by shukyou (主教)
Novice Theo was not supposed to hate. He was expected to feel some negativity, of course, but he was not supposed to. Purging that was part of his novitiate training, burning away everything but love for and devotion to the Great Tetratheon that blessed their land. He had been with the Brothers for ten years now, and he had entered freely, wanting nothing but the serenity and discipline that a life of godly service promised to bring him. He wanted to be pure of heart and spirit. He yearned for that inner peace, earned through deep contemplation, which he could then reflect outwardly to better the entire world.
But oh, he hated Novice Clarence.
He kept this thought to himself as he huddled near the corner of the Great Hall, sipping his fruit-infused water in silence and trying to keep the scowl from his face. He wanted so hard to disappear, but that was impossible. The Queen’s Midsummer Festival meant that all guests were expected to wear their brightest garments and adorn their faces and bodies with colorful paints — all, that was, except for the novitiates and friars, who were wrapped neck to ankles in their customary heavy black robes. Theo was sweltering inside his, which surely did not help his mood.
Clarence, on the other hand, appeared in much better spirits as he stood beneath a garland of greenery, chatting with two young women. They smiled and laughed at all his jokes, and Theo wondered if they were somehow completely blind, unable to tell that the man in front of them was not a potential suitor, but a sworn celibate, preparing to take his lifelong vows of chastity and good conduct. From the way Clarence was looking back at them, Theo wondered if Clarence had forgotten that as well.
Clarence had not spent ten years with the Order — he had spent two, and had not entered the order of his own will. There were all sorts of rumors and whispers about what he’d done to make his astonishingly rich parents deposit him there. Theo theatrically refused to listen to such gossip, which just made it worse when he lay alone at night and turned over in his head what fragments he knew. It had involved some scandal of having sex with the wrong person, of that much Theo was certain, but whether that person had been a nobleman’s daughter or a nobleman’s wife or a nobleman himself or a relative or an animal (Theo considered those in declining order of probability), he couldn’t say.
The wealth behind him, though, had pushed Clarence up in the ranks until he was on par with Theo, readying to take their final vows in two years’ time. Clarence was not ready, spiritually or otherwise, but the Order’s financial troubles were public knowledge. If his family thought they could buy their wild child a place in the gods’ graces, Theo supposed they might be right.
Gloomily, he crushed the ice in his drink with his teeth, hoping its chill would help alleviate the oppressive heat of the Great Hall. It did not.
A troupe of acrobats started up at one end, announced with a fanfare of trumpets, and Theo turned to watch as they performed incredible contortions and feats of strength. One locked her knees around a tall pole and held out the rest of her body parallel with the floor, which impressed and distracted Theo so much that he did not notice someone was behind him until he was too late.
“Having a good time?” asked Clarence.
Theo grunted and set his jaw. “I am content,” he said, trying to find the middle ground between lying and outright telling a fellow novitiate to fuck off.
Clarence chuckled. “I used to come to this every year, back before…” He tugged at one of the folds of his robe to complete the sentence. “Of course, I tended to wear a lot less then.”
Theo had no trouble believing that — Clarence was a very handsome man, with clear green eyes and pale brown skin dappled with freckles. He could just imagine Clarence among the revelers, stripped to the waist, his smooth chest painted with swirls and intricate designs, his bared legs wrapped with flowered vines. Theo had to stop imagining this; it just made him hate Clarence more.
“You know, you don’t have to stand in the corner and sulk like this.” Clarence jerked his thumb out toward the crowd. “Just because you can’t buy doesn’t mean you can’t shop.”
Theo desperately wanted to not know what Clarence meant by that. “I’m fine,” Theo said, then sighed. “Honestly, I don’t know why they insist on bringing us to these things. We’re not very festive.”
“Oh, but we are, in a way! We remind them that the gods love them, and also that we exist and will appreciate their tithes when tomorrow, when they’re praying for the gods to save them from their hangovers.” Clarence laughed softly. “A feeling I know intimately.”
At the other end of the hall, one of the acrobats made an arch of his body, and another two posed on top of him, earning appreciative applause from the audience. “Well,” said Theo, uncomfortable with the conversation but even more uncomfortable with any silence between them, “they’ve saved you from yours, at least.”
It was meant to be a dig, of course, but Clarence just laughed again. “You know, you’re the only one of us here whose glass isn’t filled with something stronger than water.”
Theo’s features curled into a sharp frown. “That’s not a proper way to talk about your brethren!”
“May not be proper; still true.” Clarence folded his arms across his chest and sighed as he leaned back against one of the pillars, gazing at Theo. “I admire you, you know. You believe in this, you really do. The robes, the meditation, the penance, the self-denial — you don’t just endure it, you invite it.”
“Yes, I do,” answered Theo through clenched teeth. “As is right and good.”
“Right and good and rare,” Clarence said. “But that’s what I admire, I truly do. If the Tetratheon themselves descended to the center of this hall and together, all four of them, told you personally that you could do whatever you wanted tonight without consequence and with the blessings of the Divine, you’d just excuse yourself politely and go home to read a book.”
The statement was such a wild mix of insult, truth, and blasphemy that Theo didn’t quite know where to begin. It was true that the greatest acts of self-denial he engaged in usually involved powering through leg cramps during contemplation hour. Sometimes he pretended with the others to struggle greatly over the pleasures of the flesh, but he had honestly never felt much pull toward them. More than once he had confessed to lusting over some imaginary woman just because it had seemed the thing to do at the time. He was a simple man with simple tastes, which was why he had pledged himself to the Order early in his adolescence, to the agreeable confusion of his rather secular parents.
Clarence patted him lightly on the arm. “I’m not joking.”
“You are,” Theo grumbled.
“By the Holy Font, I’m not,” Clarence swore, which caught Theo by surprise. Even for a disastrous and disobedient monk, such an oath was not taken lightly. “I want us to be friends. I think we could be good for one another.”
“Good?” asked Theo, arching an eyebrow almost to his hairline. “What do we possibly have to offer one another?”
Even though they were far enough away from the crowd, which was itself making quite a roar, Clarence stepped closer, as though he were afraid of being overheard. “I’m not going to be here forever,” he said, this time reaching out to rub a fold of Theo’s robes between his thumb and forefinger. “This is penance. A prison. But my family won’t let me go until they’re sure I’ve learned control and discretion, and the Order won’t let me go until they’re sure my departure won’t leave them penniless.”
This was news to Theo, who had just assumed that Clarence’s vocation was as permanent as Theo’s own — whether either of them liked it or not. “All right,” Theo said, not sure what his response to this was supposed to be.
“Look, you want to head the Order someday, don’t you?” asked Clarence.
Theo bit both of his lips back between his teeth. He’d never said as much, of course, but the thought had been on his mind. He’d tried to chase it away as vanity, prideful ambition, but it had cropped up time and again.
Clarence, however, smiled as Theo’s face gave away the answer. “Good. I think you should. I believe that the gods deserve someone truly devoted to them as the head of the Order. But you know you’re not going to get there unless you play the right games outside of the monastery.”
“What are you saying?” asked Theo.
“I’m saying we can do good for each other,” Clarence said. “A partnership. We learn to trust one another. To really trust one another. And this can’t happen overnight. It’s done in pieces, over years, until everyone else is certain we’ve got each other’s backs. But more importantly, until we’re sure of it too.”
Theo’s head was swimming so much, he wondered if someone had spiked his drink. “What brought this on?” was all he could think to ask.
Clarence waved his hand, gesturing to the Great Hall and the festivities contained therein. “Tonight got me thinking. But it’s been on my mind for some time. This is just the first real chance I’ve had to talk to you when there weren’t fifteen other Brothers around, or when you didn’t run away the second you saw me coming.”
Well, that answered one of Theo’s questions, the one where he’d wondered if Clarence had somehow just been oblivious to the way Theo felt about him. But no, Clarence had seen it and considered it and taken measures to work around it. That, at least, spoke of some investment. “And why should I trust you?” Theo asked at last.
“Up to this point? No reason.” Clarence looked out over the crowd, quirking his mouth to one side thoughtfully. “Go on, pick someone.”
“For what?” asked Theo.
Clarence grinned. “To show that I trust you. Pick someone. Not one of ours. Someone handsome, who won’t be missed if he leaves the ball for a little bit.”
What Clarence was implying was ridiculous, and Theo was going to go along with it for … well, for no reason that he could put his finger on, except that Clarence was probably just making more fun of him somehow. If it would make Clarence go away, so much the better. He scanned the crowd for what he supposed constituted handsome, until his eyes fell on a dashing man in a long purple coat with no shirt beneath. He had angular, foreign features, and his jet-black hair and beard were threaded through with silver. Theo didn’t even know what it was about the man — he had a certain loneliness to him, perhaps because he was indeed visiting from beyond the kingdom’s borders. Was he setting Clarence up for success or failure with a potential language barrier like that? He couldn’t say.
“That man.” Theo pointed to him as unobtrusively as he could.
Clarence’s eyes widened a little, and then he grinned. “Fine choice,” he said. “Don’t leave.” And with that, he was off, walking forward toward the man Theo had chosen for him.
In the relative silence that followed, Theo was left to find his own solid ground again. What had just happened? He felt as though he’d made a deal with the Infernal Powers instead, selling away his virtue for his own vanity without even knowing how or why a deal had been struck.
The worst part, though, is that Clarence had been right about everything from the moment he’d opened his mouth. Though he had been tempted by membership in other, far more reclusive orders of renunciates, Theo had chosen to join the Brothers of the Four Houses because they promised a balance between internal discipline and external outreach. Even as a boy, he had realized that he could not do good for himself without also doing good for others. Thus he had promised himself to an order that operated not on the peaks of mountains or in the centers of desert wastelands, but at the hearts of cities — in their case, the crown city.
Therefore, though Theo hated it, he had to admit that his goal of running the Order was absolutely unobtainable without outside support. He’d wanted to believe otherwise, that through virtuous example he could convince the others he was worthy of leadership. But Clarence was right — everything was politics, and if he needed more proof of that, he needed to look no further than his own self, standing in the middle of a fancy party at the Order’s command. There was no spiritual and every practical reason for them to be there, and it was high time he stopped pretending otherwise.
What, then, was Clarence’s game? He didn’t think anymore that Clarence was mocking him, but that didn’t mean he deserved Theo’s trust, either. And what had he meant by making Theo pick someone? The crowd had pressed in again after Clarence’s departure, but Theo could look over to where the man had been standing and see that neither of them was there anymore.
Theo decided that this was a ridiculous exercise, all of it. He was hot and grumpy, and Clarence had probably just been drunk. By morning, it would be done and neither of them would speak of it every again. Clarence would work his way out of the monastery on his own terms, and Theo would be left again to operating on the belief that virtue would indeed be its own reward.
He wanted to leave. He knew he should leave. He was going to leave. He stayed right where Clarence had told him to stay.
After a time, the acrobats were replaced with musician and a pair of dancers so expressive that Theo found himself lost in the story their bodies were telling together. He was therefore startled to realize that someone was standing just behind him — and indeed, had possibly been there for some time.
He turned to see Clarence, looking almost as he had when he’d left earlier, so close to before that only a careful eye might see the difference. Theo, however, took in every dissimilarity, from the rough, hasty folds of Clarence’s robes to the way his mahogany curls were even wilder than they had been before. There was a reddening mark on Clarence’s neck, and Theo had a moment of worry before he realized that Clarence had probably wrapped his robes just loose enough to reveal it as he chose.
“They’re talented, aren’t they?” said Clarence, nodding back to the dancers. Theo turned to follow his line of sight, until they were standing side by side, alone in their corner as they watched the stage. “So was he.”
Theo felt his palms grow clammy with sweat. He shouldn’t ask. He didn’t want to ask. “Talented?”
“With his tongue,” Clarence said. “But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
It was good that there was a pillar nearby, because Theo felt the sudden need for some support. He leaned back against it, letting it support his shoulder. He folded his hands into the folds of his sleeves, for lack of anything better to do with them.
“He seemed surprised at first. He’s not from around here. A visiting diplomatic aide of some sort, was all I could put together.” Clarence’s voice was light and pleasant, and anyone who couldn’t understand the words would surely have thought he was talking about something nice and pleasant and normal, and not a violation of both the Order’s disciplines and the kingdom’s laws. “But we didn’t need to say much.”
Theo couldn’t even imagine that sort of conversation between people who did have a solid grasp of the same language. “All right, I believe you,” Theo said.
“I don’t want you to believe me,” Clarence said, and Theo could hear the smile in his voice. “I want you to trust me.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Theo.
“The difference,” Clarence chuckled, “is what happened next.”
It was bait, pure and simple, and even poor naive Theo could see that from miles away. That made it all the more embarrassing, he supposed, as he then opened his mouth wide and swallowed the hook whole. “What,” he asked, even the gods themselves incapable of stopping him, “happened next?”
Clarence’s smug smile widened audibly. “I asked him if he’d had a tour of the palace grounds. He said no, that he hadn’t, so I offered to be his tour guide. It’s curious — there’s usually this moment of skepticism, especially with men, as they try to sniff out my intentions, find the tripwires of my trap. But it’s amazing what trust the robes of even a novice monk can win you.”
The thought that Clarence was a practiced expert at this made Theo’s head swim with even more questions he knew he shouldn’t even consider asking. He clenched his hands around their opposite forearms inside of his sleeves as he swallowed hard. There was that word again: trust.
Standing right at Theo’s side, just at the edge of his vision, Clarence took a side step closer. “There’s a powder room just half a flight down, on the way to the gardens level. It’s tucked away back down a staircase I’ve only ever seen servants take, and of course they have their own facilities elsewhere. But it’s unlocked, and it’s just large enough for two bodies.”
“And you know about this how?” asked Theo, surprised that his voice still worked even as much as it did.
“Now that’s a story for another time,” Clarence said, his voice full of promise. “Let’s just say I’m familiar with it and its conveniences. And it was indeed very convenient. The moment the door was locked, he was on his knees.”
Theo felt his thoughts go a little white, the same way his eyes did when emerging from a darkened chamber into full sunlight. Truthfully — and now, he was realizing, quite naively — he had been expecting the story of some stolen kisses, perhaps even an artful tease, just enough to explain the scandalous mark darkening the curve of Clarence’s neck. He had never been more grateful for the pillar and its support.
“He seemed so calm among the crowds, so presentable in public. But he knelt for me like he was dying of thirst, and I was the only source of water.” Clarence’s voice lowered as he spoke, making Theo want to lean in, to strain to hear every word. “He didn’t know the words, so he begged me with his eyes. He knelt there, licking his lips as I unwrapped my robes and stood before him naked. Then he lunged for me and swallowed my cock to the root.”
The sound Theo made at that was thoroughly undignified, and what was worse was how clearly Clarence was delighted by the reaction. Theo had never in his life felt a strong desire to participate in oral sex, either giving or receiving — even right then, truly, if offered it freely as an exception from gods and rulers alike, Theo would probably decline. Hearing about it, however, was an entirely different matter, one that gave the blood in his veins an electric charge.
“Some will suck you because they think you expect it from then, or because you’ve promised them some sort of reciprocity. Not him,” Clarence said appreciatively. “I’m not sure if it’s also unlawful where he’s from, but I suspect it’s at least unwise. Of course, the scandal of it makes everything taste sweeter. Are you well?”
It took Theo a full beat to realize Clarence was addressing him. “I am,” he managed, clearing his throat. Speaking reminded him to flex his hands, and as he did, he realized that he had been digging into his forearms with the nails of both hands.
Clarence moved even closer, close enough that Theo could feel their arms touch. “I’m telling you this as a secret, not a confession. Do you understand?” Without waiting for Theo to acknowledge, he continued, “A sin is something you regret. A secret, not necessarily so. You could ruin me with either, if you liked. But I’d like to think you won’t. Do you want to hear the rest of the secret?”
Theo pressed his lips together so hard they began to lose feeling. He nodded.
“Good,” Clarence said. “He wanted more. He wanted as much of my cock as I would give him. I could see the way the edges of his mouth curled into a smile even as he took my whole shaft between his lips. Are you thinking about that now, how his face must have looked?” Of course Theo was; he didn’t know how he could be expected to think of anything else. “He had a lovely, kind face. He looked a little like you.”
Bless that pillar, it was doing its job, because Theo’s knees no longer were. “Not really,” he managed, even though he had to admit, on reflection, some similarity. Theo’s face was not nearly as sharp or fine-boned as the stranger’s had been, but he supposed his hair and eyes were just as dark, and that, based on his father’s example, he would probably grey in much the same manner.
Clarence nudged Theo with his shoulder, and anyone who saw them might think that they were simply two friends, both of the same order, enjoying an evening’s departure from their monastic routine. Who might suspect their conversation to be such a departure from said routine? “Do you want to hear about how he fucked me?” asked Clarence.
That should have been a sin — Clarence should have regretted it not only because it was against the Order’s demands for chastity, but because it was an outright crime that, under the right circumstances, could have sent him to the gallows. But there was not a hint of regret in Clarence’s voice, not an instance of shame or sorrow or sense that his actions should have caused moral outrage. And because there was none from Clarence, Theo felt none of his own as he nodded in reply. Yes, he wanted to know. He wanted nothing else.
“That’s another perk of that little powder room,” Clarence told him. “All of us know about it, the children of the court. We’ve all sucked and fucked so many times in there that one of us or another is always making sure it’s prepared. He didn’t know this, and the look of disappointment on his face was so sweet as I pulled out from his mouth before he’d finished. But he didn’t hesitate when I turned over and presented him with a bottle of oil and my ass.”
Theo didn’t know now whether or not he regretted knowing exactly what Clarence’s naked body looked like. All the brothers lived and bathed and changed together, and there was no shame or impropriety in these moments. However, it meant that Theo could now picture in great detail what the stranger in the purple coat must have seen: the soft curve of his ass cheeks, the freckled backs of his thighs, the way Clarence’s curls fell into his face as he looked back over his shoulder.
Clarence leaned in even more now, until their shoulders were pressed together tight, until Theo could almost feel the heat through both their sets of heavy black robes. “It’s been two years since I was last taken like that. He pressed into me and I felt like I was being fucked with a tree trunk. I was impaled on his cock. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. That’s what it feels like, when someone fucks you that deep. It feels like he’s inside you all the way to your lungs. Like you’re hollow, and there’s nothing else inside you but his big, thick cock.”
Theo was aware that he had grown hard, listening to Clarence talk. No one could tell through the way the folds of his robes fell, of course, but he knew that Clarence knew. Was that a sin or a secret of his own? He didn’t know, but he knew they shared it.
“He fucked me hard. He grabbed my hips and pounded my ass. Thrusting in and out, in and out, like I was made for his cock. Just a thing, made to fuck.” Clarence laughed at that again, but now Theo could hear a heavy breathiness to that sound. Was Clarence getting hard again, just telling him? Was Theo somehow responsible for this? “He fucked me until I came, and then kept going until he was satisfied too. I won’t be able to sit down right for a day or so. Every time I do, I’ll be thinking of how good it felt to have him in me.”
He was grateful for how little light reached into their corner of the hall, because Theo’s cheeks were so flushed that he could feel his pulse pounding in them. “What then?” he asked, his words barely more than harsh whispers.
Clarence leaned in and spoke in a voice so low that even in an otherwise-silent room, no one else could have heard him. “He came inside me,” he said, the breath of his speech hot against Theo’s ear. “I didn’t even bother to clean up after. I’m still slick with his lube and come. I wanted to keep feeling it as long as I could. Fuck, I’m so hard again right now. I got so hard telling you, Theo.”
Hearing his name made Theo’s own cock jerk beneath his robes, but he kept his face still and even, and no one watching would ever have been able to tell anything was amiss. “So … why involve me?” asked Theo, keeping his eyes turned out on the rest of the partygoers as the evening’s revelries continued.
“What do you mean?” asked Clarence.
“You could have done all this on your own.” Theo nodded out toward the place the man in the purple coat had been standing. “You knew what you wanted, and you knew where to take him to get what you want. Why involve me?”
This time Clarence outright placed a hand in the center of Theo’s back, strong and steady, until it was not the pillar that bore the bulk of Theo’s weight anymore, but Clarence himself. “Because you don’t want to be lovers, and I’ve got plenty of friends as it is,” he said, pressing the tips of his fingers into five distinct points against Theo’s back. “What we each need is a partner. Alone, I’m trapped and you’re stuck. Together, we have a chance to change the world.”
Theo let that idea roll over in his head for a full minute, then turned to face Clarence. With Clarence’s arm on his back, the move brought them almost to an embrace, closer than Theo once would have ever expected to find themselves standing. That, however, was before they had decided to begin sharing each other’s secrets. What lived on the other side of this moment, Theo did not know. He was willing, however, to find out.
With his voice plain and businesslike as he could manage, Theo asked, “So, you’re still hard?”
It brought Theo intense pleasure to see a heavy shiver pass across Clarence’s features, prompted entirely by his question. This, perhaps, was more fun than Theo had strictly given it credit for being, and if they were partners, it seemed only fair that they share equally in its power. “Like a rock,” Clarence said, his voice shaky.
“You said you came already, though,” Theo said.
Clarence nodded, then shook his head. “It wasn’t enough. Tell me what to do, Theo.”
Theo turned away from the almost-embrace and scanned the crowd. The scheduled entertainments had concluded, but the evening was far from over, given the noise and general spirits of the assembled revelers. The sweat and heat of bodies baked through the room, but it no longer felt so oppressive to Theo. It felt like the heat of a fever, raising to a pitch until it could break and begin to heal.
After careful consideration, Theo inclined his head toward a man who looked to be perhaps ten years their senior. Already he was learning for the right cues — the solitary, faraway look of someone wishing he were anywhere but his own skin. Theo knew this look; he had seen it in the mirror enough times. Maybe after tonight he’d never find it there again. “Him,” he said.
Clarence’s eyebrows rose; obviously this hadn’t been the order he’d expected. “Another?” he asked, as though making sure Theo knew what he’d just implied.
“You said once wasn’t enough,” Theo said, giving a casual shrug. “Unless you’d rather–“
“No,” said Clarence, stepping forward toward the crowd. He glanced back over his shoulder, tossing Theo a charming smile. “Just be here when I return.”
“Of course,” Theo said, then added, “partner.”
The broad smile on Clarence’s face as he walked confidently forward was mirrored by Theo’s own. Just because he didn’t recognize the desires as his own perhaps didn’t mean they shouldn’t exist, or that nothing good could come from them. He would have to think on this some more. He suspected that in the days and weeks ahead, his moments of quiet contemplation would never lack something to contemplate.
Perhaps the way to master hatred was not to feel ashamed of it in the hopes that it might someday go away. Perhaps the correct way was to change its substance entirely, the way animal dung became the fertilizer out of which better things could emerge. No, it wouldn’t happen overnight, but neither did plants, or seasons, or any other substantive growth — and when they did, they never happened entirely by themselves. Even the gods worked as a quartet, after all. Perhaps they could see their way toward blessing a mismatched pair at the start of learning what it could be to trust another completely.