“A tutor?” Horatio repeats.
The clerk looks annoyed at having to spend time on an explanation. “As a scholarship student, of course you’ll be expected to make some contributions, even if you aren’t paying tuition.”
Horatio heard nothing of this until arriving in Florence at the start of the new school year. He wasn’t exactly expecting the administration to be falling at his feet, but he assumed that with a scholarship sponsored by the Danish Crown he would be more than a second-class student.
However, it seems the university is more focused on courting the wealthy Italians—heirs of noble houses or ‘nephews’ of cardinals—who might one day control far more powerful and prosperous regions than what to Florentines is a tiny, faraway Northern monarchy. Most of the school administration do no more than note his accent before seeming to conclude that Horatio isn’t someone they need to bother giving any special treatment to.
“We’ll contact you again once the assignments have been made,” the clerk says. “Thank you for volunteering—now I’m sure you don’t want to lose marks for being late to class.”
“Volunteering...sure…” Horatio glances at the clock and winces. “Excuse me.”
The clerk’s condescending reminder came nearly too late, and Horatio slips into the last remaining seat of the huge lecture hall just as the bell rings for the start of the history class.
Glancing around as he gets out his books, he realizes he’s in a far different area of the room from where he usually sits, surrounded by the noble Italian students. A few snicker and whisper to each other, but most pointedly ignore him.
At the University of Florence, the foreign and scholarship students (or both, as Horatio is) are an almost entirely separate faction from the Italian nobles, who have little time for studying and spend much of their days in petty intrigues and affairs with each other or carousing in the town. Even when they bother showing up to class, many of them merely spend the time sleeping off the indulgences of the night before.
The boy in the seat next to Horatio is a perfect example of this, hidden from the lecturer behind his propped-up history textbook with his head pillowed comfortably on his arms. His face is turned away, but the gold-and-pearl ornaments in his knot of blond hair would comfortably pay all of Horatio’s expenses in Florence for a year.
This is the first time Horatio has encountered one of the noble students so closely; he feels self conscious in his own simple dark wool suit and leather hair tie, looking at all the lace and silk. How much does it even cost to wash white silk? Certainly more than Horatio spends on lodgings in a month.
Horatio is used to wealth, having grown up in the court of Denmark with his father as a prominent military advisor to the King, but King Hamlet was never one for ostentatious displays of the royal fortune. Crowns, jeweled collars, and ermine robes were seen as something for state functions only, and on ordinary days the king went about dressed only slightly more richly than any Danish gentleman. The rest of the court naturally followed suit so as not to accidentally shame themselves by wearing more finery than their monarch.
Thus, despite his family’s lack of hereditary wealth compared to the rest of the Danish court, Horatio has never felt so out of place as he does in Florence, even though in Denmark he had the prince of the realm for a childhood playmate. (Hamlet’s clothes generally ended up covered in dog hair anyway; as a child his mother would sometimes threaten to dress him all in black, so that at least he would match the dog.)
Struck by a sudden petty indignation, Horatio snatches up the book hiding his neighbor and shuts it. He imagines everyone in the room is staring at him at the sharp sound of the book closing, and quickly sets it down under the boy’s chair before bending intently over his own notes.
The blond boy shifts a little and Horatio holds his breath, but he only sighs softly without waking, turning so that Horatio can now see his face.
Horatio looks over and finds himself frozen.
He’s never seen someone so beautiful in all his life. For a moment, the delicate features surrounded by elaborate braids of golden hair transport him into myth—Diana first beholding sleeping Endymion. He can hardly believe he’s looking at a real person, not a cold marble statue.
Someone coughs, and the mystical surroundings fade back into the gray lecture hall.
The professor is staring at him.
Horatio freezes in dread. He knew the school favored the rich Italians—why did he have to do something so stupid? Now he’s going to have to explain to the king of Denmark how, exactly, he lost his scholarship.
Just as Horatio is wondering if it might be easier to throw himself into the Arno, the professor coughs sharply and Horatio realizes it isn’t him he’s glaring at, but the boy next to him.
The boy next to Horatio mumbles a little in his sleep but doesn’t move. Horatio can hear a few more snickers from the rows behind them. All Horatio wants is for everyone to stop staring at him, and there seems to only be one way to achieve that currently, so he reaches over and shakes Paris’ shoulder gingerly.
Paris sits up abruptly, flailing for the missing book. “Present! Er. Yes. What was the question? Sir.”
Though Horatio knows better than to let on that he was responsible for Paris’ rude awakening, he can’t help glancing over long enough to get another look at his face. Paris has pale grey eyes, like the cloudy sky over Denmark.
“We were discussing the collapse of the Roman Republic. Have you anything to share?”
“Well.” Paris puts his chin in his hands. “That’s…” he yawns and winces a little, shielding his eyes from the bright sun through the skylight. “That’s Julius Caesar and all that. Got murdered because he wanted to be Emperor. But they had an emperor in the end, so they might have avoided all the fuss in the first place.”
Shame he could never possibly get along with someone in that set, Horatio thinks. Not that any of them would ever dream of sparing him a second glance.
Paris never even looks his way during the rest of the three-hour lecture.
After the fiasco in History, Horatio takes care to arrive earlier for class, in order to make sure he can sit with his own peers rather than being stuck in the middle of the scornful gazes of the noble students. It isn’t that he’s looking for him, of course, but he sees Count Paris occasionally. Gradually, after gleaning information from the mocking comments of the students around him, he discovers that Paris isn’t even a History major, though he takes some history classes, but a Law student who regularly sleeps through not only his own lectures but most of whatever class follows it as well.
During the next two weeks, Horatio nearly forgets about the humiliating summons to the tutoring office. Then, one Sunday, when he thought he finally had a chance to sleep in after spending most of the previous day writing a paper on Emperor Augustus, he’s rudely woken by a messenger knocking on the door of his room.
When he gets to the door there’s only a letter with the details of the student he’s supposed to tutor: an Italian noble from Verona whose grades the administration fears will not satisfy his guardians. Considering the amount the university is certainly overcharging said guardians, this is a very valid concern, but Horatio still feels annoyed at being used to benefit the school this way.
The student’s name is written in the letter, but the clerk’s pen made several ink blots over it—so perfectly placed Horatio suspects they were deliberate—and all that is left for Horatio to make out is the family name ‘Escalus’, and the address.
Young Escalus, whoever he is, lives in one of the most luxurious inns in the student housing district. Horatio detests him already, but if he wants to keep his good standing with the administration, he has to see this through.
Apparently, he’s expected to study with his new charge at least every weekend. Now is certainly not as good a time as any, as far as Horatio is concerned, but he’s sure that if he doesn’t turn up word will make its way back to the administration eventually.
Horatio’s indignant mood only increases as he gets closer to Escalus’ lodgings and sees the inns growing more and more expensive and ornate, and the plentiful bars offering more and more extravagant imported wines.
No wonder the rich students are doing poorly in their studies, considering how many of them Horatio has to dodge as they stumble out of bars.
Escalus’ apartment is easy to find, as it’s currently in the middle of a noisy party Horatio could hear from three blocks away. He pounds on the door for at least a minute before someone hears him over the din and opens the door.
“What do you want?” the boy who opens the door says between gulps of wine.
“I...I’m looking for Escalus, I’m his tutor from the school…”
“Escalus? Sure, sure…” The boy waves Horatio into the room and pushes him in the direction of a couch off to the side, laughing tipsily. “Paris! He says he’s your tutor!”
“...Paris?” Horatio repeats blankly, not that he can hear himself.
Then he catches sight of the boy from history class, his white lace and silk clothing half undone and his hair streaming in loose golden falls across his shoulders.
Paris is draped languorously (or, less generously, drunkenly) across the lap of a dark-haired young man, while another noble youth kisses his hand ardently. As Horatio approaches he pulls his hand free and waves him closer with a bright smile.
“Oh! You’re the troubadour, aren’t you!” he exclaims, beaming. “I’ve been so looking forward to—”
“I…no!” Horatio shouts over the din. “I’m your tutor! From the school!”
Paris’ face falls. “Oh.” He makes a vague dismissive gesture and begins whispering to one of his suitors. “...you’re still here,” he says half a minute later.
By this point, Horatio’s presence is starting to have a dampening effect on the party, and though he can hear many of them joking behind his back, it’s preferable to the raucous singing and shouting. At least he can hear himself think now.
“Yes, I’m still here.”
Paris blinks, uncomprehending. “Why? I don’t want you, go away. A tutor, imagine! How dull.”
“No!” Horatio snaps. Paris’ grey eyes go round—clearly he isn’t used to anyone failing to fall at his feet. “I’m not going anywhere! The party’s over!”
The other noble students are equally shocked at this outburst, and to his own surprise, Horatio is able to usher most of them out the door before they seem to comprehend what’s going on. Within a few minutes, Horatio slams the door behind the last departing guest and leans against it to survey the strewn remains of the party.
Paris is still sitting on the couch. “Perfectly good party,” he sniffs, folding his arms with a sulky pout.
Horatio tries to sound encouraging and enthusiastic, forcing a smile onto his face and into his voice. “Well, the school says you need to study on weekends.”
“That’s what the last seven tutors said.”
“Seven!?” Horatio can guess now why the name was obscured on his letter. The tutoring clerk must have enjoyed dumping their worst student on the unsuspecting foreigner.
“I think the last one jumped in the Arno. Though actually, maybe that was because I slept with his cousin…” Paris gets up unsteadily and makes his way to the table for another glass of wine. “Hey!” he protests as Horatio snatches the wine bottle out of his reach.
“This is definitely not helping your grades any,” Horatio says firmly, setting the wine bottle on top of a nearby cabinet and planting himself in Paris’ way.
Paris sighs dramatically and flings himself down on the couch, throwing an arm over his face. “I shall write my uncle,” he says.
“Yes, please do write your uncle about how you abuse the tutors trying to keep you from failing out of university,” Horatio says, still reeling with astonishment and exhilaration at how far he’s overstepping every boundary. “Where do you keep your books?” he asks, picking his way around spilled wine glasses and scattered articles of clothing as he opens cabinets and chests to look. “You must have them somewhere, I’ve seen you sleeping behind them. Is that all you use them for?”
Paris sits up slowly and starts doing up the laces of his shirt. “I hate you.”
“Good,” Horatio says into an open chest as he tosses staggeringly expensive brocade robes onto a chair. “Saves me wasting time pretending to like you. Oh, here’s your history books at least…”
“My uncle will have you banished.”
“From where? Verona?” Horatio snorts. “I don’t even know where Verona bloody is.”
Paris gestures vaguely towards the north. “It’s...you know. Over there.”
“‘Over there,’” Horatio repeats scornfully as he sets a pile of books on the table.
“It’s a nice place,” Paris says, sounding childishly defensive. “I mean...I haven’t been there in a while. But I’m sure it’s not a place you’d want to be banished from.”
“Then why aren’t you there now?”
Paris abruptly falls silent. Horatio looks over from the books to see him staring intently at his hands as he twists a lock of bright golden hair around one finger. Maybe that was a snide retort too far, he thinks.
There are any number of reasons a powerful noble might want a young relative opulently cared for but far away from where they could make themselves inconvenient. Most of the reasons are probably not terribly pleasant, however little Paris has to complain about in his current situation.
“Look, your grades are worse in history, so we’ll start there,” Horatio says, trying to go back to his previous encouraging voice.
Paris sighs. “Will that make you go away?” he says, in a deflated tone.
“Until next Sunday.”
Horatio’s initial victory doesn’t last long, once Paris recovers himself enough from the shock of being defied to bring his full powers of being absolutely insufferable into play. Still, Horatio is determined to remain unshakeable. He’s had plenty of experience with Prince Hamlet’s ‘moods’ back in Denmark, after all. Besides, his scholarship, and the reputation of all the foreign students, is at stake.
That doesn’t make it any less humiliating to sit for hours reading out one of Paris’ textbooks as he sulkily pretends Horatio doesn’t exist.
By the third week, Paris finally seems to at least understand that ignoring Horatio won’t make him vanish into thin air. That doesn’t mean that he’s any more inclined to study, of course, as Horatio discovers over the next three weeks of Paris entertaining himself at his expense.
“This one or this one?” Paris says, holding up two gold lace hairpins.
To Horatio they’re both equally ostentatious displays of undeserved wealth. He says so.
Paris laughs. “But they’re entirely different, see, this one is French lace, and this one is from Venice…”
“They’re both very nice, alright, now we were reading about the Meditations of Marcus Aureli—what are you doing?” Horatio ducks as Paris leans across the table to fix one of the pins into Horatio’s hair, his ever-present wineglass held perilously in his other hand. The tip of his tongue pokes out in concentration as he tries to fasten the pin before Horatio can dodge.
His prank complete, Paris drops back into his chair, resting his chin on his hand and laughing. Seeing the innocent light in his grey eyes, Horatio can’t help smiling himself. He knows he must look ridiculous with Paris’ elaborate adornment standing out against his own somber clothes. Paris so rarely looks genuinely happy: despite his extravagant delight at parties there’s a theatrical falsity to it, and though he laughs often around Horatio it’s usually in response to some private sarcastic joke.
“Fine, let’s hear about the Meditations, then,” Paris says finally, leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of his wine as if he’s at a poetry reading.
Still, Horatio decides to take this as progress. This is one of the first times Paris has actually acknowledged any of the topics covered in the class. “The assignment is an essay regarding one of the following three statements from the Meditations... First, ‘Whatsoever thou dost affect, whatsoever thou dost project, so do, and so project all, as one who, for aught thou knowest, may at this very present depart out of this life.’ Second, ‘Consider the nature of all worldly sensible things; of those especially, which either ensnare by pleasure, or for their irksomeness are dreadful, or for their outward lustre and show are in great esteem and request, how vile and contemptible, how base and corruptible, how destitute of all true life and being they are.’ Third, ‘Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged. If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong.’”
Paris shoves his chair back and swirls away to grab a new bottle of wine out a cabinet. “God, how dreary. As if I haven’t a right to an opinion after…” he mutters into his cup after he fills it full. “If the history professor wouldn’t think himself wronged then there is no more any such thing as a need to write a damned boring essay, is there?”
“That’s actually a good point, but it certainly isn’t going to help your grades…” Horatio sighs and closes the book. “Look, Paris, I...it’s not as if you’re stupid,” he finds himself saying before he can stop himself.
“I beg your pardon?” Paris says icily, setting down the wine cup.
“You’ve left markers in the books. I can tell you’re reading them.”
“You keep chasing off all my young men,” Paris retorts. “What else am I supposed to do?”
“I am doing nothing of the kind,” Horatio says. “Except when they try to take you riding on Sundays.” One of Paris’ suitors, a young Theology student rumored to be the natural son of a high Church official, is so persistent in his refusal to acknowledge Paris’ lack of interest that Horatio suspects Paris is secretly relieved to have an excuse to be rid of his attentions, even if he makes Horatio do all the work of telling him no. “What I’m trying to say is...I don’t see why you can’t try. Just, you know, just a little bit. You could do perfectly well if you actually turned in an assignment once in a while.”
Paris’ eyes narrow as if he is searching out a trap, then he heaves one of his theatrical sighs and begins pacing the room, snatching the pin out of Horatio’s hair as he passes.
Finally, Paris drops onto the couch, pulling his feet up onto the cushion. “You’ve seen my grades,” he says, staring into his cup. “What’s the point?”
“Your grades are only bad because you don’t do anything,” Horatio points out again. It begins to dawn on him faintly that this might be exactly how Paris wants it. Why on earth would someone go to such lengths to conceal their natural intelligence? “Look, the history professor surely doesn’t know your handwriting. If you dictate your essay I’ll write it down for you.”
Paris gestures indignantly with the wine cup. “See, all you care about is using me to keep your—huh.”
“The only other tutors who lasted this long just did the assignments for me behind my back,” Paris says. “They got caught, of course.”
Horatio blinks. “You were waiting for me to cheat for you so you could get me thrown out of Florence?”
Paris looks over nervously, as if expecting Horatio to storm out immediately. Somehow Horatio can hardly even bring himself to be angry, though six weeks ago hearing that a noble student had forced his tutors to do his work for him and then schemed to get them expelled would have made him incensed. Though Horatio feels exploited by the university, Paris must have felt equally used by tutors who thought him too stupid to notice what they were doing.
“At that much effort you might as well just write the essay,” Horatio says finally.
Paris laughs briefly into his cup, then looks towards Horatio again. “You’re not leaving?”
“I don’t have anything else to do on Sundays.”
Six weeks ago, or even three, Horatio would have rejoiced at an excuse to be rid of Paris. Now..he isn’t exactly sure what he feels for him. ‘Friends’ is too much, surely. But Horatio is certain that he can’t just walk out at this point and leave Paris to deal with another tutor who won’t try to actually help him, or even consider him as a person.
Paris walks slowly back to the table and sits down, pushing the lace pin across the table. “Here.”
“I—” Horatio is at a loss as to what to do with such a silly thing, but he can see it’s a peace offering. “Thank you.”
“So.” Paris sighs. “Let’s write a damn essay, if we must.” He goes to take a sip of wine and finds the cup empty. “But more wine first.”
Another month passes, and Horatio begins to feel confident he can at least get Paris passing grades in the upcoming final exams for that term. Though Paris’ marks in Law are just barely passing (so precisely uniform in being just above the failing line that Horatio suspects they must be calculated, at much more effort than it would take to do the work he was actually capable of), he seems to have a personal detestation for History and if Horatio doesn’t constantly annoy him about assignments and due dates he refuses to turn any work in at all.
Somehow, the more Horatio bothers him, the less Paris seems to dislike him, and Horatio knows he feels the same way. Paris isn’t the stupid, petty fop he expected to be burdened with on this tutoring assignment at all. When he forgets to be annoyed with the homework Horatio is ‘forcing’ him to do, he makes witty jokes and describes clever insights into the material.
Horatio has learned that if he doesn’t call attention to this, Paris will cheerfully expand more over the course of a conversation, and can usually be persuaded to write down presentable answers for his homework. But pointing out that he’s let his guard down will only make him shut himself off again, usually with more wine.
Though the wine is surely another large factor in Paris’ poor grades, Horatio feels that pressuring him about it would be far overstepping the bounds of a tutor. They’re not yet anything more than that, though Horatio is certain he knows more about Paris than most of his constantly-rotating entourage of beautiful, rich young swains. All of them are entirely dazzled by Paris’ handsome face and his shining aura of wealth, and none ever care to look any further. And while Paris revels in the attention, he grows bored of these shallow affairs quickly: Horatio can’t think of a single suitor who has lasted more than a week or two.
But that, of course, is nothing of a tutor’s business either.
“Alright, so: the Five Good Emperors,” Horatio prompts. He’s pulled Paris away from his rooms to study in a lush field outside the university, hoping that the sun and breeze—and crucially, the lack of access to his stash of wine—might make him more inclined to apply himself.
So far, this is proving less than successful. Paris blows dandelion fluff at him and laughs at his attempts to keep a straight face. “Paris, please.”
“What’s in it for me?”
Horatio groans in frustration. “Paris, if you don’t pass this term, I’m going to lose my scholarship and go back to Denmark and get eaten by dragons.”
Paris blinks at him, his grey eyes round with exaggerated distress. “Dragons?”
“Yes. Definitely. We’ve got them all over Denmark, I wouldn’t stand a chance. Everywhere you go, very real...dragons…” at this point Horatio can’t hold back his laughter any longer. “Alright, not dragons, but I’ll have to explain to the king how I lost his royal scholarship. Which is definitely worse.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you,” Paris says.
“That...that would be the opposite of helpful. The Five Good Emperors, please, for heaven’s sake.”
“Fine,” Paris sighs. “...I forget the first one.”
Horatio is convinced this isn’t the case, but has learned that playing along with Paris’ pretense of ignorance will make him less cautious. “Nerva.”
“Right. Nerva, Trajan, uh...Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.”
“And what sets the Five Good Emperors apart from those that followed?”
Paris starts to open his mouth.
“Do not just say ‘they were good’ because I know that’s what you’re going to start with.”
“You are no fun at all.”
“I’m a tutor, I’m not paid nothing and forced to do this so I can be ‘fun’.”
Paris shrugs and starts picking at stems of grass. “They were wise rulers who selected competent heirs and had the confidence of their subjects.”
Horatio looks down at the study guide he has tucked into the textbook. “And what else?”
“They all died of natural causes,” Paris says quietly, staring down intently at a flower as he picks off the petals.
“As opposed to Marcus Aurelius’ heir Commodus.” Horatio waits for Paris to follow his prompting, but he’s still concentrated on the flower. Horatio leans over to grab it out of his hands, tossing the mangled plant out of his reach. “Paris. What happened to Commodus?”
“I…” Paris starts twisting his scarf instead, his breathing suddenly strangely rapid. “Got...got bloody poisoned or something, they all did, didn’t they…”
“That’s...alright, that’s close, but actually—”
“That’s enough for one day!” Paris declares brightly, grabbing the book out of Horatio’s hand and closing it. “Come on, it’s far too fine a day for studying!” He grabs Horatio’s hand and starts pulling him towards the edge of the field. “We’re getting you some better clothes so you’re fit to be seen with me.”
They’re nearly to the road by the time Horatio realizes how much Paris’ hand is shaking in his. He knows, somehow, that to pry into the reasons will instantly shatter all the bridges he’s gradually built to reach Paris across that vast chasm of glittering suspicion, so he joins in Paris’ laughter until it rings less false and lets himself be dragged into the tailoring district.
When Paris starts pointing out bolts of white lace and brocade, however, he protests. “I’m not wearing that!”
“Well, you’re not wearing this any more either,” Paris retorts, pinching Horatio’s brown wool sleeve with a scornful sniff.
Horatio realizes his clothes have been getting a little worn since he came to Florence, but they would still be perfectly presentable if he wasn’t around Paris all the time. “Paris, I can’t afford any of this!”
Paris waves dismissively. “Not to worry. I can: Uncle never asks for accounts of what I do with his money.”
“I…” It would be nice to have new clothes, though Horatio can’t help feeling as if he’s overstepping his bounds as a tutor by taking advantage of Paris’ attempt to distract him. Perhaps Paris is starting to feel they’re more than that, after all. “Fine, but not in white.”
“Very well,” Paris says. “You wouldn’t be yourself if you weren’t dressed like a gloomy Northern crow, after all.” From anyone else the words would be cutting, but Horatio can tell Paris is at least trying to be affectionate, even if the attempt is shielded in his usual sarcasm. “Tailor! Your finest black velvets!”
“Easily washable,” Horatio says quickly.
“Your finest easily washable black velvets!”
The Friday before the final exam week starts, Horatio is sitting on one of a cluster of benches where many of the foreign students congregate, listening to them chat and joke in the sunshine as he writes up notes for his final study session with Paris. Suddenly, everyone goes silent.
Horatio barely has time to notice this change when Paris suddenly swoops down in a swirl of gold and lace.
“Horatio!” Paris exclaims, grabbing his arm tightly. He’s dressed even more elaborately than usual today, with at least six rings and a gem-studded gold circlet in his hair. “There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“I...oh? But it’s Friday,” Horatio protests in shock. This is the first time Paris has acknowledged him openly outside their Sunday study sessions, apart from making brief eye contact in the lecture halls.
“Hang Friday! Come on,” Paris says, trying to pull Horatio to his feet.
“Alright, just a moment—my books—” Horatio starts to gather everything into his leather valise.
Paris isn’t satisfied with his speed and quickly bundles all his papers together, shoving them in next to the books. “There! Let’s go.”
“What do you want?” Horatio says in confusion as Paris drags him rapidly towards a distant field.
“Two of the Theology students are going to fight a duel over me! You must watch.”
“Right? It’s too funny.”
“But somebody could get hurt…”
“Even better! They’re only Theology students anyway.”
Horatio can hardly argue with this. There are no scholarship Theology students, and it’s well known across the university that the Theology degree is a mere formality for families hoping to bribe their offspring’s way into undeserved positions of influence in the Church. The Theology students themselves know this best of all, and lord it over the other students constantly, even the nobles; many of Horatio’s scholarship friends have stories of being forced to do their schoolwork for them.
Once they reach the field, Paris pushes Horatio over to a small picnic blanket he’s set out and settles himself next to him. “There they are,” he says, pointing down a slight hill to where several brightly-dressed students are gathered in two groups. “Good luck!” Two of them, holding swords, look over as Paris waves. “Lovely day for a duel, don’t you think?” Paris says as the preparations continue.
“Sure…” Horatio says.
Paris opens a small basket, taking out a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and two cups. “Wine?”
Paris shrugs. “More for me, then. Oh, I think they’re about to start!”
Down the hill, one of the students drops a blood-red handkerchief, which is apparently the cue for the duel to commence. Both participants are clearly skilled with the sword, though cautious: they clash briefly before pausing to circle each other, then charge again.
Horatio is not new to the idea of duels. Back in Denmark, holmgang is a respected method of settling legal disputes or issues of honor and vengeance—Horatio’s own father had twice been victorious in holmgangs. Once, he was challenged over perceived undue favor from the Crown, and once, he challenged a swindler who defrauded his widowed sister out of her savings. But in Denmark, to use such a solemn ritual as holmgang for something so petty as a student’s love affair would disgrace the challenger forever, whether they won or lost.
Since coming to Italy he’s heard constantly of duels between the rich students, all of them for equally ridiculous slights. The school officially forbids the practice, but in practice mostly ignores it, especially since the participants often bribe the administration to disregard what’s going on.
Paris seems entirely accustomed to the idea of being fought over. As the duel goes on, he makes cheerful remarks on the skill of the competitors between sips of wine. Horatio tries to match his light mood, but he can’t help feeling tense: Paris’ relations surely have enough money to keep him out of trouble if the dueling group is caught, but Horatio has no such assurance.
After a quarter hour, one of the duelists drops his sword after taking a long gash to the arm. As his friends cluster to treat the wound, the winning combatant wipes his sword and climbs the grassy hill towards where Horatio and Paris are sitting.
Once he gets closer, Horatio recognizes him as Alvise, one of Paris’ most persistent suitors, and one who never quite seemed to understand that Paris was serious about not seeing him any more.
Alvise bows with a flourish of his bright cape and extends a hand.
Paris blinks up at him over his wine cup. “What do you want?”
Alvise frowns, confused. “I won.”
“And what does that have to do with me?”
“Don’t be dense,” Alvise says scornfully, grabbing Paris’ arm and pulling him to his feet. “You know what it means, so come on.”
“Let go!” Paris protests. “I never agreed to anything!”
Horatio gets to his feet: this is far beyond anything resembling the duties of a tutor, but he knows he can’t just stand aside and let Paris be dragged unwilling to an unwanted suitor’s bed.
“Back off, foreigner,” Alvise snarls at him as he takes a step forward. “This doesn’t have anything to do with you. Paris, let’s go!”
Alvise yelps in shock as Paris flings the contents of his wine cup in his face. “You...you damn little—”
“I—I would rather go with Horatio than you!” Paris declares, shoving out of Alvise’s grip.
“You wha—oh!” Horatio gasps as Paris grabs the front of his jacket and drags him into a kiss.
Paris’ lips are soft and warmed from the sunshine, and Horatio can still taste the wine on them. He stands frozen in shock as Paris deepens the kiss, then cautiously takes hold of the front of Paris’ brocade robe, leaning in to match Paris’ demands. The heady scent of flowers seems to swirl around them from Paris’ flowing hair.
When Paris breaks off the kiss at last, Horatio glances over to see Alvise with his hand on his sword, looking murderous. “We’d better go,” he says quickly.
“Yes, let’s,” Paris agrees.
Paris snatches up the picnic basket as Horatio grabs his bag of school books, then they run for Paris’ lodgings hand in hand, laughing all the way.
“Did...did you mean that?” Horatio asks breathlessly, leaning on a table as Paris shuts the door.
“I...Of course I did,” Paris says, though he sounds just as surprised as Horatio.
“And you’re not just trying to get out of studying for your final exams.”
“Never,” Paris declares, taking Horatio’s arm and kissing his cheek before pulling him over to the couch.
“I...I know I’m not much like...you know.” Horatio gestures at his simple black clothes as he sits down: he’s wearing the black velvet suit Paris bought for him. “Not much like Alvise.”
“Exactly,” Paris says, resting his cheek against Horatio’s velvet sleeve. “You’re perfect just as you are, sweet Horatio.”
Not much studying gets done that weekend.
Once the exam week starts, Horatio only has a few brief encounters with Paris as they pass each other in the halls: the classes are too large to all take examinations at the same time, and they aren’t in the same group for any of them. Still, Horatio feels reasonably confident that as long as Paris deigns to put anything down on paper at all, he is guaranteed to pass his classes.
And at least the events of the weekend mean that Paris will hopefully be much inclined to ensure his tutor remains in the good graces of the administration.
The Sunday after examinations end, Horatio debates whether to find Paris or not. His assignment as tutor was only meant to last until the end of the term...but perhaps they’re something more than that now. Or perhaps they’re nothing of the kind, considering how quickly Paris forgets all his lovers.
As he’s wavering at his door, someone knocks. Horatio opens it before thinking. “...Paris?”
“Good morning!” Paris smiles. “Can I…”
“Sure,” Horatio says, standing aside so he can enter the tiny apartment. “How did you find me?”
“I asked at the tutoring office,” Paris says as he sweeps in.
Horatio’s apartment isn’t terrible: though it’s cheap, the landlord isn’t trying to take advantage of him and while plain and well worn, the rooms are in good repair. Still, having Paris standing there in his shining clothes makes the apartment look pathetically dull in comparison.
“What’s up?” Horatio asks, trying to sound casual as he moves a pile of books off his best chair and throws a cloak over it to hide the stain.
“Thank you,” Paris says as he sits down. “I...well, I passed History,” he continues. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“That’s great,” Horatio says, though he can’t help a sting of selfish disappointment that he’s about to lose his Sundays with Paris.. “You hardly need a tutor any more, now.”
“I...well. No.” Paris looks down at his hands as he twists a lace scarf between them. “But...I—I was rather thinking about getting a roommate, you know, so I thought...thought you might…I wasn’t just saying things to show up Alvise, I really do…do, uh…”
“I’d love to,” Horatio says.
Paris looks up at him, his grey eyes wide. “Really?”
“Of course. Would you like a drink?”
“Thank god, please,” Paris says eagerly, as Horatio searches until he finds a bottle of cheap wine and a presentable glass. “I was afraid you’d say you were going back to Denmark to face the dragons, rather than dealing with me any longer.”
Horatio laughs as he sets the glass of wine on the table in front of Paris. “Never.”
Paris downs half the glass of wine, then stands and kisses Horatio again, catching his face in his hands. This time, Horatio finds the boldness to put an arm around his waist and pull him close.
“Could hardly get that with dragons, could I,” Horatio says when Paris pulls back. “I’ll move in tomorrow, if you’ll have me.”
“I’ll count the minutes,” Paris says, kissing him lightly once again before vanishing through the door in a swirl of silk and lace, leaving the scent of flowers behind him.
On his way to carry his school things to Paris’ apartment the next day, Horatio passes what he realizes must be Alvise’s lodgings. The young man is dressed in a plain leather suit, rather than his usual finery, and is hastily packing the saddlebags of a horse. Though he looks up when Horatio passes, he seems too distracted to recognize him.
“Alvise’s leaving?” Horatio asks Paris as he starts unloading his textbooks onto a shelf.
Paris nods behind a pile of clothes he’s clearing out of the wardrobe that will now belong to Horatio. “His father was murdered in Rome and none of his half-brothers will pay for him to stay here, so back he goes.”
“Oh.” Paris’ explanation is so matter-of-fact that it takes Horatio a few moments to comprehend it. “Will he be...alright…?”
Paris drops the clothes onto the couch and shrugs. “Who can say—he might even live out the year. Now, when were your trunks being sent over again, darling?”
Paris’ love has something of desperation in it, Horatio quickly discovers. Though they still talk about the same things and go to the same places as they did during the tutoring sessions, Paris’ demeanor has changed to something wide-eyed and endlessly effusive, clinging to him constantly the same way he would with all the other disposable suitors Horatio has seen him with in the past.
Horatio wishes he could explain that he doesn’t need anything like that, but he’s certain Paris would take it as a complete rejection.
Though Horatio has already started to see a little of the real Paris, once they’re living together and sharing a bed it’s even more obvious that Paris is hiding some sort of deep secret hurt behind the walls and drawbridges he’s built up around himself. Often Horatio finds himself roused by Paris having a shuddering nightmare beside him; once, Paris shakes him awake in a panic, after dreaming he stopped breathing during the night.
Perhaps that’s why Paris goes through lovers so quickly, for fear that they might notice something wrong if they spent more than a few nights with him. Or perhaps it’s fear of leaving himself vulnerable as he sleeps.
Still, apart from Horatio’s concerns for Paris, the summer break is idyllic. They go boating on the Arno (though Horatio does all the rowing, of course), see plays in the town, and go riding in the woods and fields outside the city. Paris delights in dragging Horatio to the shops with him every week and teasing him as he tries to beg his way out of trying on ridiculous expensive clothes. Horatio teaches Paris to speak Danish, and tries and fails to teach him Danish songs on the lute.
Paris never tells him what happened before he came to Florence, and Horatio never asks.
The new term starts all too soon, and with it comes the return of Paris’ revulsion for History. Though he’s no longer Paris’ tutor, Horatio still feels responsible for ensuring he turns in enough work to pass the class.
The first time Horatio suggests that perhaps some of their time could be better spent studying, the result is typically dramatic.
“I can’t believe you’re trying to...trying to Lysistrata me into doing my homework!” Paris declaims in wildly aggrieved tones, tossing a history book aside
“I’m not!” Horatio protests as he goes to retrieve the book and set it on the table.
“Seduced! Seduced by my own tutor!” Paris wails, flinging himself down on the couch.
Horatio puts his face in his hands and sighs. “Who seduced who, now?”
“I am pretty sure you fought a dragon for my hand.”
“Good god, how drunk were you that day? Look, all I’m trying to say is that if you get expelled for failing your classes I’m going to be penniless on the streets.”
“Penniless and starving.” Horatio has learned that the best methods of dealing with Paris when he’s in a mood are either waiting him out or matching him in theatricality. “It’s just two pages, you can do it in an afternoon.”
“Fine, if I must…” Paris sighs. “As long as it’s not the damn Meditations again.”
“No, it’s about Nero and his mother.”
“Poisoned, I’m sure.”
“Stabbed himself, actually.”
“Well, that’s something.”
As the new term goes on, more and more cracks begin to show in Paris’ veneer of good cheer. The nightmares grow more frequent, and in response Paris begins drinking himself to sleep when he thinks Horatio won’t notice. Horatio notices, but isn’t sure what he could possibly do to help: he’s sure that calling attention to what’s happening will only distress Paris more and push him further along the downward spiral he’s on.
Paris’ temper grows worse as well, and by the midterms they’re quarreling almost every other day, though Horatio never feels as if Paris’ heart is really in their fights. It feels more as if he’s trying to drive Horatio away, as if rejection would be easier to handle than whatever he sees the alternative as.
Horatio isn’t sure what it is Paris is so afraid of. Paris probably doesn’t even know himself, or realize that’s why he’s doing all of this. But it’s clear that Paris’ state of mind is only growing worse the longer his romance with Horatio goes on.
One afternoon, after spending a quarter of an hour arguing with Paris over the tab he’s running up with a local wine merchant, Horatio storms out to take a walk and clear his head. He returns several hours later to an empty apartment.
After several minutes of panic—what if Paris went to the Arno? What if an angry spurned lover found him alone?—Horatio calms himself enough to search.
He finds Paris drinking on the roof, and far too drunk to be there alone. “It’s cold out,” Horatio says, dropping his own wool cape around Paris’ shoulders. “You should come inside.”
“It’s not really working, is it,” Paris says, the words uneven and not just because of the wine. “All this.”
“I...there are other words I could use for it, yes,” Horatio says.
“Thought so.” Paris sighs and takes another drink, emptying the cup. “You didn’t bring up any more, did you?”
“Didn’t occur to me,” Horatio says, sitting down next to him.
Paris rests his head on Horatio’s shoulder, his hair streaming across his sleeve. “Pretty night.”
They sit in silence for a while, staring up at the stars.
“Paris?” Horatio says finally.
“You...you know you don’t have to force yourself to keep this up, if it’s hurting you.”
Paris pushes away with a sigh, shifting towards the edge of the roof and pulling Horatio’s cape tighter around himself.
“I…” Paris draws the corner of the cape across his face briefly. “You’ll hate me.”
“What? No! How could I ever hate you?”
“Everyone always does, after I tell them no.”
“I’d never hate you,” Horatio says firmly, taking Paris’ hand and pulling him away from the edge of the roof. “Who would I complain about Marcus Aurelius with?”
Paris laughs shakily. “That bastard.”
“One last kiss,” Paris says quickly, burying his hands in Horatio’s hair and planting his lips on his firmly. Horatio puts an arm around Paris’ waist, pulling him close as he runs his other hand through Paris’ hair, gleaming softly in the starlight.
“Friends?” Horatio says as Paris slowly pulls away.