They end up sprawled over each other on the green velvet couch, kissing with open mouths, the slide of bodies and caress of hands bringing them to incandescent release.
Brand wakes first, in a tangle of limbs, Martin pressed against his side. Light streams through the tall arches of the tower room. Brand clenches his eyes shut for a moment. He cannot even think what he has done. All his careful strategy, all his ordered plans, thrown into wild disarray like the clothes scattered over the floor.
Leave it to me, Brand had told Fiona. I'll seek him out. I'll gain his trust.
He knows he can be impetuous, but this is a folly of an entirely different magnitude.
Martin stirs, with a sleepy smile. "Hey," he murmurs.
"Good morning," Brand says, caught at a loss for how to respond.
Martin has no such hesitation. He rolls onto one elbow and leans in for a kiss. Their lips brush lightly before Brand draws away. Martin stares in bewildered hurt.
"This isn't a good idea," Brand says. Aware of what a hypocrite he is, entwined with his unexpected lover, signs of their spent passion still evident.
"Are you sorry about last night?" A shadow falls over Martin, voice quiet and subdued. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No. Of course not." Brand pats his shoulder awkwardly. "But I never meant for this to happen. This isn't why I sought you out." Cruel half-truths, but better than cruel fantasies. He can fix this, he tells himself.
Martin goes still. "I've been very stupid, haven't I? I don't know why I thought--" He trails off and turns away, shoulders hunching.
"Martin. I meant everything I said before. You are a remarkable young man." Brand struggles for the words that will salvage this situation. "You must understand. I am not a kind person. I am not good at caring for people."
Martin straightens a little. He turns to regard Brand with new consideration. "I know you think so. But you're wrong about that."
His certainty shakes Brand. He wonders how. He is immune to persuasion, invulnerable to argument. He rallies once more, uttering the most brazen words of all. "Martin. You could be hurt."
"I know." Martin looks down. "I know. But it makes me happy to be with you."
Disarmed completely, Brand does not resist when Martin kisses him again.
Brand allows Martin to watch him work. He is not afraid of his secrets being revealed, notes too esoteric for Martin to understand, and written in code only Brand can decipher. Martin leafs through the papers, despite the cryptic symbols, as though determined to read Brand through his fingertips.
"What's this?" he asks, pointing at one page of illustrations: black raven, white swan, red phoenix.
"Alchemical symbols," Brand tells him.
"Alchemy? Like changing lead into gold?"
"Yes. But another kind of transmutation entirely. They say our universe was born from chaos, and into chaos it will someday return. Just as all things mortal fade and die. But if you could unlock the secrets of creation--if you could harness the powers that be--" Brand touches the phoenix. "Death and rebirth."
Martin listens intently whenever Brand unfolds his thoughts to him, when the same might have provoked an arch remark from Fiona, or a careless comment from Bleys. "Is this your new project?"
"An old one. Something I've been working towards for a long time."
Martin traces the symbols with reverence. "Will you teach me these things?"
Brand hesitates. "One day."
You would think it would be complicated, to tear apart the flawed fabric of the universe. Elaborate rituals, and arcane words, and the conjunction of stars. But all it takes is one thing.
Brand looks at Martin, head bent in concentration, young and strong and perfect.
All it takes is a blood sacrifice.
They lie entangled in the sheets, sweat slicking their skins. Martin kisses his way up Brand's shoulder to his throat.
Brand chuckles. "Don't you ever get tired?"
"Not of you," Martin says. "Never of you."
Brand ignores the sudden tightness in his chest. "I suppose if I want any sleep," he says lightly, "I'll have to do something about all your energy."
He follows through on his word. Martin comes apart beneath him.
Brand leaves Martin sleeping, brushing a lock of hair away from his face.
He ascends the spiral staircase to the tower room, and looks out the arched windows at the night. He imagines the stars winking out one by one, leaving endless eternity, a terrible and perilous void. The end of mind, the end of self. He has looked upon these desolate nights many times, surrounded by crushing emptiness and remorseless entropy.
Because they desired the throne, he and his siblings, Brand set himself to studying the Pattern of Amber. But he knows things now. The mechanics of the universe, the structure of reality. He knows that what was made, can be unmade, can be remade. The power exists, to call fire from cold, to summon light from dark. To breathe life into the waiting void. Who would be a king, when you could be a god?
Brand can still feel the ghost imprint of the kiss upon his neck.
He leans heavily on the windowsill. It does not have to be him who wields the knife. Fiona could do it. Bleys could do it. Neither would balk at the task.
But it would be cowardice, to shirk this responsibility, to hide behind the shadow of another. Better to face the consequences without flinching. Surely he owes Martin that.
By his own hand. And no other.
"Hey." Martin drifts through the doorway, in bare feet and rumpled robe. "Is something the matter?"
"I couldn't sleep," Brand says.
"Thinking about your work?" Martin asks, nuzzling into his neck. "It can wait till tomorrow."
"Yes," Brand says. But it will not wait many more tomorrows.
No power without sacrifice, Fiona had once said. Always a price.
Brand had laughed in her face. No price too high.
Whether Martin lives or dies, this man here, gazing at Brand with affection and trust, will be obliterated.
"Come back to bed," Martin says. Brand allows himself to be led.
They curl up together, Brand wrapping his arms about Martin, staring over his shoulder at the darkness.
Martin notices. "What's wrong?" he says softly. "Is there anything I can do?"
Brand says nothing, only holds Martin closer, heartbeat pulsing against his palm.
- fin -