by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)
illustrated by beili
The birds erupt from the wheat fields with the suddenness of a falling blade.
One moment Sebastiano is staring up at the vivid blue of the summer sky, and the next all he can see is a maelstrom of black feathers, circling the convoy like a living wall.
The birds are silent; the only sound is the fervent beating of countless wings.
And for that instant, everything falls away.
Sebastiano breathes, in and out, in and out, and then as suddenly as they’d appeared the birds are gone and the sky is clear once more.
He lets his head fall back down. The straps holding the bit in his mouth in place dig into his scalp, but his neck hurt too much to stay in that position for much longer. He makes a noise as the rough wood of the pillory frame jabs into his underarms and below his shoulder blades. The way he’s tied to the pillory frame makes him feel like the figurehead at the prow of a great ship.
All he’s had to look at in the days since they left Ys is the third and last wagon in the convoy. The wagon driver wears full armour, with the visor of his helmet lowered, just like all the other guardsmen in the convoy. They do not speak, not to each other and certainly not to Sebastiano.
Save for a few farmers in the distance, he has not seen another living soul since the convoy left the Grosse Tour. The guardsmen deliberately avoid towns and villages, in spite of any additional time these alternate routes add to their journey.
The wardens watching his cell at the Grosse Tour might not have provided him with the most scintillating conversation, but they had spoken to him, had been able to speak to him.
He remembers reading stories of men locked in oubliettes for decades and how they’d been driven mad by the isolation. He does not think it will take decades or even years for him to sink into madness with only the guards for company. He can feel it creeping at the back of his mind like a foul, poisonous vine.
But there is a routine, at least, and that lets him keep a hold on his mind.
Twice a day like clockwork, they stop the convoy to let Sebastiano relieve himself, and after they strap him back on the pillory they hand-feed him dried meat and luke-warm water, but never enough that he feels sated. Hunger has become a constant on this journey.
He sags against his restraints as a wave of dizziness sweeps over him. He stares down at the rows of cobblestones the wagons are passing over as he waits for it to subside.
The road is ancient, paved with large stones that had been worn to shiny smoothness by millennia of use. It cuts through the rolling fields of wheat like a plumb line.
The birds are the last living things he sees for hours. The sun rises high above them and begins to fall towards the horizon before they reach the end of their journey.
Sebastiano is almost sick when the convoy takes a hard left off the cobbled road and onto a narrow dirt path. He sways against his restraints and feels a dull ache throb up both his arms.
The dirt path is far less even than the road and Sebastiano is jostled against the pillory frame with every rock the wagon’s wheels hit. The bit digs painfully into the corners of his mouth and he lets his head fall forward, staring down at the road and the unfinished wood of the wagon’s floor, to try to alleviate it.
After many long minutes of this, the convoy finally comes to a halt. Sebastiano cranes his head over his shoulder to see where they are. It is far too quiet to be another town.
They’d stopped in front of a Latinate-style villa, set in a shallow valley and surrounded on all sides by low hills. Sebastiano wonders who had lived here, before, what had happened to them.
There is already a contingent of guards stationed at the villa. Sebastiano can see them patrolling the hills and the grounds around the house. There are even a few digging up the garden. The guards from his convoy disembark and fall into step with their fellows, like two halves of a deck of cards being reshuffled together.
Two of the armoured guards climb up beside him and swiftly unfasten his restraints. They leave the bit still in place in his mouth.
Sebastiano sags from the pillory frame, too sore and numb to move. The two guards each take him by an arm and carry him from the wagon. His skin crawls where they touch him and he feels like being sick again.
Another pair of guards open the villa’s front doors, and his guards carry him into the house and down the narrow, darkened vestibule.
At the end of the vestibule is a bright, spacious atrium, lit by a large modernised skylight. The panes of glass making up the skylight cast crisscrossing shadows on the mosaic of roses on the atrium floor. Doors line both sides of the atrium and a wide set of stairs opposite the vestibule lead to to the peristyle and the rest of the house.
The guards drop him on the tile floor and leave with as little ceremony as they’d entered. Their footfalls echo through the villa, and then with the thud of the heavy front doors swinging shut, everything is silent.
The tiles feel cool against Sebastiano’s face, in spite of the summer sun, and he lies there, too weak to move. He wonders why he was brought here, if this is to be his new prison. The house and grounds are beautiful, and a far better sight that the cell he’d lived in for the last three months.
Only three months.
Sebastiano closes his eyes. It feels like so much longer.
There had been rumblings of dissatisfaction among the populace, rumours of a nascent uprising, but they’d existed since since Sebastiano’s great-grandfather had been king. They’d never seen it as a serious threat.
Until it was.
The revolution was swift, sudden, and incredibly well-organised. A new government was already being voted in while the embers of the Palais Royal were still warm, and it took a little over a week after that for his parents to be sentenced and executed.
With the king and queen dead, the revolutionaries went about ensuring that this generation of the royal bloodline would be the last. His sisters and female cousins were executed, and he and his male relatives were offered a choice between castration and a spot in line for the louisette. Sebastiano had chosen the knife, and he’d heard rumours while still at the Grosse Tour that his youngest brother Emilio had done the same.
He knows Emilio isn’t dead, because they always make a great foofarah with every execution, but he knows nothing beyond that and it eats at him.
He can’t move, can’t stand, can’t even crawl, so he stays there on the floor, watching the squares of light move across the mosaic floor. His entire body hurts, all the various aches and pains bleeding into one another until he can’t pinpoint any one injury.
A sharp noise reverberates through the house.
He hears footfalls echoing, growing louder, growing closer. He tries to raise himself up but he’s still too weak. His arms buckle, and he sinks back to the floor. His breath comes rapidly; the footfalls sound too irregular to belong to the guards.
A pair of black boots step into his field of view. They’re as highly polished as a mirror and he can almost see his reflection in their surface. Sebastiano makes a desperate noise.
Though his neck twinges in protest, he turns his head to look up at the man these boots belong to. He is tall and svelte, and his thick dark hair is slicked back and clipped short at the nape of his neck. He wears the uniform of a revolutionary.
The man cocks his head to the side, as if in sympathy, and he crouches down beside Sebastiano. He runs his fingers over the matted mess of Sebastiano’s hair and settles one hand on the buckles securing the bit in place. “Oh, you poor thing,” he murmurs, and in spite of the man’s uniform, his voice is the most beautiful thing Sebastiano has heard. He feels a fierce stab of revulsion as soon as the thought crosses his mind. “Let me help you.”
Sebastiano takes a good look at him; now that he is closer to the floor Sebastiano can better see the man’s face. He has a high forehead, a sharp nose, and the kind of mouth his mother had said would get a man into trouble.
Sebastiano hates him immediately, on principle. He inches away from him, as far as his battered body will let him.
“Citizen,” the man begins, a gently chiding note in his voice. He moves his hand back to Sebastiano’s head, stroking the bit’s stiff leather straps. “If I may? Certainly you must want to be free of this thing.”
Sebastiano stares at the man’s fingers from the corner of his eyes, as they creep, insect-like, back towards the buckles, and whimpers in protest. He closes his eyes as the man undoes the restraints and pulls the straps from Sebastiano’s hair.
“Open wide,” the man murmurs, as he pulls the bit from Sebastiano’s mouth and lets the leather contraption drop on the floor between them.
Sebastiano begins to cough as soon as the bit is out of his mouth and he can’t stop until he is nearly dry heaving on the floor. The corners of his mouth are raw, and with every cough he fears they’ll tear open.
The man kneels on the floor, and watches him, occasionally tucking a strand of Sebastiano’s hair behind his ear, but is otherwise silent and still.
When Sebastiano finally manages to get his coughing under control, the man begins again: “Citizen, can you stand?”
Sebastiano’s only answer is a rasp that starts a second coughing fit. Eventually, he shakes his head.
The man furrows his brow, purses his lips. He slides the back of his hand down Sebastiano’s sunburnt and wind-roughened face. “I am sorry to see you in such a state, Citizen. This wasn’t done to you on my orders.”
Sebastiano hacks out a word: “Wha?”
The man smiles fondly, and shakes his head. “Ah. Of course. You don’t recognise me. I don’t believe we had ever been formally introduced.” He rises gracefully to his feet and bows as if greeting an equal. “My name is Baratin.” He continues, once he’s returned to the floor, “I lead our troops in the Occitan. And you are Citizen Sebastiano Merovech, late of Ys.”
Sebastiano blinks at the surname. They’ve called him that for the past three months, and he is still not used to it.
“Now that that’s settled, shall we see to your ablutions and get you cleaned up?”
The room begins to spin. Sebastiano closes his eyes. He feels Baratin gather him up in his arms.
He blinks, and they are in a different room, small and dark, lit only by the light coming in through the doorway. There is a large drain in the centre of the room, and flanking it are a low wooden chair and a bucket of steaming water.
Baratin sets him into the chair, and Sebastiano slumps like a broken doll. He can’t even find the energy to lift his head. If it weren’t for the seat sloping backwards he knows he would slide onto the floor.
Baratin disappears from view, but Sebastiano can still hear his boot heels clicking on the tile floor. The room is not cold, but Sebastiano begins to shiver. They had bathed him a few times at the Grosse Tour; the wardens were rough and the water always very, very cold. It had seemed to him more like a tool of punishment than of cleanliness.
He steels himself for whatever Baratin might try.
The footfalls pause and begin again, and Sebastiano holds his breath. Baratin circles back around the chair. He is holding a large pair of scissors. He smiles when he crouches down by Sebastiano’s bare feet.
Sebastiano tries to move, but he is as heavy and limp as unformed clay. His mouth goes dry as Baratin wields the scissors, sliding one of the blades up the leg of his stained, ruined breeches. The metal kisses his skin, and then Baratin closes them with a ‘snick’. He re-opens the scissors, moves them up, and makes another cut.
A third cut, and he raises his gaze to meet Sebastiano’s. Baratin gives him a secret smile, and the very tip of his tongue darts out to brush his upper lip.
When he finishes cutting one leg of Sebastiano’s breeches all the way up to his waist, he cuts the other in the same manner, then slides the ruined breeches out from under him. He does the same to Sebastiano’s smallclothes and sets the scissors aside.
Sebastiano is grateful that Baratin does not gape at his nudity, and averts his eyes from Sebastiano’s cock.
Baratin removes Sebastiano’s shirt by pulling it over his head and discards it along with the rest of his clothing. He rises and walks behind the chair. When he returns, he carries a washcloth and a bar of soap. He drags the bucket of water to Sebastiano’s feet.
Sebastiano stares, wide-eyed, as he kneels and gathers Sebastiano’s foot in his hand. He lathers up the washcloth, and begins to clean days of grime from Sebastiano’s skin. Every stroke is slow, and even, and reverential. Sebastiano hates it, but does not want Baratin to stop.
He makes a noise in his throat, half whimper and half moan.
Baratin pauses in his ministrations, halfway up Sebastiano’s calf. He does not look up, but Sebastiano knows he is smiling.
When he reaches Sebastiano’s groin, his touch is suddenly clinical. He does not touch Sebastiano’s cock or the mess of scar tissue behind it. Sebastiano feels a burst of gratitude and tamps it back down.
The water drips loudly through the wide slats of the chair seat.
Baratin continues slowly upward and Sebastiano focuses his attention on the rivulets of water circling the drain.
When Baratin finishes with Sebastiano’s face, he stands. Sebastiano looks up at him and works his jaw. His mouth still hurts too much to speak.
Baratin tosses the now-filthy washcloth into the bucket of water with a graceful flick of his wrist. Sebastiano tries to sit up, but Baratin puts a hand on his chest and pushes him easily back into the chair.
He walks away, and returns with a comb and a smaller, sharper pair of scissors and holds them up for Sebastiano to see. He sets them on the wide armrests, just behind Sebastiano’s elbows and walks around the chair again.
Sebastiano can hear Baratin directly behind him. He goes rigid as Baratin runs his hands over Sebastiano’s hair. “It’s a ruin, I’m afraid,” Baratin mutters, his voice low. “I’ll salvage what I can, but I’m not very hopeful.”
He strokes Sebastiano’s hair several more times before picking up the comb and scissors. Sebastiano balls his fists in his lap.
Baratin’s fingers move through his hair, gently tugging out the smaller knots and cutting the ones too matted to salvage. He seems to be taking care to not touch Sebastiano’s scalp any more than he has to. There is a strange hypnotic quality to the act that makes Sebastiano feel as though he is floating on air. He keeps his fists in his lap, but lets his shoulders relax.
But for a moment. And then he remembers where he is, and who is doing this to him.
He opens his eyes when he feels Baratin move across his scalp with the scissors. The revolutionaries had shaved his head after they’d taken him and his brother Emilio prisoner. They’d meant it to be a dehumanising, humiliating act. Sebastiano had always been vain about his hair, famously so. He remembers how Emilio had cried.
That was the last time he’d seen his brother.
Baratin makes a satisfied noise when he finishes, startling Sebastiano out of his revery. Sebastiano bends his head down and runs a hand over his now-bristly scalp.
“I’m afraid it’s quite short.” Baratin almost sounds amused, and Sebastiano wants to slap him. “It was the best I could do.”
Baratin walks slowly around the chair, as if to admire his handiwork. He holds out a hand to Sebastiano. “If you’ll come with me, Citizen.”
He lets Baratin pull him to his feet. He is upright for a moment before the room tilts sharply to the left and everything goes grey.
He is back in the palace, on the day of the attack.
Emilio is with him.
They are hiding in one of the servant corridors as the rebels storm the palace. When the attack had begun, Emilio’s nurse had shoved them through a hidden doorway that led to the network of dark, cramped passageways the palace staff used, with instructions to hide and above all stay silent.
Sebastiano kicks off his shoes, picks up his brother, and runs. By the time they find an alcove to hide in, the bottoms of his silk stockings are torn to shreds by the rough floors.
Something explodes in the distance and Emilio flinches in his arms. Sebastiano presses the heel of his palm into his brother’s mouth to keep him silent.
They hear people beyond the corridors begin to scream, and then another explosion.
Sebastiano can feel Emilio’s tears run down his hand. He wishes he could say something to comfort him, but they need to stay silent. People are dying. People have already died. And Sebastiano doesn’t want to join them.
They stay there, hidden deep within the palace for what feels like eons, as the sounds of the battle slowly die down.
But Sebastiano is no fool. He knows to wait, that it is still too soon, that their attackers will still be searching for survivors.
He is swiftly proven right, when loud voices fill the room closest to their hiding spot.
He goes still, keeps his hand firmly over Emilio’s mouth, though his heart is beating so fast it must be audible to everyone within a kilometre of the palace.
A bright light suddenly fills the passageway–
Sebastiano wakes to a bright light in his eyes.
He’s in an unfamiliar daybed in a small room, propped up on a pile of pillows. He is still naked.
The bright light is coming in the bedroom doorway, through which he can see the atrium and its rose mosaic floor.
Baratin is sitting on a bench at the foot of his bed, reading. He looks up once he realises that Sebastiano is awake. He snaps his book shut. “Do you feel better?”
Sebastiano is aghast at the thought of making polite conversation with this man. “Where… Where are am I?” His voice is a froggy croak, but at least he can speak now.
“This will be where you sleep, while you are my guest–”
Sebastiano makes an outraged noise at that. He tries to sit up, but the room begins to spin alarmingly fast as soon as he lifts his head from the pillows. He collapses back down, and settles with glaring at Baratin, who merely smiles at him, sets down his book, and picks a tray up off the floor. He approaches Sebastiano’s bed and sits down, setting the tray of food between them. There’s a large bowl of still steaming beef broth, and a cup of what looks like weak chai.
Baratin picks up the bowl and a spoon. “Are you hungry? I had food brought in while you slept.”
Sebastiano seethes, but he knows he is too weak to eat by himself without making a mess, so he lets Baratin feed him the broth. It’s rich and warm and filling, and the most delicious thing he’s ever eaten, and it takes an effort of will not to try to drink it all down in one go. The warmth of the restorative broth spreads through his body and settles in the pit of his stomach like a comfortable weight.
Baratin is careful in his ministrations, not too fast as to make Sebastiano sick, but also not so slow that he feels like he might have to beg.
Once the broth is finished, Sebastiano has enough strength to lift the cup of chai unassisted. It’s gone cold, but it is still flavourful, and a vast improvement over flat, tepid water.
Baratin sets the tray on the floor as Sebastiano sips his chai.
“You called me your guest. What do you mean by that? Am I here to die?” Sebastiano asks.
Baratin blinks and starts. “We all die eventually, Citizen. But that’s not why you were brought here.”
Sebastiano coughs. “Then why.”
“The situation in the capital was deteriorating and with our resources already stretched thin, we felt better able to protect you by moving you somewhere isolated and away from larger cities.”
“Royalists,” Sebastiano says, with some wonder. He’d heard rumours while in the Grosse Tour, but had no idea the movement was so strong.
Baratin gives a single-shoulder shrug. “In part, but a small one. There is a strong belief among my fellows that we have been too soft on your family–”
Sebastiano’s mostly empty cup of chai slips from his fingers, bounces on the bed, and lands on the floor in a tinkle of shattered porcelain. “You killed my parents and sisters,” he hisses. “You gelded me like an animal.”
Baratin sets his hand on the bedclothes, just beside Sebastiano’s leg. It is a very deliberate gesture, one that does nothing to abate Sebastiano’s ire. “I am not them,” Baratin begins slowly, “I don’t share their extreme beliefs–”
“What do you want?”
Baratin spreads his arms wide. “Only your safety, Citizen. I have no ulterior motive, I assure you. I wish I knew what I could do to convince you of this.”
“Set me free.”
Baratin laughs in response. Sebastiano’s anger blazes like a well-stoked fire.
“I was not, Citizen, joking,” Sebastiano continues. “Give me my freedom. That is how you will convince me you mean me no harm.”
“Perhaps,” Baratin begins, leaning forward, his fingers laced together, “perhaps we can agree on a compromise. You must understand that I can’t simply free you, but what I can offer you is something that is a very close approximation.”
Sebastiano draws in a long, deep breath. “Please, go on.”
“There will be no restraints or restrictions on your movements. Unless.” Baratin holds up a finger. “Unless you attempt to leave the estate, and then I will be forced to stop you. It is for your own safety, of course. I have no idea how far south the reactionary sentiment may have travelled. Even the smallest, most innocuous-seeming village could try to rip you apart, there’s no way to be sure.”
Sebastiano closes his eyes, balls his fists in his lap.
Baratin continues. “But the grounds here are vast, far larger than those around the Palais Royal, where I gather you were equally confined for your own safety, then as in now. And while this house is small, it does boast an extensive library. You shan’t be lacking in things to do here, Citizen. Any request you have, I will try to fulfill. Within reason, of course.”
He lets Baratin’s words hang between them for a long moment before he responds. “How long?”
“But for a few months, Citizen. Just long enough for the reactionaries in the capital to die down and the political climate to become more stable.”
Sebastiano’s mouth is dry. “And if I say no?”
Baratin clears his throat. For the first time, he looks discomfited. “I certainly hope you don’t. You will be transported elsewhere. And those accommodations aren’t nearly as pleasant.”
“Where is this?”
“There is a very old prison, located on the Mesogeian coast. I don’t believe it has a name. It was in favour in your great-great-grandfather’s day. It was where he sent his enemies when he wanted them to… disappear. It is run by monks who” –and Baratin pauses as if he is searching for the right word– “who cannot speak. It is built in a cliff-face, and only accessible at high tide. I believe the monks feed you through a shaft in the ceiling.”
Sebastiano goes cold at Baratin’s words. He clutches the bedclothes tight in his fists to keep himself from shaking. He looks over at Baratin, who is watching him carefully. Even with years of practice, Sebastiano cannot keep his fear from showing on his face.
“Not quite as pleasant as this villa, I’m afraid.” Baratin’s voice is unnaturally cheerful as he says this.
If he stabs Baratin with a shard of his teacup, he wonders how far he will be able to run before the guards stop him. He wonders if they would even bother if their master was dead.
Sebastiano works his jaw. “Very well,” he says finally, “I accept.”
Baratin’s grin is too wide to be friendly. He brings his hand down on the bed beside Sebastiano. “Splendid!” he says. “I am so very glad.”
Sebastiano looks at the fragments of porcelain on the floor. He knows this was a mistake, but the only other option was worse than death.
Baratin follows his gaze. “Don’t worry, I’ll send someone to take care of that.” He stands, still smiling, and leans over Sebastiano. “But for now, you need to get some rest. If you need anything, just call out. The house is small, I’ll be sure to hear you.”
Baratin straightens, and carefully walks around the shards of the broken cup. But he stops when he reaches the door to the atrium and turns back around. “Ah! If you wish to get dressed, there are clothes in there.” He points to a small trunk in the corner. “They should fit you. I’m afraid they’re nowhere nearly as fine as what you were once used to, but they’re far better than the rags you wore when you came here.”
Sebastiano nods slowly and pulls his bedclothes up to his shoulders. He doesn’t reply, and after a long uncomfortable silence, Baratin eventually nods his goodbyes and walks out into the atrium. Sebastiano waits until he can no longer hear the ringing of Baratin’s footfalls before he sinks back into bed.
He stares up at the ceiling for a long, long while.
When he wakes again, it is late afternoon. His body still aches, but he feels haler than he has in months.
He sits up and takes a better look at his new home. The room is small and his bed dominates most of it, and there is little else in the room besides that. A faded mural looms opposite the door, of an older man seated on a throne as a young boy presented him with a overly large goblet. It was a fair reproduction of the Classical style; the villa must be newer than he’d thought.
The remnants of his broken cup had been cleared away while he slept.
When he looks back up at the door, a guard is standing there, facing him. It steps inside and Sebastiano recoils.
Baratin follows on its heels. “You’re awake! Good.” He gestures the guard out of the room.
Sebastiano has a tart remark at the tip of his tongue, but he is interrupted by a distressingly loud rumble from his stomach.
Baratin chuckles. “Shall I bring you something to eat, Citizen?”
“I… ” Sebastiano pauses, surprised at the simple kindness in Baratin’s words. “Yes, thank you.”
Baratin turns his head for a moment to look at the chest of clothes in the corner of the room. His eyes are hooded and the corners of his lips are barely upturned when he looks back at Sebastiano.
Sebastiano flushes, suddenly very aware of his nakedness. Baratin’s smile twitches upwards before he nods and glides out of the room.
Sebastiano waits for a moment before he sits up, shakes off his bedclothes and swings his legs out of the daybed. He rises slowly to his feet; his body is still sore from the time he spent tied to the pillory frame.
He steps over to the small chest in the corner. It contains several sets of small clothes, two shirts, and two pairs of the ankle-length pants that are fashionable among the revolutionary set. They are all the faded non-colour of clothes that have been laundered too much.
He’d once had entire rooms full of his clothes.
He dresses quickly, and limps back to the bed. He’s very sore, but at least he is clothed, and clean.
Sebastiano slides his hands up and down his legs, stroking the rough fabric of his new clothes. He recalls the feeling of Baratin’s fingers in his hair, and he is furious and ashamed at how easily he let his guard down.
He digs his fingernails into the palms of his hands and thinks of his parents’ faces, his sisters and brothers, of Emilio.
Sebastiano is prepared when Baratin returns with his food. He greets him with a cool smile and empty words, and eats the leek potage Baratin had brought as if he were at a royal function.
Baratin watches him with that barely-there smile, and waits until Sebastiano is finished and dabbing at his still-sore mouth with a napkin before he speaks.
“Citizen, I’ve only just received some unpleasant news. There is a situation developing in Nissa that requires my attention. I’m afraid I will be gone for the next few days until it is under control.”
“Ah,” Sebastiano says, and then words tumble out before he can stop himself: “Are you leaving me here all alone?” He only hopes Baratin does not detect the note of panic in his voice.
Baratin waves his hand dismissively and laughs. “For no more than three or four days, Citizen, I promise. Most of the guard will remain, and besides, it will give you time to explore the villa and the grounds. You should be recovered enough to conduct a thorough exploration before I return.”
Sebastiano smiles wide and falsely. “Of course,” he says. And then, because he knows he might not have another chance, he asks, “Might you do something for me, while you’re in Nissa?”
He swallows. His mouth is very dry. “I would like news of my brother. Emilio,” he clarifies, at the look on Baratin’s face. “He is the youngest.”
Baratin looks at him curiously and then nods. “It will be my pleasure.”
Sebastiano lies in the dark and listens as Baratin’s carriage clatters away from the villa. This late at night, the horses’ hooves sound like distant thunder.
He waits, motionless, until he is sure Baratin is gone, until he hears nothing in the house but his own breathing.
Sebastiano kicks away his bedclothes and slides a tentative hand around his cock. He’s unused to sleeping naked, but Baratin hasn’t provided him with a nightshirt, and he certainly is not going to sleep in his smallclothes.
He has barely touched himself in the last few months, mostly because he does not want to provide his watchers with any titillating entertainment, but no small part is due to the shock of revulsion when he cannot feel the familiar weight of his balls when he touches his cock.
But with Baratin gone, and only the guards for company, Sebastiano feels free to scratch that particular itch, and more importantly acquaint himself with his post-revolution body.
He takes a deep breath, and moves his hand.
He keeps his grip loose and lets himself wallow in the sensation, head thrown back, legs spread wide like a wanton. His skin is smooth and dry and warm. Oh, he thinks, oh, it’s been too long.
His glans is still mostly hidden under his foreskin and he rubs his thumb over the exposed nub of sensitive skin. It was hot, but very, very dry, far more than usual.
Sebastiano furrows his brow and tightens his grip. At this point he’s usually already half-hard. He huffs in frustration. It feels so good, he doesn’t know what’s wrong.
After a few more tugs and still no response, he takes his hand away and wipes it off on his thigh. Maybe sensation isn’t the problem. Maybe he just needs better inspiration.
He spits twice into the palm of his hand and slicks the saliva along his length. He closes his eyes.
His mind drifts.
There was the Cimbrian envoy, a great strapping brute of a man that Sebastiano had wrapped around his finger after their very first meeting. He’d been insatiable, with a warm, clever mouth and thick fiery red hair Sebastiano would hold on to for dear life. And for such a strong man, he’d always been so gentle, and so talented at reducing Sebastiano to a needy wreck.
He remembers one time in his father’s stables, Haakon — had that been the man’s name? — had stripped him naked, tied his up with an old bridle and tack, and then spanked him with a riding crop until he’d come all over the back wall of the stall. Haakon had called him his naughty pony all the while, and afterwards Sebastiano had not been able to look at horses — or Haakon’s fellow Cimbrians — in the same way since.
With his other hand, he pinches his nipple and rolls it slowly between his two fingers.
There are too many beautiful boys to recall, but his oldest, dearest friend Pierre-Emmanuel is another light that stands out in his mind. They’d been friends since they were children, and lovers since they were adolescents. They’d used the excuse of exploring the palace grounds to explore one another.
There was a grove of poplars on Pierre-Emmanuel’s family’s country estate that had been a favoured place of theirs for afternoon trysts. They’d recline in the altogether on the cool grass and play. Learn what felt good, and what didn’t, and more importantly try out things they saw in the books they weren’t supposed to read.
He doesn’t picture a particular memory of Pierre-Emmanuel, but rather an amalgamation of their times together, all of Sebastiano’s favourite moments strung together like a necklace.
Pierre-Emmanuel is kneeling between Sebastiano’s open legs, bent towards Sebastiano’s waist. His mouth is on the soft skin of Sebastiano’s inner thigh, stippling love bites up and down his leg.
And then his fantasy of Pierre-Emmanuel turns his head. His face has changed. His hair is darker, his nose is sharper, his features more striking. He brings his mouth to Sebastiano’s hip and kisses along the sharp line of his pubic bone towards his cock.
It was Baratin. It was Baratin and Sebastiano was growing hard, his prick throbbing to attention faster than it ever had when he’d been a teenager.
His eyes fly open and he releases his grip in horror.
His gorge rises, and breathing becomes difficult. He grabs a pillow from behind his head and presses it against his groin.
Sebastiano moans in the dark, sick with self-loathing. “What’s wrong with you,” he whispers, “what’s wrong with you?”
When his pulse returns to normal, he drops the pillow to the floor. He’s soft again, his cock resting limply between his legs. He wipes at his eyes. He can’t stay here, he needs a distraction, he needs to forget that awful fantasy had happened.
He rises to his feet and walks stiffly from the room.
The moon is high and full, and lights the atrium with a soft grey light. No better time, he thinks, to explore his new home. His legs are already beginning to protest, so he knows to keep this brief.
Sebastiano crosses the atrium, and stops to catch his breath and admire the rose mosaic on the floor. In the moonlight, the blood-red petals look black. He slowly climbs the wide set of stairs between the atrium and the peristyle. There are only five or six treads, but he is already winded once he reaches the last.
The peristyle is colonnaded, but at its centre is an empty shallow bathing pool instead of the garden he was expecting. Directly above the pool is an open-air skylight. Bare shrines line the left wall and on the right are a set of folding doors that lead out to the grounds.
Sebastiano limps over to the doors even as his thighs and calves cry out in protest. He stops just at the threshold. The grounds are beautiful at night, dappled silver by moonlight, and he knows he could explore them as much as he wishes as long as he stays within sight of the villa.
But he remember Baratin’s words, that anyone could be a threat to him, and he takes a step back.
Over the hills, an owl screeches.
The night air is cool on his bare skin, and he shivers.
He spends the next few days wandering the villa, his mind in a fog. He walks the tour of the atrium and up and down the stairs to the peristyle until his muscles protest and then goes back to sleep.
He sleeps a great deal. He finds it easier than thinking.
The guards bring him his meals like clockwork, regardless of whether he is awake to accept them or not. He rouses from a very long nap one afternoon to find he slept through both lunch and tea. There are two trays of cold food waiting for him by the door. He eats them both and goes back to sleep.
He is walking in slow circles in the shade of the peristyle when he hears the carriage approach the villa. He stops in his tracks and leans against the nearest column, his legs suddenly too weak to support him. A thousand possibilities flash through his mind, but they wash away like foam on the seashore, and only one remains, shining and terrible:
What if it isn’t Baratin?
He slides to the floor and draws his knees to his chest. The room is too bright. He draws in great lungfuls of air, but his throat still feels like it’s closing up.
The carriage stops.
Sebastiano’s eyes dart to the doors to the garden.
After an eternity, the front doors open.
He hears single set of bootheels ringing in the vestibule, and then the atrium. And they stop. Sebastiano can’t breathe. He presses his fists to his mouth.
The person in the atrium clears their throat.
Sebastiano closes his eyes, exhales, and stands. He leans against the column for a moment, and steps into view.
It is him. It is Baratin. He has a small cut on his face, but he is otherwise unharmed, unchanged.
Sebastiano moves forward–
–and stops himself. No. No.
He has no idea what his face is betraying, and he can’t tell from Baratin’s expression. Baratin is regarding him with the cool disinterest of a naturalist. He looks tired to Sebastiano. Whatever happened in Nissa must have been worse that he expected.
They stare at each other.
Sebastiano makes the first move. Though his legs are still shaking, he slowly walks out of the peristyle, takes the stairs one at a time, and crosses the atrium until he faces Baratin and they are both standing at the centre of the rose mosaic. His mouth is so dry. “Welcome back.”
Baratin’s gaze slides from Sebastiano’s face, down his torso, down his legs, lingers on Sebastiano’s bare feet, and begins its slow ascent. “Citizen,” he says slowly, as if the word has a flavour and he wants to enjoy on it. “Citizen,” he repeats, in a more normal tone of voice. “Citizen.” He opens his mouth, closes it, and then tries again. “I bring sad news from Nissa.”
Sebastiano’s heart goes cold, his legs go weak.
“I asked my compatriots. Of your brother. It took careful digging, but.” He sighs. “I have news.”
Sebastiano makes an awful keening noise in the back of his throat.
Baratin continues. “Your brother had been moved from the capital, as you were, for the sake of his safety. He has had a history of… argumentative behaviour. He was not as sanguine about his relocation as you were. He tried to escape.”
Sebastiano puts his hands over his mouth. “No,” he says, “no.”
“I am very sorry. Those responsible were dealt with appropriately.” Baratin pauses and sighs. “In the attempt to apprehend him, your brother died.”
Sebastiano falls to his knees and moans. “Emilio, Emilio…” His breath hitches, like a kick to the chest, and he begins to sobs.
The world is washed away by his grief, in a flood of tears that he knows will never end. He howls as his heart breaks and breaks again, as the grief is like a weight on him, in him, one he does not have the strength to resist. Emilio had been the kindest soul he’d ever known, and Sebastiano has loved him since the day Nursie let him hold Emilio for the first time.
But with Emilio gone, Sebastiano has nothing left. There is nothing to him anymore. He is alone.
Until he is not.
Baratin takes Sebastiano’s face in his hands. He is kneeling in front of Sebastiano, his expression strangely serene. He tilts Sebastiano’s head up, almost painfully, and kisses the soft skin below Sebastiano’s right eye.
Sebastiano is so shocked by this he stops crying. He sets his hands on Baratin’s and stares at him. Baratin moves his mouth down to Sebastiano’s cheekbone, kisses him again, gentle and feather-light. His mouth moves again, a hair’s breadth lower, and there is another kiss.
Sebastiano exhales. “Oh,” he whispers, and lets his eyelids fall shut as Baratin kisses away his tears.
Baratin’s mouth moves down his face, and when he is done with the right side, he turns Sebastiano’s head sharply and begins with the left. Sebastiano falls limp and loses himself in the sensation. He makes throaty little moans with every kiss Baratin places on his face. He feels so raw and lost that this is like an anchor, pulling him back, drawing him to safety.
When Baratin finishes, he brushes a thumb over Sebastiano’s cheek and draws him into his embrace. “I am sorry, ” he murmurs, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Sebastiano rests his head on his shoulder. His tears are gone. His grief has emptied him out. There is a hole in his heart now that nothing will ever fill.
He clings to Baratin as if they are the only two people left in the world.
When he dreams, he sees Emilio, so he sleeps.
Baratin wakes him one morning, head cocked to the side as he strokes Sebastiano’s stubbly hair. “Citizen,” he says, “Have you eaten today?”
Sebastiano rolls onto his side and faces the back wall. He closes his eyes. Perhaps if he is still for long enough Baratin will leave.
“Citizen,” Baratin continues, still stroking Sebastiano’s hair. “It is 21 Fructidor. How many days has it been since you’ve eaten?”
“I don’t know,” Sebastiano mutters, and burrows deeper under his bedclothes.
He hears Baratin sigh, and feels him sit down on the daybed, by Sebastiano’s back. “Citizen. Please,” he says. “Citizen.” His voice wavers. “Citizen. I am concerned for you.”
Sebastiano opens his eyes, turns his head, and looks over his shoulder. The worry he sees on Baratin’s face is what makes him sit up. He rests against Baratin’s side.
Baratin puts his arm around Sebastiano and picks something up off the floor. He sets it on the bed and pulls Sebastiano onto his lap. Baratin is warm and Sebastiano leans against him. He is slumped and his head fits almost perfectly under Baratin’s chin.
There is an odd sort of twisty feeling deep in his gut, but Sebastiano ignores it. He wonders how long Baratin will let him sit here, unmoving. And he has his answer when Baratin moves what he picked up off the floor onto Sebastiano’s lap.
It is a small, shallow bowl, and in it a slice of bread smeared thickly with butter, and a bit of cold beef stew.
Baratin shifts Sebastiano slightly in his lap and tears off a small corner of the bread. He presses it into the juices of the stew and brings it to Sebastiano’s mouth.
The smell is overwhelming. Sebastiano’s mouth begins to water. He lets Baratin push the soggy bit of bread between his lips and sucks the tips of Baratin’s fingers clean. The bread is dense and savoury from the stew, and the butter is sweet and cool. He chews on it just long enough for it to be soft enough to swallow.
Baratin’s hand slides down his throat and lingers on his windpipe as it bobs while he swallows. “Very good,” Baratin says, and his voice throbs through Sebastiano’s body.
There is another piece of bread. Sebastiano chews, swallows, and Baratin’s fingertips idle on Sebastiano’s mouth. Baratin keeps feeding him the bread and bits of meat and vegetable until the bowl is clean.
Sebastiano feels warm and pliable like wax, and lets his eyes slide shut. Baratin’s hands move down his arm, linger on his thigh.
“There,” and the pride in Baratin’s voice sends a thrill through Sebastiano. “Doesn’t that feel better.”
Sebastiano nods silently and presses a hand to Baratin’s chest.
He lies in bed, the ghosts of Baratin’s hands still on his skin.
His mind is all a-jumble, his grief for Emilio swirling together with his body’s response to Baratin’s touch, to Baratin himself. His uncertainty is a hook in his heart that he tries to ignore.
They should have been enemies, and yet… Baratin brought him to safety, showed him kindness after kindness, comforted him as he grieved.
Sebastiano wipes at his eyes and sighs. It’s no use, he is in no mind to sort through the mess of his feelings, it’s all too raw and new. He sinks back into his bed, stares up at the ceiling and breathes until his mind is clear and empty. He throws one arm above his head and curls his fingers around the edge of the headrest. His other hand slinks down under his bedclothes, between his legs.
His cock twitches in his hand and he smiles.
Sebastiano rubs his thumb on the rim of his foreskin, slowly drawing it down and teasing the tip as it emerges. His head lolls to the side and he looks up at the mural on the wall. He strokes himself to half-hardness as he imagines himself in the scene, first as the ancient king, and then as the young cupbearer. The latter comes easier; the thought of himself on a throne fills him with a flood of emotions he wants to ignore.
He kneels as he presents the goblet to his new master, eyes downcast not out of respect but as a temptation.
The cup is taken from his hand.
He blinks and looks up. He does not try to keep the want from his expression.
His king smiles at him and traces the line of his jaw. He drinks deeply from the goblet. Sebastiano watches his throat as he swallows and remembers how that rich mouth felt on his face.
He takes back the goblet and his heart thrums at the approval on his king’s face.
Sebastiano bends and kisses Baratin’s feet.
He climaxes suddenly, his cock twitching in his hands.
But the release is dry, and strangely muted, not the overwhelming swell of pleasure he is used to.
He wipes his hands clean and sits up, trying to ignore a pang of disappointment. Perhaps he is simply out of practice. For his first orgasm in over three months, it wasn’t that bad.
It’s rained all day, coming down in great torrential waves that fill the villa with the sound of thunder as it pounds on the skylight above the atrium.
Sebastiano sits on the stairs, watching the rain come down in the peristyle. The shallow pool had been built directly under the open-air roof so that when it rains the pool fills up and drains away the excess, but does not flood the rest of the house. The air is damp and cool, and the sound of the rain fills him with a sense of peace.
He lets his eyes fall closed and smiles. Emilio would have loved this, to see it rain indoors. He wonders if he will ever be able to think about Emilio without it hurting.
He hopes not.
Sebastiano hears soft footfalls approaching and opens his eyes. “Oh,” he says.
Baratin stands above him. He is divested of his usual uniform, and wears a loose silk morning gown, knotted at the hips. Sebastiano stares. He has never seen Baratin out of his uniform, and is unsure how he feels about it. His uniform was always like a barrier between them, a solid delineation of their differing loyalties, and with it gone…
Baratin smiles at him and holds out his hand. Sebastiano hesitates for a moment and takes it. “I want to show you something,” he says. He has still not let go of Sebastiano’s hand.
“Anything,” Sebastiano replies.
They walk together into the peristyle, and make a wide circle of the bath. Baratin stops when they are in front of the closed doors leading out to the garden.
He releases Sebastiano’s hand.
Sebastiano resists the urge to reach out and take it back. He watches Baratin step towards the pool and set a hand on one of the columns. Baratin stops and looks back over his shoulder. He gestures at Sebastiano with his free hand.
“Do you trust me?”
“I… ” Sebastiano’s mouth goes dry. His mind is blank.
Baratin gives him a sly smile and holds out his hand. He motions at Sebastiano again. “Come,” he says.
He does not look to see if Sebastiano complies and turns his gaze back to the torrent of rain falling into the pool. He unknots his gown, and lets it slide off his shoulders as he steps into the water.
Sebastiano stares and stares, his breath coming ragged, and then with a desperate tugging of his heart, he pulls off his clothes and follows. He is soaked to the bone as soon as he steps into the pool. Baratin is waiting for him and Sebastiano falls into his arms.
Baratin points up. “Look,” he shouts into Sebastiano’s ear, over the roar of the rain.
Sebastiano tilts his head up and lets the rain run down his face.
“Look,” Baratin repeats, “Isn’t it marvelous? It’s like we’re standing under a waterfall!”
Sebastiano laughs and presses himself closer to Baratin’s slick form. He lets Baratin take his face in his hands.
“Do you trust me?” Baratin asks again, and Sebastiano cannot find the words to respond, to encapsulate the complexities of his feelings.
But Baratin does hot seem to want a response, and kisses him, full on the mouth.
It is everything Sebastiano has dreamed of, and he leans into it, letting Baratin part his lips with his tongue. Baratin explores his mouth with a gentleness Sebastiano had not expected, as if Sebastiano were a feast he wants to savour. Baratin’s fingers dig grooves into Sebastiano’s back and he moans into his open mouth.
Sebastiano is out of breath when Baratin breaks the kiss. “Do you trust me?” he asks.
“Yes,” Sebastiano breathes, dizzy and needy and desperate for Baratin to kiss him like that again.
Baratin’s smile is very wide, and for a moment Sebastiano’s breath catches in his throat. But Baratin kisses him again and knocks it all out of the way.
Sebastiano takes the lead this time and grinds himself against Baratin’s hip. Baratin makes a pleased noise into their joined mouths. Baratin moves his mouth along Sebastiano’s jaw, and tugs sharply on his earlobe. “Not here, my pet,” he whispers, his voice barely audible over the rain.
Sebastiano frowns, looking down at Baratin’s bare chest. “But my bed is too small for two,” he begins.
And shrieks when Baratin scoops him up in his arms with a laugh. Sebastiano slings his arms around Baratin’s neck. He moans happily when Baratin slides his hand up to pinch one of Sebastiano’s nipples.
Sebastiano shivers when they step out of the rain. Baratin carries him out of the peristyle and down a side corridor Sebastiano hasn’t noticed before into a separate part of the house. They leave a trail of water behind them.
They turn and turn and turn again and then Baratin walks them into a warm, sumptuous bedroom. In the centre is a large, modern-style bed. Baratin sets Sebastiano on his feet. “Will that do, sweet one?” he asks, and Sebastiano blushes at the endearment.
He shoves Sebastiano onto the bed.
Sebastiano smiles and looks up at him from under his eyelashes. He moves to turn on his stomach, but Baratin stops him with a hand on his thigh. He kneels between Sebastiano’s legs and takes his foot in his hands. He meets Sebastiano’s eyes with a challenging gaze and slides Sebastiano’s big toe into his mouth.
Sebastiano collapses back onto the bed as Baratin sucks first on one foot, and then the other. It is a new sensation for him, strangely arousing. He watches the shape of Baratin’s mouth as he sucks, and wonders what it would feel like on his cock. He’s had no idea his feet were so sensitive.
When Baratin finishes, Sebastiano does not wait for him to stand before drawing his legs onto the bed and rolling onto his stomach. He trembles when Baratin slides his hand down his back, and circles his hole with one gentle finger. His cock springs to hardness and his hips twitch as he begins to plough the mattress
“On your knees.” Baratin’s mouth is an inch from his ear.
Sebastiano draws up his legs, thrusting his ass high up in the air. Baratin makes a satisfied noise and Sebastiano quivers with happiness.
The bed creaks as Baratin climbs up behind him. Sebastiano whimpers when Baratin slides two oiled fingers inside him. He slides them around, slicking him up, careful not to penetrate too far.
Sebastiano is shaking when Baratin draws his hand away. He barely has a moment to catch his breath before Baratin thrusts into him. His cock is large, larger than Sebastiano is used to without preparation, and he cries out, on the cusp of pleasure and pain.
Baratin’s hands wrap around his sides as he draws himself out with an aching slowness, and then slams back in again. Sebastiano gasps.
On the next go, Baratin shifts his angle, and Sebastiano falls over into pleasure, savouring how delicious his thick cock feels inside him. He thrusts back against Baratin. After a few tries they find their rhythm, and Sebastiano can feel his climax building within him, like an ember, like a fire, like a–
Baratin grunts loudly as he comes. He collapses on Sebastiano and they both crumple onto the bed. Baratin is breathing heavily in his ear.
Sebastiano’s release is like a sparkler in comparison.
He rolls over and nestles against Baratin. Baratin looks at him with a knowing smile, eyes hooded and glassy.
“There,” Baratin says to him, “wasn’t that worth it?”
Sebastiano stares at him in confusion.
Baratin kisses his brow and rises shakily to his feet. He looks across his shoulder at Sebastiano. “I have something for you,” he says as he walks across the room.
He removes something from a dresser drawer and carries it back to the bed. Sebastiano sits up, cross-legged, and stares at the package Baratin sets in front of him.
Sebastiano’s hands are trembling, but he removes the lid and pushes the paper aside.
It is a uniform. A revolutionary’s uniform.
Baratin was smiling down at him like a proud father. “We are to return to the capital in two days’ time. I would like you to wear that when we leave.”
Sebastiano slides his hand across the fabric. “Of course,” he says.