By Myranda B. Kalis
Scathan stood for a moment, absolutely physically paralyzed, his mind racing between two conflicting urges: repartee and pulling a discrete fade. Seera either didn't notice the interior conflict, or was choosing to ignore it, himself turning to have a quiet word with one of the several young fops hovering about him at social vulture range; Scathan nobly fought off an urge--totally atavistic--to feel along his arms for the knives that would, under other circumstances, have been there. Allanyn Seera. It had been decades. Centuries. Whole human lifetimes. The last time they had met face to face, they had both been in black, Seera suitably restrained in mourning colors, for Scathan's eldest sister and the young neice she had died bearing, and who had followed her mother to the grave a few hours later. His eyes, however, had been the same color they were now--an intense and somehow knowing green-hazel, that had lingered on him in the short time they had exchanged words. Scathan had to admit, privately and very much to himself, that he had grown up quite a bit in the twelve years since he had last been in Valgalant, as Seera apparently had as well--most of the young hellion that had so terrorized the well-run household of the Lord of Valgalant while in the company of Scathan's equally hellish elder brothers had, by that time, been tamed, or, at the very least, semi-domesticated. He had been calm and pleasant, courteous to all, and sympathetic to Scathan's griefstricken mother, who had been attending at her daughter's childbed and had held her as she died.
Scathan couldn't take his eyes off him--something about him invited constant, intense inspection. A...restlessness...a tension in the way he moved. Predatory. Allanyn Seera had always seemed frankly *predatory* to Scathan, who, being a predator himself, generally knew another of his own kind when he saw one. And the way he was looking now--looking at him, green eyes bright with a sort of wordless anticipatory possessiveness, his body language suggesting battle about to be joined--made Scathan long for his knives and a quiet moment alone with him. Seera glided forward and took possession of his hand, tiling it, and smiling slightly. "It is good to see you again...court will at least be...interesting...this summer."
His warm lips placed a kiss on the half-inch of skin showing below Scathan's shirt cuff on the inside of his wrist; before he could formulate an adequate response to the gesture, Seera looped his arm through Scathan's and almost bodily led him into the throng slowly growing around them. "I just know that you're going to love it here."
It was closer to dawn than midnight when Scathan finally managed to convince Seera that he really did need to sleep sometime that night. Undeterred, he had immediately volunteered to guide Scathan back to his quarters ("You've only been here a day! It took me *weeks* to figure out how to navigate here without a compass and map, you'll be lost in a flat second and end up sleeping on a bench somewhere. It's the least I can do."), and Scathan, trapped by both courtly civility and the web of good-old-times that Seera had woven for everyone in earshot, had finally agreed. Unwilling, he told himself firmly, to give up the advantage of a photographic memory and an excellent page, though the warm support of Seera's arm under his own wasn't entirely unappreciated this late in the evening.
His initial impressions of the banquet hall had paled beside actually going down and circulating in it; the courts of King Greyhawk's demesne were flavored with a southwestern sensibility and strongly Spanish tradition, even among the Kithain. The pace was slower, more sedate, more deliberate in nearly everything. This court, on the other hand, was most definitely northern, in every cultural sense of the term, more quickly paced, more dynamic, still thoroughly dignified with the dignity the Kithain nobility invested in everything, but somehow wilder. There was an energy here that lacked in some other places, a vitality, and Seera was, naturally enough, in the center of it, the metaphorical moth and the flame. He seemed to know personally at least half the people in the hall, and had introduced Scathan to most of them, not to mention being on at least speaking terms with the other half; his ears were still ringing with the introductions, and his head swimming from the various sorts of foods and drink he'd been plied with.
A small, suspicious part of him muttered darkly that Seera was trying to get him drunk, which was, in all likelihood, probably true. Or not. Scathan couldn't decide; there had been enough oblique comments and double entendres tossed at them to make him doubt his "old friend's" virtue just enough to arouse a small suspicion. *I *must* be feeling the wine--I just thought Allanyn Seera had any virtue to doubt!*
"What are you chuckling about?" Seera sounded like he was strongly suppressing a giggle himself.
Scathan turned dark eyes that had already been compared to moonless midnight by one besmitten would-be poet that evening on him. "I was just thinking--"
"You think?!" Seera's look of totally comic befuddlement startled the building laugh the rest of the way out of Scathan.
"Occasionally. Every other day, and twice on Wednesdays." Scathan managed to discipline his unruly lips. "I was thinking that it is good to see you again--I've...I haven't had any contact with my family since I came back."
"You haven't?" Seera's pale eyebrows rose slightly and, with some difficulty, he shook off overtired giddiness and the effects of the excellent bottle(s) they'd shared. "Do you think they...crossed over?"
"I'm not certain--I don't remember very much of the events that led to my own," Scathan paused, searched for a good word, "trip. So, you can understand why I was rather surprised to see you here."
Seera nodded sagely and Scathan, still blinking with surprise at having offered him even that much totally unvarnished truth, realized they were coming up on his room, and their pace was slowing. "I'll see what I can do to discover more," Seera managed to speak quietly while Scathan fished about in his belt pouch for his room keys, "Westlyn lies in western Canada on this world, which, if Valgalant exists here, would place it somewhere in Alberta, or the mountains."
"I would appreciate it--particularly if you could find some word of my sister, Miranda." Scathan turned quickly and managed to get the key into the lock on only two tries; his hands were suddenly shaking, and he wasn't quite sure that his face would aid and abet in concealing his thoughts. Contrary to Evayne's earlier struggle, the lock turned quickly and smoothly as he twisted the key, and the door opened on freshly oiled hinges. "I--thank you. This evening was more pleasant than it could have been, otherwise."
"Scathan." Something in Seera's tone made him turn around, the caressing hand laid on his shoulder notwithstanding.
Seera leaned forward and kissed him.
Scathan felt his heart actually stop for a beat, then restart with a sudden lunge and hammer fiercely at the enclosure of his ribs; his back found the wooden molding of the doorframe, his arms going reflexively around Seera's waist as he nearly fell further back than either of them intended. Seera's taller, wider, heavier body pressed gently against his, the motion delicate and intensely sensuous, one long hand resting against the back of his neck, the other twining in his long hair, Scathan's own suffering from conflicting urges--to push him away, and draw him closer yet--and so did nothing but rest helplessly against the curve of Seera's lower back. Silken red hair caressed his cheek, even as his lips did, and his velvety tongue, and Scathan closed his eyes against a sudden and intense rush of pure desire, a fierce hunger that was unquenched need. Wine and honey, the taste of him; spice and musk and the wild scent of hawthorne, twined with a warmth that shot straight through Scathan's blood and heated it to boiling. Scathan felt a low sound welling up his throat as Seera broke the kiss, his hand stroking down from his neck through his hair, green eyes bright and locked on his own, "I have missed you."
He took Scathan's hand again, and again tilted it; this time the kiss he placed sent a tingling rush up his arm to the shoulder and to the tips of his fingers. "Good night."
"Good night," Scathan manged, faintly, recovering his powers of speech only when Seera was a good distance down the hall; he heard, and flashed a long look over his shoulder, as Scathan slipped into his room and closed the door behind him.
He awoke somewhere close to noon, with a soft exclamation and a guilty start that came with the sure knowledge that he'd been sleeping on the job. Or, at the very least, something closely resembling that occurance. He parted the curtains of his bed and peered out, blinking owlishly, into the dimness of the room; direct sunlit exposure, this room didn't have, for which he was deeply grateful at the moment. His head felt like an overbaked pot, and his stomach was telling him that his enebriatory excesses of the previous night weren't winning him any points there, either. Someone--Evayne most likely--had placed a goblet and a pitcher of cool water on the beside table and Scathan poured himself a glass with a slightly unsteady hand and dug out his medicines case, rooting among the various pouches, bits of folded waxed paper, and sealed glass bottles until he found the particular herbal concoction he needed. The last of this particular batch went into the water, which he stirred vigorously and swallowed slowly, letting the coolness soothe his dry throat and the herbs do their work on his grouchy head and stomach.
There was a soft knock on his bedroom door and a small carroty head poked in, "My--Skye? Are you awake?"
"I am now." Scathan heard the lingering remains of far too many glasses of unidentified drinks in his voice. "What time is it?"
"About ten in the morning." She pushed the door the rest of the way open and crossed to the windows, pulling the drapes and tying them back. "You were out late."
Scathan laughed softly; there was a definite sense of disapproving sniff in his page's voice. "I met an old friend. Breakfast?"
"I'll have some sent up from the kitchen." She turned, crossed to the bed, and laid a small hand across his forehead. "You're not feverish, so unless you feel sick from last night, I don't think there's anything on the menu that you can't handle. Bath?"
He blinked, and tried not to look as surprised as he felt for a moment. "Please."
Evayne nodded and breezed into the next room, the sound of his bag being opened and the various unpacked articles within it being removed following closely thereafter. Scathan sat up slowly, the disagreements of his stomach and head soothed under the balm of his aunt's favorite hangover cure--*A hangover! I haven't had a hangover in *years!*--and the pleasant brusqueness of his young page. "You know, you're supposed to be the young and irresponsible one, Evayne."
"I'll have plenty of time to be irresponsible when I'm older."
"But you're only young once."
"My--Skye, how old are *you?*"
"Temporally or physically?"
"Temporally....about six hundred something. Physically, I'll be thirty-six in November."
There was a long moment of very significant silence. Then, "I rest my case."
Scathan laughed out loud, and, after a moment, Evayne did, too. He reached up and snatched his robe down from the place where he had hung it, somewhat improperly, the previous day, and slipped into it, midnight blue silk caressing milk white skin. Evayne skipped out as he rose, belting it tightly about his waist and preserving what was left of his modesty. "Anything else while I was comatose?"
"You received a lot of mail this morning. A *lot* of mail." She frowned, recalling salient points. "A very thick, official looking letter sealed in purple wax impressed with the shape of a sword--"
"That would be from my liege."
"I figured. One letter each from Commander Tysia ni Scathach of the Red Branch, and from Captain Hendricksson. And about two dozen private invitations from various luminaries around the court including, but not limited to, Her Grace Teldra Fellgrace ap Eiluned, Duchess of Windmere, Her Excellency Marguerete de Laurent d'Fiona, Countess of Redtree, His Grace Allanyn Seera ap Fiona, Duke of Westlyn, and Her Ladyship Criedhne Steelbright, Baroness of Adzriel's Tower and the Mistress of Swords here at Tara-Nar."
Scathan poured himself another glass of the cold, sweet water and drank it slowly, trying to find faces to match the names. Seera wasn't difficult; preventing the heat rising into his cheeks from showing on his pale complexion was.
Seera had kissed him. The thought was so completely monumental that, for an instant, he had a hard time seeing anything around it, including Evayne leaving the room to order his breakfast. He could still feel his lips, and the sweetness of his mouth lingered, even though the warmth he had stirred in Scathan's blood had faded during the hours he had slept. Almost. A shivering tension was still knotting his stomach, a feeling that was close kin to desire and guilt both.
Desire because--he was too honest to lie to himself--he had wanted Allanyn Seera very badly, a pure and irrational desire that was equal parts lust and loneliness and homesickness.
Guilt for the memory of the last man who had kissed him like that.
Scathan padded into the bathroom, the high color draining from his cheeks, dropping the robe to the floor and stepping into the steaming hot bath and sinking in up to his chin, blinking tears from the heat of the bath out of his eyes. He lay his head back against the raised lip of the tub and simply soaked for a long moment, pushing the twinned images of Allanyn Seera and Julian MacNamara into the back of his mind and shutting it off until his nerves, and emotions, calmed somewhat. By the time Evayne returned, carrying a tray, he was pale but entirely composed, his long hair piled on top of his head for the nonce, body concealed by the rippling, circulating waters of the tub. His dark eyes flickered open at her approach, and she set the tray down in easy reach, pouring a goblet of juice and handing it to him, "Nonalcoholic, I assure you."
"Bless you." He sipped, slowly, letting the cold, thick liquid trickle down his throat. "Tell me about...Teldra Fellgrace, Marguerete de Laurent, and Creidhne Steelbright."
Evayne cleared her throat and refilled the goblet while he selected one of the several glass phials he had brought with him and poured a bit into the water. "Her Grace Teldra Fellgrace ap Eiluned, Duchess of Windmere, is one of the most formidable Grandames in residence here at Tara-Nar. Her late husband, Duke Windmere, was one of King Dyfell's more capable generals during the Accordance War; he was killed shortly after Dyfell and the responsibility was officially hung on commoner insurgents, though every few years a new snippet of information comes to light that makes people wonder if the commoners they hung over it really *did* kill him after all. Duchess Windmere was never implicated in any of the various presumed plots, probably because nobody was stupid enough to want to get on her bad side--she's a close personal friend of Queen Mab and Queen Morwen, and some say she bounced our august High King on her knee when he was a childling. Also, she was very convincingly griefstricken over her husband's death, refused several sweet remarriage offers, and now spends most of her time acting as an advocate for the slightly older set here in the capitol. Not even Dray has anything nasty to say about her, and she's reputed to have some influence in the upper corridors of government. A Very Great Lady, by everyone's estimation She's tall, rather severe, and completely perfect--dresses totally in black, even her jewelry, and keeps her hair pinned back so tight you'd expect her face to sag if she ever let it down."
Scathan nodded slightly, sipping again and looking longingly at the bowl of fruit. "We met early in the evening--I didn't see much of her after they started clearing away the tables."
"She usually retires to her private chambers once she's made an evening appearance--she's not a very social person at all, though she was an incredible beauty when she was younger. And she still has bards half her age panting after her!" She handed over the bowl and he nibbled absently at the various sorts of grapes contained within it. "Her Excellency Marguerete de Laurent d'Fiona, Countess of Redtree, is also something of a fixture around court. She is, without a doubt, the single largest flirt, social butterfly, and semi-malicious gossip to be found in the entire Kingdom of Apples--she's married, but you couldn't tell it just from looking at her. She collects troubadours, impressionable young knights, satyr pages, that sort of thing, and is about continuously surrounded by beautiful young men....though not so beautiful as to seriously challenge her own vanity. She runs the most active social salon here in Tara-Nar out of her apartments, which her husband, Count Redtree, generally tolerates because at least she doesn't try to run their demesne when she's occupied with other things. Rumor has it she singularly unsuited to ruling her own passions much less a holding of any size, her moods change with the passing breeze, and the word that describes her best is 'feckless.'"
"'You do rule over a feckless dominion, my Queen,'" Scathan smirked, reaching up and letting his hair out.
"Be that as it may, Countess Redtree has made a career out of artistic fecklessness and if she's invited you to her salon--as she probably has--it means she wants you to incline to the altar of her worship. Not that I'd think the less of you if you *did* so incline." Her tone suggested she'd request immediate reassignment. "Lady Creidhne Steelbright...."
"Steelbright isn't a family name...?"
Evayne shook her head. "No--it's an honorific of some kind. She names herself that way, no family name, no House. She was awarded the Barony of Adzriel's Tower for her service to the Crown--it's one of the strongpoints on the King's Road, more of a military installation than anything else. Lady Steelbright is officially attached to the King's Guard as Armsmaster--she teaches sword, dagger, archery, and hand-to-hand at introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels, advanced tactical theory, and Suicidal Loyalty 101--"
"Sidhe. Lots of scars. Black hair starting to go grey, green-grey eyes, has the look about her that she'd cut out your liver and eat it while you were still alive to appreciate the gesture if you cross her. If Duchess Windmere is a Very Great Lady, and Countess Redtree is a Very Vapid Lady, then Lady Steelbright is A REALLY Very Dangerous Lady."
"I see." Scathan smiled wryly. "And Lord Seera?"
This time the disapproving sniff was clearly audible. "His Grace Allanyn Seera ap Fiona, Duke of Westlyn, is, theoretically, an envoy of Her Majesty Laurel, Queen of Northern Ice, and represents her interests--and the interests of his allied nobles--here at the High King's Court. Aside from all that, he is possibly the most dissipated noble rake here at Tara-Nar...one of *those* Fiona. He's reputed to be thoroughly Unseelie and a complete Cerenaic--he changes lovers the way some of us change clothing and he hasn't been known to keep a lover or mistress for longer than two weeks at a stretch, though he favors some more than others." She huffed disgustedly. "For some reason, Queen Morwen considers him amusing, so he has some favor with her, and fairly extensive ties to the courts of the western Kingdom of Northern Ice--his ducal seat is in Vancouver, though he only spends about a month a year actually *in* his demesne, he's mostly active here at court. A Black Knight of some skill and reputation, on the field, in the council chambers, and, it's said, in his bed."
Scathan's smile thinned out slightly. "I....see. Thank you, Evayne. You've been very helpful."
"You're welcome. Those were the biggies of the invitations you've received--the rest looks like fairly standard courtly social things."
Scathan nodded, dark eyes growing slightly distant as he considered her information.