A tidemark of fresh mud graced the hem of Richard Sharpe's topcoat. It was an hour after noon on a Wednesday in February, and already as dark as dusk. Sharpe scowled -- at the weather, the crossing-sweeper, the tradesman for whom he'd just stepped aside -- and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets.
The cloth packet was still there, at the bottom of his pocket, but the gloom of the day had crept into his soul and he was convinced that he'd have to sell its contents for a fraction of their real worth. Maybe even head down into St Giles and fence them there -- though this prize, at least, was fairly his. And once he was back in the rookery, how easy it would be to stay there, slip back into his old life, turn a trick or two to pay for his keep instead of this ill-starred attempt to live a life that Grace would have been proud of.
He could think her name without flinching now: that was better than before. He could even think with affection, rather than loss, of Astrid, safe in Copenhagen under her father's mistrustful eye.
Better off without 'em, he told himself. They always said women would be your downfall, Richard Sharpe.
Here was another gloomy little shop-front, with a windowful of coloured glassware and coins dulled by age. The glass was dirty and Sharpe, peering in, could see no sign of life. He tried the door anyway, and was surprised when it opened easily. Above his head, a bell clamoured his arrival.
He paused on the threshold, blinking. It was dark and dusty inside the shop, and it smelt of ... of coffee. Sharpe inhaled. The smell was enough to lure him in, and he pulled the door shut behind him.
"You have something to sell." A man was sitting at the back of the room. There was a single guttering candle on the table in front of him, and it illuminated his face haphazardly: the plane of a cheekbone, a startlingly blue eye. His voice was soft and familiar.
"How do you know?" said Sharpe, wondering where he'd met the man before.
"You don't look as though you're interested in buying antique coins."
"I could be here to thieve," Sharpe retorted, riled by the amused tone. In truth there was no sign of anything worth stealing. The inside of the shop was almost empty. He had expected cases of treasure, but there were none: only a few weapons, dull with disuse, arranged on the wall.
"You're very diffident, for a thief," the other man said. "Come and show me what it is that you have to sell."
Sharpe walked over to the table, ducking his head under the low beams. Despite the chill day, there was no fire in the grate.
"Please sit down," said the man courteously. Now that Sharpe was close enough he could see a simple wooden chair next to the table. The candle flame flickered again, reflecting off the barrel of the pistol that lay by the man's right hand.
Sharpe nodded at the weapon. "Glad to see you're ready for any trouble." He sat down carefully, swinging his sword out of the way.
The man across the table said nothing. He was smiling faintly. Presumably he could see Sharpe better than Sharpe could see him.
"These came from India," Sharpe said, reaching into his pocket and bringing out the grubby cloth-wrapped package. He unrolled it and let its contents lie.
For the first time the other man showed some sign of animation. He leant forward, peering at Sharpe's offering: then he lit another candle from the flame of the first, casting more light.
The earrings had once belonged, perhaps, to some prince's mistress. Sharpe had taken them from a dead man's pouch after some battle. They were too exotic, too unsophisticated, for Grace to have worn, and so he had kept them all this time, against a rainy day. Now the tasselled pearls seemed to glow in the soft light, and the emeralds sparkled with green fire.
The other man held one earring up to see it better. "These are exquisite," he said softly. "Where --"
"You're Danish," Sharpe interrupted, pleased to have solved this small mystery. It wasn't the voice he recognised, but the accent. It was Lavisser's voice that he had recalled: handsome dead Lavisser, with his blue eyes and his half-spoken invitations.
The man blinked at him, eyes bluer than ever. "I beg your pardon. I am Johannes Brande, at your service, Mr...?"
"My name is Sharpe."
"You were a soldier?"
"I am a soldier," Sharpe told him. Something in the man's steady regard urged him to say more. "Served in India. Back here on a Lieutenant's half-pay, and a man's got to eat."
"That's true. And you know Denmark?"
Sharpe shrugged. "I was there a few months ago."
"I would be most happy if you would sit with me for a little while," said Brande amiably. "I long to hear of my homeland."
"Are you going to buy these?" said Sharpe gruffly.
Johannes Brande looked at him steadily across the table for a long moment. "I'll give you twenty guineas for them," he said at last.
It was more, vastly more, than Sharpe had expected. Honesty warred with common sense. "Is that what they're worth?" he said cautiously.
Brande laughed. "If they're genuine, which they seem to be, then I have a client who will pay very well for them." He reached behind him for a strongbox, and counted the money into a purse. "Here."
Sharpe took the purse awkwardly. It felt wrong to shove a fortune into his pocket as though it were coppers rather than gold coins, but he had nowhere else to put the money. "Thank you," he said awkwardly.
Johannes Brande smiled, and Sharpe allowed himself to notice that it was a charming smile. "Now that our business is concluded," he said, "will you do me the honour of joining me for a meal? I really do wish to hear about your time in Denmark."
"When?" said Sharpe, fairly sure that the Dane hadn't mentioned a meal at first.
"Now," said Brande. "I close the shop on Wednesday afternoons, so we need not hurry our conversation. My rooms are on the top floor."
Sharpe stood awkwardly and watched the other man lock and bolt the door. Once the shutters were closed, it was very dark. Sharpe braced himself for an attack: Brande could be planning to keep both money and jewels, and though the pistol still lay on the table he might have other weapons.
But there was no attack. Brande moved past him in the gloom, raising the candlestick high to light Sharpe's way. "Mind your head," he advised, as Sharpe ducked an instant too late. Bright spots speckled his vision as he stumbled upstairs after the Dane.
Brande's rooms were surprisingly light and airy after the dim, dusty shop. Sharpe left his coat hanging on a hook by the door, with the guinea purse tucked into the pocket. Brande gave him wine, which Sharpe did not expect. He drank the first cup slowly, feeling the burn on an empty stomach. Dinner was stewed rabbit, from a covered pot next to the fire. Brande moved papers from a small card-table, and they ate in front of the hearth, talking as they shared a loaf of bread.
Sharpe found himself warming to Brande. The other man had travelled, not just in Europe but in America and the Orient. "Wherever the trade seems good," he said. "But I never went into India. A rich country, but treacherous."
He brought out the earrings from an inner pocket. "You have never found anyone to give these to?" he asked.
It sounded like a casual question, and indeed he was not even looking at Sharpe. Sharpe was looking at Johannes Brande, though: Brande was well worth looking at. He had long, reddish-blond hair, tied at the nape; his eyes were bright blue and they glittered wickedly. He swung a single earring between long, elegant fingers, apparently captivated by the shimmer of pearls in the firelight.
Sharpe cleared his throat. "Not the sort of present you'd give to an Englishwoman," he said. He did not want to say Grace's name here.
"It's a shame," said Brande, leaning towards him, voice lower now, "that English men do not wear jewels. These stones are the colour of your eyes."
It was the sort of line Sharpe might have used on a woman. Johannes Brande somehow made it sound sincere. Perhaps it was that intriguing accent: perhaps it was simply the dark intensity of his gaze.
Sharpe was not aware of licking his lips. "Is it just the English who go without jewels?' he said.
"There are many lands," said Brande equably, "where the men adorn themselves as well as -- nay, better than -- the women. Surely in India this is the case?"
Sharpe remembered the Tippoo's rubies. "Aye." Then, remembering the fine compliment he had been paid, and the look in Brande's eyes, he asked, "Do you wear jewels?"
"I wear only gold, today," said Brande, twisting slightly. His shirt was already loose at the neck, open to his breastbone. Now the soft material slid from one shoulder, and Sharpe could see the glimmer of gold on the other man's chest. *Through* the other man's chest, like an earring through the lobe of an ear.
"Doesn't it hurt?" Sharpe asked, fascinated.
Brande shrugged, and Sharpe watched the muscles in his neck. "A little pain at first," he said, eyes not leaving Sharpe's. He smiled slowly. "But after that, every feeling is more intense."
Sharpe could see the pulse beating in the hollow of the other man's throat. The invitation was plain, and he realised how long it had been since he'd felt another man's hands on his body. He pushed the shirt aside and tugged gently at the heavy gold ring.
Instantly Brande's mouth fastened over his, tongue pushing hard into Sharpe's mouth as it opened. Brande's arm went around him, pulling him into the kiss. Emboldened, Sharpe twisted the nipple-ring slightly, and Brande moaned into his mouth.
It was not a comfortable kiss. Sharpe was leaning sideways, elbow rocking the card-table as he tried to keep his balance. Brande's chair was tilted towards Sharpe, creaking ominously. He pulled back from the kiss, eyes darker than ever, and Sharpe laid his palm over the gold ring. He could feel the heat from Brande's body.
"What do you want?" said Brande, with a small, wicked, lopsided smile.
Sharpe grinned. "Some more of that," he said.
"But not at the dinner table, perhaps?"
Both men laughed. Sharpe ran his hand down Brande's chest, feeling small scars and imperfections. It had not been a quiet life. "Where, then?" he said softly.
"Come with me," said Brande, and stood up. He was of a height with Sharpe, and that made it easy, almost inevitable, for them to kiss again once they were both on their feet. Sharpe put his arms around Brande's waist and felt the other man's hands stroking his back. Maybe Brande could feel the ridged scars from the flogging, but he did not remark upon them.
Brande, still kissing him, steered Sharpe backward through the room. Each step pushed their hips together, and they were both breathing faster by the time Brande tipped Sharpe gently backwards to sprawl on a couch. The dust that rose around them made Sharpe sneeze. Brande grinned and pulled him back up so that they leant together, kissing again.
Sharpe did not have much experience of kissing men. It was one thing to bring off a mate, to fuck or be fucked: quite another to kiss and cuddle like girls. Lavisser had kissed him, and he'd liked that. Now, with his mouth on Brande's and his hands under the Dane's shirt, Sharpe was getting hard.
His left hand, roaming over Brande's chest, found the man's other nipple: this one had a bar through it. "Tell me what this feels like," Sharpe whispered, flicking the metal with his forefinger.
Brande gasped and jerked against Sharpe. He grinned. "Good. But let me show you --"
"Oh no!" protested Sharpe. "Not me!"
"Trust me," said Brande, and Sharpe had a moment to reflect that he was doing just that. He hoped he wouldn't regret it.
Then Brande was pushing his shirt back, and Brande's mouth was on his nipple, sucking it to hardness. He bit down gently, and Sharpe let out a startled cry.
"Did I hurt you?" said Brande, raising his head. Devilment twitched at the corner of his mouth.
"Do it again," said Sharpe, moistening his dry lips.
"I'll do something better. Wait." Brande pushed himself off the couch. "I won't be long."
Sharpe could feel his pulse hammering under the tender nipple, setting his cock throbbing. The dusty velvet felt soft and luxurious against his bare arm. His shirt was half off him: Sharpe sat up and twisted out of the garment, letting it lie where it fell. Was it foolish of him to trust the Dane so readily? Here he was, half-stripped, a room's length away from his sword and twenty gold guineas. Brande was tall and well-muscled: but so was Richard Sharpe, and he was damned if he'd let the other man get the better of him.
In a fight, at least.
"You look delightful," said Brande, returning. He dropped something by the side of the couch, and knelt over Sharpe again. He'd removed his own shirt, and the gold in his nipples shone exotically. Sharpe could not resist reaching up again to tug gently at the ring, and Brande sighed and smiled.
"Let me see how you like this," he said, pressing something cold against Sharpe's still-hard nipple. There was a small starburst of pain, cool and hot at once, and Sharpe swore from the surprise more than the discomfort. It felt like a bite from icy teeth, a bite that did not lessen.
"It's one of your Indian earrings," said Brande, grinning. He flicked the trailing pearls, and a hot shiver ran through Sharpe's body. He looked down.
It should have looked ridiculous, like a dancer's tawdry costume. Instead, the sight of the gold clamped onto his reddening flesh was peculiarly arousing. Then Brande pulled on the dangling tassel, and Sharpe pushed up against him, quite unprepared for the jolt of sensation.
"Emeralds suit you," said Brande huskily. "Emeralds and pearls." He bent his head to lick gently around the gold, and Sharpe moaned. He tilted his head back and ran his hands down Brande's warm back, trying to pull the Dane closer, trying to get close enough to push his hardness against Brande's.
"What do you want, Sharpe?" the Dane asked him, breath warm against the sensitive flesh where the earring was pinching. Then, "I can't always be calling you Sharpe. What's your name?"
"Richard," said Sharpe, leaning back up for another kiss. He ran one hand down the front of Brande's body, cupping his erection and squeezing gently. "And that's what I want."
Brande laughed, and gently bit Sharpe's lower lip. "I think we want the same thing." The second earring made a faint musical sound as he positioned it: then there was another flicker of pleasurable pain as he tightened the wire.
Sharpe could feel the weight of the pearls dragging at his flesh. Brande's arms were around him again, holding him close for another deep, lingering kiss, and the pearl tassels caught slightly on the other man's skin. Sharpe worked his hand back between their bodies, stroking Brande's hardness, unfastening his breeches with an ease born of long practice. He slid his hand inside, long fingers wrapping around Brande's cock. Brande moaned into the kiss, mouth pressing harder against Sharpe's.
"Tell me what you want," Sharpe murmured, breaking the kiss: then cursed himself for speaking that whore's line.
Brande did not pull away. "How do you like it?" he said. "Do you like to be fucked?"
Sharpe said nothing. He flexed his fingers and grinned lazily. Brande gasped. His smile made Sharpe push up against the hand that was stroking him.
"I think you are wearing too much," Brande said softly, "for what I want. Let me..." He stood, hauling Sharpe up with him. They tried to kiss and strip at the same time, which slowed matters. Finally, though, they were standing naked together, cocks nudging one another, arms wrapped around each other. Brande's hair was escaping its tie, and Sharpe pulled the plaited cord loose.
"Sit down," Brande instructed. He leant in over Sharpe, one hand on the back of the couch for balance while he reached down to pull something from under his discarded shirt. Sharpe took the opportunity to flick his tongue against the gold bar through Brande's right nipple. The other man's cock leapt as Sharpe touched it: Brande gasped, and for a moment Sharpe braced himself for the expected impact of the other man's body, heavy and urgent on him.
But Brande was still in control of himself. "Stop that," he said, smiling and twisting out of reach.
Sharpe scowled at him. "I just wanted..."
"Ssssh." Brande moved to kneel in front of the couch, one hand on either side of Sharpe's hips, head tilted up for another kiss. Sharpe liked the way Brande kissed: slow and thoughtful, hinting at controlled passion. He kissed Brande again, pushing his tongue forcefully into the Dane's mouth, and sighed when something cold touched his thigh.
"Pearls," said Johannes Brande, ending the kiss with another bite of Sharpe's lip. "I want to see pearls against your skin."
Sharpe kept quiet, though he was unaccountably nervous. He'd known men with strange needs before. This seemed more personal.
Brande's mouth closed, warm and wet, over a tender nipple. At the same moment, a chilly snake of pearls slid over the soft skin at the front of his hip. It was an odd sensation: not unpleasant, just ... strange.
Sharpe was desperate to be touched, to feel Brande's hand on his aching flesh, to be opened and stretched and fucked. He knew how it went from here: he just needed it to go faster. But he almost screamed with shock when the string of pearls wound around his cock. Sharpe's eyes were closed, but he could feel the pearls, some as big as hazelnuts, rolling against his skin.
He heard Brande chuckle: then Brande's hot mouth was swallowing him, Brande's tongue teasing and tasting the slit as his hand trailed the necklace over and around the length of his cock. Sharpe was gasping now, hands fisted at his sides, trying not to push up into Brande's mouth, but it was so hot, and his tongue was clever... Brande curled his fingers around the base of Sharpe's cock, pressing the strung pearls gently into the flesh. He took Sharpe's erection deep into his throat, and Sharpe could hear the click of pearls against the other man's teeth. He opened his eyes and met Brande's hungry gaze, saw his pearl-wound cock slide into the red mouth, out, in ... Sharpe came almost painfully, back arching, biting his own lip now to keep back his cry.
Drained, he let himself slump back onto the couch. Brande pulled himself up next to Sharpe, leaning towards him for another kiss. Sharpe responded unthinkingly, then tried to pull back as he tasted himself in the other man's mouth. It was disgusting, but at the same time it set his skin tingling. He stopped fighting Brande's embrace and returned the kiss with more enthusiasm.
"You're delicious," said Brande softly. "And I'm going to fuck you."
Richard Sharpe looked at him, eyes half-shut, and smiled. "Good," he said.
Brande grinned. He had left the pearls wrapped around Sharpe's still half-hard cock. Now he produced a small blue glass jar and scooped out a fingerful of white, oily liniment. He kissed Sharpe again, pressing him back on the stained velvet of the couch. Sharpe was already relaxed enough not to flinch when the first finger worked its way into him: he made a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a growl, and spread his legs invitingly wider.
The second finger went in easily: with the third he began to feel the stretch, and pushed down against the invasion. Brande's mouth was working across his chest, kissing and licking and biting, occasionally tugging at one or other of the earrings that still pinched at his nipples. Sharpe could feel himself getting hard again, and he could feel Brande's long fingers pushing easily and confidently up inside him, making his back arch like a cat's as Brande touched that sensitive place again and again.
"Don't tease," Sharpe said breathlessly.
Brande laughed. "But I like teasing you. You're so responsive. Beautiful." His breath was hot and irregular on Sharpe's face, and he scissored his fingers so that Sharpe cried out and clutched at him.
"Wait," Brande said then. "Wait just a moment." He drew his fingers out gently, but Sharpe still moaned at the loss. Then Brande was gone altogether, and Sharpe was alone on the couch, tremblingly aroused, still feeling the warmth from when he'd spent himself in Brande's throat, and yet as hard as though he hadn't come. He kept his eyes shut, trying to get his breathing under control.
There was a scraping noise, as if Brande was moving a chair. Silly bugger, thought Sharpe, not bothering to open his eyes. Is he going to fuck me, or has he changed his mind? The pearls were pressing into his swollen flesh again, and he reached down to pull them away.
"No, don't," said Brande, very close, hand over Sharpe's to stop him. "Not yet."
The couch creaked under the other man's weight. Then Brande was pulling him close for another hungry kiss.
"Come here," Brande invited, leaning back. Sharpe opened his eyes. The other man's arousal was obvious in the heat of his gaze, his flushed cheeks, his wicked half-smile.
Elsewhere, too. Sharpe let his eyes drop deliberately, and grinned. "Come where?" he asked.
Brande laughed. "Come and sit on my lap... No, the other way. With your back to me."
"You don't want to look at my back!"
"Come here." Brande insisted. Sharpe wondered if he'd heard, or understood. He kept his eyes down as he moved to straddle Brande, his ankles against the other man's narrow hips, Brande's cock pressing at the entrance to his body.
Sharpe jerked in surprise as he felt Brande's hot tongue sweep gently across the topmost of the scars on his back. Sharpe tried to arch away from the tickling sensation, and felt Brande kiss the ridged flesh. It made him squirm.
"Still think I'm beautiful?" he said scornfully, trying not to show how sensitive the scar tissue was.
"You are beautiful," Brande said, pushing his hand up Sharpe's back and under his hair to cradle and tilt his skull. "Look."
Sharpe finally opened his eyes, and saw what Brande had moved.
Now, in front of the couch, there stood a tall mirror in a golden frame. It reflected back the glow of the firelight, and the light of the candles on the mantelpiece. It reflected the dull grey afternoon light from the window. It reflected the two men, gloriously naked, twisted together on the faded dark crimson velvet of the couch.
His own reflection, Brande's reflection, looked back at him.
"You're beautiful, Richard," Brande murmured in his ear. Sharpe saw his hand slide round to pull gently at the pearl tassel hanging from his left nipple: and he saw his own reaction, saw his skin flush, saw the glitter of his half-lidded eyes and the way his tongue touched his lower lip as he gasped.
"And look," said Brande, moving his hand down across Sharpe's flushed chest, over the rippled muscles of Sharpe's abdomen, down past his dark, pearl-strung cock, "look how close we are." He pushed gently at the inside of Sharpe's knee, urging his splayed thighs further apart. Sharpe could see the glistening head of Brande's cock, pressing against him, ready to ...
He arched back further, so that his head rested on Brande's shoulder, and smiled as he watched Brande kiss his neck.
"What?" Brande said huskily, eyes meeting Sharpe's in the mirror.
"Fuck me. I need --"
The sight of Brande's thick cock, pushing so slowly into him -- he could feel it, feel his muscles stretching around the invasion -- robbed Sharpe of speech. He could only watch as Brande penetrated him, pausing again and again for Sharpe's body to adjust, until finally he was there, there, all the way in, and Sharpe could feel the other man's cock inside him, very deep, very hot.
"Give me your hands," Brande said, and pulled Sharpe's wrists up until he was gripping the back of the couch. Then Brande reached down and tugged, less gently than before, at the earring dangling from Sharpe's right nipple. He rocked his hips up, pushing impossibly deeper, and Sharpe swore.
"Did that hurt?" Brande said immediately. He looked concerned.
"Not..." Sharpe gasped for breath and abandoned his explanation. He shook his head, and rose up on his knees, pausing for a moment to drink in the sight. The base of Brande's cock, huge and hot inside him, was visible between their two bodies. Richard Sharpe was flushed -- not just his face, but his whole straining body -- and the string of pearls, a maharajah's ransom, shone creamily against the darker flesh of his cock. His eyes, wide open now, seemed as green as the emeralds that glittered on his chest. The muscles in his arms were quivering with the effort of bracing himself against the couch. Brande was watching him in the mirror, and the wicked half-smile was now a delighted grin. The Dane's long hair clung and coiled like filigree against Sharpe's throat. His hands glided down Sharpe's sweat-slick torso to his hips, and held Sharpe still as he slid back in, slowly.
Sharpe let Brande take control. He watched as the other man withdrew unhurriedly, pushing Sharpe's hips up so that they were almost separate for a long, agonising moment. Only when Sharpe began to struggle in his grasp did Brande slide back in, faster this time. And again. Again.
Once their rhythms were matched, Brande let go of Sharpe. One arm held Sharpe's waist, pulling him back against the almost-brutal thrusts: Brande's other hand teased at Sharpe's aching cock, rolling the strung pearls along the shaft, thumb circling the flare of the head. Brande was kissing and biting at Sharpe's shoulder, murmuring flattering obscenities. Sharpe turned his head awkwardly, and Brande tilted his face up to kiss him.
"Beautiful Richard," he said, and grinned wickedly. "But you don't need jewels. You burn..."
Sharpe cried out as pain flared above his heart. Brande had ripped one earring free, and for a moment Sharpe could feel blood, like rubies, pouring from the wound. The clasp had not broken the skin, though; only sweat slicked his chest. His body spasmed around Brande, and Brande swore in Danish and thrust harder. He brought his hand to his mouth and licked the fingers, then stroked Sharpe's throbbing nipple with gentle fingers that sent waves of sensation through him.
Sharpe was gasping now, overwhelmed by the different signals flashing through his body. Brande grabbed his hair and held him still for another kiss, though Sharpe groaned and bucked as the other earring was pulled free. Brande was stroking his cock with long, firm strokes now, and the pearls were pressing into him: one, slick with moisture, was rolling just under the head of his cock. Brande pushed into him hard, insistently deep, and now Brande was moaning into the kiss too. He dragged his mouth free.
"You want pearls? I'll..."
Then his head jerked back, and he was coming, hot and sudden and slick inside Sharpe, his body shaking. Sharpe could feel his own climax building somewhere underneath all the layers of pain and pleasure, and he thrust hard into Brande's loosening fist, forcing himself down on the other man's cock.
The string snapped: and as Sharpe came, it was to the sound of pearls falling like rain.