At Ilya's Wedding

It was the 25th of Vine, early autumn and everything blazing in bronzes and deep reds, a hint of dust, and that last, fragile, dark green of trees before they begin to turn. Robin Venin, fifth son of Dragomir, Earl Venin; husband of Lady Alicia Penkovskaya, the Duc of Angarin's only daughter; father of three hopeful daughters himself; seneschal and courtier to Grania, Queen of Chaiku; and, most importantly in his own self-image, the best friend of His Grace, Ilya, the Duc of Loshadin, swallowed for about the hundredth time as he looked at the walls of the city of Taleavlad. Bobby was arriving there with the Queen's party and a great deal of formless dread.

Not that he had any reason to dread Taleavlad. Not that he knew of, anyway. And he didn't mean to look for the reasons, if reasons there were. He could feel it, lurking in the back of his mind: the pain of the headaches that plagued him, that struck him down, incapacitated, whenever... well, whenever he thought about things that he didn't, as a result, even notice he no longer thought about. So he wasn't going to explore why he didn't want to be in Taleavlad. He wasn't even going to think about not exploring it, or about not thinking about it.

He just wished he wasn't here.

But there wasn't any choice about it. Oh, the queen wanted him there, but he could easily have convinced her to let him remain behind. Well, maybe not easily; Grania was convinced that only Bobby could arrange living quarters for her away from Oriol, Chaiku's capital, or at least arrange them so that she would be comfortable in them. But Grania was a somewhat suggestible woman, and Bobby was one of her favorites, and he could have convinced her. Bobby was one of most people's favorites, in a tolerant sort of way. He was good-looking, in that far northern, elf-fair fashion, with the fine features of his Levshin mother and pale coloring, light blond hair and lighter blue eyes. He was tall, and slim, and graceful, and undeniably masculine and, at 32, in his prime, but there was just something about him, an indefinable ineptitude or incompetence, that made people regard him as a lightweight. He wore a sword when custom required, but one rather felt he'd only hurt himself if he drew it. "It was only Bobby Venin," wives could say and soothe the most jealous husbands. He was a good listener, a confidant, a constant at the court, but he wasn't effectual in any serious way. Grania could have done without him, if he had seriously requested it. And his wife? Alicia wouldn't have minded staying home; in fact, Alicia would have preferred it. She didn't enjoy parties with people she knew, and this wedding was going to be full of people she had never seen before. But it was Ilya's wedding, and Bobby couldn't miss Ilya's wedding, even had he not been asked to stand with Ilya as his married honour attendent. For Ilya, Bobby would suffer dread, would walk through Hell and Chaos. For Ilya, Bobby would die.

It had been like that since they had met, Ilya almost fifteen and Bobby an old twelve, in Yastreb, where Ilya's mother, the Royal Ducaynya Marfa Loshadin had lived since her husband died three months before Ilya and his twin sister Ilyura had been born, and near which the Earl Venin had his country house. The Earl had been enjoying a brief period of solvency, doomed to disappear as soon as he spotted a likely racehorse with a fatal tendency to fade in the stretch, or perhaps to break its leg. But he had money at the moment, and he'd brought his wife and brood (six daughters as well as the five sons) to the city. Ilya ran wild even then; his mother didn't spoil him only because he was too amiable to spoil. He had run into Bobby riding in the park and taken to him at once, in the impetuous Loshadin fashion, and had, for some reason, remained fiercely loyal for the next twenty years. Bobby knew well why he had been so expensively educated; Earl Venin would never have sent his fifth son to the College in Oriol on his own, but Bobby had nonetheless gone there, companying Ilya in his ramblings, his partyings, and his infrequent bouts of studying.

Ilya had even wanted Bobby to marry his sister Ilyura, and thought of marrying Bobby's twin sister Lark himself. That had fallen through; suddenly Earl Venin had put together three stunningly successful marriages in a row, Earl Chaiek's son for Marya, Earl Belokorovichi's for Magda, and the fabulously wealthy Sir Yevgeny Vysotsky for Lark herself. And the Royal Ducaynya had made it clear to Bobby that, while the penniless youngest son of a profligate earl was--just barely--tolerable as her son's wild school companion, he would never do for a son-in-law. Bobby had accepted that; in his life the wonder was the Ilya stuck with him, not that others didn't. But Marfa may have rued her actions.

Because Ilya hadn't so much as thought of marriage since that day, still in school. Marfa explained it as political, and gods knew there were people in Chaiku who wanted a King instead of a Queen, but it wasn't political. Ilya just didn't want to get married. Bobby knew, Ilya'd told him once, laughing about it and expecting Bobby to share the secret joke, that Marfa braced herself when her wayward son showed up with a male companion for a week in Yastreb. But Ilya was, if anything, more heterosexual than Bobby, who would have been surprised to discover that his friend had spent three nights running unaccompanied. Ilya enjoyed sex, all right; he just felt he wasn't fit to marry.

And Bobby more or less knew why. Which was why he was so surprised about this wedding. Marfa might joke to her friends that, if she had known all it took was a beautiful dark-haired peasant, she'd have thrown one in her son's path before now; Bobby was aware that Ilya had slept with more dark-haired peasants than he could count (fair ones, and redheads too; if there was one thing he was not, it was picky) and none had lured him into marriage before this one. Not that she was actually a peasant; Lysl Houndsman's aunt was a noblewoman of Taleavlad. Though only the traitor Earls Gwynn of that city-state had any lineage, of course; still, all noble families have to start sometime. You just generally preferred it to have been not in your lifetime, especially if you were a Reynichi of Chaiku, kings for more than 2,000 years, as Marfa was. But Bobby had no mind to tell Marfa about her son's college years. He would never tell anyone. He didn't think about them often, either, as too much thinking about them brought on the headaches. He didn't even talk about them with Ilya when they were going on; Ilya's conclusions might or might not be right, but Bobby accepted them and moved to less painful topics. Even the word "magic" brought warning twinges, there was no way he could discuss it.

So he wasn't as helpful to Ilya as he wanted to be. But Ilya swore he'd saved his life. And, Bobby knew, he probably--almost certainly--had. His Grace, Ilya Loshadin, hunting the Low Quarter of Oriol for boy hookers: he would not have survived that. This wasn't Darien, that red hair was unmistakeable; and it wasn't Iefreia, boy hookers were illegal. Patronizing them was a capital offense. Even if they weren't hookers. Even if you were a Duc.

So Bobby had let Ilya bed him for six months, six months during which Ilya had loved him with an almost violent passion, though a tender touch, six months that Ilya spent blinded by lust and Bobby blinded by his headaches, because it wasn't natural for Ilya--even if he explained it as something he'd kept repressed as long as he could--to want a man, and yet it wasn't possible for Bobby to hold that thought in his mind, let alone say it aloud, without the pain doubling him up in searing agony. So he'd just accepted it, let it happen, and concentrated on keeping Ilya out of scandal, jail, and death. And then, as suddenly as it had come, it had gone.

Of course, it transmuted into a passion that even Ilya couldn't tolerate, one he fled to Brest to escape, one that he finally decided was foreign to him, magically imposed--and he did have a mage-enemy, he and Ilyura had nearly died in a wizard-weather blizzard four years earlier--and he'd taken steps to protect himself. But he didn't trust his passions anymore: good for a night they might be, but would any of them last? Bobby might just have been able to tell the terrifying Royal Ducayna that her son had once wanted to marry a laundress twice his age (thank the Golden One the woman hadn't been venal enough to take advantage of the stricken 18-year-old Duc who kept throwing himself at her), but he couldn't have told her Ilya had once wanted him. Or Ilyura.

She'd just have to wonder.

Still, from what Ilya had written him, and what he'd said in that hurried meeting they'd had in Oriol, when Ilya was going north to Yastreb to tell his mother about the doe-eyed girl he wanted to marry, he was smitten for real. Bobby was glad for him; he was very happy in his own marriage, barring that his father-in-law didn't scruple to say Alicia could have done better. But she adored him, and he loved her, and he wanted Ilya to be happy, too. If this young Lysl could keep him out of other beds, Ilya might just discover that fidelity had its own rewards, and that they were sweeter than variety. Bobby'd had enough of that in his younger days, even if they had been mostly--all--"can you bring a friend for my friend?" girls from Ilya.

He did, though, understand the urge to keep looking: he just was sensible enough to know that dream girls live in your dreams, not the real world. Although Ilya's descriptions of darkeyed Lysl sounded fantastic enough.

He roused himself as they entered the huge double gates of Taleavlad. It was his task to make sure the gatekeepers didn't try to charge the royal party any entrance fees, to shepherd everyone past the great temples of the city's patrons, the yellow and green of the Corn Queen, the silver and gilt of the merchants' Worm, the ebony and opalesence of the Unlit Candles, and the blazing mosaics and gold of the Golden One's huge temple, with the cool of gardens and waters surrounding it. The embassy of Chaiku was not far from the main gates, though as Chaiku had, understandably, been backward about sending an ambassador to this successfully rebellious city, the building was not the most prestigiously located. At the far end of Embassy Row, furthest from the palace of the Princes, the embassy of Chaiku looked disapprovingly on the wayward city, and glowered at the Tunandran building which seemed to say "and so you broke from us, as we from Iltun Alba". Bobby found it rather amusing; the last thing he'd find so in Taleavlad for many, many years.

The following week saw Bobby nearly run off his legs. He and Alicia dined with Ilya and Marfa once, a strain on Alicia's introverted nature that sent her home early and him to accompany her, feeling vaguely guilty as he often did, though she said she loved him for not minding when she left early--and for being trustworthy enough to leave behind alone when he had to stay, as he often did. He loved her for the word "trustworthy"; others would have said unkinder things. They also dined once with Ilya and Lysl; she was so very young it almost scared Bobby; she adored Ilya almost obsessively. Her pleasure at Alicia's age and plainess (35 and very) were almost palpable to Bobby, though Alicia didn't seem to notice. Of course, Alicia thought Ilya a flighty featherweight not worth her time, so what Ilya's chosen bride thought might not have been important enough to notice. But Bobby noticed, he always noticed, especially about the three people he gave a damn about (not counting his children), and he worried. It didn't bother him that Lysl thought Alicia plain; Lysl was young and beautiful and clearly thought both of those things important to Ilya. What was disturbing was that, in the weeks before her wedding, she worried about rivals. Ilya was so besotted that no one could have intruded on him, and Lysl should have been able to see that. Bobby had a another vague feeling of doom, which led to another early night, this time because of him.

And there were at least a hundred things he had to do for Grania; for Prince Prilidian, her vain, stupid, but usually obligingly amiable husband, who felt himself challenged here in Taleavlad and requiring many services; and for the nine young unmarried noblemen who had come down to be in Ilya's wedding party. Nine, because a nobleman of Ilya's rank couldn't have less than ten in his party (and too bad if the Prince of Taleavlad's houndsman couldn't afford to outfit ten bride's attendents.) All young, because they had to be unmarried, and most noblemen in Chaiku married well before Ilya's advanced age of 35. Several of these were not yet twenty, none had ever been out of Chaiku before, and Grania held Bobby responsible for them all.

So Bobby had little time to spend with his family, less with Ilya, and none at all looking at the City. He didn't even get to properly meet Lady Armstrong, Lysl's aunt, the fabulous sorceror Firegem, who had singlehandedly captured the traitor Anika the Radiant and saved the Queen's life some years ago outside of Brest. He'd seen her then, but he'd been mostly occupied with requistioning houses for Grania, and arranging the execution, and they hadn't spoken. (They might have, if he'd wanted to, but he hadn't.) He would have to meet her now: more dread. Another headache.

But finally, the night of the first pre-nuptial ball arrived. It took place in the Chaikan Embassy, and Bobby was nominally in charge, but he had gratefully surrendered control to the efficient staff and only involved himself peripherally. As a result, although he had listened to Lord Darovity Vronsky's complaints about his partner, a tammie of all things, Bobby hadn't really taken in the substance of the problem. Darya Vronsky was no more than normally bigoted: he could have partnered an ordinary tammie easily enough in a superior way, but Tayusenka Woodbine was anything but ordinary.

When Bobby saw her for the first time it seemed as if his breath and heart had stopped together. The few who noticed him noticing her quirked eyebrows and smiled; even the Prince of Taleavlad had nearly drooled when she had been presented to him. A Chaikan, unused to tammies in high positions, would have no preparation for this vision of desirability. Taleavladans, only slightly immunized by their constant exposure to tammies, were amused to see someone more flustered than they.

Tayusenka was nineteen that fall. She was tall, nearly 6 feet, and willowy yet curvaceous, with high firm breasts, slender waist, and hips that curved lusciously into her long legs, as the silken fall of the gown she wore, flaring from its low waist as was the fashion that year, amply revealed. Her hair was redgold, long and thick and soft to the eye, piled high in an intricate style that emphasized the sweep of her long slim neck and white shoulders. Her eyes were deep violet, long-lashed, and demure. Her face was finely featured and classically beautiful. Moreover, she had a powerful presence, a compelling and fascinating air about her, heightened by the absolute propriety in which she moved and spoke. Unmarried, she challenged men's selfcontrol and never lost her own. Like all tammies, she was desirable, but even tammie men found her difficult to look away from.

Bobby couldn't at all.

He had seen her before. She had walked through his dreams for years, before he had even understood desire and long after he had learned what it was, even after he had met and loved Alicia. It had been almost a dozen years, since his twin daughters were born, that he had dreamed of The Girl, but her image had never faded. And now, she was standing in front of him, a dozen feet away, staring back at him like a woman who had seen a vision. Later, he would wonder: if anything had ever brought on a headache, this should have, but instead his mind seemed cool, clear, incredibly focussed, and totally out of his control. Without even realizing what he was doing, he walked towards her. And she, never looking away, waited for him.

"That's my wife, in the green dress over there," said Bobby. Later, again, that would strike him as the least likely thing he could have said, but it was necessary that he say it, and say it before he forgot about it.

"I know," she said. "Is she kind to you?"

"She loves me very much, and I..." he couldn't finish the sentence; her eyes were so welcoming, so accepting.

"I know," she said again. "It's late. It's too late."

"It needn't be." Bobby would later feel overwhelming shame at that, but now there was literally nothing else to say.

She smiled at him, radiantly, and he was never able to recover from it. "Oh, I hoped not," she breathed joyously.

"Alicia won't stay late, she never does. May I escort you... somewhere? Are you with someone?" he asked belatedly.

"There's only Pellean," she said, and Bobby felt compassion for the young man so completely dismissed. Later, only much later, would he feel compassion for the young woman who dismissed her future as completely; now an unfamiliar sense of well-being and joy filled him. "You can take me anywhere," she added.

He forced himself to think calmly. "I don't know this city," he said. "You'll have to think of somewhere. I'll come back to you after she goes..." He left then, he had to or he might have caused an open scandal. Later--how he would hate himself later--he would wonder if that might not have been best. But now he left, and an interminable hour later he smiled naturally enough at Alicia when she made her retreat, and went, threading his way surely and straightly through the crowd and oblivious to them, to Tayusenka. And thence to a small inn and a room purchased for the night.

The wonder of that evening sated nothing. Knowledge replaced conjecture, and knowledge was infinitely sweeter. Her lips, breasts, hands, delightfully yielding softness and more delightfully demanding strength, all were as addictive as Purple Dreams. The Queen's party remained in Taleavlad for another fortnight, and ten evenings of those fourteen Bobby slipped out to meet Tayusenka. When he wasn't with her, he was waiting to be with her. It was fortunate indeed that it was Ilya's wedding they were in Taleavlad for; most people rooted his distraction in that, so deep and longstanding was that friendship, and Ilya himself was so immersed in Lysl that he didn't even notice.

What Alicia noticed, if anything, she never revealed.

But at last, in the middle of Ivy, Grania was done with being in Taleavlad. She wouldn't have come for anyone but Ilya, Marfa's son, and she wouldn't stay past his at-home party. Somehow, Bobby didn't even realize they were leaving until they were, and he knew it was over, that he would never see Tayusenka again, that he hadn't even said goodbye. Depression settled over him, and by the time they reached Oriol he was awash in guilt and shame, emotions he had to hide. How could he have done it? How could he have betrayed his wife, seduced a virgin, abandoned her? It was beyond his comprehension, but, worst of all, he knew he would do it again if he had the chance. He had never been his favorite person, and now he came near to despising himself. Only the memory of the joy in Tayusenka's eyes, and of her in his young dreams, kept him at any peace with himself at all.

And then the rumors made their way northward, and Ilya's young and doe-eyed dushna confirmed them: that lovely young tammie with the clouds of redgold hair and eyes like the summer night was with child. And still unmarried. And stubbornly refusing to name the man.

And so Bobby suffered in silence: if Tayusenka had made her decision, he couldn't override it. He didn't have the guts to. He had betrayed Alicia, betrayed his daughters, risked his entire life--and theirs--for a passion that he still didn't understand. But he couldn't make that betrayal public, couldn't have people pity Alicia, or laugh at her, the plain, older wife-with-money; he still loved her, couldn't bear to hurt her, couldn't leave her. Couldn't think, could only feel. And cling to the one person in his life he hadn't yet betrayed: Ilya, who would absolutely never understand him, but who would never abandon him, either. Ilya, at whose wedding it had all begun.

And Tayusenka bore a daughter, and named her Taiisa. And a blind bard rode down off the Roof of the World, and sang a song from Mab of the Nightmares, a song which proclaimed the child to be god-given: "Three are two. Two will be one. Thus one will come from three. The blood of ancient heroes burns, rekindled, to be free...". Finally, Bobby saw some light in the darkness that had swallowed him, for on the Levshin side, Bobby was descended from Taliesin the Singer. They said that tammies were descended from Tamien Charmbreaker, the second of the Three. If his daughter had a child by a descendent of Steponas Sorrow-sender, then, he supposed, the Three would be One. Though as Steponas was elven, it wasn't likely. Still, he thought, when he could think clearly, if the gods drove an elf as hard as they had driven him, anything might happen. Anything at all.

Bobby began to feel better about himself.

Until Firegem of Taleavlad ripped the spells off him, the spells that had geased him to avoid even the thought of magic, that had taught him spells of empathy and character reading, and that had hidden his aura from others and even forbidden him to notice that he saw the auras of others. Yes, it was exhilarating to learn that he was competent at something, that he was a sorceror himself and capable of learning to do much and that well; but the discovery that he had such enemies, enemies he didn't know and reasons for enmity he couldn't guess at, shook him badly. That one of them, Rebecca Oreski, masqueraded as his friend, scared him so that he sent his young daughters, both also mages, to Taleavlad for fostering and training, to get them away from Rebecca's reach. And then the thing he couldn't begin to deal with: he himself needed training, and needed it badly. And Firegem was the only one to do it. And Taleavlad the only place for it to be done.

And in Taleavlad was Tayusenka.

And she was as god-driven as he, and as joyful to see him as he was to see her, and it all began over again. And god-willed or not, it was wrong. Wrong and irresistable, and when he did try, she sickened. Sickened and nearly died, and only his return to her saved her, like some damned, doomed song, some legend written by a mocking god.

So, after Taiisa came Sara. And Alan. And Brennan. And Aura. And Trevor. And Firegem pointed out a half-tammie boy named Dmitri, who bore the other bloodlines and already dreamed of Taiisa. And it all seemed to fit together as neatly as a puzzle box. And as mercilessly as the jaws of a trap.

And eventually Bobby ended up following Ilya into deepest treachery, even though it resulted in the only way he could be at all happy (not because he foresaw that end, for he could never have dreamed of living with both Alicia and Tayusenka, in Taighem, as a Taighi Baron in Ilya's new Taighi ducdom) but because Ilya was still the lodestar of his life.

Even though that life fell apart at Ilya's wedding.


Original Prose:
  Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | The Last Corner | The Morgans  
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