It must have been mischief that prompted the Lady Taylor Crosby to remark one evening to her mother, "Did Maria look particularly fine last night, at Lady Stanton's ball?"
"The Desford girl?" asked her mother. "She is always very pretty; but no prettier last night than usual, I thought."
"I only ask," explained Taylor, "because my brother this morning spoke unsolicitedly and at some length about how very lovely he thought she looked."
Her brother had in fact done no such thing.
Taylor continued, "Why, he even asked whether Maria would attend the Wrights' dinner party next week."
"Oh, now he is willing to go!" exclaimed his mama, though far from displeased. "It is a lucky thing I had not yet responded to their invitation. My dear girl, I don’t know what I would do without you to tell me such news. Your brother never breathes a word about anything but--pooh, what does he even talk about? Crop cycles or his horses, or--or somesuch!"
The Viscount Sidney Crosby was indeed at that time quite preoccupied with his horses. He had already spent most of the morning in the stables, and had made no plans to leave--lunch had been fetched from the kitchens--but word came that his mother had sent for him. He accordingly went to change and then to sit with her in her drawing room, where she was in the process of drafting a reply to the Wrights and had on hand several other dinner invitations to show her son. Almost a quarter hour passed before Sidney was able to make any sense of how his supposed acceptance of the Wrights' dinner party came to be.
Afterwards, he went in search of his sister.
"That was the most bold-faced lie--" he began.
"It was not," replied his sister. "It wasn't a lie at all. You'll recall that I asked you, 'Did Maria Desford look nice?' and you said, 'I don't know; I suppose so.' Whereupon I said, 'Particularly nice?' and you said, 'I don't know; I suppose so.'"
"I don't sound like that," protested Sidney.
In reply, Taylor laughed at him. She asked, "And what did you tell mama?"
"I should have told her about you," said he. "About your terrible untruths--"
"Oh, so you didn't," she surmised, sounding satisfied.
"How could I, after everything you said? She was so happy about my willingness to dine with the Wrights, going on about how pleased she was to see me making friends or something--I have friends, you know. I made many friends at university--"
"Poor Sidney," said Taylor laughingly. "Yes, of course you did."
"It is all your fault," he continued. "You've made it sound like I've--like I've formed an attachment to Maria Desford now. Which I haven't, and shan’t."
"You did say that she looked particularly fine," said Taylor archly.
"I did not! I said--well, whatever I may have said, I certainly didn’t mean that I want to be attached to Maria Desford," he lamented. "She. She laughs at everything I say."
"She pays you a compliment. She laughs because she finds you a wit." Taylor considered this for a moment, and was forced to concede, "How, though, I have absolutely no idea."
"A future earldom makes me a wit," answered her brother, with more matter-of-fact resignation than any real cynicism. It was quite depressing, thought Taylor, that Sidney was not more bitter or angry about this; it was as if he had no opinion on his marriageability nor any interest in it either. That was probably the most depressing thing. She could not think on the matter long without feeling angry and bitter for him.
"Well, as to the other matter," said Taylor, briskly, "You've not declared yourself. You need only speak a few times to Maria, and then report to mama that it was not meant to be; simplicity itself, you see."
Taylor's plan was not an ill-formed one, but she had accounted for neither Maria Desford's tenacity upon the slightest opening, when the viscount, dining with the Wrights, stiffly offered her a compliment on her gown; nor Sidney's painfully correct manners, which did not permit him to communicate even the most subtle hint that Miss Desford might find perhaps more engaging and definitely more engaged company elsewhere. Consequently, in short order, the neighborhood mamas were all quite convinced that the Viscount Crosby would within a twelvemonth be making an offer to Miss Maria Desford.
"An offer!" cried the viscount. "Of what!"
"Of yourself, of course," answered his sister. "Oh, don't look at me like that, Sid."
"It is all your fault," said Sidney, because such truths bore oft repeating; but obligingly he turned his scowl to the wall. "Why do you insist on making up rumors about me, completely unfounded as they are?"
"Well, I am not out yet," said Taylor, stoutly. "I cannot be participant in any of the rumors; so their conception and communication are my sole sources of entertainment. And it is not my fault that you do not know what to say to girls. Honestly!--asking her about her thoughts on Epsom, when everybody knows you have a country house within five-and-twenty miles of there--you may have as well have went down on one knee."
“I meant the horse races at Epsom! How was I to know that she would take it as--as--as she did!" An explosive sigh accompanied this. Then Sidney stood and went to the window. "You must," he said, looking out over the grounds, "make up another rumor. At this rate, I really will end up married to Miss Desford."
"What would you have me say?" Taylor asked, putting down her stitching. "That you have fallen for another lady? Sidney, you are not exactly a rake--"
"I am not asking you to make me a rake."
"How do you think it will appear then? The sudden emergence of a rumor of you and some unknown woman, just as your attachment to Maria has been decided as all but definite by the neighborhood?--It will most certainly be seen as a snub."
This was true. Nevertheless, the acknowledgement was little effective in making Sidney’s current situation any more bearable. He took three turns around the room deep in thought, with the occasional heavy sigh directed at his sister, who had resumed her needlework and bore Sidney's sighs with perfect equanimity. At length, he saw no other recourse but to directly ask her for advice.
"You must make yourself unavailable," she answered promptly, having only been waiting for such an opening. "If not emotionally, then geographically. Why don't you go away for a while? Say, visit all those university friends of yours?"
Sidney had a terrible suspicion. "Was this your plan all along?" he asked. "To get me away and have the house all to yourself--"
"You already live in the stables," Taylor said disparagingly. "I have the house to myself as it is. More importantly, you have friends whom you can visit, have you not?"
Sidney was forced to admit, "The majority of them--we are not that sort of friends. And Johnson has gone to France."
"Not that sort of friends," echoed his sister. "By which you mean, I suppose, your relationship with them consists of you winning exorbitant amounts of money from them each racing season, and they being too stubborn to avoid a repeat the next year? -- Yes, I can see why you would hardly be a welcome house guest.” She ignored the dark eye he gave her, continuing, “But France! That is not a bad idea. You can bring me back some new dresses."
"Planned, all along," declared Sidney. He said, "At any rate, I can't just go to France. It wouldn't--"
"Of course you can!" Taylor assured him. "Why--you've not yet been on your Grand Tour, anyway! And with the weather clearing, no one should think it strange at all for you to visit the Continent.” She beamed at Sidney, who did not seem to share her excitement. After a moment, Taylor said in darker tone, “Or--as the season is not over, you can go to London, under some pretext of business. I am sure the ton would be most welcoming.”
Sidney departed for his Grand Tour from Dover and spent some days in Calais: he took in the usual sights--the cliffs, the shores, the seas, the ships--but found nothing particularly remarkable. In Dover, he sent word to Johnson of his journey; in Calais, he received a reply gratifyingly fervent in its author's delight at the prospect of the visit. Mostly, though, Sidney found the trip both dull and exhausting.
"I shan't ask how your journey went," said Johnson when Sidney finally arrived in Paris. "It has done no favors to your complexion."
"Terrible," agreed Sidney, letting a footman take his traveling coat and gloves. He remembered, “But I must thank you for your hospitality."
"What is this? I won't have you standing on ceremony with me like that!" said Johnson, laughing, and guided Sidney into the dining room.
Jack Johnson was a friend from university; a tall man, and not at all ill-looking, though perhaps his features were less regular than Sidney’s. His favorite things were good wine, beautiful women, and games of hazard, all of which he enjoyed often. Sidney, who did not particularly enjoy such things, was consequently a mystery to him, and he to Sidney; but as Sidney proved to be inadvertently hilarious on many occasions, he was endeared to Johnson; and as Johnson was a gallant rider with a good eye for horseflesh, he was endeared to Sidney. Theirs was a strange friendship, but strong.
Now, he said to Sidney, "Are you hungry? Cook is warming up a bit of late luncheon for you. Oh, but you arrive at a devilishly good time, Sid." He took a seat across the table from Sidney. "I wonder sometimes if you have a sixth sense about these things."
"You haven't heard? --The Duc de Lemieux's new horse, of course! Shipped in just last week, from the African Continent. Morocco, they said. I haven't seen it yet, but by all accounts it’s the most magnificent Arabian in Europe--"
"You haven't seen it yet?" asked Sidney.
"Well, it's not stabled in Paris, now is it? With the air, and these streets? And one does not everyday receive an invitation to join His Grace at his country estate--I haven't had a-- I say, where are you going?"
Sidney was already in the hall again, calling for his coat. "The Arabian--" he said, even as Johnson took Sidney's coat back and handed it to the footman again.
"You haven't changed a bit," said Johnson, laughing again though not unkindly. He steered Sidney back to the dining room. "And though I am sure His Grace would be nothing less than welcoming to a Vicomte as yourself--You are in Paris! You are on your Grand Tour! I cannot let you go rattling around about horses still, when so much art and culture and dancing and beautiful ladies are before you, can I?"
"I am for Geneva next, and Florence after," said Sidney, but sat down at the table again. "They should more than take care of the first two. And I left England to avoid the last two. In the interim, I don't see why I shouldn't make the most of this trip and take a look at this Arabian for myself--"
"Make the most of this trip! Look at the Arabian!" exclaimed Johnson. He turned and called for a footman to bring in the brandy. "I wonder about you sometimes, Sid," he said. "No, no--I'll be damned if you don't take in a bit of Paris during your stay. And we will have to go to Versailles sometime--but, ah, yes, here. This can be your first taste of Paris--" Johnson uncapped the decanter and poured a glass for Sidney.
"I’ve not yet even had my tea," protested Sidney. “It’s too early for--”
"Nothing of the sort," said Johnson. “Though for that, you get two glasses.”
Versailles was terrible. Monsieur le Duc de Lemieux was not in attendance (“because that Arabian is better company, I tell you; why did you bring me here?”), and Sidney did not really see what the fuss was all about regarding the styles of sprigged muslin layering on ladies’ dresses. Conversation was dull, and the rooms were hot, and Sidney thrice had to dance.
As the night wore on, he managed to edge closer to to the side of the room, and eventually to slip outside onto the terrace, into the cool night air. From there, it was an easy hop over the balustrade and then into the much quieter gardens below.
Unfortunately, he landed on someone.
It was a man who broke Sidney’s fall. Sidney quickly scrambled upright. The night afforded little light by which to make out the other man’s expression, but he sat up and then stood with a pleasingly graceful economy of motion. He looked at Sidney.
“I beg your pardon,” said Sidney, recovering himself. “Have I injured you at all?”
“No; it’s fine,” replied the man. His French bore a heavy Eastern accent, which Sidney could not place. The man bent to dust the loose soil from his breeches, and then--from that slightly stooped position--peered up at Sidney. The moonlight caught brightly on his eyes: they were very large and limpid, and there was around them a peculiar softness, almost childlike.
After a moment, the man said, “I think, man fall from sky--is very strange! What, I ask. Maybe magic? Maybe faery king? Maybe have wings?” He smiled, full and wide, and the moonlight caught brightly on that as well.
“Ah, no, no,” said Sidney, demurring instinctively and feeling rather like he was the one who had been bowled over. Strangely, it was not an entirely unpleasant feeling. “Not at all, no wings. I just--jumped from up there, you see.” He pointed. “I apologize; I didn’t see you. Terribly bad luck, really, to have landed on--”
“It’s fine, I said,” said the other, good-naturedly. He straightened. He was rather taller than Sidney had first supposed. “Before, not asking to explain. Asking for name. But better perhaps I go first?” He held out a hand. “Evgeni Malkin.”
“Oh, very good,” said Sidney. “That is, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance--Sidney Crosby. Viscount Crosby. Er--well, you know what I mean.”
Evgeni Malkin had a kind handshake: his hands were large, but he did not squeeze hard. It felt more like hello, happy to meet you than any handshake Sidney ever had in the past.
Malkin tilted his head quizzically, inquiring: “Why you jump? If life too hard...should not jump, but better from roof, I think.”
That started a laugh from Sidney. “Oh! I wasn’t--no, not like that. There was just a lot of dancing, you see, and. Well, I suppose it was an escape and I--I am hiding, right now.”
“Fugitive?” asked Malkin, sounding delighted. He leaned down, conspiratorially close, and said, “Me too.”
“From dancing?” asked Sidney, smiling helplessly at Malkin. This close, he could discern the features of Malkin’s slim, long face: the strong brows and large nose, the full mouth curving into a wide smile, a dimple peeking out from one corner. He wore no wig, hair dark and curling around his ears. Sidney was not in the habit of assuming such familiarity so early in an acquaintance; but there was something about Malkin, at once bashful and as if he were sharing childhood secrets with you, that inspired great comfort.
“I am good dancer,” said Malkin, straight-faced. “Everyone want dance with me.”
“I am not a good dancer, and everyone would dance with me as well,” Sidney pointed out.
“Not hiding because of dancing,” said Malkin, returning to the original question. “Hiding because.” He paused thoughtfully. “I have friend. Friend like ladies, yes? Friend has--friend know what say so lady like back. But friend need another person talk to lady’s friends. So is me.”
“Your friend wants you to,” Sidney squinted, “distract the lady’s friends?”
“I talk to many ladies’ friends tonight,” sighed Malkin. “It’s much talk about muslin. Why so much talk about muslin? What is muslin?”
“Oh Lord, the muslin,” said Sidney, remembering. “It’s--I don’t know, it’s something they use to--”
A shout from above interrupted him. He looked up to see a figure leaning on the terrace balustrade, calling something down to them in a language Sidney couldn’t make head or tail of. Malkin apparently could, because he called up a reply, and then turned back to Sidney. He looked rueful, saying, “Friend go hunting again. I go too.”
“Oh,” said Sidney, surprised not so much by that he was disappointed, as by how much. It could not have been more than ten minutes since he had met Malkin. “Oh, well. It was good to meet you.”
“Yes,” agreed Malkin. “Maybe meet again,” he added, and then laughed, “Cannot be hard! For man with magic!”
“I do not--!” said Sidney hotly, but Malkin was already turned away and leaving.
Nonetheless, he called over his shoulder, with a wave and laughing still, “Good-bye, faery king!”
What was the proper etiquette by which to call on Mr. Malkin? was the question that plagued Sidney the next day. He wished he had not skived off during these manners lessons in his boyhood. “I cannot expect him to call on me, can I?” he asked Johnson at breakfast. “But we have already been introduced. My being a viscount shouldn’t matter, afterwards?”
“Or would it be better to receive him?” he asked Johnson over luncheon. “After all, I haven’t the faintest idea as to his residence. Do you think he knows I am staying with you?”
At supper, Sidney began, “I have half-decided that I should--”
“Oh for Heaven’s sake!” exclaimed Johnson. “I’ve never known you to dither like this before! Over visiting someone?”
“Well, I don’t want to do it wrong,” said Sidney. “I don’t want to offend him.”
“What?” asked Johnson. “You met him while you were hiding from the French aristocracy. I do not think he can be that easily offended.”
In the end (and perhaps fortunately), the matter resolved itself. A calling card came around the next day for Sidney, sent by a Count Alexander Ovechkin.
“Who?” asked Sidney.
“Ah,” said Johnson, after examining the card. “The Russian ambassador’s nephew. I’d heard he’s been in Paris these past few months. Write back in the affirmative.”
“But I don’t know him,” said Sidney.
“Hence the calling card,” said Johnson. “To meet him, so that you may know him.”
“Do not speak to me as if I were a half-wit,” frowned Sidney. “I haven’t forgotten that time you set your own trousers on fire.”
“You cannot cite incidents from university!” protested Johnson. “I was drunk the entire time!”
The Count Ovechkin was almost as tall as his friend Malkin (for, of course, they were friends, and visited together)--but heavier-set, broader across the shoulders and deeper in the chest. He was also considerably less reserved; and as Malkin was already quite amiable, Sidney could find no words which sufficiently conveyed the enthusiasm the Count had for meeting people.
“Ah, Vicomte!” cried the Count, upon being announced into the drawing room, and flung his arms open. Behind him, Malkin brought a hand up to his eyes. Sidney warily offered a hand.
But it was no faux pas for the Count to do such a thing, Sidney quickly learned: the Count did many strange things, but exuded such overwhelming charisma that one could not help but find everything he did brilliant and hilarious. It was no faux pas if the Count did it.
In very short order, Sidney learned that: the Count was indeed staying with his uncle, the ambassador, to study and fit himself for the office of a diplomat; the Count had no gift for tact at all; the Count would really rather have joined the army; the Count however was not yet in full possession of his fortune, though having inherited the title already, and so bore his studies in diplomacy as well as he could; the Count held a life philosophy tremendously similar to Johnson’s, in his embrace of fine liquor and beautiful women and games of hazard. “I see,” said Sidney, and often.
“And Zhenya!” exclaimed Ovechkin, clapping a heavy hand on the shoulder of Malkin. “My friend here. He is good to come with me. I am glad to have him come with me. He grew up far from St. Petersburg, you know, so I did not see him as often as I would have liked.”
“Not very far,” said Malkin.
“Very far!” said Ovechkin. “His father was stationed with the cavalry, far east. Very cold, far place. So my mother, she said, when I was leaving: no reason for Evgeni to stay there. No reason for Evgeni not to come with me. We come to France--he can learn French, go to court, dance with the ladies, listen to opera--sophistication and courtly manners, yes? Not ride with the Cossacks all the time.”
“Cossacks!” exclaimed Sidney, and turned wide eyes to Malkin. “You rode with them? How splendid!”
Malkin looked startled for a moment, and then gave an absurd little laugh. He said, “Long time ago; I was small boy.”
And then it was very difficult for Sidney not to think about that: Malkin as a small boy, skinny but with the same wide grin, wrapped in thick fur and astride some Don horse immense in comparison to him, galloping across snow-covered fields. The image stayed with him, long after the Count and Malkin took their leave.
Sidney returned the visit a very few days later. “You are not busy?” he asked, shown into the room where Malkin was sitting on a sofa. “I do not want to interrupt if you are--if you are busy with your studies.”
“What the Count said,” said Sidney, as Malkin waved for him to take a seat. “Are you--did he not say you had come to Paris for--er, education?”
“Oh, Sasha,” said Malkin, and rolled his eyes. “Not all true. Only half. And I am not busy, now.” He smiled at Sidney. “You are welcome.”
“Thank you,” said Sidney, and felt himself uncommonly gratified by so common a phrase. It was hot in the room, he thought. It was not a small room, and though Malkin sat on the far side of the sofa, he felt very close. Sidney shifted in his chair, and looked at the sunshine streaming in through the windows. He said, “If you are not busy, then--it is a very pleasant day, outside. Should you like to take a walk?”
Malkin was agreeable to this idea, so they gathered their gloves and hats and walking sticks, and went outside. Sidney said after a moment, “What you said, about Count Ovechkin telling only half the truth. What did you mean?”
“Sasha,” began Malkin, looking thoughtfully up at the clouds. “His mother and my mother are good friends, like sisters. He come here, learn diplomat, but he not good with letters, yes? Forget always to write. Mothers not know if dead if not write.” He crooked a grin down at Sidney, as if sharing a joke. “Is possible, with Sasha. So I come, make sure he not die. Also, write letters.” He thought for a moment. “But number one make sure he not die.”
“Is it a task that requires frequent oversight?” asked Sidney, laughing.
Malkin smiled down at him again--and he was not a particularly handsome man: but the way he smiled down at Sidney, so wide and boyish and full of good cheer; and the softness with which his gaze fell on Sidney; and the sunlight limning the curls of his hair in burnished gold--Sidney was suddenly glad that the world did not think him handsome; that his loveliness was a secret, which belonged only to Sidney.
There were many visits, after that. One day, Sidney might say, “Tell me about Russian horses,” and Malkin, who had heard already much about Sidney’s love for racehorses, settled back and told him about the sure-footed Kabardins, and the sturdy Bashkirs, and the long-enduring Dons.
On another day, Malkin might ask, “‘Jack’ is small for ‘John’?”
“Yes,” said Sidney.
“So,” Malkin frowned. “Your friend--his name. John...Johnson?”
This was sufficient to remind Sidney of some ridiculous incident at university, also regarding Johnson’s unfortunate name, which he related to Malkin.
Sometimes they went fencing at a gentlemen’s club: Malkin was comfortable with a foil, but his style was very different from Sidney’s. Where Sidney was all quick and explosive power, Malkin was fluid and deft--he seemed almost to forget his height, when fencing, and took no advantage of his greater size. Sidney wondered if Malkin maybe had been a small as a child, and even now did not realize how tall he was.
Other times, they went riding together: Malkin listened to Sidney sigh over the yet unseen, rumored Arabian of the Duc de Lemieux, and if he sometimes teased Sidney afterward, he was never impatient about it. And the image would come to Sidney, sometimes, glancing sideways at Malkin as they rode: of a boy wrapped in furs, galloping over snow fields--and he would notice anew how Malkin’s hair fell, dark and curling, and how pale Malkin was, not in the lacking sunlight sort of way; but in the way of a boy who had grown up somewhere with long winters. And Sidney--who never wondered about futile things like the past or the future--suddenly very much wanted to know what Malkin had been like, twenty years ago, as a child; and wanted to know as well what Malkin would be like, twenty years after, a man full-possessed of his own authority.
The Malkin of now--some twenty years old and still a little slender about the shoulders--was athletic and cheerful and had about the strangest sense of humor Sidney ever came across. He was altogether like no one Sidney had ever met before.
“Johnson is making me attend Madame de Belleval’s rout next week,” said Sidney to Malkin, on one of their now-daily walks. “Will you attend?”
“Sasha attend everything,” Malkin replied--this was not entirely true, but not entirely false either. The Count was very popular. Malkin looked at Sidney, who was still waiting for an answer, and said, “Yes, I will.”
Still, Sidney could not find Malkin upon arrival at Madame de Belleval’s, not could he locate Malkin at all during the first hour. Sidney had half-convinced himself that some accident had befallen Malkin on the way, and was also considering setting his own coat aflame as a viable excuse to a) refuse all dance partners and b) leave the rout, when a hand encircled his wrist and pulled him behind a pillar.
“Malkin!” exclaimed Sidney, for it was he.
“Shhh,” said Malkin, peeking around the pillar--and then, hand still around Sidney’s wrist, edged them along the wall, and ducked through a half-shut door. They were now in the hallway: Malkin tugged, and they tiptoed quietly down the hallway, before Malkin turned left into a darkened corridor. He pulled on Sidney’s hand again--and then they were quickening their pace, then running down the corridor--and they burst through the doors at the end of the corridor, into the gardens outside, gasping with laughter.
“Why were you so late?” Sidney asked, after recovering his breath. “Oh, but I am so pleased to see you!”
“Is fashionable to be late, no?” said Malkin, smiling fondly down at Sidney. “I saw you dancing when I arrive.”
“I had to dance twice already! It’s barely been an hour!” complained Sidney. “It was a great rescue you made there.”
“A rescue for ladies you dance with,” said Malkin, and added reproachfully, “You are not very good dancer, Sid.”
“Oh?--and what sort of dancer are you, sir, to so easily cast judgment?” teased Sidney.
Malkin raised his brows at this challenge. “I show you?” he asked, and raised one hand, which was still holding onto Sidney’s wrist.
Sidney hesitated for a moment--but where was the harm? Sisters stood together for dances all the time. The hedges in the garden were tall, besides, and there were no one else around.
“Are you leading?”
“I am taller,” said Malkin--which wasn’t really an answer; but the smugness of his tone was. Sidney made a face at him, and Malkin laughed, and then his hand turned its palm to Sidney’s, their fingers threading. “The cotillion?” he suggested, and at Sidney’s agreement, guided Sidney a few measured steps along the stone pathways of the garden. Malkin’s hand was warm.
As it turned out, neither of them were very good at dancing: Malkin not infrequently forgot the steps, and Sidney had no sense of timing. Naturally, they made fun of the other’s faults; but the laughter that resulted from the teasing, and the about evenly-matched nature of their skills, made it a more pleasant exercise than Sidney had anticipated dancing could be.
When at last they stopped (for there were no other partners with whom to form a set and continue)--Sidney kept his hand in Malkin’s and smiled up at him. “Thank you,” he said. “That was--well, your dance-master, I imagine, does not entirely despair of you.”
“No,” said Malkin, rather absently, looking back at Sidney. Malkin’s eyes were--very warm. Like his hand, thought Sidney. Malkin took a step closer. He said, “Sid.”
The use of his first name should have been startling, but Sidney thought only, Yes? The intimacy did not feel strange at all: Sidney felt like he had known Malkin for years, if not lifetimes; why should they create space between them, after all, using last names?
“Sid,” said Malkin, again.
“Yes,” said Sidney, quietly; and--then there was no space between them, as Malkin leaned down and pressed his lips to Sidney’s. Sidney turned his face up, and kissed him back.
There was no space between them at all.
Some weeks later, seated together in the privacy of Malkin’s own drawing room, Sidney said, regretfully, “I am for Geneva in two weeks.”
Malkin sighed, and turning his head, pressed his lips to Sidney’s temple.
“But,” said Sidney, “I think I shall return to England, after that. I have no interest in scaling the Alps; Italy cannot be so interesting. And--when I am in England, you must come visit me. You must come visit, very soon.”
Malkin said nothing, but there was a stillness to his silence that indicated his attention.
“When you can,” continued Sidney. “Come visit, and stay with me. I have a house near Epsom, you know. And--we are that sort of friends, are we not?”
Malkin drew back a little, looking with some amusement at Sidney; there was a certain wicked gleam in his eye, as if to say, Yes, Sid; the sort of friends who commit hanging offenses together? Yes, yes; yes, we are.
Sidney pressed on, “And we can go to Newmarket and then up to Doncaster together; it’s a trip, but the races are magnificent. You’ll like them. And I’d like to take you home, after; I’d like to show you my stables. And my horses. And--my sister, and my parents, and the estate, and the fishing ponds, and. And--and if sometime, you would like to take me. Somewhere. You could--”
Malkin gave a soft laugh, and pressed his nose to Sidney’s hair. He murmured, “Yes. I take you to Russia, yes?” His voice was low and warm; Sidney could hear his smile. “And you can ride the Dons, and Kabardins, and Bashkirs; and my mother make borscht for you.” He paused, and then, very quietly, “This is good, Sid.”
Sidney pulled back to look at Malkin. “You’ll come home with me, then?” asked Sidney.
Malkin said, smiling, “Yes, Sid,” and pressed forward, and kissed Sidney again. And again. And again.
There were altogether many, many kisses. Sidney did not mind.