part three

in progress, parts 1-4 completed

Bryan was suddenly understanding Hart and Micky a lot better, himself. For the first time in his life, he had encountered someone who dazzled him, who truly tempted him, and who threatened to overset his emotions. He had taken Martin all over Lionred, never once daring to pause because he didn't trust himself with the gorgeous visitor, but unable to tear himself away. He chattered, embarassing himself when he looked back on it, but Martin was a conversationally inclined young man himself and they ended up knowing a lot about each other by the time Martin did have to get back to the palace. Bryan sat his Canton for a long time after Martin left, contemplating plunging into the Starbuck and drowning, but not quite able to resist seeing Martin at the ball.

Not that he had, still, any intention of doing anything but looking; Martin Armstrong would probably kill him if he tried to, well, do anything. (What exactly did one do, anyway?) And the scandal that would result from trying it on with the queen's nephew, even if a foreigner....It was a measure of Bryan's distraction that he hadn't realized until well into the afternoon that Martin might not even punch him, might not even take offense at all. He was from Taleavlad, after all, and Talealvad was one of those decadent places--why, one of the queen's other brothers was actually married or something to another man. (Taleavlad was not as bad as Mevramet, of course, but nowhere was. Bryan, like most Darya, was firmly convinced that all Mevraméans spent all their waking hours engaging in disgusting, exciting perversions, only stopping when they suddenly turned into fiercely implacable warriors only stopped by Firalassa's wide green plains between them and Darien, or the high escarpments leading to the Roof of the World in the east, or the equally vicious and implacable Karelhi in their north... he spent about as much time as any of his countrymen actually examining this paradox, which was to say none; he'd never of course been any further outside of Darien than the western fringes of the Firalassan Protectorate, but like most Darya nobility, he knew what he knew....)

But this remembrance about Martin's homeland was terrifyingly exciting. Bryan knew he ought to never speak to the young Taleavladan again, but... he was reckless, had been for years and enjoyed the feeling of risk, risk with a strong possibility of failure but the chance of brilliant success. Though, he admitted as he finally turned Bright Victor back toward the Brevard town house, this risk he'd never really run, never really put his fortune to the test. But he would see Martin Armstrong again. He would. What harm could that do, anyway, just seeing him?

And Martin went back to the palace headhigh in clouds. "Bryan Brevard, Bryan Brevard... even his name sings," he caroled to himself silently, being quick enough to know that Darien wasn't the place to announce things out loud. Hell and Chaos, even in Taleavlad plenty of people still wished the Council hadn't passed that law. Probably only Iefréia, with its three thousand years of bent marriages behind it, was secure in its sexuality, and the Iefréians used it to insulate themselves even further from the rest of the world, of course. But Bryan, Martin figured, would be happy in Taleavlad: look at those two who'd arrived two months ago, that Hart and what's-his-name. A trifle dazed, they were, but happily so. It'd work out.

And Martin, quick and intuitive, had no doubts whatsoever about Bryan's ultimate receptivity to the notion. He knew that Bryan had found him attractive: sexy, not merely good-looking. Bryan wanted him as much as he wanted Bryan. That was not the issue. Only whether he could get Bryan to move to Taleavlad was in doubt. And he was certain that in the end, love and freedom had to win, especially with Gammy on his side, as she would be, he knew.

So Martin daydreamed, spinning plans, until his cousin, Prince Eric, shattered the mood by saying casually, "Bryan Brevard, yes, the heir to Daystar. Nice boy." That's how Eric talked, even though Bryan was two years older than he. It came from being the Prince of Darien, Martin supposed; you'd never have guessed he and Eric were the same age, both Party Kids as they said in Taleavlad. Some people were leery of marrying them, who knew whether they wouldn't stop aging at 25 like those who'd actually been at The Party instead of just conceived at it? But Kirsten had said no, they wouldn't, they'd keep aging normally, and if anyone should know, Kirsten should, it had been her Party after all...

Damn, Hell, and Green-eyed Chaos! Martin swore at himself; he was wasting time thinking about that nonsense instead of Bryan, and how to convince him to let his brother inherit the Markdom (thank Erinna he had a brother!). If he should. Maybe he shouldn't. Maybe he should just let it ride. Maybe. But not if he met Bryan again. He was only human after all, in a matter of speaking.

So Bryan and Martin met each other again at the ball that night for the royal couple. A blessing that, the thing was such a crush hardly anybody would notice anything. (Like Martin's parents leaving as soon as they'd made their compliments to Melany and Colin.) Martin discovered how little it meant to be looking for a redhead in Darien, where more than half the men were redheaded: in Taleavlad, you could pick out the Armstrongs across any ballroom floor; in Lionred, they faded into the scenery. As did Bryan Brevard. It was Martin stood out here, where he was the only male tammie present, and Bryan found him easily enough.

And having found him, didn't know what to say. He finally said something about riding again in the morning, but then fell into deep silence, unable to think of anything meaningless and afraid to say anything substantive.

Martin almost asked him to dance, but recollected himself in time. So they just stood there in an oddly companionable silence, watching the dancers, their shoulders occasionally touching. Every time that happened, Bryan jerked away as if stung, but his feet never moved. Martin didn't look at him, but he smiled.

And then his life was totally, irrevocably complicated by a vision in a pale blue dress with topaz and silver jewelry, honey-blonde hair, and eyes as blue as Bryan's. In fact, she looked a lot like Bryan, barring being blonde and feminine. Very feminine. And Martin felt as though his heart had leapt in his chest. (Except for the one glaring originality, Martin's romantic life was a series of clichés: it softened his impact somewhat and made for a much deeper and lasting impression when the surface was finally pierced. But it did make the lips of his nearest and dearest twitch when they listened to him, what else, pouring out his heart.)

And then his heart really did stop; the vision came to a halt in front of them, Bryan smiled at her warmly, kissed her cheek lightly, and said, "Darlin', this is my friend Martin Armstrong; Martin, my cousin and betrothed, Lady Carrie Traven."

Martin knew he'd said something appropriate; he always did, he'd been well brought up. He hardly heard his own voice over his heart, which was pounding in confusion (betrothed? Bryan was betrothed? to this wonder? did she know? was Bryan serious?), and in his ears. But apparently part of whatever it was had been something about dancing, because Lady Carrie was smiling and accepting. He threw a quick glance at Bryan, surprising an odd expression on his face, and then moved onto the floor to dance with Lady Complication, er, Carrie.

The dance was one of those where you could actually talk if you wanted to, no complicated patterns or switching of partners. Carrie was light and warm in his arms, and she smiled at him as though she were genuinely glad to meet him. "You must be the Queen's nephew, Martin Armstrong," she said.

"Yes, I am," he said, briefly wondering why he always felt like he was admitting it, "and you're going to marry Bryan? When? I mean--" he broke off as she laughed softly and his own smile came in answer.

"In the spring," she said. "They picked the date, oh years ago."

"Years? Oh surely not," he protested, "it can't have been years."

"Oh yes," she said, "Years, in fact; we've been engaged since I was twelve."

Martin realized with a shock that she was flirting with him. He responded without thinking about it, or what it might mean. He'd always enjoyed flirting, especially safely (but was this safe?), and he engaged in pleasant chat now on the surface of his mind while he tried, frantically, to understand what was going on. He gave Carrie back to Bryan afterwards, and watched them dance together, noting Bryan's skill and lack of involvement which seemed to answer some of the questions, at least. Bryan nearly forced them into a second dance, and then seemed to come to his senses and dragged Martin off and introduced him to several other people, vanishing himself. Martin saw him once more, dancing with a tall redhead who seemed, like Bryan, more engrossed in the dance than her partner. Looking at that admittedly attractive sight, Martin finally made a decision: he was going to talk to his grandmother.

Martin's grandmother listened to him pour out his confusion calmly, even gladly. This was, after all, why she had brought him to Darien. She knew perfectly well what Martin's parents would say to him, knew too that he knew, which is why he didn't bother them with it, stressed out as they were already from the trip. Melissa would pat him lovingly, and ask him if he didn't think there was something just a little self-serving in imagining himself the only hope of not one, but two, just-met strangers; didn't he think the wish was somewhat fathering the thought? Melissa loved her husband dearly, but it was not a love that had blazed up in a single meeting. As for Merritt, he would bring his formidable intelligence to bear on the problem and analyze it into submission, but in the end he would only advise Martin to marry Carrie and bring her home, where no one would criticise her for breaking her engagement... he wouldn't ever advise his son to risk pain and maybe worse by courting a Darya noble, for whom even the admission of interest was illegal and who would lose everything he had if he gained Martin, even if Merritt privately thought the swap better than even. Merritt wanted above all his son safe.

But Kirsten had none of Merritt's innate caution. It was Armstrong, right enough: not only were Callin's people, the Morgans, a fairly reckless bunch, but several of her Armstrong relatives were at least as cautious as Merritt--her cousin Hunter, for one. But Armstrong though such carefulness might be, Kirsten preferred to go for it, albeit thoughtfully, not with abandon. And she knew that Darien's marriage laws made it possible for Martin to get exactly what he wanted. And she happened to feel that he deserved to get what he wanted.

And it was perfectly obvious to her, at any rate, one of the greatest sorcerors in Dhassa, that what Martin wanted was everything... well, at any rate, both Bryan and Carrie. He vacillated between saying so ("oh, Gammy, you have simply got to meet them") and being a little fretted about breaking up their engagement. But he had fallen, and fallen hard, for both of them, and Kirsten had never forgotten the words of her husband's greataunt Ronmara, the Novari who had married a Karelhi Hertzog in the teeth of what no one could have described so lightly as her family's opposition: At least once in a generation, she'd said, there's a Morgan who follows his heart even if it leads him to Hell. Kirsten had seen enough of romantic Morgan impulsiveness to know the truth of it; what was needed was to make sure that Martin was following his heart to happiness. And that Kirsten was prepared to do.

"Now, sweetheart," she said to him after he'd gone through the day at least twice (it was hard to tell, because he didn't tell it chronologically), "you have to let me do this my way. Don't introduce me to Bryan--no, Martin, not just yet. Just point him out to me; I need to look at him."

Martin did as she said, scanning the floor for Bryan. "There, Gammy: the redhead--that redhead--in the midnight blue. Dancing with that darkhaired woman. That's Bryan... are you sure you don't want to meet him?"

"I will want to meet him, Martin, but later. Now, you run along: find your Carrie and dance with her, and then bring her along to meet me."

Martin looked doubtfully at her. "I already danced with her twice, Gammy. Will they let me dance with her again tonight?"

"You're a foreigner; just smile sweetly at them and tell them how nice it is of your friend's fianceé to take pity on you. Run along now," she shooed him away and turned her attention to Lord Bryan Brevard.

He was a very good dancer, indeed; the steps barely figured in his thoughts at all and the dance only when he made it.

...I do like dancing with Caralyssa, she's a perfect partner, she's so light on her feet, follows so intuitively, her hands and her eyes never go where they shouldn't, she never speaks, I wonder if men dance together in Taleavlad, Martin's hand on mine, on my shoulder, my waist?, Carrie could dance like this if she weren't always wanting to talk or something, Martin's hand, would it burn?, his shoulder on mine, I could feel it all the way through that silk shirt he's wearing and my brocade jacket and cotton shirt, warm, that silk as soft as, I have to dance with my aunt Mirra soon, remember not to mention Mick, how did he ever, you babbled like an idiot this morning and then you couldn't get a word out this evening, he must think you're daft, you are daft, how can you even think of, I have to find Carrie, no, let Martin have her, she likes him, of course she likes him, everybody likes him, it's just his way, o gods, why do you hate me?...

Well. Kirsten nodded, rather pleased. She could tell Bryan didn't know where to go with his fantasies, and was afraid of them to boot, but he had them. Oh yes, he was gone on Martin. And poor boy: she could tell he was the sort of bent man that might, just might, be able to impregnate a determined enough woman, though neither of them would enjoy it much. That didn't bode well for him and his marriage in the broad picture, but in Kirsten's own scheme of things it was rather a good sign. She could also tell that he was on the edge of suicidal: not desperate enough to actually do anything, not wanting to die, but desperate enough to be reckless with his life, and thinking, a little, that death might be a good solution to his problems. If it ever occurred to him that Carrie bereft but unmarried was likelier to find happiness than Carrie widowed, well, who knew? But Kirsten intended to take young Bryan's future into her own hands, so she wasn't worried about it.

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