When he woke again he felt as if his soul had taken a bath. His headache had vanished like a dream. He was light and free and the world was full of promise. He showered luxuriously, dressed with care and went up to Majek's suite to see what he could find in the way of breakfast. True, it was almost eleven, but round-the-clock hospitality seemed to be the order of the Circassian day.

   What he found, in fact, was Sergei sitting alone in the dining room looking pale and dark-eyed and sipping what was clearly not his first cup of coffee.

   "Good morning. Is there any more of that?"

   Sergei turned a baleful black-smudged eye on him. "How would I know? Go ask in the kitchen."

   Surprised, Dorian did so. The blond soldier who'd let him in was tidying up, and wordlessly provided coffee and hot milk with a chunk of bread and apricot jam to go with it, all of which he insisted on carrying into the dining room for him. Sergei didn't look up as they came in.

   "Did you have a bad night?" Dorian asked solicitously.

   "Whatever gives you that idea?"

   "Sergei, what--"

   "Dorian." He put his coffee cup down and faced him. "Discretion isn't your strong point, I appreciate that, but was it necessary to reveal all my secrets yesterday?"

   "Did I? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. What secrets?"

   "That photograph, for one. I don't wear my heart on my sleeve, and I'd rather Majek hadn't found out about it."

   "Oh. It never even occurred to me-"

   "Really? Have you ever known a soldier who wasn't a swamp of sentimentality under the granite? Now Majek thinks I carried his picture next to my heart all these years and he's become unbearable." Sergei pushed his cup away in irritation. "I tell you, if he gives me any more fond brotherly glances I'm going home. I could barely eat my breakfast with him sitting there all smiling and moist-eyed like a St. Bernard."

   "I didn't realize--"

   "And it seems you had a nice long talk with Jean about our liaison, brief as it was. He found it most inspiring. He was up all night, and I do mean that literally, proving his devotion to me. Thank you so very much. I expect the swelling will go down in a day or two. Mine, that is. I don't know about his."

   Dorian quailed a little, feeling under attack.

   "And what did you do with Takamatsu? He didn't come home last night and Gunmar and Kinta are in a taking. Did you assassinate him and drop his body in the canal?"

   "Actually, he spent the night with me--" He stopped at the sight of Sergei's face. "It wasn't like that. You saw what he was like yesterday. He grilled me about Gunmar and he made me promise not to lay a finger on him, and I'd bet he got me drunk to make sure I didn't sneak back and do the evil deed last night. Anyway, I was in no shape to get home by myself and he had to bring me here in a cab." 

   "And he was too drunk himself to find the elevator to this floor."


   "He wanted to make sure you didn't choke on your own vomit."

   "Well no, I don't--"

   "He wanted to screw you senseless, and he did. When will I ever learn?"

   "What, for god's sake? What have I done that's so terrible, Sergei?"

   "Behaved like a cat among the pigeons. He was absolutely right. He always is." Sergei pushed back his chair and strode from the room.

   In high dudgeon, Dorian finished his bread and coffee. It was so unusual of Sergei to mind who other people slept with. It must have been that short night. He personally wouldn't have objected if someone had wanted to prove their devotion to him repeatedly-- especially if that someone was as gifted as Jean. It was a pity, in its way, that he wasn't more for general use. A waste of a national resource- he ought to be allowed to copulate for Circassia...

    Damn, he shouldn't be thinking along these lines. The results were uncomfortable. He drained his coffee and looked about him. The suite appeared empty. Majek was meeting cabinet ministers, Jean and Kinta would be at the conference, Takamatsu was out until lunch, whenever lunch was... and presumably whenever lunch was he ought to be around for it. The blond soldier had vanished from the kitchen when Dorian went to return his plate. He strolled back along the corridor and cast a glance out the double doors of the sitting room to where the giant was still on guard duty. Perhaps sensing Dorian's presence, Koczi gave a glance over his shoulder, then a wide smile and a wave of his hand. Dorian waved back and passed on, hesitating at the little corridor that led to Sergei's room. He wasn't sure he wanted another taste of Sergei's tongue just yet...

   Up ahead the front door opened and Dorian turned to welcome the new arrival. Not his day, obviously. It was Kinta, and he was alone.

   Scowling, he made to push past Dorian but Dorian held out a hand to stop him.

   "Samh' Sascha-"

   "Don't call me that. You're not Circassian."

   "I'm sorry. Professor Aouille-"

   Kinta blinked. "What?"

   "Sergei said you and Gunmar had been worrying about Takamatsu--"

   "Where was he last night?"

   "Actually, we were out drinking until fairly late, and he had to help me home. I'm sorry, I can't quite remember what happened, but it seems he put me to bed and spent the night at my place. When he left this morning he said he'd be back here for lunch."

   "Oh." Kinta stared suspiciously with his large frowning eyes.

   "He's really very kind." Dorian smiled at him. "I hadn't realized. My ex showed up unexpectedly early in the morning, and there might have been a nasty scene if the Doctor hadn't been there."

   "Takamatsu was with you?" That was Gunmar, coming down the passage from his room at the sound of their voices.

   "They spent the night together," Kinta said.

   "We were both quite drunk," Dorian added, to avoid evil interpretations.

   "That never stops him," Gunmar said, simply and unanswerably.

   "Well, from the evidence, I'd say it didn't," Dorian admitted, "but I honestly don't remember much."

   "Always a convenient fiction," Sergei said, coming up behind them from the small corridor. "Care to let me pass? I want to get to the front door."

   "What's the matter with you?" Kinta demanded.

   "Nothing. Everything's wonderful. The age of heroes is with us again. The noble Doctor yields his body to save my nephew's virtue and the beauty of his sacrifice moves me to tears. There ought to be a ballad about it. It's exactly what I'd expect of him. You can tell him I said so, because I won't be here for lunch." He pushed past them and out.

   Kinta stared dumbstruck after him.

   "Uncle Savijc's in one of his snits," Gunmar said calmly. "Don't worry about it. He'll get over it."

   "Oh yes? Remember that one he had at Jean? It went on for days and days, industrial strength. Don't tell me we have to put up with that again."

   "That was a little different," Gunmar reminded him. "There was a war on. We were all a bit short, including you." He nuzzled Kinta's shoulder fondly.

   "So who's he mad at now- him or Takamatsu?" He jerked a thumb at Dorian.

   "Me," Dorian said. "It seems I was indiscreet yesterday."

   "You're joking. And what did that crack mean, about saving Gunmar's virtue?"

   "Everybody seems to think I have my eye on him, for some reason. Takamatsu took me out to ask me my intentions and had me swear on a stack of bibles that I wasn't going to rape him in the near future and got me blind drunk and brought me home and screwed me himself. That's what happened. Happy?" he said belligerently, having talked himself into a temper.

   "Just so I know," Kinta said with unwonted mildness, taking Dorian off-balance. "So what are you here for, if not Gunmar?"


   "You're not serious? You really want Majek?"

   "I'm serious. I really want Majek."

   "You're crazy then, but never mind. I believe you. I thought you were just spinning a nice story that took everyone in." He glanced at Gunmar, who shrugged an 'I told you so.' "Well, if Takamatsu's alright, I should be getting back to the seminar. Break's over." He looked at Dorian, bit his lip, and said "See you," before turning on his heel and heading back down the corridor.

    "I told you he was nice," Gunmar said.


    "He said 'see you.' He's taking to you."

    "I hardly think so."

    "Oh he is. You'll see. That's how he was with Szincza. The two of them fought like wildcats when they first met- I mean real fights: bruises and black eyes and a couple of chipped teeth. And then when they'd knocked each other around enough, they were friends. I think Kinta changed his mind about you when you yelled at him."

   "Obviously I should have done it before." The old school wisdom: stand up to the bully and the bully will back down. Not that it had ever worked with Klaus, but then he'd never tried chipping Klaus' teeth. Maybe he should have done that as well.

   "What are you doing just now?"

   "Waiting for Majek."

   "He won't be home until dinner-"

   "Oh. Well. Maybe I could walk about the city for a bit..."--and decide by daylight if that rood screen was worth having.

   "That's a good idea." He hesitated. "You might run into Takamatsu."

   "I might."

   "I'm sorry about that. I know you're angry at him."

   "I'm not, really. Never mind what I said to Kinta. He was quite decent this morning."

   "It's kind of you to say that but he shouldn't have done what he did. He took advantage of you."

   "Oh hell. I think I wanted him to. It wasn't his fault."

   "Well, yes- I know how it can happen with Takamatsu."

   "I hope you're not speaking from personal experience." It was a little late in the day to be worrying about having slept with a baby-raper, but he felt he should know the worst.

   "Oh yes. He was my first."

   Christ. "He took advantage of you, then."

   "Oh no. It was quite different with us. I was so unhappy after Szincza ran away, and I wanted someone to comfort me, and I knew that Takamatsu was the only one who would."

   "But he was like a father to you..."

   "No-o, I don't think so. I never felt that way about him. He was more- I don't know- my person. The one who belonged to me. He looked after me and waited on me and gave me everything I wanted. I guess he was trying to make it up to me, because he thought he'd taken so much away." He smiled remini-scently. "But I shocked him to his soul when I asked him to sleep with me. I didn't realize. And he shocked me when he refused. It was the first time he'd ever said no to me, about anything, and it hurt so much I couldn't believe it. So when he saw how much I minded he said yes."

   "But you were so young--"

   "Not really. Twenty-four."

   "And he was your first?" Given Gunmar's behaviour at twenty, it defied belief.

   "The first man who ever- you know- did it to me. Just playing with someone else doesn't count. Everybody does that."

   After a minute, Dorian said, "Everybody kisses. Everybody gives hand jobs. Why do I feel I'm missing something? Sergei said homosexuals are stoned in the street in your country."

   "That's changing, actually, but yes, they used to be."

   "And wanking someone doesn't make you a homosexual?"

   "Well, no. Men have to do something before they get married. It's not much  different from doing it to yourself."

   "So who gets the stones thrown at them?"

   "Men who let themselves be used as women. If you're very severe, men who use other men as women."

   "Homosexuality means penetration?"

   Gunmar blushed. "Well- yes."

   "Hm." That was useful to know. "What if you happen to like penetration?"

   "It's a problem. You have to be sure you can trust the other man not to give you away. That's why it's safest to keep it inside the same family."

   "Mm. We keep it in the same class. It does give you more partners."

   "I've often wondered which you are," Gunmar said a little shyly. "Can I ask?"

   "Which what?'

   "Umm- active or passive?"

   "It depends who I'm with and how we feel and- well, it depends."

   "Oh." Gunmar looked dubious. "When you were with Uncle Savijc?"

   "The same. Sometimes up and sometimes down; and sometimes we did those things that don't count."

   "But changing around like that- isn't it-" He stopped, frowning.


   "Well- not much fun?"

   Dorian had to smile. "It's a great deal of fun. More than sticking to one way or the other. You should try it some time."

   Gunmar looked shocked. "Oh, I don't think so. I can't imagine what Kinta would say if I suggested it. I can't- actually- imagine doing it." His eyes wandered off, as if he were trying to do exactly that. Dorian trusted the seed was well planted in Gunmar's head, although he too couldn't actually imagine him doing it.

   "I suppose- if I had someone to try it with... to see if I liked it..." Gunmar was thinking out loud.

   "That's a good idea," Dorian said encouragingly.

   "And you're not busy right now..?"

   Dorian opened his mouth to answer and kept it open as Gunmar's meaning sank in.

   "I- I- that is..." he stammered. Caught. Neatly, beautifully trapped. He felt like applauding.

   "You don't want to," Gunmar said in disappointment.

   "Takamatsu made me promise I wouldn't touch you," he explained. "I gave him my word as a gentleman."

   Gunmar sighed. "Takamatsu thinks of everything."

   "Yes, he does." He stared helplessly at Gunmar, amazed at how tempted he was. It would be one in the eye for the Doctor-- and he'd never won against Takamatsu before-- and it would be good for Gunmar to have his sexual horizons broadened-- and it might make Kinta think as well-- and... He let the sirens sing to him a moment, knowing he wouldn't be able to give in.

   "I want to," he said. "I really really do. But I gave my word..."

   "It was only to Takamatsu. Does it count?"

   "Of course it counts."

   "But he's not related to you- you've got no ties to him--"

   "That makes no difference. I promised. If I break my promise, my honour is compromised."

   "What an odd way of looking at things. That means a promise to a stranger- to an enemy even- is just as binding as a promise to your father or older brother. That can't be right."

   "It's the way we do it."

   "But why did you promise?"

   Why indeed? He tried to remember. "Takamatsu thinks Kinta would mind. He thinks it might end your relationship."

   "Hmm." Gunmar considered. "I suppose he might. But maybe not if he knew I was- was the active one. I could ask him."

   "Ask him?" Dorian said in shock. "You don't mean, tell him before you do it? Get his permission?"

   "Yes of course. I've never done it before so I don't know how he feels. I should ask him. That's logic."

   "Gunmar-- Look, I mean- Kinta doesn't own you. It's your body, you can do what you like with it. You don't have to ask permission from anyone."

   "But- but if that's true, then it's OK for us to sleep together. So why did you promise Takamatsu not to?"

   "Because Kinta might mind."

   "Then why shouldn't I find out if he minds or not? I don't understand you."

   "It's just that- asking permission- I don't know. It sits badly with us. Why not just ask him if he wants to change roles for once?"

   "Oh, I couldn't. He's always active. I mean- except when he was with Uncle Halim--"


   "Uncle Halim was his first, and of course he was the older so Kinta had to be passive, and I don't think he liked it."

   "Oh," said Dorian palely, "I see. Look, Gunmar. I do want to, really, but I honestly can't. Even if Kinta says he doesn't mind, I'd have to get Takamatsu to release me from my promise, and I don't think he would."

   "True." Gunmar looked momentarily downcast. "It's too bad but I guess it  can't be helped. Well, I should get back to work. I'll see you at lunch."

   "When is it, by the way?"

   "One o'clock."

   "Right. See you."


   Dorian wandered out into the streets, trying to put some order into his thoughts. Was it Circassia that was topsy-turvey, or just Gunmar? It all looked like Alice in Wonderland to a westerner. Clearly, whatever Circassians said about themselves, they were far more liberal in practice than they would admit. Which meant, Dorian thought with a lifting heart, that Majek's refusal might not be a refusal at all. It was merely a matter of putting it the right way. Unfortunately he lacked what seemed to be a basic qualification: he wasn't a member of Majek's immediate family.

   He contemplated the casual incest of the Aouilles with bemusement. It made sense in an odd way. If you were engaging in a proscribed activity- one that might get you killed- in a society where the only people you could trust were your family: well, who else could you sleep with but your family? It wasn't as if they were copulating inside the forbidden degrees. Cousin and cousin was well enough, even in England, though uncle and nephew gave him pause... Kinta and-- Halim. The name gave him a reflex bad feeling. He didn't want to think about Halim, that seductive shadow from Sergei's past. The man had snared his brother's heart tightly enough, and Maaqa's as well, and now it seemed he'd preyed on his nephew too. He felt a fleeting pity for Kinta, freed from his prison only to fall victim to Halim's perverse fascination. I might not trust people either, Dorian thought, if that had happened to me. At least he got away, and Sergei too. That made him feel better. Sergei was with Jean now and whatever had happened in the past was over. He was safe. Safe and satisfied. Lucky Sergei.

   And less than lucky Dorian. A vague sense of frustration dogged him as he wandered by the canal. He hadn't seen Majek since last night; maybe that was the problem. But since when had he grown so impatient? He'd laboured seven years for Klaus- which was a bit excessive, he had to admit now, but still... He'd first seen Majek a mere twenty-four hours ago, and here he was fretting that the man hadn't dropped into his hand- like an apple from a tree, as Jean had said. Half the pleasure of being in love was the pursuit and the anticipation. Any true hedonist could tell you that. Was he growing vulgar in his old age- experiencing a coarsening of the soul to parallel that of the flesh?

   The thought froze him in fear. Oh no- not that as well. He'd never even considered the possibility. Would he lose his fine instinct for beauty and his hypersubtle ability to appreciate it? Panic beat within his chest. To become a rutting middle aged roué, grabbing desperately at pleasure like a pig at a trough... He took deep breaths to still the pounding of his heart. He wasn't that far gone, surely, not yet. The process of acquisition was still as important as the fact of possession. Majek- would he take Majek now, this very minute, if he could have him? Well yes, he had to confess he would: if it was a Majek who'd come half way to meet him, a Majek become as intent on Dorian as Dorian on him, a Majek who was waiting to take him amid the shadows of a large canopied bed. He thought of those broad shoulders and wide chest naked above the sheets, of the pale hair glowing in the dim light, of Majek's arm held out in command and invitation to his lover...

    Dorian sat down suddenly on a nearby bench because he could no longer stand. The blue eyes that looked at him like a great cat at its prey; the hard mouth that worked at his throat like a loving predator; the naked muscled body, heavy and rigid, that pinned him to the mattress, working above him and within him; blunt-fingered hands that held his cheeks open as the thick blind worm rammed at his inner gate... He sat motionless, paralyzed by lust. The back of his shoulders pressed uncomfortably against the edge of the bench, but he couldn't move... didn't have to, not even his fingers: the rubbing of his tight pants was friction enough. Majek had him on his back, Majek's large hands pinioned his forearms, he was Majek's to use as he pleased-- 'Open up, little brother,' the velvet voice enjoined, and Dorian obediently spread his knees and Majek's mouth settled on his groin...

   The trees and water and blue sky swam together in a flashing brightness and Dorian arched, just a little, as electricity jolted through him. He panted as he  came back and wiped the sheen of sweat from his face. God. God. He might as well be sixteen again and liable to attack by the panther Lust at any hour of the day or night. Yes, this was what it was like; he'd almost forgotten. Randy teenager or lecherous old man, there wasn't really much to choose. The elemental power was the same. It was his vanity as an aesthete to try and bind it with chains of roses: to gild the panther's claws and comb its hair. A servant's pretensions, no more. The beast was not for taming. He knew that perfectly well, though he wasn't often compelled, as now, to admit the fact. Yet it amused him to assert that his will had some say in the matter: that he was a servant, and not a slave. He refused to be led by lust in the shape of a flea-ridden ape, ungroomed and shambling: and that was not going to change, however old he became.

   He rose at last from his musings and continued along the canal. Yes, he could wait for Majek; he could track him as closely and lovingly as he had Klaus, and enjoy the chase. It wouldn't be for long. He knew that instinctively. Where Klaus was sea-cold and stone-grey, Majek held the sun in him. Majek wouldn't be able to resist the answering warmth of Dorian, any more than his brother had, or his brother's lover, or his son... He smiled involuntarily. It would have been interesting to let Gunmar make love to him. Painful too, no doubt, but worth it. Virgins were so rare; it was something after all to be a boy's first. Not that Gunmar was a boy, in terms of years, but every other way... in every other way, he seemed a perpetual youth. The thought stopped him. Perpetual youth, like that... Was that to be envied?

   The canal was widening, turning into the river that flowed towards the sea. Dorian walked on, his original mission forgotten. To be forever young, yes, that was a desirable state. Young, not infantile. To be young like Jean, boyish in face and a man in spirit: that was more like it. Yet even with Jean the contrast between the twenty-year-old face and the forty-year-old mind was too shocking. It felt unnatural. So did that mean that the spirit had to stop aging if the body did?

    Then what was the ideal age for it to stop at? Twenty-five? Thirty? But at twenty-five he himself had been a fool, and at thirty not much better. In those days he'd believed that if he could only capture his iron Major he'd be the happiest of men. What of Majek, then? Surely if it were possible he'd want him to look- to be- much younger than his present sixty-odd? He tried to imagine him at twenty, or even thirty, but his mind refused to comply. 'Like a tank'- running roughshod over people, ignoring everything in its way-- like Klaus-- He shook himself. No. No, oddly enough, it seemed he wanted Majek just the way he was now. Silver haired, with the age lines patterning his skin, calm, experienced, detached: all the more fascinating and all the more dangerous because of it.

   A young Majek would have repulsed his efforts more violently than Klaus had done. This was the man who'd fashioned a country out of a rabble of tribes that had warred for millennia. There'd been no patience with people then: only a burning determination to achieve his ambition at whatever cost. Unbidden, his mind recalled the photograph Klaus had shown him a dozen years ago. That Majek would have killed him if he'd been as importunate as he'd been last night, not kissed him and put him aside like a child. A sudden surge of confidence buoyed Dorian's spirits. Majek, like Klaus, had underestimated him; Majek, like Klaus, would pay for that with his body.

   He began to whistle as he paced the esplanade that edged the broad grey river. The tempo had picked up here, a world away from the backwater canals. The green willows glowed in the spring sun, and children ran back and forth playing obscure games. Old men and women sat on the benches, engaged in emphatic conversations. The occasional seagull swooped in for a piece of litter, to be chased off by the barking of any one of the small dogs being taken out for its morning stroll. Dorian watched them with a casual and indulgent eye. His gaze almost passed over the man sitting still and alone on a bench by himself, but instinct drew it back. It was Takamatsu. Feeling friendlier towards him than he ever had, Dorian sauntered over.

   "Good morning, Doctor."

   Takamatsu turned, drawing his attention back from some internal view.

   "Lord Gloria."

   "May I sit down?"

   "Do." He shifted over. Dorian waited, unconsciously expecting some kind of attack. It didn't come. Takamatsu's eye had gone back to the river, as if Dorian wasn't there. What was going on? He reviewed what he could remember of last night's events and suddenly intuited his answer.

   "Is this one of the places you came with him?"

   Takamatsu jumped a little in surprise. "How did you guess? No, never mind. I should know by now to expect the unexpected with you."

   "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude. Should I go?"

   "Oh no. Stay if you like. I'm not feeling chatty today, but..."

   His voice trailed off, and he looked back at the river again as if compelled. Dorian sat in silence himself, watching the mesmerizing flow. He jumped in his turn when Takamatsu said, after a few minutes, "Are you alright?"

   "Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"

   "You're so quiet. It's not like you."

   "I could say the same of you, Doctor."

   "Are we going to start scrapping again?"

   "Let's not. It's more tranquil like this."


   After a small silence, Dorian said, eyes still on the river, "I should thank you for this morning."

   "No need. Complications do occur."

   "And for last night."

   "My pleasure, quite literally. You're very gifted, even half unconscious."

   "Thank you. Can I count on you for a testimonial?"

   "You need only ask. Have you been back upstairs today?"

   "Oh god yes."


   "Sergei's annoyed at me. It seems I talked too much yesterday. I thought the rough side of your tongue was bad but it's nothing to his."

   Takamatsu laughed shortly. "He can do it. You'd have found out eventually. Did you see Samh' Gunmar?"

   "Yes. He was worried when you didn't come home last night. Kinta came up at the break to see if there'd been word of you. I told them you were alright."

   Takamatsu sighed, and his face grew clouded. "I don't want to add to Samh' Kinta's worries, but- somehow..." His voice trailed off again.

   "Maybe I'm the one who should be asking. Are you alright?"

   "Oh- yes..."


   There was a pause, then Takamatsu said, slowly, "I'm being haunted."

   "By Ruza?"

   He nodded. "He's here, everywhere. I meet his memory at every corner. It's odd. I'd never expected it to be like this. It hurts so much, but I'm terrified lest it stop."

   "I've always believed we leave something of ourselves in places where we've been happy: a kind of spiritual trail that can be traced by those sensitive enough to do it. Maybe what you're sensing is the happiness he felt then. In which case it won't go away. It's part of the city now."

   After a moment, Takamatsu said, "That's a nice thought. I wish it were so. This is the one place I ever saw him truly content." He sighed again. "Everything seemed so possible then. His papers met with such a warm reception from the European scholars... There was talk of giving him a chair at the university here so he could pursue his research in the best surroundings. I'd never known him so happy. He glowed with it." He looked fixedly at the river. "We had a month here together, alone- away from the family, in the company of scholars and gentlemen. Not a soldier in the bunch. Good food, good talk, and ideas- ideas, all day long. Anything farther from home can't be imagined. At night I lay in our hotel room, in a bed for once, listening to his breathing and thanking the God I don't believe in for what he'd given us."

   "Don't you have beds in Circassia?"

   "In Circassia I slept, as was proper, on the floor of his room, guarding the entry. I don't mean there was anything to guard him from. It's a custom from the older days, the student protecting his master." He gave a small reminiscent smile. "Except in winter. He always felt the cold then, especially at night. In winter he'd have me in his bed to keep him warm, and sometimes in his sleep he'd hold me in his arms. I'd have walked through fire for the sake of those moments." He registered Dorian's expression. "Oh, it was all quite chaste. He wasn't that kind of man. Only sometimes he'd dream I was his wife and try to have me like a woman. I saw to it that he was satisfied and he never woke to know the difference."

   "Really?" Dorian murmured in polite disbelief.

   Takamatsu smiled sardonically. "Really. Of course I thought differently then. I flattered myself that he knew what he was about: knew perfectly well in his feigned sleep whose hand it was that made him happy. It took me years to grow out of that vanity and admit the truth. He didn't know, and if he had he'd never have allowed me near him again."

   "It must have been hard- to love him and get no return," Dorian said with deep fellow-feeling.

   "His existence was return enough for me. To have his company and his conversation, to have his guidance for my studies and his occasional approbation- yes, and whatever other little perks I could come by, naturally- that was all I wanted. I could see myself being his assistant all my life long, helping his work and sharing a little in his glory. I thought he'd take me with him wherever he went. I was so wrong." His eyes went bleak. "At that April convention they invited him back to the autumn symposium. It was an unimaginable honour for someone not yet thirty. And when September came, he was dead."

   "I'm sorry." Dorian touched his arm.

   "Don't be. We went home and it all seemed like a dream, this time here. I'll tell you a secret. It doesn't matter if you tell anyone else. They won't believe you. I'm glad he died. For his sake, not mine. Not ever mine. But death released him from himself and from his brothers and from all the things that hurt him and made him cruel. I couldn't have wished him a longer life than he had." A slow tear slid down his cheek. "But it was such a waste. Such a waste."

   Dorian could only watch in painful silence. After a moment Takamatsu wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand.

   "I suppose you think me demented."

   "Not at all. I can respect grief."

   "Even if you don't understand it."

   "Why do you think me so unsympathetic?"

   "Not unsympathetic, merely fickle. Have you ever had any deep attachments, Lord Gloria?"

   "Yes, of course. A number of them. Life-long affinities."

   "To whom?"

   "Giorgione's shepherd- he was my first- and Caravaggio's Bacchus, and Pisano's young man, and-"

   "I'm talking about real people."

   "So am I."

   "Dead, and their likeness imprisoned on canvas."

   "Ars longa, vita brevis.[1] They were the lucky ones. They were transfigured- immortalized- by their artists. I once thought that the beauty I saw on canvas was only a reflection of the true beauty of the human body, but now I know it's the other way around. Those portraits are forever young and forever beautiful, and the human body-- well."

   "You're sounding middle-aged all of a sudden. I hope that's not a result of this morning? It would be a pity if you decided to become celibate."

   Remembering what had transpired a quarter hour earlier, Dorian was quite able to reassure him on the point.

   "I don't think I'll ever be ready for celibacy. There are too many beautiful men in the world. It's just that I don't expect permanence from them any more. Forever isn't a word that belongs on human lips."

   "I can't agree. 'Forever' is the only word that makes sense. I loved samh' Ruza and I will love samh' Ruza- forever. Without that fact my life would be meaningless. It's the one fixed star that tells me where I am."

   "Love may be a star for you. For me it's like the sun that sheds its beams in all directions. I have to follow them- in all directions. Just a difference in temperament, that's all."

   "Perhaps. But if so, why were you still with Eberbach? How long did that relationship last?"

   "Too long. I can't think why we stayed together. I suppose- it took so long to get him- I wanted to think he'd been worth it. And anyway, you've been unfaithful too, in your fashion. What about Gunmar?"

   "What about him? He and Samh' Kinta are like my sons. I love them, but not at all in the same way. You know there's more than one kind of love in the world. Or do you?" Takamatsu rounded to look at him. "I don't believe you do. It's all desire for you, isn't it?"

   "I wouldn't say that--" but to be honest, he couldn't think of anyone he loved without desiring them. "Well, there's friendship, but that's different, I suppose. It's just- wanting takes up so much energy. It doesn't leave much to spare for other emotions. And anyway the others are so flat by comparison- like a watercolour placed next to an oil painting."

   "There's a delicacy to aquatints that's missing from oils. Loyalty, and service, and duty- they have their own charms, but you need a fine eye to appreciate them."

   Dorian's shoulders rose automatically. "Loyalty and service and duty have no charms at all. Klaus was forever going on about them. He uses those words like a club to hit people over the head with."

   "A soldier and a spy isn't likely to have a refined instinct for enjoyment. Epicureans needn't apply for the Service. What surprises me is finding a man of your tastes who can't appreciate the pleasures of devotion."

   "I can. I'm devoted to beauty. It's been my life's quest, as science- and Gunmar, I suppose- have been yours. But it needs to be a two-way street. I have to get as well as give. Self-abnegation is a dead end. What can you possibly find to enjoy in it?" 

   "It's- a consolation, I suppose. Without it, I'd be dead. After Samh' Ruza died, I had nothing to live for, except Gunmar. It seemed only justice that I should stay alive to look after him. I'm not a Circassian- I don't blame the son for his father's sins. It seemed unfair that an innocent should suffer because of our revenge. I took him on as my punishment, and instead he brought me joy past telling... And when I was worried about what would happen to him after I-- I mean, after I was gone- Samh' Kinta appeared, like his father returned to life. Never mind the details, but I'm partly to blame for what happened to him as a child. It's a miracle he didn't become my life's enemy when he found out. It's a miracle they both didn't, and more than I deserve. Serving them is the one way I know of paying that debt. If Samh' Kinta could gain the fame his father missed, I could die happy. But it's so dangerous, what he's discovered."

   "In what way?"

   "What Majek said. He's right, of course. The rest of the world will look on the highlanders as nonhuman. In my worst nightmares I can see them being hunted like rhinos or elephants, by poachers intent on their genetic material. No- in my worst nightmares, the world powers declare a jihad against the country. Pure genocide, because they're different."

   "Surely that's a little farfetched?"

   Takamatsu slewed round to look at him. After a moment he said, "Sergei will live past a hundred and twenty and never look a day over sixty. He'll be hale and hearty decades after you've gone to your grave, however advanced an age you do it at. How does that make you feel, Lord Gloria?"

   After a minute, Dorian said, "Most peculiar. But if someone could try to reproduce the chromosome, or find a way to do chromosomal surgery  with it... You're the one who's right. It should go to the pharmaceutical companies."

   "Now if only I could convince Samh' Kinta of that..."

   "If only..." He glanced at his watch. "Lunch will be soon. We should go back."

   "Make my apologies to the young folk. I'm not feeling hungry."

   "Oh. Alright. I'm sorry I took up your time."

   Takamatsu looked surprised. "Not at all." He hesitated, then added, "Sergei won't talk about his brother now, and the children don't want to hear. There's been no-one I could say all this to." He glanced at Dorian and his mouth twisted. "If anyone had told me yesterday I'd be opening my heart to you, I wouldn't have believed him; but there are indeed more things in heaven and earth..."

   "Don't mention it. If anyone had told me yesterday that I'd be listening, I wouldn't have believed them either."

   Takamatsu smiled, but there was a small anxiety in his eyes. "How much of this are you going to repeat, and to whom?"

   "None of it. I'd rather not see which of you can take more skin off me, you or Sergei. Once was quite enough."

   "Prudent and beautiful. You'll go far, Lord Gloria."

   "Sod off, Doctor," Dorian said cheerfully and walked away, waving once behind his head in Takamatsu's direction. But for all he knew or guessed, the Doctor had gone back to looking at the river.


   There was a tangle of officials and police cars in front of the hotel on his return. Dorian was required to show his I.D. and be checked against the hotel register before being allowed inside.

   "What happened?" he asked the manager who had vouched for his bona fides. "A bomb?"

   "No, no, monsieur," the man assured him, shocked. "Merely a small contretemps. A gentleman was knocked unconscious. Pure drunken high spirits, apparently."

   "But all these policemen-"

   "Security, sir, is our foremost concern," the man said reprovingly.

   "Of course," Dorian murmured. "Most commendable." Well, it might even be true. Or it might be Klaus and his friends playing cops and robbers, as ever-- a run-in between agents on opposite sides, perhaps. Thank god, that wasn't any longer his concern.

   Jean and Gunmar and Kinta were already seated at the table. Kinta's head jerked up as he entered.

   "Oh- it's you."

   "Do you know where Takamatsu is, Lord Gloria?" Gunmar looked wan.

   "Yes. I ran into him by the river. He said he wasn't hungry, and asked me to make his apologies."

   "Christ-" Kinta looked away. "He said he'd be here."

   "Don't take it personally," Jean said. He seemed a little subdued as well. "It's his life."

   "It's mine, too. He owes me. Why isn't he here now, when I need him?"

   "Ask him that yourself."

   "He's never here for me to ask," Kinta said angrily.

   Gunmar ate in silence, apparently intent on his dinner. Dorian helped himself to wine, having breakfasted too late to be hungry now. He drank slowly, watching Kinta chasing bits of food about his plate. Very few of them made it into his mouth.

   "How's the project coming?" Jean asked Gunmar at length.


   "Did you ever find a way around that pod problem?"

   "No." After a pause he went on, obviously making an effort to be sociable, "Though it did occur to me-- maybe I'm using the wrong material. If I used a polymer instead of fibreglass, any encrustations could be cleaned more easily..." Dorian had no notion what he was talking about, but Jean's questions eventually drew him into a long commentary that grew more animated as he spoke. It seemed to have something to do with a machine to be used underwater, but beyond that he hadn't a clue. He glanced over at Kinta, who had stopped even the pretence of eating and was staring into his wineglass.

   "So if I could find an insulating material thick enough, the articulation wouldn't be a problem any more," Gunmar was confiding to Jean, who nodded as though that actually meant something to him.

   Kinta threw his napkin on the table and pushed his chair back. "I'm finished," he said. "See you downstairs, Jean."

   "Oh- see you," Jean said in surprise. Gunmar half turned his head to look after him but then went back to his exposition. After a carefully considered minute, Dorian rose and left as well.

   His thief's instincts had already given him a working idea of how the suite was laid out, and he followed the direction Gunmar had come from that morning. There were two rooms at the end of the cul de sac, but he didn't have to guess which one it was. Kinta hadn't bothered to close the door.

   He was sitting on the edge of the bed, bent over as if his stomach hurt him. One fist was pressed tightly against his mouth and silent tears ran in streams down his cheeks. Dorian stood frozen, first in shock, then in embarrassment, and then in sudden pain. He himself had wept like that only this morning. The memory of his grief and of Klaus' words that had caused it came back in unbearable clarity, mirrored in the desolation before him. His eyes overflowed and a sob escaped him before he could stop himself. Kinta jerked upright.

   "I'm s-sorry," Dorian said. His voice came out shamingly unsteady. "Really I am. I just--" He could say no more. His curiosity had gotten him exactly what he deserved, and all he wanted now was to get away and be alone with his pain.

   "Wait." Kinta's voice was harsh and cracked. Dorian turned back unwillingly. Kinta's mouth moved but no sound came out. Impossible just to leave him in this state-- He came in and sat down on the bed. Kinta covered his face with both hands and began rocking back and forth, sobbing aloud.

   "Professor Aouille- please- please don't distress yourself like this," Dorian begged, wiping the tears from his own face. The lump in his throat was choking him. This was horrible. Any more and he too would be howling like a three-year-old.

   "Oh Christ," Kinta wept. "Oh Christ. Christ. Christ." It seemed all he could say.

   "Won't you tell me what the trouble is? I really can't bear to see you so unhappy." He gave the big shoulder an awkward pat, feeling queasy with grief and embarrassment.

   "Oh God." Kinta rubbed both palms across his wet cheeks. "I wish I'd never come here. I wish we'd stayed in Circassia. We were ha-happy there."

   "There, there." Dorian put an arm around his back, which the other didn't elbow away. It helped if he pretended Kinta was only a desolate little boy in need of comfort. A gigantic little boy, half again Dorian's size: but this whole-hearted grief had nothing of the adult in it. "It can't be so bad."

   "It is," Kinta said in a kind of ferocious misery. "He doesn't want us. He wants to leave us. He wo- he won't-" He hiccuped on his sobs.

   "Ssh," Dorian smoothed Kinta's thick blond hair, as he would gentle a horse. "Who doesn't want you?"


   "Of course he does. He loves you- you and Gunmar. He's said so often enough. He won't leave you. You know that."

   "No he doesn't. He stays away- he breaks his promises- Takamatsu never broke his promises before we came here."

   "He just has to be alone to deal with some old feelings. It doesn't mean he doesn't love you--"  

   "It does. It does," Kinta insisted. "He only loves my father. He wants- he wants to die so he can be with him." He rocked back and forth in pain.

   "Oh, I don't think so. You're being melodramatic, don't you think? It's just that the memories are so strong here-"

   "You don't know anything about it!" Kinta cried. "He's refused to have the treatment that would save his life. He's going to die and I can't stop him!" He stared into Dorian's eyes, wretchedly triumphant, but with something still of the small child begging an adult to make it different.

   "I had no idea..." Dorian said in shock. "Oh my dear, I'm so sorry." The misery in Kinta's eyes was too much to bear. Dorian hugged him hard. Kinta's arm came around his back and held on to him tight. How it happened he couldn't have said- his head was next to Kinta's and somehow his head turned, or Kinta's did, and their mouths being so close together just sort of met naturally, and the next minute they were kissing. Gravity took him backwards onto the bed, with Kinta's iron arms about him and his heavy body half on top of him, and suddenly he found that his fantasy of the morning had become exhilarating flesh. It wasn't Majek, but so what? He didn't care. His body only knew that it was receiving the sensations it wanted. His fingers twined fiercely in the mane-like thickness of Kinta's hair as his hips writhed beneath Kinta's pelvis in search of the friction he needed. Kinta's wet mouth took his breath and his tongue filled Dorian's own mouth- he was so big, all of him...  

   A large hand was fumbling between them, trying to open his fly. He slid his fingers in, undoing the top button. Kinta got the zip down and reached into Dorian's crotch, and Dorian found his cock being squeezed in a meaty fist. He gave an unthought 'Ah!' of delight. What an amazing sensation. He too wanted something for his hands to be doing. With more practice than his partner he unzipped Kinta's trousers, releasing the thick organ within that came rigidly into his grasp. God, he was so big, all of him. Kinta's great fist worked at him while he more delicately manipulated Kinta with a thumb and forefinger. He wanted to be the first to get off- it would be a pity to waste on his fingers alone the glory he held in his hands. "Harder," he begged into Kinta's ear, "Harder- Make me come--" The speed and pressure of Kinta's hand became unbearable. Dorian lost control of himself, thrashing and gasping. He remembered only at the final moment to bite on his forearm to stifle the cry that came from his throat.

    He let the silver glinting darkness fade around him and turned eagerly to his treasure, but a glance in passing at Kinta's face made him pause. Kinta's eyes were wide and wild with equal parts desire and distrust.

   "I don't know your customs," Dorian said, as gently as he could through the clanging of his own desire. "I don't want to offend you--" The staring blue eyes prompted him to continue. "Would you mind- Is it alright- if I use my mouth?"

   Kinta gasped and nodded. "Yes," he whispered. "Yes." The 'please' was unspoken, but Dorian heard it anyway. He smiled and leaned over to give Kinta a chaste kiss on the cheek. Then he slipped down in the bed and began a most unchaste adoration of the beautiful piece of flesh before him. His ministrations were almost too good. Three times he had to stop short to give them both a breathing space. By the end Kinta was weeping again with pleasure and sweet frustration. Dorian, merciful and, by this time, impatient himself, at last brought him to fulfilment. As he'd hoped, the postponed delight made the other satisfyingly copious in his spendings. It also sent him into a near catalepsy when he was done. Dorian lay beside him, drifting in a blurry undefined contentment. He could leave him to sleep... but even as he thought that, Kinta stirred and came to. His pale blue eyes looked amazed and disoriented until they settled on Dorian's face. There was a small silence as they regarded each other.

   "Why did you do that?" Kinta asked at last, seeming truly puzzled.

   "Because I wanted to. You're very beautiful," Dorian hastened to assure him.

   Kinta reddened and looked uneasy. "You don't even like me."

   "I don't dislike you. You were the one who took against me first."

   "I thought you were laughing at me, like Sergei does. I didn't realize--"

   "Sergei doesn't laugh at you. Wherever did you get that idea?"

   "He looks at me--"

   "Don't be silly. He respects you. I think maybe you frighten him a little. You're so serious always." He stroked his hair again. All the Aouilles had lovely hair; it was impossible to keep one's hands off it.

   "That's what Gunmar says. But life- life is nothing to joke about." His mouth lengthened in unhappiness.

   "So what's the matter with Takamatsu, then?"

   Kinta looked away. "I shouldn't have told you that."

   "He doesn't want people to know?"

   "It's a secret."

   "Can you at least tell me what's wrong with him?"


   "But there's a treatment he could take, and won't."

   Kinta nodded.

   "Did he tell you why not?"

   "He said we wouldn't understand. But I do, now, since we've been here."

   Dorian stroked his face lightly, a small gesture of comfort. "Why don't you ask Sergei to do something?"

   "Sergei said it's his choice. He won't interfere." The misery was back in Kinta's voice.

   "True. He's not the interfering kind. What about Majek?"

   "What could Majek do?" Kinta asked in scorn. "He has no influence with Takamatsu."

   "No, I suppose not. Only, if I wanted to get something done around here, it's Majek I'd ask. He's used to doing miracles."

   "I'll have nothing to do with Majek. Takamatsu would never forgive me."

   "If he's alive not to forgive you, does it matter what he thinks?"

   Kinta gave a small 'oh' of pain.

   "I'm sorry," Dorian said. "That was the wrong thing to say. I really don't want to hurt you, you know."

   "It's alright." He went a little red. "I never thought..." He bit his lip, then blurted out, "I never thought I would ever see you crying for me. Because you felt sorry for me. Only Takamatsu's done that for me, ever. But I never thought Takamatsu would leave us either. I don't know what to believe any more. Nothing's the way I thought it was."

   'Including me,' Dorian thought, but kindly forbore to correct Kinta's misapprehension. Let him believe the Earl of Red Gloria a model of tender sympathy if it made him happy. "That's life," he said platitudinously. "It's full of surprises. Some of them can be pleasant, you know- like this." He sketched the bed they lay in. "We may yet find a way to save Takamatsu. Don't give up, Professor."

    An unexpectedly sweet smile transformed the heavy face. "You might as well call me Kinta. Everyone else does." That smile was like a sudden glimpse through a half-open door of flowers blooming in the sun, and it took Dorian's breath away.

   "Kinta," he said, and for no reason he could put words to, felt fresh tears sting his eyes. It had something to do with innocence and loss, and a half-memory of some sunny place he'd once been in longer ago than he could remember.

   "Oh, don't cry, Lord Gloria," Kinta said clumsily. "You're too pretty for it. I thought so before, but I didn't like to say so."

   "Call me Dorian," he smiled. "We shouldn't stand on ceremony, now."

   "I guess not. Look- I'm going to have a nap. I'm too tired to even think about the conference. I don't suppose you want to stay with me?"

   "Actually, I slept in till almost eleven. There are some things I should be doing before tonight."

   "Good-bye then, Lord Gl-- Dorian."

   "I'll see you later." Dorian stood and put his clothes to rights.



   "Will you give me a kiss?" He looked as though he expected to be refused.

   "Of course." Dorian kissed him warmly and left him smiling and closed-eyed on the bed.


    What he had to do before tonight was change his underwear. The effect of the family Aouille was amazing, but likely to prove ruinous to his laundry bill if not his health.

    "Lord Gloria."

    Dorian turned in surprise as Jean's voice hailed him from the door of the large sitting room.

    "You aren't at the conference?"

    "No." Jean was eying him consideringly over his cigarette.

    "What's up?"

    "The last I looked, Kinta. You do have a way of turning me into a voyeur, Dorian. Don't you ever close the door?"

    "Oh-" Dorian flushed 

    "I suppose it's my fault for suggesting you try your charm on him. Somehow I thought that only meant you'd speak to him nicely. I take it he's not attending this afternoon either?"

   "Uh, no- but it's not what you think. Really. He's upset about something."

   "I can imagine. And he confided in you?"

   "It sort of slipped out. He didn't mean to tell me."

   "Then I won't tempt you to let any more cats out of the bag."

   Dorian sat down on a chair nearby.

   "You know, I didn't mean to tell you anything I shouldn't have yesterday. I don't know what I said to make Sergei angry, but it seems I'm well and truly in the dog house now."

   "Me too. I got carried away last night. He's pretty sore about it."

   "To coin a phrase."

   "What? Ohh- oh God- did I really say that? Christ, you can't take me anywhere." He slapped the side of his head. "Look, Dorian- you see the kind of man I am. No tact, no polish. So you won't mind me asking just what's going on with you and Kinta?"

   "Nothing. Really. It just happened. And it won't happen again, probably."

   "Probably." Jean smoked in silence, considering Dorian. "I must be getting paternal in my old age. Kinta and I've worked very closely together for five years. There's a special kind of feeling that comes from that, though we don't seem to have a word for it. And I'm fond of Gunmar. I always have been. I really don't want to see them hurt."

   "I'm not trying to hurt them. Kinta was in pain. What else could I do?

   Jean sighed. "You're too generous, Dorian. If only you could be prudent as well."

   "Prudence," Dorian said in disgust. "Prudence is such a bourgeois trait. It's just another name for cowardice."

   "Not when it makes you avoid unkindness. No-one's likely to accuse you of being afraid of Gunmar, after all."

   "Without offence, I think who I sleep with is my own concern."

   "Not if it affects my family. Then it concerns me too."

   "Your family? But you're an Acaille."

   "My family by marriage. Sergei's clan is mine now."

   "But you're not married, really. I mean, you can't be, can you?"

   Jean shrugged. "Well, yes and no. There's an old custom. In every generation an Acaille is supposed to marry an Aouille to symbolize the union of the stones. But neither of our families has had a girl-child in centuries, so if it's to be done at all it has to be two men. That's the reason people tolerate Sergei and me."

   "That's ridiculous."

   "To a westerner, perhaps. Not to Koczi and Miyagui and the rest. It's unorthodox, maybe, but the idea of a sacred union makes sense to them where two men together wouldn't."

   "But you take it seriously too."

   "Well, I'm a Circassian at heart, however much I live in the west. I suppose I  think of Sergei as my husband as much as my lover. We're the same family now. If someone's making life difficult for my nephews, naturally I want to say something."

   "This is Europe. We think people's private lives are private."

   "We think your life belongs first to the clan. No, I understand your attitude, Dorian, but try to remember that as long as you're in this apartment you might as well be in Circassia. Don't offend against the customs more than you have to."

   "If you keep to Circassian customs here, could I wind up married to Majek?"

   "I'm not going to answer that question. You don't need any encouragement."

   Now that was very interesting. Interesting and promising. Dorian had a sudden vision of himself at his wedding, swathed in silk and veils, adorned with layers of golden necklaces and earrings, with his eyes heavily outlined in kohl. He was in a litter accompanied by a train of musicians playing cymbals and bells who were escorting him to the bedchamber of his bridegroom-- Oh yes. Oh yes. That was a nice one. And maybe even possible. Circassia had all sorts of quaint customs that Sergei had never told him about.

   He smiled involuntarily, and then realized Jean was headed into the hallway. He turned his head in time to see him reach out a hand to stop Sergei who was coming down the corridor.

   "Savijc-" he began, but Sergei gave him a blank glance as if he were a stranger and made to pull his arm away. Jean held on to him.

   "Wait- I need to talk to you."

   Sergei's eye narrowed. He gave an odd half-twist of his torso, and Jean flew backwards to land hard on his rump. Without looking back in his direction Sergei continued down the passage.

   "Damn." Jean pulled himself to his feet. "I keep forgetting he knows how to do that."

   "Maybe a marriage counsellor?" Dorian suggested.

   "Unkind, Dorian. I didn't think you were the bitchy type." He gave a small sigh. "Looks like we're in for the long haul on this one. Oh dear."

   "Why not go after him and apologize?"

   "I tried that this morning. No dice. Usually I'd just let him get over it in his own time, but with all this other stuff happening... Oh well. Suppose I might as well go downstairs and salvage something of the afternoon session. See you at dinner." He turned and headed towards the front door, limping a little.


    And now he really was going to go and shower.


    Newly washed and dressed, he descended to the lobby and rang for the special elevator. As the doors were about to close, Takamatsu came rushing up. Dorian pressed the 'open' button.

   "Just back, Doctor?"

   "Mm. I'm afraid I lost track of the time."

   Dorian subjected him to a close scrutiny. He didn't look ill, but there was an abstraction in his manner as of a man whose thoughts were all turned inwards.

   "Smut on my nose?" The black eyes swung suddenly in his direction.

   "Ah- no- sorry." Dorian looked away as they arrived at the fourteenth.

   "You'll excuse me, Lord Gloria--" and Takamatsu disappeared into the suite, leaving Dorian disconsolate and, as far as he could tell, alone. Majek was still out. He knew that by the empty feeling all around him. Where Majek was, energy vibrated in the air. He wandered into the small study where they'd first met and sat down in the chair he'd been sitting in. It was covered in smooth leather and embraced him lovingly. He slewed sideways and pretended he was being held by those strong arms. It comforted the odd empty place in his chest.

   "What's the matter with Samh' Gunmar?" He jumped at Takamatsu's harsh voice.

   "I don't know. He was fine at lunch. What's happened?"

   "He's locked in his room and won't come out. He won't talk to me--"

   "Maybe he's with Kinta? He didn't go to the afternoon session..."

   "Why not?"

   "Uh- he seemed upset about something."

   "God knows he has reason." Takamatsu threw himself into a chair. "Christ, I wish this was over. The strain is driving us all crazy."

   "Umm- I don't think it's the paper he's worrying about. He was very upset when you didn't come back for lunch."

   Takamatsu sighed. "Samh' Kinta is very masterful."

   "You can't hold out against him, so you stay away?"

   "You can call me a coward if you like. I can't refuse him anything, and it's not good for him."

   "But you are refusing him something. He told me you have a terminal illness and won't take treatment."

   Takamatsu's mouth tightened. "He told you that? Fast work, Lord Gloria."

   "He was very very upset. He was in his room crying like a baby. Why are you doing this to him?"

   "Lord Gloria, you don't know the whole story, and I'm certainly not going to tell it to you. Believe me, I'm no sicker than you are."

   "Kinta said you were dying!"

   "He exaggerates. I have a condition- congenital and basically untreatable- that will kill me eventually, in ten years, or twenty, or maybe even longer. But in the meantime I'm perfectly healthy. Samh' Kinta is just overreacting because of the stress he's under now."

   "Eventually... Or it could kill you tomorrow?"

   "Unlikely. It's usually degenerative."

   "God. So you could have years of slow dying… Kinta said there was a treatment. Why won't you take it?"

   "It's new and untested. I'm not a guinea pig. These things tend to have unknown side-effects, and the procedure itself is painful."

   "This really has nothing to do with Ruza?"

   "Samh' Ruza? No, of course not. How could it?"

   "Don't you think you should talk this over with Kinta? He has these ideas, and if they're wrong he ought to know."

   "We've been over it and over it. There's nothing new to be said."

   "So it's not because you want to die and be with Ruza?"

   "What?! Oh God- is that what he thinks? How could he- and him a scientist? That's-"

   There was a sudden change in the air pressure. It felt as though they'd been hit by an invisible wall. Dorian blinked in bewilderment, but Takamatsu was on his feet in alarm.

   "That- the front hall-"

   Running feet thudded down the corridor.

   "Where was it?" Kinta yelled. Gunmar, pale and tight-faced, was right behind him.

   "Samh' Gunmar-" The blond soldier appeared from the living room. Kinta snapped something at him in Circassian, and the man hastened off. Takamatsu had a head start on them all. Dorian followed him down the front hall and out the door. As they made it to the vestibule, the coded door opened from the outside. They piled into each other as Takamatsu came to a sudden stop.

   "Oh good," Sergei said. "Kinta, telephone downstairs to the manager. Tell him there's been an attack and we want the police here."

   "Is that a good idea?" Kinta asked, eye taking in the three unconscious bodies on the ground behind his uncle.

   "Yes. This is nothing to worry about- just a clumsy grab. Let the police deal with them. The men are guarding the entrances?"

   "Yes. Just in case."

   "Good. Dorian, give me a hand getting them inside. Gunmar, get Miyagui here to keep an eye on them. They shouldn't come to for a while, but we'll play it safe."

   Bewildered, Dorian helped Sergei lift each of the inert bodies and dump it in the narrow vestibule between the two doors.

   "Why aren't you hurt? It felt like a bomb went off out there."

   "That wasn't them, it was me."


   "I said, that was me."

   "Doing what, for heaven's sake?"

   "It's hard to explain," Sergei said brusquely. "The Chinese call it 'ki'. It's a focussed form of energy. Very useful in an ambush. It stops people long enough to allow time for more conventional karate chops and such."

   Dorian eyed Sergei with respect. Like Jean, he found it easy to forget some of Sergei's more unusual talents. This 'ki' thing might have practical applications in his own line of work- a silent invisible bomb--

   "They were waiting for you?" Takamatsu asked.

   "As I stepped off the elevator."

   "Why you?" Kinta came back into the vestibule.

   "Possibly because I'm a known Circassian, possibly because I was the first person to arrive. They must be assuming that any one of us could be a lead to the others."

   "Why not keep them here and interrogate them ourselves?"

   "If they're this clumsy, there's probably not much they could tell us. We'll let the police handle it. But you and Jean are going to have to be more careful. Stay in groups downstairs, and don't eat or drink anything outside the apartment. And Gunmar-"

   "You're too late," Gunmar said. "They tried to jump me in front of the hotel this morning." He was looking down at the floor.

   "What did you do?" Kinta sounded surprised.

   "What you taught me to do. It worked. And I don't want to talk about it."

   "Samh' Gunmar-" Takamatsu began in concern, but Kinta was already saying, "Why didn't you tell me?"

   "I was going to- after lunch- but you were busy." His eyes flicked resentfully to Dorian, who blushed in sudden enlightenment. "Anyway, I have work to do."

   He turned on his heel and strode back down the hallway. Kinta went after him.

   "Gunmar- wait a minute-"

   Gunmar rounded on him. They heard his voice quite clearly.

   "I said, I have work to do. And I said, I don't want to talk about it. All I want you to do is leave me alone."

   Kinta came back, flushed with anger and biting his lip. 

   "Don't bother him for a bit," Sergei advised. "He's upset. He's not used to hurting people, after all."

   "And I am?"

   "I didn't mean it that way-"

   The elevator door opened and Miyagui swung his rifle up, taking the manager and three burly police officers by surprise. Sergei explained the situation swiftly, and the highest ranked of the police immediately called in reinforcements. There being nothing he could do, Dorian went back into the sitting room where Takamatsu was stewing visibly.

   "Samh' Gunmar is too gentle for this sort of thing. I should take him away... But I can't leave Samh' Kinta alone. And I hate to see the two of them at odds like this. He's just so upset, poor boy..."

   "He's not a boy," Dorian said shortly. It was Takamatsu's fault Gunmar was so upset. If it hadn't been for that promise he'd dragged out of Dorian last night, Gunmar would have had no cause to be jealous of his cousin. They could have shared Dorian between them, and very nice too. He almost said so, but knowing that Takamatsu's prejudices would never allow him to admit the point, he refrained.

   "I wish Majek would come back," he said, and then, "God! They wouldn't try something with him, would they?"

   "They'd be very very sorry if they did."

   That he could believe. It was silly to worry about anything happening to Majek. Like Klaus, he was eminently capable of looking after himself. And a few minutes later he heard the lion-velvet voice in the corridor, talking to Sergei, and his heart leaped. He hadn't seen him in such an eternity... He came to his feet as Majek and Sergei and Kinta entered the room.

   Majek nodded at him and Takamatsu, abstracted, without interrupting his conversation. "A pity I couldn't get back earlier. I heard about the attack in front of the hotel. What did Gunmar say?"

   "Very little," Sergei said. "It obviously upset him."

   "He handled it very well, going by what the manager said. I thought it was you from the description," he added to Kinta. Kinta grunted, looking ill at ease. "I need to get his report. Where is he?"

   "In his room. He's in a bit of a state."

   "Tell him I want a word with him."

   "You won't get it," Kinta said. "He took my head off. Just leave him alone."

   "He doesn't want to see any of us right now," Sergei added. "You know how he feels about all this."

   "Yes, but--" Majek frowned. "Takamatsu-"

   "He's not speaking to me either," Takamatsu said reluctantly. Majek's eyebrows rose.


   How could he refuse? "Yes, of course. I'll just go see how he's doing." Candour compelled him to add, "I may have to use some extraordinary measures, of course..."

   Majek said matter-of-factly, "Just put the door back on when you're finished."

   "Oh, I always do."


   He knocked on the door. "Gunmar? It's Dorian."

   There was no answer. "I know you're angry, but won't you let me explain? Really, there is a reason."

   Silence. Dorian sighed and took the pick-lock set out of his pocket. Noiselessly he unlocked the door and turned the knob. Gunmar was at his desk, back turned to him, hunched over a blueprint.


   Gunmar whirled around, face contorted, and Dorian found himself frozen in the ice-blue glare of his eyes.

   "Get out," Gunmar said in a cold, tight voice. The world seemed to slip sideways into the dream-like reality of déja-vu. Somehow he knew this had all happened before- Gunmar being angry, and a sense of huge menace hanging over him like a cliffside about to collapse. Reason told him not to be silly- this was Gunmar- but instinct shrieked that he was in mortal danger. It was instinct he listened to. He dropped to his knees and held both hands out before him in an attitude of contrition copied from Rembrandt's Prodigal Son.

   The stranger's face dissolved, and Gunmar was staring back at him, amazed and distressed. "Lord Gloria-"

   "Gunmar. I'm sorry, really I am. It just happened. Kinta was upset and I only wanted to comfort him--"

   Gunmar picked up a drafting pen and turned it back and forth between his fingers, eyes averted.

   "I know- I understand- but-- You wouldn't do it with me."

   "I promised Takamatsu-"

   "I don't want to hear about that!" Gunmar cried. "'I promised'- 'I promised'- and so you won't- Oh, go away and leave me alone." He turned his chair back to the drawing board.

   "I promised Takamatsu not to ask you, and to say no if you asked me. It's a question of honour. But of course, if neither of us does any asking-"

   "Oh-" Gunmar looked at him over his shoulder. Their eyes met. Dorian got up, came over to Gunmar's side and kissed the back of his neck. The skin was surprisingly soft. A small smile crossed Gunmar's face. He slewed around and put both arms up to bring Dorian down to kissing level. It was uncomfortable bending like this. Dorian pulled him to his feet and kissed him standing, even though that still required him to stoop a little.

   Gunmar tugged him over to the bed and they collapsed on it together. After a bit Gunmar took his tongue from Dorian's mouth.

   "Fair's fair," he said. "Only what you did with Kinta."

   For no good reason, Dorian was reminded of nursery meals with his sisters, when their jealousy of him and each other had required the most scrupulous counting out of raisins and biscuits at tea. "One for Daphne, one for Penelope, one for Sarah, and one for Dorian. One for Daphne, one for Penelope--"

   "Alright," he said. "But we'll have to be quick. Your father's waiting for us."

   Gunmar's face fell. "Why?"

   "He wants to know about the men who attacked you this morning."

   "Oh." Gunmar burrowed into Dorian's shoulder like a child hiding under the blankets. "I don't want to talk about it."

   "Was it so terrible?"

   "Just- people shouldn't do things like that. It isn't nice. I never did anything to them..."

   Dorian patted his shoulder consolingly.

   "I know. But bad people do exist. And if they're going to be stopped, you have to fight. Otherwise they just keep on."

   "Yes. Yes, I suppose." He sighed deeply. "Alright. I'll go talk to him. I guess this can wait."

   Superstitious or not, Dorian felt a small relief at the reprieve. If an unforgivable sin existed, his public school background assured him that breaking his word was it. While he naturally expected God to be as understanding of his professional and sexual habits as his own father had been, he wasn't sure that divine lenience extended to playing fast and loose with his gentleman's honour. He waited while Gunmar put himself to rights and shepherded him down the hall to the sitting room.

   Gunmar answered Majek's questions briefly- there were two men standing next to a car, they'd grabbed his arms and tried to push him inside, he'd fought the way Kinta had shown him to and knocked them unconscious, the car had taken off and no, he hadn't got the licence plate number.

   "I came right back inside and up to the suite. I didn't want to go out again."

   "They're under arrest, in hospital. The police will want you to identify them."

   "Do I have to?"

   "Yes, of course," Majek said, clearly stifling impatience.

   "Well, if I must. Are you finished with me? I've work to do."

   Majek sighed. "Go ahead. Oh- I was telling the others. Even before all this happened, I called Szincza and told him to come to T--. There are some people he should meet. He'll be here by tomorrow."

   "Szincza's coming?" Gunmar's head came up like a parched plant getting water and his face shone. "That's wonderful! Oh, I'm so glad!" He gave a deep happy sigh, collapsed onto the couch by Kinta, and smiled on them all like a benevolent sun. Dorian blinked a little. And he'd thought his own moods were volatile...

   "Well," Majek was saying, "I was going to wait until after dinner for this, but we might as well deal with it now." He turned to Kinta. "You see how it is. They're prepared to use violence, and not just against you. Against all of us. Be very sure, this is just a beginning. I'll ask again. Will you modify your paper?"

   Kinta bit his lip. "You said a quid pro quo."

   "I did."

   "Whatever I want?"

   "Whatever lies in my power to do. I can't give you the moon."

   "I don't want the moon. I want Takamatsu. I'll change the paper if you'll make Takamatsu take that treatment." He turned and looked at the Doctor, who had gone suddenly still.

   "Fair enough." Majek sounded a little surprised. "Takamatsu-"

   "Samh' Kinta- I can't. You know I can't. Please don't force me like this."

   "You don't give me a choice," Kinta said. "I can't let you die."

   "I'm not going to die for years, Samhet-"

   "You could die tomorrow. I won't have it. Your life is mine, and I won't let you take it away from me."


   "I need you. Gunmar needs you. How can you think of leaving us?" Kinta's voice was going higher.

   "I've no wish to leave you, Samhet, but there's no proof whatever that it will work. At least let me have the years that remain to me in peace-"

   Kinta was shaking his head. "It works. I know it will. It has to."

   "But it may not work as you hope. You know there's a possibility that it could all go terribly wrong, and what sort of life would I have afterwards?"

   "I don't believe in that. It's a bogey-man you've manufactured for yourself. There's no foundation for your belief."

   "I can't agree. It's just too radical. You don't know what it would do to me-"

   "We've been over this again and again. It makes no difference. If you don't agree by Friday, I give that paper as it stands. That's all." Kinta stood up, looked challengingly at Majek, not Takamatsu, and strode from the room.

   "Wonderful," Majek said. "I go from having to coerce Kinta to having to coerce you. Wouldn't it be nice if life were easy, for a change?"

   "Papa," Gunmar expostulated, and went to put an arm around Takamatsu. "This is serious."

   "Very serious. I'm not denying it. More depends on it than just one man's convenience."

   "Convenience, General?" Takamatsu took his hands from his face. "Is that what you call it? I call it my free will."

   "Call it what you please. It's the point on which the safety of my people rests, and for that reason alone I may have to take it away from you."

   "This must be a change for you," Takamatsu said bitterly, "threatening a man with life in order to get your way. It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks."

   "It's either force you or force Kinta. I could do that, you know. Have him taken back to Circassia, keep him under house arrest until all this is over--"

   "No!" That was Takamatsu and Gunmar, together.

   "Do you see any other choice? As long as he's free, with that knowledge in his head and a will to use it, he's a danger. I could only trust him if he binds himself not to reveal it. And you're the price of his doing that."

   "Takamatsu," Sergei broke his silence. "It's not irreversible. You won't have to live with anything you can't stand. Really- why are you making all these difficulties?"

   "It's an unknown treatment, with unknown side-effects. None of you really knows what it does. You're just hoping."

   "Kinta's right, you know. Your objections don't hold water, scientifically. I think you simply don't want to."

   "That's right."

   "Why not?"

   Takamatsu was stubbornly silent.

   "You're sure you're not just being suicidal in a gentlemanly fashion?"

   "Oh God- do you think that too? What's wrong with all of you?"

   "What are we talking about?" Majek asked.

   "Samh' Kinta-- and your brother as well, apparently-- thinks I have some romantic notion of dying and going to join Samh' Ruza."

   "Ohh." Majek looked enlightened. "Is that why you're refusing?"

   "No it is not!!" Takamatsu bellowed in frustration.  

   "But Takamatsu-" Gunmar said. "Ever since we got here- you know, you've changed. It's like- like you're not with us any more. You can't blame Kinta for being- well, worried."

   "Jealous," Sergei said.

   "That's exactly the sort of romantic idiocy I'd expect from you, Sergei," Takamatsu snarled. "But you-" he turned on Gunmar, "you and Kinta are supposed to be scientists. Why do I even try? It's like trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, getting you peasants to think like rational human beings." He spat the last words out with furious contempt and stalked from the room.

   Dorian rose in alarm and hastened to Gunmar's side. He was so white he seemed about to faint.

   "Gunmar- Gunmar, listen." Gunmar stared at him as if at a stranger. "Don't mind what he said. He's desperate- he didn't really mean that."

   Sergei said, "He always has to hit out before he gives in. He wanted to see someone hurt and you were closest to hand. Whatever it sounded like, that was meant for Majek, not you."

   "Takamatsu- Takamatsu never says things like that." Gunmar's voice was dry. "Not to me. Even when he left me for Kinta-- he told me w-why he- he-" He put a hand over his mouth. "What have we done to him?"

   "Nothing," Dorian said. "Just loved him too much to let him harm himself."

   "Oh," Gunmar made a noise of pain and his eyes spilled over. "But why does it have to hurt so much?"

   Dorian and Sergei exchanged glances over his head.

   "No-one knows," Sergei said gently.

   "It just does," Dorian told him.

   "I see," Gunmar gulped. "You really don't think he meant that, then?"

   "You know he didn't."

   "Maybe I should go talk to him..."

   "Leave him alone for now," Majek suggested. "He's fighting the inevitable and it makes him angry. He'll come to you when he's ready."

   "Yes, I see. Thanks." Gunmar mopped his face and stood up. "I think- I think I'll go see how Kinta is."

   They watched him leave. "The cuckoo's child," Majek said. "He's not like me, he's not like Takamatsu, he's not like any of us. Where on earth did he come from?"

   "Must be a recessive gene." Sergei stood up. "In the past, he wouldn't have lived long." He went over to the liquor cabinet and filled three glasses with Scotch. "It's there when you want it," he told the other two, and sat down in his chair again.

   Dorian fetched Majek's glass and his own.

   "How will you go about persuading Takamatsu?" he asked as he handed it over.

   "I don't think he can be persuaded. If he's held out against Kinta and Gunmar... The man has no other weak points that I know of."

   "So how will you do it?"

   "Force," Majek said shortly.

   "You mean- against his will?" Dorian asked, aghast. "But you can't--"

   "No. That's for Szincza to do. The peace and good order of Circassia are his responsibility now. It's for him to decide that Takamatsu poses a threat to them, and to deal with him."

   "But--" He gazed in consternation at Majek's calm face.

   "Circassia isn't Europe," Majek told him. "You westerners have odd ideas about the importance of the individual. It's because you have no tribe- no group that claims your loyalty. In our country, the good of all comes before any one man's wishes. That's just sense."

   "Then why not start by forcing Kinta?"

   "I was prepared to do that if nothing else worked. I'm just as pleased not to have to. I'd rather compel Takamatsu to undergo this treatment, however unwillingly, than make Kinta more my enemy than he is."

   "But- Isn't there any other way?"

   "Can you think of one?"

   The door chimed, and the quick thud of Miyagui's boots in the corridor was followed by the muffled sound of Jean's voice at the entrance. Sergei let out a sudden deep breath, but it was Majek who spoke as Jean came into the room,

   "Are you alright?"

   "Yes, of course. Never better." He looked at them. "What happened?"

   "An attempted abduction- Gunmar and Sergei. Separately, this afternoon."

   "Christ," Jean said, sitting by Dorian. His eyes flicked to Sergei and away. "Is Gunmar alright?"

   "Shaken but unharmed. He dealt with the men himself, for a wonder."

   "The talent's there. He's your son when all's said and done. So what happens next?"

   "If I had my way, you and Kinta wouldn't set foot outside of here until Friday. Next time they may know who to go after, and they might be armed. Any chance?"

   Jean shook his head. "Too much happening. I'll be careful not to get by myself, if that helps."

   "And we can hope that our enemies have scruples about killing innocents. Otherwise they might just bomb the convention hall."

   "You can't be serious."

   "I am. You're not dealing with rational men."

   "I just can't believe it. I've had a couple of people ask if I knew anything about the paper- known scholars- and they don't take even the basic concept seriously."

   "You haven't told them, I hope!"

   "Of course not. But if the scientists don't believe it-"

   "You academics don't live in the real world. There's no point trying to explain. Just be very careful from now on. I know you've got nine lives, but I think you've used up most of them." He drank his whiskey off. "Meanwhile, I've called  Szincza. He'll be here tomorrow. And I've had it out with Kinta."


   "He's willing to alter the paper if I make Takamatsu have that operation."

   "Oh my god. But- that's-" He turned in his chair. "Are you going to do it?"


   Jean was frowning at the carpet. "And Takamatsu's reaction?"

   "Tantrums. Insults. What would you expect?"

   "It's his life. He's got a right to protest."

   "He's the price of Kinta's agreement. At least Kinta named a price. I was afraid he wouldn't."

   "I wonder if Kinta's thought what will happen afterwards? Does he think Takamatsu will forgive him?"

   "Probably. And being Takamatsu, what are the chances that he won't? You know he thinks the sun rises and sets in Ruza's son."

   "But this-- Don't you think it's a bit much?"

   "Name me an alternative. You can't persuade Kinta. Gunmar can't persuade Kinta. I can't persuade Kinta. What's left?"

   Jean looked at Dorian.

   "I'm sorry," Dorian said miserably. "I was the one who suggested that he ask Majek to help."

   Jean stared at him. Majek's mouth lengthened in pleasure, like a cat with cream. "Did you now?" he asked. "Well, well, well. Once again I find myself in your debt, Lord Gloria." He stood up and smiled down at Dorian in deep satisfaction. "What did I tell you?" He tugged at Dorian's curls from behind in a rough caress. "Thank you, little brother." He turned and left the room jauntily. Dorian, following him with his eyes, wished he could feel the same satisfaction.

   Sergei had gotten to his feet as well but was making no move to go. Jean stood up slowly. For a silent moment they looked at each other across the width of the room. Then Jean crossed to Sergei's side, took his hand in both his own and bent low over it, pressing it to his lips. Sergei grabbed a handful of the black hair and yanked him upright. "You idiot," he said intensely. "You lunatic, you clown, you sot a triple étage,[2] you-- unspeakable-" His voice shook and his mouth closed on Jean's. Jean pressed into his embrace, murmuring broken words of apology between kisses. Sergei's other arm came round his back in a rib-cracking hug. The long fingers dug into the material of Jean's jacket, and Dorian realized that his presence here was very much surplus to requirements. Although the other two were no longer even aware of his existence, he was the one who left.


   He wandered down the corridor to the kitchen, half-hoping that Majek would be there, but the room was empty. Maybe he wasn't cooking today... Which meant a weary hour or two until dinner. He sighed and sat down on a long-legged stool by the kitchen counter. He was beginning to feel like a court lackey, hanging about the King's apartments waiting for his appearances. This wasn't like him. He should be out doing something- out stealing something. It was a principle of his to keep his emotional and professional life in some kind of balance. For instance, those choir stalls would go nicely in the new wing of his country house... His eye flicked to the door of the kitchen, but there were no steps in the hallway. Or another tankard to match the first one... He turned fretfully on his stool. He didn't want either. He wanted Majek. He wanted Majek now.

   God, this was horrible. He'd felt this raw ache at fourteen about the Giorgione, and at sixteen about his study-mate at Eton, but since then his wantings had lost their most painful edges. Desire had been for so long a sweet lure to entice him gently towards delight that he was shocked to find it once again a lash that drove him desperately forward. He would do anything, anything to end this pain of not-having. He wanted and wanted and knew he would die if he didn't get.

   He gave a small moan of anguish, turning restlessly back to the hallway, and nearly jumped out of his skin to find the Ara fellow standing silent and motionless beside him.

   "Your pardon, Milord Dorian."

   "It's alright," Dorian said automatically, heart pounding.

   "Milord is ill?"

   "Oh no- not at all. I'm fine, thank you." 'Go away', he thought miserably, but the man simply stood looking at him with his soft black eyes.

   "Did you want something?" Dorian prompted at last.

   "Milord is at leisure?"

   "Yes, of course. But you don't have to keep calling me 'milord.' It's not my title."

   "Oh. What am I to say then?"

   "'Vous'." There was something too intent in the man's bright eyes. Maaqa's protegé... Dorian's nerves jumped. He smiled glowingly, and his hand moved to be near his concealed knife while Ara's attention was focussed on his face. "What can I do for you?"

   The smile had its effect. Ara relaxed into a more interactive mode.

   "I was wondering if we might talk."

   "Certainly." There was a silence. "What shall we talk about?"

   "Mi- you- you're a friend of Samh' Savijc's, I understand?"


   "You've known him for some time?"

   "A number of years." Dorian waited for a mention of Paris.

   "Forgive my presumption but- might we too be friends?" The man seemed to be holding his breath as he waited for the answer.

   "If you like," Dorian said, puzzled. "Don't you have friends here?"

   Ara shrugged. "Only the likes of Koczi- a good heart, but as you see, impossible. And Miyagui has a friend at home."

   "Friend...?" A suspicion was growing in Dorian's mind. "You don't mean- as in 'little friend'?"

   Ara nodded. "I prefer gentlemen."

   "I'm sort of spoken for," he said automatically.

   "Oh, just for a time, of course. The difference in our rank..."

   "How long a time?"

   "I'm free for the next hour."

   Wonderland. Complete with rabbit holes. Dorian allowed himself to fall.

   "But of course."


   The small room on the back hallway had been set aside for the soldiers' use, and was piled with their clothes. It smelled muskily of sweat and men. Ara locked the door as Dorian sat down.

   "Only one bed?"

   "One of us sleeps by the hall door, and the other by the balcony. It's customary." Ara, kneeling, was undoing Dorian's belt.

   "I'm sorry, but I don't actually know your name."


   "Ara- sh- schi-"


   "I thought I had some facility with languages. Do you have a Russian name?"

   He frowned. "Alyosha, but I don't care for it."

   "What should I call you then?"

   "Toi." His mouth went to Dorian's groin, and Dorian, subsiding onto his back, sank his fingers into the seal-smooth hair. He was good. He was very very good. And he seemed to think that Dorian's balls were the best thing ever invented. No-one had ever lavished such attention on that detail of his anatomy before. Dorian hooked a leg over the young man's back to give him greater freedom, and Ara responded by moving around to the ridge behind, making Dorian's butt clench.

   Ara looked up eventually. "Is that good?"

   "Yes- very."

   "You'll tell me what you like?"

   "No need. You seem to know."

   He looked pleased. "You're my first European--" he said, with an odd awkwardness.

   "We're no different from you."

   Ara's hand worked over the end of Dorian's cock. "That can't be true. We never cut the little king--"

   "The what?"

   "This. Some people call him the happy warrior. I thought the Turks were the only ones who cut off his hood."

   "Oh, that. That's just a silly custom, really. Nothing to do with religion. People used to think it was cleaner."

   "Oh. But you do other things like the Turks, don't you? They say-"

   "What do they say?"

   "They say- you-" He hesitated. "You use men- like women-"

   "Don't you do that too?"

   "They say some people do," Ara said carefully. "But it's dangerous. The penalties--"

   "Would you like to try it?"

   The man looked wary. "Is that just a question?"

   "It's an offer."

   "You want to do it to me?"

   "If you like. Or you could do it to me."

   Alarm and lust flashed across his face in equal measure. "But- you're a gentleman. I couldn't."

   "It's got nothing to do with rank," Dorian said, amused, as he sat up. "It's just a question of what you like."

   Ara looked as if Dorian had spoken in Greek. "You're a lord," he said doggedly.

   "I'm a man. You're a man. That's all."

   Ara was frowning ferociously, as if trying to make sense of this.

   "Look," said Dorian. "How do you know I'm a lord? By my clothes. How do I know you're a soldier? By your uniform. If we take our clothes off, we're just two men together, and neither of us is different from the other. So let's do it."

   "That's crazy," he said, but his eyes were on Dorian's body and it was clear from the bulge at his groin that his own body had other ideas. Dorian undid the first button of the brown shirt. It was like breaking a dam. The other man's hands flew up and down Dorian's own clothes with unexpected grace and had him naked in no time.

   "Oh God," Ara said, as if in a dream, "Oh God- milord is so beautiful-" He tore his uniform off and fell on Dorian, kissing him wildly and erratically. "So beautiful..." He was actually crying. Dorian's estimation of the soldier rose several notches. Such sensitivity to beauty was rare. He pulled the young man up on top of him and kissed him deeply and thoroughly. Ara's hands moved over and around Dorian's flesh as though he'd never felt a man before, and his cock was hard and quivering in Dorian's fist.

   "So, shall we?"

   "Oh yes- please, yes-" The worship and rapture in the dark eyes warmed him like a bright sun.

   "Do you have cream?"


   "Something for lubrication--"

   "Oh- no--" He looked as though the world was ending.

   "Well, we can use saliva then, but you'll have to be more careful. It'll be easier to hurt me..."

   "I don't want to hurt you, milord. Milord is an angel from heaven." Ara's mouth moved feverishly about Dorian's jaw and neck. "How can I be worthy of such beauty?"

   "Don't be silly, my dear. You're lovely enough to deserve the best." He danced his fingers across the smooth hills of Ara's buttocks, and the other arched in delight. "Come." Dorian rolled him to his back and got his tongue about the other's sex. He licked at it energetically, laying saliva on as heavily as he could, and liquid leaked from the slit to add a viscous shine to the red straining skin.

   "There. I think you'll do. How do you want me?"


   "On my back, or on my face, or what?"

   "Ohh-" He hesitated. "Which do you want?"

   "You decide."

   "Which is better?"

   "For you- probably standing while I bend over the bed."

   "I couldn't--" He gave Dorian a pleading look. "It's not fitting. It's not-- dignified."

   "What's dignity got to do with love? If I bend over it feels better for both of us. If I'm on my back it lets us look at each other. Which do you want?"

   "Do I have to choose?"

   Dorian smiled, adamant. "Yes."

   He bit his lip. "On your back."

   Dorian lay down, amused and a little aroused by Ara's submissiveness even in the active role. It'd be nice to have him some day in his natural mode. That feral hint to him- he'd be like an obedient animal with just a hint of jungle wildness... His cock jumped at the idea, but he resolutely turned his attention to the present business. He lifted his legs.

   "Hold them up- like that- that way you can reach me-" Ara was bending Dorian's knees back to his ears, strong shoulders pressing against the sensitive skin on the backs of his thighs. His hips came off the mattress. Dorian stretched a flexible arm and moistened Ara's hardness with a mouthful of saliva as it approached the entrance to his body. Ara gulped.

   "Come in, my dear. Don't be shy."

   Ara pushed in tentatively. The head of his tool lodged in the opening,  pleasantly uncomfortable for the nonce. His eyes showed all white around the irises and he seemed incapable of proceeding. Dorian thrust gently against him with his hips.

   "Deeper, love. You've only one foot over the threshold."

   Desperately Ara pushed into him. The lack of cream meant Dorian could feel his advance in minute detail. It hurt, most definitely, in a fashion that made his head swim with delight. With Klaus he always went soft at this point but now his nerves seemed to have picked up a new programming. He rejoiced to feel his stiff cock rubbing at Ara's stomach as the man came all the way inside him.

   "Oh God," Ara gasped, "oh God, oh God--" He was braced on his arms, arched above Dorian like a canopy. Sweat ran down his face and tears fell from his blind staring eyes. His pelvis began jerking in and out in shallow spasms, seemingly independent of his control. Dorian could have instructed him in the finer points of the art but clearly Ara was past hearing. He drove at Dorian harder and more deeply. The sensation lost all nuance of pleasure, but Dorian endured. This wouldn't last long. Nor did it. A moment later Ara arched and cried out, open-mouthed, and collapsed on top of him, sobbing inconsolably.

   "There there." Dorian patted his back. "Was that so terrible?" What he wanted to do was turn the young man over and plow him in his turn, but he fought his instincts. Ara was in too much distress for that.

   "Oh my lord- oh my lord- I never- I didn't want-"

   "Hush." Dorian kissed him, bemused by a sudden fancied resemblance to James: or the James he'd known in the early days when his accountant had still retained some sweetness. James too had wept like this when Dorian had stolen his virginity from him. He nuzzled the flowing corners of his eyes. "What's the matter, hmm?"

   "Oh- oh- milord is so beautiful- I never wanted to hurt you-"

   "You didn't."

   "I did- I know I did- ohhh- but it felt so good-" His mouth buried itself in Dorian's neck.

   "It's the price of being your first man. I don't mind. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Don't worry, technique will come in time." He took hold of Ara's hand and brought it to his own rampant sex, by way of a gentle hint as to how he wanted to be thanked. Ara sniffled, mopping his face with his other hand. The black eyes gleamed at him suddenly.

   "You should do it to me. It isn't right otherwise."

   "Do you want me to?" He could feel the tension coming off the man's skin.

   "You want to." That was true. He did. The curve of Ara's young rump was driving him insane. He was dying to bury himself in those two smooth pillows. To have fresh young flesh beneath him again...

   "How old are you?" he asked suddenly.


   Another of the unchanging Circassians. He wasn't really twenty, he only looked it. And it made no difference at all. Quite the opposite.

   "I want you. I want you very much. But you're a virgin and it will hurt--"

   Ara went red. "I'm not a virgin," he muttered, turning aside.

   "And you still want to?"

   "Yes. Milord is a gentleman. You won't be trying to hurt me."

   "Were your other lovers so cruel?"

   "There was only one, and he wasn't my lover." Ara's shoulders came up. "It's part of being a soldier." He closed his mouth, showing the subject was closed.

   Maaqa. He knew it with sudden certainty. Pity added fuel to his lust.

   "Alright. I will. But isn't there anything I can use- something slippery..."

   "There's some shampoo, but-"

   "Good enough. Shampoo it is, then. Where?"

   He mutely indicated the washstand in the corner. The shampoo came in a glass bottle, not a plastic tube, which suggested an absence of tiled showers in Circassia. Dorian tested the viscous stuff on a finger- thick as machine oil, with a vaguely medicinal scent to it- and brought it back to the bed where Ara was watching him white-eyed, like a horse about to bolt. He ran a reassuring hand down the rigid back and manoeuvred him gently to a face-down position across his lap. Araszyam gulped hard.


   "Just a little practice first. You should always warm up before exercise." He rubbed a finger up and down between the swelling cheeks. The young man gave a deep "Oh!" and began to wriggle. Dorian's cock rubbed distractingly against the warm hard belly. He put a hand on Ara's bottom to keep him still and slipped the tip of an oily finger inside. Ara froze on a sudden, his sphincter closing tight.

   "Relax," Dorian told him, "Relax, my dear. Just open a little more..." He wiggled the tip of his finger and felt an easing about him. Boldly he pushed in to the knuckle. Ara made little moans of distress and pleasure and Dorian began to twirl his finger, slowly, in tiny circles, while the rest of his fist bounced against Ara's red balls. The groans went into a higher key and the hot passage opened further. Dorian's finger entered all the way and rubbed at last against the round bulk of the prostate. Ara was bucking up and down, face flushed and shiny with sweat, legs swimming among the sheets. Dorian withdrew and then began the process all over again with two fingers. It was coming to be a question of how long he himself could hold out. When Ara began pushing against the heel of Dorian's hand, he judged the time ripe for the next stage.

   "On your knees, my dear, by the side of the bed." Ara slipped onto the floor, face buried in the mattress but arse encouragingly upraised. Dorian shampooed himself greasily and knelt behind him. "Here we are then, love. Open up," and he began a tentative foray inside. Ara received him with small high-pitched mewls. "Push," Dorian instructed, "push against me- it hurts less-" Ara pushed hard, and Dorian made his slow way into the hot slippery resistance. Once home, he locked both arms around the other's belly and pressed hard as he could against his back. Then he waited unmoving, to let Ara register to the full the feel of the intrusive member inside him. Still he couldn't forebear kissing the shoulders and the back of the neck so tantalizingly near his mouth. Lovely smooth skin, warm and ferny as a beast's...

   "Look at me, darling," he murmured into the ear hidden under the shaggy hair. "Let me see those lovely eyes of yours." Ara turned his head shyly and Dorian craned to kiss his mouth. The other responded with passion, tongue and lips moving in and about Dorian's. The position must be immensely uncomfortable for him but he seemed not to notice. He was like a man transfigured, smiling radiantly through his tears.

   "Oh- milord- ohh-" he gasped through and around his kisses. His hand was on his sex in front, pumping hard. An optimist, Dorian thought indulgently, but brought his fingers up to twiddle the little knobs of Ara's nipples encouragingly. Whether it had the desired effect or not he wasn't sure, because the silken heat about his own sex suddenly began squeezing at him powerfully and rhythmically. Stars exploded before his eyes and he reared upwards as the top threatened to come off his head. That effectively disposed of his self-control. He pushed Ara flat to the bed and ploughed his willing young rump long and hard till the world ran together and exploded, tumbling him into darkness.

   At length he rolled off Ara's back and climbed, exhausted, onto the bed. He lay collapsed in a leaden heap. 'I'm getting old,' he thought, almost smugly for a change. 'Time was that wouldn't have tired me...' Oh, but it was worth it, most definitely. He yawned hugely, and opened his swimming eyes to meet Ara's adoring black ones. He smiled into them languidly. Ara nuzzled up against him and they lay together in companionable languor for a while.

   "Does milord command men in his country?" Ara asked eventually.

   "I have my men, yes."

   "Do you do this with them?"

   "Yes, sometimes," Dorian admitted.

   "That's alright then," Ara said in satisfaction.

   "Alright? Why?"

   "I didn't know if you had the same customs as us. I've heard- you westerners think differently about this."

   "Well, we do, mostly. No-one's going to throw rocks at us for sleeping together."

   "That's not what I meant. I mean, when a leader sleeps with his men- you know."

   "Ahh- I'm not quite sure that I do. Perhaps you should explain."

   Ara's eyebrows drew together. After a minute he asked, "What does it mean when you take one of your men?"

   "It means I like him and he likes me, or sometimes just that we're both horny. What else?"

   "That's all?"

   "What else could it mean?"

   "You don't- don't do it to make them your own?"

   "I don't think I understand."

   "Your customs are different." Ara shifted away from him.

   "I rather think so," Dorian said carefully. "Are you saying that when two Circassians sleep together it binds them somehow?"

   "Yes, when it's a man taking service with a leader outside his own village. If it's someone he doesn't know- someone he has no ties with through his father or his grandfather, then the lord will bind the man to him by sleeping with him."

   How utterly feudal. "Don't people mind?"

   "It's the custom. There's no shame in being taken once. We call it 'securing the stranger.' But to be twice-secured- it's the sign of an oath-breaker or a turncoat-- or a pervert." Ara's eyes gleamed with some suppressed emotion.

   Oh dear. This was going to be delicate. "It's different with us. We sleep with people we like, or people we love. And of course it's possible to like many people at the same time- the way I like you." He kissed the ends of his fingers and put them to Ara's mouth. That brought him back into the circle of Dorian's arms, though the liquid eyes looked reproachfully at him.

   "I wanted to be your man," he murmured.

   "You took me first," Dorian reminded him. "It's I who'd be your follower."

   Ara frowned, offended. "Don't joke. You're the leader."

   "Do you want to join my team, really? Don't you like being in Majek's army?"

   "I serve General Szintarow now."

   "Don't you like being in his army?"

   "Yes- but-" He turned his head away.

   It was like getting a tongue-tied sixteen-year-old to talk. "But?" Dorian prompted patiently.

   "He doesn't- he won't- secure me, because-" He blinked tears- "-because I've already taken my oath."

   Dorian thought about this a moment, then provided a tentative translation. "You love him but he won't sleep with you?" 

   Ara nodded, the tears turning to rivers.

   "That's too bad," Dorian sympathized. "I know what it's like. It hurts like hell. Do you really want to leave Circassia because of that?"

   "I thought-" Ara ran a shy finger down Dorian's chest, apparently incapable of continuing.

   "You know, Majek depends a lot on you. He practically said as much to Sergei. I think he'd be angry if I stole you away."

   Ara looked flummoxed. "He did?"

   "Well, it seems when there's something delicate that has to be done, they leave it to you. I'd gotten the impression that you outranked the others, actually. Don't you?"

   "We're all the same rank."

   "Well, they certainly don't talk about you the same way, that's for certain. Of course, if you really wanted to join my outfit, I'd love to have you. But you do know what it is I do, don't you?"


   "I'm a thief. I steal things."

   "What??" Ara literally backed away from him.

   "I know you Circassians feel differently about that..."

   "But you're a lord!"

   "Yes. That's why I'm able to steal things."

   Ara stared at him dumbly. "I don't understand," he said pathetically.

   "Well, maybe we are different from you after all, in some ways." He waited. "Do you hate me now?"

   Ara shook his head. "But- I don't understand. You're Samh' Savijc's friend..."

   "Yes, and he disapproves of my career too."

   "Ohh--" Ara gave it up as something too complicated of solution. He came back and buried his face in Dorian's chest. After a bit he said, "Everything's changed from what it was. You don't know what it's like. We never saw westerners before. We never left the country. We could never have done this. I'm glad it's changed. Only--"

   "It's very confusing," Dorian finished for him after a small silence. He stroked the thick hair. "You've come a long way in one hour, love. Your first man, your first westerner..." He kissed him, and Ara kissed him back, and conversation flagged for a little. "You know," Dorian said at length, "you really are sweet. Do you think I could have- well, a second party interest in your services?"

   Araszyam blinked.

   "I mean, would you promise to be my man in anything that the General hasn't already claimed? That way I wouldn't lose you entirely when you go back to Circassia. And if you ever wanted to leave, you could come to me."

   Ara thought. "Would I have to steal?"

   "Oh no. That's what I do. My men cover the entrances and guard my back and drive the get-away van and so on."

   "I could be a guard."

   "I'm sure you could. All I require is that my men be beautiful and clever, and you're that already."

   Ara blushed and smiled his shy-cunning ferret's smile. "Secure me one more time and it's done."

   With that incentive, Dorian found no difficulty in fulfilling the prime requirement of the rite. It was necessarily somewhat shorter than the passage which preceded it, but Ara took his oath in form while wriggling happily on the end of Dorian's cock, and the matter concluded to their mutual satisfaction.

   Ara got dressed hastily, already late for his round of guard duty, and slipped away. Dorian indulged in an abbreviated sponge-down to remove most of the evidence, concluding reluctantly that there really wasn't time for a shower in his own apartments. Feeling rather tender and mazy, he wandered into the corridor. He was thinking of nothing much at all until he realized that whichever direction he was walking in, it wasn't the one that led to the kitchen. That was back the other way, and ahead- he turned a corner and came on the little cul-de-sac where Sergei's room was. The door was open a crack.

   Dorian hesitated, good manners warring with temptation. To peek is always an unfriendly act, but Jean had twice caught him at a disadvantage. It would be nice to even the score a little, whatever the cost to his self-respect. After all, he'd had no compunction about spying on Klaus' bath scenes in the old days- not that he'd got anything from it but a bad cold... He smiled at the memory. Klaus would never admit he'd known Dorian was there, hiding under the bubblebath and the water, but why else had he swathed himself in towels so contrary to his real habits? Still smiling, Dorian tiptoed to the door, edged it a little wider open and peered in to the curtain-closed dimness.

    Gasping breaths came from the bed. Sergei crouched above Jean, pinning his lover like a panther with its prey. His pale hips moved infinitesimally between Jean's raised legs while the tendons of Jean's neck corded as he strained towards the lips that Sergei kept just out of his reach. Their eyes were fixed on each other and Jean's mouth moved silently, begging "Savijc... Savijc..." All this Dorian saw at a glance, but that wasn't what stopped his heart. Sergei's right side was to him, and his hair was knotted back in a loose ponytail so that the deep hole of his mutilated eyesocket was fully revealed.

   Dorian had seen that sight once and once only and had known, with relief, that he would never be asked to see it again. Sergei kept the deformed side of his face hidden always under his thick hair so that no-one could even guess it was there. Lover of the exquisite that he was, he must hate to have others see the hideous wreckage of his beauty. But for Jean he bound his hair back as any man might do. An obscure pain started in Dorian's heart. He watched as Sergei brought his mouth at last to Jean's and collapsed upon him. Jean's arms, newly freed, went about Sergei's back and neck and pressed him close as the movements of Sergei's hips grew more frenzied. Noiselessly Dorian backed away, closing the door completely, and stood for a moment beside it, looking at nothing.

   He knew he had witnessed- had intruded on- an intimacy so private that the act of sex itself was open as the sky by comparison. What other hidden chambers of Sergei's soul did Jean have access to- places that Dorian probably didn't even know existed? Jean, that cheerful extrovert: how could he appreciate the privileges he'd been granted? Or was he, Dorian, just jealous that they hadn't been given to him? He remembered Sergei's mutilated face and gave a small shudder. No, not jealous; he wouldn't have wanted the privileges Jean enjoyed; but still there was this small gnawing sense of... dissatisfaction.

   It was true that Jean didn't possess Dorian's delicate sensibilities or his fine aesthetic instincts. Jean himself admitted as much. Maybe it was easier for him, then. Or maybe he'd grown used to it... Dorian turned and went slowly back to the main corridor. No, he wasn't jealous of Jean. He'd happily agree that the better man had got Sergei. It wasn't that. This funny ache in his chest- this undefined unhappiness- was- was just- his head began to clear a little-- was just, that he was a little jealous of Sergei for having Jean. And there was nothing at all to be done about that.





    [1] 'Life is short but art endures.'

    [2] Sot a triple étage- 'third-degree numbskull'