February 14, 1840
The British Museum was fairly quiet that afternoon. Outside its windows, snow-threatening clouds provided the backdrop for the bustle and flow of London life. Daniel looked out at the dreary day, looked down at his dreary work, and sighed. He had been happy to resume working last November, but by now the steady routine had lost its appeal. He hated research. He hated the smell of old paper and fresh ink as he meticulously cataloged new additions. More than anything, he hated to be stuck in a room pouring over artifacts that had been unearthed by other men.
A sudden commotion caused his coworkers to leave the Natural History archive. He followed after them, grateful for a relief from the mundane task of cataloging a butterfly collection that had been willed to the museum. A large group had gathered in the hall as crates and boxes were hauled into the museum. Daniel's heart sank as he recognized the group of explorers in the center of the crowd.
"Hello, Daniel!" the leader of the expedition greeted him warmly. "So, we're finally both back in the Queen's blessed country, eh?"
The man shook Daniel's hand energetically. He was a tall, svelte fellow, with a great brow and fine, firm, intelligent features. His skin was deeply tanned, and he had yet to cut his wavy blond hair. Powerful, tanned, and golden-maned, he looked more of a lion than a man. Charles Ledford, Daniel thought. I haven't seen him since I left for Africa. He was planning an expedition to the Near East, if I recall. I suppose he must have gone and had as much success as I had failure.
"Welcome back," Daniel said politely. "It went well, then?"
"Splendidly, Daniel, splendidly," Charles said. "We were able to recover an unprecedented amount of hieroglyphs that will no doubt change our understanding of the history of the region."
There was no bragging in his tone, only satisfaction. Nonetheless, Daniel bristled inwardly. He wanted to return to work, but he had no choice but to listen to Charles' description of strange cuneiform writings below outlandish bas reliefs hewed in stone more ancient than Chaldea. Daniel's jealousy grew as he listened, his mind painting a vivid picture of the expedition.
"It sounds like it was an exciting adventure," he said wistfully. "Was there no trouble at all then?"
"Well, we had to work like slaves in one area, because the natives would not go near it, but on the whole it went well," Charles said. "Very curious finds, too. Now how about you? How went it in Algeria?"
Daniel told him the story of Professor Herbert's doomed expedition as they followed the workers hauling crates. They came to the room where the artifacts were being unpacked. Charles ran his hand over some of the stone tablets as he listened to Daniel, sobered by the tragedy.
"You've had a hard time of it, haven't you?" Charles said sympathetically. "I dare say that you had great fortune to survive, however. It is a shame about Professor Herbert."
"Yes," Daniel agreed politely. In truth, he did not think it such a great loss.
"He used to speak—of you." Charles apparently could not bring himself to lie. He cleared his throat awkwardly and clapped Daniel on the shoulder. "You look well recovered, though. Perhaps you might wish to join my next expedition?"
"Are you planning another one so soon?"
"Oh, not for at least half a year, but I'm devilish eager to go back there," Charles said. "Some of the more occult-minded fellows on the team think that we may find Irem, the City of Pillars. Some of the artifacts are so strange that I am of a mind to agree!"
"My traveling days may be over," Daniel lamented. "I don't have much taste for it after … everything."
"Come now, you're far too young to be discouraged by a bout of fever," Charles said. "Think on it. I would be happy to have you on my team."
"Why, yes, of course," Charles said kindly. "From what I've seen, you're a hard worker, and you have a real passion for it. I, for one, do not mind your inquisitiveness."
Does that mean Herbert did? Daniel wondered, blushing in humiliation. Did he complain about it to Charles?
"Besides, out of the whole party, you survived," Charles said. "You seem to be quite lucky. One can always use a bit of luck on the team."
If he only knew just what kind of luck I really have, Daniel thought wryly. He told Charles that he would consider his offer, and attempted to excuse himself to return to work. Charles would not have it. He put an arm around Daniel's shoulders and took him on a tour of the artifacts being unpacked. The air smelled of sand and stone, and something else.
"What is that odor?" Daniel asked. "It's quite potent. Musky."
"Smells reptilian, doesn't it?" Charles said. "The entire cave where we found these things smelled that way. You should have seen how the dogs barked wherever the crates passed. It's uncanny."
"What's the reason for it?"
"We don't know," Charles admitted. "All I can guess is that some large reptiles made their home in the cave, though we saw no sign of any, save for the bas reliefs."
"The bas reliefs?"
Charles found a particular crate and ordered it to be opened. Inside was a monumental slab of stone, upon which bas reliefs were carved. Daniel saw what Charles meant immediately, for the bas reliefs depicted a race of humanoid reptiles. They stood upright and wore tribal finery. The sight of the things made Daniel's stomach turn, and he had to fight to keep the disgust off his face.
"We believe that the ancient inhabitants of whatever city stood near the cave must have worshiped a species of reptile that we have yet to identify, or perhaps that has gone extinct," Charles explained. "There are no humans depicted in any of the imagery, only these human-reptile beings."
"That is uncanny," Daniel said. "There is something sinister about it all, too. Those things are unnerving."
"Aren't they just?" Charles said with relish. "Haha! But don't look so frightened, Daniel. It's only mythology."
Daniel smiled weakly, but could not agree. He knew from experience that the wildest myths were often the truest accounts of history. The bas reliefs depicted the reptilian race in too much lifelike detail. Daniel shuddered and turned away.
"You don't believe this race might have actually lived, Charles?"
"These reptiles?" Charles laughed in surprise. "Good God, man, you've become superstitious since I last saw you. No, it is surely only a deified animal the ancients took a fancy to. After all, if such a race had ever existed, we surely would have found their remains by now, and history would have taken note of them."
Unless they never died out, but only went elsewhere, Daniel thought. The idea was so hideous that he had to bow his head over the bas reliefs to hide his shut eyes from Charles.
"Of course," was all Daniel managed.
They discussed the artifacts a little while longer, then Daniel finally escaped the man. Despite his loathing of the reptilian art, he was greatly intrigued by the artifacts. He wished that he had joined Charles' expedition instead of Herbert's, that he had been there to unearth these strange relics. He envied Charles sorely. Returning to the dead butterflies, Daniel was more bored and unsatisfied than ever. He finished his work as best he could, and left for home early.
Daniel was still in a foul mood when he reached the apartment he shared with Henry. Henry was at work, so he took the opportunity to drink more than his lover allowed him to. The liquor was a comfort, but he was still in a brown study. He distracted himself by reading a biography of an explorer, but it only reminded him of Charles, furthering his envy.
Henry found Daniel in the study that evening, and kissed him 'hello'. He presented the man with a bouquet of roses.
"What? Flowers? For me? Why?"
"It's Valentine's Day, after all," Henry said. "What's wrong? Do you dislike flowers?"
"No, it's not the flowers," Daniel said. "I'm just in a bad mood."
Henry ruffled Daniel's hair and kissed him, hoping to soften him. Daniel's moods tended to cause trouble. Daniel gave the roses to the maid to put in water, and they went to sit in the parlor until dinner. The staff was on hand more often now, since Daniel had a penchant for having help nearby. He had settled into Henry's wealthy lifestyle imperiously well.
"I was in a bad mood earlier myself," Henry said as he lit a cigar. "Winslow Octavio Paternoster paid me a visit at my offices. He extended an invitation to attend the next group meeting personally."
"Will you go?"
"I don't think I will," Henry huffed. "I simply cannot abide what he did to you."
"It all worked out in the end," Daniel said. "You should go. It would be foolish to give up the Sol Invictus Mithras."
Henry hated the reverence Daniel intoned when he said the name of the secret society. Despite their having kidnapped and starved him, he was greatly impressed by the group. Every time Henry brought them up, he defended them, and tried to convince Henry to stay in it.
"I can't agree with them, and I can't forgive Paternoster," Henry said. "I won't go. I don't want to hear another word about it."
"Why were you so sullen today?" Henry asked, changing the subject. "Aren't you happy to be working at the museum again?"
"Well, yes, but … "
Henry raised his eyebrows.
"Bored?" he asked with a laugh of disbelief. "After spending the better part of last year being tortured mentally and physically, I would think you would welcome a little boredom."
"I appreciate being safe, don't get me wrong," Daniel said. "But Charles Ledford returned from the Near East today, and his expedition had uncovered all these fascinating relics of a strange ancient past."
Daniel launched into a long and detailed account of the Ledford Expedition's findings. Henry listened patiently, enjoying how boyishly enthusiastic Daniel was when it came to archaeology. His eyes lit up, his mouth curled into a smile, and he let his imagination run wild with speculation. He spoke of the expedition as if he had been there. Cute as all this was, however, Henry began to worry about the young man's restlessness. It was that curiosity and ambition that had gotten him into all the trouble in the first place.
"It was an amazing success, all in all," Daniel finished. "Charles Ledford even plans to return to the area later this year."
"And you are jealous?"
"Envious," Daniel said. "If I hadn't gone with that damned Professor Herbert, I could have gone with Charles. I would never have had all the trouble with the Orb, and I would have been a part of these amazing discoveries. Now, I don't know if I ever will travel again. The world frightens me, and the ancient world even more so. I'll probably have nightmares about those reptilian things, and all I saw were the bas reliefs."
"There is no shame in being afraid after all you've been through," Henry said. "Don't you think it's for the best that you can research those amazing discoveries from the safety of the museum?"
"Yes, I know it's for the best, but I still can't help being dissatisfied," Daniel said. "I didn't become an archaeologist to sit in a dusty old museum. I wanted to be the one making those famous discoveries. I wanted to be the one off on exotic adventures."
"You should be careful what you wish for, Daniel."
"And now Charles Ledford comes swanning into the museum like a hero with his stories and his artifacts," Daniel said heatedly. "Oh, he's a good man, I'm not angry with him for it, but it was intolerable! Crate after crate pouring in, and everyone on staff standing around admiring him. He even invited me to join his next expedition!"
"The nerve of the man," Henry said cynically.
"I told him I would think on it, but I know that I won't be able to go," Daniel said. "My nerves would be too unsteady. I would be afraid to go anywhere, lest I find another Orb or some other vile thing."
Daniel got to his feet and began pacing. Henry decided to let his outburst run its course, petty as it was. He smoked his cigar placidly, only half-listening to Daniel's self-pitying rant.
"How am I going to refuse Charles now?" Daniel asked. "What will he think of me when I turn down the chance to join his next expedition party? He already thinks that I have become 'superstitious'. He'll think I've become a coward, as well."
"Who gives a damn what this Ledford or anyone else thinks?" Henry said gruffly. "You're safe now, Daniel. That's all that should matter."
"It's not all that matters, though," Daniel said. "Did I survive everything just to sit in a museum cataloging and studying other men's discoveries? Besides, I know far more than all those historians with their bland explanations and limited imaginations."
For someone that's been so frequently beaten down by life, he certainly is arrogant, Henry thought. That side of him is the one that most needs to be kept in check.
"I can't stand it," Daniel sighed, pacing again. "I can't stand being relegated to insignificance when I've seen and done more than those men will ever dream of. I didn't ask for all that happened to me, but it happened, and I at least have more knowledge for it. It's frustrating that I can't share that knowledge. If I could, I would be even more admired than Charles."
"You would also be hanged," Henry pointed out.
"I meant my knowledge, not my crimes," Daniel scowled. "I'm not stupid."
As he passed, Henry grabbed him by the arm. He pulled him down to sit on his lap. Daniel glared at him.
"Forget your pride for a moment and see reason," Henry said. "You've suffered enough for ten lifetimes, Daniel. You nearly died several times. Why do you want to put yourself through that again? For glory? What good is that if you're dead or mad or worse? Would you risk your life just to impress strangers?"
"No, that's why I'm not going anywhere," Daniel said. "I just hate that I'm in this state. I want to accomplish something. I want to be the man that I was before."
"That simply isn't possible, dear Daniel," Henry said gently. He kissed the young man's cheek. "Not after all that's happened to you. Not after all you've done."
"I know," Daniel said in resignation. He brightened, putting his arms around Henry's neck. "That's why you should not give up on the Sol Invictus Mithras."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"I was thinking that you might reconcile with Paternoster and keep your place in the group," Daniel said. "And that you might bring me into it?"
"Why?" Daniel asked. "I'm of no interest to them anymore since my link to Alexander is broken. Do you still distrust them?"
"I don't trust them, but that isn't the only reason," Henry said. He took Daniel's face by the chin. "I don't trust you, Daniel."
"Yes, you," Henry said sternly. "The Sol Invictus Mithras holds exactly the kind of power that could very well turn you back into the man you became at Brennenburg."
"Perhaps, but you would be there to reign me in."
"Until you try to murder me, as well?"
"I would never murder you!" Daniel exclaimed. "I love you, Henry."
"You tried to murder me once already," Henry reminded him. "No, Daniel, I'm sorry but I cannot trust you to join the group. You have too much lust for power, and you easily get carried away with it. It would be the worst kind of company for someone like you to keep."
"I could always appeal to Paternoster myself," Daniel said defiantly. "I already know about the group. I'm sure he could find some use for me in it."
"I won't allow it," Henry said. "I promised that I would protect you even from yourself, and I meant it. Now forget about the group once and for all. I won't be a part of it, and I won't let you be, either."
"I should think that would be up to Paternoster, not you."
"You're mine, so it is up to me," Henry said sternly. "Let it go."
"I won't," Daniel said. "It's a terrible waste, Henry. The Sol Invictus Mithras hold incredible knowledge and power, you said so yourself. You could continue your research of the mind with their help, and perhaps even I could find something important to do."
"Find something important to do at the museum, Daniel," Henry said impatiently. "I told you, I won't let you join that damned group! Let that be the end of it."
"At least give me the chance to prove I can be trusted," Daniel argued. "You're judging me without even—"
"I said, no!" Henry snapped. "I don't want to hear another word about it."
"You can't simply decide what I can and cannot do for me!"
"Damn it, Daniel, yes, I can, and I will. If you won't accept that, then I'll beat it into you."
Henry stood up and dragged Daniel over to the sofa. He sat and pulled the struggling man over his knees. He pinned Daniel's arms to the small of his back and lifted up the back of his jacket. Daniel blushed furiously as he felt Henry's hand smack his lifted buttocks. Even through his trousers, the man's large hand inflicted quite the sting.
"This is ridiculous," Daniel muttered. "I'm not a child."
"Then stop acting like one."
"All I'm doing is trying to make my own decisions, because I am a man, in case you've forgotten."
"You won't feel very much like a man when I'm through with you."
Henry lifted Daniel a little to unbutton his trousers. Ignoring the youth's protests, he pulled his pants down below his buttocks. Without the fabric's protection, the spanking began to hurt in earnest. Daniel squirmed and kicked, but there was no escaping Henry's hard hand. Henry kept his promise: Daniel felt more a boy than a man with his naked bottom burning fiercely.
"Fine, I won't mention the group anymore," Daniel gave in. "That's enough, Henry!"
"I'll say when you've had enough."
"Now you're only indulging yourself."
Henry smirked, not bothering to deny the remark. He was indeed enjoying the punishment. Daniel had a fine round bottom, plumper now that he had regained his normal weight; it was a pleasure to see his flesh tremble beneath the swats, red handprints blending into two scarlet splotches. The red was very bright on the youth's fair skin, but not yet angry enough for Henry's taste. Daniel could be pigheaded when he was set on something, it would take a good spanking to deter him.
Henry rang for the maid. Daniel tried to escape, but he held him firmly in place. He did not even pull his trousers back up. As Henry ordered the maid to fetch the largest hairbrush on his dresser, Daniel's face turned a deeper shade of red at the humiliation.
"I wish you wouldn't spank me in front of the help," he complained. "It's bad enough that they hear all this."
"Don't complain, or I'll whip you with the entire staff present."
Daniel wisely shut his mouth. The hairbrush was brought, and its flat solid wood back soon whacked Daniel's bottom. He yelped at the sharp burst of pain, kicking wildly.
"Henry, please, I'll forget about the group, I really will, only stop, please!" he begged. "Ow! That hurts, Henry!"
"You always manage to sound so surprised about that," Henry said. "Of course it hurts, Daniel. There would be little point in a spanking that didn't hurt."
Daniel flinched and bowed his head. There was nothing to do but take it. He stared at the floor sullenly, tears pricking his eyes. He was ashamed of how affected he was by the punishment at his age. Henry had a way of reducing him to childhood that went beyond his ability to spank harshly. He takes charge so easily that it feels natural to submit to him, Daniel thought. As outrageous as it is, it feels right. I can't believe how effortlessly he can take total control of another man. I have to admit that it is impressive.
Henry gave each cheek its due, until the youth's bottom was uniformly scarlet. At last, he released him. Daniel climbed off his lap slowly, sinking to his knees on the floor. He rubbed his scorched backside desperately, giving Henry an injured look. Henry patted his head.
"No, leave your trousers down," he ordered. "Go stand there in that corner. I'd like to have some peace from you until dinner."
Henry's icy blue eyes glinted dangerously. He stood, pulled Daniel to his feet, and dragged him to the corner. Dismayed, Daniel found himself turned to face the wall, his backside still exposed. He tried to turn back around, but received a hefty swat of the hairbrush.
"Stay there," Henry demanded. "I'm going to have another cigar before we eat."
Daniel shut his mouth and remained as he was. This final humiliation caused the tears to fall, though he did his best to wipe them away. By the time Henry took mercy on him and brought him over to sit on his lap, Daniel was sufficiently softened.
"I'm sorry," he apologized sincerely. "I do think you should stay with the group for your own sake, but you're right about me, I can't be trusted with power. It's better if I stay away from those people."
Henry kissed Daniel comfortingly, caressing his tender bottom. The last of the youth's tears fell, and he sniffled a little. Before long, they were summoned to dinner. Daniel climbed off of Henry's lap and pulled his trousers back up.
"Don't forget to bring a cushion to sit on," Henry said with a smirk.
"I won't, Henry."
After dinner, the two men retired early. Daniel undressed for bed, glimpsing at his backside in the mirror before putting on his bed gown. Henry came up to him and gave his buttocks an affectionate squeeze.
"It really does sting," Daniel said ruefully. "I had forgotten how much a spanking could hurt."
"Keep it in mind and behave yourself, Daniel."
He said it with the insincerity and weariness of a child, but Henry let it go. He turned Daniel to face him and bent down to kiss him. Daniel put his arms around his neck as he kissed him back, his slim body warm and pliant. He's always best after a punishment, Henry thought. He deepened the kiss, a hand trailing up and down the man's back and bottom. Needy and humbled, so willing to please …
Daniel pulled off Henry's shirt and ran his hands over the man's broad chest. As always, Henry radiated warmth and strength. Daniel kissed his neck, his chest, the hard ripples of muscle on his stomach. There was no need to envy his strength: so long as Henry loved him, all his strength belonged to Daniel. The youth took his time enjoying the other man's body, touching and tasting and teasing. It gave him pleasure to make him hard, a small taste of power—until he was grabbed by the shoulder and bent over the edge of the bed. Then he was blissfully helpless, made to cry out as the other entered him. He heard a soft laugh from Henry as he shouted in pain and pleasure. Henry gave his bottom a few slaps as he thrust deeper into the young man, which only inflamed Daniel's lust more. He bit his thumb to keep from screaming as he was pushed farther and farther. He came before Henry, which was typical after a spanking.
"You really love it, don't you?" Henry asked when they were lying exhausted in bed together.
"Of course not," Daniel said, blushing again. He turned his face into the pillow, muffling his voice. "Don't be silly. It hurts."
"And yet you love it."
Henry kissed his shoulder and the top of his head. Daniel lifted his face from the pillow, still flushed. Henry kissed him lovingly on the lips, his full bottom lip soft against Daniel's thin mouth. The chill of the room set in now that the heated rush of sex had ebbed. They climbed under the covers to sleep.
"I only hope you remember the lesson." Henry patted Daniel's bottom. "Be a good boy for me, will you?"
For a little while, Henry thought. He put an arm around Daniel, who was already falling asleep. It won't be long until he earns himself another punishment. I'd never tell him, but I like him that way. It wouldn't be fun if he weren't so bratty. No, I don't mind his little mischief, so long as he keeps from doing anything dangerous.