Ersin Aldi had come to Carnison for two reasons: firstly to find a wife, someone of interest (and of course suitable rank) that would be satisfied with a primarily political marriage, and secondly to flirt outrageously with all and sundry in the meantime. The first was technically more important; the second was by far more fun, and the only success he was guaranteed on the expedition.
He did not expect what he found.
The first person to attract, and pretty much immediately lose, his attention was a woman named Gilian: slender, delicate in a very studied and practiced way, artificially cheerful, and not the sort of woman he wanted to spend his time with. Still he smiled at her, and followed her (not particularly subtle) prompts for compliments, and had her simpering at him within minutes.
Then there was the king, Maxl: out of Ersin's reach both by rank and by gender, but not unattractive. And his sister Flian, someone whom Gilian practically fell over herself to apologize for, with plenty of insinuations of her plainness (which Ersin privately disagreed with) and general awkwardness. Jewel, a friend of Flian's and princess of Ralanor Veleth, similarly apologized for. And then other members of the court--
--including a Lord Yendrian Redesi, and for a moment, meeting those friendly dark eyes for the first time, Ersin felt like his whole world stopped for a few heartbeats and then clicked into place with a feeling of utter rightness.
So that, he thought dizzily, is what it is like to fall in love at first sight.
But this was neither the time nor the place, and with one last lingering look in Yendrian's direction he moved onward.
Focus on Flian, he reminded himself sternly more than once over the next few weeks. It was, after all, a wife he was after, not a consort. And she was in many ways ideal: intelligent, sensible, a very authentic sort of person, and as far as Ersin could tell only uninterested in romantic liaisons with anyone at this court. It didn't matter that Ersin could not capture her heart anymore than she could capture his. Treaty marriages were not about romance, or love, so neither of them had to even make a pretense.
Yet his attention kept wandering over and over to Yendrian. To eyes the color of freshly brewed coffee, to hair that looked like it should smell like straw, to broad long-fingered hands, to an off-center smile that warmed Ersin's heart even to the loneliest depths.
He was here to find a wife, something Yendrian could not be, but all the same he found himself lingering in the stables at odd hours, purely coincidental to the fact that Yendrian's passion was well known to be horses.
"You seem to be spending plenty of time with the horses," Yendrian remarked dryly, one evening. Ersin went still with surprise, for he had not heard anyone else enter the stables, but the horse he was with grumbled restlessly and he resumed brushing.
As do you, Ersin did not say. That is why I'm here, he did not add. Instead he commented, "I prefer the company of horses, oftentimes." It was an exaggeration, but not untrue. Horses tended to be sensible creatures and did not have the same intricate dance of politics.
"Better than the company of men?" Yendrian sounded almost amused.
"Depends on the man," Ersin said with complete honesty. He did not need to look over to be aware of Yendrian coming up beside him. The horse gave a whicker of greeting as Yendrian stroked its nose. "Men in general are complicated. Horses less so. If nothing else, you always know where you stand with them."
"Best not be standing beside them, though," Yendrian said with a flash of humor. "Especially when they're ornery."
"Indeed," Ersin said, except like a lovesick youth he already forgotten what he'd been saying. Well, he was no youth, but 'lovesick' still applied. "So I think the conclusions are obvious, don't you?"
"Depends on the conclusion." Yendrian's voice was dry, and Ersin could feel the burn of his gaze, steady and solemn.
"Well, one conclusion..." Ersin took a deep breath to calm a sudden flutter of lightheadedness, and turned to face the other man. He lifted one hand to brush his knuckles gently across the side of Yendrian's face, and Yendrian leaned into that touch like a cat. "...is that we are very much alone right now."
Yendrian, after a moment, swallowed. In a shaky murmur he said, "Except for Sultan," and glanced to the horse.
"Somehow," Ersin replied, "I don't think he'll mind." And indeed there was no equine commentary as they kissed for the first time, sweeter than wine and far more intoxicating.
That Yendrian and Flian were friends made her an even better choice for the treaty marriage: it would give Ersin a reasonable excuse to visit her homeland again, or Yendrian a reasonable excuse to come visit an old friend in the Three Kingdoms. So when she declined his offer of marriage -- not for any political reason, nor any particular dislike of his companionship, but an honest if gently spoken realization that it would not work for her -- Ersin was disappointed for more reasons than the fact that his quest was not over.
When he told Yendrian (no details, just an acknowledgement that he would need to move on), the other man was silent for a minute, and then let out a long slow sigh. "I wish," he started to say, then let it die unspoken. If wishes were horses, Ersin thought irreverently, and wanted to laugh. Yendrian then said, "When you find your princess, write to me and I will visit."
"Must I wait until then?" Ersin asked, smiling with very little humor.
"Officially, yes." Yendrian's mouth twitched. "Unofficially, one never really knows, does one."
"I suppose not. Besides," he added lightly, "I will probably need advice on horses at some point."
Yendrian's chuckle made his heart feel lighter. "And I suppose no one in the Three Kingdoms knows anything about horses, hmm?"
"Of course not," Ersin said, and smiled, and started making plans.