Prince Victor von Aschenbach was reading a curious new monograph from England, one of several to come out of their Royal Academy of Science in recent years, and wondered why there were so few men like these in his own beloved Brandenburg when his father's chamberlain entered his personal library. "My prince."
"Master Marten-Lorentz? What brings you here?" Victor had expected his morning to be free of appointments, and so had settled into his library to read his latest bundle of letters from his friend Alex. He enjoyed reading the surrounding materia with its hints of great battles, minds seething in the midst of wonderous debate, and coming to conclusions that would decide the fate of the world. The notion of so much passion among such learned men enthralled him. If it were allowed he would forfeit every dreary week of wine and dancing with those pale hothouse flowers the best families in Austria presented to him, each in the hopes of sparking some union among families, some consolidation of riches, to spend his time deep in the mysteries of science.
"Your mother has sent you a gift, my prince."
"A gift?" Victor unfolded himself from the red leather couch on which he reclined as he read. At this time of day sunlight streamed through the leaded windows behind him and crossed directly in front of the couch. The chamberlain had more than once suggested a re-arrangement of Victor's couch and desk, but Victor preferred to recline to read. It helped his morning digestion. "What sort of gift? It is a bit early for gifts, don't you think, chamberlain?"
Master Marten-Lorentz smiled secretively and said, "Some gifts much be purchased when they are seen, on the spot, lest someone else acquire them, my prince. And some gifts do not store well. They spoil."
"And what of this gift? Is it spoiled?" A gift from his mother, well. Mother rarely visited the familial estate, preferring insead to while away her life in residence on the top floor of the Hotel Tussel in Munich, which his father also owned.
"That remains to be seen."
"Chamberlain, you bore me with delay and arouse me with intrigue. Is this gift small enough to be brought here, or must I travel to wherever it has been delivered to see it?"
"Its size is... I would guess perhaps 120 pounds. Perhaps less. It is not encumbering, however. It could be brought here."
Victor cocked one eye, trying to understand Marten-Lorentz's cirumspect description. Those qualities did not quite fit. "Bring it here, if you would."
"Very good, my prince."
Victor waited patiently as the chamberlain disappeared back out into the corrider. He heard shuffling in the hallway, the chamberlain's voice say "This way."
And then there were two figures at his doorway: the chamberlain, and another, smaller man, arms behind himself, his eyes covered with some kind of mask. His hair was so fair as to be almost white. No, not hair. Fur.
Victor gasped. He had heard and read much of the cat-men and cat-women of the world, those rare and exotic creatures that called themselves the Bastet. It was said that their beauty came from a place of neither God or the Devil, but some other world that men could only glimpse or go mad. This Bastet was clearly male, although slim and youthful in the way of young men before they turned into the hairy, lusty creatures who filled the ranks of his father's little army. This Bastet had low, broad ears that flickered anxiously, taking in whatever he could since he lacked vision. His nose, an ordinary nose as far as Victor could see, took in the air desperately, trying to tease out details. "My Prince, this is Sezi."
"Sezi," Victor said softly. It had such an exotic tinge. "Take off the mask, Chamberlain."
"My prince, it... that might be unwise."
"Are you questioning my order?"
"No, my prince. It is just that Bastet, it is... rumored that they can create, can cause... " He fumbled.
"Oh, that silly tale," Victor said. "Yes, I have heard it. I am sure that it is untrue, Master Marten-Lorentz ."
"Your mother... she would not send an assassin, but perhaps a curse?"
"She has sent a playmate, I believe, and nothing more. Is that not correct, Sezi?"
Sezi sai, "Yes, my Prince. Your mother sends her best wishes."
His voice was soft and lovely. Victor had anticipated it being girlish, but instead there was a definite tone of masculinity and self-control. "There, see, chamberlain? Let's off with the mask, then."
Unhappy with the prospect but definitely given an order, the Chamberlain reached behind Sezi's head and pulled at the buckles and straps there, removing the binding. The blindfold fell away from Sezi's head and he blinked in the bright light. Victor approached him, looking at his sweet face with its sharp planes. He had thought to see the eyes of a cat, but Sezi's eyes were as round as any man's. They were supposed to flash in the dark. Victor looked forward to finding out. This close, he appreciated how much smaller Sezi was than he, a wire of a man, although his arms and legs were proportioned correctly for a man and not a boy. His skin was an odd pale color, not exactly a European shade but something darker and yet untraceable. Sezi had no idea from where it came. "Now then, Sezi, why are you here?"
The Bastet drew himself up and took a deep breath. "Your mother has sensed in your letters that you are lonely. She sends me to you in the hopes that I might be a companion to you."
The Chamberlain nodded. "I have a deed of indenture for the young man. It gives you ownership of him, of an almost chattel nature, but no claim on any children he might sire or have sired."
Victor nodded. "Slavery is no longer done on the continent, I thought."
"The laws are different, and specific to Bastet, to accomodate their special natures," the Chamberlain said. "I have spoken with your father's lawyer before bringing Victor up here. He is yours, in all manner of speaking."
"I am sorry, Sezi."
"Oh, no, my Prince. Do not be sorry. I understand that my role is a special one on this Earth. I have been blessed with a long life for my kind, and have sired four kits, and have watched real men die of disease and hunger. My place is assured by my nature, and as long as I am given a roof and a meal to fill my belly, I will serve you well until the end of my days."
Victor cocked one eye at Sezi. The words did not seem like an admission of abjection or failure. Sezi seemed proud of his status. Was it possible to enjoy aplace in the world as a plaything of mortal men and women? "Chamberlain, unlock his hands."
Sezi twitched slightly as the Chamberlain worked a key into restraints behind Sezi's back. Victor heard the clank of metal and then Sezi stretched his arms above his head. "Oh, River, that feels better," the Bastet sighed.
"I think you should leave us, Chamberlain."
"No, it will be fine. He is small, and the Bastet are no stronger than mortal men, or so I am informed. He presents no danger to me. He is not here to be a danger, are you?"
"It is most unwise," the Chamberlain said before Sezi could speak.
"Oh, post a guard, if you must, but I will have my door closed."
"Yes, my prince." Chamberlain Marten-Lorentz's unhappiness could not have been clearer if he had written a resignation letter at that very moment. Victor pitied him. He had never to take the chances of rulership. He had only to follow, like Sezi, the great men of the world, to whom God had given the gifts of leadership, the strength of will, the true power over men.
The door closed, and with it came another feeling over Victor. He let his true emotions out. "Come, sit, Sezi." He patted the couch, still with its beam of sunlight, now shifted subtly in the passing of morning. "Sit with me."
Sezi crossed the room, taking small steps. Victor noticed for the first time that he was barefoot, and his feet were expectantly ordinary. Now he saw the tail for the first time, sweeping the floor. It had been hidden behind Sezi's body, between Sezi and the Chamberlain. It dangled almost to the floor, a heavy strand of white fur that disappeared into a hole specially cut into Sezi's woolen trousers. Sezi wore a white, ruffled shirt and a black quilted vest of the kind popular in the north. "I have a conundrum, Sezi."
"My mother has sent you to cause me to burn, one way or another. I am not sure which I hate more. If she has merely guessed correctly and sends you as a sweet, then that is kind of her, but if she has sent you as a spy as well, then my guesses would condemn me."
Sezi grinned. "She has sent me as a companion, my prince, and not as a spy."
"We shall see," Victor said. "Tell me, what do you think of the use of chloroform as a way of easing the pains of childbirth?"
Sezi paused. "I know little of the ways of medicine, my Prince."
"What do you know of the telegraph cable between Calais and Dover?"
"Oh, that. I hear it will be a marvelous invention once the whole of Europe is so wired. I wonder if it could be made faster with a kind of shorthand. I know so little about it."
"You know shorthand?"
"Yes, my Prince. I know how to do it for German, French, and English."
"My God, I thought my mother had sent me a plaything. She sent me a secretary." His eyes narrowed. "But this hardly improves my opinion of you as 'not a spy.'"
Sezi shrugged. "Make of me what you will, Prince."
Victor closed his eyes and sighed. What he wanted to make of Sezi was unholy and unspeakable. And damnably unfair of his overly perceptive mother. Of course he was sick of the perfumed and floraled women his father's men paraded in front of him. They knew as well as Victor that true love existed only among men, that only a man could understand the needs and intellectual insights of other men. His mother might be perspicacious, but even she was lost to the ways men plucked at the weft of the world, teasing it apart, discovering the underlying essence.
Victor's grasp of these truths exceeded that of most men. "Very well, Sezi. If you are to attempt to be my companion, we should see how well you take to patience. I have much to read before my midday meal. Make yourself comfortable."
To his pleasure, Sezi did that remarkably well. The only thing he asked was to be given a place near the sunlight, which Victor cheerfully gave. Hours passed. A maid wheeled in a luncheon, took one look at Sezi, shreiked and ran. "Well," Victor said, "That's one benefit to you."
Sezi uncoiled himself from his chair. "I do hope she learns not to be frightened of me. I'm not dangerous in the daytime."
"But you are at night?" Victor asked.
"I can be, if you like."
Victor felt a heat grow in his lap that should not have been there. He took a deep breath, then sighed. "Let's see what she brought us, shall we?" Bread from the kitchen joined a simple midday soup of onions and the rare, thin slice of beef. Sezi ate his with courtly daintiness, and Victor was pleased. "You make a fine companion."
"Do I? You know nothing about me."
"You are quiet, learned, and you frighten away the women."
Sezi grinned. "I hope I attract as many as I frighten." He must have seen the odd look cross Victor's expression because he added, "Only if it pleases you, my Prince."
Sezi took the cart down to the kitchen, causing a stir as he wheeled it through the front room, then returned to Victor's side. Victor had hoped to spend the afternoon this way, silent and studious, but it was not to be. There was a brief knock at the door, and then it opened. Only one man would dare.
"What is this I hear that your mother sent you a gift?" His father's eyes alighted on Sezi. "I see. She is... a mischevious creature."
Victor's father resembled Victor only in the most abstract fashion. He wore the broad, white mustache that fashion required of the men of the continent and preferred the militaristic uniform of his current rank over an informal outfit of the house colors. He had gone to fat in the past couple of years, but appropriately so. Women flocked to him, but he seemed to bat them away as a horse shoos away flies. Victor had always attributed that to his maturity, but now, seeing the way his eyes drank in every curve and line of Sezi's body, Victor had a different understanding. Could his father be burdened by the selfsame understanding that burdened him? That the love of men and the gifts of God did not always come together in harmony? "Well," his father said after a long pause. "Enjoy him as you will, Victor. You will do your duty to your family and country."
Victor raised an eyebrow. His father had not included church among those to whom duty was owed. "Father, surely you have a busy day."
"Yes, but I've come to tell you that you will have a busy night. Lady Lisel de Florian is coming tonight to dinner." He gestured toward Sezi. "I wondered what your mother would do. Victor, she has sent this gift as a way of assuaging your pain, for she and I have chosen de Florian as your wife."
"Oh, dear God." Victor tried to imagine it. Lisel de Florian was one of those nouveau riche who littered the scene in Vienna like silk flowers, false to the core, destined not to fade naturally but to persist long after her petals had become indelibly tarnished. "Not Lisel. She laughs like a horse."
"With the shits," his father agreed. "But her family has both the warehouses and the ships necessary to deal with America. Lisel is teachable, son. And an alliance with this house will give them the land and the legal leverage with several houses to negotiate for better railway courses through Austria."
Victor had been afraid of that. Bernd de Florian had created a minor empire of shipping and receiving along the western coast, making contracts with all the lines seeking to avoid Dutch harbor tariffs. The sliver of land that Germany owned between Holland and Denmark was given to winter freezing, but the heavier boats that the English and Americans had started to put to sea made the German harbors viable for longer in the year than would have been possible even ten years ago. De Florian had been moving eastward ever since. And Austria, fractured as she was among the several wealthy princes and estates, was a perfect market for all manner of goods. De Florian needed land for his railroads and political backing for his plans.
Victor sighed. "I will probably not love her."
"Victor, romanticism does not become you," his father said. Yes, Victor agreed. It did not become him at all. "But as Paul has said, it is better to marry than to burn."
The word burn struck its own match within Victor. He stared at Sezi, who returned the stare with a bland, unremarking expression that seemed to say he would be whatever Victor wanted him to be. Victor burned already, but he burned for a sense of possession and manfulness.
"You will prepare, and be as gracious as a prince must be. Understood? She will be here tonight for the formal announcement, along with the men of the newspapers to hear it."
"Of course," Victor sighed.
The party that evening was loud and longer than even Victor wanted it to be. Sezi came with his own clothes, including those perfect for the evening, and Victor rapidly learned the forms necessary for talking about him. Sezi was a 'gift' from his mother, and under Aschenbach 'protection' and 'guidance' from both his own base nature and from the world which might seek to do him harm.
Sezi dodged all questions like an aerialist with such skill that Victor started to wonder just how old Sezi was. He knew from his reading that Bastet had a blessing of unfading youth combined with the curse of a shortened life. Victor didn't know how short, and Sezi hadn't offered.
His father had pulled out the gilded chairs and silken tablecloths from the announcement, and it all went as planned. Victor grumbled his way through it, content at least that he was doing his duty. He could do his duty.
He had retreated, briefly, to the tea room to take a deep breath when a voice cut through his distraction. "Victor."
"Lisel de Florian. Is it wise that you be alone with me?"
"My father hoped I would find a way," she said. "I want you to know that I am not happy with this... arrangement, but I will do my best to my family. Can you say the same of yours?"
Victor rummaged about in his soul, wondering where the anger at such an accusatory question should have lain, but it was nowhere to be found. Only passive, tragic acceptance. The course of his life was set, as an Asenbach, as a prince, as a father, and even perhaps as a lover. He sighed and said, "Of course I will."
"Even with your... companion?"
"Oh, Sezi. My mother sent him to me today. I have no idea what to do with him, or if I'm to keep him. He seems pleasant enough."
"He's very pretty. When you tire of him... might he be my companion. After all, the Bastet are supposed to be excellent companions, of any sex, for any sex."
"I have not yet known him long enough to know if I ever will tire of him, Lisel de Florian." He wondered if he might make a wedding gift of a Bastet of his own for her. Should it be male or female? He cocked his head. "I will give it some thought."
"I ask for nothing more than what my future husband is willing to grant me," she said. Everything I can take from him, her voice and posture radiated. "Thank you for your time, prince." She had no deference at all to him. No respect, no posture. She saw only a necessary course to a future of luxury and repose. No obligation awaited her that she did not take on willingly. No divine responsibilities weighed her down. And yet, she seemed to walk like a statue, made of mud and clay, unable to move faster than the muck of her being.
Not at all like Sezi, that svelte creature who chattered among the guests as if he were born to it, lighting from one conversation to another, a blur of light and desire.
Victor was terrifyingly close to a final decision. There would be no wedding gift, at least not of a Bastet. He would find something else with which to entertain his future wife, and hopefully keep her far away from himself.
The chamberlain finally rang the bell for the midnight hour. Victor's father was dreadfully fond of his gasoliers, and entertained with them at every hour. The delicate chandeliers, already thirty years old, cast a sunny glow over the library and the dining room. Victor enjoyed the gaslight as well, enjoyed the night, and saw the gift of evening light as evidence of divine oversight, allowing him to learn more, read more, study more, and therefore be better than those who could not afford such niceties.
But even the learned needed a rest. The Wurzbach mantles, while inexpensive, were difficult to replace, and demanded a ladder and workmen to mar the elegant airs of the rooms they illuminated.
Victor made one last attempt to rouse some emotion other than regret in his parting with Lisel. She seemed to make a similar effort, but neither quite succeeded. Awkwardly, they parted, hands unkissed. When the doors closed out the late Autumn night, his father said, "That was well done, Victor. Well done indeed. Much kinder, I think, than the way your mother and I went at each other. Oh, we reconciled long enough to breed you, and you will the same with Lisel." He handed Victor a glass. "Here. Brandy. Wash her out of your mouth." He did not wait to see if Victor drank it. Instead, he turned as if to leave, then paused long enough to say, "And then, take your new plaything and wash the rest of her from your imaginings. Sezi!"
"Don't 'sire' me," Victor's father snapped. "I am no sire, except to Victor here. Sezi, you tell dear Siegberta that her gift was more than acceptable."
Sezi nodded. "As you wish."
The old von Asenbach nodded, his back still turned to Victor. "I'll be off to bed now." He left without another word.
"He thinks you're a spy too," Victor said.
"Everyone does. I'll send a letter to your mother tomorrow, telling her everything everyone's told me to tell her." He smiled. "I may as well. Come, Victor." He coved a languid yawn with one hand. "I have need of repose. Master Marten-Lorentz has seen fit to give me a room next to yours."
He had heard that holding one's passions down tended to create great weariness. He could not have imagined that the opposite would also be true: searching for some sliver of passion in an otherwise dull existence fatigued just as readily. "All right, Sezi. Lead on."
Sezi instead came forward and took Victor's arm in his, as a lover might. Victor thought to protest, paused, then allowed Sezi his gesture. "Come," Sezi said.
Victor's heart trembled. Sezi's boldness shocked him, but he could not deny the sheer pleasure of Sezi's touch. The smaller man's arm was light on his, grasping him, holding him. He had not been touched by anyone he wanted in quite this way in too long. He felt it down in his belly, down lower. There was no denying himself anymore. Sezi was sent to him for this, and if his father thought it acceptable, then so be it.
They reached Victor's bedchamber. Sezi allowed both of them in while Marten-Lorentz's guard stood by the door, ready to intervene. Sezi lit a lantern. When the door closed, Sezi laughed and said, "We shall have to be quiet."
"What shall we do, that might make noise, Sezi?"
"This?" Sezi's open hand pressed to Victor's crotch, cupping the soft package. Victor muffled a cry of surprise and pleasure, and Sezi said, "That might make noise."
"It might," Victor squeaked. "Arrogant creature."
"I think you'd like me arrogant."
"Better than a woman trying it," Victor said. "As offensive as a suit on a monkey."
"Be kind, Victor. I happen to like women," Sezi said.
"Is it possible to like both?"
Sezi grasped the cloth of his shirt and pulled it over his head, revealing the sleek, pale body underneath. A scar ran down his left shoulder and across his chest, ending just before the sternum. He approached Victor, his body radiant with animal energies. "Of course it is, Victor, much as it is possible like both beef and bread."
"That's not covincing."
"No?" Sezi said. He was barely a stride away from Victor, so close Victor imagined he could feel the heat coming off his skin.
Victor's mouth had gone dry. He wanted to say something about men and women were even more different than beef and bread, how they were of different worlds, the serious and the silly, the future and the past, the divine and the material. But this creature, whom Victor had known barely a day, was so beautiful he overwhelmed Victor's power of speech.
Sezi smiled and reached up, his arms encircling Victor's head, pulling the two of them together until their lips met in a chaste kiss, then an unchaste one. Victor moaned, his self-control lost. The passion he had been missing all evening flared to full brightness, fed by the fuel of Sezi's mere presence. At a loss for what to do with his hands, Victor reached out and touched Sezi's flanks, his right thumb finding the soft texture of Sezi's scar. Sezi shivered as if tickled. "Where did you get this?"
"A client, back when I was a brothel keeper's boy. My price was higher than my master had described, and the client sought to deprive my master of any future income. He missed anything vital, blessed River, and after the surgeon sewed me back together I was well within weeks. Bastet wounds do not fester."
"I'm glad." Victor was more than glad. He was hard. Insanely so. It should not have been quite so obvious, so blunt, but there it was: his baser nature on display between himself and Sezi. And yet it was what Sezi had wanted. Sezi's gaze followed his own, and then Victor watched Sezi's hand approach his crotch once more. He almost flinched at the touch, but the soft stroking of Sezi's hand through the wool and cotton made Victor groan.
"You're sensitive, Victor. Tell me, have you ever been with... anyone?"
"No," Victor said. "I have not. It... opportunities are scarce, and those worthy moreso."
"Am I worthy?"
"Yes," Victor whispered, quickly, quietly. "Holy God, yes."
Sezi knelt before Victor, both hands working belt buckle, button, and silver clasp until the front of Victor's pants fell open into the trough shaped Victor used to relieve his water. His sex, swollen to bursting, huge even in Victor's familiar eyes, sprang forth and up, eager for the air. "Sshh," Sezi said. "Don't let the guard hear you."
Victor could feel his blood pulsing in his head, pressing on his eyes, as he watched Sezi's mouth open, and then the touch of Sezi's lips on the head of his sex made him suck in air, gasping and holding Sezi's head in place. He swallowed as his sex disappeared into Sezi's mouth, the scrape of the catman's teeth along the length of it sharp and startling, the warmth of Sezi's wet tongue along the underside more than he could possibly bear.
His inexperience became apparent as the sensitivity behind the head of his sex flared. It had long ago slipped free of its sheathing foreskin and now pressed against the back of Sezi's incomparable throat. The sensations were overwhelming, and with only three or four bobs of his head Sezi took Victor to the brink of crisis and beyond. A whimper of crushed ecstasy whistled past clamped lips and out his nostrils as jet after jet of his seed spurted into Sezi's willing mouth.
Sezi let him go, falling back on his heels, looking up at Victor. Victor stumbled back against the table, rattling it, knocking over the metal pitcher of water. "My lord?" came a voice from outside.
"I'm fine!" He was still shaken by the power of Sezi's actions, by the lust it had made and used so quickly.
Sezi stood, scrubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. He was still ineffably beautiful, and Victor reached out to touch Sezi's chest with his hand. "What will you tell my mother?"
"That you liked me," Sezi said. He repeated the kiss of earlier. Victor hands roamed Sezi's exposed torso, touching and holding, playing over this strange new land of Sezi's body. "Take me to bed, Victor."
Victor's trousers had fallen to the floor. Sezi helped him out of his boots and trousers, and Victor tore off the upper layers of his clothing while Sezi undressed himself.
Victor compared himself to Sezi, and disliked the comparison. Sezi was pale, smooth, and youthful. Victor was already soft in the middle, although not too much to be caught if he dedicated himself, and his body was darker, hairier, marked with signs of already impending ripeness. Victor was barely twenty and yet a round of the pox, mild compared to the experiences of many, still left him with scars scattered across his skin. His face had been spared, but his left arm was stippled beneath its hairiness, as was his lower left thigh.
Sezi seemed to be pleased with what he saw in Victor, because he led the prince to bed, and gestured for him to sit down. Victor submitted gracefully as Sezi pulled off his shirt, then watched, his mouth dry as Sezi pushed his trousers off his hips and to the ground.
Victor had never seen another man so completely naked, and as he looked on Sezi's body, on the narrow hips, the jutting sex, the long, powerful legs that touched the floor, he saw what had been missing from all his short, young life. This was what his soul craved. The touch of another man. The attention of an equal. He reached to stroke Sezi's sex, to feel it and the dangling sac of promise underneath, and he knew that he had to have Sezi, body and soul. "You will tell my mother the truth."
"Every word," Sezi agreed. Victor nodded, and then pushed himself up just long enough to shove off his own trousers. Sezi joined him on the creaking bed, skin pressed against skin in a dance of desire too strong for Victor to ever say was a lark. Sezi had drained his sex only minutes earlier and yet already it stood up, hard and ready, a lever of Victor's pleasure. Sezi's own sex pressed against Victor's groin, and the two rods of wayward flesh batted against each other. Victor reached down and seized it. The flash of recognition and the lack of response from his own sex struck Victor's soul to unexpected depths. He reveled in that strange emotion.
Sezi kissed him again, lips pressed to lips, tongue reaching out to slip against Victor's own, a perverse use of the tongue, to taste another's mouth. Victor embraced this perversion as he must to keep and please Sezi, and Sezi kissed back, legs sliding and writhing against Victor's. His hips thrust toward Victor, and Victor shivered with the thought that someday he might let Sezi penetrate him. He wondered if that were something he would truly want, or merely be condemned to as one pervert to another must. But... "Sezi," he breathed. "May I... may I penetrate you?"
"Yes," Sezi whispered, his voice husky with desire. "Yes, my prince."
Sezi turned on his back, hiking his legs into the air. His sex lay on his belly, his sac tight against his skin. His tail draped across the bed, and between the two his nether hole was exposed. Victor had never seen its like before. "I don't know... do we need... "
"Spit," Sezi said. "Spit is all you need. Enough to make it slide in. It will be enough. Please, prince, now!"
Victor tightened his mouth and made water in it, then spat on his hand and rubbed it on the knob of his own sex. The sensations were stronger than before, and he was surprised he had not discovered this trick at any time in his youth. He looked down at Sezi's willing face and heartbreaking body and he had to have him. He covered Sezi's body with his own, the body creaking as his sex fit into the crevice of Sezi's backside. Victor aimed his erection. Sezi adjusted his hips to meet Victor's entrance, and Victor slid into him with a dry, stuttering shove. "Yess...." Sezi hissed.
The sudden surprise of being embedded in the warm, willing body of another caused Victor to pause and let the pleasure soak into him. He wanted to scream already with the astonishment of it all. His groin touched down against Sezi's buttocks, and he leaned down to kiss Sezi once more.
He tried one thrust, then another, and Sezi's body undulated underneath his, two bodies racing for ectasy. Victor did not have to wait long; even with his earlier crisis, there was little delay. He felt a sharp thrust of pleasure gush within him, and then he was gushing into Sezi, spitting exultant seed deep into Sezi's guts.
"My God, my God," he said as he fell to Sezi's side, arm folded underneath himself, Sezi's body shifted against his. "My Prince, oh, Prince..." He pushed himself up on one elbow, hovered next to Victor as Victor rolled over onto his back. "You were so good."
"Too fast, too fast."
"No, no, it was enough." Sezi kissed his cheek. "I shall return soon." He rose, leaving Victor cold and alone as he went to the water closet. He returned soon thereafter.
Victor was looking at him. "You... really aren't a spy, are you?"
Sezi shook his head. "No, I really am not. Oh, I suppose I must write your mother now and then to make sure that she knows you are happy. But she did not send me to ferret out your secrets. She knows all of them already."
"Apparently," Victor said.
Sezi held a cloth in his hand, and he delicately washed Victor's sagging member. "I am going to my room, Prince."
"You won't stay?"
"Do you want me to? It might be awkward."
"Stay," Victor said. "No one doubts my manfulness, or questions where I stand."
"I will do that."
For Victor, that winter passed with a mixture of joy and trepidation. The wedding date with Lisel was set to the third Sunday in May. Sezi helped Victor study his responsibilities and his newfound duties as husband, all the while distracting him with his extraordinary beauty and passion. They discussed how Victor would make a good husband, all the while retiring together at night to so many different passions that Victor lost track of their number. The positions, the acts, the perversions that Sezi knew were so many that Victor wondered if the mere perversity of trying to get Lisel with child would ever appeal to him. Victor ultimately allowed Sezi to bugger him and found the act not merely tolerable, but exciting in its own right.
Victor awoke in the morning to find Sezi mising from his bed. That was not altogether unusual, as Sezi seemed to need less sleep than he. He wondered what he should do on May Day. Would he and Sezi visit town, dance around the Maypole together? Should he invite Lisel? She was as aware of his friendship with Sezi as anyone could be, and she seemed to tolerate it, although Victor could not understand why.
He rose from bed and heard a sound that reached into his throat and made him swallow. A man, retching. Sezi, from Victor's own water closet. He approached the door, knocked gently. "Sezi?"
"Victor," Sezi said. "Please... a moment."
"Are you all right?"
Victor threw open the door and found Sezi curled on the floor, head down over the seat. His body heaved once again, but there was nothing left in his belly. "Sezi, what can I do?"
"Nothing." Sezi's voice was hoarse, exhausted. He seized one of the small clothes Victor's housekeeping staff left for him, wiped his mouth. He turned to Victor. His eyes were red, and one pupil was unnaturally wide.
"Is it?" Victor waved his hand in front of his face. "Oh. I should have expected that."
"Are you ill? I thought... I thought the Bastet didn't get ill."
Sezi managed a weak smile, but shook his head. "I'm not ill, Victor. I'm dying."
"Dying? How can you possibly be dying?"
"You never asked how old I was, Victor. I'm forty-six years old. Older than most Bastet ever reach." He looked past Victor with his one good eye. "From a Turkish brothel to the inside of a palace. Not a bad life after all." He gestured to his belly. "This nausea, Victor, is what we feel when the final days are upon is. The body is... poisoning itself, somehow. The blood throbs in my temple, and I will develop a palsy, and soon, I will stop breathing."
Victor fought to find his voice. "When?"
"A week, two at most," Sezi said. "I think less rather than more. This came very suddenly." He slumped down against the toilet. "I do not suppose you could bother your staff for some beef broth heavily spiced with ginger? That seems to help, at least with the stomach sickness."
Victor stared for a moment, then scrambled to his feet. "Right away. I'll have the doctor come. Maybe you're wrong, Sezi, maybe..."
Sezi knew better than any man what his own body was telling him. Victor could only stare down at the beautiful man curled helplessly around a toilet, his body fighting whatever failures were happening within.
Sezi survived eight days. At times he seemed almost well. He would rise and walk about the palace, his bare feet silent on the cool marble floors as he flitted through the kitchen, consulted with the cooks and helped lay plans for Victor's wedding later that month. He wrote out letters to his children and Victor promised to search for them and deliver the letters.
At other times, Sezi's illness kept him down to bed, head over the side to vomit. Victor summoned the house physician, who called on an expert from Vienna who claimed to know much of the Bastet. The expert arrived three days after Sezi's illness set, and examined him. He shook his head. "There is nothing to be done, my Prince. They say bleeding, although out of favor, can lengthen life for a day or two, but no more than that."
Victor sent him away.
Sezi's last day he slumped in a chair, bent over a table, writing a letter. "For your mother," he told Victor. "Please don't read it." Victor stood away, watching as Sezi folded the letter once, twice, then slipped it into a cream-colored enveloped and addressed it. He handed it to Victor. "Thank you, Victor."
"For being kind." He smiled, and then twitched hard. His body convulsed and Victor feared Sezi might soil himself. But then the Sezi slumped forward, his head striking the table to make a jarring, hollow thump.
"Sezi?" Victor approached the body. "Sezi?" He reached out. Sezi was still warm, but his chest did not rise and fall. Victor touched his throat, and found no beat.
Victor fell to his knees. "No." He placed his head against the arm of the chair, next to the cooling body. "No. No, Sezi, no."
He still gripped Sezi's last letter in his hand, his fist crumpling it. Victor understood, suddenly. Sezi wasn't a gift from his mother. Sezi wasn't a spy. Sezi was a lesson.
Victor stood, straightened his coat. He swallowed. He had never been in the presence of a dead body before, and he resolved to act like a prince around this one. He stuck his head out the door, flagged down a servant in the hallway. He took a moment to find his voice. "Tell Master Marten-Lorentz that Sezi has... passed away. We must deal with the body appropriately."
"Yes, my Prince." The boy hurried away.
Victor watched him go. He felt nothing. His passion had died with Sezi, and that was as it should be. If he was to lead his little corner of Austria and play out the old forms, maybe he was better off feeling nothing more.