Martin touched the painting, attention riveted. It showed a labyrinth of grand curves and sweeping lines, exactly like the Pattern of Rebma, only reversed. A perfect mirror image. Blue sparks flew like shooting stars, bright against the black. Martin felt like he might be drawn in, if he stared at it too long.
"Do you like that one?" Brand said, low in his ear. "I can give it to you, if you want."
Martin drew back from the painting. "I couldn't."
"I have many more." Brand gestured wide, to the countless other works that graced the walls of his tower room. Landscapes that Martin had never even imagined. Worlds where sentient stones carved out paths over millennia. Worlds where translucent creatures drifted like stars, delicate and luminous. Brand had promised to take him there. Brand had promised to show him all the kingdoms of the world, and all the worlds of creation.
For years, Martin had endured the confines of the court at Rebma, endured the whispers about the scandal of his birth. He knew the story well: the prince who had discarded the woman who loved him; the son she had borne alone and despairing.
None of it mattered, with Brand. He knew things Martin had never known existed, let alone had a name. And he was ready to share them. Martin had an inkling what it meant, to be granted entrance to his private sanctuary, a glimpse inside his hidden heart.
"I don't need a painting," Martin said. "It's enough that you showed me this. Thank you."
"Actually," Brand said, "I have an ulterior motive for bringing you here." An edged smile, brilliant, seductive. He traced his thumb along Martin's cheek.
"Let me paint you," Brand said.
"You have a Trump of me. It seems only fair for you to return the favour."
He couldn't say no. He didn't want to say no. "What do I do?"
"Whatever you like. Make yourself comfortable."
Carefully, Martin settled onto the green velvet couch, where Brand would sleep when in the midst of a project. It still held the faint imprint of his form.
"Relax," Brand said, as he set up the easel. "This is only a reference, not the Trump itself."
Brand worked with light strokes across the canvas, his hand gliding with practised ease, his mind absorbed in the work. He glanced up at intervals to analyse his subject with a penetrating look: his line, texture, and hue.
Martin tilted his head back. Above him, a map of the constellations turned in slow cycles. What had Brand told him? The stars were made out of the same substance as themselves. Matter and energy were interchangeable. It might be possible, someday, to become pure light and cross the universe. To become something more than human.
Until Martin left Rebma, he had never even seen the stars.
Martin felt the pulse deep inside his mind, and knew someone was calling him on his Trump. He could not help a surge of joy. Only one in all the world, and it belonged to Brand.
He opened himself up to the contact, and was rewarded with a familiar smile. Brand stood in the centre of a maze of blue fire, sparks in his hair, and above him shone stars bright as suns. "Martin. Come to me."
Martin hesitated. "Is that Amber?"
"Yes and no."
His family. His father. "I can't, not yet--"
"It's all right," Brand said, "I'm here." His left hand coiled about Martin's wrist, drawing him forward, drawing him close, and Martin forgot how to breathe.
Martin blinked his eyes open to a revolving starscape. Brand leaned over him. His shadow blacked out constellations. "You fell asleep."
"Sorry." Martin pushed himself to his elbows, unknotting the kinks in his spine. "Did I ruin your painting?"
"Not at all. You looked like you were having pleasant dreams."
Martin flushed. He felt utterly transparent, beneath that knowing smile.
"May I see it?" he said, groping for a safe topic.
"Of course." Brand stood back, allowing Martin to gather himself together. Martin ran his fingers through his hair, but it was hopelessly flattened by sleep. He tugged his shirt straight, and trailed Brand to the waiting easel.
"Tell me what you think." Brand vibrated with anticipation. The moment every artist braced for, exposing their creation to another.
Martin raised his eyes, his own heart skipping a beat. The canvas was barely dry, streaks of pale watercolour still glistening.
His own face gazed back at him from beneath a cloud of yellow hair. The Martin on the canvas turned a tentative smile towards the viewer, his gaze clear as water. But the longer Martin looked, the more it seemed that his expression was full of deeper nuances: careful reserve in his pose, wistful yearning in his eyes, restrained anger in the set of his jaw. His soul conjured up in a few perfectly chosen strokes. He felt stripped bare, laid open to the bone.
"Martin?" Brand touched his shoulder. "You haven't said anything."
"It's--" Martin swallowed, throat dry. "It's amazing."
"You flatter me," Brand said, with his usual impenetrable smile, but he dipped his gaze for a moment.
Martin was afraid to ask what else Brand had seen, when he looked so deeply and keenly into him.
"It isn't finished yet," Brand said. He gestured at the background, a pale green, which could be the waters of Rebma, or could be something else. The details had yet to be filled in.
"What are you going to put there?" Martin asked.
Brand regarded him, looking thoughtful. "I haven't decided yet."
"I'm sure it will be wonderful," Martin said sincerely.
"I'm pleased you think so. Not all my family shares your view of my pursuits."
"Then they're blind," Martin said, with more vehemence than he had intended. "I've never met anyone who can do the things you do. I've never met anyone like you. I want to know the things you know."
"You want me to teach you to paint?" Brand said, with a sliver of a smile. It stoked furnaces deep in Martin, set his veins running molten.
"I want to know what you know," he repeated. Sudden, daring, he lifted his fingers to Brand's face and brushed them across the skin. Dry heat, and the rasp of stubble, and the edge of that clever, quicksilver mouth.
Brand stilled. "Martin." For the first time, a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes.
Martin stepped close, before he could lose his nerve. "You must see me watching you," he said, in a tumbling rush. "You must know. You spend all this time with me, and you never had any obligation to even give me a moment. I'm no one to you." No one to his father either, who had never bothered to lay eyes on him even once.
"Martin," Brand said again, and complex shadows moved across his face. "You must never think that. You are a remarkable young man."
"No one has ever come looking for me before," Martin said. "Only you."
The words fell soft into the silence.
"Martin," Brand said, for the third time, and at last he moved, taking hold of Martin's shoulder, one thumb brushing his collarbone. The rough callus sent shivers through him.
Martin bent his head close, inhaling the scent of paint and paper, of candlesmoke and alchemy. When he looked up, Brand had fixed his eyes on him, embers kindling. Slow sure intent wound them closer together, until they met.
Martin wondered if it had been thus for his mother: a prince from another world descending like fire from heaven. Then he forgot to wonder, as expert hands traced new patterns onto his skin.