“Have you been to the Galleries before?” Liam asked as we walked.
“No.” I felt my cheeks heat at the admission, then reminded myself I was being ridiculous. The Galleries were open to all, on paper at least. But going there as a non-Benzarian, especially a young male, was simply not done. I’d tried, when I was still a child and more defiant, and promptly been ushered out.
Liam, glanced at me as he walked through the maze of works in the huge storage space. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m guessing you had trouble being admitted the same as other friends and artists I know who are not of Society. The policies here, or rather how they are practiced, are so far out of date. So passé and discriminatory. I’m working to change that.” He squeezed my arm and stopped. “And you will be helping to make that happen.”
He chuckled and waved his arm out. “With these.”
I blinked and it took me a moment of stupidity before I realized we were standing before my paintings.
“Did you already examine them?” I thought they had only just arrived.
“Not these, not closely. Stewart had shown me sketches and pointed out your murals, though, and I have no doubt we will be adding something of yours to our collection.”
All I could do was stare as Liam let go of my arm and stepped up close to my works. I was torn between joy that Liam already liked what he’d seen, and complete rage that Stewart had obviously been working behind my back. When had he swiped my sketchpads? When had he managed to lure Sir Liam out to the Gallows to view my “murals”?
I had to hold back a snort at the term. Most would have called the works of graffiti a scar on the side of old, historical buildings. In the Artist Gallows the authorities were too used to avoiding the “uncouth” inhabitants to bother to remove them, however. That worked just fine for me and many others who lived in that part of town. But to think that this man, this Benzarian, had actually ventured into the back alleys of the Gallows to view my work there, that was unheard of.
“You’ve been to the Gallows?”
“Hmm?” he said, slipping on an eyeglass to look at a part of my painting in detail. He continued without looking up, “Oh, yes. So many of the most promising young artists evolve there.”
“Do they? I don’t hear of many artists from the Gallows being shown here at the Galleries.”
Liam looked up at me briefly and shrugged. “That’s generally because they are no longer in the Gallows, once their work becomes known.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. To leave for better parts of the city once one had the means and money was common, but… I had pride in where I lived; I couldn’t imagine leaving, not completely—though I knew Stewart was hoping for it.
As Liam continued to inspect some parts of the same painting, I was reminded that I am not a patient man. I waited for Liam to say something--anything—about my works, and willed myself not to fidget. My will was tested as every moment ticked by. I dearly wanted to demand he talk to me already.
Liam picked up one of my smaller pieces and held it out before him. “This will need a better frame,” he said, as if he was speaking to himself.
“Well, that frame was more an idea of what I wanted. I mean, I don’t have many resources and—”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Liam muttered, setting the piece down and propping up another, larger painting. Most of my works tended to be on large canvases. I withheld a sigh.
When I’d met Liam, only shortly before, I’d liked him. Now I was beginning to think he was an ass.
“Umm, so… What do you think?” I finally asked. He was lucky I was asking nicely when I wanted to shout at him. Stewart had better give me credit later for being so well-behaved.
“Hmm? Oh, they’re lovely!” Liam said, straightening back up from where he’d been examining the work. He smiled and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “I was making you worry, wasn’t I? My apologies,” he said. “Adaine chides me constantly on how lost I become when looking at pieces I love.”
That he loved? Was he just spurting out comments or was he serious?
“Oh, this one is quite lovely!” he said, setting aside one work and holding up another. “The Galleries are currently all a-flutter for romanticism such as this.”
“Romantic? It’s landscape.”
Liam gave a musical laugh. “But romanticism means the work is an idealized representation of nature, which is it, yes? That’s all that is meant by the term.” He finally met my gaze and seemed to study me with the same thoroughness he had the painting. “You’re family is from where originally? Sepkiara?”
I held my temper. Was this going to be an issue? Hadn’t Stewart made my background clear? Apparently not. I pursed my lips and steeled myself before answering a bit defiantly, “Yes.”
He nodded, looking pleased for some reason. “I thought as much. Sepkins seem to have a love of the outdoors and put exploration above appearance.”
Liam blinked. “Your tan. Benzarians are so obsessed with fair skin, despite the beauty of their natural olive complexion, and their preference has grown into the general population here. The Sepkins I’ve met don’t care for that, which I admire.”
I exhaled, letting my temper ease.
He smiled, as if reading my thoughts. “I am being incorrigible, aren’t I? I apologize. I’m often being reminded of my lack of tack, but I fail just the same.”
“Yes, well. You are not what I expected.”
“I hear that quite often.”
I couldn’t hold back a chortle. “I would guess so.”
Turning back to the painting, Liam noted, “There’s only two of these landscapes. Where did your inspiration stem from?”
“You mean, how did I make such detailed landscapes in the middle of Capital City?” I chortled.
He nodded with sincere eagerness, which disarmed me, and I found myself explaining, “I have distant family still in the mountains of Sepkiara. A few years ago I decided to make a trip there. I’d met another man from near the same region who was returning there, so I went along.”
“That’s not close,” Liam replied, eyebrows raised.
With a laugh I nodded. “Quite true. I couldn’t have afforded it normally, but Lefah spoke of how dearly he wished to share of the beauty of his travels with his family, so I offered to do sketches for him along the road, on vellum. He’d saved a good amount of money working here as a dockhand and had enough to supply me with art supplies, food, and my own tent and blankets in return.”
Liam shook his head. “I may have to stop being annoyed with Adaine when he calls me soft; I don’t think I could manage such a journey.” I shrugged. “In any case,” he went on, “I’m happy you had the opportunity to go. Your work is wonderful, Rua. I would love for you to attend the next meeting of the Gallery Committee with me. If you are planning to show here, it’s the first step.”
“I would join you?”
“Of course. I can introduce you to some of the women behind the scenes, help you make connections.”
“But, I thought…”
“Because you are not Benzarian, you would not be able to attend such functions?”
“Don’t think of it. I am often the bridge between Society and new artists who are not Benzarian. In fact the first artist I brought to them was my partner, who is not Benzarian.”
Interesting. “She must be a talent.”
“He is, yes!” he replied without missing a beat. Then he laughed. “You didn’t know it was Adaine? I thought that bit of gossip had gone everywhere by now. I’m quite relieved it hasn’t.”
Why had I assumed that Adaine was just a paramour? Why had I assumed that, even disowned, there must have been a woman who supported Liam? I must’ve looked as dumbfounded as I felt. He laughed. “Did I surprise you again?”
“I know I can be a bit…forthright.”
“Yes. Well, I’ve found it doesn’t pay to beat around the bush, as it were. I’m sure you know my background. Some people take issue with me. I’d rather not deal with such people. If anyone has a problem with me, I’d rather know right from the start.”
He chuckled, hearing the wariness in my tone. “I have also learned to keep my mouth shut regarding my clients’ lives. I can be trusted, I assure you. When it comes to myself, however,” he shrugged, “I suppose after growing up a cloistered Benzarian boy I find a perverse pleasure in being so honest now.”
That I could grant a smile to; I’d felt stifled just being around Benzarians before moving to the Gallows.
“You’ve said several of the works please you, and mentioned the Committee meeting, but does that officially mean…” Lord, I hated being so hesitant, so anxious. I had to be certain, however. Liam could appreciate my work and want to groom me, but where he considered my current works ready for display was something else.
“Will I be accepting these works? Yes, Rua, there are several pieces here I very much wish to display, soon. I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear.” He was beaming and I smiled right back. This was the break I’d been waiting for, dreaming of—yet it all felt surreal. Somehow I couldn’t rejoice because I was waiting for Liam to change his mind or for myself to wake up.
“You look shocked,” said with a chuckle.
Liam shook his head, but kept smiling. “It amazes me how many talented artists go unknown and underappreciated in the Capital.”
I bit my lip. “Well, I can’t very well blame the city. Outside of the murals—which aren’t officially licensed and are often painted over—I haven’t publically displayed my works before.”
Liam simply nodded. “I thought as much. Though I will say that will likely work to your advantage here.”
“How so?” Being a nobody would help?
His smile quirked and I felt as if he heard my other words without me saying them. “Because Society adores ‘discovering’ new talent—and taking credit for their success. More than that, if you were well-known in the wrong quarters, they’d find you undesirable.”
“But I’m from the Gallows!” I sputtered, spreading my hands.
Liam patted my shoulder and said with knowing, “Oh, but they will feel you weren’t appreciated there. Society will see you as a diamond in the rough and try to ‘save’ you from your circumstances.”
“My circumstances are fine,” a bit defensively. I couldn’t help it.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with your living situation. Others will. And if you show here, you have to know that people of Society will see your work and you’ll have to deal with how they view you as well.”
“Then I just won’t come to the showings.”
With a chuff and shake of his head, Liam reminded me, “That’s not how it works at the Galleries.”
Though it was my first visit there, I knew enough about the Galleries to know that was true. That didn’t mean I liked or approved of how matters were handled, however, or that I’d be willing to go along with the games and politics played.
Liam blew out a long breath and I expected him to tell me I could kindly take my works with me as I was shown to the door, but he didn’t. Instead, he put a hand on my arm and guided me once more through the maze of stored art. “It’s a lot to take in, I know,” he said with patience. “I have had artists refuse me, and you won’t anger me if you do, though I can’t say I won’t be disappointed. Just give yourself some time and space to think matters over.”
I nodded, then considered his words. “I have time to consider it?”
We stopped and he nodded. “You do, but I can’t keep your work on hand here for more than a seven-day without a contract or the Gallery could be charged for confiscation.”
“Oh.” I was beginning to feel snowed under by this place and all its regulations.
“Honestly it’s done to protect the artists, so that no work can be stolen, dishonestly sold or reproduced.”
“Oh.” I was a word wizard in front of this man, it seemed.
“Take my advice, wander through the Galleries while you’re here. Let yourself get a feel for the space. Your intuition will help guide you to the answers.”
“It may guide my decision, but I’ll need more than that to get through this maze of a building,” I told him
Liam laughed and motioned to a page already waiting near the door I’d originally come through.
“Chaulty will give you a tour. I will see that your pieces not being shown are sent back to you—and I will await your answer, with hope.”
I shook the hand he offered and returned his smile. As I walked away and he turned to call other workers over to get back to what must be the constant re-organization of the storage space, I had to marvel. He was a disowned son, in the heart of a country that didn’t tolerate any young single Benzarian men not to be properly wed and owned. How he’d managed to get where he was baffled and inspired me.
How my own journey within the art world would continue was still unknown to me, though. Still up in the air. Promising, but scary as shit at the same time.
“Which wing would you care to visit?” the page asked politely.
All of them was what I wanted to say, but that would likely take an entire day, if not longer. So I would have to choose.
“The Romantics?” I said with a shrug.
He brightened. “Very good, this way.” And with that I stepped deeper into the world of the Galleries.
“I knew this was a bad idea.”
Beside me, Stewart shook his head, then swatted my hands away from my cravat. “Let me do that for you,” he said, kissing my temple while I scowled and fidgeted.
“I can tie a cravat,” I snapped.
“I know.” He continued to tie the pale fabric at my neck, and I continued to let him. “Ah, there. All done.” Stewart stepped aside and I scrutinized my appearance. To my frustration, my cravat looked quite good. No more excuses to make.
“I know you’re not nervous,” Steward said with a knowing smile, “so don’t be.”
“When I come back in tears, you owe me.”
“Sir Liam is good at what he does. He knows talent when he sees it. Perhaps more importantly, he’s a good man.”
“Is he still a ‘sir’?” I’d asked around about this Gallery rep, and found he was Benzarian born, yet recently disowned.
“Technically, no,” Stewart replied, “but everyone still calls him that. You’ll understand once you meet him. He earns one’s respect quite quickly.”
“Hmm,” I grumbled.
Stewart smiled and nudged me to the door. “Get going. Your paintings will be delivered before you if you don’t go quickly.”
I let him kiss me before I left.
I’d been to art spaces before, but never within The Gallery itself. The building was centuries old, constructed with pink marble and white stonework, and the only three-story structure beside the royal palace. Looking up at the monolith gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘intimidating’.
“It’s a merely pomp and pretension,” I said to myself. Of course, if this place truly was all facade and no substance, why was I here?
Just go inside, little fox. Stewart’s voice echoed in my brain and I imagined giving him a huff as I made my way up the shallow stone steps and into the Gallery building.
If the outside was intimidating, the inside…I had no words. The entry hall was opened through all three levels, with floor to ceiling frescos. “Holy shit,” I couldn’t stop myself from muttering. Unfortunately, the acoustics in the enormous room made my small voice bounce from wall to wall. I flushed as a young nobleman across the floor looked up and headed over to me.
Wonderful. I’d managed to get myself expelled before I could even interview. My cheeks heated and I hated allowing myself to feel flustered, or ashamed.
“Rua Athene?” he asked, at the same time I attempted to sputter an apology.
I blinked. “Uh…yes.”
The young man, graced with the pale skin and dark hair of a “true” Benzarian, lit up like a sparkler. “Brilliant, Sir Liam will be so please you have arrived. Right this way.” Without missing a beat, he turned and waved for me to follow as we stepped into the two-story arched hall that lead from the room. More frescos here. Windows to the roof, some tinted in various colors glowing from the sunshine beyond.
I tried to take it all in as we went from one long hall to the next, but the spectacle was beyond me—and the young man, who still hadn’t introduced himself, kept up a constant chatter.
“Your works arrived not long ago and Sir Liam would not leave them, even to greet you himself,” he said, eyes wide, as if this was a social faux pas. All I cared about was whether this Liam was so aghast by my work he planned to throw me straight onto the street the moment I was before him. My palms began to sweat.
Finally, after we’d wandered through hall after hall and delved through a normal-sized wooden door into a high-roofed, sunny, but dusty room, my leader said brightly, “Sir Liam, he has arrived!”
Cluttered with covered canvases, draped sculptures, and with half a wall open to a back lane outside, I deduced the area was an immense storage room. Near the exposed wall were two men. Though not much older than myself, both seemed to have more poise and purpose than myself as I was lead over to them.
My feet almost faltered as the men’s eyes turned toward me. Oh Lord, what was I doing here? One man was taller and blond, with a kind smile, but one that seemed to indicate he had me sized up within seconds. The other was obviously Benzarian and--
“Sir Liam, here is Rua Athene,” my guide said, giving the other Benzarian—Sir Liam—a neat bow and then parting. I looked at his retreating back and despite his congeniality I decided I didn’t like him for leaving.
“Rua, so lovely to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine, Sir.”
I swore I heard a snort from the blond man and wondered what I was missing.
“Ignore him,” Liam said, elbowing the man. Smiling at me once more, he clarified, “My title was taken from me, and some people,” he eyed the blond at his side, “find it amusing that people here often still use it, out of respect.”
“I see, Sir—um, Liam.”
He was kind enough to ignore my stumbling and waved at the other man. “Off you go, before you cause any more trouble.” Then, to my astonishment, Liam gave him a kiss straight on the mouth before pushing him toward the open doors.
“Sorry about Adaine. He can be incorrigible sometimes.”
I found myself returning his grin. “I know the time.”
“Come, let’s look at these works of yours.” Liam took my arm and I walked beside him in a haze of wonder.
I fell back into the soft sheets beneath me, panting. “That was good.”
Beside me, Stewart chuckled. “Glad to know I can still please you.”
Rolling over to face him, I brushed my russet hair out of my eyes. “As if that is ever in doubt,” I said, nuzzling into his side. Stewart had a broader frame than myself, though not taller, and it didn’t matter if some of his muscle had become a little soft around the middle, I adored burrowing into him.
“That Sapphire the other night was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if he’ll return to the House again. Then Charles and the others could really have some fun with him.”
I ignored his words and kissed Stewart’s chest. Then paused. “I suppose if he comes back I’ll have to thank him properly for eating out my ass so well. Though being a Jewel House virgin he technically wasn’t supposed to penetrate me with his tongue, I’m surprised the stuffed shirt actually broke the rules and thrust his tongue in! then again, my ass is amazing!”
Stewart laughed and I poked his side, making him yelp. We’d been having nights at the House for a little over a year now, and I wondered how much longer we could indulge ourselves. It was fun and exciting, and because we were together and Stewart knew I’d give him his money back, he could bid crazy amounts for me to secure me for the night. The House took a cut, of course, but it was worth it. And even though someone else still could bid for me, I wouldn’t have accepted anyone else. Jewels had a right to turn any clients down.
The thrill of the Jewel House could be intoxicating, but that dynamic wasn’t the kind of relationship Stewart wanted. I told myself it didn’t matter to me… I wasn’t sure how long I could keep convincing myself of that, however.
“Not leaving already, surely?” Stewart said as I rose from his bed. He reached for me, but I slipped aside. “You sly little fox.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re ridiculous.” Dipping a small towel into the bedside basin, I wiped myself clean then tossed him the cloth. He yelped as the cold wetness touched his belly, but he got his revenge in the next moment. Lifting his arms above his head he stretched out, putting his smooth, dark torso on display. That just wasn’t playing fair.
“You prefer I call you ‘Ruby’?”
“No!” I huffed, pulling on my shirt and buttoning it up. I didn’t mind my Jewel House name, and I did adore exhibitionism, but when we’d just shared a night alone, I wanted to think of other things.
“It’s not a working day,” he pouted. Lord, he had the most gorgeous lips. Full and currently wet.
“You’re right. That means I can paint today.”
“Ahh.” He smiled now, and I wanted to roll my eyes again. When we’d first met two years before, I hadn’t planned on revealing my work to him, but he’d found a way of slipping into my life and past my defenses before I realized it. Other men, and the occasional woman, who I’d had affairs with grew annoyed that my art always came before them. Not Stewart. He was the real gem, not I.
Although… I sometimes worried that he romanticized my role as “artist” a bit too much. He hadn’t grown up in Capital City, as I had. His parents had come from a country across the sea, a place that valued art, whomever the artist was. However, in New Benzary? Who you, or your family, or your mother was, was all that mattered. I often had the feeling matters must’ve been different centuries ago. Perhaps before the war. Yet what did that matter? History wouldn’t change my current situation.
Belatedly, I noticed Stewart had gone silent. I found him staring at me. “What?”
His muscular shoulders shrugged, but I wasn’t fooled. “Out with it,” I pressed. He sighed in return.
“Promise you won’t be angry,” he said.
“That would be ridiculous to do before I even know what this concerns.”
“You use the word ‘ridiculous’ too often.”
“Oh, alright, alright. I may have, er, spoken to someone related to the Galleries about your work…”
Rather than angry, I was left confused. “I’m not Benzarian. They only showcase Benzarian artists. Everyone knows that. I suppose you can choose to waste your time, but—”
“Oh, my little fox has been in his den too long. Haven’t you heard there is a new representative for the Galleries?”
“Maybe you’ve been dragging me to a certain jeweled den too often lately, hmm? And no, I hadn’t heard. I assume he’s Benzarian?”
“Well, yes, but—”
I waved him off as I sat to pull up my socks. “Waste of your time.”
He put his hand on my arm, stopping my motions. “Rua. Be serious a moment. This is important.”
“Why?” I knew I was being difficult, so what?
“Because this rep supports non-Benzarian artists—specializes in them, in fact.”
The bright spike of hope that lanced my heart was too much. No, it would lead to disappointment. Be practical, little Rua.
Looking down at my shoes, I shook my head. “That doesn’t mean he’ll see me.”
“No more, Stew,” I told him, in my end-of-the-conversation voice. Leaning down, I kissed his cheek and stepped toward the door. “I’ll send you a note.” And I was off.
It was earlier in the day than I would usually be up on a free day. The sun hadn’t risen above the double-story buildings quite yet, and the shadows were still chill. The streets were being cleaned of the banter, celebration, and drunkenness of the night before. In the air was an odd mixture of alcohol, piss, fresh flowers, and fresh fish—and perfume. I grinned at Mother Violet’s Perfumery shop just across the street. I did so adore that Stewart lived so close to it. My family had gone on trips to the countryside when I’d been a child, and I dearly missed the scent of fields of wildflowers. Perfume didn’t really do them justice—too cloying for my taste, though I would never tell her that.
Walking on, I hopped between loose stones and mud as I made my way across the bustling neighborhood and entered my own, the ‘Artist’s Gallows’ as it was charmingly known. The area was south of Gaylord Street and further west, closer to the docks. Irreputable or not, I felt comfortable here. Mostly.
I was lucky enough to have my own apartment, small but clean, and on the second story. Most importantly, it had good light, as the windows faced a wide street with single-story buildings that didn’t block the sun.
There was more crime in the area, and Stewart wasn’t fond of me living there, but it was my own, I had worked hard for this space, and it was my sanctuary. Stripping of my coat and cravat, I rolled up my sleeves and pulled out a fresh canvas.
I groaned. So much for sanctuary.
Stepping over to the door, I creaked it open and a bright blue eyes in a deep brown face sparkled up at me. “Morning, Marl,” I told him. “I’m working.”
“This early?” he asked, obviously baffled. “Open up, I baked and I know you haven’t eaten.”
I wasn’t getting out of this. “Fine.” Opening the door, Marl squeezed in between the door, canvas, and paints to the small counter that served as my kitchen.
“Just wait ‘til you taste these! Better than any meat in your mouth,” He said with a wink and a wiggle of his lean hips. Oh, Marl. He was incorrigible. Though one couldn’t blame him. He’d been born in a Benzarian household, but it had been obvious upon his birth that his father hadn’t been of the blood. Though I’d never gotten the whole story, I believe he’d said once he’d been raised by his true father, or his father’s sister. Someday maybe I’d hear the full tale.
“Open wide!” Marl said with a grin, pushing a muffin towards my mouth. Grabbing it, I broke off a piece, and my eyes went wide. “That’s spectacular!”
“Of course it is!”
With a chuckle, I finished the rest of the nut and berry muffin and listened to Marl rant. He always had a good yarn to spin. Soon enough, however, I had to shoo him out. He’d stay all day if I let him.
“I must work now.” I patted his back and guided him towards the door.
“Painting isn’t “work” for you. That’s why you have that boring office job doing accounts for Stewart, I mean Mr. Hops.”
Rolling my eyes, I opened my door and nudged him—as politely as possible—through the doorway. “Goodbye, Marley. Thank you for the muffins.”
With a groan he stepped out, but quickly turned to face me. “You used my full name just so I’d be mad and leave!”
“Later, Marl.” Closing the door, I heard a huff, then footsteps, and thankfully I was finally alone.
Setting up paints, palettes, brushes, cleaning rags, and all the rest always took more time than I anticipated, or wanted. Eventually, however, I was set and began painting. Well, sketching first, really. I had to get the basic idea roughly on the canvas first. This prep step took far too long, in my opinion, even if necessary. If I’d been using a different medium, maybe it could have been quicker, though I doubted it. I preferred oil paints, which could be done layer upon layer, meaning it didn’t matter if I decided to change something later, I could simply paint over that section—or somehow blend it in.
I adored how flexible oils could be, how they could lead an artist in directions they never anticipated. A stroke here or there blended in a new way, or one’s fingers led the brush into a different color, a different angle. Such unexpected changes were the true beauty of art, at least for myself.
When I worked, the paint, the brush, the muses all wrapped around me and perhaps I forgot other matters, such as meals, or the outside world in general. When another knock came at the door, I cursed, finished my stroke, and grumbled to the door.
“What is—Stewart?” I blinked.
He lifted a hand, a sandwich box in hand. Resigned, I stepped back to let him in. “I’d rather keep working through lunch. You can set that on the counter,” I said, moving back to sit before the easel.
“I thought as much,” Stewart replied, “that’s why I waited until supper to come by.”
“Huh?” Reluctantly, I looked up, noticing for the first time how low the sun’s position in the sky. “Oh.”
“Eat. Even little foxes need food.”
I pursed my lips in irritation, but was betrayed by my own body as my stomach growled.
“Your insufferable.” But I stood and grabbed the small wooden box.
“So you say,” he chuckled.
The food was gone in record time and I muttered a “thank you” because I’d needed the meal. He knew me too well.
Before I could move back in front of the canvas, Stewart caught my wrist. “We’re back to the office tomorrow.”
Sighing, I nodded. “I know.”
Stewart frowned. “I actually enjoy the structure of going there and organizing all the shipments, and you’re damn good with the accounts, but you still don’t enjoy it, do you?”
Another sigh escaped me. “No—but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that I was hired there. The money allows me to buy all this.” I swept my hand over the jumble of canvases and paint supplies.
“But you could take another route.”
It was hard to refuse him when those beautiful dark eyes of his held mine. Someday I would paint him, or at least sketch him. I’d show him how lovely he was, the self-conscious, gorgeous idiot.
“That route is a dead end and you know it,” I told him, but I didn’t let go of his hand.
“I just told you today there is the new rep at the Galleries. What is the harm in trying?”
Oh, there could be harm in it, though I refrained from saying it aloud. I wasn’t that I didn’t believe in myself or my work, but words didn’t need to be true to sting. I had enough experience to know that at least. Childhood bullying over being labeled a “foreign, sissy bastard” wasn’t a valid reason for side-stepping opportunities as an adult, but it certainly didn’t make it easier.
“You’re right, of course.” I looked up at him. “That doesn’t mean I want this interview, though.”
“Rua… Come now, why not?”
“Perhaps I’m a coward,” I replied with a shrug. “I’d rather have hope to look forward to than have them crushed.”
Shaking his head, he reached a hand to stroke my face. “You are such a fatalist.”
“Well, you’d best get past that. I’ve already made an appointment for you. The rep has seen your work and wants to speak with you.”
Shoving him, I snapped. “What?! Sneaky bastard.”
All he did was laugh and grab hold of me while I squirmed and pretended to fight. I should’ve been genuinely angered that he’d been so heavy-handed, so why wasn’t I?
“Fiery little fox,” he chuckled, nudging me up against the wall. “Say you’ll go.”
Refusing, I simply pouted up at him.
“You know I love to bite those pouty lips.”
Rolling my eyes, I fought a grin. His head dipped to my neck. “Say it.”
“You’re a sneaky bastard?”
I earned a sharp nip for that. “Stewart…”
Straightening, he sobered. “Do you really not wish to go?”
Did I? Drawing in a breath, I shrugged. “I know it sounds simpleminded, but I can’t see any Benzarian taking me serious as an artist. Even if this rep of yours does, what about the audience?”
Stewart saw right through me. His hands came up to frame my face. “I wish I’d met you when we were younger. I would’ve punched the mouth of anyone who spoke badly of you.”
I had to chuckle. “Even the girls?”
“You went to school with women?”
With a soft snort, he bent down to nuzzle my ear. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
I shook my head and grinned. “That I can believe.” I bit my lip. “Though I may need some enticing.” He looked up at the wall behind me. “Do you think this wall can withstand us fucking against it again?”
“I think there’s already a crack in the ceiling…”
“Guess there’s only one way to find out if we can make it worse—before you move out after selling a fortune in your art, that is.”
I broke into a laugh. Ridiculous. “You’re incorrigible.”
Stewart grinned back at me. “You like me that way.”
Wrapping my arms about his neck, I gave him a soft kiss. “Maybe.”
I found myself ensconced in a carriage riding to Virsus Court the next morning. If it hadn’t been completely inappropriate, I would have gone straight there from the Lantern late the evening before. As it was, I hadn’t slept at all and was blinking groggily into the sunlight as my driver opened the carriage door.
The view of the Virsus’ Estate was, in a word, imposing. I knew it was upheld as the pinnacle of post-war Benzarian architecture, but I’d never warmed to it. Now, looking up at the three-story pale rose building, with its gilded window frames and grand arched entryway, it was just as daunting as it had been when I’d first visited as a small boy. Steeling myself, I walked up the shallow front stairs until I was beneath the shadow of the intrados outside the doors.
My fingers held the rope bell and paused. I needed to push Nicolas to open up to me. Usually, that wouldn’t have been hard, but after all that had happened at the Jewel House? I had no idea where we stood with one another. Moreover, the fact he’d kept from me the fact his family was moving flared my temper like gas on a flame. He’d blindsided me, used me, ignored me! Yet I had to tamp down my anger if I was going to get answers from him. Steadying myself with a deep breath in, I pulled the rope. The familiar jingle echoed around me, but something felt, well, off. Typically, there was more bustle happening about the Court. Gardeners tending the flowerbeds, guardsmen making rounds, today there was nothing but quiet.
When the head matron opened the tall doors, she did not look pleased. She never looked pleased; today, however, there was a new glint in her pale eyes.
“No visitors,” she announced in a clipped tone.
“I’m just here to see Nicolas.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No visitors.”
I glanced over her shoulder, blinking when I noticed the bare spaces of wall in the entry hall, where there had once been portraits. The floors were bare where there had once been hand-woven rugs from countries across the sea.
“Young sir doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”
“Please. I have to see him.” Even more so if something was deeply wrong—which it obviously was.
She eyed me with such scrutiny I felt she was looking through layers of skin and bone to my thoughts. “I don’t know where he is on the grounds.”
“I’ll find him,” I said with a polite nod as I bypassed her.
With every step, I knew Anthony’s rumors had been true. I was only amazed more people weren’t talking. The number of stocking carts and carriages necessary to move all the furniture, art, and luxuries within the estate had to be significant, because nothing was left. Leave it to Nicolas’ mother to do so much with so little rumor. But what was the truth behind it? This was more than simply moving to a country estate for the summer. What the hell was happening?
The more empty rooms I searched, the further my anxiety increased. Nicolas wasn’t in any of his usual haunts, not within the kitchens or courtyards or stables—all of which held not one other soul. The estate had become as quiet as a tomb.
“Nicolas!” I began to shout, rushing along the residential hallways. “Nicolas!”
At last I found his formal apartments, the ones he staunchly avoided, as they were adjacent to his mother’s rooms. Slowly, I creaked open one of the ceiling-high doors. “Nicolas?” I asked hesitantly, though I didn’t know why.
There he was, standing at the windows and staring down to the central garden. He turned to glare. “I paid Ms. Shunick a bonus to do the exact opposite of what she has just done.”
I gave a helpless grin. “Keep out visitors?”
“Specifically, keep you out.”
A silence drew out between us; I could hardly bare it. For half my life he’d been the person I could say anything—almost anything—to and I had thought it was the same for him. I’d thought there was very little unsaid between us. Now the short distance of the room seemed to stretch out like a continent. How long had it been since we’d been honest with one another?
“What’s happened, Nicolas?”
With a heavy sigh, he sank into a simple wooden chair near the window. His head bent to settle in his hands.
“Nicolas…” I took a step, reached out a hand, but stopped myself. It was a physical pain not to comfort him, but I didn’t know what he needed right now, or what he wanted. “I…”
“Just give me a moment, Sage.”
I nodded, though he wasn’t looking at me. He was breathing deeply, obviously trying to collect himself, so I sat cross-legged on the floor and waited.
“It’s all gone,” he said finally.
He waved a hand, “Everything. I’ve been helping them sell it off all our assets.” The sunlight through the window put one side of his face in high relief, and I could see all the strain and stress he’d been concealing from me, and everyone, for so long.
I knew he’d sold things here and there for his parents, but this was quite different. “How long since the purge began?”
“Not long after the new year.”
“But that-that was nearly half a year ago!”
“Holy hell, Nici. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was dealing with it…and my own issues.”
Well, dammit, I didn’t really want to pursue that. Not yet.
“What now?” I asked tentatively. He looked so drained.
“Mother already went with Father back to his family in Lassar.”
“Wait, what? That’s across the sea!”
Stretching his long legs before him, he stared at his hands in his lap. “Oh, they left months ago, when all the servants were still here. So it wouldn't look improper. So I could take more time selling everything off without raising any eyebrows.”
I stood up then. “They just left you here to deal with it alone? For appearances sake? That’s ridiculous!” Clenching my fists, I was unable to even find words awful enough to describe what I was feeling.
“My mother is a proud woman,” Nicolas continued. “She was practically shunned when she married my Father. I think that make her cling even more to the Benzarian ideal of appearances, of saving face; she wanted to prove everyone wrong.” He sighed. “In all honesty I think she’ll be happier in Lassar, without all that weight on her shoulders. Sometimes I wonder if she shouldn’t have done it years ago, when they first married.”
Why did they even have a child if they were such selfish people? I wanted to yell, but of course I said no such thing.
Then something warbled within the room and I nearly jumped. “Oh! Orchid is still here?” I walked over to the birdcage and whistled at the little green bird. He’d always reminded me of leaves in the spring sunshine. “They didn’t take him?”
“No! I’m the one who taught him his songs, so he’s mine.” His eyes locked to mine as he spoke his last words.
Clearing my throat, I asked, “So, what now? Did they leave you behind just to see to the sales then you’re to find your own way to Lassar?”
Nicolas shook his head, “I refused to leave. My life is here and I know now how to make my own way.” He shrugged, “I can always join them later, if it comes to that.” I knelt before him and took his hand. “Of course. But, please, whatever I can do, ask me. I’m here for you.”
He took my hand from his and stood to stare outside. “I know you mean it. Truly I do. But Sage, I can’t have you near me.”
“You’re trying to be a true friend, but I don’t want your friendship,” his eyes finally turned to me, “I want you. Don’t you see? My secret is out. You know how I feel. And with my family ousted from Society, I don’t have any reason to hide. It’s different for you. Your future in Society and in your family is still secure. Being with me could…endanger that. Maybe if we just spoke in places like The Lantern, our friendship would be ignored.” He shook his head. “But I can’t go back to that, not after having you once—taking you, tasting you…” He shut his eyes as if in pain. “I can’t. I can not simply be your friend now.”
It was my turn to stand. Though Nicolas’ eyes remained at his feet, I stepped in close. “I didn’t ask you to.”
Nicolas huffed. “Not in words, but your silence and absence was enough.”
“My silence and absence? You can’t be serious!” I stepped back from in my anger.
“Fine! You are not the only one at fault. But after the House, did you try to contact me? Write a letter? Anything?”
I was going to pummel him. “Excuse me, but,” I hissed the words low, “you are the one who fucked me and left without even a look! And somehow I am the one to blame for not coming crawling to you?” I raked my hands through my hair and yanked at the strands to keep from throttling him. “Tits of the mother, Nici! I love you but I want to kill you right now!”
All he did was blink at me for a long moment. His mouth opened then shut. “I was an idiot. All right? I was confused. I won’t make excuses, but it’s the truth. I didn’t know what to think- or how you really felt.” His eyes searched mine, locked on them and held. “You love me?”
“Nicolas, that is hardly a secret. Yes, I love you! We grew up together. We have always been together.”
The light in his eyes died as he turned away. “Like brothers then, you mean?”
Oh, he was really going to milk this, wasn’t he? Squeeze me for every blasted word!
“You are an idiot. No, nothing like brothers!”
“But you never…?”
I threw up my hands. “Of course I’ve been attracted to you! How could I not be? But—” I tried to collect my thoughts. “Attraction is one thing, and friendship another. I valued that more. Sex, fun,” I shrugged, “I could find that elsewhere.” I took a deep breath; this was not easy. “That night at the Jewel House, though…that was more than sex.”
Nicolas dared look at me, and there was so much vulnerability in his eyes I nearly flinched. I could see he was wondering where this was going.
“I had intended to purchase your contract that night simply to keep you away from anyone else,” he admitted. “I didn’t plan on…exploiting it.”
I wanted to ask what had tipped the scales, instead I heard myself saying, “That was a large price to pay.”
“It was just as well. At first, I didn’t know the extent of our household debts—heaven knows my parents never told me the details of their fiancés—but I could sense it was narrowing to the brink, that the fall was coming. My account was still in my Mother’s name at the bank. She simply turned the other way when I made my own deposits. But I knew she’d take the money when things finally crumpled.” He sighed. “I didn’t want to hand that over, and it’s not as if I could get my own account without her. So I wanted to spend it.” He shrugged again.
“The timing was right, so…” he faltered, “I took it and used it.”
“For one night with me. All your savings?”
His honesty struck me hard in the chest. I felt as if I handled a fragile bird in my hands. He’d given me all he had.
But it left me with so many questions, and I couldn’t hold them in. “Why did you leave the way you did then? Why didn’t you seduce me the whole damn night?” I may have growled. “Why didn’t you try to win me over or something?”
I’d never seen Nici shamed or chagrined, but he looked both in that moment. His cheeks flared pink as he studied the floor. “Well, for one, I’d convinced myself that was all I could have: that one night. Hell, I told you I wasn’t even planning to have sex with you at first. I knew I couldn’t have you in the long run anyhow, but…I couldn’t help myself.” He moved toward me. “You have no idea what it did to me to see you that way. Naked, collared and jeweled like a pet. And erect.” His eyes briefly shut. “I was sprung in a heartbeat. You were glorious.”
“And now?” I asked with a smirk, because who knew Nici was such a sap? And who knew I’d love it? “Am I still glorious with my clothes on?”
He met my smirk with his own. “Almost. Not quite.”
“In that case…” I moved to shrug my jacket off and he stopped me.
“I’ve let my senses run away again. I’m sorry.” He grit his teeth. “We’re both forgetting you still have a reputation and position to protect. Do you have any idea what would happen if we were found together?”
I wrapped my arms about his neck and leaned in to breath in his ear, “Yes, and I’d still have everything I could want.”
“Sage, you’re not thinking clearly. This is your entire future at stake!”
“Yes, and you are what I want. So will you shut up and take what you want already?” When he still hesitated—despite the evidence in his trousers that he wanted to pin me to the wall—I told him, “Listen, you have the knowledge and wits to make your own way in the city; I trust you can do that even better with me at your side.”
“I don’t think you realize what you’ll be giving up.”
With a snort, I grabbed him through his pants and chuckled. “I’ll be gaining this. I think I’ll be able to live with the trade.”
“Sage,” he chuckled and rested his forehead to mine. “You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?”
“Only if you want me to…Master.”
We laughed together and finally made good use of the wall. I wasn’t completely green, I knew we had challenges before us, but it was worth it. Oh yes, based on the sex, most definitely worth it. Not to mention he was my closest friend well beyond the bed.
In the aftermath, as we lay in a panting, sticky mess on the one remaining rug, Nicolas twined our fingers together. Nothing had ever felt so right in my life. A sudden burst of emotion caught me off guard, because I never I thought I’d be allowed this: to want him, to have him. And I’d do whatever it took to keep him.
“I forgot to mention, I love you too,” Nicolas said with a grin, and I had to laugh.
“I know you well enough to know that, Nici.”
“It’s not going to be easy, you know.”
“Truly good things rarely are,” I told him, but I couldn’t let the heaviness last. I was too happy. “Except for me,” I added, rolling atop him, “I’m very easy. Just keep me fed and well-pet and I’ll spread for you anytime you ask!”
“Haha. You idiot! I’ll hold you to that!”
That began a wrestling match we both one.
(Continue onto to Part 2 of the Jewel House world in 'Ruby', Ch1, posting here Ast 1st or read now on our Patreon.)
“What is this?” I couldn’t keep the astonishment from my face, even though I knew I was gawking. “How on earth—“
“You are forgetting yourself,” Nicolas said firmly. “You are to address me as Master.”
He could not be serious. Except he was.
His eyes looked back at me, the warmth always those there now cloaked.
“Yes… Master.” My voice sounded soft in my ears, subdued by bewilderment.
For a long moment he simply held my eyes, as if challenging me to take the chance to leave. I stared back.
He had brought me back to the bed in the alcove, but hadn’t yet touched me. Did he mean to pay simply to keep me from my fun tonight? Nicolas had never been vindictive—and he hardly had the money to spare. Good lord, I couldn’t even conceive how he’d made a bid in the first place. He must’ve called in a favor and had Charles do it. I knew he had connections and ways of getting things done but…this was ridiculous! And, well, why? It was out of character for him.
“Well, Master, are you just going to have me sit on the bed alone all night?” As soon as I’d said the words, I realized they could be taken as innuendo or invitation. “I mean… I didn’t mean…”
“Kneel on the bed. Spread your legs and face me.”
I swallowed and blinked. “What?”
“Was I not clear?”
For a moment, I stood frozen, my confusion keeping me rooted.
“Don’t make me repeat myself, Pet.”
Was this happening? Was Nicolas so put out he would try to shame me? I stepped up to the bed, climbed on, and obeyed. My body moved of its own accord, because I surely couldn’t think at the moment.
“I had always wondered if you actually went through with getting your nipple pierced,” he snorted softly, so as not to be overheard. Reaching a hand out he flinched the golden ring hanging on my chest. I expected it to be annoying as hell, instead I gasped at the sudden jolt of arousal that went straight to my groin, making my cock bob in appreciation.
Nicolas didn’t miss it. “My heavens, you’re sensitive, aren’t you?” He smirked. “Though I did hear as much from Charles and Markus. They were quite taken with you.” Leaning in, he put his mouth to my ear. “They talked for days of wanting to be the first to fuck you, to unload inside you.” He drew back and I felt my cheeks bloom scarlet with both embarrassment and arousal. “It took coaxing for them to let me have you. Your ass doesn’t come cheap.”
He meant it as an insult, but I lifted my chin. If he thought I’d slink away, he was going to be damn disappointed. I had nothing to be ashamed of. Though his words begged the question of how on earth Nicolas had paid for my company? That was the foremost thought in my mind, pushing aside other, more complicated questions. Answers would have to wait. I couldn’t very well demand anything in my current role—and in front of the entire room of occupants.
“Turn around, hands and knees.” My heart pounded so hard at the command I was certain he could see my chest vibrate as I moved. Nicolas moved onto the bed behind me; I could feel the warmth of his body even through his clothes. His hands came up and smoothed over my exposed backside, then down my hips and thighs. When he reached between my legs to stroke my shaft, I flinched.
“So hard and ready.”
Then he shifted again, and his fingers pressed to the jeweled plug in my ass, making me squirm. Dear lord, it felt good.
“You like to be teased, don’t you? I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that.”
“Why didn’t you get a private room?” I asked, watching those around us indulge themselves of the view we were giving them while they sucked and fucked one another.
“You like to be watched, don’t you?” He leaned in and said in a low, husky tone, “You told us all about it, remember?” Then he moved up to lock eyes with mine. “And I want them all to know you belong to me.”
I was grateful her was behind me and didn’t see my mouth gape open.
“You’re mine tonight.”
My mouth went dry as a sudden jolt made me shutter beneath his words. Was this really Nicolas? How had he hidden all this heat and possessiveness for so long?
We’d kissed as boys, and I’d pined for him for years. But he’d never given any indication he’d felt the same. Nothing; not a hint. So I’d laid my hopes to rest and learned to enjoy his company as a friend. And looked elsewhere for pleasure.
I wanted to rile at him about all the time we’d lost. Scream and demand answers. But his body was atop mine now, his clothing warm as it pressed into my naked skin.
“I’m going to ride you until you buckle beneath me, and then I’ll unload myself inside you, so you’ll be slick and sore from me the rest of the night.”
Looking over my shoulder, I saw him reach for one of the jars of oil and heard myself say, “Not like this.” His fingers now slick and dripping—I nearly lost my train of thought at that sight—he cocked an eyebrow at me inquisitively. “Can I—May I face you…Master?” I’d never felt quite so vulnerable as I waited for his answer. Then he smiled. Not a smirk, a genuine grin. He put down the jar and bent to give me a quick kiss. “Yes, Sage,” he whispered, moving me onto my back.
I don’t know why I expected him to shove his cock right into me, Nicolas always had always liked to take his time. And damn him to hell, that’s exactly what he did. Slow and torturous, he kissed from the crook behind my ears to the curve behind my knees and everywhere in between. Except my cock, the bastard. Though his oiled fingers did stroke my hole with the promise of more.
For some reason, I tried to hold back from showing my pleasure, but Nicolas knew me too well. He knew I lacked patience and restraint; soon he had me openly writhing and moaning beneath him. He waited until every inch of my skin felt taut and flush before rubbing his nose against my cheek to ask, “Ready to be fucked, Pet?”
“Yessss!” I groaned, barely able to form words in my desperation.
Damn him. But he knew I liked it. “Master…please, fuck me. Fill me!”
I felt a rush of his breath ghost my shoulder and his body trembled above me. Perhaps he wasn’t as unaffected as he seemed. That spurred me on, I wriggled my naked hips up against the bulge of his trousers and whimpered.
He straightened up and shook his head with a smile. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
I grinned right back as I felt his fingers finally penetrate me. “Yeah? I think it’s working,” I told him as I pushed down on his agile fingers.
Nicolas chuckled. “Cocky bastard.” But he unbuttoned his trousers and pulled out his uncut cock.
God, he was beautiful. If I’d been thrown by being thrust into a sexual situation with by best friend before, I was thrilled now. We’d always meshed so damn well; this didn’t feel all that different. Even though I knew it was, and that it might change everything. Ignoring that thought, I licked my lips as I watched him stroke himself. “Want to suck me, Pet?” he asked.
I did wish he would stop calling me that, though.
“Hell, yes.” I lifted myself onto my elbows and he came up to straddle my chest, feeding me that sweet, stiff shaft. I moaned around him as he slid down my throat.
“H-How did you get so…good at this?” he sputtered.
I pulled back just long enough to mutter smugly, “Practice.” From the look in his eye, he didn’t appreciate my answer. I twisted my mouth about him and he gasped, his displeasure replaced with rapture. If I hadn’t had my lips stretched around his cock, I would’ve grinned.
With his attentions fixed, I drifted my hand between my legs to fondle myself. Nicolas had patience, but he also had passion. When he worked himself up—whether it was horse riding or painting or even cards—he was intent on reaching his goal. I knew he was teetering on the edge, and at any moment, he would be inside me.
“Stop!” he cried, pulling away.
I gave him a lop-sided grin. “Yes, Master?” His breathing was uneven and he held his erection at the base, as if forcefully holding back his climax. I slid up and spread my thighs wide, putting my feet on the outside of his knees. Then I leaned back. “Do it.”
In a rush, he spit on his hand and rubbed it up and down his shaft before pushing against my portal. I would’ve laughed at his desperation, but as he moved inside me, I lost all breath. By the Goddess, this felt…I had no words. I hadn’t told him, our friends, or even made it known on the Jewel House forms, but I’d never let another man inside my body. Well, maybe fingers, but never anything else. As Nicolas held my legs to my chest and waited for my body to adjust to him, I wondered if he had done this before. He took his time and knew just how to move to help me forget the pain and focus on the pleasure. And damn him, he had a lovely, lengthy cock. I had to breath deep and slow to accommodate him, and I basked in every sensation he brought me. I didn’t crave pain, but I didn’t mind it, and it was also buried beneath so much else.
“You need to relax, Sage,” he whispered. I shivered as he spoke my name and tried to ease my tight muscles. Why did it sound so different coming from his lips now? The breathless quality of his voice and the soft way he said ‘Sage’ reached something deep in me—something that I didn’t even want to acknowledge, but there it was.
“Good lord,” he said, eyes squeezed shut, “the heat of you…!” He began to rock within me in a slow, steady beat, inching deeper until his sac laid against my skin. I’d never felt so full and so pleased, but I needed more.
I must have moaned my plea, because Nicolas opened his eyes and said, “If you want more, you shall have it.” Then he started fucking me proper, and I was sent out of my head. He knew how to hit my prostate just so, and if it hadn’t already, the rest of the room and the people in it fell away.
It was an intensity of sensation I’d never known—beyond the physical was the fact this was Nicolas inside me, pining me to the sheets. My pulse raced anew every time the thought struck me. I loved him. As friends, always, but as lovers? That hope had been set aside so long ago, but now it rekindled against all my bidding and logic.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I could hear my open moans and gasps of pleasure, the hell if I would hold them back! I was good at living in the moment, and it had never felt so right before.
I wanted it to go on forever, but I could feel my arousal cresting. I gripped my cock and began to pump as I straightened one of my legs. Then my hand was pulled away.
“You can’t flex your legs when he climax. I’d have to pull out, and you’re coming with me inside you.”
“What? How would you know how I come?” I snapped.
“Did you forget we figured out how to come together when we were younger?” Leaning down he said, “I haven’t. And now I know your technique hasn’t changed.” Straightening back up, he took a hold of my erection. “So now you’re going to let me take the lead, and make you come.” Oh, lord! And he did. He took his time, stroked me until I begged, then hit my prostate until my eyes teared from joy.
Then I came. It swept over me like a soft, intoxicating tide—first pulling me under, then lifting me up to the sky. And all the while, Nicolas watched me, though ‘watching’ is too light a word. He was flush and inside me and gazing at me as if he was devouring every damn movement and whimper I made like water on a parched tongue.
Then he fell onto me, into me. Filling me with his seed. Our hearts pounded against one another as we tried to catch our breath and come back to earth.
“Oh, Nicolas…that was…” I said in a low whisper into his ear, unable to form any other words. What it had been was beautiful, but I couldn’t say that aloud. I would sound like such a sap, and heaven only knew what Nicolas thought of all this. Had it been the same for him? Because, at least for me, this changed everything. I had no idea how I was going to deal with what he’d awoken inside me. I knew I needed him like this. Always like this. Everyday like this.
How in the world could that ever happen?
Too many thoughts and questions began chasing one another in my mind and it took me a moment to realize Nicolas was rising.
“Nici?” I asked softly, reaching for him. I hadn’t called him that since we’d been children, but it came to my lips without meaning to.
He didn’t look at me. All he did was straighten his clothes, slip his spent cock back into his trousers, and walk away.
It took all my strength and what small shreds of dignity I had left to pull myself together and ring the footman to come fetch me.
“Sage, pay attention.”
I jolted upright in my chair and hoped I hadn’t given myself away too badly. No matter how I tried, there was no way my mind was going to be able to focus on my lessons today.
“Yes, Mother,” I said automatically. Over the years I’d learned well to function on autopilot. She continued on about some social occasion or another; I nodded dutifully as my mind wandered.
What had possessed Nicolas last night? And why had he left like that, without a word? I’d never felt so bereft and, well, used. He might have meant it as a lesson: pillage me and then treat me like nothing so it would leave a bad taste in my mouth and I’d never want to visit the Jewel House again. Somehow, however, I could not believe that. For one, he wasn’t that vindictive (and he wouldn’t spend a small fortune to prove a point). For second, something had passed between us, whether he admitted it to himself or not. There was a connection now, well beyond friendship; perhaps there always had been.
Though what in the seven hells was I going to do about it I had no clue. We couldn’t be together, and how could we possibly maintain a friendship after what had happened?
Because what had happened was not merely sex. It was deeper, stronger—more frightening. I had to see him. We had to talk.
Unfortunately, that proved more difficult than I planned. Most of my group met regularly at The Lantern, at least once a week, if not more. Nicolas hadn’t appeared in a fortnight. We all expressed concern, but no one had been in touch with him. Then the rumors began.
“Something’s happening up at Virsus Court,” Anthony said, shaking his head on evening—Virsus Court being the estate Nicolas’ family owned.
My stomach dropped. “What do you mean?”
He spread his hands. “Nicolas hasn’t left the place in days, and Mother said stocking carriages were seen slipping in and out of the back gates.”
“What? Is his family moving?”
Anthony shrugged and no one else had anything more to offer. The conversation moved on to who had the most handsome valets and stable boys. I ignored them.
The Virsus family couldn’t truly be leaving the city for the countryside? Of course they had estates perched in the rolling hills outside Queenstown, but I knew Nicolas’ mother loathed not being in the center of things. I also knew their finances were not where they should be. Perhaps moving to the countryside for a time would allow them to save face while they reassessed their assets?
It was yet another thing that happened to nobles that no one liked to admit to, but there it was. Good lord, what would Nicolas do if he was forced so far afield? What would I do without him?
No. I would not allow it. I had to talk to him before it happened. Surely we could arrange…something? In any case, he was not leaving for anywhere for any length of time before we set matters right between us.
“Hmm. You’re a delightful new acquisition aren’t you?”
The man perusing me looked up and gave a coy look. The bidder glanced down at the papers set out on a small pedestal just in front of my cushion were I was, well, displayed. Including myself, there were eight of us on the well-lit stage in the otherwise dimly lit room. Each of us had a round, high cushion for a seat so we could position ourselves however we pleased, to entice the men bidding in the audience. Some were more blatant than others. Us newcomers lounged on the velvet beneath us and tried to make eye contact when we could, testing out different positions to see what caught the most attention. Those who’d been here seemed to have their routine down, however. Unlike the sapphire that dangled from my cock, those who were making a repeat appearance wore their ‘jewel’ in a different place. Each had a gold-plated buttplug fitted with a dazzling gem at the end, peeking out between their cheeks. Most of the young men were bent over, the better to show off their ‘goods.’ They looked posh and pampered—other Benzarians most likely—though one was so muscular and tanned he must’ve been a dockhand or other kind of laborer.
Turning from them, I gazed at the crowd of bidders who strolled about, considering those of us on the stage and occasionally asking to look closer, requesting for a turn or to have a touch. They were only about ten in all. I had expected there to be a bigger crowd—on and off stage. The few men that were there must indeed pay handsomely for Jewel House to do so well with so few ‘transactions’ per evening.
A tall, stately man with the typical dark Benzarian hair and slightly
Bronzed skin sauntered up. He’d been speaking with a small group of other bidders and I had the impression they were going to join forces to win their chosen ‘jewels’ for the night. His grin was filled with seductive charm and I tried not to look too eager as he drew near.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Good evening, master.”
His grin widened. It wasn’t a term we had to use, but I enjoyed it. “Let’s have a look at you. Stand for me and give a turn,” he said, twirling a finger.
Happy to oblige, I stepped up to the edge of the stage and gave a slow turn and. The stage came to about chest height, so that us jewels were well above the bidders, but still within their reach. This man’s eye level reached to just above my knees.
I did my best to stay still while my stiff cock twitched nearly right in front of the man’s face—which earned me a grin. Dark eyes raked over my body and the man lifted a hand to graze the back of his fingers down the underside of my prick, then loosely cupped my sac.
“Not much hair to obstruct the view of your…assets,” he said with amusement. My cheeks grew warm, but it was the flush of excitement as much as self-consciousness. The hand dropped away and he stepped back. I watched as he glanced again at the papers noting my preferences and looking pleased. “Hmm,” he met my eyes, “we shall see how you perform in private.”
And with that he left me. Those on stage were not privy to who was bidding on them. They only discovered later, when they were led to one of the rooms.
Once back in the waiting room, I sat with the others, impatient to be summoned. And again I had to watch as several others were led out first, but finally, blissfully, I was called.
Fredrick had told me this would be my name for the evening; I stood. The attendant clipped a simple lead around my throat and led us out the door and into a spacious hallway. Deep red and gold carpets covered the floor, soft beneath my bare feet. The walls were a deep brown wood with plaster mouldings gracing the ceiling.
After passing a couple wide foyers and making a few turns, I began to wonder just how extensive the Jewel House was. Eventually we stopped before two carved wooden doors.
The attendant opened them with a grand gesture and led me into a large room. Plush chairs, chaise lounges, and two expansive beds met my gaze. The oil lamps burned dim and made the pale green and light gold décor glow. Everything was opulent velvet and shimmery satin. It would have been overkill anywhere else, but here, where pleasure was unlimited, it suited.
I was evidently the last to arrive, as the room was already quite occupied. There were four bidders within, one with his cock already down the throat of the pretty blond kneeling before his wide chair, while the others were draped over the other seats or standing near the main bed to watch the two young men pawing one another and kissing each other with open mouths.
“In you go, new boy. Enjoy yourself.” The attendant unclipped the lead and gave my ass a little smack.
The door shut and I tried not to squirm as the bidders’ eyes turned toward me. They wore well-cut trousers, waistcoats, and fine linen shirts. Gentle cravats graced each throat and delicate embroidery edged their waistcoats. Expensive clothing, but not that of nobility. Wealthy merchant class, if I had to guess. But all very gentlemanly and demur and proper attire—or would have been if all but one had not had his cock already released and standing erect before him.
I swallowed. Somehow the sight was even more erotic than if they’d been naked. My poor erection, bound at the base as it was, grew painful with the need for release.
“Ah, finally!” said the man who’d fondled me during the ‘auction.’ He walked over and cupped my ass to nudge me forward. “Come in. Get comfortable.” He gestured to one of the chaise lounges and I laid down across it, trying to look more relaxed than I felt. It wasn’t that I was nervous over what might happen; just that I didn’t know what the next step was or what to do with myself. I was pretty certain I was the only one there who hadn’t done this before.
“I’m Markus,” the man before me said. “The gentleman about to come in the chair over there is Stewart. This is Jacob and Charles,” he said, nodding to a tall auburn-haired man and a shorter, slimmer man with brown hair who walked over from where he’d been standing, soaking in the sight of the men on the bed.
“And you are Sapphire this evening, is that right?” Markus asked.
“Yes.” I couldn’t help blushing at the ridiculous pseudonym.
“I’m surprised you chose a newcomer this evening. We won’t be able to fuck him. He is lovely, though. Full lips and pretty cock,” Charles said, holding my chin and tilting my head.
Markus shrugged. “We will be his first here at the House, Charles,” he said with a smile, “We can christen him.”
Charles chuckled, stroking his hard dick.
“And our other Jewels might be annoyed if we gave all the attention to the new gem,” said Jacob, eying the two men on the bed, who were gazing at them as they licked and rubbed against each other. I wondered if it would be out of line for me to ask to join them.
“Don’t you worry,” Markus said with a grin to the two young men, “You’ll both be fucked as much as you like tonight. But for now…” He unfastened his own breeches and pulled out his dick.
The picture before me nearly made me salivate—these three handsome men, all clothed but for their rigid cocks in hand—standing over my naked body.
“How do you want me, masters?”
Markus’s grin widened and he put out a hand, running a finger across my lips. Would sucking on it would be considered ‘penetration’ and against the rules? I had to do something! Parting my lips, I slid my tongue over his skin.
“Mmm,” Markus murmured, his other hand fondling his length. “Very eager.”
I kissed his palm and nodded.
“On all fours?” Charles suggested, leisurely stroking himself.
“Hmm, first, let us get a good look at him. Lean back and spread yourself for us.”
Arousal shot through me like a hammer as I reclined back on the chaise lounge. With slow relish, I drew back my knees, spreading my thighs to display myself.
“Lovely,” Jacob murmured.
Markus groaned. “I already feel ready to explode.”
“We do have all night,” Jacob replied with amusement. “But he was your choice—don’t you want to ‘christen’ him first?”
“I’m feeling generous.”
With a laugh, Jacob stepped up to the chaise. Lifting my hands above my head I arched back, drinking in the sight of the man pumping his cock above me. I could’ve watched him for hours. The heat in his eyes made my cock twitch with delight and my skin tingle as if his gaze was a physical touch. It overcame him as well apparently; Jacob came quickly, gasping and shooting pools of come across my belly. He stood panting in the aftermath and I smiled at the gift dipping down my sides.
“Oh my,” Jacob sighed as I locked on his eyes and spread my hand through the mess, bringing it to my lips. I watched at them all, heavy-lidded, as I licked my fingers clean, and saw my own desire mirrored in their eyes.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us, Stewart?” Markus asked his friend sitting across the room.
In reply, the man only grunted and resumed stroking his fingers through his pet’s hair, still busy mouth-fucking him.
Once I had finished with the offering on my torso, Charles stepped up. “Let’s have you turn onto all fours now, shall we?”
He rubbed his leaking cock against my cheek, and I nuzzled my lips against him. There was absolutely no question that I would return to the Jewel House, because this whole ‘no penetration’ requirement for the first visit was driving me mad. I wanted that cock filling my mouth, forcing me open as semen splashed my throat! The other two men ran knowing hands over my body, their cocks occasionally brushing my skin and making me groan.
My erection was dripping like slow syrup onto the lounger beneath me, and I was torn between begging them to let him come and praying the sweet torture would go on forever. Behind me, Markus rubbed my ass, spreading me open and stroking his thumbs along my portal.
“Such a lovely rosebud you have here,” Markus said with a purr. He paused, and must’ve licked his finger, for when he returned his attentions, the slick saliva tingled over my ass. “I do hope you’ll return. I think we would all agree on how delightful it would be to see our come slipping out your hole after we had each taken turns stretching it wide with our cocks.”
All I could do was shiver and nod, unable to speak even a coherent sentence as that vision danced in my head. Charles moved his wet cockhead across my mouth and it took all my will not to part my lips and swallow him. Instead, I gave him a long, sensuous lick.
“Ahh!” Charles grunted. “That’s not quite playing fair, is it? You’d like me to shove my cock inside your mouth as much as me. But we mustn’t break the rules. We wouldn’t be allowed back! I’ll settle for this.” And he proceeded to slide and smack my cheeks and chin with his rigid length. I murmured approval and moved into him, lifting my face for more. It pleased me to no end to see the way he bit his lip and looked at me with slack-jawed lust, until he finally gave himself over to release.
“Oh yes!” Charles hissed. His body shook with each spasm of jizz. And while he made messy work of pumping himself over my face, I opened wide to catch what I could of his cream.
I was left with my cheeks dripping and I looked up at my ‘masters’ with a grin as I licked my lips.
“We mustn’t waste any, look how he relishes it,” Markus said, step up as Charles took a seat to catch his breath. Using his shaft, Markus wiped up his friend’s come and pushed his cock toward my mouth. “Lick it clean.”
Oh yes. They were exploring so many things I had never been able to do before. ‘Proper’ young gentlemen did nothing of this sort, spoke nothing like this, and were absolutely unable to express their carnal desires so blatantly. I had been raised to know that my only duty in bed would be to please my future wife. All other desires were secondary. This, I thought, as I licked the cock before me clean, had nothing to do with duty. And these men weren’t shy about getting what they wanted or giving me what they knew I desired. Hedonism, to be sure, but it was contained to this place and time, and in this private little world, I was going to lap up every ounce of pleasure to be had.
“You’re not really going to go through with this, are you Sage?” Nicolas asked as the carriage bounced along the road, leading us towards the edge of the main city.
“You doubt me?” I asked with an arched brow.
All he could manage in reply was an eye roll and shake of the head. I had to admit that I wasn’t as sure of this as I was putting on. But I was determined to go through with it—for many reasons.
As the carriage jerked to a stop, I reached for the door handle. “Well, this is where I get off.” I winked at Nicolas’ huff and stepped out.
When Nicolas followed me out, I blinked up at him.
“You’re not considering…?”
“No,” he grumbled, paying the driver and sending him off. “But I’m not going to let you go to the Jewel House on your own.”
“Going with me means you’ll be on your own heading back home after I go in.”
“That’s if I can’t convince you not to do this.”
I huffed as he pushed me ahead of him down the street. “Don’t gawk,” he admonished.
Honestly, as much as I tried, it was damn hard not to. I’d only been to Gaylord Street once before and it had just been to pick something up at a shop. During the day. It was at night that the area really came alive—I knew that, but seeing it was something different.
Vendors, musicians, penny dancers and more all swirled down the crowded street. Even the street gutters looked alive with color. Blinking, I looked up to see that the streetlamps were surrounded by stained glass of red or yellow or orange. What an extravagance in this part of the city! But the colors gave even the rag-tag children and worn-down hustlers a surreal glow.
Nicolas put a hand to my shoulder and steered me away from a circle of people bent over a board and tossing dice. “Gamblers,” he muttered.
It was new for me to see him like this, and here. Nicolas was Benzarian like myself, and unmarried Benzarian men didn’t frequent anywhere outside the family compound, let alone places like Gaylord Street. Or at least that was what we were supposed to do. Even when we’d been young (well, younger), we’d found ways around the strict rules of ours houses. But Nicolas wasn’t familiar with Gaylord because he was a troublemaker or thrill-seeker, it was because his family had put him to work scouring for overlooked antiques in the hawker’s shops along the lanes that bordered Gaylord and the affluent parts of the city. It wasn’t proper and Benzarian Society would’ve shunned the entire family for it—if they’d known.
Nicolas was good at keeping a low profile. And it helped that he had lighter hair than was typical for a Benzarian.
“I think it’s this way,” I said, sighting the Jewel House’s green dome down the street to our right.
“So it is,” Nicolas said sourly.
“Did you think you could get me lost so I’d miss it?” I chuckled. His lack of reply made me laugh all the harder.
“Hope springs eternal,” he muttered, glowering at my heels as I increased my pace.
Once we reached the ostentatious front gates, I took a moment and allowed myself a bit of gawking. It really was a beautiful building, if a bit ostentatious. Tall ivory walls of stone and impressive columns framed the gilded doors and numerous leaf-green cut glass glittered in the dome roof above.
It was quite the sight, but inside would be better. Tearing my eyes away, I veered around and slipped down the side alley.
“You’re bold for never having been here before,” Nicolas said at my back.
“The recruits always gather at the back of the building, or so I was told.”
“What if someone we know sees you?” Nicolas hissed, glancing nervously as we made our way down the alley.
“Then they’d have to admit they were there too then, wouldn’t they?”
“I suppose so…”
“Stop worrying and just decide to join me already!”
“Not on your life!”
The alley opened and I grinned at the crowd gathered by the Jewel House backdoor. “Ah-ha! I was right!”
Nicolas groaned but I moved forward, trying to get a better look at any signs on the building that might give some information. All the while, my heart raced like a giddy schoolboy skipping his lessons. Just sneaking out at night was a huge risk—not only because the entire area could be very dangerous, but also because I could ruin my own and my family’s reputation if word got out. But I’d always enjoyed being naughty, and tonight was going to be the cream on top of the cake!
“I’m glad there’s not that many men here—maybe twenty?—I’ll have a better chance at being chosen.”
Nicolas rolled his eyes. “With your looks you hardly need to worry. What you should be considering is what it will mean to actually get through that door.”
“Lust, excitement, fulfillment,” I rubbed his hands together and grinned, “in short, heaven!”
“You’re crazy!” Nicolas threw back, but mingled with his annoyance I could see amusement too. I could be charming when I wanted to be, and Nicolas always did have a hard time staying angry with me—even if this was the most idiotic idea I’d ever had.
“You’re putting yourself up for sale, you know,” he said, biting the inside of his cheek. It was a nervous gesture for him and I frowned.
“You’re totally missing the point!”
I ran his hands through my loose, dark locks, hoping they were behaving. I had to look my best. “That it’s a <i>pleasure</i> house. Everyone gets what they want.”
“Elite snobs pay you to do whatever they want with your body, that’s what happens.”
“You know that’s not true. Those on offer get to decide exactly what they’re up for. They put the limits on everything. That’s the way it’s always worked.”
“How do you know so much?”
At his wary look, I told him, “Because Anthony came last week and was chosen.”
“He did not!” The shock on Nicolas’s face was priceless.
“He did indeed. Why do you think he was buying rounds for everyone this past week?”
Nicolas started to argue, but the back door opened and the crowd pressed forward. It looked as if several others had joined since we’d been standing there.
“I’ve got to get to the front,” I muttered. A tall, stately man with a clipboard and no hair on his shiny head stepped out, motioning the press of men back.
“Newcomers on my left, returns on my right please!” he called.
The crowd shifted and we nudged our way closer—Nicolas muttering his disapproval all the while.
It was all I could do to keep from flailing my arms out and yelling ‘Pick me! Pick me!’, but somehow I managed to stand still as I edged near the front of the pack.
The tonsured man with the clipboard was taking his time. He nodded to several men in the group to his right, and then took more time to look over to us new recruits.
“You,” he said, pointing to a raven-haired perky and pretty young man. “And you.” Another young man with a slim build.
I held back a frown. If they were looking for the delicate type tonight, I’d be out of luck. Not that I was huge, but I had lean muscle and more masculine features.
Come on! I pleaded silently, following the man’s eyes as he looked us over. He paused, then continued looking; paused, moved on.
Then his eyes brushed passed me. And stopped.
“Me?” I hardly dared breathe.
“Yes, don’t make me say it twice!”
“Yes, sir!” Beaming, I turned to wave back as I stepped forward.
“You’ll tell me everything tomorrow!” I heard Nicolas call just before I stepped through the door. It shut behind me with finality.
I was inside. I’d done it!
And oh, I was going to soak in every detail, because—knowing Nicolas—he’d turn bright red when I related it all. It was going to be delightful. Not as much as tonight, however. My mind spun with possibilities.
“Newcomers, this way!” the bald man said. He motioned us into a door on the left side of the hallway, took our names, and briskly told us to wait there.
Sitting in a polished wood chair, I looked around the room. The walls were a simple, whitewashed brick and the floor bare grey cement, but as this was the back of operation, it wouldn’t make sense to be lavish.
It was difficult to stay still, but I kept myself from fidgeting. There was still a chance I might be rejected if I was too nervous or jittery—or so Anthony had told me. There was another door opposite the one from the hall and after a few minutes an older man in a white smock called one of our names. Of course, I was called last. The other men didn’t return after they went through the door, so I had no chance to ask what they were doing. Anthony hadn’t gone into that many details of what was involved beforehand. Finally, my name was called and I made my way into the other room, which turned out to be a small medical room.
“Undress,” said the man in the white smock. A doctor, I presumed.
The older man looked up at me through his spectacles. “I have to examine you. Undress.”
With a frown, I pulled my clothing off. The staff so far was rather abrupt. Then again, they did this every night.
The room felt chilly without clothes and I grimaced as my cock shrank back against the cold. I’d had dreams of being erect and impressive upon any appraisal.
Some heat returned as the exam began, though. Certainly my cheeks burned as the doctor squatted before me and began examining my genitals for… defects, I supposed. Swabs were put in places they should never go, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the doctor finally pronounced us finished.
“You won’t need those,” he said as I reached for my clothes. “Put them in the box under the exam table. They’ll be returned to you afterward.”
“Oh.” Modesty was a bit silly considering the situation, but I admit it didn’t help my confidence any as I was ushered naked into yet another new room. This one was larger, had soft lighting and salmon colored curtains covering one wall and boxes and clothing racks strewn about. It appeared to be some sort of large wardrobe. Two men stepped in from around the curtain and smiled.
“Woo, now what do we have here?” cooed a broad, heavy-set man in some sort of silk robe. “I’m Fredrick, and this is my assistant, Pinky,” he said, gesturing to the short and very slender young man at his side.
The assistant handed me a clipboard and ink stylus.
“Fill out the forms,” said Fredrick. “We’ll try to figure out the best way to present you while you finish and we get confirmation that your results cleared.”
“Medical results, sweetie.”
Ah, of course. I gave a nod. It was all very pragmatic, but I couldn’t help feeling odd as I stood there, nude, scribbling my sexual preferences while Fredrick and Pinky looked (and touched) me up and down for…whatever reason.
“Yes, I think I have just the thing for you,” Fredrick said finally. He rummaged through a row of stacked boxes, then disappeared back around the curtain. I focused again on the paperwork and ignored Pinky. Anthony had warned me about the papers at least. I had to decide what I preferred to do or be done to me—and the list was…thorough.
As a first-timer, penetration—giving or receiving—wasn’t an option. But there were certainly many others. Did I want to limit my partners to one, or allow more? ‘Performance’ only or contact permitted? Bring others to completion preferred, or be brought to orgasm? Both?
My arousal stirred as I considered all the delicious possibilities.
“All cleared!” Fredrick announced as he reappeared, a pile of shimmery cloths draped over his arms. “Now we can dress you. Are you done with that yet?”
With a nod, I handed the clipboard to Pinky, who gave me a grin as he looked it over. “Adventurous for a newcomer, hmm?”
“Concentrate, Pinky! We have to make him look his best! This is his first impression on the House!”
I stood patiently (I hoped) as I was fussed over and prodded like a prize stallion going to auction. Several fragile garments were attempted and then discarded when they proved too small. I tried not to frown. I didn’t have a broad frame, but my muscles were honed from years of riding and helping to break in my father’s horses. Thinking of the horses made me smirk. Did any of the stallions we sold ever feel as I did now? In both cases, we were being primed for rutting. I chuckled.
The other men took no notice, too busy trying out this and that look.
“Yes, the gold I think. It brings out his hair and his deeper skin tones.” I stifled a sigh and let them work without comment.
After what felt like hours, but must’ve been minutes, Fredrick and his assistant stepped back to evaluate their efforts.
“Turn around, would you?” Fredrick asked.
Madding a circle, I paused when I caught myself in a nearby mirror. A tight gold-mesh top came up to my throat, down to my navel, and stopped at my elbows. A gold chain hung about my hips. And nothing else.
How could it take them so long to decide on my clothing when I was wearing so little?
“And the finishing touch,” Fredrick said when I faced them again, “a sapphire, wouldn’t you say?”
Pinky nodded, and I waited for them to reveal bracelets or necklaces or other such finery. Instead, Fredrick produced a teardrop sapphire hanging on a short length of gold ribbon. My brow wrinkled as Fredrick nodded to his assistant—who promptly dropped to his knees before me.
“Wha—” was all I could get out before the young man took my cock in hand and began suckling it. “Gah—!”
“We said we have to have you looking your best, didn’t we?” Fredrick purred. “How neglectful would we be if your most important asset wasn’t presented in its full glory?”
And Pinky knew exactly how to bring a man to full mast within minutes—fingers caressed my sack and his skilled mouth nursed my cockhead. And just when I thought I might come and spoil the entire evening, Pinky pulled back. He plucked ribbon from his pocket and within seconds had it fastened snuggly about the base of my erection. The gold ribbon with the jewel was then deftly wound about my cockhead, so that the sapphire hung like a crystalized drop of precum beneath.
“There! Prefect!” Fredrick said happily, pulling Pinky up and granting him a kiss on the cheek. He grinned at me. “You’re ready to be presented!”
Fredrick led me out into the hallway and we passed into a new section of the House. The brick walls gave way to wood paneling and velvet wallpaper until the hall opened into what appeared to be a large sitting room.
“You’ll wait here until you’re all called to the stage,” Fredrick told him. Then he leaned up to kiss my cheek as well. “Have fun and come visit us again handsome!”
With a wink and a flutter of silk, he was gone.