"I have arranged for you to take a wife."
Leonardo curled his hands around the curved marble mantelpiece over the burning fire, determinedly not looking at his young protégé sitting behind him in one of the room's tapestried chairs. The first words had been the hardest. Once exposed to the air, the idea that Benito would marry, cleave to one woman and give her children, placing her and his family above his service to his lord, was easier to tolerate. The rest of the words flowed smoother.
"She is the third daughter of a friend of mine, Signore Vecelli. Her name is Isabella Marie. A pretty girl and well-spoken. Her father is eager to join our two households. This would not be quite the same, since you are not a relation, but you have been my protégé for many years. My … fondness …for you is well-known and my cousin's sons are too young for his girls. I could only arrange a betrothal to the third daughter," he said apologetically, "since you are not my family."
He turned to face Benito, wanting to see his reaction to this arrangement. Benito remained sitting, his arms gripping the arms of the chair, gazing down at the floor rather than at Leonardo. The fire was shielded by Leonardo's body, making it difficult to see the expression on Benito's face.
"It is a good match for you," Leonardo said encouragingly. He wasn't tactless enough to state the absolute truth that it was a far better match than anyone with Benito's lack of background or family could ever have expected. A third daughter with a small dowry was a fantastic catch for someone who might have been forced to settle for a tavern wench.
But Benito deserved better and Leonardo was determined he would have it. He owed it to Benito to secure his future. Twelve years ago, in a careless moment, Leonardo had wandered into a winding narrow street in one of Venezia's most disreputable neighborhoods. Set upon by thugs, Leonardo was nearly robbed and killed for the wealth in his purse. The intervention of a scrawny orphan, swinging a piece of firewood, distracted the robbers, giving Leonardo all the advantage he needed to triumph over greater numbers with his sword and superior skill. In recompense, Leonardo took the young fellow under his wing, making him a member of his household, teaching him reading and mathematics, training him in the fine art of dueling, raising him almost as a son. Leonardo had performed his self-appointed task well; it was impossible to see that ragged orphan any longer in the polished gentleman who sat before Leonardo. Only the rare flashes of mischievous humor or temper revealed the tempestuous nature hidden in the portrait of a young nobleman devoted to the master of his adopted house.
Unfortunately, the polished gentleman did not react with joy to Leonardo's announcement. His head hung slightly before he raised it, meeting Leonardo's eyes with hesitation and an air of apology.
"Signore, you do me great honor. I know that such a match would not have been easy to arrange."
"But you wish I had not taken the trouble," Leonardo concluded. After a few initial rocky years when the orphan tended to rebel at the unfamiliar new way of life, the two had developed an uncanny closeness. They were virtually inseparable, Benito acting as both his secretary in his business affairs and his gondolier, and often were able to instinctively guess the end of the other's sentences.
"No, Signore. I wish you had not."
"Is there another you wish to marry?" Leonardo hated having to ask the question. Benito's emotions were usually open to him but on few critical issues, the younger man could hide his feelings, and with a polite facade build an invisible shield between them. A secret love was the only reason he could attribute to Benito's reluctance. Imagining Benito madly in love with some fresh-cheeked young maid was deeply disturbing. Had Benito become attracted to someone without Leonardo's knowledge? Did some young woman hold Benito's heart? Was she the reason for Benito's rare silences?
"No, Signore. There is no one else I plan to marry."
Despite his relief at that answer, Leonardo found his impatience rising as Benito failed to explain himself further. "Then what is the difficulty?"
"Signore, I would ask that you respect my privacy and do not require an explanation."
Leonardo placed his hands on his hips and glowered at Benito. In all honesty, he knew he had occasionally run roughshod over Benito's feelings, trying to force rather than coax the poor youngster into an aristocratic mold. But after a serious fight, he had tried to treat him with dignity and honor his independence. It was maddening to wonder what secret he might be hiding and Leonardo was tempted to resume his dictatorial approach of long ago. "I thought that I had your respect and trust, Benito. But how can I believe that now, if you cannot be honest with me?"
"Please, Signore. I will answer if you wish it but I fear I will disappoint you. You have been my mentor, my employer, my only family for so many years. The knowledge of what I must say…"
Leonardo didn't reply, fixing Benito with a steady gaze. He would like to relieve Benito's anguish, permitting his secret to go unspoken, but the pangs of jealousy wouldn't allow it. He must know everything about this young man who was the most important person in his life, even if he never openly acknowledged the depth of that importance.
Benito conceded with only a small reluctant sigh to mark his submission. Perhaps the truth would damage their relationship but apparently withholding honesty would be an irrevocable sin. The signore was a considerate and thoughtful man, but also one with strong beliefs and convictions whom demanded absolute accountability from the members of his family and household. His voice faltered as he said, "I have met the young woman. She is a very nice woman and I am cognizant of the honor you do me. But I do not wish to marry her. I do not wish to marry any woman. I believe… I believe I am a lover of men."
Well-aware that he was blushing but unable to stop himself, Benito explained, "I have had experiences with both men and women, Signore. Just mild experiences. A few flirtations, a few kisses. I find men…more attractive, Signore."
"You are a virgin," Leonardo said bluntly.
"Yes, Signore." Benito fervently wished the flames of hell would erupt through the floor and devour him with their fire. This conversation had started painfully for Benito and was only degenerating into being excruciatingly embarrassing. To think that Leonardo, the man Benito admired, respected and yes, adored, above any other person, had been quietly planning his marriage. A supposed happy event that would undoubtedly take him away from Leonardo's side and into Signore Vecelli's household. Or would bring Isabella into Leonardo's house where she would have been a constant distraction, interrupting his time with Leonardo. Better to live alone all his life if he could remain at Leonardo's side, his loyal companion and friend.
"And you would not wish to … consummate a relationship with a female."
"No Signore," Benito admitted unhappily.
"Then such a marriage would not be fair to Isabella and indeed, invalid in God's eyes. I shall talk to Signore Vecelli." Hastily he added, "I will not explain the full truth. I will find a convenient excuse." Privately Leonardo wondered what excuse he could use. Regardless of Signore Vecelli's wish to unite their families, he had found Benito's nebulous status difficult to accept, preferring in some way to attach his family to that of Leonardo's cousin and heir. Careful negotiation and repeated remembrances of the unsuitability of his cousin's children's ages had been required before the arrangement was finalized. And now Leonardo had to undo his own diplomacy.
But for such a reason as this! Benito wished to love men and only men. For this joyful news, Leonardo would undertake any task, no matter how strenuous or complicated.
"You have never married, Signore. I hoped I would be allowed the same option."
Leonardo cleared his throat uncomfortably. "My situation is different. I have my cousin for an heir and am committed to furthering the interests of my family and the Venezian state. In thinking of your marriage, I had hoped to ensure your place in life."
"I had hoped that my place would always be at your side," Benito said softly. "And when you are gone, I will support your cousin in the same fashion."
Leonardo realized he had to escape and escape now. The intensity of Benito's devotion overwhelmed him and raised hope, hope that might be false. Just because Benito was devoted to his savior and attracted to men didn't mean that he loved one man… one particular man. He might be horrified to picture his mentor in a romantic light. Leonardo had to think about this revelation and what it could mean for both of them.
"You will always have a place with this house. I will ensure that my cousin also understands and honors your dedication," he said gruffly. Abruptly changing the subject, "We do not need to discuss this any further then. I believe I shall visit the red house tonight."
"Yes Signore. I shall prepare the gondola."
"I shall be down momentarily."
Benito leaped out of the tapestried chair that had become a torture seat and fled the room gratefully, his boots almost slipping on the polished marble floor in his haste. He would have been shocked to see Leonardo after his departure, the carefully restrained mask dissolving into a jubilant smile.
The gondola was pitch black and elegantly carved, ornamented by gold statutes of sea serpents on each side and the prow. Benito stood on the back, maneuvering the slim gondola with his customary skill. Leonardo sat in the middle on a plush seat of black velvet, his long legs stretched in front of him, watching the waves of the sea lap against the ship's side and remembering the many trips on which Benito had performed this same task for him.
As a child, Benito had sat at Leonardo's side but as he grew, his need to be useful increased. He would not rest until he could repay the savior who dragged him from a life of deprivation and transformed the suspicious and mistrustful child into a well-spoken, educated young man. He learned the official methods for steering a gondola and insisted on taking over the task. The first few trips were a bit rocky until Benito developed his strength and learned the correct balance and techniques to keep the boat steady and the ride smooth. It was a small service, but for Benito the symbolic imagery of being always at Leonardo's back, taking care of his needs, was important.
While Leonardo appreciated Benito's devotion, he regretted their positioning. Leonardo couldn't see the young man as he steered the gondola off the Grand Canal and into one of its more narrow tributaries. Leonardo could only imagine how Benito looked, his strong muscles rippling as he wielded the pole with ease. His tunics were made of rich fabrics and well-constructed by Leonardo's seamstress, but always of basic colors by Benito's request, preferably cream or beige, hanging to mid-thigh. His sword belt cinched the tunic tightly around his waist, and his lower thigh and calf muscles would be evident, flexing under the brown hose as his feet in the short brown boots shifted on the back of the gondola.
The gondola glided under several stone bridges and down another smaller canal, coasting gently into the first floor of the red house. Benito tossed out the rope, tying the gondola onto a piling, before leaping down onto the small dock area and reaching out a hand to help Leonardo.
Leonardo exited the boat and said briefly, "Wait for me. I shall not be that long tonight," before walking up the stairs and into the main living area of the house. The first few times Benito had brought Leonardo to this place, the older man had attempted to argue with him, suggesting that he should go home and return later. Losing an argument was rare for Leonardo but on this point he eventually conceded, allowing Benito to wait in the gondola.
Benito stepped back into the boat and settled down into Leonardo's seat. The velvet cushions were still warm from his body. In misery, Benito buried his head in his hands despairing at Leonardo's lack of reaction to his confession tonight. The calm voice, the ready agreement to cancel the marriage contract, revealed little of Leonardo's feelings. Did his mentor despise him? Was he disgusted that Benito would rather kiss and caress another man than perform his biblical responsibility of procreation?
Leonardo was a man accustomed to speaking his mind. The older man was well-known and respected in Venezia, active in the city-state's political life. He occasionally clashed with the Doge and his advisors, not hesitating to offer his own advice and recommendation when he believed an incorrect path was being chosen. Venezia was a leading power on the Adriatic Sea and Leonardo loved his country, wanting the best for her. But he also was a diplomatic man, tactful and restrained in his words when he deemed it warranted. Would Leonardo have stifled his own revulsion out of consideration for Benito's feelings?
The irony would be bitter indeed if Leonardo found Benito's preferences repulsive, considering the number of times Benito dreamed of the older man. Leonardo was everything Benito wanted in a lover. Tall, strong, kind, handsome. A man who could wield a sword or pet a kitten with equal grace and an elegant beauty. Benito never knew when his feelings from Leonardo transformed from respect and admiration to love and lust, merely that over time, the man who had dominated his life for so many years was now the center of his universe.
Horrified, Benito realized Leonardo might send him away. He could easily find Benito a position on his estate in Verona. This may be the last time that Benito would make this trip and wait downstairs in the cold for the man who was his love, even if never his lover.
He risked a quick glance toward the stairs. Even if he didn't plan to be long, Leonardo surely would take enough time for what Benito needed. Reaching under his tunic, he pushed his leggings down to his knees, burrowing deeper into the cushions, feeling their warmth on his bare backside. He pulled the soft cloth that he kept for this purpose out of his purse and wrapped it around his cock.
The first time he did this he felt ashamed to use the image of Leonardo making love to him to relieve himself. He tried to stop the inappropriate behavior but found instead that the urges only built up inside, consuming him and pushing his control beyond its limits. So he accepted what he must do for his own sanity rather than risk an explosion and prayed nightly for divine forgiveness.
It was quiet on this narrow canal this late at night, most of the houses shuttered with only a few rays of candlelight streaming through their slats. Safe inside the docking area beneath the house, Benito could risk exposing his need. His fantasies always revolved around Leonardo, wondering what the signore would be like as a lover. Powerful and domineering undoubtedly, those corded muscles in his haunches bunching as he thrust and thrust. But also generous and sensual in his touch, considering his partner's pleasure as important as his own.
In his own bed, he could take all the time he wished, making the pleasure last, endlessly dreaming of Leonardo's strength, his broad shoulders, those large hands, slim hips and long legs. Here, floating on the canal waters, he stroked himself with urgent haste, knowing time might be short. It only added to his excitement, picturing their lovemaking hard and fast, full of fire and desperate passion. Leonardo would sit beneath him in the gondola, the back of Benito's head cradled on Leonardo's shoulder as his face raised to the evening sky. Benito's legs would be draped one of each side of Leonardo's thighs, those massive hands on his hips, raising him up and lowering him back down on Leonardo's erect shaft. The boat would rock wildly, cold seawater lapping over the edge as they risked collapsing.
Benito exulted in the glory of his imagination as he pictured the beauty of their love. Though the fulfillment of his erotic needs swamped his senses, the words he heard in his ears sang through his soul. Incoherent words, muttered in Leonardo's husky voice, praising his body extravagantly, thanking him for eternal devotion, expressing his need for Benito. Expressing his need for Benito as more than a dedicated protégé, but also as a companion and lover.
Leonardo entered the house from the stairs. It was dark but he was familiar with the furniture's location, walking through the first level and up another flight of stairs. He knew he would find his lover in a private indulgence, taking a late night bath, and he was not disappointed.
Xanthus was almost sleeping in the steaming water of his tub, eyes shut, narrow feet perched on one edge, his long black hair draped over the other. Leonardo touched his shoulder lightly and said, "Xanthus."
"Leonardo, my love. I did not expect you." Xanthus' voice was rich with welcome.
"We must talk, Xanthus."
Xanthus opened his eyes, sensing that the conversation would be unpleasant from the flat tone of Leonardo's voice. He asked "What about?" even though he could guess. He and Leonardo shared only their sexual relationship and Leonardo frequently tried to dissolve even that tie. Once they had shared everything but a difference of opinion limited their interaction to the bedroom.
At least, Leonardo had believed they shared everything. In truth, they shared their lives only to the extent Xanthus desired.
"Please get out."
"Why? Do you have a problem with my naked body? You never have before." Xanthus had several strategies he used when Leonardo attempted to separate them; petulance leading to guilt had worked particularly well keeping the older man bound to him.
Realizing from his snideness that Xanthus was going to take this badly no matter how much Leonardo tried to cushion the blow, he plowed ahead with his announcement. "I am severing our relationship, Xanthus. I will not be back."
With irritation more than curiosity, Xanthus demanded, "Why?"
"That is not your concern, Xanthus. I will deed over this house to you and continue to pay for your servant for six months. That should give you ample time and resources."
"To what? Find someone else to fuck me? To appreciate this body?" Xanthus rose, letting the water stream down his body, boldly showing Leonardo the lithe, well-muscled figure he was abandoning. His hands caressed his own chest before coming to rest on his hips, fingers angling to point at his groin.
Leonardo sighed impatiently. "I am not interested in your theatrics, Xani, and you will not play on my sympathy or my guilt this time. Accept it or not, but I will not return."
"You've found someone else, haven't you? You've taken my youth and now you're tossing me aside."
"Tossing you aside?" His fury at Xanthus' games and his endless attempts to portray Leonardo as a selfish manipulator blurred his vision. Once, Xanthus had been like Benito, a boy taken into the household of the Giannetti family and raised to manhood. Only unlike Benito's unknown past, Xanthus was the son of a noble and his wife, both friends of Leonardo's father. His mother had died young, leaving his father to dote upon young Xanthus. Unfortunately, Xanthus' father killed himself after a failed business venture ruined him financially. Leonardo's father had taken in the orphan while Leonardo was studying in the distant city of Rome. Called home when Leonardo's father unexpectedly died of a sickness of the lungs, he accepted his responsibility as head of the family and for the young Xanthus, who was so clearly frightened at losing his second father. "You could have had everything, Xanthus. Everything. You could have been at my side forever."
"As your slave! Handling both your business affairs and appeasing your carnal lusts."
"As my partner, Xanthus, my partner. Working together for the strength of my house and the glory of our nation, pleasing each other in the night. No," he said dismissively with a sharp gesture, cutting off Xanthus' further words, "we will not have this argument again. You made your choice and I accepted it. It is not in you to be what I desire. Our time is over." Too many times, Leonardo had tried to force Xanthus from his life and too many times, Xanthus made Leonardo feel guilty for abandoning Xanthus. This time, the break between them would be final and complete. Leonardo turned and strode from the room.
Angry, Xanthus snatched up a robe to cover his damp form, following him down the stairs. He would not be discarded without a fight. It was infuriating enough that Leonardo had not allowed him to stay in his house, buying him this undistinguished place far away from his neighbors once Xanthus had expressed his distaste for Leonardo's vision of their union. But to be tossed aside without an explanation was unbearable. Leonardo was his and was not going to escape his net.
As they reached the second set of stairs, Leonardo heard a soft moan coming from the docking area. He stopped and in the dark, Xanthus caught up to him, almost bumping into his back. The whimpering moan repeated, longer, Leonardo's name sounding plaintively.
"That - " Xanthus' furious words were silenced by Leonardo's hand clamping over his mouth. Using his greater bulk, Leonardo pushed Xanthus against the wall, holding him still, bracing his feet on two different steps. The moan stopped momentarily as if Benito had heard the noise. Leonardo waited almost without breathing, forcing Xanthus' acquiescence. After a brief space of time, the sound came again, the moans turning into quick, husky pants, finally dissolving into one long, low groan.
Leonardo waited, torn between happiness and frustration. The evening had started so dreadfully, having to approach Benito about his marriage, a marriage Leonardo hadn't wanted but desperately planned in the hope it would help him avoid temptation. Then Benito's revelation that he shared Leonardo's preferences. And finally, the crowning joy, Benito clearly fantasizing about his master came at the worst possible moment since Xanthus also heard the passionate sigh.
He whispered into Xanthus ear, "You do nothing, you understand? You didn't hear that." He released Xanthus' mouth to hear his response.
His voice quiet but bitter, Xanthus whispered back, "This is why you are abandoning me! You think that boy will be the slave you must have, following your every command and satisfying your every whim. The young fool."
"Benito is not your concern, do you understand? I have supported you for years, Xanthus. Be content with that." He took a step back and to give Benito warning of his approach, said in a loud voice, "Good night."
With one last penetrating look he walked away from Xanthus and toward his future.
Benito grimly waited throughout dinner for the night's unpleasant surprise. It was the first time they had dined at home for a week. Leonardo was a social man, enjoying the company of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances among the noble and even the middle classes of Venezia. But his plain-speaking and honesty made him disdain some of the fake pretenses of the rich, and he also appreciated quiet evenings staying at home with Benito as his sole companion.
Like last week, it was the tenseness exuding from Leonardo that made the evening intolerable. Benito had dismissed it last week, assuming a problem had arisen with one of Leonardo's many trading ventures that the other man didn't yet wish to discuss. The signore often mulled over his concerns before seeking Benito's advice. Instead, the problem was how to inform Benito that he was to become a groom. What could the problem be? Could anything be worse than the prospect of marriage to a young woman he barely knew?
At least the signore had not appeared to hold Benito's rejection against him. They followed their daily routine all week, everything seeming apparently normal in their relationship. Handling Leonardo's vast business interests, overseeing the building of a new palazzo on the Grand Canal, being called to offer his expertise to the Venezian head of state, the Doge, attending many social engagements and dinners. But every once in a while, Benito caught Leonardo giving him an unreadable look and Benito realized that Leonardo was still mulling the problem… of him. His own imagination caused Benito to feel like a small rabbit waiting to be pounced upon by the mythical protector of Venezia, the Lion of San Marcos. The signore often reminded Benito of a lion with his calm dignity, noble face, and brown hair curling softly down to his shoulders, but tonight the comparison made Benito wince at the thought of a lion's sharp teeth and claws. What would be tonight's announcement? That Leonardo could not tolerate Benito's presence and was planning on sending him away?
Dinner finished, they moved into the saloon for an after dinner liqueur and Benito knew he could no longer wait. "Signore, last week you demanded my honesty on a subject I would have preferred not to discuss."
Mildly surprised, Leonardo replied, "Yes Benito, and you gave me your honesty."
"Then do me the same courtesy, Signore. Say what you must and do not delay. Are you sending me to Verona?"
"Why would I send you to Verona?"
"Do not tease me, Signore!" Unable to sit, Benito paced the room. "Be honest with me if you cannot tolerate my tendencies. I have seen the way you have looked at me this past week. Send me away if you find me disgusting but do not toy with me. I will serve you willingly in Verona if that is your desire."
"You wish honesty."
"Very well then. I intended to lead to the subject more gracefully but…" As Benito stopped pacing to stand in front of him, Leonardo reached out and caught both his hands in his own larger hands. "You speak of my desire. My desire, my dearest Benito, is to initiate you in the ways of manly love."
Speechless, Benito simply stared in shock.
"It is unfortunate, perhaps, that you never invaded my privacy or you would have known long ago that I am a lover of men. It was a young man, not a woman, who I kept at the red house. I went to him last week to release him from my service. I have long sought someone who would be not just my lover, not just a vessel for my physical needs, but a companion, a friend, someone who would share my life as well as live in my heart."
Benito's mouth moved but no words emerged. Leonardo tugged at his hands, guiding him to sit upon his lap, Benito's legs on each side of Leonardo's thighs. "I only wished to arrange your marriage to escape from the constant temptation of declaring my love to you. If you were safely wed with children on the way, I thought I could put you out of my mind. I could let you have the future you deserve. But you surprised me, as you often do, by revealing yourself to be the very person I have dreamed of finding."
His voice squeaked as Benito demanded, "Then why did you not say this last week?"
"Just because you are attracted to men, I could not assume that you were interested in me. I am much older than you, Benito. And there was Xanthus. I did not wish to come to you with a prior attachment. I have tried to find the words all week, to ask you to let me love you, but there has never been time."
"Oh Signore," Benito breathed. His hands slipped free of Leonardo's grasp, circling his shoulders as he leaned forward. Their lips met, softly at first, a delicate touching of lips. Both men were afraid to believe in this reality, that each was waiting for the other, fearing rejection but craving love.
Benito deepened the kiss, opening his mouth, touching his tongue to Leonardo's, finding his action met with equal fervor. Hardly daring to believe his own boldness, he buried his hands in the other man's long, thick hair, finding it as silky and full as he had imagined. Leonardo's beard was rough and coarse against the soft flesh of Benito's face, an exciting contrast of textures. The fulfillment of his fantasies caused Benito to twist and squirm in his need, rubbing his slim body against Leonardo's broader form.
Placing his hands on Benito's chest, Leonardo pushed him. "Relax, my love, we have all evening. We have all our lives, if you wish it."
"Please Signore!" Benito panted, bucking his hips on Leonardo's strong thighs. Perhaps this was another wild dream and he would awaken alone in the morning, aching and unsatisfied. The temptation of Leonardo called forth a trait from Benito's early years as a neglected child, the primeval urge to snatch at life with both hands, and he communicated his desire frantically, writhing on Leonardo's lap and scattering kisses on his face.
Laughing in exultation, Leonardo stood up, pulling Benito with him and tossing him back down on the rug in front of the fireplace. Young men were ever impatient. "Yes, my love, I shall please you." He flipped up Benito's long tunic and tugged his leggings off before burying his face in Benito's groin, swallowing his hardness as he caressed Benito's sack and his thighs. He deliberately overwhelmed Benito, wanting the younger man to achieve a fast, blissful orgasm, one that would relieve the frantic need and allow a longer, more leisurely bout of loving.
"Signore, you should not!" Benito could not articulate the rest of his protest. The waves of pleasure began in his cock but spread rapidly throughout his body. He undulated on the floor, his entire body arching and thrusting rhythmically. The rug was soft on his back as the fire warmed one side of his body, his other side cooled, and Leonardo's mouth burned him alive.
The heavenly pleasure was too unbearable to last and he came screaming, uncaring if the servants heard. He clenched his hands on Leonardo's scalp, his legs squeezing Leonardo's torso, unaware that the heels of his boots were digging into the firm muscles of Leonardo's side.
Leonardo propped himself up with his elbows pillowed on Benito's thighs, a satisfied smile on his face. He watched Benito's nostrils flare and his mouth gasp open as he panted for breath, unable to talk, his limp body sprawled on the rug. "If you wish more, my love, come to me in my bedroom. There is something I need for what I wish to do next."
With that invitation, Leonardo was gone, moving gracefully for such a large man. There would be no coercion tonight. Benito would decide to follow him or not. He walked calmly but inside Leonardo was begging on his knees for Benito to make the decision he fervently craved.
Benito gaped after him before scrambling for his clothes, restoring them enough to be decent. He didn't understand the signore's abrupt departure but he wasn't a fool to miss this offer. Leonardo said follow and he would. He sped up the stairs to the master bedroom, making sure that the servants did not observe. The curtains were mostly pulled around the large four-poster, a small gap open on one side. Benito hesitated then flung one curtain back.
Leonardo was lying on the bed, the covers pushed down to his waist, his broad chest bare. Reassured of Benito's free choice, he felt safe enough to command, "Take off your clothes for me." Benito obeyed, hastily restored clothes even more quickly discarded as Leonardo's eyes caressed him.
Benito crawled onto the bed, boldly pushing the covers down, giving the exposed body an appreciative glance before sitting on Leonardo's thighs.
Leonardo's hands caught each side of Benito's torso, holding him in place when Benito tried to lean in for a kiss. "You must understand, Benito, that I want you for both companion and lover. You will still be at my side, all day, every day, helping with the work we have always done. I will not neglect my family or my responsibilities to Venezia."
"It sounds like heaven, Signore, if I can be at your side all day and in your bed all night." Not comprehending the demons only recently expunged from Leonardo's life, Benito leaned forward, anxious to end the conversation. While Benito was a smaller man than Leonardo, he also was strong and Leonardo found himself having to bend his elbows and allow the languorous kiss. Benito was content to take time and explore Leonardo's mouth thoroughly.
"And you are surely a gift from God, my Benito," Leonardo breathed when Benito released his mouth.
Between dropping kisses over Leonardo's chest and face, Benito pleaded, "Show me more, Signore. Show me everything. I want to please you in all ways." He paused to ask curiously, "What did you need here, Signore?"
"This," Leonardo answered, holding up a flask. "Sweet oil from the Orient."
"It is for - " Benito ended with a blank look.
"To ease the penetration. You do understand what happens between two men?"
Benito began studiously sucking on Leonardo's nipples, alternating between the two, keeping the other occupied with his fingers. Leonardo swallowed harshly from the pleasure then yanked Benito's head away. "You do understand, do you not?"
"I have imagined, Signore, but I did not know - "
"And what have you imagined," Leonardo asked with a teasing tone of voice, though the thought of Benito fantasizing about the two of them sent a rush to blood to his shaft.
"Many things, Signore, many. But most of all in the gondola, and you would be - "
Benito broke off again, pressing kisses to Leonardo's shoulder, and Leonardo took pity on him. Despite his rough background and training as a gentleman in a society that could be as decadent as it was religiously devout, Benito had protected his innocence. His experience with sexual games was minimal and Leonardo decided with a possessive pride that he liked that idea. A few kisses and caresses with others meant nothing. He would teach Benito the joys of the flesh.
"If the words will not come, my Benito, show me. How have you dreamed of us being?"
Relieved and eager, Benito turned around, resettling his bottom on Leonardo's thighs but facing away. "In the gondola, Signore…like this." Leonardo's shaft was heavy and potent between the soft cheeks of Benito's buttocks. Benito squirmed, trying to connect.
"First, Benito, there must be lubrication, so that you will not be hurt. I would not hurt you for the world." Fitting action to words, Leonardo uncapped the bottle, pouring oil on his cock, liberally coating it, his fingers brushing against Benito's skin. With his oily hand, he explored Benito's buttocks, letting him gradually become accustomed to his touch before slipping in a finger. He froze at Benito's shaky inhalation. "Benito?"
"It is fine, Signore. Please…more."
Benito tried to make himself relax, leaning his back against Leonardo's chest. He looked down at himself, fascinated to watch Leonardo's left hand curl around his shaft, gently sliding up and down, spreading Benito's own moisture on the length. Leonardo's right hand continued caressing Benito's cheeks, his middle finger buried inside him. He felt both cherished by the strength of Leonardo's broad chest and solid arms and erotically excited by the magic of his hands.
Then another finger was inside him and a secret place was touched, a place that had him arching away, gasping, as lightning flashed through his body. Leonardo laughed, a low and confident sound, and did it again.
Slumping forward, Benito gripped Leonardo's knees, raising his body and trying to force himself down on Leonardo's cock. The Signore gave that laugh again, a pleased sound that had Benito's toes curling. Rarely was the Signore so sublimely relaxed and happy and it was Benito who made him sound that way.
Leonardo's hands fastened on Benito's hips, guiding him down, the fingers replaced by Leonardo's thick cock. It hurt a little, as his muscles were stretched, but the sweet oil eased the path until Benito could feel his skin touching Leonardo's. He whimpered in ecstasy though he wanted to shout with pride. He had taken all of the Signore's formidable length.
Benito rocked up and down, his hands moving restlessly on Leonardo's legs, feeling the rough hair and sculpted muscles. Though they often sweated together in the practice salle, he had never seen Leonardo's bare legs. Even when the other man stripped off his tunic, he always wore his hose and boots. Benito was mesmerized by the softness of the skin of his upper thighs, the way the hair grew denser on his calves. Leonardo's toes clenched and Benito felt his toes correspondingly curl with his pleasure.
Encouraged by Leonardo's hands, he increased his speed, posting up and down until his inner thigh muscles were trembling with the strain. He leaned back, feeling Leonardo's breath on the back of his neck, his nose burrowing in Benito's shoulder-length hair. Leonardo pants turned into an anguished moan as a warmth spread inside Benito, Leonardo's seed mixing with the sweet oil.
The evidence of Leonardo's pleasure triggered the release of Benito's own. He collapsed in Leonardo's arms, watching the creamy fluid erupt from his cock and fall on Leonardo's thighs, as his own thighs quivered and relaxed.
"Leonardo, that was - indescribable. Amazing. Wonderful."
"It is you who made it so, my Benito."
"My Leo. My lion." They rested, hands gently touching silken skin covering supple muscles, learning each other's bodies in the peace of the moment. "If we did that in a gondola, I fear we would overturn it."
Leonardo laughed, a happy chuckle. "I'm glad I taught you to swim, my Benito."
Life could not be happier Leonardo decided, as he rummaged through his desk, pulling out the papers he would need to take to Verona. Benito was the perfect companion and lover, just as he had always dreamed. Someone who could engage his intellect, defend his back, and delight him in the bedroom with an honest and unending passion.
At least, life would be perfect if Benito passed this test. He sighed, wishing that he could simply trust. But he couldn't. He had trusted Xanthus and begun a relationship with him, assuming that they shared the same views. To his distaste, he discovered that Xanthus wanted a life of idle leisure with no responsibility. Secure in his position, Xanthus had let Leonardo see his occasional petulance, the minor insults and injustices against the household servants that were signs of a spoiled personality with no consideration of others.
Even worse, Leonardo began to fear that Xanthus had a dark, unpleasant side of his nature. Venezian politics, the scheming among the nobles to curry favor with the Doge, were treacherous waters. The Doge encouraged every Venetian to spy on their fellow countrymen and report any cause for alarm anonymously by dropping a note into the Mouth of Truth, an ancient carving of a face in the Palazzo Ducale.
At first, Leonardo had not suspected when a friend of his was denounced, even though the man had been a partner in the trading venture that ruined Xanthus' father. A partner who was lucky to have enough resources to weather the set back. Justice was swift, the confession of misdeeds forced from the man before he was executed.
The second denouncement disturbed Leonardo even more, a mature female acquaintance who had mocked Xanthus and Leonardo, making an unkind comment about 'older men and their young friends.' Leonardo had not been disturbed by her comment; it was said only in passing at a party and did not arouse much notice. He knew it was a perilous path he chose to walk, disdaining marriage and inviting comment by bluntly announcing that his cousin would be his heir. But Xanthus had been furious in their bedroom that night, the black of his tunic, hose, and hair making him look like a demonic avenger as he paced and ranted on the evils of gossipy old women. Only days later she was accused, dragged through the Palazzo Ducale, across the Bridge of Sighs, and into the prison. It was said that her heart simply failed her, but her body was never seen again so no one knew if there were torture marks to dispute that statement.
Leonardo hesitated to believe that Xanthus could have created false accusations out of spite. Whenever he remembered how they had bonded together after losing both their fathers, he couldn't imagine that young innocent man could be motivated by sheer malevolence. But when the third and fourth acquaintances who crossed Xanthus ended up being questioned by the inquisitor and their relationship began deteriorating from Xanthus' spoiled pouting, it seemed wise to isolate the young man from society, ensconcing him in the red house.
The accusations had dropped off, though whether that was from coincidence or Xanthus not being around their acquaintances and therefore having no reason to feel slighted, Leonardo couldn't tell. He could only hope his concerns were nonsensical. Every once in a while, he tried to escape from Xanthus entirely, encouraging him to develop a new life. The other man always played upon Leonardo's guilt and affection, insisting on continuing a relationship that Leonardo saw more and more as unhealthy.
Benito entered the room and Leonardo came to himself abruptly, realizing that he had stopped rummaging and was simply staring at his desk, brooding over Xanthus and the mistakes he had made with the younger man. He could only thank God that shortly after removing Xanthus from his daily life, he had found Benito. Even when his urges rode him and he succumbed to Xanthus' physical temptations in the nights, at least he had Benito during the day, maintaining his sanity by focusing his attention on helping a purer soul. The worrisome notion that it was his own errors that caused Xanthus' shortcomings would haunt him all his life, but at least in Benito, he could find redemption.
Assuming that Leonardo was judging Benito better than he had Xanthus and that this youth was as true as he believed.
"Captain Pietro and the men are ready to go, Signore."
"Very well, Benito." He grabbed the last of the papers and stuffed them into the satchel. "I shall join them and be on my way."
"I do wish that you would let me go with you, Signore."
"You know that someone is needed here, Benito, to oversee the Palazzo and handle any crises." And also so Leonardo could determine if power would turn Benito into a slothful tyrant to the household staff, as it had Xanthus.
"Yes, Signore," Benito said obediently, but he sighed unhappily.
Leonardo crossed the room, standing directly in front of Benito, needing to impress on him the importance of his words. "I trust you, Benito. I rely upon you to take responsibility for the affairs of this house. To protect my family and my business."
Unconsciously straightening his shoulders and standing taller, Benito's words came firmly. "I shall not let you down, Signore. I shall not shirk my duty. All will be well when you return from Verona."
Replying merely "Good," Leonardo took another step forward, his booted feet on each side of Benito's. They kissed longingly, knowing it would be the last kiss for several weeks.
"And," Benito smiled, guessing Leonardo's reaction to his next statement, "I shall keep my bed warm for you. Do not be gone too long, my Leo."
A small groan escaped Leonardo at the vision of a naked Benito snuggled in soft cotton sheets. "I shall be back," he promised.
Being on horseback was an odd feeling but soon grew comfortable. Leonardo mostly traveled by gondola or walked through the narrow, winding streets of Venezia, maintaining horses only for longer voyages out of town. Pietro, the captain of his guards, insisted that Leonardo travel well protected, surrounding him with several men. Many dangers could present themselves while traveling from city to city, both from robbers and wild beasts.
Leonardo tolerated Pietro's arrangements, though privately he wondered if the Captain simply needed to feel that he served a useful function. Since both Leonardo and Benito were excellent swordsmen, Leonardo felt safe traveling in Venezia without an official escort, so Pietro and his men trained more than they ever faced danger.
The trip went without difficulty, the worst peril the growing ache in Leonardo's heart. Despite what he told Benito, this trip was not entirely necessary. A few swift messages back and forth probably could have resolved the problem on his estates in Verona. But he preferred to handle it himself as a convenient excuse to leave Venezia and the longer he was away from Benito's side, the more and more he worried. Only he realized he wasn't worrying over how Benito was acting as master in his absence but whether something had happened to him. The ache became almost a physical pain and Leonardo wished desperately that he could talk to Benito and reassure himself that the younger man was fine.
After several days of hard riding, they were within sight of Verona. Leonardo yanked on the reins, pausing his horse on a slight rise of ground. Riding at the head of the column, Pietro came back to see what caused the stoppage. "We're going back," Leonardo said abruptly.
"Going back, Signore?"
"Going back, Pietro. I have a bad feeling about this."
"About Verona, Signore?" Pietro glanced toward the tall stone walls of the distant city, assessing the guards on the gate and the other travelers entering through the solid wooden doors. "You know you can rely on my men and me to protect you. And there will be more guards when we reach your household."
"No, not about Verona. About Venezia. And Benito. I must be there. Paulo."
Pietro's second in command brought his horse forward. Leonardo snapped a few commands at him, then turned his horse and started back toward Verona. Paulo looked helplessly at Pietro, who shrugged. It was commonly accepted that God had gifted the signore with an uncanny instinct for business, diplomacy, and danger. Pietro detailed a few men to follow Paulo to Verona and carry out the signore's instructions. Pietro and the rest broke into a gallop to catch up to Leonardo's disappearing figure.
The ache did not ease when Leonardo strode through the front doors of his own palazzo, calling frantically for Benito. His chatelaine ran out of the back, crying. He caught her small form, shaking her. "Where is Benito? Where is he?"
"Oh, Signore, he has been denounced! Denounced for treason to the Doge and the state!"
Leonardo didn't waste time cursing himself for a fool. He had been right and Xanthus had been behind the denouncements, merely biding his time until he found a victim worthy of his malice. The one victim that would most hurt Leonardo. How long had Xanthus slept with him, professed love for him, and yet schemed to strike back at him? "Where is he?"
"They took him, Signore. The day you left. He is in prison."
Pietro had followed Leonardo in the doors, anxious to discover if the signore's premonitions of disaster had been correct. "He is gone then, Signore. Gone and lost to us forever." Like the rest of the household, Pietro had liked Benito for his engaging personality and considerate treatment of others, never acting superior as Xanthus had.
"No! I will not let Benito die."
"But what can you do, Signore? You know that the Mouth of Truth is always correct. The Doge believes it so."
The chatelaine was still crying and he briskly ordered her to bring him refreshments and feed the men. She obeyed, grateful to have the signore back in charge and a positive task to occupy herself. Leonardo nodded once to Pietro and strode up the stairs without caring if he seemed rude. He did not need to discuss this situation with his Captain, though the man had made an accurate observation that Leonardo would have to consider carefully. As much as Leonardo disliked the Mouth of Truth, the Doge was a cautious man, fearful of his honorary position. He believed that the anonymity of the notes placed in the Mouth of Truth allowed the good citizens of Venezia to be truthful. And with an inquisitor who could torture the accused until a confession was achieved, the Doge's belief was never proved wrong.
Leonardo was tempted to drag Xanthus by the hair to the Palazzo Ducale and force the other man to confess that the note was dishonest. But he knew Xanthus, the way he could bend the truth into lies, the way he'd twisted and played on Leonardo's emotions for years until Benito's love gave him the power to break free. Confronting the Doge with Xanthus might only result in Leonardo accompanying Benito to the prison while Xanthus laughed in scorn.
He called out for his valet, demanding hot water. He would bathe and eat while he thought. Despite his paranoia, the Doge was an intelligent man and appreciated a reasoned argument. Somehow there must be a way to convince the Doge that Benito was innocent. With Benito's very life depending on him, Leonardo would find the way to free Benito from Xanthus' trap.
An hour later, Tomas glided the gondola past the prison. Leonardo stared at the Bridge of Sighs that connected the prison and the Palazzo Ducale. The bridge was beautiful, entirely covered and carved with small windows along its length. Its name came from the prisoners' sighs as they crossed it but aware of the inquisitor's methods, Leonardo had always feared why the prisoners were so miserable that they couldn't do more than sigh.
The gondola continued past the Palazzo Ducale, stopping at San Marcos Piazza. Leonardo leaped out, instructing Tomas to wait. He walked between the statutes of the San Marcos Lion and San Teodore, and into the Palazzo Ducale. As a frequent visitor, he was allowed entry without question. He shuddered as he walked past the Mouth of Truth, hating the grimace and down turned lips on the rock face. As he walked up the golden staircase and into the Doge's official state rooms, he strove for an air of calm and found it in a promise to himself.
He would not fail Benito. Either Benito would walk out of the Doge's prison this very day, or Leonardo would join him in imprisonment.
As always, the Doge was a busy man. Leonardo waited patiently and was finally allowed an audience after several hours. He kneeled before the elderly man and kissed his ring of office.
"Leonardo," the Doge said, frail hands smoothing down the purple fabric of his robes. "I expect you are here about young Benito."
"Yes, my lord."
"It is regrettable that one so young should fall so heavily."
The words he used must be carefully chosen. On many occasions, Leonardo was honest to the point of rudeness to the Doge and received only appreciation for that bluntness. But the Doge did not take treason lightly and he valued the sacred nature of the Mouth. "My lord, I fear an injustice has occurred. Benito is a loyal servant to my house, to you, and to Venezia."
"Are you saying the Mouth is wrong?"
This would be tricky indeed though Leonardo was heartened by the Doge's apparent willingness to listen. "No, my lord. I believe that a good citizen of Venezia perhaps misheard or misunderstood an innocent comment and wished to protect your highness. The Mouth accepted the note as true because of the honesty of the good citizen. And I fear that out of remorse for some slight misunderstanding, Benito may confess to an act he has not committed." Out of torture and pain more likely, but Leonardo didn't say it.
"I see. The scenario you outline is possible but not likely is it? And even if it was, impossible to prove."
Leonardo breathed easier. The Doge was clearly ambivalent on Benito's guilt, though whether out of respect of Leonardo or liking for Benito, Leonardo couldn't tell. He just needed a way to convince him and protect the Mouth's reputation as sacred diviner of truth. "My lord, Benito *is* loyal to me and I am willing to prove my loyalty to you and Venezia. Test me, my lord. Let me place my hand in the Mouth and I shall answer any questions you ask."
The Doge fiddled with his ring of office, twirling it around on his finger as he considered Leonardo's offer. "If you lie, the Mouth shall close on your hand, severing it at the wrist."
"Yes, my lord. And if that should happen, then you shall know my guilt and by extension, Benito's guilt. You shall have two criminals to execute. But it shall not happen and the honesty and loyalty of two good citizens shall be undisputable."
"No one has been tested with the Mouth in decades, Leonardo. Not in this fashion."
"But the Mouth has tested dozens of citizens over the last decades by determining the veracity of anonymous notes. The Mouth is the absolute avatar of Truth. Let me be tested. Bring Benito to the Mouth and let him be tested if you don't accept his fealty to me." And oh please, let him still be alive, Leonardo prayed.
"You have been a wise and valued adviser to us, Leonardo. And you have always been honest with us. Out of respect for your service, I will accept your suggestion." He rose, a thin white-haired man who controlled Venezia and through her power, the entire Adriatic Sea. "Come, Leonardo, to the Mouth of Truth." The Doge held out his hand and Leonardo offered his arm. He escorted the Doge out of the room, followed by the Doge's closest advisers and his armed guard. Leonardo was careful to take small slow steps. Allowing his impatience to get the better of him and embarrass the Doge by rushing ahead would not help Benito's cause.
They walked through the staterooms, past citizens and foreign nobles waiting for the Doge's attention, until the Doge paused by a map showing Venezia, her trade routes throughout the civilized world and even into the fringes of the lands occupied by heathens.
"Venezia. Her power. Her greatness. These things are built on the honor and loyalty of her citizens."
"Yes my lord," Leonardo said respectfully.
They continued down the Golden Staircase, named for its beautiful and ornate ceiling, until they stepped onto the and stopped by the Mouth.
Now that the moment had arrived, Leonardo hesitated, staring at the fearsome face. Rumor said the stone lips and teeth would clamp down on a dishonest man, shredding the hand the wrist, leaving the liar screaming in agony. He trusted Benito implicitly but the young man had been hiding his love from Leonardo. Had Benito been keeping other thoughts secret?
If this test went wrong, the repercussions might extend beyond Leonardo and Benito. His cousin, the members of his household, his other relations, all might be questioned. His wealth and lands could be seized. Though not a vengeful man, the Doge could be extremely thorough in his perceived duty.
"You can still change your mind," the Doge said softly. "We would not look harshly upon you for it. You have done much for this orphan. It would not be the first time that a benefactor has been betrayed."
The Doge's doubt vanquished Leonardo's fear. Benito had been at his side for years, ever faithful. He might have hidden his love, but only because he was a young man still learning to accept his own emotions. Benito wasn't a traitor. Leonardo stuck his hand in the Mouth. "Benito has done no wrong, my lord. I owe him the same respect and duty he has shown me."
"Very well." The Doge consulted his advisers then began asking a series of questions. He interrogated Leonardo on his loyalty, Benito's loyalty, their actions, feelings, and attitudes, the honesty of his household and family members. The scope of the questions ranged over many years and events, even minor instances that Leonardo could barely recall.
The inquisition was not unexpected. Leonardo knew that once begun, the Doge would mercilessly take the opportunity to examine every facet of Leonardo's life. He answered every question truthfully, fully, and patiently, staring at the Mouth, wondering if he might misspeak and stone would come alive, severing his wrist and condemning him to death at the hands of the Doge's executioner.
Finally, the Doge's questions slowed to a halt as his suspicions could find no further outlet to explore. After a last consultation with his advisers, he announced, "The Mouth has accepted your truth. You are loyal, as is your house and your servant, Benito. Captain, go to the prison and release him. Leonardo, you may await him at the entrance to the bridge."
"Yes, my lord." Leonardo stepped away from the Mouth and dropped gracefully to one knee, bending his head in respect. "My house owes you for your consideration and trust, my lord. Our loyalty and duty are eternally yours."
"I shall remember that," the Doge said dryly before walking away. He didn't offer his apologies for falsely imprisoning Benito, for such words might be seen as a sign of weakness, and Venezia could not remain a great power with a soft ruler.
Left alone, Leonardo stared at his hand. His faith in Benito had been vindicated but this experience made him reflect on Xanthus. He had feared that Xanthus had placed notes filled with falsehoods and lies within the Mouth. People had been disgraced and executed, friends that Leonardo would have said were good citizens. If the notes were lies, the Mouth should have chewed and swallowed them whole.
But it hadn't. And if those notes were truth, then the note on Benito also should have been truth.
Any last doubts about misjudging Xanthus were shattered along with his small remnant of trust in the Mouth. The slander against Benito was ridiculous as had been the accusations against his friends. This whole interrogation had been a charade. Venezia had not been blessed by God with a divine oracle of truth. Leonardo could have proclaimed his skin the color of blue and the Mouth would have done nothing.
He could believe Xanthus was a liar and a manipulator or he could believe in the sanctity of the Mouth. Not both.
Leonardo crossed himself and prayed under his breath. He must have faith that God wanted the Doge and the Venezians to trust in the Mouth. For now, he would be grateful God had blessed him this day by freeing Benito.
Leonardo watched Benito as he crossed the Bridge of Sighs, escorted by two guards. The younger man staggered when he reached Leonardo and found himself quickly supported by Leonardo's strong arm around his shoulders. Benito's right arm cradled his left to his body. Bruises marked his face, his clothes were dirty and tattered, and he smelled. But he was alive and in Leonardo's eyes, beautiful. "Come Benito, we are leaving this place."
Too dazed and weak from hunger to understand, Benito could only ask "Signore?"
"You have been released, Benito. The Doge believes in your innocence."
Tears glistened on Benito's cheeks. "What did you do, Signore?"
"I put my hand in the Mouth of Truth and swore to your honesty and loyalty to the Doge and Venezia."
"Signore," Benito gasped, "you risked your hand!"
"No, Benito, I did not. For I know you." Leonardo kept his voice firm and loud as they walked through the Palazzo Ducale. Many loiterers, both servants and noblemen, watched the scene. They would report this conversation and Benito's innocence would be reaffirmed as the gossip spread. "I know your fealty and devotion to my house, our Doge, and Venezia. This accusation was surely the result of a dreadful misunderstanding."
Benito nodded wearily. "Thank you for believing in me, Signore."
Without further conversation, they crossed the inner courtyard and through the archway into San Marcos Piazza. Leonardo would have turned to the left, toward the sea and his gondola, but Benito stopped him. "Please signore, I would like to visit the Basilica."
They turned to the right toward San Marcos Basilica. The massive church dominated the San Marcos Piazza with its bulbous domes and high arches. A gilded representation of the Lion of San Marcos and the four bronze horses surveyed the square from over its main doors. Buoyed by freedom, Benito walked with more strength but still needed support from Leonardo. They attracted attention again, the elegant ladies in their long gowns visiting the merchants in the piazza whispering behind their hands at the sight of the handsome signore in a rich tunic and leggings of midnight blue and his filthy companion in torn clothes.
At midday, few were at worship and Benito was relieved to have the peace. He loved this church, with its beautiful mosaics of biblical scenes covering the walls and ceilings. The predominant gold sparkled in the light from the numerous candelabras as if shining with God's divine presence. Benito kneeled at the tomb of San Marcos, the saint whose body was recovered from the infidels in Constantinople. Leonardo kneeled next to him and they prayed.
Crossing himself awkwardly before sitting back on his heels, Benito said in a hushed voice, "I feared God had turned against us, Signore, when I was imprisoned. I feared it was punishment for my crime of loving a man."
"That was man's doing, not God's, my Benito. You were accused by my former lover, Xanthus. Not because he was concerned for our Doge but because he was jealous of you and hoped to destroy you. I loved Xanthus long ago but I saw too late his selfishness and idleness. He would not be both lover and companion. I fear," Leonardo drew in a shaky breath, "I fear that he has made such accusations before but I turned a blind eye and hid him away, hoping I was wrong. He must pay this time."
Here was the secret that tormented Leonardo. The secret that made him doubt Benito, leaving him behind as a test of his character even though he should have trusted Benito's loyalty and dedication. Even without hearing the entire history between the two, Benito knew Leonardo well enough to make one vital assumption. The Signore was a strong man, but not a cold one. Harming a former lover would destroy him, especially if the two had once been as close as Benito and Leonardo. "No, my lord, promise me you will not take action against him."
"He is dangerous, Benito."
"He has tried his worst and failed, Signore. God will punish him." Benito glanced at Leonardo, noting the hard expression. "Promise me, Signore, here in this holy place. You will not act against him."
The promise was agony to give but Benito had clearly suffered so much, Leonardo could not refuse him a say in his accuser's fate. "Very well, Benito. I can deny you nothing. I promise to take no action against Xanthus, though I fear we will regret this vow. Now let me take you home."
"Yes, Signore." Benito's knees had locked from sitting and his strength failed him as he tried to stand. Leonardo caught him as he passed out, carrying him from the church.
Xanthus stood in front of a mirror, admiring his own naked figure. Bruises marked his skin in places, testaments of his new patron. Signore Vizzini was not as good a lover as Leonardo, but what he lacked in skill he made up in enthusiasm. He would be satisfactory until Xanthus found a better prospect. Or until Xanthus snared Leonardo back, once he managed to destroy his little river rat. The news of Benito's escape from the Mouth of Truth had reached him, sending Xanthus into a temper tantrum, smashing pottery and screaming. But he never doubted his own ingenuity. He would find another way to both strike back at Leonardo and win him over.
At least his new patron was almost as rich as Leonardo and absurdly generous. An excess of wealth could excuse a number of flaws.
A figure appeared behind him in the mirror and Xanthus jumped. He relaxed as he realized it was Benito. Leonardo's tame lion did not scare him. "I see things have not been going well for you lately," he smirked, noting the bruises on Benito's face. They had begun to fade but the bandaged arm, and the careful way he held his body satisfied Xanthus' vindictiveness.
"And I see you recognize me despite our lack of introduction."
"It's difficult to forget someone who entertains himself in my boat dock." He laughed at the surprise on Benito's face. "Oh you didn't know that Leonardo heard you, did you?"
In a moment of pique, Benito taunted, "I am happy to entertain Leonardo any time, any place, in any fashion he desires."
"You little river rat," Xanthus sneered. "You are an orphan without family, without breeding or background. And now you are ugly, all bruised and disgusting."
"I may be an orphan, Xanthus, but I am the Signore's protector and have been for many years. I have been at his side defending him since we met. I will heal and I will continue to protect him."
Xanthus yawned in an exaggerated fashion. "Have you come to warn me, little one?"
"I made Leonardo promise to take no action against you in the name of our Lord. I do not know all of the history between you two, but I know it might destroy Leonardo's soul to harm you."
"How sweet, protecting both his body and his immortal spirit." Covering his body loosely with a robe, Xanthus sat down, draping one leg over the chair's arm. "So why are you here?"
"I believe that God will punish you for your misdeeds. But I also believe that sometimes God needs a little assistance. Captain."
Xanthus sprung out of the chair and started to lunge for his sword but it was too late. Three of Leonardo's guards were in the room, their weapons held at his throat.
Benito smiled unpleasantly. "Captain Pietro and his men are going on a trading venture. A long trading venture. They will be security for a group of merchants. Leonardo has lent the services of some of his men in exchange for a share of the profits."
Stepping between two of the guards, Benito neared Xanthus, speaking intently. "You sneer at me because I was born a river rat, an orphan with no parents. But that background gives me strength. I may act like a gentleman but I know how to protect those I love." He turned away from Xanthus. "Captain, he is yours. Do with him what you will."
"Yes, Signore. I have heard some of the infidels like a male lover and will pay a pretty price for an attractive leman."
"Captive in a harem, how fitting for you, Xanthus." Benito flicked one look back at Xanthus' frozen expression and walked out of the room.
His step was light as he trotted down the stairs and to the gondola but the confrontation had taken all his strength. Only the driving need to prevent any future scheme of Xanthus had kept Benito making secret arrangements from his sick bed. Arrangements complicated by Leonardo's constant hovering. He stumbled into the gondola, falling onto the velvet cushions. Tomas asked worriedly, "Signore Benito?"
"Please, Tomas, take me home."
He breathed a sigh of relief as Tomas untied the gondola and pushed away from the dock. Pietro would ensure that Xanthus never returned to Venezia. Leonardo would be safe. The experience in the Doge's prison had been pure torment, enclosed within stone walls and locked behind metal gates, starved and beaten, his arm broken and not tended, his loyalty and honor suspect. But it was worth the agony to free Leonardo from Xanthus and secure their future.
Benito lunged, stabbing at an imaginary opponent with his sword. He stepped back, saluted and lunged again. Quick steps forward, advancing against his enemy, slow steps backward, reluctantly retreating. He pressed forward again, parrying and feinting with the sword in his right hand, bringing up the short knife in his left to slash at his invisible enemy's vulnerable abdomen.
As Benito danced around the large empty room that he and Leonardo used for dueling practice, he remembered when Leonardo had come to him two days ago, confessing that he had visited the red house. He thought it would be wise to threaten Xanthus, hoping that words would be sufficient to deter future viciousness. He found the red house deserted and assumed Xanthus was afraid enough of Leonardo's possible retaliation to flee. While he was embarrassed that he had intended to bend his vow enough to take verbal action against Xanthus, he had to let Benito know that the danger was over.
Benito didn't dispute Leonardo's interpretation of the facts, merely asking what he would do with the house. Leonardo had shrugged. The house had been signed over to Xanthus and now that he had disappeared, would be the property of his distant relations. It wasn't his concern. Benito had kissed Leonardo fiercely, relieved that the signore had not suggested removing him to the house.
His opponent attacked and Benito retaliated, driving him back to the wall, impaling him through the chest, his short knife buried in his side. Satisfied with his victory, he stopped and stretched, feeling the healthy pull of his muscles. The stiffness from bruising and stressed muscles was gone. Healing had taken a long time, but he was finally completely well.
He would always appreciate his recovery time. Leonardo insisted that Benito recuperate in his bedroom. He had been endearingly romantic, entertaining Benito with simple games and reading to him, bringing him small presents, insisting that the cook serve the most tempting meals. They slept together each night. They did not have sexual relations, but Leonardo cradled Benito in his arms and gave him tender kisses until they fell asleep.
Now, that chasteness and inactivity could end. Benito would resume his rightful place at Leonardo's side. He would assist him during the day, steer his gondola, and slake both their passions in the night. They had survived Xanthus, the Doge, and the Mouth of Truth, surely a sign that God approved their union.
After a fast wash and a quick meal, Benito strolled downstairs, checking the signore's den before finding him in the library. Leonardo was sitting in a chair by the window, the sun lighting his face. He was dressed in a scarlet tunic, his hose and boots black. Benito started to cross to him before noticing that another person was in the room. He stopped, embarrassed by his eagerness.
"Benito," Leonardo said, not moving from his position, "I believe you have met Signore Marcellus."
"Yes, I have had the pleasure," Benito bowed gracefully to the artist, who nodded back but didn't stop his brush from moving. "You are having your portrait painted?"
"I believe you said I should," Leonardo replied.
"Yes, Signore, I did," Benito said in surprise. The two had gone to a party where the host displayed his new portrait. Benito had made a casual remark that Leonardo should have the artist paint him, for surely he would be doing the artist a great favor, giving him a subject that could be painted realistically rather than having to use such extreme creativity to hide his flaws. The remark had been made confidentially to Leonardo who merely smiled and shushed his impoliteness. Benito had immediately wished the comment unsaid, regretting making his opinion of Leonardo's physical attractiveness known. "That was some time ago, Signore."
"I was pleased that you would think me a worthy subject."
Though he was concentrating more on his palette than the other men, Marcellus interjected, "You are a superb subject, Signore. Superb. It is an honor to paint you."
If they were alone, Benito would have been happy to expound on Leonardo's worthiness. With the artist in the room, he said merely, "Where shall you hang the painting? It will surely deserve a special place."
"I shall leave that decision to you, Benito, for this is a gift to you."
"I had thought to hide this from you until it was done, but I realized from discussing it with Signore Marcellus that the sessions will take too much time. Yes, this is a gift for you. You may have it hung wherever you wish in the house."
Benito had stayed hovering in the middle of the room where he had stopped upon realizing the room was occupied by two. The enormity of Leonardo's present made him walk forward and kneel by his side. "Perhaps I shall hang it on the wall opposite my bed," he suggested in a soft voice, hoping that the artist wasn't paying enough attention to hear his words, "so that I may see your face the first thing in the morning and the last thing in the night."
"You shall continue sleeping in my bed, my Benito, and see my face every morning and night regardless of where you hang the picture," Leonardo promised. "If you are well enough for the disruption, I shall have the servants rearrange the furniture and bring your clothes and things into my bedroom." Then more diffidently, "If you wish it."
"Oh, I do Signore, I do!" Unmindful of their observer, Benito sank onto Leonardo's lap, kissing him hard. Their arms wrapped around each other, holding them tightly together. They kissed until they were breathing with difficulty, Benito glorying that his body was healed enough to signal its interest emphatically. A loud, "Hmmph!" interrupted them, and Benito hid his head in Leonardo's shoulder, leaving the signore to face the artist.
"Stay here!" Marcellus ordered before dashing out the door, surprising both of them.
"Staying here won't be a problem," Benito teased as he nibbled at Leonardo's ear, "not coming here may be more difficult."
"Well, we do not appear to have shocked the Signore at least," Leonardo said dryly, his expression bemused.
"The Signore's appreciation of the male form has been well-demonstrated in his artistic work."
Uninterested in wasting time talking, Leonardo captured Benito's lips. He kept this kiss light, lips softly caressing each other, not letting the passion explode between them. Benito's responsiveness was a delight, and the young man murmured pleased purrs, cuddling into him.
Too soon, the painter returned, bustling into the room with a pile of fabric draped over his arm. "Up! Stand up! And strip!"
"Signore, I don't think - "
"Come, this is for art!" He tugged at their tunics, forcing Benito and Leonardo to comply by the sheer force of his artistic will. They undressed, looking away from each other, not daring to tempt the rise of their passions any further.
Marcellus had collected fabrics from Leonardo's seamstress, two lengths of silk. Oblivious to their nakedness, he wrapped the dark blue silk around Leonardo in the manner of a full-length toga, draped over one shoulder. He positioned Benito in front of Leonardo, both of them facing him, and fashioned the smaller piece of white silk into a half toga, covering Benito only from the waist to knee. The heavy silk hung in soft folds on their bodies and caressed their naked forms with its cool comfort.
The painter stepped back, studying them thoughtfully, before placing Leonardo's right hand on Benito's right shoulder, his left hand on Benito's waist. He rested Benito's hands on top of Leonardo's. Marcellus sat back down, ignoring the painting, but taking out paper from his satchel. He began drawing rapidly, his attention fully devoted to committing their masculine beauty to paper.
Finally, Leonardo asked, "Signore, what are you doing?"
"I am sketching the two of you, Signore."
With a tolerant tone, Leonardo said, "Signore, I did not hire you to sketch the two of us. I hired you to paint me."
Waving his hand in irritation, the painted looked at them. "I shall paint you later. For now, I must sketch. I shall sculpt you in marble."
Benito asked, "Marble?"
"In marble, Signores. Can you not see yourselves? Two such fine physical specimens…" The painter's attention seemed riveted by Benito's chest. "You are two of God's finest works. Your heads, your shape, the perfect definition of your musculature, only marble can truly do you justice." Marcellus bent his head, his fingers flying over the paper.
Aroused by having seen Leonardo strip and entranced by the artist's words, Benito wished that there was a mirror in the room. Speaking softly, he said, "I can see you in marble, Leonardo. You are so tall and powerful. The polished surface of the marble would come alive with your strength."
"And your spirit and energy would burn through the coldness of the statue, imbuing it with fire."
"I burn for you, Leonardo. Painfully."
Leonardo's lips ghosted through Benito's hair. "You are well?"
"Completely, my Leo."
"Signore Marcellus, leave us. You may return tomorrow at the same time."
The painter raised his head to protest but stopped when he fully looked at them. With only the stimulation of Leonardo's hands caressing his, Benito's nipples had hardened to small points and a bulge had appeared underneath the white silk. Leonardo's eyes were closed, his face dreamy as his lips moved through Benito's hair. "Tomorrow," he said with understanding, having heard of Benito's unpleasant experience and slow recovery.
Neither cared when the door closed behind him. Benito was already turning and sinking to his knees, pulling the heavy blue silk with him, leaving Leonardo naked. The material piled around Leonardo's feet, cushioning Benito's knees from the cold marble floor.
Leonardo's cock was heavy and erect, curving away from his body. Benito caught it in his hand, bringing his lips to it and licking lingeringly at the head. He'd done this several times before Leonardo's departure to Verona but everything seemed new after the long break. The heat of it, the size in his mouth, the satisfaction that came with hearing Leonardo's groans and feeling his fingers clench around Benito's scalp.
Benito lingered gleefully at his task, long slow licks sharing equal time with fast hard sucking, pausing often to run his tongue over his lips, savoring the first drops of Leonardo's seed as he stared into his lover's eyes, silently taunting him with the delay. He fondled himself with his free hand, the feel of his cock even more enticing when wrapped in the white silk.
Leonardo bore the attention manfully, accepting the teasing, thrilled at the confidence in Benito's actions and the firmness of his touch. But even his resolve could not last forever and the time arrived when he held Benito's head in place and thrust into his willing mouth for the last few strokes needed to make the heavens open and send rays of ecstasy through his body.
He groped for the armchair, falling back into its embrace. Benito rose fluidly to his feet. He stood over Leonardo, hands on his hips, the white silk stained with his own moisture but the bulge indicating he had not shared Leonardo's release. "Signore, you said in the basilica that you could deny me nothing."
"And I cannot, my Benito."
"Then follow me upstairs, my lion. There is something I need for what I wish to do next." After parroting Leonardo's words of their first night together, Benito turned on his heel and sashayed from the room, still dressed in the makeshift toga, the bare skin of his back gleaming with a slight sheen of perspiration, his hips swaying under the silk.
Leonardo gave a shout of laughter. For a modicum of modesty, he pulled the red tunic over his head, leaving the discarded clothes on a chair and the blue silk on the floor. He crossed the room and headed for the stairs, happily contemplating how well Benito would undoubtedly perform this skill, as he had mastered everything else Leonardo taught him.
Companion, friend, lover … and equal partner. Someone who would both support him and stand up to him. Accept his love and return it. It was what he had dreamed of having his whole life and Benito would give it to him in full measure.
~ finis ~