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Lay eyes on a beautiful thing without needing to possess it

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There is something about beauty that overmasters men. Women too, and those who claim allegiance with other camps, but Brigan has noticed the way men give themselves over to it. He feels that urge in himself too, but he has always kept himself under a tight rein in exactly the way his brother has not. Nash, and their father before him, likes surrendering to desire. Brigan has felt it too, lapping at his skin like warm perfumed bathwater, but he learned early to push the feeling away, not to let it cloud his judgement. He built his walls tall and strong.

Wanting is dangerous. Desire lies. The beauty of monsters is treacherous; even without the conscious push of manipulative monster minds, the exquisite perfection of them clouds thoughts and whispers a seductive story about sex, or power, or just the gentle release of surrender. Monsters seem so much more real than anything else. Brigan remembers, in his youth, petting a monster kitten until his wrist ached. Its purring was a symphony to his ears. Each hair on its pelt seemed individually distinct until his stroking fingertips, and every subtle variation in its coat delighted his eye. It ended in blood, though, as dealings with monsters always do. The monster kitten bit him, and for a moment it seemed the most perfect and reasonable thing, and then its rough tongue lapped his blood and Brigan found some reserve of strength to push it away. He has never given in since to the soft, sweet, comforting blur of monster-influenced thoughts.

Even as a child he was stronger than his father had been. His mother's influence, he thinks. Nash was raised at his father's side, raised to be king, but Brigan, as the younger son, spent more time with Roen, learning how to speak to people rather than subjects. Roen had not always been royalty. She had fewer illusions about the world. She told the truth unflinchingly. She saw her husband with clear eyes, and so Brigan did too. He came to understand, on some unarticulated level, that monsters weave beautiful stories, but all stories come to an end, and the endings are rarely happy. The embrace of a monster wearing a more-than-human face is no less dangerous than the embrace of a panther monster's jaws. Nax never learned that. Cansrel and his entourage pranced into the city, their horses glossy, their faces beaming, and Nax slid into the giddy oblivion of pleasure without a backwards glance at his sons or his wife or his kingdom.

Brigan resents his father and understands him both. He has never wanted to be king. The air is thin at the top of the world. He has responsibility enough leading the army. The weight of it keeps his feet on the ground and his head out of the clouds, but there are days that to drift into another world, a shiny perfect world, is an almost unendurable temptation. Those days, he thinks of his mother, who has always been the strength of their family. The rock steadiness of her grounds him. Brigan does not like to think of what might have happened if Nax had chosen a different bride, one who might have followed her husband under. He wouldn't be here, certainly, and he suspects that the kingdom would have dissolved along with its king's resolve, nothing more than history's fever dream.

Roen is the backbone of their land. Nash may wear the crown, but Roen is the one the people look to for comfort. The women, Brigan knows, are the lifeblood of the kingdom, and those who tend the hearth or the forge or the shops or the children no less than those who swing a sword and ride under his command. His men swagger and boast; his women tally their accomplishments too, but they waste little time inventing titles for themselves or evaluating the relative merit of each skirmish. He needs them all, especially when their ranks are increased by one: the last monstrous human, Cansrel's daughter. Fire, she is called, and the name is apt. She kindles a spark wherever she goes, in men's eyes, in men's hearts (and women's, he knows, but his women are better at banking the embers of their wants, and tending them in solitude).

In the first moment, he hates her, and wants her, and hates that he wants her. He sees Cansrel in her, though she kneels in front of him on the flagstones of his mother's courtyard, and will not meet his eyes. He sees the unnatural beauty of her and feels the change in his brother. Nash, despite what happened to their father, has never steeled himself against want. Brigan will have to protect him. He has always been his brother's keeper.

He finds Fire in the hall, vents his fury, and regrets it. Fire has power, whether she uses it or not. She is a weapon, whether she keeps herself sheathed or not. He does not trust her. He makes it known in the strongest possible term, short of threatening her life, because that's what he's always done, when he sees a danger to his family. But she is injured, and he can see at once that she is trying to step out of her father's shadow, and she makes him a promise of a sort: he has nothing to fear from her, and neither does Nash. He does not trust her, but it is a word that he suspects is not lightly given. She has earned his caution, but not his ire. He steps away.

He dreams, not of her, but of a fire. In the dream, he warms his hands until they tingle, passes his fingers through the flames and see his skin unharmed. Not particularly subtle, as dreams go. When he wakes, the red of the dawn reminds him of Jessa's hair. Fire's mother, whose child was taken from her. He does not know now how she lived with it, except that to live with Cansrel would have been unbearable.

For her mother's sake, for his mother's sake, he will keep his peace with Fire, if he can.

Lady Fire keeps to herself much more than Cansrel did, despite his mother's attempts to draw her out. Brigan avoids her, ashamed of his behavior, still wary of her. But she startles him, slipping through the gate on her plain and sturdy horse. She lays her life on the line, lets beauty call to monstrous beauty, and trusts him to command his troops well, despite his studied coldness to her. For him, he thinks, she has done this thing that might have killed her and her big-hearted horse. For him, and for Roen, and for the Dells, but first and foremost for him, to tell him something.

Brigan longs for her. Of course he does. There is something about her that is wild, that catches at his heart, but her beauty is the beauty of the hawk descending to catch the mouse. If he lets himself want her, desire will rip him open and leave him to breathe his last under the blue arch of the sky.

Wanting her makes him furious. He can manage it, manage himself, but he resents the way her loveliness affects him. There is nothing genuine about it. It is an unnatural longing, nothing like what he felt for Hanna's mother. Rose was beautiful with dirt on her face and straw in her hair, beautiful in an ordinary way. Love blossomed slowly between them, at a human pace. It feels wrong to want Fire so badly, so abruptly. He boxes off that longing, makes it the smallest part of himself, and treats her with cool detachment. He has larger things on his mind, like holding his army together. He has trained them to stand together against external forces, but not all of them have his experience in standing strong against the weaknesses within themselves. They might have managed to harden their hearts against Cansrel, who killed their king, but Fire is blameless, and they love her. They speak wonderingly of her, of the glorious monster-woman who saved so many soldiers.

Brigan will not love her. Not even in his dreams. If he dreams, that is, but his fitful sleep is haunted by waking worries.

He thinks of her, in the months he is away, and brushes the thoughts away, but fate and Nash send him back to his mother's palace, to gather the Lady Fire, to bring her back to the King's City to unravel the mystery of the mindless assassins (and, he knows, to bring her closer to his brother, who does not attempt to manage his longing). He brings guards, to keep her from the troops, to keep the troops from her. And wonder of wonders, when he arrives, she is fiddling with the children, and the notes soar through the air, and he thinks, oh, I didn't know, but he cannot say to himself what it was he didn't know. That she has a heart that yearns for a more humane beauty? That she plays a lovely fiddle? That children love and trust her?

He does not like her, but he begins, in some small way, to respect her. He does not lock that feeling away. It compromises him to want her, but not to be courteous. She has distanced herself from her father's legacy, just as Brigan is pleased to share few of Nax's traits. Nash, unsurprisingly, hides nothing, wears his lust on his sleeve and thinks it love, makes a fool of himself and leaves Brigan to pick up the pieces. Brigan, as always, does his best to hold the world together.

Lady Fire rides her unassuming horse, and keeps to herself in the circle of her guards, and hides the banner of her hair under a dull scarf. She brings no entourage, no powders or potions, no menagerie. She carries his mother's recommendation, and Brocker's. He is still wary of her. Where she goes, there are eddies of distraction and desire. His people squabble to get that much closer to her. He knows better than to blame her. She does her best to redirect the attention she gets, distracting the soldiers with her fiddle, pushing them away with her mind when she must. She does not invade his mind, but occasionally she gives him thoughts, gentle as gifts. He feels some small relief when she plays her fiddle. The beauty of the music is no less wild than her own, when she is not gentled by children and by stone walls, but somehow that glory is bearable.

When he cannot sleep, he walks the camp, as he has always done, and he meets the Lady Fire, gazing up at the stars. In the dark, she looks a little more human. Her hair has lost its crackle. Her brown skin blends into the quiet dim. Half of her face is limned pale with the pale grey moonlight that makes it through the clouds, and half glows with the distant reflection of the fire. She is lovely, but it is a comprehensible loveliness. It does not jostle the longing he keeps hidden. But there is something new next to that longing, something he can recognize.

He trusts her. Realizing it is like opening his eyes. She wields her mind the way he wields his sword, feeling the weight of it in every sinew, feeling the ache the next day from the work. He loathed her father, but he cannot loathe her. If it comes to that, he loathed his own father too. He will start fresh with her.

Her fiddle is smashed by his men, who will not control themselves or admit they need to, as if the lessons of the battlefield have no meaning outside of combat. He is ashamed and angry, but sees a chance to make amends, later, for his rudeness when they first met. When they arrive in the city, he buys a fiddle - four fiddles - and has them sent to her. It will be a gift to hear her play a worthy instrument again. He knows nothing about the fiddles, but that they will please her, and then he wonders that he is so gratified at the thought of her contentment.

He dreams of fire again, but this time the flames become streaming hair, and his hands are buried in it, and he's laughing. Laughter is still bubbling up in him when he wakes. He lies very still and savors the feeling, just for a moment. A moment of luxuriating in peace is all he can allow himself.

When he leaves he misses her, and that is a wonder.

Inch by inch he falls in love, and it feels like learning to ride, or learning to use a sword: inscrutable in the moment and then suddenly as natural as if he had always been doing it, as if he had always been falling in love with her.

"Lady," he says, and even if the quiet pleased shape of her mind against his didn't answer all his questions, the light in her eyes would.