|The Taming of the Snake
Author: Guede Mazaka
The noble Leonato, living as he did in the bosom of the kingdom, had formerly required no thick-walled many-chambered prisons for his lands lacked the evil spirit which would necessitate such things. Now, however, the few cells he had were crammed with two of the Prince’s own guard, and never mind that they had been his brother’s men. They had worn the uniform of Aragon and had sworn oaths to Pedro, and so their wrongs laid as much on his name as they did on that of his brother’s.
And even if Leonato had had the space for him, John would not have been relegated to the dungeon. Those walls would not have held him, no matter how thick or how high. They could not have contained his strange rages and spiteful melancholy; he would have burnt through and razed the countryside. Even now Pedro found himself slipping away from the joy and light of the celebrations to the chamber in which they’d confined John, fearful that the man had fled again.
John was under close guard, kept in a room in which there was only one door to the outside and windows too narrow for a man to pass through, a lingering reminder that once upon a time this land had been bitter and bloodied. Though as Pedro stepped into the room, he found that he did not need such a reminder.
He had a gift for men, he had been told before. He could lead them, find easy company with them and lasting loyalty, commiserate with them and lighten their burdens, and yet when it came to his own flesh and blood, he was at a loss. Do what he could to be not his father, he still saw no sign of forgiveness or yea, even understanding in John’s face.
“You absent yourself from the revelry,” John abruptly said. He stood by the window, profile limned by the narrow slant of moonlight that could pass through the slit.
And Pedro would have had it differently, if only because John was a fierce soldier and a fine-looking man, who could have been such a credit to the house of Aragon. Indeed, he had done many a glorious feat in the name of their house, and yet none of it ever seemed to bring him any pleasure. His face was ever dark, shoulders ever in a sullen set.
“I do. I come to see how goes it with you, looking upon the happy wreckage of your villainy.” Pedro was never easy when in the company of this man--man, for they had never known each other as boys, never seen the softness of youth smoothing over their flaws and lightening their countenances in spite of their moods.
“It goes as well as it might.” John leaned his head against the wall, eyes so narrow their malevolent glitter was nearly hidden. He still wore his travel-soiled clothes, his beard matted with dust and his cheeks streaked with sweat. “For every joy in the world there must be a sorrow, and so you need not concern yourself with me now. You do dishonor to your guests, coming here. They might begin to think you prefer the company of a proclaimed villain to their honorable selves.”
The guards in the hall shifted, and even Pedro found his hand stealing to his sword, but he sought out restraint. He raised a hand and the guards uncertainly retreated. “I wish private speech with him,” he told them, and firmly shut the door in their faces.
“Well.” Some sign of fire stole into the ice of John’s face, and he pushed himself away from the wall to offer a sardonic greeting to Pedro’s slow approach. His lips curved upward, but it was no smile that came to his face. “I am indeed honored above all, brother.”
“And I am disgraced, well though events have turned out in spite of your machinations,” Pedro said softly. He too could edge his voice in steel and velvet, if he pleased. He had brought patience and compassion to the table only to have them flung into his face, and so he would not waste no more of them. “Do you offer any pardon, any reason for your actions?”
John’s eyes ran slowly, contemptuously up and down Pedro. “It would seem that I am in no position to speak of pardons. That I leave to your expansive nature.”
The sword hanging heavy at Pedro’s side called to him, and loudly for they were not long from the battlefield, but he pushed aside its sweet words. That would not lead to understanding, and though he was done with tolerance, yet he would still know the meaning, if there was any.
The light threw John in shadow so Pedro stepped nearer. His sword swung around to tap at his heel like a pleading dog, and he put a hand down to steady it as he sought out the truth in John’s face. His brother, however, saw the gesture in a different light, as he always seemed to. He put up his hands, then pulled aside his shirt to bare his chest. “And has the prince finally reached the end of his generosity? Well enough if that is so, brother. If I had been you, I would have long since ended this.”
“If you had been me, would that have been enough to temper your poison and satisfy your hunger? Or would you have found some other discontent to rile you yet?” Now they stood both in shadow, and still Pedro could not make sense of anything he saw in John. There was fine breeding, and good spirit and strength, but alongside lay a restless, seething nature that would not bear any curbs. His sword nudged again at him and he pushed it down with his hand. “I have given you honors as befits—”
“You have given me what honors you think are fit for me!” The violent passion that lay always coiled within John exploded outward, setting first his eyes aflame and then his hand, which darted like a viper for Pedro.
Not for the sword, for Pedro found no impediment in stepping back and drawing it forth so it barred John by the throat. He found himself infected by the same rage, for he had slammed back the other man before he regained control of himself, letting steel nip at flesh and flesh bruise bone. The point of John’s shoulder ground beneath his palm, unforgiving and unyielding even now.
“Sire?” called one guard.
“We are fine. Do not interrupt,” Pedro called back. His voice was steady but his eyes were not, shaking as they were to meet the unwavering ferocity of John’s gaze.
“Oh, no. For this is between us, as it always was,” John softly said. The words licked gently out of his mouth, belying the viciousness they contained. He shifted, and a moment later Pedro understand that the man had merely been testing.
But by then Pedro had already striven and failed, as always when it came to John. He had pushed John back and pinned him by shoulder and knee and throat, their bodies pressed so close that Pedro could not distinguish between pounding of blood in his ear and the beating of the heart against the arm that he had crossed over John’s chest. “Then why do you never let it lie between us?” he demanded. “Why must you always strike at my friends?”
“Why not? Why not, Prince?” John hissed back, pushing hard so beads of ruby began to jewel Pedro’s blade. He seemed not to notice the hurt, if indeed it did not spur him on. “For prince you are, and princes are as much if not more their friends and country. It may be between us, but so are all those who call themselves your subjects and friends.”
“I would—” Pedro pushed forward as his words pushed themselves out of the deepest parts of him, the black blood that seeded in him even as it flourished in his brother, and he would have told John with his sword how he considered that opinion if not for a different blade pressing sharper against him. His breath failed him, and so seemed it did for John as well, for they merely stared at each other over the sharp, sharp edge between them.
Then white flashed harshly as John smiled, baring his teeth in a way not unlike that of a mad dog’s. The whites of his eyes were less good-humored, rolling upwards in something like the last cry of dying desperation, but they were as far outshone by the bitterness in John’s smile as the moon was by the sun.
“You would have mastered me with kindness?” His voice arched in provocation towards Pedro even as his chin lifted in it, taunting the length of his throat. “What does it say to you, brother, with your reputation for benevolence, that you must master me at all?”
Pedro’s hand trembled on the blade, and the droplets pricking out of John’s pale flesh nearly became a rivulet. But at last he recollected himself into a withdrawal, pulling roughly away from the other man. John laughed and offered no protest, but instead let his body fall slowly down the line of the wall. The slackness in his limbs and the ring of his voice bespoke rage so old that it had distilled into purest acid, but Pedro was in no mood to see where the aim of it truly laid.
“You are a running sore, and if you were let free you would poison the whole world till it turned a blackened face to the sky,” he said. His throat clutched as hard as the tumult in his chest wished to loosen his emotions.
“I am what I am, and may you make of that what you will, prince brother.” From his seat on the floor, John essayed a mocking bow.
A convulsion sent Pedro’s sword forward, but he recalled it. Then he jammed it back into its sheath and spun sharply on his heel to go. Another laugh echoed bitterly about him, but he cared not to look upon its source, lest he fall victim to it like the Greeks to Medusa.
* * *
“My new father Leonato would have the most stringent punishments applied,” Benedick said. “I have not had the time yet to devise something—”
“Yes, that I can see plainly from your dress and manner.” A sleepless night, spent even among such joyous company, had not restored Pedro’s sense of peace, but he was able to take some comfort in friendship. He smiled as his flustered comrade pulled at wrinkled uniform and disarrayed hair.
Vain as he was, Benedick evidently had succumbed further to love’s glossing eye for he abandoned his efforts after a few moments, a satisfied grin on his face. “Aye, well, my lady Beatrice’s demanding nature has not been softened much by marital bliss.”
“May she continue in such a manner,” Pedro laughed. He slid away from Benedick’s half-hearted blow and lifted his saddle off his horse. The beast stood patiently now, for as high-spirited a stallion as it was, the long ride he had taken it for earlier had worn out all the fight in it.
He set the saddle on a rail and regarded the animal as a stable-hand led it off to be walked down. Though he wished all could be as light and merry as Benedick and Beatrice’s verbal jousts, he knew better than to ignore the somber matters that called for his attention. As John had said, he was Prince.
“He killed no man, nor directly injured them,” Pedro finally said. His words and lowered tone confused Benedick momentarily and Pedro began to explain, but the storm crept into Benedick’s eyes and there was no need. “This can be said to be true. His words wounded deeply, yes, and induced violence and near-death, but if I were to hold one man’s words solely responsible for another’s actions, as if we were not all with our own minds and wills…”
“I can see the thrust of your argument, but begging your pardon, my prince: it lacks sweep.” Benedick leaned against a post, his reluctance to consider the issue clear as an untouched spring. “Your compassion is well-regarded, yet you cannot pardon him too lightly.”
Pedro twisted his riding-crop in his hands, feeling it bite even through the thick leather of his gloves. His eyes tracked aimlessly over the verdant surroundings to rest finally to the west where a pale gray menace of clouds lurked. “And I cannot punish him too…it would do little good, even if it would not anger my father into the bargain. He still finds some favor in John.”
“I shall think on the matter. Rest assured, I will hit upon a solution,” Benedick said in a firm voice.
And he was sincere, but in these few happy days afforded them, he should not have to trouble himself. Nor would he truly understand what had to be done, as Pedro now feared he did. “No. No, friend, I will see to this matter myself. It is one of royal blood, and so you need not take its burden on yourself. Have them bring John to me here, and go tell your father and wife that the matter has been seen to.”
Benedick protested for some length longer, but at last acquiesced and went off to carry out his orders. Meanwhile Pedro paced the length and breadth of the stable, questioning again and again his intentions. He wished to do right. He wanted to see an end. He was afraid that he would find that end coming too easily to him for his peace of mind.
“Sir!” The guards had stopped at the doors, John between them. He had washed and changed sometime during the night, but otherwise done little to repair his appearance.
He betrayed no surprise, but looked upon Pedro with the same slighting, knowing countenance that he always wore. No sign of what had passed between them last night had marked his face or body, aside from a thin scabbed cut across his throat.
“Escort him into that stall—” Pedro indicated a large, empty box stall far away from the rest of the horses “—and then withdraw a hundred yards. If anyone approaches, politely apologize but inform them that I require the privacy of this area for a few hours.”
They were good men, and well-trained. They did as he commanded with little more than a few puzzled looks, and soon he and John were facing each other in the stall. John’s eyes were fixed on Pedro’s sword; he betrayed some surprise when Pedro unbuckled it and slung it on a hook on the wall.
“Is it to be some less violent manner, then?” John said. He leaned against the wall, hands loose at his sides, with the air of a man who expected nothing but the worst. It did not seem to trouble him much. “It would cast even more of a shadow on this household to have a murder on its grounds so soon after the confusion over its chief lady’s virtue.”
“It would,” Pedro agreed, walking across the stall. He stopped just short of John, still working the riding crop between his fingers. He felt faintly ill for a moment, but then the darker reserves that saw him through battle—both on the field and at court—rose to succor him. Then he felt fear, but he was committed now and he could not withdraw. He did pray, briefly, before raising his crop to trace the cut he’d left on John’s throat.
John’s eyes flickered with uncertainty, a rare sight in him. His hands lifted slightly, but froze when Pedro pressed the stiff leather tip hard against the gorge of his throat. “What game is this, brother?”
“I neglected to ask a question last night: would you have me master you so? Brother?” Pedro took a last step so they were less than breath apart. He slid the riding crop up so it nudged against the underside of John’s chin, already raised high in unbending pride. He marked the sudden widening and narrowing of John’s eyes, and before they could lead to stinging words, he stung first.
The riding crop scraped over the side of John’s jaw as Pedro pushed that hand forward to encircle John’s throat. He did not pull once he had taken hold, but instead pushed himself so he forced the other man back into the wall. His mouth came down squarely, startling him with its precision, on John’s surprise-parted lips and he did not give the other man chance to recover, but instead pressed his advantage till he had gained entry to the heat inside. His tongue stabbed inwards with as little mercy as John’s words had ever showed.
For a moment John was still with shock, hands limply grazing Pedro’s elbows. Then he was fury incarnate, twisting hard to free himself and then throwing himself to the side. He miscalculated and retreated farther into the stall instead of closing the distance to the door; the knowledge flashed in his eyes as he whirled to face Pedro. His teeth were bared as ferally as they had been last night, and his body sank into the crouch of the beast brought to bay. “Have my fangs finally sank into your soul? Where is the great and wise and good Don Pedro now?”
“Here as you see him, determined to lance your poison before it infects any deeper, whether that victim be you or me or anyone else,” Pedro answered. He braced himself and watched the injury his words did to John’s pride.
John threw up his head, eyes burning. He swayed from side to side, then lunged for the space to Pedro’s right. His efforts nearly succeeded, but for an inch. And with that inch, Pedro’s fingers hooked about John’s waist and he bore the other man back against the wall, rattling the wooden boards so much that some horse whinnied protest against the disturbance. He heard little of it, for his ears were filled with the harsh breathing and angry grunts of their struggling.
His mouth found John’s again, and this time the other man reacted by biting deep enough into Pedro’s lip to draw blood. Pedro shook his head, hot rage raised in him now, to throw off John and then smashed their mouths together again so John could not but give. A blow took him in the side and he returned it in John’s gut so the other man gasped, yielded further and then though his body was fighting, John’s mouth was acceding.
Only momentarily. He drew back the next instant, mouth smeared red and eyes wild, to gaze on Pedro with something like fear. But the corners of his lips drew back in pure scorn. “I will not be pitied.”
“I will not be crossed,” Pedro hissed back. He wrapped his fingers around John’s belt and pulled it loose, ripping it past John’s attempt to seize it back. His leg pushed in to pin John by the swell in his trousers and John gasped, arched back and then forward in an attempt to knock back Pedro.
Their heads collided and Pedro was dizzy for a moment, but less so than John appeared to be. He regained himself more quickly of the two of them, and used that advantage to spin John around by the arm. His riding crop tangled in the belt and he tossed it aside with an oath so violent that it briefly shocked him to his senses.
“This is what you’ve come to? Then I can take pleasure in knowing that it was I who drove you to it,” John said. His laughter was unbridled but impure as well, tainted with hysteria.
Pedro threw him against the wall again and he ceased giving voice to his humor with a pain-twisted hiss. He twisted and writhed as Pedro wrestled his wrists together with the belt, though once when Pedro gave in and ran his tongue up the strained curve of John’s throat, John briefly calmed.
“If this is what I must to do ensure peace in our house, then I will do it. That is the responsibility of my position.” The words were true, but nevertheless sounded wrongly to Pedro’s ears. The ragged laugh John let out in response found an agreeing echo in Pedro.
He released John once he was certain the knots would hold. The other man turned heavily onto his side, then slid down the wall in what his eyes said was a deliberate recollection of their last meeting. He landed on his knees, face flushed and eyes sparking. Their struggles had ripped open the front of his jacket and shirt to bare him to the waist, and his clothes were now as dirty as they had been the day before. His hair stringed itself with pearls of sweat where it did not stick to his face, and the delicate beads even fringed his eyelashes, lending him a fragility that broke against the fierce look he turned up towards Pedro.
“Would you have me bow to you thus?” he asked.
“Would you?” The air in the stall had turned hot and thick, choking Pedro as he waited for an answer. His toe turned up the riding crop and he absently picked it up to twist the ends, as if to mimic the strangulation. He tore at his open collar, then spun in place and walked towards the door in an effort to seek out fresher currents.
But there were none, and so he turned back to where John knelt, walking behind him. A moment before Pedro kicked him forward, John’s head dipped.
Straw softened the fall, but the jerky movements of John’s shoulders still bespoke pain. Pedro ran his hand beneath John’s face, then pulled it quickly back at the first touch of teeth. He could not be sure whose blood dotted his stinging fingertips.
He breathed deeply, but found no slaking of his thirst in that. He raised his hands to John’s hips and John’s hands wrenched at his bonds, raking up the hem of his jacket so he bared his back even as Pedro bared his buttocks. He shivered at a finger drawn over their elegant curves, then bucked hard, snarling as Pedro repeated the gesture with the riding crop.
“Can’t you bear to touch your own kin? Or are you afraid of what might pass from me to you?” John rasped.
“I cannot be afraid of what has already happened.” Pedro watched the black of his glove against the white of John’s skin. He took dark pleasure in the contrast of it, and in the feeling of John shaking against his palm, and even in the jagged cry his blow cut out of John.
Red bloomed quickly across John’s flesh, drawing the riding crop to it. The first strike had jerked up John’s head and the second put it down again. He abruptly twisted forward, as if seeking escape, and Pedro had to pull him back by the thigh. Then he was kicking so his boot-heels caught Pedro’s shin, not stopping no matter what Pedro did.
In the end, Pedro laid John across his knee so John could strike out at nothing but air. It enraged John, railing as he always did against being accommodated without being satisfied, but he could not prevent Pedro from digging fingers into the dip of his waist to hold him still and raising the crop again and again. He cursed each blow, hips jerking as his head fell and head rising as his hips dropped so his words were broken links.
The scarlet flush soon suffused the whole span of John’s buttocks and was spreading down the backs of his thighs when Pedro began to notice the change in John’s cries, in his movement. He struggled less and less, his twists and turns growing sluggish. His breath was too ragged for speech now, and he seemed to cringe at each blow instead of fighting it. Once Pedro turned the riding crop in his fingers to bring a light stroking of knuckles down on John’s skin instead, and John let out a sobbing sound. But when Pedro cupped his hand around John’s jaw to turn the man’s head for a look, teeth savaged his fingers.
He shook them off and resumed delivering blows till his arm ached and till John was finally still, save for the occasional shaking breath. Then Pedro lifted the other man off of him, every muscle feeling as if it had taken those blows, and moved to the side. He began to stand, but could force himself only to one knee before he had to stop, breathing hard and deep and fast.
Eventually John collected enough of himself to turn his head and speak. His glare was a pale ghost of what it had been formerly, marked with dampness at the corners, and his voice shook. “What ails you, brother? Has it proven too much for your constitution?”
Pedro intended to look only at John’s face, but his eyes strayed to the red, swollen, tender work he had wrought and his gaze was forced to drop. He stripped off a glove so roughly that his skin burned. “What ails you? I would have—”
“You would have the sun always shine and the fields heavy every fall with grain and the people always happy,” John said, and his tone was oddly lacking in passion. Bitterness still infused it, but its companion was resignation. “We were but late from war. Do not pretend that I am singular in my kind of blood.”
“Then do not pretend that you are alone in it either,” Pedro replied softly. As he stretched out his hand, he could see the old walls rebuilding themselves in John’s eyes, but his touch on the prick hanging heavy between John’s legs sent them tumbling down. He moved around, drawing John back to him, and John struggled again but with a different kind of urgency.
The man was sobbing again, feebly twisting at Pedro’s grip, but his body moved with Pedro’s hands and he was no longer fighting Pedro. But John always needed to fight someone, it seemed, and they were the sole occupants of the stall.
He but hissed when Pedro splattered oil over his much-abused buttocks, but he cried out with all the force of a storm when Pedro breached him with a finger. His body clenched and tried to spit it out again; Pedro ran a palm over John’s back and John quieted under it before catching himself, struggling even more fiercely. Pedro pinned him down and changed fingers so it was the gloved one that worked John open, and it was that that finally lulled John into temporary acquiescence.
When Pedro’s bare flesh touched him again, he startled nearly out of Pedro’s hold, throwing his head back and forth in negation. “Did you speak of my fears or your own?” Pedro muttered.
He received no answer, and he could not press the question for he had his hands full with persuading John to let their bodies join, to not bash himself so hard against the stable floor as if he needed to compensate for something else. And slowly, very slowly, John exhausted himself so his body could follow its urge to rock back into Pedro’s, so the moans he had been suffocating could burst into the open where they could breathe. He whined at the slide of Pedro’s fingers over his prick and turned his head to press against Pedro’s face, eyes closed tight. They never opened until the very end, so Pedro kept watch for the both of them.
John stiffened as he spilled out onto the straw, his rolling eyes making the eyelids shut tightly over them quiver. He gasped hard and then harder, then twisted his hips so he wrenched Pedro after him, never content to let things come to a natural conclusion. But Pedro found he could hold little of that against John here.
They subsided in stages, with Pedro’s weight first throwing them sideways, and then consideration forcing Pedro’s tired muscles to drag himself free of John’s slumped form. He rolled over onto the back and stared at the dust motes dancing in the sun. His hand strayed back till it grazed the knots binding John, and lingered till the belt fell loose around his fingers.
He turned his head, but all that greeted him was John’s back, clothing fallen away from one shoulder and bunched up elsewhere so a wide strip of pale skin framed the angry red welts on his buttocks. “I will not call the guards yet,” Pedro said slowly, little of his breath caught. “You may take a horse and slip past them if you please.”
As slowly as Pedro had spoken, John turned over to face him. His eyes were opaque to Pedro as always, but they searched Pedro’s face so for once John was not the one who knew all. “Why?”
“Because I will not have you taking your quarrel with me up with others. Either you go or you stay, and learn my way as I would yours.” Pedro dragged up his hand to lightly rest the fingers on John’s cheek.
The other man made to throw them off, then resettled himself. He tensed as they curved around his jaw, and even more when Pedro closed the space between them, but he failed to bite away the kiss. When Pedro pulled away, he saw that John’s eyes were closed, but they opened swiftly to pin Pedro.
“What I say now will not last,” John told him, rough with something almost like apology. “I dislike taking mind of any man’s words, and throw them away as soon as I might. I am jealous and I will not look kindly on anyone that takes away from me. I have no peace, nor offer any. That is my nature.”
“As I am reminded, so I will remind. If you will listen, though you forget afterward.” Pedro pushed his fingers farther to curl them around the back of John’s neck. He stroked the skin there to see the drops of sweat on John’s lashes tremble.
John stared at him, then glanced past to the door. He shivered once, twice, and wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold. Pedro dropped his arm to John’s waist and pulled him forward to warm him, and he came unresisting.
“I will bite later,” John whispered against Pedro’s throat.
“I will remember the warning,” Pedro replied, running his fingers through John’s hair. He appreciated it as well, for it was the first he had ever heard from John, and that alone told him enough.