“Ah, there you are again! We‘d wondered if you’d gotten bored of us.”
Dolce led the small delegation of courtesans who swept towards Benvenuto, his cousins and their friends as they settled into the sofas at the far end of the brothel’s broad entrance hall. By this point, Benvenuto knew most of their names: tall, willowy Ippolita, who was Jacopo’s favourite, and Gianetta and Simona, with long dark hair and ample curves, heading for Agnolo, who greeted them with glee. Alongside them came a young man and women he did not know, probably sent to entertain their friends that had tagged along with them this time, who weren’t regulars yet. Carlo and Domenico, thick as thieves with his cousins since they had arrived in the city, had only ended up here a couple of times, but that was a result of random chance rather than a sign of them being in any way a good influence.
Dolce was for him, despite the fact that Benvenuto had never once indulged in the pleasures offered at La Peonia. Despite that, he found a small smile force its way onto his lips as Dolce seated himself on the armrest next to him.
“Are you wasting your time with me again?” Benvenuto asked.
“I’m not. I like talking to you. Maybe one day you will talk to me in private,” Dolce said, raising a brow.
There was humour in his voice, draping over his thick Freibrückenian accent that put hard edges on consonants and flattened all vowels. After as many nights as Benvenuto had spent sitting stiffly in the back of the brothel waiting for his cousins and their various acquaintances to finish their business, he doubted anyone truly expected him to go up to a room, much less someone as clever as Dolce. He did seem to enjoy the blush that inevitably crept up Benvenuto’s neck at the suggestion, though.
Dolce was a strange one, Benvenuto had long thought. He was not as young as most of the courtesans, for one, and Benvenuto guessed he was even a few years older than him, though he himself was almost thirty. The thin silk garb the workers wore, exposing naked skin with every movement, hung somewhat awkwardly on his more muscular frame, yet the contrast made the sight all the more fascinating. He also had several scars on his limbs and torso, the long, even, narrow kind left by the bite of blades. Despite all that, though, he needn’t beg for Benvenuto’s company, as he was always in demand. Benvenuto was not surprised, for he was striking with his toothy, somewhat crooked smiled, brown eyes like honey, proud bearing and confident tone.
He didn’t quite know why Dolce had fixated on him, though. He was not especially personable and doubted it was his good looks, either. The only remarkable thing about Benvenuto was his considerable height, but he was ungainly, gaunt, and pale, his black hair and dark eyes making his skin look even more washed out. Dolce probably just liked the novelty of having someone to tease, as very few other people came here just to keep an eye on their acquaintances.
With that thought, he glanced at Jacopo and Agnolo, who for now were entertaining their friends and the courtesans with loud jokes and tall tales. His cousins, twins looking alike as one egg did to the next, were not bad men, per se, bright in studies and always delivering engaging conversation, but enough years younger than Benvenuto to act wild and foolish too often, and at the same time slowly growing too old for it to still be endearing. Their parents had known this and when the two had travelled to Piasena to be apprentices under their uncle Mario at his bank, Benvenuto had been asked to keep an eye on them when possible.
And so he had become one of La Peonia’s regular visitors without having ever bought as much as a kiss.
“Looks like it will be a long night, my lord,” Dolce said, following Benvenuto’s gaze.
Though Dolce did not know details of his family life, Benvenuto was sure he had figured out the general reason he was here, especially since Jacopo and Agnolo usually talked too much.
Benvenuto gave a quiet sigh. “You’re right.”
“You know we’re discreet, right? If we gossip, Madam Madelena will whip our hides. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to keep coming, but you could probably leave them here by themselves.”
“It is not you or the other courtesans I am worried about. It’s just that if I were not here, they would move on to a tavern afterwards and get even more drunk. Besides, when their less – careful friends are around, my cousins can get carried away doing foolish things. I wouldn’t want them to cause trouble for you here, either.”
Dolce gave an understanding hum. “I suppose I’ll be bringing you a candle again, then, yes? Do you want wine?”
“Water,” Benvenuto said with a smile.
Dolce already knew, but he always asked and always gave a despairing sigh at Benvenuto’s answer, just like now, but he went to fetch the water and candle for him despite that.
Whenever his cousins and their friends were busy in the private rooms upstairs, Benvenuto would work. Orphaned young and from a lesser branch of the de Vercelis family, he’d taken a loan from Uncle Mario to buy the first blocks for a printing business and though it had now grown much too large for him to check everything that came through his machines, he would still make sure to correct the most important texts himself.
Benvenuto would sit with a manuscript in a corner, marking in coal the mistakes, trying to ignore his surroundings as best he could. His cousins and their friends called him a prude for his refusal to even look around. It was true the actual acts happened upstairs, but many customers were not shy to start on their adventures down in the entrance hall and while Benvenuto had not been a virgin in a while, seeing people brazenly paw at the courtesans was not something he was of a mind to watch.
Dolce returned, put a candle on the table in front of Benvenuto and then filled a cup with clear water from a glass bottle, placing both down, too.
“What’s your text about?” he asked as he sat back down on the armrest, glancing at the manuscript Benvenuto had picked out. “Looks like ants ran in ink and then over the paper. Can you really read that?”
Dolce couldn’t read at all, he’d told him once, but he liked knowing what Benvenuto was up to.
“It’s a treatise on local politics from a man who always has more ideas than paper at hand.”
“Politics? How dangerous. You might get in more trouble than your little friends with that.”
“I didn’t even tell you what sort of politics,” Benvenuto protested.
“That doesn’t matter. It’s politics, someone will want you dead for it,” Dolce answered with a wry grin.
Benvenuto smiled and wanted to say something, but Dolce shifted away from him at that moment, glancing over his shoulder. Following his gaze, Benvenuto noted the imposing figure of Madam Madelene, who was making a quick gesture at Dolce.
“Well, work calls,” he said and gave Benvenuto a smile as he got to his feet.
As Dolce strode across the room, Benvenuto saw him part his silk tunic, allowing it to slide off his shoulders to reveal more skin. He turned away before he could see who Dolce was trying to entice, already certain that Dolce would capture his prey. It was a rare night that Dolce did not take anyone up the broad flight of stairs to the private rooms and after all, though he did seem to genuinely enjoy poking fun at Benvenuto and talking to him about all manner of things, Benvenuto knew Dolce would not make enough here that he could easily give up an evening’s pay just for the fun of conversation.
Tearing his thoughts away from him, Benvenuto made sure once more that no one in his company was about to embarrass themselves in public. Jacopo and Domenico were squabbling, but they usually were, and it seemed like the courtesans were smoothing it over with laugher and gentle touches. Agnolo was busy with his favourites, his face almost in one woman’s cleavage.
Dolce took a sip of his water. It was pleasantly cold for a warm summer night. Dolce must have fetched it from a cellar room instead of going to the kitchen in the back.
He dropped his gaze and stared hard at the manuscript.
“How can you have energy left over for this?”
Jacopo laughed at him as he rapped at the wooden door of La Peonia. The knocker was shaped like a floral wreath made out of the flowers that had given the place its name, their edges rubbed smooth where too many eager hands had grabbed them.
“We’re young, Benvenuto,” Domenico said.
“And it’s only a couple hours past midnight,” Agnolo added. “Besides, we can be good men when we go back to Inezia.”
Benvenuto wondered if that was true. If he had to give account of his greatest weaknesses, one was undoubtedly that he found it hard to put his foot down. He managed alright in his business, where he’d been lucky enough to assemble workers mostly glad for his kindness, but even there he had suffered some losses from deception by people more ruthless than him. When it came to his family, Jacopo and Agnolo, seven years younger than him, managed to drag him along for all but the most deplorable acts and while he had kept them out of scandals, he hadn’t at all been able to set them on a more productive path. Would they really be able to leave it all behind when they went back to their home town or would the temptation overcome them again? Inezia was only a different city, not a different world. As for Domenico, he already seemed adrift to him. Unlike the twins, he was not even in an apprenticeship or studying, but merely wandering through life spending the overflowing wealth his parents had made in the silk trade. Sometimes, it seemed more likely that the twins would become like him and though Benvenuto had only been tasked with making sure they would not end up in dangerous situations and keep them from gossip that might follow them, it felt to Benvenuto like he was doing too little.
At any rate, he was already tired as Madam Madelena waved them into the house and vexed besides. Unlike the three men falling into the building before him, laughing and jostling each other, he had spent last week constantly working, setting up the groundwork for his newest facility in Terimini, a flourishing little seaside town fifty miles to the east. Even if he’d had thought to take a manuscript tonight, he doubted he would have been able to concentrate.
Domenico and Jacopo were already both flirting with Ippolita while Agnolo had a new raven-haired girl by his side and was bringing over another to distract Domenico from stealing Jacopo’s favourite. By how handsy they were, Benvenuto figured they would go upstairs soon, leaving him alone. This wouldn’t have bothered him so much on another night, but he was worried he’d fall asleep if left to his own devices and in truth, he hadn’t talked to anyone about anything but block-books and presses and movable types, building rents and the price of ink in days. Having to build his business from scratch had left him little time to make friends, something he, in truth, had never been very good at, so he’d no one who would help him find reprieve. If nothing else, his companions would have provided light conversation had they lingered downstairs for a bit.
Automatically, he found himself looking for Dolce and eventually spotted him at the far end of the room helping another courtesan hang up a fallen drape and collecting flowers from the ground to sort them back into an empty vase. A damp piece of rough-spun cloth laid on the tiles in a puddle. Dolce moved a heavy, carved wooden chair against the wall, plucked another rose from under where it had stood, and in raising his eyes finally caught Benvenuto’s gaze. He smiled as he sauntered over.
“What happened over there?” Benvenuto asked.
Dolce pressed the red rose he’d collected into his hands and Benvenuto took it, the confidence of Dolce’s movement forbidding anything else. The grin Dolce gave him set his heart beating a little faster for this display of joyful audacity.
“Alcohol and anger do not mix well. We already sent him home,” Dolce said. “You’re late tonight.”
Benvenuto nodded his head. “My companions are already on their way upstairs. Is there somewhere I can sit?”
“Of course. Come, I’ll stay with you,” Dolce said.
“Is that alright?” Benvenuto asked. “I always feel like I might get you in trouble with the Madam since you waste so much time on me.”
“Not now, I don’t think you could. Most customers are home already.” Dolce gestured towards a plush sofa. “Is it going to be wine tonight?”
Benvenuto opened his mouth to decline him as usual, snapped it shut. He did want wine, not enough to get drunk on, but enough to calm his nerves a little.
“Yes, actually,” he said as he placed the rose on the table before him.
Dolce stared, then laughed at him. “Oh, you are making fun of me now. I suppose I deserve it!”
“I’m not,” Benvenuto said, though he had to smile, too.
“Really? I will make a proper customer of you yet.” Dolce gently swiped Benvenuto’s arm, making him blush again. “Let me get the wine, then.”
Watching him make his way through the room, Benvenuto saw him stopping by the Madam, who listened for a moment and then just shrugged her shoulders and nodded her head. Soon, Dolce was back, carrying with him a bottle of dark red liquid.
“Here you go,” he said, filling a cup that stood ready on the table. “Not the best you can get in the city, I’m afraid. Our guests always drink our wine before it gets old.” He grinned. “Sweet enough, though. Just like us who work here.”
Benvenuto cleared his throat, tried to think of something clever to say. “I guess it’s even your name,” he suggested weakly.
“True. Though that’s just the region I was born in. Small patch of land in the west. My parents didn’t have a last name to pass on.”
Benvenuto nodded his head. That still happened a lot, especially among lower-born folk, and to distinguish themselves when coming to the cities, many took a surname that referred to their place of birth.
“You have a first name, then?”
“I do,” Dolce said, “but I like this one better.”
It was a clear end to a branch of a conversation if Benvenuto had ever known one. He sipped his wine.
“You can pour yourself some wine, I’m paying for the bottle,” he added.
Dolce hesitated, but then gave in with an easy smile. “It’s so late, you’ll probably be my last… not customer,” he said, pouring himself half a cup. “Though I have to say, if you’re willing to pay for other peoples’ drinks, you could get company more easily at a tavern.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t,” Benvenuto said honestly. “Not because of the people, but I’m not that talkative.”
“You seem plenty able to talk to me. Well, after the first three, four times where you just sat in the corner like a pretty statue on a pedestal, that is.”
Benvenuto hid his embarrassed smile in the cup.
“I might have stayed much the same if you had not kept talking to me,” he said. “I cannot ask everybody to be so insistent with me, even if I sometimes wish they were. I’m sure I have missed out on many a pleasant acquaintance.”
“Are you calling me obnoxious, my lord?” Dolce asked, raising a brow.
“No!” Benvenuto said quickly.
Dolce laughed and Benvenuto found himself for some reason relieved that he had not insulted him.
“So you don’t talk to people that much. You must do something with your days, though. You often work here – more than I figured a nobleman would have to so late in the night,” Dolce said, turning his cup in his hands.
“I do have noble blood, but I am the son of the sixth child and there was not much inheritance left to hand out by that point. My family connections did allow me to loan money, though, but it took years to build up the printing business I have now. I am happy that I could...”
“But?” Dolce prompted.
“No, I am,” Benvenuto said with a shake of his head. “I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have had a more carefree youth.” He glanced at the ceiling to indicate his cousins and their friend above. “Well, perhaps not this carefree. I just notice I made little room for anything else but work in my life.”
With the wine and his tiredness and Dolce’s open interest, it was a little too easy to talk. Then again, Dolce probably knew much more revealing secrets of nobles all over the city.
“That makes sense, then!” Dolce exclaimed. “I have wondered if your wife or husband really believed your tales of sitting in a brothel drinking water and working through the evening. I know it’s somehow actually not a lie, but I’m not sure I’d buy it if I had a spouse who told me that.” He laughed.
“Heavens, no,” Benvenuto said, shaking his head. “If I had a spouse, I should have to think of something else to keep these young men in check. I would not put my husband or wife through watching me go to the brothel and having to hope for the best.”
“Good,” Dolce said with a small smile, leaning back. “It seems there really is no spot on your record, is there? A true innocent. And here of all places!”
“I would not claim that,” Benvenuto said, raising his hands.
“Of course not, then you’d be proud and that’s no good,” Dolce joked. “I knew a man just as perfect as that in Vitina – a priest. But on the way back he fell in love with a widower and left the temple to tend her mill with her. Actually a sweet story, in my mind, though many said he disappointed the gods.”
Benvenuto smiled and was about to protest that he had anything in common with a priest, but then caught on the word Vitina. It was not a city, nor even a village, but the name was well-known for the valley in which one of the bloodiest battles between Mirseli and Pomesenza, the greatest city states down in the south of the country, had taken place.
“You were at Vitina?”
For just a split second, Dolce’s eyes widened and his mouth pressed into a line before he retrieved his jovial smile.
“I think the wine makes me chatter. Or maybe that’s just you,” he murmured. “Though I guess my accent gives it away, doesn’t it?”
It was true that most people from Freibrücken who ended up here had come as mercenaries, but it was not all of them. Perhaps in addition to the scars clearly left by blades, it should have been enough of a giveaway, though. There was just very little about playful, friendly Dolce that put you in mind of a sellsword.
“So you used to be with a mercenary company?” Benvenuto asked, astonished.
Dolce took another sip of his wine, stalling, and for a moment Benvenuto wondered if he would answer at all. However, Dolce turned back to him then.
“Like my father before me. He’d returned with me to Freibrücken when I was a babe. My mother was from around these parts – Dolce, as I said –, but she didn’t have use for me. I walked with his company up until he left. I couldn’t tell you to where, I never saw him again, but by then I was thirteen and passable with a blade and knew the ways of mercenary companies. I hired on and made my way back down south.” He shrugged. “Eventually, it was a few bones healed crooked too many, a little more blood than I’d ever wanted to see. I left, but I’ve no education and most kinds of simple work are too hard on my body now.” He winked. “The beds here are soft, though, so this is perfect.”
Despite the fact that they sat in a brothel, whenever Dolce alluded directly to his occupation, Benvenuto felt a little too warm. Perhaps he was a bit more prim than he admitted to himself, though definitely not priest-like.
“I see,” he just mumbled, trying to merge the image of Dolce in his short silk tunic with that of Dolce in piecemeal armour carrying a notched sword.
“Well, now that I have talked too much, I will push you, too, my lord. How come you are not married? Even if you had little time, having a title and enough money attracts suitors, does it not?”
“That’s true,” Benvenuto said, glad for the distraction. “Though since I have money and a title and don’t need to marry for either, I don’t see a reason to hurry.”
“Smart. Especially since the ones offering might want one or the other,” Dolce said, chuckling.
“Everyone finds a way to climb, don’t they?” Benvenuto said with a strained smile. “I don’t blame them, I suppose.”
Still, he did not wish to be a rung of the ladder regardless.
“What made you choose printing, then, out of everything, to make your fortune?”
Benvenuto sat up straight, happy to be on familiar ground with a topic that, even after so many years, and while the details of the business were often tedious, had not yet started to bore him at its core.
“I always liked reading and enjoyed the idea that more people would have the chance to do so. Besides, I had travelled with my mother and seen the then-new printing machines when I was a child. They are magnificent pieces of engineering! I started out with old-fashioned type-setting by hand, but now I do have a few machines of my own.” He stopped himself as Dolce grinned. “What?”
“Nothing. You love your work. The way you talk of it makes me wish I could read.”
He did not sound sarcastic and since he still looked at Benvenuto with interest, Benvenuto was just about to tell him about the commissioned block-books he was currently working on when there was a bit of a commotion upstairs. The first story of the building framed the ground level like a balcony and just as Benvenuto looked up, Agnolo broke free from a room, shirtless, singing and swaying, and being kept from taking an accidental dive over the balustrade by a half-dressed woman, holding him by his belt with one hand and hastily covering her bare bosom with the other.
“I think your boys are through for the night,” Dolce said flatly.
Benvenuto suppressed a sigh. Usually, he was glad to be taken from the brothel, but tonight his cousins could have taken a little longer.
“Are you really staying behind? Didn’t expect it of you!”
Carlo grinned as he pushed behind Domenico, Jacopo and Agnolo towards the door. The three in the front were arguing about something or other, but were reasonably sober and had announced they’d return home. Usually, Benvenuto would make sure that they did, but tonight the thought of leaving La Peonia without seeing Dolce again did not sit right with him.
“We know who he is waiting for,” Agnolo taunted, turning out of the heated discussion for a moment
Benvenuto waved them off with a resolute shake off his head. The most shameful thing was perhaps that Agnolo was right – he was waiting for Dolce, but not to take him up to a room.
It was foolish, he told himself, nervously perching on the edge of the sofa. The Madam was no charitable soul, but he’d not seen courtesans here seriously bruised or obviously frightened. Still, it was a brothel. You could not expect every customer to be a delight and some would do to the courtesans what people would not agree to willingly. Besides, if the men and women here got hurt or scared, would they not be expected to hide it? In the end, for all his pleasant conversations with Dolce, Benvenuto was nothing but a potential customer who would be shielded from the ugly realities of the business with care.
He had been set off by a detail, nothing more than coincidence, perhaps. As Dolce had left him to greet another guest, Benvenuto’s curiosity had overcome his better sense and he had snuck a glance – whether to see what sort of person hired Dolce, or how Dolce acted towards them, he did not know. A man had stood with Dolce, broad and grim-faced, and stomped up the stairs after a brief exchange of words. As Dolce turned to follow, a fleeting look of worry had crossed his face before his smile had returned and he had hastened after the man.
Benvenuto had told himself a dozen times that he should head home, but in truth, he knew he would not sleep well without having seen Dolce again.
Though it felt like an eternity, Benvenuto probably only waited an hour before the man who had taken Dolce upstairs thundered down the same steps and out the door without a look at anyone. Benvenuto held his breath, tried not to stare too obviously.
When Dolce emerged from a simple wooden door onto the first floor balcony and descended the stairs, he looked much like always, though his dark blond hair was ruffled and his cheeks still reddened. Standing halfway up the stairs, he let his gaze swerve over the entrance hall where it stuck on Benvenuto.
Thus caught red-handed, Benvenuto, who’d half-hoped to make an unseen escape, stood still like a frightened school boy when Dolce approached him.
“Your company is taking their sweet time tonight, are they not, my lord?” Dolce asked.
“Well, no, that is…” Benvenuto cursed himself for not lying, but he had never been good at it. “I was waiting for you.”
“What for? Am I in trouble?” Dolce asked, slightly bemused.
“No, of course not. I just happened to see your suitor and I suppose I… wanted to make sure you came out alright.”
It sounded infinitely more stupid when said out loud. What would he have done if Dolce had needed help? Benvenuto was not a strong nor even an assertive man.
“Really? Lucca’s not so bad. Would be nice if he heeded a few of the old injuries better, but he’s more like a big dumb dog than a beast. I’ve had worse.” Dolce shrugged. “Do you know him? Should I be worried?”
Benvenuto gave a stiff shake of his head, with that off-hand remark about having had worse stuck sideways in his brain. “No, I don’t know him. I just saw him and thought he looked to have an unpleasant temper.”
Dolce regarded him for a moment, something flickering in his eyes, but he turned his head away and waved him over to the exit.
“I think you might be a bit tired,” he decided. However, before he escorted him out, he stopped him with a gesture. “This is not the sort of thing you need to trouble yourself with, my lord.”
It sounded like an order, despite his calm voice.
“But I do worry you could get hurt here,” Benvenuto admitted, in a plea that was more for Dolce’s safety than his own dignity, which would have preferred him to shut his mouth and walk outside without another word. “If not this man, then another. One hears it all the time…”
“Life is dangerous. It is what it is,” Dolce said. “I won’t pretend this is a profession I would have picked if I’d had many other choices, but I have found giving pleasure for coin is easier on me than killing to get paid. Besides, most of the men I fought alongside died, or ended up so badly mutilated they are reduced to begging for food in the streets, or indeed the violence eventually drove them mad – all fates I have been spared.” He inclined his head. “I can take care of myself. Goodbye now.”
When Benvenuto stepped outside, properly chastised and subsequently silent, the night greeted him with a warm drizzle and a wall of humid, unbreathable air. He kept his head down as he made his way home.
Benvenuto’s thirtieth birthday had snuck up on him. One afternoon, Uncle Mario reminded him by asking what he planned to do next week and Benvenuto was forced to pretend he had not, among all the work he had buried himself under after Dolce’s sharp words, completely forgotten there was supposed to be a celebration.
At least a guest list was quickly assembled and kept to manageable length, as it coming on such short notice allowed people invited for appearances rather than connection to bow out of the festivity with ease. Benvenuto was content with this – large events had never been for him.
In the end, there were about fifty guests, most of them his many relatives who had already been in town, a few closer business associates, and some friends of Jacopo’s and Agnolo’s which hadn’t been invited but had come along anyway, which Benvenuto was not in the mood to fight about. Dinner was served and complimented. Uncle Mario held a good-hearted speech after desert and then fell asleep in an armchair as the crowd dispersed among the rooms of the ground floor of Benvenuto’s town house to unpack the cards that had been provided for primiera and trionfo. As Benvenuto made conversation about the expected crop with the wife of one of his older nephews, who was only a couple of years younger than him, he thought that this birthday felt little different than the five or so which had come before it.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to look into Agnolo’s grinning face.
“Cousin!” he said. “May I steal you for a moment?”
Dolce glanced at Lucia, who nodded her head, looking briefly interested but then turning to find a new conversation.
Benvenuto followed Agnolo with a sinking feeling. The grin on his face promised some surprise that might not be wholly to his taste. It was just like his cousins and their friends, who so often pushed the twins’ more regrettable urges, to play pranks like children even in a setting such as this, with fellow businessmen and valued family around. He could only hope that it was nothing that would leave him visibly rumpled and that they wouldn’t try to talk him into leaving his own celebration for some scheme, since he didn’t feel like having an argument.
On a balcony that overlooked the market square, still busy at this time of night, Carlo, Domenico and Jacopo stood in a tight cluster, backs towards the plaza. As Agnolo approached and made a sweeping gesture, they jostled at each other snickering and stepped aside.
Dolce was revealed behind them. He looked quite breath-taking in clothes that were usual fare for most men, but which Benvenuto had never seen on Dolce: a simple brown sleeveless jerkin laced in the front, dark trousers, high black boots and a white shirt with billowing sleeves and ruffles at the neck, as well as a simple flat leather cap with a broad white feather stuck on it. The materials all seemed cheap and a bit worn and somehow, he was still more handsome than any of the men in much fancier garb inside, though he obviously struggled to keep a smile on his face – and Benvenuto couldn’t even think to summon one, his heart having dropped into his stomach.
“This was my idea-” Jacopo gloated, only to be interrupted by Domenico.
“It was mine. Your head is always in that Ipolitta’s breasts before you could notice who anyone else is looking at.”
They were both evidently a little drunk, judging by the slur in their voices.
“Shut up,” Jacopo snapped before he turned his attention back to Benvenuto. “Anyway, here’s your man.”
“You cannot be serious,” Benvenuto muttered, too shocked to say anything else.
“We are! Don’t worry, we paid for the whole night,” Agnolo said, doing his best not to dissolve into laughter at Benvenuto’s dismayed embarrassment. “Come, men! Let him get his bearings.”
As Domenico and Jacopo still argued about the origin of the idea, trailing behind Agnolo and Carlo, Benvenuto and Dolce were left standing alone on the balcony. With the air scented by the roses and lavender that framed Dolce where they bloomed in broad pots behind him, and the moon shining bright down from above, it could have been a romantic image and Benvenuto was struck like a blow with the realisation that had it been allowed to be so, had Dolce not been someone bought for him, he might have been the happiest man this night.
Dear gods, when did this happen? And why had he not immediately known what word to put on these feelings when Dolce’s rejection of his concern had felt like a knife twisting in his chest?
Dolce was the first to break the thick silence between them.
“I wish you well and many happy returns of your birthday, my lord. I had an inkling where your kinsmen would take me, but they did not tell me it would be in the middle of the celebrations,” he said, somewhat cowed, a tone Benvenuto was not used to from him. It surprised him for a moment, but he chided himself for it. Of course Dolce would be intimidated. They had taken him out of the space where he could move freely to perform his profession to somewhere he would be judged and insulted should its nature be known, and without a warning at that. Blast his cousins!
“Thank you,” Benvenuto mumbled. “I apologise for this.”
“It’s my fault. I should have refused to come, but they’d already paid the Madam before I even knew who would fetch me for the night and I didn’t want to start a row with her.” Dolce shook his head. “I’m sure you’ve no interest to see me here. Tell me where to wait out the evening and I will be out of your way.”
“No, that’s not true,” Benvenuto said.
This much he could say without lying. He’d avoided Dolce, yes, even letting his cousins loose in Il Peonia without his oversight during the last week for fear of running into him and having to suffer what would no doubt be a shadow of their earlier, warmer acquaintance. However, this was because Dolce’s company was dear to him, not the opposite.
Dolce looked uncertain, his eyes searching Benvenuto’s face for something to tell him where to go from here. Benvenuto took a deep breath of the warm, fragrant air and then stepped out of the way, gesturing for Dolce to go through the door.
“There’s no reason for you to sit aside. I’d be happy to have your company if you are alright with it. However, feel free to walk out the door now. I’ll see to it that there will be no complaint made to the Madam.”
Dolce hesitated, but finally gave Benvenuto one of his playful smiles. “I guess if anyone of your guests recognised me, it’s in their own best interest to keep their mouths shut, isn’t it? I could come for a little bit.”
Benvenuto felt a smile rise to his face. He led the way through the sitting rooms in which his guests were spread out, but first brought Dolce over to the tables standing at the back of his dining room.
“It’s the first time I can offer you wine,” he said, gesturing at the selection.
Dolce laughed. It was a deep and honest sound. “The golden one is plum, yes? I will try that.”
True to his word, Benvenuto served it for him. However, before he handed him the full glass, he turned to look him in the eyes and collected all his courage.
“I still have something to apologise for,” he said earnestly. “I did not mean to condescend to you that night. I was worried, but you were right that it had nothing to do with me.”
Dolce looked surprised, yet inclined his head.
“And I didn’t mean to insult you for your kindness. I was harsh,” Dolce admitted. “I can’t deny my life is a bit of a mess, but it’s one I’ve made myself. I’ve always disliked it when people felt responsible to save me from something that’s my own doing. Besides, my lord, I don’t want you to head too far down a blind alley.” He smiled. “Let it be a truce for now?”
“Yes,” Benvenuto said, handing him his drink.
He could not but wonder what Dolce meant with the last comment, but had the ill feeling he already knew. This was Dolce letting him down easy, was it not? But he had to accept that and if it meant that at least they were on speaking terms, it was a win regardless. He pushed his disappointment away.
Dolce raised his glass to him before he took a sip. “Much better than ours,” he said with a smile, glancing curiously through an open door. “Who has come to celebrate you?”
“Some who work with me or for me, but mostly family. I have a lot of cousins and some of them are old enough to have children my age, and many of them. The family tree of the de Vercelis is a forest.”
“And apparently they don’t hate you enough not to come. What member of a big, rich family can say that about themselves, truly? You must be quite likable.”
“Well, I never had a shot at any inheritance, which helps to keep the peace,” Benvenuto answered with a slim smile.
Dolce chuckled and took another gulp of his drink. As he did, Benvenuto noticed that two of his nieces had taken note of them. Paula, lifting her green dress to walk more easily, lead the way as they approached.
“Who is your friend, uncle?” she asked coyly.
“Signore Dolce,” Benvenuto said. “These are Signorina Paula and Signorina Buona.”
“You should bring more handsome men like him,” Buona joked. “Your bookkeepers are boring.”
“If I may say so, my ladies, you are putting an impossible task before the lord,” Dolce said swiftly with a polite nod of his head. “I imagine it would be difficult to find any men to match your amenity.”
The young women giggled with scandalised delight.
“Benvenuto, you must introduce him to everyone,” Paula insisted.
So Benvenuto did and, as someone who struggled with such things, found himself deeply impressed by how easily Dolce moulded himself to the people he met after just a few words had been exchanged. He flirted with bored young women and men who obviously wished to spend their night in seedier places, showed himself complimentary and polite towards the sterner guests, inserted himself easily with the dogged card players by fawning over their moves, and questioned Benvenuto’s business partners who couldn’t seem to stop talking about numbers as if he truly wished to have ledgers explained to him. When they had made the rounds, Benvenuto could only shake his head.
“I think they like you. Aunt Tomasia didn’t even make a note about your clothes and she does that to everybody – she even did it to me when she arrived tonight.”
“It’s a tool of the trade. Although it helps I like talking to people.”
“Maybe I must hire you, after all, to teach me. If I could talk like this, I would make much better deals.”
“And that’s not all a quick tongue can be useful for.”
It seemed Dolce had not wanted the words to escape his mouth, for he quickly put the wine glass to his lips as Benvenuto turned red.
“Well, they all seem to be decent people,” Dolce followed up. “I have to say, I always expected noble festivities to include something a bit more debauched than gambling for symbolic pennies. Maybe because I usually only meet the sort of nobles who come to La Peonia...”
“That would skew expectations. I think most nobles are really quite boring,” Benvenuto said, aimlessly strolling along with Dolce as they talked.
“An underrated quality.” Dolce stopped in his tracks. “I have never seen this many books at once before.”
Glancing around, Benvenuto realised they had arrived in a room that was mostly storage now, plastered wall to wall with bookcases.
“They’re a wild collection. I used to put a copy of every full book I printed here, like trophies, but I’ve long had to stop that. These are from my first years.” Softly, he let his fingers run along a cheap spine that was only bound with cord. “They’re not pretty, most of them. Still, when you add leather bindings, a lot of people can’t afford them anymore. We often just sell loose sheets now so if someone wants a better cover, they can have it made.”
“That’s a good idea. You can decide whether to read or show off, or both,” Dolce said, inching closer to look at the book Benvenuto’s hand rested on. “What’s this about?”
Briefly reminded of the way Dolce would always inquire about his manuscripts, and soothed by the familiarity, Benvenuto pulled the book out and flipped through the pages.
“It’s a collection of fairy tales.” His memory was jogged as he saw the titles. “An eclectic selection. The author was very intent on proving certain values to children, so the tales he collected may or may not have been completely made up. I thought then-”
The door in the back of the room slammed open and Lucia almost ran past him before she realised she had already found him. Startled, Benvenuto lowered the book.
“What is it? Is everything alright?”
“You have to come to the garden! Jacopo and – I don’t know his name, some man, they say they’re going to have a duel!”
“What?” The book almost slipped from his hands. “Why?”
“Don’t ask me, I have no idea what this is about! You have to stop them. Heavens, they took the swords off the walls!”
There was a whole collection of them in the two hallways leading to the garden, one of the few heirlooms Benvenuto had been granted, old reminders of his family’s more warlike past, kept sharp and free of rust by his servants. They would absolutely still serve to cause grievous harm.
The thought shocked Benvenuto out of his confused trance. He shoved the book back into the case and turned down the hallway Lucia had come. Dolce and Lucia followed on his heels.
A half dozen people had already scattered around Jacopo and Domenico, who stood with some distance to each other on the lawn. Their audience was urging them to stop, all their voices mingling into a frantic buzz, and among them was Agnolo. When he spotted Benvenuto, he darted over with a haunted look on his face.
“You have to fix this!”
How? Talking seemed to do no good, for enough people were already doing that, and still Jacopo and Domenico circled each other like angry dogs, swords raised.
“What’s even going on?” Benvenuto asked.
Agnolo took a deep breath.
“Jacopo said Domenico insulted his honour, Domenico says there was nothing there to offend, and then – well, I think Domenico went out with this serving girl Jacopo liked from the tavern by the university a few weeks ago? But before that, Jacopo paid this street singer so he would make that song about Domenico which he had him sing in front of his friends at the market, and then...”
“Alright,” Dolce interrupted. “Enough of that. If that’s the worst you have, there’s no reason here to kill each other.”
He was right, Benvenuto thought, stepping forward to grab his enraged cousin by the elbow.
“Jacopo, this is-”
“Off!” Jacopo bellowed, tearing his arm free as he stepped away. “I’ve heard the last of this bastard’s insults!”
“Well, come at me, then!” Domenico said, swinging his sword wildly at the air. It would have looked silly if it weren’t for the fact that Benvenuto could see the sharp edge of it glint in the light of the lanterns lit around the garden, and imagine it slipping into his cousin’s flesh.
He looked between them in a panic and then over his shoulder, desperately wondering if Dolce had any more of his honeyed words left to smooth ruffled feathers. However, Dolce did not stand behind him anymore. He was just disappearing into the entryway they had come through. For a moment, Benvenuto thought he had decided to leave and he wouldn’t have blamed him, but Dolce emerged again and he, too, had appropriated one of the swords that had hung on the wall. With long strides, he pushed through the loose crowd and placed himself exactly between the contestants.
“Alright, boys,” he said, loud enough that it quieted the whole garden down. “You want to fight each other? You fight me first. We’ll see if you can even hold a sword in the state you’re in. You wouldn’t want to embarrass yourselves.”
“You have nothing to do with it, whore,” Jacopo roared.
“So what, you’re afraid to fight one?” Dolce taunted, looking at Jacopo. “And you want to beat Domenico like that? I think not.”
Benvenuto realised in that moment that Dolce had decided to help just like Benvenuto had hoped he would, bringing his feel for disparate human natures to the situation, but had judged that sweet words would not be enough to bring these two to heel. With the pure anger on the faces of the men, he was probably right. Jacopo especially wore a scowl that looked animal and then he suddenly jumped at Dolce, stabbing at him with the sword.
Benvenuto exclaimed in wordless horror and he was not the only one, but Dolce simply stepped out of the way of the attack, which, as Jacopo staggered past him, was revealed to be all strength and little coordination. Even Benvenuto could see he was wide open for a slash of Dolce’s blade now, but Dolce instead rammed the pommel of the weapon between his shoulders and swiped his leg out from under him with a kick. Jacopo stumbled and fell down face-first into the grass, the sword slipping from his hand. He reached out for it, but Dolce stepped down on his fingers. Jacopo yelped.
“You were disarmed. The duel is over for you. Don’t you even know the rules?”
He kicked the sword, sending it slithering over the grass. Lucia, who stood closest to it where it landed, quickly leaned down and grabbed it, holding it away from her chest like it was alive as she retreated a few steps behind the other onlookers.
Dolce turned his attention on Domenico, who seemed a lot less certain than before, especially when he saw Dolce brandishing his sword with much more finesse than Domenico’s own flailing had revealed. Nevertheless, it seemed he could not chance to dare less than Jacopo and so he stepped forward.
Domenico’s attempts were similarly aimless and lacked even the force Jacopo had had, though Benvenuto wondered with distant dread what that said about his cousin. If he’d landed his hit, he might have killed Dolce. Had he not realised or just not cared?
Dolce parried Domenico’s attacks once, twice, then stepped suddenly way up close to him and slammed his forehead against his face. Sputtering, Domenico stumbled backwards and Dolce swiped at his blade once more, which was torn from Domenico’s hand with the force.
Jacopo had climbed to his feet by this point, but seemed unsure of what to do, aware of all the eyes on him. Domenico held his bleeding nose. Dolce had stepped on his fallen blade.
“The next time you try to duel, remember who beat you this time, you whelps, and consider what will happen if an actual soldier gets his hands on you,” he said, even as he turned his gaze to Benvenuto.
For a moment, he did not know what Dolce wanted. He’d gotten the situation under control, all without Benvenuto’s help. But – no, that was not true, he realised. They were still standing there and the tension hadn’t dissipated. Dolce could tame them for him in the moment with shame and shock, but only Benvenuto had the power to discipline them in his house and end this for good. If he did not use the opportunity, perhaps their anger would be turned towards Dolce.
He swallowed. If Dolce could walk between two men with swords, risking insult and injury to himself to save Benvenuto’s cousin and his guest from harming each other, then Benvenuto could at the very least take these two to task.
“Domenico, you leave now. I do not ever want to see your face here again,” he said, secretly glad his voice managed to stay steady. “You can go now by yourself, or I can send for the city guard and have you escorted to jail. I have witnesses to your attempt to hurt my cousin and my guest. As for you, Jacopo – go inside, sit down, and we will deal with you.”
He had no idea what that would entail yet, but it sounded stern enough.
“Benvenuto-” Jacopo started.
“No, I don’t want to hear it. Agnolo, take him inside. Go.”
With the image of Jacopo lounging at Dolce still stuck in his head, the anger and disappointment in his expression were real and carried into his tone, and perhaps that more than his words made Jacopo buckle. With Agnolo behind him, he slunk inside. Domenico followed with some distance under the watchful gazes of the crowd. Benvenuto did not let him out of his sight until he’d stepped through the front door.
By the time Benvenuto had returned to the main sitting room, the question of what to do with Jacopo had been solved, as his guests had apparently woken Uncle Mario, whom Jacopo was apprenticed to. Benvenuto heard Mario shouting three rooms over.
Dolce was still by his side, having silently followed him to see Domenico out of the house. The major focus had shifted onto the twins now and Benvenuto and Dolce were alone in the vestibule.
“I cannot thank you enough,” Benvenuto said. “That was an amazing showing!”
“Thank you kindly, but no, it wasn’t. That was not my sword arm – that elbow is shot – and I can’t put real weight on my left ankle anymore. However, I guessed right that they were both drunk and terrible swordsmen besides. Anyone with a bit of practice would know not to swing blades around like blunt sticks.” He cocked his head. “I meant what I said: They need to watch who they start trouble with.”
Benvenuto nodded his head. They might even have done substantial damage to each other simply by blundering through this ordeal. There was really no telling what would happen if they should anger someone who had Dolce’s skill and was looking to do worse than embarrass them.
“I have to say, though, if you had your cousins and their posse on a leash like the one you yanked just now, you needn’t have wasted so many night sitting in the brothel with me. So maybe I am happy you didn’t...”
Benvenuto lowered his head, smile contrite. “I’m not in much control of them, no. You shouldn’t have had to go out to meet them like you did.”
“Well, they’re not your children, in the end.” Dolce shrugged his shoulders. “It went alright.”
“Regardless, I’m going to need to have a word with Jacopo once he is sober. I can’t believe he just – came at someone like that. He could have seriously hurt you.” Benvenuto rubbed a hand over his face. “I feel so foolish for thinking that he would never cause trouble worse than embarrassment for the family. He seemed harmless.”
“They always are until they aren’t. Don’t blame yourself for not predicting it. Besides, there is still the chance that this drunken mistake scares your cousin straight. He’s not proven to be a murderer yet.”
“You’re right,” Benvenuto said, trying to push down the anxiety eating at him. “Thank you again. I think I will try to send everybody home now. I doubt my family is in the mood to celebrate and my business acquaintances have seen enough to gossip about for days.”
“I’d help you send them out, but by now, someone is going to have passed on what Jacopo called me.”
Yes, there was that. It was an odd insult to throw at someone without reason and Dolce hadn’t tried to refute it, either. Benvenuto was sure there would already be rumours about the unknown third contestant, especially since the twins and their friends were loose-lipped at the best of times.
“As I see it, you’ve done nothing wrong. I should hope they’re focused on my cousin instead. If not – I just don’t care,” Benvenuto said honestly. “I would be glad for your assistance.”
Thankfully, they found that Uncle Mario was ready to drag his apprentice home by the ear, which spurred on the rest of the family to at least gather their belongings. Benvenuto apologised profusely to all his business acquaintances who were not implicated by relation while Dolce baited those who hadn’t been in the garden towards the vestibule by telling details of the confrontation. Jacopo ducked away from both of their gazes and Benvenuto only saw him briefly, herded towards the exit by Aunt Tomasia.
It took a good half hour to clear the house of people, leaving only Benvenuto, Dolce, and the two servants, who were graceful enough to tend to the leftover food and drink without comments. Benvenuto could only just stop himself from falling against the door with his back pressed to it, as if that could keep the world shut out for good.
“This was not how I imagined this evening would go. I hope it is not an omen for the decade to come,” he said with a weak smile.
“And you claimed your kin were boring,” Dolce answered.
Benvenuto had to laugh, though he should have been mortified and probably continue apologising to Dolce. However, Dolce joined in, clasping his shoulder, wiping away the weight that had sat there with one simple touch.
Benvenuto looked down at him, his bright brown eyes and his smile that always tugged a bit more upwards to the left, and quieted down as he could only stare. Dolce angled his face up.
Benvenuto knew that he had leaned in first, lowering his head to kiss Dolce, but Dolce was the one who put his hand on the back of Benvenuto’s neck and pulled him in. Benvenuto almost staggered into him, but caught himself just in time, his arms wrapping around Dolce. After he’d chased away even half-imagined ideas of such things in the night, to feel him warm and solid in his arms seemed almost like its own strange kind of dream.
Dolce’s mouth moved gently but insistent against his and Benvenuto was spellbound, allowing him to slip his tongue between his lips as he felt Dolce’s hand creep down the back of his collar, as if he could not wait to touch even a few more inches of Benvenuto’s bare skin.
“You should show me the bedroom,” Dolce said quietly as they parted.
Benvenuto could only give an enthusiastic nod, still speechless.
Dolce held on to his hand as they ascended the stairs, squeezing it firmly in his own. Benvenuto saw him take a passing glance at the paintings that hung on the wall, most of them depicting cities, all the ones Benvenuto had told himself he would travel to one day when he had the time; but now he was too impatient to remark upon them, worried the moment might slip away, and Dolce did not ask.
They entered the bedroom together. Benvenuto’s bed was made of dark wood, the most impressive piece of it the headboard, a solid wall of wood that went up to the high frame under the ceiling and was carved with a scene of a knight bowing before a temple of the great thirteen gods, the edges of the image adorned with flowers. A heavy green curtain hung around the bed. He brushed it aside to reveal the mass of sheets and pillows.
“You sleep in a work of art,” Dolce said, as he sat down on the soft mattress and pulled off his boots. “It will be fun to debauch it with such profanity.”
Benvenuto was sure he was as red in the face as always when Dolce spoke too openly of these matters, but now he did not let it stop him. Instead, he followed Dolce’s example, ridding himself of his shoes before he leaned over him. He’d not yet decided how to go about this when Dolce had already taken hold of his vest and tugged him downwards.
As they sprawled sideways across the bed, which was broad enough for them to easily do so, kissing again, Benvenuto barely noticed how Dolce’s clever hands unlaced one bit of string here, tugged cloth out of the way there, directed him this way or that to be able to pull off some offending piece of garment. Dolce had rid them of everything while Benvenuto was still marvelling at his hungry kisses and the way his body came alive under every touch, and how he would smile when Benvenuto found a good spot to caress.
He hardly realised that he himself had been undressed, but Dolce’s body could not be ignored. Taking a moment to look at him in his full glory, Benvenuto realised the differences between his own lanky figure and Dolce, every part well-formed with muscle, smattered with golden hair on tanned skin, pleasantly broad in the shoulders but narrow around the hips. His strong thighs hooked around Benvenuto to pull him closer for an embrace as Dolce kissed his chest, his hard manhood pressing against the evidence of Benvenuto’s own arousal. When Dolce turned them around and pushed him on his back to straddle his thighs, the look on Benvenuto’s face must have been so reverent that Dolce started laughing.
“Now,” he said, reaching up to hold Benvenuto’s chin between his forefinger and thumb. “Am I going to have to find the kitchen now to fetch us oil or grease, or is there something closer at hand?”
“Ah...” Benvenuto cleared his throat. “In that chest by the side of the bed. Sometimes I – well, it’s nice to slick your own hand...”
He could not decide whether it was more embarrassing that he admitted to this, or that he could not talk of such things with more confidence to a naked man sitting on him.
Dolce’s grin was predatory. He bent sideways to locate the small chest and it seemed the cover of scrap paper and books did not keep him long from finding the small bottle of oil. After pulling the cork, he dribbled a liberal amount in his palm and then dragged it down Benvenuto’s cock, spreading it all over him.
“Would you do something for me?” he asked, too innocently for the way his fingers curled around Benvenuto’s cock.
“Of course,” Benvenuto breathed.
“I’d like you to show me what you usually do in private.”
For a moment, Benvenuto’s brain, which was not currently the driving force of his will, lagged behind the meaning, but then Dolce took Benvenuto’s hand and placed it on his cock. Mouth suddenly dry, Benvenuto closed his fingers around himself. It felt clumsy and not half as good as the touch of Dolce’s hand, but with Dolce’s eyes on him, every stroke still left currents crackling from his middle up his spine. Dolce reached behind himself and though Benvenuto could not see what his fingers were doing, the mere wisp of the idea what it could be spurned Benvenuto on to push into his own hand.
“Beautiful,” Dolce decided, after long moments that left Benvenuto breathless. “Now it’s my turn.”
Benvenuto was all too eager to let himself go as Dolce climbed over him. He was much better at giving a show than Benvenuto, spreading his thighs wide and leaning backwards, tugging his own cock and balls upwards so Benvenuto had a perfect view of himself sinking into Dolce.
His hands grasped uselessly at the sheet as he tried to calm himself and give Dolce a moment to adjust, but Dolce did not need it. He rode him hard from the first second and Benvenuto bit his tongue like a much younger man, having to keep himself from spilling inside him immediately. He grasped Dolce’s hips instead, adjusting the speed of his thrusts a little.
“Mercy. Give me a chance to enjoy you for a moment,” he panted.
Dolce grinned, lazily running his hand over his own cock. “Maybe I could make you come twice.”
“You’re dangerous,” Benvenuto murmured, rubbing his thumbs over his hipbones, down to his thighs, rolling his hips to meet him. Dolce gasped. “I’m sure you could do just about anything you want to me.”
Since Dolce seemed to like when he moved with him, Benvenuto grew more bold in meeting him and let one hand drop down to grab Dolce’s cock. Dolce matched his rhythm, one hand moving to stroke Benvenuto’s chest. His movements became deeper, slower, as if he wanted to enjoy the feeling of every inch of Benvenuto’s cock thrusting in and out of him.
Good gods, he is magnificent.
Benvenuto thumbed the head of his cock, once more put under a spell by just the sight of him, and could not stop himself from meeting Dolce more forcefully now, despite his best intentions to keep himself in check. Luckily, it seemed he could at least give Dolce a little of the great pleasure he himself felt, for he could see the muscles in his thighs and stomach tense. Dolce picked up his pace to match the one Benvenuto showed with his hand. There was a give and take, a natural flow to their movements, with no one leading and no one following.
Benvenuto came first, as he knew he would, moaning Dolce’s name, washed away by the pleasure. However, Dolce was not so far behind as he’d feared, urging him breathlessly to stroke him faster and Benvenuto did and watched with a bright smile as Dolce spilled himself over his fingers, his breath shallow and desperately fast.
Dolce was the one to break them apart, fishing a loose handkerchief out of the box by the bed to clean them up with quick, meticulous movements, nuzzling briefly back into Benvenuto as he was finished. With a surge of affection, Benvenuto closed him in his arms, not quite sure where he’d found the courage. Dolce stilled and Benvenuto did not know what went on behind that wan smile of his, but he sank into the pillows with Benvenuto, facing him.
“Do you want to lay on the other side? You said this was your bad elbow,” Benvenuto pointed out quietly.
“Yes, that might be good,” Dolce said, as if puzzled that Benvenuto would bring it up.
Benvenuto made space for Dolce to climb to the other side before he pulled the blanket over them. Dolce did not meet his eyes, but he leaned forward to press his face in the crook of Benvenuto’s neck.
With his heart almost beating out of his chest, Benvenuto could not find rest even long after Dolce’s body had grown soft and sleep-heavy in his arms, but being sleepless in this position was no great burden.
Benvenuto had gone to sleep later and woke up later, too. As his eyes opened, he noticed at first the long legs stretched out over the bed next to him, bright morning light cut by the window’s rectangle falling on them. Dolce sat leaning against the tall headboard in only his breeches and unlaced shirt. He was watching him.
“Good morning,” Benvenuto said, smiling up at him.
Benvenuto sat, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with the back of his hand, and turned to Dolce. They were silent for a moment.
“We’ve made quite a mess of things, haven’t we?” Dolce asked.
Groggily, Benvenuto glanced around him, but for the rumpled sheets and a few strewn items of clothing, he saw nothing out of place.
Dolce chuckled. “Not that. Us. We should not have done that.”
The words brought Benvenuto down to cold reality. Suddenly, he did not only remember Dolce sitting on his hips or laying peaceful in his arms, but also the stern conversation they had had at the start of the last eventful evening.
Although, perhaps, it was a light at the end of the tunnel to know that Dolce was here because he wanted to be, because he was drawn to him, not because he’d felt he had to fulfil a contract. If he’d indeed been torn away by foolish passion just like Benvenuto had been, they were on equal footing in that. Yet, questions remained.
“I don’t understand,” Benvenuto said slowly, “I thought – last night as well, you said that my affection for you was a dead-end path. Why? Maybe I’m presumptuous, but you seem to enjoy my presence, too.”
Dolce reached up to cup his face for a moment.
“And what does that get you, my lord? I’m a courtesan. What future do we have? There’s not much other work I can do and even if I found something easy enough on my old shattered bones, I have sold entirely too much of my body over my life - whether it was my sword arm or the rest of it - to become respectable now.” He frowned. “Also, if there is someone I like, I would want to be only with them, and I can’t be.”
Dolce looked exhausted and hurt and it was harrowing for Benvenuto to see. Perhaps it was that which allowed him to reach again into that well of something stronger than he’d believed himself to be which he’d accessed last night, too. It seemed that Dolce awakened it.
“We could marry,” he burst out.
Dolce stared at him in confusion.
“You needn’t work at all, then,” Benvenuto continued, hasty for his fear. “Though from what I’ve seen, I think you probably want to do something. In that case, I have enough connections to get you into some position that might suit you. You could simply work for me, too.”
“You cannot marry a courtesan. That’s madness,” Dolce said.
“Men and women have done much stranger,” Benvenuto said stubbornly. If Dolce had rejected him for himself, he would have backed off quickly, but this was different. Circumstances should not keep them apart. “Conversation moves on eventually. You said once I have not a mark on my record and when it comes to my reputation, that is true. One blot will not ruin me.”
Dolce shook his head, but it seemed that Benvenuto’s words had not fallen on completely barren ground, as a careful note of interest had entered his gaze.
“You spend so much time trying to keep your cousins from making a scandal and now you’d be the talk of the town...”
“Yes, but when I saw you last night, the way you came to my aid, I realised that I would rather suffer scandal for something I believe to be good than to spend my life chasing after decency. Jacopo was well-regarded, but what was that reputation worth, in the end? It certainly didn’t stop him.”
Silence. Dolce tugged nervously at his sleeve.
“Well – if your house is to be the object of ill rumours, you should at least get to be the reason instead of leaving it to your family, I suppose.”
He smiled weakly and Benvenuto felt his nerves grow tense as harp strings.
“You’ll consider it, then?”
“No,” Dolce said, raising a brow. “Had I managed to impress on you that this is a bad idea, I could have scurried away and licked my wounds in peace. Now I fear I must follow my foolish heart and it wants me to agree. I know, even if I spend another month thinking on it, that this will always be my answer as long as it is yours. It’s too much temptation for me.”
With a joyful laugh, Benvenuto tugged Dolce into his arms and Dolce held on to him too tightly.
“It’s Niccolò, by the way,” he said into his shoulder.
“My first name, my lord. I know you were curious. I do still like the other one better.”
“Thank you. But it would make me happy if you called me Benvenuto, Dolce. My title is not for my husband. ”
“With pleasure,” Dolce answered before he kissed him.