He woke alone next morning, but still earlier than usual. He rolled over in to the hollow where Majek had slept, smelling the faint tobacco and man scent of him. Noises in the rest of the apartment told of the others busy about their business. Sighing, he got himself up and, with a little distaste, into yesterday's clothes. A visit downstairs was clearly indicated.
Out in the salon the Ara fellow was busy rearranging the furniture. Dorian wished him a good morning and got a look of radiant happiness in return.
"Oh Milord- Lord Gloria-" He smiled like the sun coming up, apparently lost for words.
"Oh- no- I mean yes- I mean-" The man was transformed. "Oh Milord, how can I ever thank you?" He came over, grabbed Dorian's hand and kissed it.
"You're welcome, darling, but I still don't know-- Oh." The light dawned. "General Szintarow?"
Araszyam nodded energetically. "He said he was going to change the custom. And it was your doing- I know he'd never have done it if he thought the old General would disapprove- oh, thank you, Milord." He kissed Dorian's hand again but Dorian caught his chin, lifted it, and kissed him on the mouth.
"I'm so glad, my dear. Enjoy." They smiled at each other. Just a concourse of happy lovers, that's what this apartment was. But there was still the inner man to be attended to. "Is breakfast still on?"
"Yes. They're all in the dining room."
"Then I'll look in. What's all this for?" He nodded at the rearranged sofas and chairs.
"A guest is coming this morning. The general wants him received very carefully."
"Oh. I see." Klaus. His heart sank a little. "Well, I'll leave you to it."
He could hear Gunmar and Kinta talking happily before he reached the dining room, with punctuations from Takamatsu, and back of that the low rumble of Majek and Szintarow speaking Circassian.
"Good morning," he said to the company, stopping in the doorway. Majek looked over with raised eyebrows, his usual mode of acknowledegement. Szintarow grinned at him, Gunmar gave him a beam, Takamatsu a knowing smile and even Kinta a small nod. There was no sign of Jean and Sergei.
"Not up yet," Szintarow said, seeing his eyes going to the empty chairs.
"Jean's got ten more minutes," Kinta said. "Then I'm going in and pulling him out of bed myself. We've got work to do."
"Have mercy," Dorian said. "I think he had a busy night. I'm just going downstairs to get my things," he told Majek. "I'll see you shortly."
Majek nodded. "There's plenty left here. Take your time."
Heading to the front door he was aware of a small nervousness. Well, if Ruza wanted a word with him, he could have it. It was time someone asked the man his intentions. Halim's Pole was back on guard duty. Mindful of his presence Dorian pressed the button, biting his lip involuntarily, and did no more than draw a small breath when the opening doors revealed two figures inside the lift. They exited hastily and then stopped, looking at the Pole's raised rifle in surprise.
"Excuse me, sir," the older of the two said to Dorian. He was a white haired man with a white moustache and an Austrian accent. "The man who just came up here- did you see him?"
"No-one's just come up here," Dorian said.
"He took the lift just ahead of us. It can't have been more than two minutes ago. Did he go--" He gestured to the coded door.
Dorian looked at the guard who shook his head. "No-one's come up in the elevator or entered the suite this morning." He frowned at the newcomers.
"Is there only one suite on this floor?" That was the other man, a short round Swiss in his 50's.
They looked at each other. "He must have stopped at another floor," the Swiss said.
"But there are only the two buttons in the elevator," his companion argued.
"It only goes between the penthouse and the lobby," Dorian supplied.
The door opened behind them and Takamatsu came out, stopping at sight of the little group.
"Friends, Lord Gloria?"
"Please excuse us," the Swiss said. "The Professor here thought he saw an acquaintance coming to your floor-."
"Wait-" The professor and Takamatsu spoke almost together.
"I remember you," the Austrian said. "That Japanese from Circassia. Don't say it- I'll remember in a minute. Tada-"
"Takamatsu," he said, and swallowed. "Professor Hoefensthall from Dusseldorf. We met years ago. I've read your papers, of course-"
"You were here, at that conference, with young Aouille. Not much more than a boy yourself then. He died shortly after, didn't he?"
Takamatsu nodded. "Yes."
"I know it sounds mad but I saw someone very like him down in the lobby. The resemblance was really-- well, startling. He got on this elevator and I made Herr Wohl here follow me up-" He pressed his lips together. "But this man says nobody's come here this morning."
"No," Takamatsu said. "Nobody has." He bit his own lip, looking at the Professor. "I think you'd better come inside. Alright-" he forestalled the Pole. "Ask the General's permission. Say it's an acquaintance of mine."
"The General?" Hoefensthall asked.
"General Szintarow. This is the Circassian suite."
"Oh, I see. Tell me, these stories- is there anything behind them?"
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say," Takamatsu answered, eyes on the door through which the Pole had disappeared.
"That sounds promising."
"Really- I'm sure you'll be disappointed, sir." And at that moment the door opened and Kinta came out.
"There- you see!" The professor said in triumph. Kinta looked startled. "I saw you downstairs just now, didn't I?"
"No. I've been here all morning. Takamatsu, that man said-"
"This is Professor Hoefensthall. He knew your father, Samhet."
"Ah, Ruza Aouille's son. You look just like him. I'm pleased to meet you, sir." Hoefensthall held out his hand. "And this is my friend Karl Wohl from Wohl International."
Wohl shook hands in his turn. "A pleasure, Professor Aouille. I think I've seen you at the conference. Why did I get the idea your name was Vitolles?"
"I really don't know," Kinta muttered.
"But then, who was the man I saw coming up here?" Hoefensthall asked. "A ghost?" He gave a dry chuckle but cut it short. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing-" Kinta began but Dorian said at once, "We're being haunted. By Kinta's father's ghost."
"Damn it, Lord Gloria-" Takamatsu began, and Kinta said, "For God's sake, Dorian-"
"I saw him," Dorian insisted, "Sergei saw him, and now the Professor has too. What more proof do you want?"
"Ruza's ghost is haunting the hotel? How very odd. Have you any idea why?"
"You don't believe this-" Takamatsu said.
"I saw him as plainly as I see you. It gave me quite a turn, seeing him after all these years when I knew he was dead. It could have been you- almost-" the Professor eyed Kinta carefully.
"The man we saw was shorter," Wohl said. "And dressed differently."
"Yes, true. So you see-"
"We're being unmannerly, keeping the Professor outside here," Takamatsu said to Kinta. "If Szintarow has no objections-"
"No, I'm sure not. Please- come inside."
Dorian watched them go and took himself back to his suite. Shaving and dressing was a leisurely activity for him, and then he had to pick a few necessities to move into Majek's suite, and then he had to get them all somehow into a suitcase. The last activity was the one that took the longest, so that it was a good forty-five minutes before he was back on the fourteenth floor.
The family was still in the dining room, with the addition of Sergei and Jean, and deep in a serious discussion.
"You know what I said before," Jean was saying to Kinta as he came in. "I like the idea, but in the end it's your decision."
"It's your discovery as well," Kinta was arguing. "You can't just throw it all on me."
"I'm not. I'm for telling him- maybe not all, as Majek says, but more than we're saying tomorrow. But if you're against it, we won't."
Kinta twisted his big hands together. "I didn't want to do this. If it wasn't that-" He stopped and looked at Majek. "Do you believe it happened?"
"Yes." Majek was frowning. "I believe Ruza brought them here. I don't know if that's a good enough reason to trust them, though."
"I liked him," Gunmar said. "Wohl. I think you can trust him."
"His reputation is impeccable," Takamatsu said. He looked tired. "Not a hint of anything questionable in his past or his company's. Very much a gentleman of the old school. And it's a family concern- they keep a tight rein on things. I don't think you could ask for anything safer."
"Does a gentleman have the brains to deal with something this big?" Majek asked.
"He came looking for Jean and Samh'Kinta himself. That says a lot."
"And he saw Ruza too," Sergei remarked. "I suppose that weighs with you as well."
"Yes it does," Takamatsu said flatly.
"And with me," Kinta added. "He's a friend of Hoefensthall, and Hoefensthall was a friend of my father's. If it's what my father wants me to do I don't think I have a choice." He looked finally at Szintarow.
"No, I'd say not. So what will you tell them?"
"We'll tell them about the varying chromosomal structures in the highland Circassians." His eyes consulted Jean, who nodded. "We'll give them genetic samples from us and the men. They'll find the same anomaly we did, of course. We can suggest part of what it does, but much better for them to work it out for themselves. A better chance that they'll believe it, if nothing else."
Jean nodded again. "Sounds good to me."
"You're going to sell this to the Swiss?" Dorian asked around a mouthful of toast. "I hope they're paying well."
"For exclusive information, yes," Jean said. "That's all he asked us for. He is a gentleman, as Takamatsu said."
"Then why are you holding back on him?"
"Because not everyone around him is a gentleman too. And by the time they figure this out- if they do- it'll be their secret as well and not just ours. They can have the headache of keeping it under wraps from the rest of the world."
"It'll mean staying in Zurich for a while, to oversee the setup." Kinta sounded dissatisfied. "I wanted to go back home."
"You can if you like," Jean said. "I'm going to be in Lyon from now on. I don't mind handling the liaison."
"I'm moving back to France," Sergei said. "Lyon was the compromise we worked out." He gave Jean a brief smile.
"You're leaving?" Kinta looked stricken. "But you can't--"
"Kincza," Jean said. "Let's face facts for a minute. If we're going to continue we can't stay in Circassia. It's too far from where things are happening. I want to take Gruber up on his offer and that means being close to him-"
"You could do your research in Circassia and just-"
"But Sergei's in France. That means I am too."
"But-" Kinta looked at Majek.
"When are you going?" Majek's voice was a study in neutrality.
"I leave for Lyon Friday to check out the properties available," Sergei answered in the same fashion. "I'll probably be back in Circassia next week to start the packing and shipping."
"Fine." Majek poured himself more coffee.
"I'll miss you," Gunmar said. "You will come back and visit, won't you?"
"Come and see us instead," Sergei suggested. "I imagine Kinta will be back and forth a lot."
"You'll be sorry you offered," Szintarow said cheerfully. "Better get a big apartment, if you're going around inviting us all to drop in."
Sergei smiled, a real smile. "I don't remember inviting you," he said.
Szintarow grinned back. "When have I ever waited for an invitation?"
"Just leave your men at home. I'm not entertaining an army."
"Don't be ridiculous," Majek snapped. "Szincza doesn't travel without a guard."
"Whatever you say," Sergei said mildly, which effectively stopped the conversation dead. There was a small silence, broken at last by Gunmar.
"You know, Kinta- with what Wohl's offering you, you could afford to set up your own institute. Why not do do that?"
"I actually hadn't thought that far ahead-"
"A research institute in Circassia? What a good idea," Szintarow said.
"You'd have a lot of applicants," Takamatsu remarked. "The Russians especially- there's not much money these days for research. You could have your pick of them."
"Not my pick," Kinta objected. "The top men wouldn't leave Moscow or Leningrad for Circassia-"
"Don't be too sure," Jean said. "New equipment's quite a draw."
"And the younger scholars," Takamatsu said. "With your connection to the Swiss they'd be beating down your door."
"You'd have government support, for what it's worth," Szintarow said.
"Yes," Kinta said slowly, "I suppose it's possible. I could start out on a small scale. The set-up and the furnishing, I could handle that part. But then afterwards- all the administration- it would take me from my work."
"Hire someone," Majek said. "Administrators are easily come by."
"I'd need someone with a scientific background as well, and it'd have to be somebody who understands our country. There aren't many people like that."
"There's one sitting next to you," Szintarow said. Everyone blinked a little in surprise, Takamatsu not least.
"That's true," Kinta said, suddenly catching fire. "You ran the hospital for years back home."
"Yes but-" Takamatsu said automatically. "A research facility is a lot different from a hospital-"
"Better," Gunmar said. "You were always more at home in the lab than in the wards."
"Yes- but- well, yes." Takamatsu was frowning a little as he thought. "But it would be a major responsibility, Samhet. Are you sure you'd trust me so far?"
"Before anyone," Kinta said. "Look, we have to talk about this- after Friday- and see if it's feasible-"
"Just make sure someone else handles the purse strings," Sergei said. "Takamatsu's got no notion of money."
"That's not true!" Kinta was outraged.
"Oh yes it is," Jean said. "He ran through it like water back in high school. Bet you still haven't paid back that four hundred you borrowed from Sergei, right?"
"And I'm not going to," Takamatsu said. "That was thirty years ago and only you would remember it."
"*I* remember it," Sergei said pointedly.
"You should charge interest," Jean advised him. "You'd clean up." Dorian felt peculiar. It still seemed all wrong that the greying Takamatsu and the twenty-year-old Jean had been contemporaries back when he himself was barely an infant, and that the younger looking man was by far the older of the two. He shivered for no good reason.
"You could get a Russian to handle the financial end as well," Gunmar was saying. "There's hordes of professionals out of work in the USSR."
"Would one of them know how international investment works?" Majek asked. "You'll need to think in those terms if you want to keep the place going."
"If it's investment you want, I have a good man on my staff," Dorian said. "A genius with figures and the stock market. He loves playing with money as long as it's not his own."
"He wouldn't want to come to Circassia." Kinta objected.
"Try to keep him away. If I'm there, I'm afraid you'll have him as well."
"You're not going to be there," Majek said repressively.
"What will you do? Close the borders against me? Call out the troops?" Dorian smiled at him. "Locks and alarm systems have never stopped me, why should a few mountains?"
"We'll talk about this later." Majek drank coffee with an air of finality.
"I can see the Eroican invasion going down in history," Szintarow said. "Majek Sousui's one defeat."
Szintarow laughed into his father's furious face. "Western civilization comes to Circassia, Father. You wanted it and now you have it. Speaking of which, our NATO connection will be here shortly. I want a fair sampling of the clan to greet him. Will you sit in, Savijc?"
"If you like."
"I do. You've met him before. Gunmar?"
"Gunmar doesn't understand politics," Majek said at once.
"He doesn't have to. This is for show. Gunmar?"
"Of course, Szincza, if you want me."
"We're busy," Kinta said automatically.
"We're tempted," Jean said, giving Szintarow an appraising look. Szintarow looked back, deadpan, and Jean sighed. "But I can't afford the time, true. Tell me afterwards what he's up to," he said to Sergei.
The General's mouth tightened in annoyance. "I'm not up to anything. I want to greet an important visitor in proper fashion."
"A NATO flunky," Takamatsu said.
"Who has a proposal that may, as they say, be to our advantage."
"Fascinating," Takamatsu said. "Shall I attend?" He smiled at Dorian.
"Do, and Klaus will walk out."
"Without fulfilling his mission?" Takamatsu mimed shock.
"For you, Doctor, I think even the Major would desert his duty."
"I take it they've met," Majek said.
"Once or twice, in Lord Gloria's bedroom," Takamatsu said, smiling meaningfully at Majek.
Brief anger flashed in Majek's eyes and was gone. "And you managed to find each other in the crowd?" he asked.
Dorian turned his head to hide a self-conscious smile and caught a swift gleam of surprise and appreciation in Sergei's face. Szintarow gave a smothered whoop of laughter and grabbed his father in a rib-cracking hug.
"Szincza," Majek protested, freeing himself with difficulty. "Stop romping."
Gunmar was smiling at the scene but the Doctor looked to be readying himself for another attack.
"I thought we had a deal," Dorian said to him pointedly. "You were going to keep your knife out of my back."
"It's a reflex," Jean cut in. "He can't help it."
"All those years of playing with scalpels," Szintarow nodded. "Now he has a taste for blood. Excuse him, Dorian."
Seeing himself outnumbered, Takamatsu shrugged. "If that's how you feel you're not getting my help in dealing with Eberbach. There's no use begging- there's no use crawling-"
"You see me doing it?" Szintarow asked.
"-it won't do you any good. You'll have to rely on Lord Gloria to keep the man in line."
"He's our guest," Szintarow said. "There's no question of keeping people in line. But he may welcome a familiar face. What about it, Dorian?"
"Szincza-" Majek looked disturbed. "What are you suggesting?
"Dorian's your man. He's entitled to be present at this."
"But wasn't the Major-" Gunmar started to say, and stopped. "Oh- sorry."
"What about it, Dorian?"
"I've no objection." His voice was tranquil enough, thank god, even though his insides churned a bit. He had no desire to see Klaus at all but he was damned if he'd run from the man.
"Good. Then we'll see you in the salon in twenty minutes.
Dorian thought calm cool thoughts, making his breathing steady.
"Is this really alright?" Gunmar asked beside him.
"Yes of course. He's just an ex-lover. One of many."
"Just- the way you talked about him-"
"It wasn't an amicable parting, but that hardly signifies. I'm civilized even if he's not."
"I see." Gunmar sounded dubious. "And are you coming back to Circassia with us or not? Kinta said last night that you were-"
"I'm coming. I just have to persuade Majek of that."
"Oh." He still looked unconvinced. Dorian smiled at him.
"Don't you trust me to get my way?"
"Yes. But Papa always gets his way too."
"I won the first round with him," Dorian reminded him. "I'll win the others. I agree Circassia doesn't sound quite my cup of tea- boar hunts and barbecues-"
"Oh heavens- I hoped you wouldn't take all that seriously. Kinta and Takamatsu were just teasing you. Boars are a protected species now."
"Oh I see. Teasing. Like those three times a lifetime baths?"
Gunmar smiled. "Yes, exactly. Kinta and Szincza like to tease people. They tease me all the time. It means they like you."
"I think I could do without their liking, frankly."
"Oh no- really. Because you'll be living with Kostya too and Kostya only likes people that Kinta and Szincza like."
"Does he? Why?"
"He just does. He always liked them both even when they couldn't stand each other. He's a little- psychic, actually, if you believe in psychics."
"Hmmm." The ramifications of having a stepson hadn't occurred to Dorian, especially a psychic one. "Sees things, does he?"
"No. Knows things. He's always been a little strange that way. Papa-" Gunmar checked to see if they were alone- "Papa was always a little afraid of him, I think. That's what he and Szincza fell out over. Papa wanted Kostya kept away from him, and he shut him up in one of the fortresses and wouldn't let Szincza know where. It was really awful for awhile. I'm glad it's over."
"Szincza rebelled because of his brother? What devotion."
"There were a lot of other things but that was the final straw. They're very close, Szincza and Kostya and Majek. You know what it's like when people love each other too much. They can't help hurting each other."
"I suppose. And then there are people who just like hurting others."
"Oh, I don't think Papa was ever that bad. But it was- well, a habit he'd got into, I guess. A lot of people got hurt when he was putting the country together and I think maybe he just figured it was unavoidable."
It wasn't Majek Dorian had been thinking of, but he gave a neutral 'mmm' of agreement.
"But Szincza managed to change Majek's mind and now they're all quite happy together. It's almost calm over there now."
Dorian regarded him. "And where do you fit in this? You're Majek's oldest son, after all. Don't you mind being- well, the outsider?"
Gunmar smiled to himself. "Szincza's his son in all the ways that matter. You know, Takamatsu and Uncle Savijc- all they really did was put us where we belonged. I can't imagine how Takamatsu would have coped with someone like Szincza, growing up, and I can't imagine how I'd have survived as Majek's son. They probably saved my life when they changed us around. I tried to tell Takamatsu that when he was being so guilt-ridden after we found out. He just can't see it. But it's so obvious that I got the best of the deal."
"But you got nothing from it."
Gunmar looked astonished. "What do you mean? I got everything. I had Takamatsu to look after me all the time I was growing up, when Kinta was alone by himself and Szincza was butting heads with Majek. I got to work in the field I love without people telling me I had to run an army or a country instead. I can do it at home in Circassia so I don't have to live abroad like Uncle Savijc. And I can be with Kinta all the time because he likes Circassia too, but I can work on the road when he has to travel. How could it be better?"
"Somehow- if I thought I could have had Majek to myself- I'd mind very much that something had stopped me."
Gunmar was silent a moment. "I love my father, you know, but if there's one thing I owe Takamatsu it's that he made sure Majek never even noticed me until I was twenty-five. He gave me the chance to turn into me. I wish I could make him understand how much I appreciate that."
"I think," Dorian said, "there are some points we'll never agree on."
"Perhaps-" but his sentence was interrupted. Majek and Sergei came into the room, at the same time but not together, followed a moment later by Szintarow with that dark friend of Miyagui's in tow. Dorian swiftly got himself over to Majek's side. They all milled about for a moment, but before they had a chance to fall into natural groups the doorbell rang. And a moment later Klaus strode into the room with Ara behind him.
Klaus barely blinked as his scanning eyes took in the fact of Dorian's presence.
"General," he said to Szintarow, "Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach from NATO. How do you do," and gave a short soldier's nod. Dorian saw him summing up the General's appearance and noted the swift quiver of distaste at the corner of his mouth. Klaus disliked the unusual and Szintarow was outlandishness personified.
"Major," Szintarow said, "a pleasure. This is my father, the retired General."
Majek was obviously more to Klaus' taste. He shook hands with what looked almost like respect.
Majek said, "I believe I owe your organization some thanks for your help twelve years ago."
"Merely my job," Klaus answered. "NATO gets to play godfather to any number of little countries too disorganized to help themselves." That was Klaus' blunt approach, what he called deflating conceit. Unfortunately Klaus always assumed that everyone was in need of the treatment.
"Still, I appreciate it," Majek said, not rising to the bait. "My thanks."
Dorian saw Klaus' opinion of Majek palpably change for the worse. A bubble labelled 'wimp' was almost visible above his head. But of course Klaus didn't know that Majek had had a lifetime of fielding Takamatsu's barbs to desensitize him.
"Well, General, shall we begin?" Klaus said.
"Of course. If you'll sit here," Szintarow gestured to an armchair placed next to the sofa.
"I prefer to speak in private."
"Not possible. Whatever we have to say must be said before my people. That's Circassian custom."
"As you wish," Klaus said, not missing a beat. "But this man-" he gestured at Dorian, "is a foreigner. I think we can dispense with his presence."
"Lord Gloria is sworn to my father's service. He's one of us now."
Klaus' eyebrows rose. "Sworn?"
"According to the old forms," Majek said, frowning. "He's my man. I take full responsibility for him."
"I'm sorry to hear that, sir," Klaus said with every evidence of deep regret. "He's deceived you as to his background. This is the thief Eroica-"
"I know. He steals art. He's still my man."
Klaus didn't exactly draw himself up but it was suddenly very clear that he towered above Majek. "I thought Circassian custom was quite clear about what happens to thieves. Do you now approve of the crime?"
Szintarow cut in. "The customs are changing, Major. Isn't that why you're here? Let's get on with it then."
"This man is a security risk. I'll trust the others if you vouch for them, General, but Eroica sells his services to the highest bidder. Do you know who he's working for now?"
"Not a clue," Szintarow said cheerfully. "Who are you working for now, Dorian?"
"No-one, General, though NATO asked me to take on a spying mission for them here the other day."
Szintarow grinned. "And did you agree?"
"Of course not. The pay's terrible."
"So there we are, Major. Lord Gloria is here as one of the family. Nothing to worry about."
Klaus smiled genially. "Very well, General. As you wish." Dorian sent a worried glance at Majek who met it with a small reassuring smile.
They seated themselves, Szintarow and Klaus facing each other across the low table placed at the centre of the ring of chairs. Majek sat on the sofa with Dorian beside him- fortunately, Dorian was next to the General's chair rather than Klaus'- and Sergei and Gunmar across from them. Ara stood behind Szintarow's chair and the other dark-haired man by the door. The set-up looked designed to isolate Klaus, or at least that was how Klaus, smiling and clearly at his ease, was interpreting it. He took out his cigarettes, lit one, and sat back in his chair, his sardonic green eyes looking them all over and- patently, to Dorian's eye at least- dismissing them.
There was a short silence. Klaus would be waiting for Szintarow to make the first move on the grounds that it was best to see your opponent's position before moving yourself. Szintarow was simply waiting- for what, Dorian had no idea. The silence went on for an embarrassing length of time, but Dorian noticed that none of the others were showing any indication of it. Beside him Majek sat as relaxed as a man waiting for a train that wouldn't arrive for another ten minutes. Dorian forced himself to calm.
The door opened and Miyagui came in with a tray that he put on the table in the centre. It contained a brass coffeepot and several small cups. He poured one and set it in front of Klaus, then served Szintarow and Majek, and withdrew. Szintarow took his cup and sipped it slowly. After a minute Klaus did the same.
"You don't have any Nescafe?" he asked.
"Nescafe?" Szintarow looked puzzled. "What's that?"
"Coffee. Never mind." Klaus put his half-full cup down on the table. Majek had still made no move to touch his own. Dorian caught Gunmar's eye and glanced inquiringly at the coffeepot. Gunmar shook his head minutely, making a 'wait' gesture with his hand. So obviously this wasn't intended as general refreshments but served some other purpose. With no alternative, Dorian waited to see what it was.
Szintarow drained his cup, put it down, and said, "Now. As for NATO's proposal, we think we can agree to your requests in return for certain favours. Of course we don't expect membership right away, but we'd want some guarantees that you'll consider us favourably when we do submit our application...' Dorian blinked, feeling he'd been caught napping, but Klaus was right on top of the General's speech.
"We can give no formal guarantees at this state of the proceedings, of course, but naturally our member countries will be well-disposed to anyone who co-operates fully with us in our attempts to curtail illegal shipments from the old USSR..."
"We'll need more than vague promises of goodwill, Major. Feeling in the country is that our interests lie more to the east than the west and that co-operating with the Georgians would be better for us than trying to thwart them. I need something solid to give my people as an indication of what you Europeans intend."
This went on for some time. Klaus and Szintarow offered proposals and counter-proposals to each other like chess players advancing their men. Klaus talked about missile bases while Szintarow pushed for favoured nation status. Klaus obscurely threatened the results of being excluded from the European Community while Szintarow obscurely threatened the results of Circassia aligning itself with the Communist world. The discussion grew more heated.
"We must be able to station our troops within your borders," Klaus was insisting.
"Absolutely impossible," Szintarow replied. "A foreign army on Circassian soil? The people would think I'd sold the country to the West. In ten years time, yes- maybe even five if I can get the money for education and better communications- but not before that. In the countryside the peasants still think you have cloven feet."
"I'm not buying that line for a minute. The people will do anything you tell them to. Circassia is a dictatorship and everyone knows it."
"We have our own kind of democracy, Major. If I get too dictatorial, somebody shoots me."
"Don't hide behind your people's skirts, General. Or aren't you man enough to run your own country? That I can believe."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Szintarow demanded.
"What do you think it means?" Klaus snapped. "You can fool all of Circassia from your father on down but you can't fool me. It's obvious to anyone with half an eye. Look at you, sitting there in that flashy outfit with all the skin showing, and this effeminate pervert beside you." He turned to Majek. "You think Lord Gloria is your man? You're wrong. He's your son's woman. That's the sort of creature you've taken into your *service*." He spat out the last word, giving Szintarow a glance of pure hatred.
There was complete silence. They all stared at Klaus who smiled in wolfish satisfaction at the damage he believed he'd done. The idiotic twit, Dorian thought, and was about to say so when Majek spoke first.
"Is that a fact?" he asked.
"That's a fact," Klaus said with contempt. "You've closed your eyes to the obvious for too long, Majek. Your son's a pervert and Lord Gloria is his fancy boy. Just look at them."
Majek didn't turn his head. "I told you, Lord Gloria is my man. My man. Not my son's. Not yours, any more. Mine."
"Yours?!" Klaus went white as the meaning sank in. "Yours? He's your lover? You're a pervert too?" He got himself under some semblance of control, but his voice shook. "Well, well. Imagine the great hero of Circassia turning into a bum-loving bugger. Have you no shame, at your age?"
Dorian didn't see what happened next. There was nothing *to* see, just that sudden solid feeling to the air-- and then Klaus' chair skittered wildly to one side and Klaus himself hit the floor hard, blood running from his nose. Dorian turned hastily to tell Sergei to stop, but Sergei was sitting motionless with surprise, staring at the man beside him. Gunmar was on his feet, fists balled, fury turning his eyes an unnatural shade of blue.
"How d-dare y-you-" His voice wobbled out of control. "How d-dare you say that about Papa! Who do you think you are, coming here with your stupid hurt vanity and insulting a better man than yourself?" Two angry tears ran down his cheeks. "You have no shame. Get back to NATO and tell them to send us a man to deal with, not a dirty schoolboy!"
"Gunmar." Szintarow rose quickly and put two calming hands on his cousin's shoulders. "It's alright, Gunmar. Calm down."
"Szincza." Gunmar blinked, clenching and unclenching his fists. He turned and looked at Klaus' thunder-black face as he got himself to his feet, and said, "But Szincza, he shouldn't have said that-"
"No indeed," Majek said. "It's not a good idea to insult our family." He spoke slowly and kept his eye on Gunmar. "Remember that for the future, Major."
"Your precious family," Klaus said. "You bunch of deformed perverts. There's not a real man in the lot of you." Oh God- Klaus had got himself into one of his rages when his mouth had stopped being connected to his brain. He'd say anything in this state. He was saying anything in this state. "This is a nest of stinking pansies and queers-"
"Oh do shut up, Klaus, for pity's sake," Dorian intervened. "You're always so stuffy when you have a tantrum. What on earth are you if not a queer?"
"I'm a man!" Klaus yelled at him. "And you-"
"I'm a woman? You've seen me naked enough times to know that's not true."
"You're a whore, is what you are. You'll open your ass for any man, and it's clear you have." He glowered from Majek to Szintarow. "You don't give a fart for honour or decency. You hide behind your title and pretend to be a gentleman, and think there's something to choose between yourself and a common streetwalker. There's not."
"And you think there's something to choose between yourself and me," Dorian said, exasperated. "What makes you different from anyone else here?"
"I know the meaning of right and wrong. I know what honour is, and duty and morality- all those things you're incapable of understanding."
"How true. All I see is that I'm a man who has sex with men and you're a man who has sex with men."
"Only with you, and only because you seduced me," Klaus said bitterly. "The way you seduce everyone- the way he seduced you, I'll bet." Klaus spoke seriously to Majek. "Beware of him, General. He'll find your weak spot and use it against you. I was a clean man before I met him. He corrupted me and made me the same as himself. He compromised my career and endangered my immortal soul-"
"Note which he puts first," Dorian interposed, weary of the familiar tirade. Like sticking a bandalliro into a bull, he thought, and how accurately. Klaus bellowed and came at him swinging, only to fly through the air again as if hitting an invisible trampoline. Dorian, who'd been ducking to the other side of the table, could swear Gunmar hadn't moved. It was Szintarow who dropped his arm, turned and sat down in his chair again. Klaus picked himself up, face wiped clean of anger. Dorian could practically see the wheels turning in his head.
"What was that?" he asked in a voice next door to a threat.
"What was what?" Szintarow asked, shortly.
"You threw something at me- you weren't close enough to connect yourself-"
"I didn't see anything." He traded Klaus glower for glower.
"Exactly. You have some new weapon. What is it?"
Szintarow leant forward, elbows on knees. "You focus the energy of your soul," he said with perfect seriousness, "draw it from your heart into your hand, and let it go. That's all."
"This is no joke, General. If you have some secret weapon we don't know about yet-"
"Will you give us NATO membership to find out what it is?"
"Don't be stupid."
Szintarow shrugged, contemptuous. "Well, maybe we'll try the Chinese. It's more their sort of thing. The interview's over, Major. Good-bye."
"Don't think you can get away that easily," Klaus said. "NATO keeps track of everything that happens in Europe and that includes you." His eyes raked over them and settled on Majek. "And as for you, General- keep a close eye on your bum-boy there. He's a whore. It's just a matter of time before he starts cuckolding you with your son."
"Don't do it," Szintarow said at once to his father. "Gunmar's right. He's a dirty schoolboy. Let him go."
"I wouldn't think of doing otherwise." Majek's expression belied his words. "Don't let me see you again, Major. You remind me too much of someone I want to forget. And next time we meet my sons may not be there to protect you." He got up and walked to the window, turning his back on them all.
Szintarow nodded at Araszyam. "Take him to the bathroom, clean him up and show him out." Ara discreetly motioned Klaus to the door. Klaus' gaze flicked from Majek's back to Szintarow's anger-darkened face. He gave a small satisfied smile and left. Clearly he believed he'd come out on top, though God alone knew what he thought he'd won.
Dorian half-rose to go to Majek, then reconsidered and sat down again. Szintarow spared him a brief glance that said quite clearly 'You're learning.' There was silence.
Majek turned around and saw them all watching them. He frowned deeply and came back to the sofa. "Get me some coffee," he ordered, and Miyagui's dark friend hastened to obey.
"Papa," Gunmar said. He was still standing by his chair, very pink in the face and biting his lips.
Majek's sombre eyes lighted on him and he gave a small tight smile. "Blood will tell. Thank you, Gunmar." Gunmar went red and sat down quickly, overcome with happiness and confusion.
Majek turned his gaze back to the table top and his expression darkened again. Dorian could imagine what he was thinking. Klaus' barbs had gone deep. This was the sort of thing Majek could expect to hear from the Circassian peasantry as well, and there was no use expecting him to enjoy the prospect.
The soldier came back with a full coffee pot and poured for all of them, even Sergei who sat aloof in a silence as deep as his brother's.
"But what happens now?" Dorian asked to break the silence. "With NATO and all?"
"Don't worry," Szintarow said. "This was just the first round. They'll be back. The Major will see to that."
Majek looked up at him then, anger flaring in his face. "Why did you insist on having Dorian here?"
"I told you. He's your man. He has a right to be with you."
"And you wanted me to see exactly what that would lead to."
Szintarow shook his head. "I don't presume to give you lessons, Father. In anything. The Major surprised me too."
"And me," Dorian chimed in. "Frankly, I wouldn't have thought he cared." Majek's eyes flicked between them and away.
"If you'd planned this to humiliate me, you couldn't have done it better," he said fiercely.
"Humiliate you?" Szintarow sounded astonished. "Humiliate you? How?"
"You can't honestly mind what Klaus said?" Dorian protested. "I know he behaved badly, but that was just jealousy. Really, Majek- why should you care if someone like him calls you names?"
"Is it just because he reminds you of the President?" Gunmar asked tentatively.
"The President?" It was Majek's turn to look astonished.
"You said he reminded you of someone-"
"Oh. No. Not the President."
They looked at him in perplexity. "Who, then?" Szintarow finally asked.
Majek scowled. "A certain General Majek of Circassia."
Dorian blinked in surprise, but before he could speak Sergei said, "You do yourself an injustice, brother. You were never smug."
Majek looked at him from under his eyebrows. "Indeed?"
Sergei looked back at him levelly. "Indeed. Rigid and moralistic and narrow in your views, yes. But self-satisfied, no."
"You're so devoted to me, little brother."
"Yes I am, old bear, and it's more than you deserve. But if I've put up with your ways until now, I can put up with them for another sixty years. You may even be human by then." Sergei rose. "Hold on to Dorian. He'll show you how."
Majek's fist hit the table. "Since when does my family presume to give me advice about my private life?"
"Since you've had a private life for us to give you advice about." Sergei smiled down into his brother's angry face. "A matter of some twenty hours. Patience, brother. We'll get used to it eventually, and so will you." He swept out the door.
"Aaagh," Majek said in disgust, but Dorian could feel the tension going from his body. He drained his coffee cup and motioned for more. "Get out, all of you, and leave me alone." Rather to Dorian's surprise, Szintarow obeyed at once, nodding himself and Gunmar to the door.
"Should we just leave him like that?" Dorian asked when they were out in the corridor.
"Yes. He hates apologizing."
"Who's he going to apologize to?" Dorian asked in confusion.
"Uncle Savijc," Gunmar said, "and he already did."
"But when- Oh, never mind," as he saw the General and Gunmar exchanging glances. This must be that cryptic Circassian communication that Jean had mentioned. Cryptic indeed. Maybe he himself had apologized to someone- or challenged Majek to twenty laps around the Houses of Parliament- without ever being aware of it. This new facet of life in Circassia occupied his mind for a moment. Perhaps he should get someone to tell him what he was really saying, just as Don Vollovonte had instructed him that when he bit a fingernail in Naples, he was casting aspersions on his host's paternity, and when he rubbed an itchy nose he was implying that a price was too high.
"Nice work back there," Szintarow was saying to Gunmar as they turned into the small study.
"He made me angry. I don't- it's not something I like doing."
"That's twice in one week. It's getting to be a habit." Szintarow's words carried some unknown meaning. Gunmar frowned.
"It's just- it's just what's happening now. I don't want to be doing it, in spite of what Papa said-" He broke off, blushing again.
"Is this this ki thing you're talking about?" Dorian asked.
"Ki?" Szintarow asked,
"That's what Sergei called it. That silent bomb."
"Then I suppose that's what it is," he shrugged. "We have another name for it at home."
"Is it something else your family does?" Dorian asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
"Oh yes. With a little practice, of course. You could probably do it yourself if you put your mind to it."
"Why not? If even Gunmar can manage it-" Szintarow said wickedly, and Dorian realized that this must be an old line of teasing.
"Well, it's a thought," he said. The uses it might be put to ran through his head. "Maybe Majek could train me in it."
"Better let me do that," Szintarow said. "Majek's too much a natural. He never had to learn how himself. But it takes time. Six months of doing nothing else."
"Oh well- in that case, perhaps not. There's other things one could be doing in six months."
"Like what?" Szintarow sat himself in his father's chair and stretched out his legs. "What exactly do you see yourself doing in Circassia?"
"Well... you know. The usual. The things one does."
"The things one does in Circassia is raise sheep. Or pursue research like Gunmar, or run the country like I do. There isn't much in the way of simple amusement. People work there, and Father not least. I wonder what an aristocrat like you will find to keep him busy. Your usual occupation is simply out of the question."
"Oh yes?" Dorian sensed a challenge in the words.
"Yes. There's nothing to steal, for one thing." Szintarow was looking at him closely. "And don't expect Majek to be as liberal there as he is here. We have a saying: 'Travellers need no shame.' When he's home he'll be much stricter."
"I'll manage," Dorian assured him, hiding his annoyance at the intrusion into his private affairs. "There's no need to concern yourself about me."
Gunmar said tentatively, "Lord Gloria- Szincza's not interfering, you know. It's just- he's the head of the family. It's his job to think of things that might-" He blushed a little. "-I don't mean to be offensive, but- things that might affect the family's honour. Like if you start stealing things, you know..." His voice trailed off.
"Or debauching our good-looking young men," Szintarow added.
"You're hardly in a position to talk," Dorian pointed out.
"I'm a Circassian. I know the line between friendly talk and a proposition, and I don't think you do."
"Of course I do! What do you think I am, a child?"
"It's not the same," Gunmar said earnestly. "Home is different from Europe. The way you walk, even- at least some Circassians would think you were flirting with them."
"And can you tell who wants you to flirt with them and who'd take it as a mortal insult? Look the wrong way at some people and you'll have a knife in your ribs. We can tell who they are. You can't."
"I don't need anyone but Majek and I intend to make that perfectly clear. I'm not looking to take your peasant population by storm."
"Good. Being Majek's will probably protect you. But ask Savijc sometime what it's like to be a beautiful man in a country like ours." With surprise Dorian saw that the General was perfectly serious. "He's a Circassian and Majek's brother, but it still wasn't always easy for him. People have their own ideas, and you're a foreigner to make it worse. Can you fight?"
"Yes," Dorian said firmly. "I'm very good with a knife."
Szintarow nodded. "That's a relief. So you can fight your own duels."
"You still have duels? I thought you were modernized."
"You don't drag a country from the 16th century to the twentieth in a decade. We're modernized and medieval at the same time. Computers in the city and blood feuds in the hillsides."
"Really? It sounds wonderful. Europe is too modern. No one cares about things like honour any more, and it's been centuries since anyone fought a duel to the death. I think I'm going to like your country a lot." He smiled at the prospect of adventure and danger opening before him, and had the unexpected satisfaction of seeing the General look dumbfounded. "Oh come on, General. I've survived in the Arab world, I won't have problems in Circassia."
"Have it your way." Szintarow shrugged. "I see why Father thinks it'd be like putting a match to a powder keg to bring you back. Fight it out with him."
"Can I count on your support?" Dorian pressed.
Szintarow hesitated, for once apparently not absolutely sure of himself. "Let's say I won't oppose you." He frowned. "I think it'd be a good thing for him to have you around, but if he says no, I won't argue with him. It's his decision."
This lukewarm response was less than consoling. It wasn't that Dorian thought he needed the man's help, naturally, but he expected Szintarow to show a bit more interest in his father's choice of a living partner. The young General's complete indifference to the Earl of Red Gloria was astounding, and more than a little galling. Some acknowledgment of Dorian's attractions- a little gratitude that Szintarow's much-loved father had acquired such a treasure for his lover- maybe even the faintest hint of regret that circumstances made Dorian Majek's exclusive property-- that was surely the least he was entitled to?
"You talk as if I was a vitamin regime that your father should take for his own good," he said, nettled. "I didn't start this affair for the sake of Majek's health, you know."
"I know. It was because you'd dropped the Major and needed a new man."
Dorian gasped. He tried to speak but indignation literally choked him. He slammed his hand on the table. "If you believe that--" he managed, and took a deep breath. "If you believe *that*, then you don't know the effect your father has on people. The first minute I saw him- it was all over for me after that. Like being struck by lightning- I couldn't move, I couldn't think, All I could do was sit there with my mouth open and my eyes goggling, staring at him. I'm amazed the waiters didn't call an ambulance. I must have looked like a stroke victim."
"Oh yeah?" Szintarow's eyebrows quirked disbelievingly. "And the timing was just a coincidence?"
"Timing? I didn't break with Klaus until after that. If you think I'm just on the rebound-- Oh. That is what you think, isn't it?"
"What else would I think, with the Major still out for blood?"
"He's had his blood," Dorian said, impatient in his own turn. "Now he can go and vanish. He's simply not part of the equation any more. He hasn't been from the minute I set eyes on Majek."
"Do you always throw your lovers away as easily as that?"
"Just what are you implying? You sound like --" Light dawned. Oh, right. Just as Sergei had said: Szintarow was being clan head with a vengeance. Dorian gave him a sardonic look. "I take it you're asking me my intentions? Don't worry, General, they're perfectly honourable. I am passionately devoted to your father, and I assure you," he slid down on one knee and laid a hand to his breast, "if you give me Majek's hand in marriage I'll be able to maintain him in the style to which he has become acccustomed. I am a man of some property- the family seat in Kent, a townhouse in London, a proper carriage and equipage- he'll want for nothing under my roof."
"Under your what?" Szintarow was looking at him as if he was mad. Gunmar murmured, "Lord Gloria, please..."
"In point of fact," Dorian continued, "I'm very constant in my attachments. I put up with Klaus for seven years, if you want an example of my patient forebearance. You could ask him for a reference."
"Lord Gloria, you're not helping," Gunmar said. "Please be serious."
"OK," Dorian said, regaining his seat, "I'm serious. I love Majek. I'm not going to change my mind overnight. I've been looking for someone like him all my life but I didn't realize it. Klaus was just a wrong turning I took back a ways. I can't imagine living without Majek. I need him and he needs me. You're right, I'm good for him and we both know it. So there you are. I love him. Satisfied?"
Szintarow was frowning. "So do I love him, and I've been doing it for a lot longer than you have. He's my father, Dorian. I want him to be happy in the time that's left to him, and I don't know if you're the one to do that."
"What do you mean?" Dorian asked. "The time that's left to him? He's going to live forever, and I'll be right beside him, and I assure you he'll be very happy."
The General said nothing. A presentiment rippled up Dorian's spine.
"He will live forever, won't he? The treatment will work with him?" Silence. A small fear squeezed at his heart. "What is this?" he demanded. "Gunmar-"
Gunmar bit his lips, eyes flicking between Dorian and his cousin.
The General spoke at last. "He hasn't had the treatment. He refused it."
"Refused? He can't refuse. Why would he-"
"He has his reasons. He didn't tell me what they are."
"You must have asked, surely?!"
"No. Why would I?"
"Why would you?? Because--" He was on his feet, staring at Szintarow in distress. "What's wrong with all of you? Don't you care what happens to him?"
"Lord Gloria-" Gunmar said. "Of course we care. But you don't argue with Papa--"
"You don't, maybe, but I will. This is ridiculous."
He turned and dashed from the room, hearing Szintarow call his name behind him. Unheeding he slammed into the salon.
"Majek!" he said, sliding to a stop. "Majek, what is all this? Szintarow said--"
Majek looked up from his thoughts, annoyed. "Dorian, when I say I want to be alone, I mean I want to be alone. Whatever it is, it can-"
"It can't wait! Szintarow says you haven't had the treatment! Why not?"
"Treatment? What- Oh, that treatment. No, of course not. Is that all you wanted? Then you can-"
"But Majek--" Dorian stared at him. "Without the treatment you'll grow old. You'll get weak and ill and- and- and someday you'll die." The idea made him want to cry. "You can't want that to happen, surely?"
Majek shrugged. "It's the way of life. Everyone does it."
"Not everyone, now. You Circassians don't have to- not with your chromosomes and the treatment."
"True," Majek agreed. "I don't have to. I choose to."
Dorian was flabbergasted. "But why?? That makes no sense. What are you doing it for?"
Majek looked displeased. "My own reasons, little brother, that I don't expect you to understand."
"What reasons? Tell me what they are, Majek. You can't just leave the people who love you and never tell us why!"
"Dorian, stop this. I don't want the treatment, and that's all there is to it."
"But you're going to leave me- leave me when we've only just met. How can you do this to me?" The idea hurt more than he could say, and his eyes pricked him.
"I'm not going to die for years yet. Stop wailing, for heaven's sake. I refuse to be worn down like Kinta with Takamatsu."
"I'm not wailing. I'm just trying to understand why you want to die when you've got so much to live for-- " Ohh. Could that be it? Majek hadn't met him when he made that decision. Maybe in retirement Majek had lost his zest for life. He knelt by Majek's chair and put both arms around him. "Look, you haven't thought this through. Think how your life has changed in the last twenty-four hours. You have a lover now. You have me. Isn't that a reason to want to live forever?"
"No??" Dorian's heart was pierced with desolation, not unmixed with annoyance. Majek smiled at his tone.
"I'll appreciate you all the more because I know this isn't forever."
Dorian frowned. "Is that it? You think immortality will take away your enjoyment of life?"
"If you like," Majek said, shrugging.
"But that's silly, Majek. That's like saying you shouldn't live past twenty because after that everything loses its novelty. If you enjoy me at sixty, why shouldn't you feel the same at six hundred?" He said it lightly, but the strangeness struck hard and suddenly. He really was going to live to be six hundred. It made him feel peculiar, like the first man on the moon. Did Majek feel the same...?
"There's no point in discussing this, Dorian. My decision's taken."
"I think you're afraid," Dorian stated.
"Oh, not again," Majek said in disgust. "Dorian--"
"This is- it's all new. It's never been done before. It's unnatural, just like you said. You don't know what it'll be like. And I think you're afraid to do what hasn't been done before."
Majek's white face and blue eyes held him still. Maybe he'd gone too far this time? And then Majek broke into a huge grin.
"Dorian- Dorian, Dorian, Dorian. Ohh, little brother. What am I going to do with you?" He was shaking with silent laughter. "I'm Majek of Circassia. All my life I've been doing what hasn't been done before. I was born doing what hasn't been done before. It's second nature to me now."
"Other men have done what you did," Dorian countered, "in different times and places. You may be the first in your country, but Alexander and Genghis Khan and Napoleon all created empires before you. But living forever- who's done that? Only the characters of nightmare and fantasy: elves and vampires and necromancers."
"And Jean," Majek said at once. "Forget the nightmares and fantasy. Jean's the model I've got to go by, and you couldn't find me a more reassuring one."
"Well, that's true," Dorian admitted. "Jean's so normal it hurts."
Majek nodded. "And I'm not. You wouldn't know the stories they've told about me for the last forty years in my country, but they'd put your vampire tales to shame. You'll hear enough of them when we go back."
"So I am going back with you?"
"Since Szincza doesn't object, yes. That was my only concern."
"That and people talking," Dorian corrected him. "You've stopped worrying about peasant jokes now?"
Majek snorted. "Let them joke. They'll get used to it. Circassians need their ideas shaken up from time to time or they turn into pumpkins. One of my jobs has always been to keep my people one step above the sheep they herd." Looking at his frowning blue eyes, Dorian caught a momentary glimpse of Majek in his youth- the will like a bulldozer, impatient of others' opinions and unarguable in its force. "Life has been so ordinary lately I'd almost forgotten who I am. I'm the great commander Majek Sosui, who flattens mountains and makes rivers run backwards, who kills men at thirty paces with a glance of his eye, and who once came back from foreign parts with a strange beast, half-male and half-female, that caused all the young men of the country to run mad."
"What-? Majek, are you talking about me? Because if you are--"
Majek's eye gleamed sardonically at him. "You'll be part of the legend, little brother. I imagine that's what our peasants will make of you. And if you don't like it, try not to prove them right."
"That may be difficult." Dorian took the seat next to Majek. "I can't tailor my behaviour to other people's prejudices. Gunmar already told me I walk the wrong way for a Circassian."
"You do. And the way you look at men is a scandal and what you do with your hands is an invitation to a fight."
"My hands?" Dorian looked at them in puzzlement.
"This." Majek waved elegantly, palm up and wrist bent backwards. "You might as well call a man a pervert to his face. It'll be a shock for our solid grandfathers when that happens." He smiled, a smile of sheer pleasure and anticipation that stripped years from his face. "You'll turn the country on its head inside a week. I can't wait to see my people trying to make sense of you."
"I'm glad you're enjoying the prospect so much," Dorian said, obscurely offended.
"I am. This will be fun, Dorian, fun. You just don't know what it's like. You're still young-"
"I'm not that young," he said, nettled. "Thirty-six is grandfather age in your country."
"Yes," Majek agreed, "and still young. I'm over sixty and my life's work is all behind me." His eyes went distant, sparkling in remembrance. "The battles of my youth, the planning and scheming, the strategy and negotiating- dealing with men who'd as soon put a dagger in my back as look at me and persuading them to my will... All that's over now. It's not the same, chopping words with foreign bureaucrats. Necessary work, I know, but-- small. Boring. Life has been so dull, lately. And now--"
There was a knock on the door.
"Szincza. Come in."
The General entered, casting a questioning glance between them.
"He's still alive," Majek assured him. "But importunate. You don't know."
"I can guess."
"Did you want something?"
Szintarow smiled at his father. "No."
Majek smiled back. "Sit down, Szincza. We were talking about his going back with me."
"You really think so?"
"Yes. You're entitled to a little happiness by now."
"That's my son talking. But what do you say as the ruler of Circassia? That's your job now, not mine, thank God. And in your shoes, I'd say no."
"You know my reasons for saying yes, both as your son and as ruler of Circassia. The whole country knows what it owes you. You've earned whatever reward you like. If you want the most beautiful man in the world for your lover, I don't think anyone will tell you no."
"You don't know the whole of it. Dorian's trouble. He knows nothing of civilized
"Just a minute-" Dorian began, indignant, but Majek continued right over him, "No-one can resist him. He seduced half the family inside two days."
Szincza looked startled and turned dubious eyes on Dorian.
"I didn't, you know," Dorian said in annoyance. "I wasn't trying to seduce anybody. It just happened."
"Just happened," Szincza echoed. "Who with?"
"Savijc, Jean, Kinta, Araszyam, Takamatsu..." Majek listed. Szintarow's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. "Not Gunmar, he says, but I'd bet it was a near thing." Dorian reddened in mortification and annoyance. "It seems he's the kind that things like that just 'happen' to. In which case, God alone knows what mischief will come of it."
"Oddly enough," Dorian said through gritted teeth, "I still have my free will. I can always say no."
"And do you?" Szintarow asked.
"Of course!" Really, this family. "And frankly, whatever your customs are, I don't care to have my sexual habits discussed like this. What I do in private concerns only me and my partner--"
A snort from Szintarow and a sigh from Majek.
"He's a European. He doesn't understand, no matter how often you tell him," Majek said.
"So I see. Look, Dorian, there's no 'in private' at home. Got it? What you do is always everyone's business. Who you sleep with is just as important as who you work with. More important. Sleeping with someone makes so much more trouble for everyone. Jealousy, hurt feelings, discord-- it's the sort of thing that starts feuds. That's why it's everyone's business."
"Well," Dorian said reluctantly, wanting to be fair, "I can see why you think like that, but..."
"Then I hope you see too," Majek said, "why it is you can't have anybody you want just because they want you and you want them. Do you?"
"I don't want anybody but you--"
"Don't dodge the point. Do you?"
"Of course I do. Do you want me to swear an oath never to have another man?" he asked sarcastically.
"That might be a good idea," Majek said seriously. "Since you take your oaths seriously, at least."
Alright, then. "Then you have to marry me," he said triumphantly. "Those are called wedding vows where we come from," and was rewarded by Majek's thunderstruck expression.
"Well, it's an idea," Szintarow grinned. "Maybe the easiest solution."
"Szincza, I think he's serious."
"Oh sure," the General said, unbelieving.
"We can be married in the Church of England," Dorian said. "I know a priest who'll do the service." Father and son stared at him.
"You are serious," Szintarow said. "You mean men really marry men over here?"
"And these marriages are valid in your country?"
"Well, not completely, but they're getting there. They're valid in Scandinavia."
"They won't be in Circassia," Majek said. "The idea is crazy."
"But you could marry him if it makes him happy," the General said slowly, "in a western ceremony, quite unofficially."
"I'd want it to be completely official," Dorian said. "Done Circassian fashion, signed sealed and delivered."
"That means getting the family's permission," Szintarow told him. "If you don't mind that--"
"Well, if my private life is as public as you say, why not?" Dorian agreed, the soul of sweet reason, knowing perfectly well that where Majek was involved the matter of family consensus was merely a formality.
"So we could call a clan meeting..." Szincza looked at his father. "If you really want to do this."
"Szincza, not you too? You can't take this madness seriously?"
Szintarow shrugged. "I'm thinking of a story. Once upon a time the great hero Samh'Vashtek travelled to the wild lands of the Muscovites and came home with a firebird."
"I know that one. I told it to you myself. What of it?"
"You remember all the ways he tried to bind the firebird so it wouldn't burn down the whole of his steading? He put it in a cage of silver but the silver broke. He put it in a cage of gold, but the gold melted. He put it in a cage of stone, and the stone grew so hot that the bird suffocated and died. I'd point out the parallels with Dorian."
"Meaning what?" Dorian demanded angrily. "I burn people to death?"
"Near enough," the General grinned.
Majek spoke slowly. "You set men on fire, little brother. Yes, I see. Szincza's right. You're a force of your own and I've been trying to bind it in every way I know. I've taken your word, and I've secured you as my man, and now you want me to marry you."
"Well, if that's what it takes, why not?"
"It's unnatural. It spits on our customs. And I'm trying to imagine going back to Circassia with a man who tells everyone he's my wife."
"I'm not your wife, I'm your husband."
Majek reared up in anger. "You-are-not!! How dare you--"
Szintarow put a hand on his father's arm. "He didn't mean it like that. You're saying Majek is your wife?"
"Of course not. He's my husband. We're both men."
"That's not the way we think at home," Majek said. "Never say that you're my husband. My followers would kill you out of hand. Or I would."
"Well, at least our married life won't be boring and domestic. Between you wanting to kill me because you think I'm insulting you and your young men wanting to kill me because they think I'm propositioning them, I should have all the thrills and danger I could want."
"Dorian, you're not intending--"
"No, I'm not. And will you marry me?"
Majek scowled. "No. Don't be silly."
"But Jean and Sergei-"
"It just is."
"Dorian, I'm not going to discuss this. Now drop it."
Dorian was silent for the moment. But the idea was looking more and more attractive. He was going to have to do some serious thinking about it. True, it had started as half a joke. Everyone should be married at least once, just for the experience, and he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather marry than Majek. But a day spent watching the ex-Commander and his son had taught him something else. If he was ever to match Szintarow in Majek's eyes, he needed a place in the clan, and this was the easiest, not to mention pleasantest, way of assuring himself that.
He'd won his first point, at any rate. He was going back with Majek. Whatever happened after that, he'd at least be in a position to work on the second point, Majek's peculiar aversion to immortality. Not a bad morning's work at all.