterize institutions of higher learning the world over; Lucifer makes a tidy profit off of scholars, one way or another, and Faustus is no exception -- small errors here and there in addition to the greater record of his sins which Mephistophilis is generally content to encourage. His retrograde desires have found a new object (besides Mephistophilis' own sweet self) and he is in need of a go-between.

He is at his master's elbow in the yard after a lecture, as knock-kneed academics hurry to and fro clutching their books and papers to themselves; unseen, he casts about for mischief. Faustus turns quite casually, as if to one of his fellow instructors, and makes a motion over his shoulder with a thumb, in the direction of a small cluster of undergraduates. A gangling boy stands out as the most thoughtful-looking among his fellows; by his manner of dress clearly the wealthiest among them. He's flanked by two equally gormless-looking boys and a third who looks like a partially shaved fox; they appear to be laughing at some common jest, but this boy's demeanor marks him off plainly as their unofficial leader.

"Him," he says. "I want to have that one, the Dane. Persuade him."

The impulse here must be one of sheer perversity. The Danish boy is not a shining example of epicene beauty; he has skinny calves and a hard-featured face overwhelmed by dark hair. But Faustus' aesthetic senses are not overly refined where it concerns sex. Mephistophilis has heard a great deal of praise for the ideal woman -- but he has never encountered in all his years among sinners a man who would pass up a partner near to hand, if imperfect, and hold out for perfect Helen. And as regards the love of youths, the ideal boy is him who complains least and obliges quickest. Catamites are by and large more persuadable than wives, disregarding this particular boy's stubbornness.

There are other probable motivations for this particular love; when the good doctor is in his cups he'll surely open up about the specifics of his desires, one way or another. The boy is precociously intelligent, having the makings of a great academic mind, but like not a few students at Wittenberg he is here only as the final touch before assuming a role already made for him at home. Unlike his fellows, who will become lawyers or magistrates, the boy is a prince. For all his monstrous power, Faustus cannot grasp that there is more in the world than diversion -- he could easily have made a second Alexander of himself, but he'd rather have the passing admiration of the Alexanders of this world and the amorous gratitude of their consorts. He's had rich rewards from the treasuries of empires, but Faustus will be king of nothing; he can no more rule than serve. And he would surely find the day-to-day tasks of ruling interminably boring, for all the consolation that is to a restless soul.

Mephistophilis smiles tightly. "Naturally, Faustus, with pleasure."

It shouldn't be difficult; seducing even a complete innocent is just a matter of finding out what they want and extending the reasonable hope that they'll get it, whether or not they'll actually want it once it's in their hands. Somehow, still, the task seems vanishingly petty; he'd be better served to think on Hell than a pretty boy's face. But anything Faustus sets his sights on will be his; these are his terms. It's just a pity his desires are seldom set much higher than basic covetousness. If it be written in a book or broadsheet that a particular woman is particularly beautiful and of lofty birth, he must have her, then. Some stone is said to be precious; he must possess it. If now he wants company, he'll get it.

**

A red-capped messenger turns up at their lodgings before nightfall, with a crisp-sealed letter for the prince that Horatio glimpses only for long enough to make out that it is in scarlet ink -- and to recall that Hamlet's sweetheart never had such beautiful penmanship -- before it's folded up and hidden away on the prince's person. The smile shrinks from Hamlet's face, and he sinks into a silent consideration that lasts days.

Horatio has no abundance of fond feeling for any of Wittenberg's masters of theology. Least of all the notorious Faustus, who cares more for grand reputation and striking speeches than the mundane practice of more respectable arts. He doesn't like John Faustus, not his double-tongued speeches (though they are ringingly beautiful to hear) nor his luxurious nature, the casual ease with which he speaks of Caesar and Alexander as if they were no better than ostlers or tanners' apprentices. His eyes have often fixed on Hamlet during his lectures, for long stretches at a time; he talks to him afterward and between classes, he has loaned the prince several books on divinity. He sets his arm around him, not saving his noble presence, they walk together...

Hamlet walks in a daze, starry-eyed. He has withdrawn into himself, will talk of nothing else besides theology -- not theology as is proper, of the relative merits of Aquinas and Luther, but of strange obscurities and puzzles and paradoxes. No fresh surge in piety accompanies this -- between himself and his smirkingly proud Doctor these are mere intellectual exercises, and they openly skirt that which is blasphemous. It's a wonder the other men of the faculty haven't rejected him entirely, him and his clique of marginally-more-admirable admirers -- they seem to have made many ventures in that direction and done much muttering, but his place in Wittenberg is fixed. Horatio thinks of filing a formal complaint, but fears he hasn't enough to go on, and he knows on a rational level that his own jealousy plays a part. Still, if his resentfulness can be put to good use fending off somebody else's buggering, he can die a happy man.

**

He starts up from his divining one morning with a shout, as if the glass lens has burned him. Faustus leans back again in his chair perilously far, scruffling a hand through his own hair in mild astonishment.

"A death in the family. He's about to have one, before the month is out, mark you."

"Well, yes." Royal families are always offing one another or surfeiting on something. "Are you going to tell him?"

"Of course I will, what humble servant of the crowned heads of Europe wouldn't? If he's soon to receive some extremely bad news. I want to be the first one to tell him. Or show him, if I'm lucky."

People aren't usually grateful for that sort of thing; Faustus is just glad of the sport about to ensue.

"Will that win him?"

"It's more than you've done on my behalf, you might notice."

"There have been obstacles, Faustus." The existence of a sweetheart, for one, though that was easy enough to poison with mistrust. Some lingering purity of intention, for another, just as easily jaundiced. "How soon do you want him? A day? A week? Don't you want to play with him a while?"

**

Horatio is always concerned when his roommate's behavior takes a turn for the worse -- once the facts of his birth came to light, it came to seem less odd, princes cannot go around behaving like common men do. That's what makes them princes, the right to act as they please and in Hamlet this manifests as boundless willfulness and selective observance of school mores. But rough manners and a short temper are one thing, and muttering in the night over a tallow candle secured to the polished dome of a skull is another entirely. It's an imitation of that most learned Doctor John Faustus.

Hamlet doesn't look up, face scrunched with focus.

"I thought you'd be in chapel. Didn't hear you come in."

"I had assumed you'd be sleeping--"

He scuffs through a chalk-circle with his shoe and licks his fingers to snuff out the ominously dribbly candle. It seems the natural thing to do, but just as he does so, it occurs to him that an abortive black-magic ritual might be as bad as a completed one for the participants' health -- Hamlet utters a loud complaint but he's been balancing too long crouched down on his heels and he topples backward, out of his circle and completely void of dignity.

"Whose skull is this?"

"Mine!"

Hamlet rises, dusting himself off sulkily and managing to miss the sigil whose reverse is now printed in white against the black cloth of his breeches. Horatio whirls around looking for anything else drastically out of order and nearly knocks over the chair upon which rests an open book -- what looks suspiciously like one of those very same books of theology most graciously on loan.

"To whom did it originally belong, my lord?"

"A mendicant friar guilty of self-murder. I bought it with my own money, would you like to see the receipts?"

"What if anybody else had walked through that door instead of me? In some parts of this country they'd burn you for this, you know--"

"No, they wouldn't, they'd bundle me up and ship me back to the King my father. The Doctor's already taught me the rudiments of his art, I'll just have to study independently, that's all--"

A flame burns in him -- too-clear and too-bright, beyond the shy awe that Horatio himself feels for his instructors. Horatio takes a step back, feeling at his throat instinctively where another man might have worn a cross.

"I'm not sure about this, Hamlet. The man is a common mountebank and a sodomite, you'd be better off dining with a mad dog."

"You yourself are a sodomite and the son of a scrivener, and I dine with you almost every night. It's never done me any harm."

He rolls his eyes, but he cannot help the color that rises to his cheeks. The regrettable fact of a one-night dalliance with Rosencrantz (or perhaps Guildenstern, it had been difficult to tell in the dark and they both smell about the same) on Michaelmas last had not passed Hamlet's notice.

"I fail to see how those two situations are equivalent."

"Accusations of Italian vices are leveled at any free thinker in Wittenberg."

Horatio snorts. "Not too free, one would hope."

"Laugh if you like, you ass, but have you considered what'll happen if he's telling the truth? He says he'll foretell my future, that he sees most terrible and obscene deeds on the horizon-- what if he's telling the truth and it's something about the wars? What if it's about Ophelia? What if it's about my father?"

"Obscene deeds he'd like to inflict on you! What if he's telling the truth'-- Hamlet, he'll mutter something promising about sunshine on your face and threescore years' glorious reign and dying in armor with your three handsome sons around your bedside and then he'll grab your arse and call you his darling. What would a German warlock know about the intricacies of Danish court life? He's probably never gone further abroad than Geneva."

"He's many things but he's not a fraud. He's advised generals and been to court, I've seen him work his craft; he's brought on eclipses, summoned whirlwinds, cured pestilences. Makes books to burn and not be consumed. And other things -- proof enough for me, enough for everybody else--"

Hamlet kicks the door open and storms out into the hall; Horatio follows him. His own skepticism regarding spirits, devils, ghosts, and so on is thoroughly offended by all the things which Faustus professes, but more than anything he is deeply unsettled by the transformation this has brought over the prince -- the boy he had once known to be candid, honest, and reverent regarding Christian practice if not precisely pious. He thinks of nothing but sins and mysteries, and something threatens on the horizon that even Horatio, never sensitive to such movements among the heavenly spheres, can feel in his blood.

"For God's sake, Hamlet, I would never have thought this of you!"

"Then I'm sorry my credulousness has disappointed you!" There for a moment he sounds like his old self, the boy, spittingly angry. "Faustus has promised to tell many marvelous things concerning my father the King, and my own inheritance. The man speaks wonders; I cannot discount all he's shown and spoken to me of on the basis of your not liking his manner. I've already sinned by consorting with a sorcerer, whether he's right or wrong -- Have I sinned as well if I fall short in my duties and Denmark comes to harm for it, if an attack occurs that I might have prevented -- at the price of entertaining a blasphemous conceit--"

"You're mad!"

"You're jealous," Hamlet says stonily. "It doesn't suit you."

Horatio fizzles like a damp candlewick, arms flopping uselessly at his sides, and that's the end of that.

So it's certain: the doctor aims to make the prince his means of entrance into the Danish court. He has some dark design for the prince and wishes to make an initiate of him - God knows what else besides that.

**

Mephistophilis makes a sharp gesture and the bed curtains part; he stalks over to the wall beside his master's bed, prepared for the inevitable volley of complaint.

"He's sent them back, my lord."

"Who has sent what back?" Faustus stirs into wakefulness, holding up an arm to shield his eyes from new-arrived daylight with his shirtsleeve.

"Prince Hamlet sent over a runner with your books. Says his master is compelled to decline your most generous offer."

He sinks back down again, groaning. "I'll think of something. Close the curtains, I never gave you permission to wake me."

Mephistophilis slinks in guiltily and curls up around him like a presumptuous housecat. Faustus exhales, trailing fingers vaguely down the front of his doublet.

"Perhaps you might extend him a more direct invitation."

**

Horatio is putting his notes away and readying to retire to their bed when he notices Prince Hamlet doing the opposite -- he cinches his books up in their strap and brushes out his cloak as if to make his exit. He begins putting his boots on, and when Horatio calls him by name he stops in the middle of it, hands hesitating on a buckle.

"Where are you going, at such an hour? At least call a porter, it's not safe to go out walking in town after dark."

"What do I care for safety?" He utters a rather dark laugh and pulls aside the folds of his cloak to emphasize the glint of steel. He carries a blade everywhere these days. Visions of Danish political intrigues haunt him even in Wittenberg, and while he's not unpopular with the men of the town (he always pays his debts on time, he doesn't brawl, and rape is as alien to his nature as parricide) his foolhardiness isn't the kind to risk getting stabbed in the gut over the contents of his princely purse. "I have to pay a friend a call."

"You're going to be with him, aren't you."

Hamlet's face is downcast, and he doesn't answer.

"Don't go. For God's sake. For my sake, I'm tired of being here alone--"

Something passes over Hamlet's features that he's not sure how to place -- a profound weariness, perhaps, or worry. His shoulders sag a bit, and he sets aside his sword, scattering a few less-important-looking pieces of parchment in the process.

"Fine, you've won me," he says, "I won't go. Do you feel a chill in here? Or is it just me?"

He trundles into bed surlily, keeping to his side of it, but before Horatio can snuff out the lamp he's huddled up against him like a leech, never mind the temperature. He supposes the prince has never had brothers, or even to share close quarters with another person; he seems to appreciate the company.

Horatio wakes in the small hours of the morning; his arms are empty and he is alone.

**

Dressing in the dark is no thrill, and he nearly weeps with exhaustion, or frustration. He snatches up a half-blunted sword and dashes off into the night like a fool.

The crooked streets of Wittenberg look different by night, unaccompanied, and he twice finds himself turned around entirely -- becoming convinced he has passed by this shopfront or that public fountain already and that he's gotten nowhere. Darkened, they all look the same, and the few that have a light burning have such an air of malicious merriment to the activity within --a woman's cries, a young man's singing voice and snatches of lewd laughter, the barking of a dog, the smell of vomit as he passes an alleyway. There's no sign of a constable on patrol or a churchman hurrying back from a parishioner's bedside -- he would not feel half so anxious if he were not going into battle alone. He stops at the end of a narrow row of houses, the moon hanging heavy overhead, as red as rust. All these rooming-houses are conspicuously shabby, save for one -- bult on the same lines as the others neighboring it, but altered into something scarcely recognizable. Its roof sags with Italian tile and it's been freshly limed.

Horatio swallows and moves on down the street. He knows his destination.

The doctor's man, Wagner, is yawning in the doorway beneath the yellowy light of a torch and picking his nails. Horatio attempts to inquire whether the doctor might be found within and whether he's accepting guests, but the lout makes a great pretense of not understanding his accent. Fortunately, gold is as ever the universal language. The original sum Horatio offers in lieu of a bribe nearly gets him laughed back to their rooms above the tavern, but he digs deep into his pockets and manages to double it. Wagner swaggers off with a sleepily sarcastic salute and admittance is gained. (That's Hamlet's half of the rent gone, but he'll have to make it up to him when he's in his right mind again.)

The outer chamber is lavishly made up, more richly furnished than any dwelling Horatio can immediately recall. He can only imagine how it looks to a prince, who must see tapestries like these every day at home. But it is also desolate; the candles have burned down to their ends and stained the tablecloth with wax, his fine plate is on the table but the dishes there are stone-cold, long since picked over. He turns aside in disgust and strains to detect the sound of voices.

**

The inner chamber is small and cold, colder inside than outside -- when Horatio touches the doorknob his hand stings as if he's tried to squeeze a handful of snow, and when the door swings open the cool air is so thickly perfumed with the myriad scents of learning as to be palpable. The only way in is through a narrow gauntlet of bookshelves, and Horatio puts a hand out to feel his way along in the near-dark. He thinks of labyrinths, unbidden, and -- is this not a large house, all things considered, should this hall seem so very long, these ceilings so high, this chamber so deep--

He shoulders past with his cloak drawn around him like he'd try to skirt a disturbance on the street, but taloned fingers catch at him and drag. He refuses to turn his head when h knows what's there already. His coat's snagged itself -- he's grazing past the edges of nail-studded books that crowd the shelves, the crabbed spouts of alembics, twisting devices of glass and metal. These and nothing else bar his way.

A sudden stir of voices. Voices such as no man could ever have, like ancient children or things made of brass given life.

who is it? who comes-- what's this-- how now--

The doctor's own voice sounds oddly throaty. "You, there, lurking. Come inside or go away. Don't linger."

Horatio doesn't dare speak. His tongue feels too-heavy in his mouth, and if he were to even breathe out of line he's certain the wintry exhalation of steam would give away his trespassing.

The fire in the brazier casts only a limited light, rather than illuminating the whole chamber it pools around the two figures who stand behind it -- Horatio must squint to make out anything else or to make certain of where it is he treads. A great circle is marked out around them in oily graphite, particles of the pigment refracting the narrow firelight in a queer thin glow, and on the fringes of it where Horatio strains to see are drawn still other circles like epicycles. Compared to the hasty affair Hamlet had drawn out on their own worn floorboards with chalk and string, it's a sea of strange geometry, marked in what cannot be real Greek.

Horatio hears new voices like a flock of crows and starlings, multiplying into existence by twos and fours, and another stronger and clearer to lead them -- a man's voice, sweeter than honey.

The prince's face is transfixed, bloodless and rapt. Before them sits the shape of a mirror in its stand, hung with a cloth. He spies Hamlet in the act of hesitating to uncover it, guided by Faustus.

The doctor's hand lingers over his prince's shoulder. Horatio feels something in his chest hitch.

"Would your friend care for a trick of his own? What proof would he care to see?"

"Horatio would rather see the past than his own future."

"Yes, very well, then he shall. Lend me your hand and judge for yourself."

His voice is low and reasonable, spoken with the bluff authority of a trusted friend, one of mature years. In his hand -- hanging perilously close over Hamlet's own hand, presuming a terrible intimacy -- is a bare blade.

He murmurs something against his ear that can't be made out, and then declaims in that wolfish classroom way of his, voice filling the room:

"It's only blood, sweet Hamlet, and it can only be your own. A little shed now may prevent a great outpouring later."

This is nonsense, he shrinks from tricks and screeching jackdaws. He must get between him and the prince. He has no fear of devils nor carrion birds, nor taxidermied beasts, nor frightful sounds produced from behind a screen. He's not a child.

The clamor has risen to a riot.. His vision spots and blurs, and his ears feel as if they are fit to burst and bleed.

Before Faustus can chant another word he barrels into him, avoiding the summoning circle and the prince both. He slams him against the bookcase with a previously-unimaginable forcefulness; there was no thought in his mind of breaking the circle, or of interrupting the incantation, only that the thought of that cruel steel doing so much as tickle the prince's finger is abhorrent to him. Some force catches him a buffet on the shoulder; the doctor headbutts him indignantly and they grapple some more. He feels a sharp bite against his bare forearm, and finds that his sword-arm has moved before the conscious thought even entered his mind; he sees Faustus sag before he realizes what he's done. The sword-point's successfully transfixed him up through the bowels, ending up Horatio-knows-not-where; his expression is one of mute shock, but he cannot be more surprised than his assailant is at the thrust having hit home.

Horatio has never done worse than draw first blood before, and never so much of it as is released in one awful gush as he struggles to pull forth his blade; it steams in the frigid air and stinks with something important ruptured. His blade will not pull free all at once; Horatio cries out once he realizes it and the man's groan of anger and close-range clawing at him persuades him to brace with his foot and yank down hard. Such blades as these are made to skewer, not impale; his is old, anyway, and irregularly maintained. It breaks off into shivers and he falls back with the broken remainder in his hands, shining like a steel pin.

The Doctor sinks down, his ink-stained hands clasping at the sticky hole in his middle, and Horatio wheels, to find Hamlet staring at him. The chorus of the damned has stopped. Only an awful silence fills the room. He blinks with the dazed alarm of a schoolboy asleep on his feet, nudged awake by the end of a hymn.

The basin is still blazing away, spitting forth irregular sparks, and there are figures flitting in the shadows, shapes like dogs, like birds, like men...

"You have to go." He stares at his hands, tries not to look at the blood, tries not to look at the Doctor's face. He can hear bubbling damp breathing, knows he is not slain as such, not yet anyway. "We need to leave."

Hamlet takes one stumbling step toward the worktable. "I have to stay and see. I need to know what's going to go wrong--"

"Hamlet, I'm warning you, no--""

"What, or you'll stab me too?"

He reaches for his elbow and Hamlet lashes out. Horatio is afraid he'll have to restrain him, or worse, that he'll be overcome, that Hamlet will wound himself and succeed in seeing the unholy thing done --he pushes against him in a tight clinch and his hands slip in blood. Only then does Horatio realize he's injured, and the sight of his torn sleeve bloodied has an odd effect on the prince's disposition.

They break apart, Horatio curses (feeling another buffet, braced for more) and grabs him by the arm to pull him toward the door. Hamlet breaks free only for a moment, and Horatio's shout dies on his lips -- the mirror falls dashed to the floor with an awful crystalline scream as it breaks, cast into slivers. The prince takes one glance in the direction of the doctor's prone form and he bolts as quickly and willingly as Horatio does.

The circle's scuffed aside, the fire gone out. Horatio nevertheless dreads to look back, like Orpheus. Not for the last time, he finds himself running through the night with a broken sword and sleeves soaked in blood, hands groping for his prince's sleeve. Stumbling down the hall and down the stairs like a pair of drunks, they both do a great deal of swearing and tear out of the house like a bat out of hell.

**

Hamlet would be better off pursuing the theater than theology. There's no shortage of solemn pronouncements and grand gestures and ingenious devices among players, and questionable admirers if he wants one of those too.

"What are we to do about -- you know--"

"He's not dead," Hamlet says with a somewhat frightening conviction, hunched over in his chair like a Greek statue of a thinker.

"Wonderful, the murderous charlatan still lives." He will not call him a magician; his uneasiness has crystallized into a thick protective shell of disbelief "I can't afford to fail this term. I can't afford to go to jail for attempted murder, either."

"Attempted murder in the course of rescuing a naive young nobleman from the nefarious grasp of a sorcerer performing heretical rites. You'll be fine."

"You don't know that!"

At any rate he doesn't think he'll mention the sodomy.

 

In the cold light of a Wittenberg afternoon they're greeted not by the local constables thumping their cudgels against their palms, but by a messenger from Elsinore, his face gray with strain. The prince is gone before Horatio can say goodbye.

**

The fire's gone out, and Mephistophilis has banished the swarm of imps to scurry back to hell through the cracks in the stones. Faustus lies in a mute panic, heaving with trapped-animal breaths that his body is incapable of taking in, and the sensation of having his bowels un-perforated with a cauterizing touch of hellfire and slipped back inside the split that had spilled them forth is perhaps not the kind of intimacy he had hoped for. But Mephistophilis has a steady hand and a great deal of patience for his all-talented doctor.

The first thing he does once he's regained the ability to speak is curse and attempt to sit up. Mephistophilis hisses a little, a old habit.

"I'm going to tear that boy limb from limb, there won't be enough of him left to scrape into a cigar box and ship back to Denmark--"

"Lie still, you old fool."

"He could have killed me! Jumped-up little shit--"

"He would have tried, sweet Faustus, if you'd laid another finger on the prince's person. Probably thinks he has. Such wounds suppurate and run foul."

"Don't you think I know that?" spits John Faustus, learned anatomist. Mephistophilis presses the flat of his hand against Faustus' belly, and the reassembly of his parts is made complete; he sits up a little, groaning.

Mephistophilis leans back, dusting his hands off and surveying the wreckage. The apparatus had been unnecessarily elaborate, showy but cumbersome, and that had gone poorly. Or the other boy's unbelievable dullness had thrown the whole system off. It couldn't have been a shortcoming on his own part, oh no, but sometimes it was difficult to find the will to lift a finger and to instead let the doctor's plans blow up in his face for once. It saved the trouble of administering the moral when he didn't like what he'd been handed on a platter, and nothing exciting had happened in Denmark in ages as far as Hell was concerned, so deferring that little jaunt was no great loss.

"You were promised four and twenty years. Hell's not done with you yet; you can no more die, dear Faustus, than go to heaven."

He exhales annoyedly, as well as experimentally with a no-longer-ruptured diaphragm.

"Fine then. I'll lay low a while, and pick up when I've left off."