Excerpt from "Shortest Night"
Hugh banged his tankard on the plank table. “A toast! To the newest Lord Chamberlain’s man, Ben Hastings! Long may he tread the boards!” The dozen or so members of the Company present cheered and drank deep.
Ben just blushed. He knew that the opening had gone well. He’d mastered his revulsion and done a credible job as the benighted Titania. He remembered the thrill of the applause, the shouts and the whistles, as he curtseyed, hand in hand with Oberon. He could still feel Hugh’s fingers entwined with his own; the vivid recollection made him a bit breathless and queasy. He wasn’t used to this much excitement.
“Speech, speech!” Hugh called. “Give us more of your dulcet tones! Wench! Another round of ale, and be quick about it.” The slender blonde serving girl pushed a few wayward curls back under her cap and headed for the hogsheads.
Ben stood, a bit unsteady on his feet. He’d lost track of how long they’d been here, how much ale he’d consumed. He folded one hand over the other, as if he was back in grammar school, and tried to decide what to say.
Hugh caught his eye. Unlike Ben, the dashing leading man seemed none the worse for drink. His dark eyes sparkled. Black curls tumbled over his forehead, a dramatic contrast to his pale Irish complexion. In the sweltering tavern, he’d opened his doublet almost to the waist. Ben noticed matching jet ringlets on his chest, matted with sweat. The actor was smiling encouragement, but the puckered scar at the left corner of his mouth gave all Hugh’s smiles a slight sardonic cast. Still, Ben read kindness in Hugh’s face, and something else, an eagerness that Ben didn’t fully understand.
“I thank you for your congratulations, gentlemen, and also for your forbearance in overlooking my many mistakes over the last weeks. I hope that I can continue to do the Company proud.”
The barmaid returned with a loaded tray. Someone stuck a full pot into his hand. “Drink up, boy! Build your strength for tomorrow’s performance.”
Ben took a sip of the viscous, bitter liquid. He swayed back and forth, seeking his balance as he tried to continue. “I especially want to thank—hic—Master Hugh, who’s given so much of his time to showing me the ropes…”
“Nonsense, boy. I’ve enjoyed it.” Hugh stood beside him, an arm around Ben’s shoulder. Ben leaned against him, grateful for the enhanced stability. “I’m looking forward to working with you more closely.”
Ben lurched forward, spilling some of his ale on the earthen floor. “Umm–I—you…”
Hugh pried Ben’s fingers from the tankard and set it on the table. “I think that you’ve had enough for tonight, Ben.” He signalled to the tavern maid. “Girl! Have you a room where my friend can lie down?”
Ben was conscious enough to note the odd expression on the wench’s face. Sympathy for him, he thought, but a steely resentment aimed at the man supporting him. Can’t you see, he wanted to protest, that he’s my truest friend here? Lips pressed together into a thin line, she gestured impatiently to Hugh.
“Upstairs. No one’s using the front room tonight. It’s four pence, in advance.” Hugh dropped a few coins into her palm. She turned and led the way through a dingy corridor to the narrow stairway. “Turn right at the landing. I don’t suppose that you’ll be wanting a fire, with the night so warm.”
“No, we’ll be fine, child.” Hugh beamed at her. Ben could see that he was trying to win her over with charm. “But do send up two gills of your best sack, will you?”
“Very well, sir. I’ll be up in a moment.”
Ben heard Harold Warwick’s gruff voice , and then the roar of laughter coming from the taproom. For a moment, he wished that he were back with the remainder of the company. Hugh held him tight around the waist, but somehow he didn’t feel stable or safe. A hand slipped down the back of his hose, a callused palm brushing over his bare buttocks. He stumbled on the uneven treads.
“There now, Ben. Just relax. Lean on me. I’ll get you upstairs, where we can be all nice and cosy and private.” The hand stroked his naked flesh, sending prickles of electricity up his spine, shocking but oddly pleasant. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll take good care of you.”
The climb seemed endless. Ben lapsed into a dreamy sort of half-consciousness. As they reached the top, though, he suddenly felt the eyes of the serving girl upon them, watching the hand’s progress under his clothes. He realised that his prick was getting harder by the second, from the hand or perhaps from her eyes. He wasn’t sure which. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, though, Ben could scarcely walk—quite aside from his state of intoxication.
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