There was an armed guard downstairs in front of the penthouse elevator, a tall black man who spoke French with a Gabonese accent. He passed Takamatsu but refused to let him vouch for Dorian. To the doctor's chagrin the man insisted on making enquiries over a walkie-talkie before letting them go up. When the elevator doors opened they found themselves facing the barrel of another gun and a pair of suspicious blue eyes. The accent this time was Polish.
"Halim always overdoes things," Takamatsu informed Halim's man, and turned to punch in the code. Before he was finished the door burst open from inside. Gunmar came through it like a whirlwind and threw himself into the doctor's arms.
"Takamatsu-" His voice was shaky, and he buried his face in the older man's neck.
"Samh' Gunmar- what is it? What's happened?"
"Ohh- nothing." He looked up, trying for a cheerful smile, but the strain showed and his eyes shone suspiciously. "I'm glad you're back. They said you wouldn't come home last night but I thought you might and then you didn't-"
"I'm sorry, Samhet. I should have called, I suppose. You know you needn't worry about me."
"I can't help it," Gunmar said with an edge of desolation. "After yesterday, with those men-"
"Oh, they'd hardly bother with me," Takamatsu assured him, putting on a smile in his turn. "I'm much too small a fish. I met Lord Gloria and had a nice dinner and now here I am."
"Yes." Gunmar still hadn't let him go.
"Can we come in?" Dorian asked. "I can smell breakfast, and I'm starved."
"Oh, yes. Of course. Thank you for looking after him, Lord Gloria." He turned and took them into the suite. Dorian's eloquent eye tried to catch Takamatsu's, but the doctor's gaze was on Gunmar and he was frowning as if in pain.
The breakfast table was laden with breads and smoked meats and cheese, pots of jam and pots of butter, and strong hot coffee in thick silver coffee pots. Jean was sitting in Takamatsu's chair, deep in discussion with Kinta, and Sergei's chair was pulled closer to Majek's as they conferred together. All the heads looked up as they entered the room.
"Good morning," Majek said as if it were a day like any other. "There's plenty left. Go ahead." He was wearing a royal blue dressing gown that deepened his eyes to the colour of periwinkles. Dorian's groin tightened at the sight of his love in deshabille.
Gunmar steered Takamatsu to the two empty chairs beside Sergei, still with a grip on his arm, and Dorian took the seat at the end of the table. Takamatsu didn't look at Majek but poured himself a cup of coffee. Dorian followed suit, diluting it with hot milk, and waited for the caffeine rush to dissolve the cobwebs in his head. Majek and Sergei were speaking in Circassian, and Jean and Kinta, deep in a scientific discussion, might as well have been. Dorian let the voices fade around him and sat watching Majek dreamily.
Movement caught his eye as Jean got up and left the table. Kinta looked over at their side.
Takamatsu looked up from the tablecloth.
Kinta chewed his lip for a moment. "Szincza will be here around twelve," he said at last.
"Really, Samhet? That's interesting."
"Have you- have you changed your mind?"
"No, Samhet. I'm sorry."
Kinta's face creased in distress. Gunmar gave him a warning look, and he turned away, reaching for the coffee pot. Takamatsu helped himself to coldcuts. Jean came back in jacket and tie.
"Kinta, aren't you coming?"
"Just finishing. You go ahead."
Jean glanced at him briefly. "I'll see you at noon," he said to Majek. Sergei got up and went with him into the hallway, and Majek, turning, met Dorian's eye. Dorian smiled at him hopefully and Majek gave him a measured look back.
"Have you plans for this morning, Lord Gloria?"
So he was still in disgrace.
"None particularly. I'm at your disposal, General. Is there anything I can do?"
"Mh. You can give me a hand with the preparations here. The men will be in and out all day and I need an errand boy."
Majek was rubbing it in a bit but Dorian wasn't about to stickle. "I'd be delighted."
Sergei came back and resumed his Circassian conference with Majek. They'd finished breakfast and were on their second cups of coffee. Kinta too was dawdling, eyes on Takamatsu, but the Doctor was eating bread and meat as if it were a tricky operation requiring his full attention.
"It's nearly nine," Gunmar mentioned at last.
"Alright," Kinta said, reluctant and annoyed, and got up. "I'll see you all at noon." He hesitated, then came to the other side of the table and put both arms around Takamatsu from behind, burying his face in the top of his head. He let go as abruptly as he'd begun and strode out of the room.
Sergei and Majek watched him in astonishment. Dorian looked at Takamatsu. He'd put his sandwich down and his eyes were screwed shut.
"Taka-" Gunmar began, but Takamatsu suddenly pushed his chair back and left the room in his own turn. Gunmar turned to his father with anger and misery in his face, but Sergei forestalled him.
"Go after him. This may be it." Gunmar stared a moment, then went at the double.
"It?" Majek asked.
Sergei said, "If he's to be- I won't say persuaded: that may not be possible- but softened up, this is probably the best chance for it and Gunmar the best person to do it. Takamatsu's not used to saying no to him."
"Gunmar's surely been at him for a while. You think it's different now?"
"Kinta's been at him more, trying to wear him down with arguments. I think Gunmar weeping on his shoulder may be more effective. He's got to be near breaking-point."
"Mmh. How was he when you met him this morning?" Majek asked Dorian.
"I didn't. I ran into him last night."
"How was he then?"
"Unhappy. Pretty close to rock-bottom, as Sergei says. He was down by the river and looking ready to jump in, so I got some dinner into him and took him back to my place."
"Nice of you," Sergei murmured.
"I was unhappy myself and glad of the company," Dorian said with a touch of annoyance. "I wasn't closing my eyes and thinking of England. I can't think why you carry on like this about Takamatsu and me."
"What?" Majek asked. "You mean- Damn it, Dorian, I meant that as a joke!"
"Yes, but the state he was in was past joking. I know two ways to take a man's mind off his troubles and I chose the one that doesn't leave you with a hangover. I'm sorry if you're offended, but we westerners have our own customs."
Majek grimaced. "I suppose it's not the first time I've used a totally unfamiliar weapon. I can only hope that it doesn't blow up in my face." He regarded Dorian under his eyebrows. "Araszyam told me that it was he who solicited you, not the other way around. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Heavens, why would I? I wanted it as much as he did."
"God. How can anyone be so honourable and so shameless in the same breath? Does he make sense to you?" he asked his brother.
"On alternate Thursdays when the wind's in the west. Dorian's like an earthquake. It's hard to keep your footing when he's happening but it's exhilarating to try."
"You're more used to it than I am. I just get sea-sick. Can you keep him out of mischief for the next ten minutes while I get dressed?"
"Trust me." Sergei smiled at his brother.
"I'm afraid to." Majek frowned at them both and left.
Sergei gave a contented sigh and leaned back in his chair. Dorian in his turn was treated to a smile.
"Well, m'ami. You've turned our household upside down and no mistake."
"It's over. I told Majek I'd be good. Now I forget about diversions and concentrate on the main goal."
"You've your work cut out for you. Majek sees nothing else when his son's around. I suppose I don't have to warn you not to try anything with Szincza?"
"I'm not likely to be tempted to. And anyway, I promised Majek. I mean, I gave him my word I'd leave his family alone."
"Don't you believe me?"
"I believe you. An Englishman's word is his bond and all that." He poured himself more coffee.
"What is it? Why are you angry?"
"I'm not." He gave a rueful smile. "That was nice, the other day. We were talking about it last night. Jean's rather taken to you, you know. I'm just indulging a little regret that it's going to be a one-time experience."
"Oh." That was a surprise. "I'll join you in the regret. I don't suppose... No, I don't suppose. It's a pity, though."
"Can't you be tempted to break your word?"
"I can be tempted, but I really wish you wouldn't. I don't want to do anything to queer my chances of getting Majek."
"Seriously, Dorian, how do you rate them?"
"Very good. He's responding to me. Now he only has to admit it."
"He'll have other things to think about today. Szincza, Kinta, and all this kerfuffle with Takamatsu."
"Do you really think Szincza will go along with Majek? Why wouldn't he just put the screws on Kinta? It's much simpler."
"That's what it isn't. Kinta is his family and Takamatsu is a servant. In Circassia that still makes a difference."
"And anyway, Kinta's his friend."
"Friend? Not exactly. They've reached a modus vivendi, perhaps. It involves not seeing too much of each other and ignoring the past. Like Halim and me."
"Oh. Is that how you manage? I'd wondered."
"We were always too close. It's hard to explain to other people what it's like, having another self in another body. It took a while to realize it's not natural. Now we're doing what we should have done thirty years ago. And who knows? Maybe in another thirty years we can be friends again."
"At least you have that much time to play with."
"Yes. The advantages of our chromosome."
"Mh. Takamatsu told me what the treatment is."
"Oh really." Sergei eyed him narrowly.
"And if I were him, I'd be on my knees begging for it. I sort of understand his concerns, but to pass up a chance like this... I think you must be right about him after all. His heart's with Ruza."
"Mm. And just incidentally, why aren't you on your knees begging?"
"I was going to have a word with Jean and Kinta about it- maybe after Friday. Is there any reason why they'd refuse me the treatment?"
"None I can think of. They both like you. I'll add my request. It'd be nice to have you around for good. But you know Takamatsu's right. There's no proof at all that it works on non-Circassians."
"That's why you need guinea pigs. I'm delighted to volunteer."
"Good." Sergei smiled. "So some day we might get together again after all."
Dorian smiled back with a buoyant heart. The future spread out before him in that moment like a vast plain continuing for decades. Time- he'd have all the time in the world now. A future of beautiful men and beautiful art and the possession of his heart's desire. And at that moment his heart's desire itself walked back into the room in very prosaic blue jeans and t-shirt. Dorian had five seconds' leisure to appreciate the form-fitting ensemble before Majek swept him off and put him to work.
Majek was in whirlwind mode, elated and energetic, and his enthusiasm carried Dorian along with him willy-nilly into the inevitable kitchen. Dorian's notion of 'errands' had vaguely involved visits to florists and caterers, but instead he found himself labouring through the morning as general dogsbody while Majek put together a lavish Circassian feast. Who would have thought, Dorian pondered as he scraped his umpteenth carrot, that there were so many ways of serving root vegetables? At least it wasn't haute cuisine. The idea of Majek creating a grand French dinner didn't bear thinking of. At the end of three hours he was grateful to be allowed to sink into a chair with a very dry martini and rest his feet while Majek went off to get ready.
The living room began to fill up with the family, all in their best clothes and looking, Dorian thought, just a little on edge. Kinta and Jean came back from the morning session and vanished in the direction of their rooms to change. Takamatsu came in with Sergei, both in silence, to be followed by Gunmar looking both hopeful and resolute. Koczi arrived to stand at attention by the French doors in a spotless uniform. Even his hair had been combed for the occasion. Finally Majek appeared wearing a high-collared Circassian tunic, breeches and boots. Dorian had never seen him in native dress before and his heart did flip-flops. But Majek paid no attention to him or anyone. A small smile on his face, he sat with his eyes fixed on the hallway.
Shortly there was the sound of the door opening, and boots in the hallway. They all rose to their feet as what seemed a cortege swept into the room. Afterwards Dorian ascertained that there had been only four men all told, but the first of them to enter was General Szintarow and after that it was impossible to have eyes for anyone else. Like his father, the General had an unthinking ability to become the focus of attention without even trying. Not that the General wasn't trying, Dorian thought, striving to keep a calm head in the face of the barbaric and beautiful figure before him. Long unbound hair, thick and black, waved well below his shoulders. His jacket and the breeches tucked into black leather boots were an uncivilized bright red. Both the jacket and the white cambric shirt beneath it were worn open to mid-breast, revealing an expanse of naked brownish skin that Dorian had difficulty keeping his eyes off of.
He watched in hopeless jealousy as father and son embraced energetically, arms around each other and beaming like the sun. Majek kissed Szintarow twice and held him at arm's length while the younger man said something laughingly in Circassian, and then hugged and kissed him again. They might have been separated for years instead of a matter of three or four days. 'Alright,' Dorian thought in furious determination, 'alright- you can have that, but the rest is mine.'
Still, those flat hard pectorals peeping through the red and white kept drawing his eye like a magnet. This must be how other men felt about peering down a woman's decolletage. Dorian had never seen anything at once so masculine and so seductive as the General's ensemble, but his reaction to it was still a little puzzling. The male chest was, God knew, familiar enough territory to him. What made this one so particularly erotic? He looked closer, trying not to stare, and realized finally that the jacket and trousers belonged to an actual uniform- right material, right tailoring, even the right flaps and goring on the pockets. But put in conjunction with that plunging neckline and glimpse of firm male flesh-- Dorian swallowed hard. He detested the man but in that costume he'd die to have his hands on him. Could the General be trying his wiles on the susceptible? It didn't seem likely. No, there had to be another message contained here. The bold colour, the naked chest, the travesty of a uniform: all were a slap at European expectations. The General was saying, 'I'll dress like a Westerner, but first and foremost I'm Circassian. I understand your customs but I use them my own way.' Dorian's eyes narrowed. This was going to be a formidable opponent.
Majek at last let him go and Szintarow turned to greet his relatives, starting with Sergei. Dorian noted their reactions with mounting irritation. Sergei had a glow of tenderness in his face that he probably didn't even know was there. Gunmar was spanielling around his cousin's feet, clearly in raptures. And even Kinta- even Kinta had the kind of look the Polar Bear had sometimes given Dorian, a half-regret that circumstances didn't allow them to be anything more than unwilling allies. God, was this man able to charm everyone? as he watched Jean grinning and shaking hands-- and what was that story about a knife anyway? At least he hadn't made the slightest dent in Takamatsu: the Doctor was answering the General's energetic greeting with an elaborate politeness whose coolness bordered on the insulting. Dorian mentally gave him a kiss. And now the man was turning to him- Dorian arranged his face into gracious lines- and Majek was introducing them. Szintarow took his hand in a warm, strong grip. Black eyes, friendly and curious and- yes, damn it- authoritative as well, looked him over.
"Lord Gloria? This is an honour," he said in accented but functional English. "I have never met an English nobleman."
"Merely an earl," Dorian said modestly. "Top of the middle aristocracy. I'm nothing terribly special." Several light years beyond 'aristocrats' who were top of the sheep-raising peasantry, of course: but only another Englishman would realize that.
"My father says different," the General smiled, "and he knows a thing or two about men. I look forward to a closer acquaintance." He pressed Dorian's hand, gazing straight into his eyes, and then turned with a word for Koczi, leaving Dorian's head whirling. 'Odd's my little life--' he thought, not so sure about the intent behind that uniform after all. 'I hope that doesn't mean what I think it does.' Well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it- if he came to it- and meantime, he thought with a swelling heart, Majek had been talking about him: talking about him to the man who was closest to him in the world. If that wasn't suggestive of success, what was?
It was fortunate he had that thought to console him because the meal that followed was something of a trial. Dorian not only had to watch Ara hovering around the General with an expression of wistful devotion but after the first few minutes all the conversation was in Circassian. True, Dorian had the seat of honour at the end of the table opposite Majek, but that was only because Majek wanted to have his son at his side. Szintarow sat in Sergei's place with Jean beside him and Sergei sat next to Dorian. That meant Dorian had a full view through the meal of Majek being attentive to Szintarow and of Szintarow being attentive to what Kinta and Jean were telling him, all in a language he didn't know.
"I'm sorry about this," Sergei said to him in French half-way through the main course. "Szincza's Russian isn't that good and they want to be sure there's no mistake in his understanding of the details. They're discussing the paper, of course."
"I don't understand. I thought you all spoke Russian at home."
"It's a bit of an upper-class affectation to speak it at home. People usually pick it up at school. All classes used to be taught in it but Szincza wasn't much for book-learning in his youth."
"So how come he speaks English?"
"He started studying after he took over- figured he'd need it for trade and diplomacy. For Americans and Japanese and the European Community, he thinks it more useful than Russian, and of course he's right." He lowered his voice. "They'll switch to Russian to talk to Takamatsu. He doesn't speak Circassian."
"But he's lived there for decades!"
"But he's Russian. He won't learn a peasant dialect. Or he will; he just won't admit it."
Dorian glanced over at Takamatsu, who was eating silently, eyes on the table.
If he was listening in on the conversation, there was no sign of it. He seemed to be in his own world.
"Well, Doctor," Szintarow said suddenly, "have you anything to add to this?" His Russian was indeed almost as heavily accented as his English.
Takamatsu looked up slowly. "No- no, I don't think so."
"What do you think about this paper?"
"It will make Jean's reputation overnight, and Samh' Kinta's as well. They might get the Nobel prize for it. It's a stunning achievement."
"Don't go mealy-mouthed on me. You've been plain enough in the past. Do you think I should let them give it?"
Takamatsu looked at him with dislike. "I think it's every bit as dangerous as you do, naturally. I wish to God Samh' Kinta had never thought of it. No, of course you shouldn't allow them to give it, not as it stands. And how are you going to stop them, General? As if I didn't know."
Szintarow turned to his left. "Jean. I'm asking you to change your paper. Will you?"
"Jean!" Kinta bellowed in protest, but Jean merely shook his head.
"I had only one reason for starting this research. You know that perfectly well. Now my purpose is fulfilled, I couldn't care less if the world never finds out about the rest of it. I'm sorry, Kinta."
"I thought you were a scientist!"
"I'm a pragmatist first." His dark eyes were sad but firm. "If it were my choice alone, I'd change the paper and I wouldn't make conditions about doing it."
Kinta slewed away from him. "You don't know-" he started, and then bit his sentence off.
"I do know what it's like, actually. And I'm still sorry."
"Kinta," Szintarow said. "Will you change your paper?"
"Majek was willing to bargain with you. I'm not. Yes or no?"
Kinta's face hardened. "No."
The General snapped his fingers. Koczi and another dark soldier suddenly appeared on either side of Kinta's chair with two guns trained on him. Kinta looked at them in surprise and then at Szintarow. Ara came forward, taking a hypodermic needle from its case.
"Szincza, what are you doing?" Gunmar's voice was high.
"You're going back to Circassia," Szintarow told Kinta. "Under sedation, and now. Don't fight-" as Kinta made a move to rise. "They'll shoot if they have to and I'd rather they didn't. Gun wounds are tricky at close quarters."
"And what happens then?" Kinta asked, staring at Szintarow.
"They'll take you to the Ganma fortress and see you safely to your suite there. And that's where you'll stay."
"For how long?"
"The rest of your life."
"What!?" Kinta went rigid, and Dorian heard Sergei inhale sharply. Gunmar cried, "You can't!" and Takamatsu said fiercely, "You're joking. This is a trick."
"No trick. I can. Takamatsu asked how I was going to stop you. The answer is, like this. Alive and free, you're a danger to your country and everyone in it. I'll leave you alive, but freedom you can't have."
"You can't," Kinta said thickly. "You can't do that to me-"
"I have no choice. Araszyam-"
"Wait!" Takamatsu jerked to his feet, staring whitely at Szintarow. His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. "You shit," he got out at last, "you cheap misbegotten abortion-"
Szintarow's hand shot out and grasped his father's arm even as Majek half-rose from his chair. Dorian saw the killing fury in his face and swallowed hard, but Szintarow was already saying, "Let him talk. He never did like facing reality and now he has to." Majek sat down, terrible eyes still fixed on Takamatsu.
"You planned this," Takamatsu said through contorted lips. "You were playing all along-"
"I was giving you a practical demonstration of the alternatives. Yes. Use your head, Doctor. How did you think it would end?"
"Alright," Takamatsu said. "Alright." He sat down again, breathing heavily and not taking his eyes from Szintarow. "Samh' Kinta, I've changed my mind. I'll undergo the treatment. Will you change your paper?"
"But I didn't want-" Kinta gazed wildly at him. "I didn't mean- it- it wasn't supposed to be like this."
"It's always been like this," Szintarow said, "from the minute you made that condition. You or Takamatsu- one of you would end with the gun at his head."
"I thought-" Kinta didn't seem to hear, "I thought you'd change your mind because you love us- because you wanted to stay with us-" Large tears began to roll down his face. "I'll never be sure of you now."
"How sure do you need to be, Samhet? If the treatment works you'll have me with you for- for as long as you want-"
"You'll be alive, grudging every breath you take and wishing yourself dead. How can I live, knowing that?"
"I don't wish myself dead, Samhet. I've no reason to, with you and Samh' Gunmar to live for. Listen. Try to believe what I'm telling you. I don't want to take this treatment. I think it unnatural. I think the consequences could be terrible. My objections are those of a scientist. They're purely rational."
"Purely?" Kinta said. He reached inside his tunic and slipped a thin chain over his head. On it was a square cross of some heavy metal that Dorian's eye automatically registered as Kiev work of the sixteenth century, and valuable. "You gave this to me. If I asked you to put your hand on it and swear this has nothing to do with my father, would you?" Takamatsu's eyes flicked away momentarily, and Kinta burst out, "I knew! I knew it! You love him more than us!"
Takamatsu sighed deeply. "Not more, Samhet, just differently. I've never loved anyone else the way I did Samh' Ruza. I lost my heart to him when I was sixteen and I never got it back. You see a man in a wheelchair, he tells you, 'I broke my neck when I was in high school,'- it's part of him now, part of what he is. He doesn't think twice about it any more. I'm the same. A certain kind of love became impossible for me before I was twenty. But I'm a scientist. Your father is dead. I accept that I'll never see him again. He's not waiting in some pleasant afterworld for me when I die. We're animals. When we die, that's the end of us."
"You don't know that," Gunmar said, surprising them all. "You're stating a belief as if it were a fact."
Takamatsu blinked. "Yes. True. I apologize. But in the absence of any empirical evidence, all I can state are my beliefs. And I believe that Samh' Ruza no longer exists in this world or out of it."
"Then why does he still make a difference?" Kinta demanded. "We're offering you life. What is it that makes you refuse?"
"I guess- I guess I don't want to enjoy a privilege that was denied to him. That's all."
"All," Kinta said bitterly. "He's dead and gone and he still matters more to you than us." He turned his head away.
"Samhet." Takamatsu looked at him helplessly. At last he reached over and put a hand on Kinta's shoulder. "That's not true. I love you as I love Samh' Gunmar. Your brilliance, your success- they've made me happier than I can tell you. I want them to continue. I want to be there to see you both astonish the world. And I will be, now."
Kinta turned back at that. He took Takamatsu's hand and brought it to his cheek like a child seeking comfort. Takamatsu smiled at him.
"You're what matters to me. That's why I've agreed to this treatment. If one of us has to be imprisoned, better it be me."
Kinta winced. "You still think your life will be a prison," he said unhappily.
"It could turn into one, Samhet, and you know it. If I age in spite of the hormone and turn into a dribbling senile creature, what then? Could you make yourself let me go even when I'm no longer myself?"
"Would you want me to kill you?" Kinta protested.
"I couldn't. You know I couldn't."
"I could," Szintarow said, "and I will, if that's what you're worried about. I'll guarantee it. Something fast and painless-"
"No-" Kinta glared at him, arm going around Takamatsu' shoulders.
"Yes. What about it, Doctor? I'll put it in writing, if you like."
"Can you write?" Takamatsu wondered, sounding more like his old self.
"I've been taking lessons," Szintarow said levelly. "Well?"
"Done. That's my condition, samhet. You know you owe me one." Kinta frowned in perplexity. "And I can trust your cousin to carry out my murder, better than anyone else."
"Besides, there's every chance it won't be necessary," Jean said. "Not that I wanted to say it and break up that affecting scene back there, but there's no earthly reason why it shouldn't work exactly the way it does with us."
"I prepare for the worst and hope for the best, as Lord Gloria says. General, are you intending to keep these apes hovering over your cousin all day?" Koczi, Ara and the other man melted away at a nod from Szintarow.
"Kinta," Szintarow said.
"What the hell do you want?"
"A few manners, for a start," Majek inserted. "You're under my roof and talking to my son."
"Well, what then?" Kinta said, less violently.
"I want your word that you'll change your paper."
"You've got it."
"God, what is this? I've already said-"
"You'll change your paper. Doesn't help me much if you do it Saturday instead."
Kinta grinned involuntarily. "This evening. My word. Happy?"
"Yes. Thank you."
Majek beckoned with a finger and Ara began refilling wine glasses. Miyagui appeared with the dessert course and slowly dinner returned to a feeling of normality. Dorian found himself charmed by the dramatic events of the last quarter of an hour. You had to hand it to General Szintarow. Bold and resolute, he knew how to do things with a flair. He'd learned a lot from his father
And, clearly, he'd learned a lot from his uncle as well. He watched as Szintarow turned the conversation to talk of the safe past, and led first Majek and then the others into reminiscences of people Dorian had never heard of. You couldn't call it manipulative, exactly, but it eased the atmosphere without anyone seeming to notice that it was being done. Even Gunmar began to smile as one of Szintarow's remarks started Kinta and Jean on a slanging match about the other's expertise, or lack of it, as a fighter in the last war. Kinta himself soon became ebullient. Clearly it had finally registered on him that he'd won his point with Takamatsu, and happiness made him almost witty. An incomprehensible farrago about Jean losing his clothes somewhere and the demoralizing effect his nude figure had had on his own side had everyone in hysterics, including Dorian. He could well imagine. Wiping his eyes, he glanced to his left and saw that Takamatsu wasn't listening to any of it. He was looking at his plate and his expression was sad.
So it was no surprise when he excused himself as they all rose to go to the salon and, pleading fatigue, said he was going to lie down for a while.
"I bet he's tired," Sergei murmured beside him as Takamatsu left the room. "Szincza put him through the mill back there."
"Mmh. I'd hate to find myself on the General's bad side. Did you really put a knife into him?" he asked Jean. "What for?"
"I thought he was selling us out to Majek. Things looked a lot different during the war."
"I believe you. And are there really no hard feelings left among the factions?"
"None that I can tell. Szincza is Acaille by birth and Aouille by upbringing and everyone knows it. If anyone symbolizes the union of the stones, he does."
"It's all different now," Sergei said. "Majek united the country but Szincza's taken us into the outside world. So much is happening now that people have stopped thinking about the past- maybe for the first time in our history."
"Even you," Jean said, and kissed him.
"Even me," Sergei smiled at him. "But don't think I've forgotten."
Dorian wondered briefly what private passage that referred to as he found himself seated in the living room with a cup of coffee. Szintarow was still at Majek's side, and so Dorian had to content himself with a chair across from the two of them, between Sergei and Gunmar. The heavy dinner and the wine in the middle of the day- yes, and maybe the after-effects of the high drama he'd witnessed- had brought on a pleasant torpor, and he was quite happy to lean back in his chair and watch Majek. Majek was talking generally but his conversation was aimed at Szintarow. 'He sees nothing else when his son's around,' Sergei had said. It was true, perhaps, or true enough. But Dorian could feel Majek aware of him at some level below the conscious and he deliberately sent his own awareness out to feed it. Majek shifted in his chair and his eyes glanced briefly over at Dorian. Dorian kept a straight face. 'Mine,' his thoughts purred happily, 'you're mine and you know it.' Well, let him enjoy his last period of freedom. Generously he pulled his attention from Majek and let it wander over to Szintarow.
The General had tossed his hair back over his shoulders and was leaning forward a little, elbows on knees, in an attitude Dorian usually associated with Jean. Inbred, the Acailles. Seeing him like this the resemblance to Jean was remarkable. It was only the hair and perhaps the difference in temperament that made them seem unalike. But the eyes- and the nose- and the shape of the face- Dorian felt a little strange- the mouth- the chin- were the same- exactly the same-Szintarow gestured with his hand out, Jean's gesture exactly- "They're exactly alike- exactly--" There was no single moment of earth-shattering revelation. One minute he didn't know and the next minute his mind had effortlessly made the connection. It was the truth, so obviously, even though so obviously impossible. "Jahn," he said aloud, feeling the world slip sideways into unreality. The voices about him stopped dead. "You're Jahn," he said, and saw Szintarow's face go still. In the underwater world of nightmare it took forever to drag his eyes from the man sitting over there on his right to the man sitting just beyond him on his left, and he seemed to have hours to register all the faces and expressions in between: Kinta's alarmed and bright-eyed, Gunmar's pale and apprehensive, Sergei- his face held an emptiness that was obscurely terrifying, and next to him-- was-- Jean, sane and solid as ever, looking back at him in mild interest. 'I was wrong,' Dorian thought in enormous relief, even as his mouth spoke the incredible words: "You're Jahn. You didn't die."
"It certainly felt like it," Jean remarked. "But of course it didn't take."
The nightmare feel thickened about him. "You said you were thirty-seven," he said witlessly.
"So I left a few zeroes off," Jean said. "So sue me."
The skin crawled on the back of Dorian's neck. "What are you?"
"Just a man who doesn't grow old and who's very hard to kill."
"Oh my God." I'm going insane, he thought. This doesn't- "This doesn't happen. It can't happen."
"It's the chromosome," Gunmar said eagerly. "It's dormant in most of us. It extends our lives by a few decades but that's all. But in Jean it's fully active-"
"I wondered why he didn't age," Kinta explained, "and I analyzed his chemistry and found the enzyme that activates the chromosome-" He stopped, frowning a little at Dorian's expression.
Dorian tried to swallow in a mouth that had suddenly gone dry. "All of you?" he whispered. "You're all- like that- now?" His eyes veered crazily back and forth over their faces- the bright blue eyes, the inhumanly young skin-
"All of us who've had the treatment," Sergei said gravely, as if he were a stranger. "Of course."
"Oh my God. Oh my God." Something atavistic was hammering in panic at his heart. Not one of us- not one of us- alien- undying- inhuman... He pressed against the back of his chair, staring at Sergei in horror. Like a vampire- and I slept with him--
"You see?" It was Majek's voice, calm and dispassionate. "And that's one of their elite, a man of education and intelligence. Imagine how the common people would react."
"I see," Kinta said. Slow anger moved in his voice. "You were right all along. Of course." He looked bitterly at Dorian as at one who'd betrayed him.
There was a slight rustling among the other Aouilles. Dorian could feel them drawing away from him. Jean got out of his chair. "Come on," he said. "We might as well start the rewrite. Looks like it's going to have to be more drastic than we thought." He sighed and gave Dorian a fleeting glance of disappointment.
"Just make sure they can't ever conclude- this." Majek nodded at Dorian.
Kinta got up as well. "Can you think of a way to stop his mouth?"
"Yes," Majek said.
Dorian went cold. So that was to be the way of it- plain and simple murder in order to keep Circassia's secret. He had no doubt Majek could do it without sparing a second thought.
"Oh dear, Lord Gloria." Gunmar looked at him in distress. "I wish you hadn't. I really, really do." He went with the other two.
Numbly, Dorian watched as Sergei rose in his turn. Sergei angry had been frightening but it was nothing compared to the settled emptiness that looked back at him now.
"I won't risk losing him again," Sergei said as if in explanation. "I'm sorry, Dorian." He crossed the room and left.
Szintarow said something to Majek in Circassian and Majek answered in the same language. It had the tone of a calm exchange of information. They're talking about how to do it, Dorian thought. He still couldn't quite believe it but his hand was at his knife anyway. He might be able to take one or two out and buy enough time to make his escape. It all depended where they did it, and how many men they called on for the job, and whether they'd risk gunfire. He hoped obscurely that one of his executioners wouldn't be Ara.
The General went away, leaving him alone with Majek. With Majek-- And if he was going to die, there was one last thing to be done first. No matter what Majek had become now--
Dorian sat up and looked at him directly- the inhuman king, the silver alien--
He blinked in shock. For a moment he thought he was looking at his father. An ordinary man, aging and human and-- tired. Pale half-circles showed white beneath his eyes and deep lines bracketed his bleached mouth. There was none of the strangeness that had misted Jean and Sergei and the rest, none of that sense of otherness that had rattled him so badly. Really, he'd acted like an idiot there. What a pity he was to lose his life for a few seconds' witlessness. But at least...
Majek's blue eyes were fixed on him, not in speculation or anger but-- A wave of heat rushed from Dorian's groin straight to his head at sight of that naked desire. He came to his feet as if lifted by a wave. Majek sat up and reached out his arms. Dorian crossed to him in two paces, sank down by his side and threw his own arms around his neck. Oh yes, oh yes, as Majek's mouth came fiercely down on his own, as Majek's tongue invaded his mouth, as Majek's fingers dug into his arms and back-- Here it was, here it was at last. Majek was caught as well as he, a prisoner of his need. Obscurely he knew it was because he, Dorian, was as good as dead in Majek's reckoning, but that seemed a minor detail. The dam had burst and there was no holding back the flood for either of him. Joyfully he threw himself into the torrent. The heat of the hard body pressed against his own, the smell of blond tobacco from Majek's clothes, the spicy scent of the silvery mane all sent him into a frenzy. 'Mine now- mine-' He freed his mouth from Majek's in order to taste his cheek, his ear, his neck- he had to have his mouth on every inch of him, now, at once, he wanted his hands to know the texture of all Majek's skin-- He kissed him desperately because a lifetime wouldn't be enough to explore the whole continent of Majek's body and he had so little time, so little-
He pushed Majek's knees apart with his leg and knelt between them, pressed up against the fork of Majek's body, the confined imprisoned throbbing in his trousers seeking the same need in Majek's. Majek groaned and writhed, back arching.
"Not here- little brother-" he panted and pulled Dorian to his feet as he rose. Dorian bent and kissed him again. "We're not- animals-"
"Where then?" Dorian murmured, tongue licking at his ear.
"My room." Majek nodded to the door by the window, and they stumbled to it, clumsily because they couldn't bear to loose each other, and through to the bedroom on the other side. Majek pushed the door shut with his back and Dorian pressed him to it, moving his hips slowly over Majek's, need to need. The rigid bulk of Majek's crotch rubbed against his thigh and his own crotch pressed against Majek's belly. He couldn't continue like this, hampered by cloth. He had to have flesh on his flesh. He dropped to his knees, hands scrabbling under Majek's tunic for his belt buckle, but the intricacies of Circassian tailoring defeated him. He buried his face in frustration in the folds of black cloth, seeking instead the hard impression of Majek's cock within, pressing it against his cheek and working at it with his mouth. Majek's fingers were in his hair, pushing him closer, and Majek's hips rocked against him a little, and Majek was groaning softly...
"Take it off," Dorian begged, mouthing at the concealed treasure, "Let me have you... I have to..."
Majek pushed Dorian's head away and began unhooking fastenings. The overlapping front of the tunic opened up and he pulled it off. Dorian gazed enraptured at the shocking brown of Majek's nipples in the ivory whiteness of his broad chest. Majek's hands gripped him by the shoulders, urging him up. Majek began unfastening the buttons of Dorian's shirt, frowning intently. He slid the silk off Dorian's arms and ran his hands across the skin of Dorian's chest, down towards his belly. Dorian shuddered in desire, eyes closing, but he forced himself to stand still under Majek's exploring possessive touch. He thought it would kill him not to reach out and grab but he knew he mustn't- not with this one... Majek's hands were going up his back and Dorian shook at the touch, making little mewling sounds of want, and thank God Majek's arms contracted about him at last, pulling him into a hard embrace. He brought his own arms up to press the beautiful warm flesh. His hands moulded the sculptured surfaces of Majek's back and shoulders- so beautiful, so beautiful- and slid down over the hard mounds of his buttocks.
"Bed, little brother," Majek groaned into his shoulder. They made it across the room somehow. Majek undid Dorian's belt and got his hands inside the back. Dorian writhed to feel those strong fingers on his hips and thighs. His cock, released, came bounding up to press against Majek's body. Majek recoiled a little as if in surprise. He pushed Dorian backwards onto the bed and stripped the rest of his clothes from him. Then he simply stopped. He stood staring at Dorian's naked body, broad chest heaving as if he'd just run a marathon. Dorian gazed back at him, waiting- and waiting-
"Please," he said, unable to wait longer. "Please."
Majek sank slowly onto the bed beside him and put a tentative hand on his body. The odd blue eyes were fixed and... puzzled-- like Kinta's, almost. One would almost think he had never- Oh. Well, he never had, had he? In his way, he was as much a virgin as Araszyam. Love like this was all new country to him.
"I'm yours," Dorian said, to make him understand. "Yours. All of me. All you have to do is reach out your hand. I want you- I need you, like the earth needs the sun. The world is night when I'm away from you. Love me, Majek, or I will die." 'Fuck me, Majek, or I'll go crazy.' He reached out and Majek caught him by the wrist. He smiled, a smile that Dorian was unable to read, but it contained enough sheer lust to be going on with. "Please," he repeated, urgently.
Majek loosed him and swiftly undid his own trousers. Dorian slipped onto the floor and knelt to pull off the short boots and the socks underneath. Lovely feet, long and higharched with blunt broad toes. He bent and kissed them, enjoying the submissiveness of his pose even while his lips savoured the texture of the thin pale skin. Majek drew his breath in sharply. Dorian straightened, hooked his fingers around Majek's waistband and drew his trousers from him, reverently as if disrobing a king. He didn't think Majek would care to be stripped like a rentboy. And here at last was what he'd been waiting for, thick and red, rising half-erect from a nest of hair the colour of cobwebs. He took it between his hands and brought his mouth to it. Gently, gently, his lips and tongue curved to its shape and he tasted all its flavours: sharp and vinegary at the end, heavy and musky under the foreskin, rank and animal where it met the testicles. Dorian played with his treasures like a man obsessed, going from the hard shaft above to the soft bulk below, letting his mouth slide from the smooth surface of the one to the rough scratchiness of the other. His tongue followed the pulsing black course of the big vein and glided over the shallow bifurcation under the head. Sweet endless satisfaction... Majek drew deep groans from his chest and his fingers dug desperately into Dorian's hair; but no liquid leaked from the end of his organ, no untoward climax shortened Dorian's pleasure. He went on until his mouth ached and he had to rest, face turned to Majek's strong upper thigh.
Majek took hold of his shoulders and hauled him onto the bed, belly down, and laid his hot heavy body atop him. Dorian arched his back under the weight, opening himself as much as he could in the cramped position. It was going to hurt, whatever he did, but he was in no position to be suggesting techniques. But Majek made no move to enter him. His cock pushed between Dorian's legs and his mouth was pressed to Dorian's back and he was perfectly still.
"Majek," Dorian murmured, turning his head a little.
"Little brother," Majek said, mouth to his skin. "You-"
"Yes?" Dorian prompted after a moment.
Majek rolled off him. Dorian turned over so they lay face to face. The unhuman eyes were only inches away and Dorian gazed willessly into them. At last Majek said, "This is different from the other times. I knew where I was with them. But with you-" He gave a small painful smile. "I don't know how it should be done. Suppose you tell me."
"Anyway you like," Dorian said. "You tell me. On my knees or on my face or on my back- whatever's best for you. And we can use cream if you have it- it's easier for both of us."
"Like hand cream. To- you know- make it slippery. So it doesn't hurt."
"It's supposed to hurt."
"Yes but-- it hurts you too."
"That's what I mean." They looked at each other in mutual perplexity, then Majek gave a little snort of laughter.
"Oh God, what am I doing? This is-"
Dorian reached over and kissed him on the mouth and Majek's arms came up automatically to pull him closer. They lay pressed together, hot as a furnace, mouth to mouth and skin to skin. Majek's body knew what it wanted and Dorian had no intention of letting his head have any Circassian second thoughts. His hand stole down and enveloped Majek's hardness. Majek hissed in his teeth.
"Like this," Dorian whispered between kisses, "This is how it's done. Did no-one ever do this to you before?"
Majek gave a laugh that was near to tears. "Those honest farmboys and leathery hillsmen--" He broke off with a gasp as Dorian's fingers moved to the most sensitive part. "Oh God- little brother- stop--" His head rolled back and forth and his eyes were wild.
"The cream," Dorian murmured, slackening a little. "Where is it?"
"Over there," Majek waved vaguely in the direction of the dresser. Dorian slipped away and by luck more than instinct found the jar. It had no label and smelled a little rancidly of lanolin. Dorian laid it thickly on Majek, squeezing at him skilfully so that he arched and groaned and reached for Dorian with greedy hands. Dorian slid smiling onto the bed and let himself be turned to his face again, raising his hips to make it easier for them both. He heard Majek's deep intaken breath, and then a hardness breached the entrance to his body and was pushing in, huge and relentless. Dorian's eyes bulged and his mouth opened wide. Majek wasn't that big- he wasn't- but it felt as though he had been impaled through his bowels and into his heart. He was filled up- he was split apart- his back arched desperately as he tried to open more- more- to take it all in- and there was no more room in him, none at all, he was filled with Majek's hugeness so that the top of his skull felt as if it would explode to free the pressure. Too much, it was too much- he howled, a long thin highpitched keening, and Majek's face pressed into his neck, Majek was giving the terrifying deep groans of a man who has been stabbed in a dozen places, oh god, what was this, what was happening...
"Are you mine?" He could barely understand Majek's thickened speech but he knew instinctively what he was asking. "Yes," he panted, clutching the coverlet in both hands. "Yes, I am, yes-"
"Say it," Majek said between his teeth.
"I'm yours," Dorian gasped on an indrawn breath.
"Body and soul-" Majek caught his breath as if in pain, but went on desperately, like a man giving a deathbed message, "bowels and blood-"
"Body and soul," Dorian sobbed through the red burning, "bowels and blood-"
"From this day forth."
"From this day forth." A huge shudder went through him, but when it subsided so had the terrible pressure within. He glowed with a wonderful warmth like a furnace's. He could even smell his own scent, the odour of roses that was so much a part of him he never noticed it any more. Majek was inside him, a lovely lovely sensation, an easement to the heart as well as the body. Yes- oh yes- this was what he'd wanted- this was what he'd needed- all the others had been shadows on the wall and here was the true flame of the sun. And though he'd felt as if he'd already orgasmed, he was still hard and waiting for his consummation. Yes, now they could start in earnest.
Majek withdrew from him and Dorian, taking the hint, rolled on to his back, bending his legs and stretching his arms up to his lover. Majek's eyes took him in, those strange crystalline eyes that held and refracted the light so oddly- they moved slowly up and down him, lingering over the sight of his rampant sex. Dorian's heart sang in delight as Majek surveyed the landscape of Dorian's body and all the pleasures that waited for him in it. "My king," he said, smiling a little at the fantasy but mostly at Majek, "my king of Faery-" His hand stroked through the silvery mane. "Will it please your Majesty to enter your kingdom?"
"A second time...?"
"Who's talking of seconds? We've barely begun."
Majek drew a long, deep breath, and when he let it out the flame of lust burned high in his eyes. He threw himself on Dorian again, all hot weight and wet mouth, crushing Dorian's body and rigid sex and parted lips. Dorian grasped him like a drowning man. His arms embraced the summer warmth of his skin and the hard muscle beneath it. His fingers sought sensitive spots and tiptoed over shivering flesh. It took no great skill to manoeuvre his hips to where Majek's hardness waited for him, and Majek drove into him again. Oh lovely, lovely- Dorian arched in ecstasy as Majek rode him. He twined his legs about that strong torso and wriggled so that his own erect sex was brushed by Majek's hard abdomen as it followed the in and out movement of Majek's hips. Teasing, tantalizing, too delicate a sensation to compete with the steady filling and emptying that was happening behind it. Dorian caught hold of himself and pumped in unison, but Majek pushed his hand away and began working at him with his own hand. The feel of those hard calloused fingers undid him. His mouth opened in a silent scream and his vision went shimmery. Majek's sex pistoned into him, huge and burning, and Majek's hand skinned his aching cock. He heard himself crying out, short cries mixing with Majek's deep raspy breaths, and then orgasm exploded in his head and his belly and his loins and took him from himself for a moment.
Slowly he came back to find Majek lying upon him like a blanket, his face buried in Dorian's hair and his exhausted panting sounding in Dorian's ear. Dorian raised a leaden hand to stroke Majek's own hair, but it was too much effort and he let it drop heavily back down across Majek's neck. So warm, so very warm, so safe... Dorian's mouth curved in a small smile. 'Safe as houses,' and his eyes closed of themselves. 'Home' he thought in muzzy contentment and sank into sleep.
He came to the surface, smelling Majek's tobacco, and opened dreamy eyes. Majek had got him under the covers somehow and was lying beside him, propped against the pillows. Dorian turned on his side, stretching his legs deliciously in the warm depths of the bed. "Majek," he said and reached an arm around Majek's waist.
"Dorian." Majek looked down at him through the blue swirls of smoke. He turned towards the table and stubbed out his cigarette. Dorian cuddled up to his side and Majek slid down beside him, putting an arm about his shoulders.
"Little brother," he said, as if to himself, "what am I to do with you?"
"You were going to kill me, remember?" He was surprised how little it seemed to matter. It wasn't that he disbelieved it, exactly, but just at that moment he was too happy to care
"I was?" Majek sounded puzzled.
"Wasn't that what you were saying to Szintarow before he left?"
"No. Not at all. I told him I would secure you to my service and take you back to Circassia with me."
Dorian's heart leapt in delight. "Oh yes! I'd love to go back to Circassia with you! The mountains- so rugged and romantic- just like you-" he nuzzled Majek fondly, "and the tribesmen, so fierce and barbaric-"
"Dorian-" Majek began, but Dorian was carried away by the vision of a future at Majek's side.
"I could wear native dress, like yours- I love those high collars- and ride a horse-"
"We don't have hor-"
"-and we could get married like Jea- uh, Jahn and Sergei are- people wouldn't mind, would they? and we could be together always. Oh, and here's a thought- if we were married Gunmar would be my son- I could make him heir to the Red Gloria title since I don't have a son of my own to pass it on to-"
Majek put a hand over his mouth. "Dorian. No."
Dorian raised inquiring eyebrows at him.
"No," Majek repeated heavily, and freed Dorian's mouth.
"But why ever not? I love you. We're good together." He felt Majek flinch a little. "Well, we are. Have you ever slept with anyone as good as me? I know you haven't-" He stopped as Majek's fist clenched.
"Dorian," Majek said through his teeth. "No. No. And no."
Dorian sat up and leaned close to him. "Majek- why, why, and why not?"
"Because. You understand nothing. If I brought you back with me-- The people would think me mad. You'd be a scandal throughout the country." He gave a little grunt of laughter. "Circassia isn't ready for you. I don't think it will ever be ready for you."
"But you can't just leave me. You know that. You want me too badly."
Majek's breath hissed in his teeth. "If I brought you back to Circassia, I'd kill you inside a week. You insult me unforgivably and don't even know you've done it. There's only so much of that I can take. And it still might not be soon enough."
"I don't understand. Soon enough for what?"
"No, you don't understand. You have no kin to be shamed by your behaviour. Your father- oh, yes. You said he was the same as you. Even if he were alive it would mean nothing to him."
"Well, who in your family is going to mind what we do? Sergei? Halim? Gunmar? Come on, Majek. They're all the same as me."
"No they're not. They at least know the meaning of discretion. And Szincza--" He looked away.
"Majek," Dorian said gently, aware for once that he was risking his neck. "The General's- not averse- to good-looking men. You know that."
Majek's shoulders rose automatically. Dorian could see him making the effort to to remain calm.
"I know," Majek said after a long moment. "I know. But he doesn't flaunt it in people's faces. And if I brought back a fanc-" He checked himself.
"Fancy-boy will do," Dorian said. "At my age it's a compliment."
Majek turned to look at him. "If I came home with a- a man that I slept with, a man who looked and acted like you- people would say the old General was in his dotage. They'd say I'd become crack-witted, rutting with anything like an old goat. My kinsmen would share the disgrace. We're peasants, as you say, and you know what peasant humour is like."
"And you care?" Dorian demanded. "It bothers you what a bunch of farmers are saying? Majek!"
"It would affect Szincza's authority. That's all that matters. I won't have it."
Dorian stared at him, chilled by the note of finality in Majek's voice.
"You love him more than me," he said in desolation.
"Yes. Of course." Majek sounded surprised. "How not? Oh- Dorian-" he sighed, exasperated, at the sight of Dorian's welling eyes. "He's my son," he said.
Dorian shook his head and buried his face in Majek's shoulder. "He's your son. He can't do this with you. Who will you have to sleep beside you when you're back home? Who will make you happy like I do? Majek, you need me." He reached up and kissed the side of Majek's neck, working his way up to the earlobe. Majek's breath grew deeper, and Dorian, encouraged, moved to his mouth. Majek grabbed his head with both hands and held him away.
"Stop," he said in a voice that shook. "Stop now."
"But you want me-"
"Stop saying that!" Majek bellowed at him. They stared at each other a long moment. "Yes," Majek said, angrily. "I want you. I want you and I feel I'll never have enough of you. Maybe I am in my dotage, wanting to be with a man after all these years. Age turns all men into fools. If I had you with me I'd forget myself- forget all decency and self-respect. I'd become a scandal and a shame to my son, and I'll die before that happens."
"Or I will," Dorian said.
"Or you will."
"So you are going to kill me," Dorian said bitterly, throwing himself flat on his back. "To protect Circassia's secret- and just incidentally, your own self-esteem."
"Little brother- little brother, why do you always speak daggers to me? And you said you would never hurt me--"
"At least you never made that promise to me. And a good thing, too."
"You despise me so much."
"I? It's you who despises me," Dorian said angrily.
"No, no. I don't. You're- so different. I don't know what to make of you. All I know is that you threaten me and mine."
"Like Kinta. But I can't even look forward to being your life's prisoner. Well, fine. Here's my throat." He laid his head back. "Yours for the throttling. Go ahead."
Majek put both his hands round Dorian's neck. 'He's really going to do it this time,' Dorian thought in remote surprise. Majek's face was grave and intent and seemingly very far away. Dorian went still.
But instead of the expected pressure he felt Majek's warm lips on his skin and the spell snapped instantly. He heard himself giving a muffled yelp of surprise and lust. His hands scrabbled desperately at Majek's shoulders and he arched in ecstasy at the warm wet caresses of Majek's mouth. "Oh God," he panted, "Oh God- Majek-" Majek moved down his body, to the broad planes of his chest- he was going to- he was going to- oh, he did- as blunt teeth found Dorian's nipple and worried at it. Dorian's mouth opened wide at the sensation it hurt it felt wonderful it hurt-- he made little 'ung' noises as Majek tortured his left nipple, and then his right, and he drubbed his feet on the bed and wriggled his hips imprisoned under Majek's heavy body 'No- stop- no- don't- don't stop- oh- no- oh--"
Majek raised his head.
"You're mine," he said, like a man stating a fact he doesn't quite believe.
"I'm yours," Dorian panted. "All. Yours. All-"
"God, yes." He was running with sweat. "All of me. All yours."
Majek shook his head in wonder. Then he moved up and his mouth fastened on Dorian's again. Dorian wrapped arms and legs about him and kissed him back. Majek's great hand moved down to grasp Dorian's cock. Dorian put his own hand over it and guided his fingers to the right spot. "Here," he murmured, "here's where it feels best." He reached for Majek and showed him on his own body. Majek picked up the rhythm easily, mimicking Dorian's motions.
"Such a waste," Dorian said almost to himself as Majek rubbed him hard and slow. "Such a waste- Majek, how could you have waited all these years to do this?"
"I had a world to conquer," Majek said in his ear.
"But now that's finished. Majek, take me back with you. Why deny yourself any longer? Look, I'll be discreet." His fingers moved cajolingly around the end of Majek's cock. "You can keep me in your harem or whatever- no-one need know I exist even- I'll be the secret beauty you brought back from Europe that no other man is allowed to see. And we can do this every day- all day. Why not?"
"Be quiet," Majek said in his ear. He lifted himself up. Dorian reached an automatic hand to stop him from leaving, but Majek was only shifting down in the bed. His hands forced Dorian's knees apart. Dorian raised his hips, prepared to be entered again, but it was Majek's mouth that closed about him. He gave an unthinking cry of amazement and then his body took over from his head. He knew he was yelling like a banshee and his head was banging the pillow as he arched under the whiplashes of electric pleasure cascading through him. He was utterly, exhilaratingly out of control, screaming and crying and riding the great unbroken horse of ecstasy until it threw him into a thrumming darkness.
When he- came to, it felt like- the light of late afternoon was turning the room to gold. He was numb and drained and only too happy to lie unmoving in the embrace of the sheets. Very slowly he turned his head and saw Majek beside him, sound asleep. Then he went back to watching the light moving on the ceiling and thinking about nothing at all.
They came out into the living room together. At the other end Sergei and Gunmar turned their heads at the sound of the opening door. Majek hesitated a moment, then walked determinedly forward. Gunmar came to his feet as they approached. His worried eyes flicked between them, then relaxed.
"Lord Gloria is my man," Majek said as he sat down on the sofa. "Sworn to my service in form."
"Oh, I'm so glad," Gunmar said smiling. "So it's alright now?"
"I suppose," Majek said tiredly. "Where's Szincza?"
"He said there was someone you wanted him to see- some minister, I think."
"Oh- yes. Yes. A good thing he remembered."
"Papa-" Gunmar hesitated. "Are you alright?"
"Fine. I'm just not as young as I used to be."
"Oh. No, I guess not." Gunmar smiled again. "Miyagui was asking about dinner. I told him he could start the preparations himself."
"You can tell him to finish them too." Majek sighed and leaned back against the sofa. "Where's Araszyam?"
"Szincza took him with him."
"Mn. That means Tottori's helping out with dinner? You'd better order the main course from the hotel. We might as well have something edible."
Gunmar grinned. "I'll go do that."
Dorian's eyes moved slowly over to look at Sergei sitting silent and impassive across from him. He seemed like someone he'd known in another life. Everything was different now... but he'd think about that later. And Sergei wasn't looking at him, anyway. His eye was on Majek- and Majek was looking back at him- and...
"Don't say anything," Majek's tone was flat. "Whatever you're thinking, you're wrong."
Sergei's eyebrow rose. "I've nothing to say, brother. But I suggest you get him away before Szincza comes back."
"Look in the mirror and you'll see."
"Don't be ridiculous."
Sergei shrugged imperceptibly. There was a long silence. Dorian, satiated beyond satiety, sat and felt the animal nearness of Majek. Majek stirred.
"Miyagui can't even boil vegetables. Why am I giving him the run of my kitchen?"
He got to his feet and headed restlessly out the door. Dorian turned a slow head to watch him go. For a brief minute he thought about following him, but it was so pleasant just to sit here like this. He sank back in his chair again.
"Lord Gloria," Sergei said, unusually formal.
"Mmh?" It felt like being drugged. Not unpleasant but oh, so slow...
Sergei got up and came to sit next to him. "Lord Gloria- Dorian- Can you understand what I'm saying?"
"Of course, Sergei. I'm not drunk or anything. Just- you know-"
Sergei's mouth tightened at the corners. "Love all," he remarked obscurely. "Dorian, you can't stay here. You have to go."
"Go where? I'm going back to Circassia with Majek, if that's what you mean."
"What?" Sergei stared at him. "You're not serious."
"How not? We'll be married..."
"Don't be ridiculous!"
"Well, you know what I mean. But of course I'll stay with him from now on. I have to."
"Dear God." Sergei looked amazingly upset. "Dorian-"
"Sergei, what's the matter? We're made for each other, like you and Jean- uh, Jahn-" He felt strange at the memory. "He really is Jahn? It seems - so-"
"He really is Jahn. He doesn't change."
"And neither do you, now."
"That's what the treatment does, really? Makes you immortal?"
"I'll have to have it too, then. I can't die and leave Majek alone. 'No life lasts forever'- but mine will, now..."
"Forever isn't the question, Dorian. I'm concerned about you surviving the next two hours. You have to leave at once."
"Leave? Certainly not. Leave Majek? Why would I?
"You don't understand what's happened- what will happen now..."
"I understand perfectly. I've found the one I've wanted all my life and he's found me, and now we're going to live happily ever after. Just like you." He smiled blissfully at him.
Sergei turned away, hands clenching. "This is all my fault. If I'd thought for a minute that you'd succeed I'd have stopped you at the start."
"What? What's-- Sergei, you're not trying to tell me you mind about me and Majek?"
"Of course I mind. This is disastrous."
"What's disastrous about it? I make him happy and he makes me happy. What's wrong with that?"
"You'll find out when Majek has a chance to realize what he's done. He's not one of us, Dorian--"
"Yes he is," Dorian contradicted him smugly. "He's almost as good as you are, and he's only had a fraction of the practice. As practised as a man of fifty and as often as a boy of fifteen." He sighed in happy reminiscence. "You Circassians have the best of both worlds."
"Oh my god. I hope you're not saying what I think you are."
"I am. He's a natural, Sergei."
"Don't talk about him like that!"
"Sergei, what is this? Anyone would think you were jeal-- Oh." He stared at him in perplexity. "You are." He thought that over for a minute. "Of him or of me?"
"Don't be a bloody fool!!" Dorian gasped at the concentrated fury in his voice. Before he could gather his wits to respond there was a step behind them. Sergei wheeled on the newcomer, but it was only Jean, and he half-relaxed.
"What's the matter?" Jean asked, collapsing into the chair beside them. He looked extraordinarily tired.
"Complications," Sergei said tightly. "Dorian and Majek--" He turned his head angrily.
"Surprise me." Jean yawned. "Dorian tempted Majek and he did eat?"
"It's not a joke!"
"Not for the people involved, I daresay. Two natural forces meeting, and one of them Dorian. The outcome was inevitable."
"You thought this would happen? Why didn't you say anything?!"
"What? Step between the earthquake and the volcano and say, 'Maybe you shouldn't be doing this?' It's not my job. Savijc-" He smiled into Sergei's furious face- "Majek never stood a chance once Dorian got started. It's a part of himself. He's been denying it all his life. He went and changed the world instead, and now he's ready to admit it. What's wrong with letting him enjoy the pleasures of not being the General any more?"
"You think he can do that? Change completely in an afternoon?"
"He's done it before. If he hadn't, we'd still be at war. You saw it happen."
"I saw everything that led up to it as well. It didn't happen overnight, no matter what it looked like from outside. He was fighting himself for months while everyone else got dragged into the carnage. This is going to be exactly like the war all over again."
"Nothing could be that bad. So maybe there'll be some ructions until he gets used to the idea. It might help if you talked to him- let him know what the new territory looks like to someone who lives there."
"He doesn't want to hear it from me. I'm what he's spent his life not being. He'd take it better from you."
"I don't think so. You're his brother. He wasn't in love with you."
Sergei winced and turned away. "And how do you think Szincza's going to take this?"
"Let Majek get clear in his own mind what he's doing and he can handle Szincza."
"And is that going to happen before Szincza blows Dorian's head off or after?"
"Why would he? It's not as if Dorian had seduced his sister or something," Jean smiled. "I don't think Szincza will be hellbent on avenging the loss of his father's honour."
"I think that's exactly what he'll want to do."
"If he shows signs of going tribal, you can always point out the facts," Jean suggested. "But I think he'll take Majek's view of things, whatever they are. Which is why you might want to help Majek get his views straight."
Sergei tapped his foot restlessly, frowning at the floor. After a minute he stood up and left abruptly, and Dorian was left alone with- with-
Jean smiled at him tiredly. "I suppose, if I'd been thinking, I'd have had a safe version of our paper done already. Wouldn't have been so much work."
Dorian stared, trying to make what he knew of Jean match what he saw. It wasn't easy.
"You're really thousands of years old?"
"I've no idea. I never had a reason to count time the way you do. Not until I met Sergei."
"What do you mean?"
"I didn't grow into this, you know. I was always this way."
"But-- when you were a child--"
"I don't think I had a childhood, but if I did it was so long ago I've forgotten it. As long as I can remember I've been the guardian of the red stone- the one who doesn't change."
"But the people around you must have kept track--"
"There weren't any. I lived in a shrine deep in the mountains and rarely saw anyone else. It was peaceful, I'll say that. All the days were exactly alike. I had no reason to think in weeks and months and years, so I didn't."
"It sounds dreadful. But I suppose it must look different to an immortal... Time doesn't count for you. You're free of it." What a lovely thought...
"Free. You could call it that. There was nothing to mark one day from the next until I got out amongst you changing ones. When Majek's power began to threaten my tribe, I was sent to join his side- to pose as an ordinary boy, too simple to be suspected, and try to stop him. And then I met Sergei. That's when time started for me."
"Because you were in love," Dorian said approvingly.
"Because he could die. It took me awhile to realize it- I'd never had the idea of an ending before- but I saw enough people go out to battle and not come back. Then it hit me between the eyes. Poleaxed me. Some day he wouldn't be there. If he wasn't killed in battle, he'd grow old and die naturally. Time- it was just a matter of time. I was terrified. Both of us in an army, with pitched battles every month or so-- I kept thinking about bullets hitting him or someone's knife going into his body-"
"I know. I was in love with a man whose job kept getting him shot. I just didn't think about it."
"I tried not to, but I couldn't stop. I thought if he was killed, I'd kill myself too. And then I found out I couldn't do that either."
"Invulnerability. It must be wonderful."
"You're thinking Superman. It's not like that at all. You're hurt to death but you don't die. You just suffer for an eternity until your body puts itself back together again. It's not an advantage, Dorian."
"Everything has a price tag," Dorian said confidently. "That doesn't seem too high a one. But after you were better, why didn't you go find Sergei again?"
"My side had brought me back to my mountain, with no way off it. They'd sent someone else against Majek and they wouldn't let me go. I had to wait for Szintarow and the war to come to us, twenty-five years later, and Sergei with it." He stopped, eyes gone faraway. "I knew him as a boy- a happy boy, confident and loving. Shining, almost, like a ray of sunlight given flesh. But he'd become a middle-aged man and he'd grown so-- remote, so cold-- and bitter- I didn't know anyone could change like that. I could have cried to see what had happened to him--" He grinned suddenly. "Well, I did, often enough. He has the most evil tongue and doesn't think twice about using it."
"I know," Dorian said feelingly.
"And then I found out he could still be the same- somehow, in a part of his soul, he was still the boy I'd known back in the high school. You're so strange, you changing ones. Parts of you stand still and parts of you go unrecognizable. I don't know how you put up with it."
"We're used to it. We don't have a choice about doing it."
"I suppose. It still seems unnatural. But- well, to make a long story short, when it was all over I had to find a way to stop Sergei from changing any more. I couldn't stand the idea of losing him again. The obvious solution- to find out what did it for me- simply didn't occur to me. Thank God for Kinta. And so--"
"And so you've found a way to make humanity immortal."
"I suppose it looks like that to you--"
"Of course it does," Kinta's voice said above them. "He's a thief, not a scientist." He sat down next to Jean, frowning at Dorian. "I knew you were trouble the minute you walked in here."
Dorian collected himself. "Look, I can understand why you're annoyed--"
"If you understood, you wouldn't talk in that asinine fashion. Immortality, for God's sake. How sloppy can you get? One individual has had his lifetime extended for an unrecorded number of years. That's all. That doesn't make him immortal."
"But you Circassians are different--"
"Oh we're monsters, of course." Kinta looked at him in disgust. "You laymen understand nothing. We have an extra chromosome that shows changes in function when it meets a certain enzyme. We've duplicated that in the lab, we can demonstrate it. In Jean there's been a marked slowing of the aging process. We can prove that too: we have his records from that high school thirty years ago. But we don't know what the effects are on the rest of us and we won't know for decades, and there you sit yammering about immortality for the human race!"
"But Gunmar said-"
"This isn't Gunmar's field."
"Then what about the treatment? You're talking as if it doesn't work!"
"There's no scientific proof that it does."
Dorian was getting seriously angry. "Look, what are you saying? One minute you're pushing for Takamatsu to have this treatment and the next-"
"Dorian," Jean interposed hastily, "knowing that a thing works is one thing; proving it to a scientist's satisfaction is another. What Kinta means is-"
"What Kinta means," Kinta cut in, "is that this should have stayed inside the scientific community where it belongs- where people wouldn't go around losing their heads over it. You outsiders should have stayed where you belong- outside."
"Kinta," Jean sighed heavily. "Don't make Dorian the whipping boy for other people's idiocy. There are scientists who'd have lost their heads over this as well. You know we discussed that possibility. Look, let's have some vodka or something. This rewrite is hell. We've got to finish that first section and I don't think I can do it without help."
Kinta snorted, but went over to the liquor cabinet. Jean rubbed tiredly at both eyes with the heels of his hands.
"Is it really that much work?" Dorian asked.
"It's a bit harder than we'd thought. I feel like I'm butchering my first-born."
"Oh," Dorian said unhappily.
"Don't look so guilty. It's not your fault. We'd already said we'd do this when Takamatsu agreed to the treatment."
"Look, I'm all confused now. What's the treatment going to do for him?"
"We hope it'll make him live as long as Kinta and Gunmar."
"But how long is that?"
Jean grinned. "We won't know until they die."
"Oohhh-" Dorian regarded him in exasperation.
"It'll slow his aging at least, if not stop it," Kinta said coming back.
"If the chromosomal transplants work."
"They'll work," Kinta said.
'They wouldn't dare not,' Dorian thought, looking at his face. "And what about me?" he asked aloud.
"What about you?" Kinta said ungraciously. "You want to quit the human race to be with us? You're too kind." He gulped vodka.
So that was the problem. Dorian put on his most winning smile. "Look, Kinta- I behaved like an idiot this afternoon. I realized that practically the next minute. It was the surprise, that's all. I'm sorry if I offended you. Really. It's just- being confronted with a race of supermen all of a sudden after lunch- it's not quite what one expects."
Kinta eyed him, half-mollified. "And you want to be a superman too, of course."
"I don't want to grow old if I'm going to stay with Majek. I can't die and leave him alone, after all."
They stared at him and started speaking at the same time.
"What do you-"
They stopped, exchanged quick glances, and Kinta continued, "What do you mean, stay with Majek?"
"I'm his man now. We're going back to Circassia together."
They both looked stunned. "His man?" Jean said, puzzled, as Kinta said flatly, "You're joking."
"Why does everyone say that? I'm not joking. He told Szintarow as much. Ask him."
"He said he'd take you back?" Kinta repeated as if he couldn't believe it.
"Yes," Dorian said simply.
"Just like that?" Jean asked. "No ifs, ands, or buts?"
"Oh, he thinks people will talk, for some reason, but he'll get over that. You two aren't going to start carrying on about us, are you?" He looked at them meaningfully.
Jean frowned more deeply. "Maybe I didn't understand before. Which are you- Majek's man or his lover?"
"You can't be both. Did you take an oath to him?"
"Then you're his man."
"Nonsense," Kinta said. "Why would Majek secure him?"
"To be sure of his silence."
"Oh. Oh- I see. And I suppose that means he has to bring him back home." He looked at Dorian dubiously.
"Yes it does," Dorian said. "And keep me. In his harem or wherever."
"Look," Jean said, "Dorian- maybe you shouldn't go around talking like this. It's not our custom. You might make Majek lose face if nothing else."
"Lose face? How? I only hope I can make love three times in an afternoon when I'm sixty."
"Three times?" Kinta frowned. "I thought you said he'd secured you."
"He did. Three times." He stopped, aware of a sudden coldness in the atmosphere. "What's the matter?"
"You're shameless," Kinta said. "A western pervert." He turned away.
"I-beg-your-pardon?" Dorian was at once up in arms. "And what do you call yourself?"
Kinta whirled, but Jean interposed. "Kinta. He doesn't understand. Look, Dorian. It's a belief we have. A superstition, if you like. You take a man once to secure him. When he's sworn his oath it's over. Taking him twice is absolutely forbidden. Anathema. And if Majek did that to you, then he's not the man he was this morning." He shook his head, eyes sombre. "Was it truly his idea, or yours?"
"Both. He certainly didn't say no."
"Let's just hope Szincza doesn't find out," Kinta said.
"It's got nothing to do with Szincza!" Dorian was indignant. Really, these Circassians-- "Jean already said-"
"I didn't understand what had happened," Jean sighed. "I thought you and Majek merely had a private relationship-"
"Not if you're sworn to him. Then it's the clan's business. Because of you Majek's violated a very basic taboo, one that affects the honour of all of us. If anyone does that it's Szincza's duty- duty, Dorian- to deal with it. And in this case, I'm afraid Sergei's right: it'll be Szincza's pleasure as well."
"Look," Dorian said in annoyance, "you and Sergei can screw all day and no-one cares. You-" he looked at Kinta, "-and Gunmar can do it morning, afternoon and evening, and no-one cares. Why is it different for Majek and me, for heaven's sake?"
"Because he said he was securing you, not taking you as his lover," Jean said.
"But it's the same thing!"
"Oh God. Dorian. It's different, alright? Never mind that you don't accept it or believe it. It's different. It's like- like- I don't know- propositioning a nun. She's a woman, she's attractive, why not ask her to sleep with you? But for you Europeans it's different."
"But we are lovers!"
Jean looked at him despairingly. Kinta gave a sudden bitter chuckle.
"Majek's landed himself in it this time, and serve him right. Wouldn't it be fun if our ancestors were right after all?" He drained his vodka. "Let's get back to work. I think we might be finished by dinner." He got up and stalked from the room.
"Dorian- It would be better if you weren't here when Szincza learns of this. Can't I persuade you to spend the evening elsewhere?"
"No. I'm quite ready to fight the General for his father."
"God, Dorian, this isn't pistols at dawn--"
"Good. I can't shoot to save my life. But when it comes to holding men's hearts--" he smiled triumphantly at Jean, "-I yield to no man, General or Major or common soldier." It was a nice exit line. He exited on it...
...and made his way, humming, to the kitchen.
He sauntered in and at once had his arm grabbed and pinned. A hard palm across his mouth silenced his involuntary yelp. Rolling his eyes over, Dorian saw it was the dark-haired soldier who'd accompanied Szintarow this morning. The man held him still just inside the door, making anguished head signs to prevent him going farther. The problem was easy to see- Majek and Sergei on the other side of the kitchen with the signs of strain written all over them.
"Nothing's changed." Majek's voice was tight as he chopped something. His back was to Dorian but the stiff cast to his shoulders was threatening. "If you came here to gloat you can just leave again. There's nothing you have to say that I care to hear."
"Everything's changed." Sergei's low voice had an edge that made Dorian's toes curl. "Dorian's with you now. There's no keeping that a secret. If you just pretend it it's not happening, people will laugh. Why would you rather be thought demented than admit you were wrong?"
"I'm not going to apologize. There's nothing to apologize for."
"I don't remember asking you to."
"You're thinking it. I can tell. You're all grudges and hints and reproaches and hurt feelings. You never say anything straight out like a man should, but I do and I will. We're not alike in any way so stop suggesting we are."
"And just how are we different, brother?" Sergei was half turned towards Dorian. He sounded calm but his one eye was bright blue and his lips were tight. "Now?"
"The way we've always differed. I care for the honour of my family and you don't. You're a whore and a pervert before the face of the world."
"Pervert?" Sergei said slowly. "Am I so? Then answer me this. How many times did you have Lord Gloria this afternoon when you were 'securing' him?" Majek froze. "And what did you call him when you were doing it? 'Little brother,' wasn't it?"
Dorian heard the indrawn gasp from Miyagui's friend. His own breath caught as he saw the knife in Majek's hand come up as if by itself. "Get out," Majek said, and his hand and voice both shook. Sergei looked at him, expressionless. He turned on his heel and walked blindly out.
Dorian stood frozen, heart pounding, gazing enraptured at Majek. His groin tightened with desire. Oh yes- oh yes- so beautiful and so dangerous, his silver love. A killer, Sergei had called him, and it was true. He felt the old addictive tug that came with danger- the singing in his nerves and the sudden high-edged clarity to the universe. His mouth was open to speak- to have that focussed energy turned onto him-
"What's the matter with Savijc?" General Szintarow's voice, ordinary and only a little curious, broke the spell as he walked into the kitchen. "He looked-- Father?" he stopped, wary. Majek's strange blue eyes turned to him, flat and unrecognizing as a falcon's.
"Szincza," he said, and his voice grated, "I've secured Lord Gloria to my service. He's my sworn man. And from now on he shares my bed as well. If you've anything to say to that, say it and be done with it!"
There was a hideous silence. Szintarow stared at him a long moment, then snapped his fingers and jerked a thumb behind him. Miyagui and the dark soldier fell over each other in their haste to get out of the room. Majek turned squarely to face the General, like a lone wolf making his last stand.
"Put the knife down first," Szintarow said. Majek did so, white-faced and deliberate. "I wouldn't want you to think I was coming for you." He crossed the floor in three swift strides and threw both arms around his father. After a minute Majek's own arms came up and held him hard. Dorian heard him let his breath out and saw the tension drain from his body. Majek put his forehead on his son's shoulder and Szintarow, face in Majek's hair, rocked him a little side to side. General Szintarow said something in Circassian. Majek gave a small snorting laugh and said something back, voice muffled in the material of the red jacket. They loosed their embrace enough to look at each other.
"Change," Szintarow said. "It happens. I'd never have believed it."
Majek was smiling, but his eyes were wet. "You realized, years ago, and tried to tell me. All I did was yell at you."
"Of course. I wanted to get your goat and you knew it. I'd have thrown me through the wall too." They grinned at each other. Majek pulled Szintarow back for another embrace.
"HelllLLOOOO!!" Dorian said emphatically. Two heads turned and stared at him. He waved both his hands at them. "I'm over here, when you get time to notice me."
"Yes, Dorian," Majek said, puzzled and impatient. "I see you."
Szintarow's calm black eyes regarded him, sparkling a little. "You'll have your work cut out for you, Father. You're still bringing him back to Circassia?"
"Yes," Dorian said definitely as Majek said "No."
"Yes," Dorian reiterated.
"No," Majek bellowed. Szintarow laughed.
"You can see how it is," Majek said to him. "It's bad enough that I've broken the laws. I won't compound the damage by flaunting..." He waved a hand in Dorian's direction. "You don't have to worry."
"We've changed other customs," Szintarow said. "We could change this one. It may be that only someone with your reputation could change it."
"There's a limit to what people will tolerate. They'd never accept a twice-secured."
"It's the securing part I was thinking of changing. Stopping, actually." Majek's eyebrows rose in surprise. "That kind of tie is part of the old feudal system, the one that leads to private armies. What if we call a spade a spade and see if people still want to do it?"
Majek was shaking his head. "Lord and man- it's one of the most basic loyalties. People will fight if we interfere in it in any way."
"No interference. Just the old General with his new man: the one who shares his bed. The common people think you and God are one. They won't dream of criticism. But any time someone thinks of securing a stranger to his own service there'll be that image of Lord Gloria to haunt them. Maybe they'll think twice. Of course," he added, looking Dorian over, "it might backfire and make the custom wildly popular again-"
Majek said slowly, "It could work like that. It's galling to have people think you a pervert when all you intend is mayhem and treason. But they'll simply hire mercenaries instead. There's enough of them after the war and they'd all rather fight than farm."
"That's the next step, of course. But it's still a different relationship. A man you pay versus a man whose soul you own--"
"Can-I-say-something?" Dorian inserted through gritted teeth. "Do I understand," he enquired of the General with old world courtesy, "that you have some notion of using me to advance civilization in your little country? Some kind of propaganda campaign? 'This quaint custom of our ancestors- it's just another name for buggering effeminate queers so don't you think you'd better stop?' Because if so, you can forget it. I'm a private thief-"
"And there's that too," Majek said, turning back to Szintarow. "They may not mind that he looks like a woman, but if they find out-"
Dorian slapped both hands on the counter with a loud CRACK. "If the top European police haven't figured out my profession in fifteen years, I really don't think a bunch of--" he spoke the words precisely- "potato eating peasants are likely to. You can keep your country," he said to Majek, "and your politics," he added to Szintarow, "because I am an English aristocrat and not for public use." He drew himself to his full height, which allowed him to look down on both Majek and the General, and delivered his parting shot. "I won't even campaign for the Conservative party." Favouring them with the look his housemaster at Eton had reserved for unwashed and uncivilized schoolboys, he exited on his dignity.
"So that's how you lost your first boyfriend," Szintarow's voice said behind him to Majek, and he whirled in fury. Szintarow's mouth was curled up at the corners. Dorian glared, whipped around and steamed down the long corridor, emitting sparks. 'Of all the outrageous impudence--' he was foaming to himself when he ran slap into Kinta coming out of a doorway.
"Dammit, look where you're going," Kinta snapped.
"You look where you're going, oaf," Dorian snarled back in best Klausian fashion. "Mind where you put those clodhopping Circassian feet of yours. You're not back in your native mudfields."
"You damned pervert!"
"You damned peasant! Christ, this place is full of lunatics! I need some air."
"Get out, then. And don't bother coming back!"
"If I had my choice, I wouldn't!" Dorian bellowed, grabbing the last word, and charged out into the elevator lobby.
It was empty. Halim's man was nowhere in sight, which was probably just as well. Dorian felt he'd bite anybody who came near him. He stood a moment, shaking. That scene in the kitchen had been beyond belief. Majek and his son were impossible, the pair of them. That smug oaf Szintarow- telling Majek- 'That's how you-' His mind belatedly registered that the General had used English so that Majek wouldn't understand. Oh- well... He began to calm down. Well, still. He wasn't going back tonight. Majek was going to have to learn what came of insulting an Englishman. He punched the button of the lift determinedly. It would be nice if Majek had come following after and begged him to return, but of course that wasn't the man's style. Pity- it meant a night apart. But Dorian had to be firm with him. There'd be a phone call tomorrow morning- something brief, of course, maybe just to command his presence, but enough to show Majek had seen the error of his-
The lift door opened and Dorian took a step forward before realizing it wasn't empty. Kinta was standing inside. Dorian stopped, mind stuttering. Kinta stared back at him, blank-faced and intent.
"How'd you get in here?" Dorian demanded.
No answer. The pale blue eyes regarded him steadily and Dorian's spine turned to ice. In nightmare slow motion he stepped back, knowing that if the other made the slightest motion towards him he'd start screaming and not be able to stop. The doors whispered shut and the lift began its descent.
His legs were like jelly but he made them take him to the code panel which he punched with a shaking finger. Then the door was open, thank god thank god, and he was leaning on the inner doorbell with all his weight. He almost fell into Ara's arms.
"Oh my god, Ara-" He buried his face in Araszyam's hair. Living warmth- a real human being- "Oh my god--"
Vaguely he was aware of Ara supporting him down the hallway and into the salon. Faces and voices appeared but he was shaking too hard to register any of them. He heard Jean saying his name close by and felt the hardness of glass pressed into his hand. The sharp smell of brandy hit his nostrils and he took a deep gulp. Oh. The warmth ran from his belly out to his frozen hands and feet. That was better. He sipped some more, feeling his shaking stop as the heat ran through him, and was at last able to look up at the Aouilles crowding around.
"What happened?" Majek demanded. "An attack?"
He shook his head, finding his voice. "I saw something." He swallowed. "A doppelganger." He looked up at Kinta. "Yours."
"In the elevator, waiting for me. It was- it was--" He took another mouthful of brandy. "It was most upsetting." British understatement, his mind commented.
"You saw someone who looked like Kinta?" Szintarow asked.
"I saw Kinta," Dorian said with conviction. "In those clothes-" he nodded at Kinta's high-necked black tunic-coat, "same face, same- well, maybe his hair was a little different- longer- And his expression-" He shuddered at the memory of that- inhuman--
The others exchanged puzzled glances. "Really, Dorian- a doppelganger? It seems unlikely," Majek said. "What did it do?"
"It just stood there and looked at me. I couldn't move a muscle. It wasn't human, if that's what you're thinking. Not unless Kinta has a twin brother who freezes people's blood."
"What does it mean?" Gunmar's voice was tight with stress. "Doppelgangers mean people are going to die, don't they?" His voice went up at the end, wavering a little. Takamatsu put an arm around him.
"Only if it's your own." He gave Dorian an odd look. "You never see someone else's."
"I did," Dorian insisted.
"Doubtless." Takamatsu frowned like a man sensing an unpleasant smell.
"Show him," Jean said. "That picture."
"This is stupid," Takamatsu protested, but he reached inside his shirt and pulled a heavy braided chain over his head. At the end was a large locket. He clicked it open and held it before Dorian's eyes. "It wasn't this person, by any chance?"
Dorian looked. It was- Kinta, but not Kinta; and, though the expression was different, it was his man from the elevator. He looked up, feeling the sudden tenseness about him.
"Yes it was." His eyes flicked over the Aouilles' expressionless faces. "Who-?"
"Impossible," Takamatsu snapped, and turned away.
"Not impossible. He's done it before," Majek said, and went to sit in his own chair. "I wondered when he'd finally show up."
"This is ridiculous--" Takamatsu's face was drawn and his eyes were angry. Gunmar put a hand on his arm.
"I know you don't believe it, but Lord Gloria saw him. It's got to be true."
"But why here?" Kinta demanded, loudly. "And why now? What does he want?"
"Pretty clearly," Szintarow said, "he wants Lord Gloria to stay."
Majek looked surprised. "Why would he care?"
"No idea. But why else stop him from leaving?"
Majek looked over at Dorian doubtfully.
"Could someone tell me," Dorian asked with saintly patience, "just who that was? Before I start screaming, that is?"
"Ruza," Majek said.
It was Dorian's turn to look startled. "You mean- that was a ghost?"
"Oh." He found he could breathe again. "Oh well- if that's all it was..."
"All?" Kinta gave him an angry glance. "What do you mean?"
"Well- a ghost. You know- ghosts. They happen. No wonder it was cold. I really thought it was a doppelganger. Now that's scary." He finished his brandy and became aware of the Aouilles all looking at him strangely. "Did I say something?"
"Aren't you being a little-- casual?" Jean asked. "Or do ghosts happen to you every day?"
"They happen a lot oftener than thousand-year-old biologists who can't be killed," Dorian pointed out. Szintarow laughed.
"Lord Gloria is right. Ghosts happen. No, Kinta-" he forestalled his cousin's outburst, "I know you're worried. But if your father wants something from us, he'll tell us what it is."
"I doubt it," Majek said. "I've felt him for days and I haven't a clue what he wants."
"Did you ask?" Szintarow smiled at his father, who blinked in surprise.
"It never occurred to me. I lack your expert knowledge."
"Do it next time," Takamatsu's harsh voice said bitterly, "and see if he gives you an answer."
"Takamatsu-" Gunmar began.
"Or maybe, as your cousin suggests, Samh' Ruza is here purely in the capacity of a go-between-- mending quarrels between your father and his human happy pill." He glared at Dorian who smiled back at him from the serene elevation of the instantaneously drunk.
"How do you say 'privacy' in Circassian?" he asked equably. "I'll bet you don't have a word for it."
"We don't," Szintarow said. "Everyone knows everyone's business-"
"--especially if you advertise it in a loud voice in front of the servants in the kitchen," Takamatsu said in disgust.
"And the rest of the time the family grapevine takes over," Jean finished. "It's a tribe. I told you."
"And since you all know the situation between me and Lord Gloria now," Majek said, regarding his family under his eyebrows, "I expect to hear no more about it." Gunmar and Jean avoided his eye but Kinta reared up at once.
"You're going to hear about it, like it or not," he said. "What you've done is disgusting. You spit on our customs. I don't know how you can look any of us in the face."
"Kincza-" Gunmar protested.
"And I don't know how you can countenance it," Kinta rounded on General Szintarow.
"Take it that I do countenance it. Different times, different customs. Lord Gloria is sworn to my father's service and you know very well why. Lord Gloria is also my father's lover, and if you don't know why-" he grinned suddenly, "take a look at him."
"How can you be so calm about it? A twice secured--"
"I recognize a force of nature when it hits me over the head-"
"Or it keeps on hitting him over the head until he does," Jean said to the air. "Eight months, didn't it take?" Szintarow threw him an annoyed look.
"Enough from you, Chin," he said, and Jean choked. Szintarow turned back to Kinta with an unwilling smile on his face. "Well, yes. I've had experience of the untameable. You can't apply ordinary rules to people like Dorian. A wise man doesn't try."
"So from now on, any landholder can screw his men as often as he likes- is that what you're saying?"
"If he wants to screw his men no-one's stopping him. What he can't do is pretend he's doing something else."
"And so you weaken the tie between lord and man."
"I'm trying to, yes. Secured men think their lord owes them lifelong for their sore arses and somehow the bill always gets paid from public money. Me, I'd rather use it to build schools."
"Roads," Majek said automatically as Gunmar said "Hospitals."
"All of those," Szincza said. "Sleep on it, Kinta. I think it'll look different after Friday."
Kinta snorted. "And so he's staying here?" He nodded at Dorian.
"He's staying," Majek said. "Dorian, are you recovered? Do you need to lie down? The sofa over there--"
"Perhaps that might be a good idea. Just a little nap before dinner..."
He got himself comfortable and never remembered drifting off. He woke suddenly with the sense of a gap in time having intervened. Voices were speaking just out in the hallway- Jean and Sergei... He opened his eyes.
Sergei faced towards the front door, not looking at Jean.
"I knew how it would be," he said. "It never changes."
"That doesn't mean-" Jean's voice sounded strained. He took Sergei's hand. "I just- Savijc, this time, I'm asking you not to. Please. Stay here with me."
Sergei brought Jean's hand to his cheek. "I'm sorry, ma vie." He kissed it. "I'll see you tomorrow." He walked down the passage and Jean didn't try to stop him-- didn't even turn to watch him go. He walked into the salon, threw himself into the chair by the door and put his head in his hands. Dorian glanced around the room. They were alone.
"Jean?" he said tentatively.
Jean drew a long ragged breath and looked up. "Dorian."
"What happened? Where's Sergei gone?"
"Out to get himself laid by some man who isn't me."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
There was no answer. "Umm- but he's done it before-- you said--"
"Yes." Jean put his hands across his eyes again, wearily. "Yes." He got up and left without another word.
Dorian sat up but had to stop before making it to his feet. The aftereffects of shock and brandy had left him feeling completely boneless. He sat looking out at the dark world for what seemed like hours until Miyagui came and called him to dinner.