visiting with my family for the Holidays and enjoying every minute of it. I started writing this story as a Holiday short but it then got out of hand. I had hoped to finish and edit it by now but unfortunately my sister's kitten bit through my power cord for my computer as soon as I got to her house and things just went down hill from there as far as the story was concerned.
I apologize for the roughness of this snippet and expect to have the full story out sometime next year. This story is set in what I am calling the Mechanical Universe and includes some of the same characters that appear in A Matter of Disagreement and Duende which will be coming out soon.
"No." Gilbert paced back across the floor of the small library.
"I thought you would be pleased" Henri-André V leaned back making his gilt desk chair creak under his weight. His tone was mild and slightly amused as he regarded his youngest son. "I have tried to take your feeling and wishes into account in every step of this process. I am not necessitating that you marry a woman since you prefer men. The Marquis de Montespan is a good friend of yours, someone you have known for a very long time, someone you like. I do not understand why you would object so stringently to the match."
Gilbert stopped in front of his father's writing desk. I am not ready to marry, much less marry someone I don't love, seemed like such a childish thing to say, he wanted to nonetheless. "He already has a lover."
Henri-André gave him a look that clearly meant do not act the fool when I know you are not. "This is a political match dearest." Henri-André said as if Gilbert was still a very young child. "I am well aware the Marquis de Montespan and the Duke de Broglie are lovers. But Gilbert the Marquis de Montespan is a very good looking man who, when he is in the capital, never misses a chance to attend the latest ball, party of soiree. He most likely will always have a lover or even more than one. Is fidelity something you really desire? Because if so ..."
"I know." Gilbert turned away and paced to the window looking out. It had begun to snow, dusting the stones of courtyard in white. "this is a political match, anything marriage I am apart of will be a political match and within arranged marriages I have no legal right to demand monogamy from my partner." His hands clenched at his sides, memories of Tristan and their last fight threatening to rise up and engulf him.
"Nor social right either." Henri-André said, "the ideal if for you to be cordial with each other but these are not love matches."
"I know." Gilbert said again.
"I want my children to be happy." Henri-André stood and moved around the table to stand beside Gilbert at the window. "I want all of you to marry men and women you consider friends. Those you will be happy with, will be able to build strong households with, be able to sit and talk and laugh with. But I can not promise you love, I can promise you your husbands fidelity in politics, and business but not your bedchamber and not in his heart."
"I don't love Marcel." Gilbert held up his hand before Henri-André could object. "He is one of my best friends but I don't love him like that. But Marcel and Julian, they are both from good families, and titled. If they were to marry each other it would be a good political match, and a love match. I'm not denying one of my best friends that." Gilbert shook his head "especially when I can't offer it in return."
"His mother has already agreed to the engagement." Henri-André turned away from the window. "If the Marquis objects or if you can think of a better reason why this would be a poor match for you I will reconsider my decision."
Gilbert stared at his father's back for a few minutes and then bent in a small bow "Of course."
Henri-André sighed and sent to sit back at his desk "Be happy Gilbert. There are a lot worse marriages you could be facing."
"I know." He felt like that was all he'd said today.
Henri-André waved his hand in dismissal, head already bent over the stack of papers on his desk.
Gilbert let himself out, and headed down the hallway from Henri-André's wing of the palace towards his own.
His library was much like Henri-André's most private one, small but with large windows to let in the light and bookshelves built into every wall. The spaces not covered with bookshelves held his collection of scientific sketches of insects.
With a sigh Gilbert sat behind his desk staring pensively at a giant king beetle from the southern desert. The insect was the size of both his fists put together It had been preserved with expert care, mounted and placed within a tall domed glass case which sat on Gilbert's desk. The sunlight caught the iridescent blue in the beetle's shell.
He was going to marry Marcel. Really he should be happier about this than he was. Marcel had been a good friend of his since he'd been what -- six or seven? Marcel was a good man, quick to laugh but slow to anger, brilliant in his own right, who loved parties, fancy clothes, good food and sex. He was well titled and Henri-André was right, they would be able to run a good household together. Marcel could handle their public image, sweet-talking people at court and prospective investors while Gilbert concentrated on his studies and handling their finances.
Yes, he should have been pleased.
Unbidden the memory of Tristan rose before his mind's eye. Gilbert shook his head to dispel it before standing and pacing to the window.
Tristan had left and wasn't coming back, he knew that, he'd accepted it.
If Marcel wanted a marriage with Julian he could have that. The clouds outside the window shifted causing him to be reflected in the class and Gilbert turned away. Even if Marcel didn't want a marriage with Julian though Gilbert could hardly imagine Marcel would choose him. He was not hideous but plane, short with a build that was wide without being muscular. His facial features were also wide and a little squashed looking, his hair street, fine and unremarkably brown. Like the rest of his face his mouth was too wide especially when he frowned which had earned him the nickname of frog prince as a child. And he was the youngest son.
As Henri-André had said Marcel was beautiful and he was rich and well titled, along with being very intelligent. Gilbert would hardly be his first choice not mater that they were friends. Still as Henri-André had also pointed out it was a political marriage. Marcel could still have as many lovers as he wanted. The thought made him feel sick inside, even though he did not want to rob Marcel of being with someone who thought of him as a lover. Still the idea of being anyone's husband for show why they slept with an indeterminate number of people on the side made him think of Tristan, made him think of the things Tristan had said.
Gilbert slammed his fist against the top of his desk. He needed to let it go. Tristan was gone, he needed to move on. One ill thought out tryst should not have paralyze him like this. If anything it made him angry that Tristan should still have that kind of power over him.
He needed to move on with his life and do his duties as prince.
Sitting back behind his desk Gilbert sighed. If Marcel did for some reason agree to this marriage than he would at least try to make it work.
The marriage would be good, for the both of them, or at least that was what he needed to keep telling himself.
Marcel barely had time to reorient himself to the city before the summons from the palace came.
At least he'd managed to get a good night's sleep, bathe, shave and unpack the smallest of his travel trunks. Then he was being helped back in a carriage heading through the city streets on his way to meet the Emperor.
Once at the palace he was ushered into a small sitting room with gilt couches upholstered in silk. There was a very large painting of a half nude woman prominently displayed. The lady in the painting was looking off into the distance while behind her waves rose and crashed in an ocean view.
Marcel set his cane aside and eased himself down onto one of the couches and stared at the painting. It was by Lady Pataude if he was not mistaken. The model was her long time lover Lady Sárköz. He'd met them both once at a party.
The far door at the end of the room opened and Henri-André V sauntered in.
"Marcel!" He held out his arms face lighting into a wide smile when he saw him. "You look well."
"I am well, your Majesty." Marcel grinned back, reaching for his cane and making to standing but Henri-André waved him back down. Henri-André went to him, bending slightly and kissed him on both cheeks.
"Now, now none of that." Henri-André pulled back, still clasping Marcel's face between his hands "I remember when you pretending to be pirates and soldiers with the girls, back when you were all just little things."
Marcel smiled, "Henri-André than."
"That's better." Henri-André let go of him and sat on the couch opposite him. "Actually I wanted to speak with you about Gilbert."
"Yes, you see." Henri-André was looking at him expression serious now. "I have decided that you two should marry."
"What?" Marcel blinked, tried to process it and fail.
"I have spoken with your mother and she agrees this would be a good match." Henri-André said "besides you and Gilbert get on well, always have and your personalities and interests seem very compatible."
Marry. Marry Gilbert. Marcel wasn't really sure what was going on, it was too much like a dream. In fact he was pretty sure he'd had this exact dream more than once.
"I will however respect your wishes on the issue, and take them into account." Henri-André finished.
Marcel opened and closed his mouth several times and swallowed hard "I ... yes, yes I think we would make a fine match."
"Good." Henri-André beamed and slapped one leg. "Then we will have a small engagement ceremony, here at the palace in a few weeks and announce it at the Christmas ball. Now if you will excuse me I have another appointment." Henri-André gave him a small apologetic smile. "But I'm sure you want to catch up with Gilbert anyway, discuss the engagement ceremony and how you want to announce it at the ball."
"Yes, I would like to speak with Gilbert if he's free." Marcel reached for his cane and stood.
"Oh I'm sure he's free, I don't remember there being any appointments on his schedule this morning." Henri-André stood as well. "He should be in his library and if not than in that libratory of his." Henri-André leaned forward, taking Marcel by the shoulder and kissed him on both cheeks once more. His expression sobered slightly. "I am so pleased and proud to have you as my son in law."
"It is my great honor and privilege to marry into the royal family." Marcel gripped Henri-André's shoulder with his good hand "and you know I will do everything in my power to make Gilbert happy or at least content with the life we will build together."
"I know," Henri-André smiled at him fondly. "That's why I chose you. Now go find your soon-to-be-fiancé"
"I would." Marcel bowed slightly as Henri-André.
"Then we will speak later." Henri-André gave him one last smile before heading towards the door he had entered by. Marcel waited for him to leave before making his own way to the door he had been shown through.
It was good to be back in the palace. Marcel thought has he navigated the marble halls. To his left were tall windows which let in the morning sunlight. Outside he could see the courtyards and gardens dusted with snow and tripped with ice. On his right were huge portraits in heavy gilt framed of the royal family both past and present.
There was Princess Charlotte Marie first as a child in a beautiful gown and then as an adult in her military uniform. Princess Louise Henriette posed in library holding a book and smiling at the viewer over the top of her glasses. There was the Crown Prince Philippe sitting casually at his desk surrounded by maps and his favorite hounds. Louis on horseback, looking every bit as dashing as most ladies and gentlemen of court thought him to be. Then there was Gilbert.
Marcel stopped in front of that portrait staring up at it. Gilbert had been posed in a garden, encircled by flowering bushes. In one hand he held the Royal Writ for the Funding of Scientific Study. With the other hand he pointed to a rose blossom on which a winged insect had settled glittering in the sunlight.
Marcel smiled looking up at it. Gilbert had been so mortified by the painting but he could never understand why.
Married, they were going to be married.
Marcel turned, quickening his pace down the hall.
Even after being gone for almost two years Marcel could have found his way to Gilbert's private study half asleep and in the dark. In fact he might have traveled the halls to Gilbert's library while asleep before. Certainly plenty of time when neither one of them was completely sober.
He'd helped Gilbert pick the room out, helped him design the placement of the bookcases and then move all of Gilbert's books across the palace.
It was almost like coming home to push open the heavy dark wood door and step into the warm space. The windows behind Gilbert's desk let in plenty of sunlight keeping the dark wood paneled room with it's matching bookcases from being dreary.
"Marcel!" Gilbert rose from behind his desk as soon as he saw him. "I didn't know you were back yet."
"Just got back yesterday evening." Marcel took in the dark grey suit Gilbert was wearing hair longer than it had been, brushing the bottoms of his ears. Then Gilbert was hugging him tight, nearly knocking him over in his enthusiasm.
"I missed you." Gilbert's voice was quiet but his words were so heartfelt, that Marcel's own heart clench painfully.
"I missed you too." He broke the hug and stepped back smiling down at Gilbert. "I am sorry for not coming straight here when I got back."
"Nonsense." Gilbert waved his hand dismissing the idea "you needed to sleep and unpack I shouldn't wonder. What brought you here today? Asides from visiting me."
"I spoke with your father." Marcel said and by the way Gilbert froze and then didn't quite look at him he knew Gilbert was already aware of their proposed marriage.
"Look." Gilbert leaned against the edge of his desk with a sigh "I already told me father I didn't want this, several times but he didn't listen, maybe if you spoke with him ..."
He might have said more but Marcel didn't hear it his mind having gone blank when Gilbert had said he didn't want the marriage. The marriage that was everything Marcel had wanted since he was twelve.
He couldn't remember the exact moment when he'd fallen in love with Gilbert. But he could well remember the first time he'd wanted to kiss Gilbert, wanted to touch him in ways that were not traditionally brotherly at all. He'd been twelve when he'd decide Gilbert would be his husband. Sixteen when he'd gotten slapped hard enough to leave a mark Lord St. Claire for crying out Gilbert's name in passion. His entire arrangement with Julian -- their friends who sometimes slept together but for connivance pretended to be something more act-- had been to distract himself from wanting Gilbert.
Because of course, Gilbert didn't want him back and never had. Gilbert loved him but as a friend and a brother, nothing more.
Which was why Gilbert would object to their marriage. He took a breath to steady himself. "I told him yes. Yes I will go through with this marriage."
Gilbert blinked at him, clearly caught off guard. "But ..." He floundered for a moment "You and Julian wouldn't you rather marry Julian?"
Now it was Marcel's turn to be surprised. "Julian and I are good friends and I enjoy his company in and out of the bedroom but we've never considered marriage and shouldn't think we ever will."
"Oh." Gilbert looked away back towards the window, mouth turning down in a frown. It hurt Marcel more than he had thought possible that Gilbert so obviously did not want this.
"Are you sure?" Gilbert turned back and Marcel's heart clenched again at the words.
He moved across the room to stand beside Gilbert and leaned against the desk as well. "I am sure." He said "It's a good match, it makes sense, we know each other, we know we could do good together." He gave Gilbert a small half smile "Is the idea of being married to me really that bad?"
"No." Gilbert shook his head "I just thought ... well one of us should marry for love."
I am, but Marcel didn't say that he kept on studying Gilbert's face. There was a certain wistfulness there, regret and sadness as well. Marcel frowned.
"Did something happen while I was gone?"
The panicked look that cross Gilbert's face for a moment reminded Marcel of a small child caught stealing sweets. "No." Gilbert shook his head.
He was still a horrible liar at least. Marcel's frown deepened. "There is something bothering you, I can tell."
Gilbert blew out a long breath in a sigh, "Nothing, it's nothing. Nothing important at least."
"You used to tell me things even when they weren't important." Marcel wanted to reach forward and run his fingers through Gilbert's hair, kiss him and promise to make it better. He crossed his functional arm over his chest instead.
"Truly," Gilbert smiled at him "It's nothing of importance, not even worth speaking of."
"I bought you back a gift." Marcel changed the subject, he'd find out on his own later.
"Really?" Gilbert's mood lightened immediately.
"Not with me right now." Marcel smiled back "I'm sorry, I forgot it in the rush this morning. Next time we see each other though, I think you will like it. It can be an engagement present if you like."
"Oh." Something seemed to occur to Gilbert who looked guilty now "I should pick you up something for the engagement as well. I hadn't thought ..."
"It's all right." Marcel gave into temptation and reached out giving Gilbert's shoulder a gentle squeeze "I don't need anything you know."
"Well if we are to be engaged we should do it properly." Gilbert gave him a small smile.
"Do you want to show me your newest specimens?" Marcel grinned, maybe it would be best for both of them not to think about the marriage for a while "I know you do."
"If you want."
Marcel let Gilbert lead the way out of the study and down the hall again, heading deeper into his wing of the palace.
Finally the came to a door, Gilbert unlocked it and led the way inside. The room was much the study wood paneled but each wall was covered in wooden glass fronted cases containing Gilbert's preserved specimens. There were long wooden tables ran the length of the room. On these tables were cases and cases of Gilbert's living collection of insects. Not only did Gilbert have thousands of different species native to the local area, Marcel knew, but he also had insects from all over the world. There was another laboratory inside the palace as well, where Gilbert performed more controlled tests on dead insects.
At the far end of the room was another large desk and two floor to ceiling windows that look out onto Gilbert's botanical garden. There was rows upon rows of beds each each plant label with a tiny metal plaque with the plant's scientific name and properties. Now most things were dead dusted with frost and snow. Inside though the laboratory was kept warm year round to allow Gilbert's insects to thrive even in the depth of winter.
"These are new." Gilbert walked over to a large glass case containing pieces of old decaying wood and a nice bedding of leaves at the bottom. He took the mess lid off of the top and stuck his hand into the class case while Marcel stood warily a few paces behind.
Gilbert had always been fearless when it came to insects more intrigued and curious than anything else even when faced with creatures capable of killing him. Marcel didn't mind the bugs, they did not disgust him as they did many, he had just learned to be cautious over the years.
"They are called hissing cockroaches and they are biggest roach ever recorded."
They certainly looked horrifying enough, Marcel saw as one crawled onto Gilbert's hand, three inches long, its shell mottled brown and black.
"They are wingless." Gilbert said gently lifting the roach out of the case. "but they can climb almost anything. I have to coat the inside of their case with a lubricant to keep them from escaping. They eat vegetable material and prefer to live in rotting or wet wood. They are harmless and very friendly." He offered his hand with the roach to Marcel who shook his head.
"If it's all the same I'd rather not."
Gilbert shrugged with a small smile, "suit yourself." He lowered the roach back into the case and secured the lid again. "Oh I got more beetles but nothing you haven't seen. My old batch died unfortunately. Let me see what else do I have. Oh! I know."
He turned and headed across the room to one of the cabinets and opened it, taking out a wooden display case with a glass lid. "Unfortunately you are too late to see them when they were still alive but look." He turned the case for Marcel to see.
They were butterflies with delicate long white wings, tapered at the tips, with streaks of orange across the top.
"Zeltus etolus" Gilbert said "very rare, from the east. It took me forever to raise them correctly, but they are beautiful, aren't they?"
"They are." Marcel leaned close to have a better look "truly amazing."
"You should have seen them when they were alive. When they flew the tips of their wings looked like streamers coming out behind them, fluttering in the breeze."
"I'm sorry I missed it." Marcel looked up meeting Gilbert's gaze and Gilbert looked away after a moment.
"I sorry too." He took the case back over to its display cabinet. "Do you want to stay? I'll have tea brought up." He turned back to Marcel who smiled easily at him.
"Sure. I was actually also hoping to see your sisters?"
"Out of luck unfortunately." Gilbert led the way towards the door. "Charlotte is readying her troops to move back up to the Northern boarder. And Henri is trying to convince stuffy academics over at the University at Colline to take her new cataloging system for the library seriously. They should both be at the Christmas ball though, unless Charlotte decided to move her troops out early."
"Your father said we should announce the engagement at the Christmas ball."
Gilbert paused as they came into one of the smaller sitting rooms. For a long moment Marcel thought he wasn't going to answer "Yes." Gilbert finally said "yes that might be a good idea."
Gilbert crossed the room opened another door, spoke to the servant who had been lurking on the other side, while Marcel settled himself on one of the couches.
"I've never seen that arm before." Gilbert said as he recrossed the room and settled beside Marcel. "Is it new?"
"It is actually." Marcel couldn't keep the pleasure from his voice. Gilbert wasn't the most fashion forward of people and had been known to overlook so such details but Marcel had always been proud of his prosthetic arms.
He had been born without his left arm and with his right leg twist and unable to grow muscle properly. For most of his childhood he'd gone without a replacement arm but as an adult he enjoyed commissioning prosthetics as accessories for his outfits.
This one was porcelain, completely useless functionally but a beautiful piece of art. It had been sculpted to look like a perfect human arm and hand out of fine white china and painted with a dark blue cascade of flower blossoms that fell from his shoulder all the way to the tips of his fingers. His only regret about the piece was that it was cold enough outside that he was forced to cover most of it underneath a matching blue silk shirt and storm grey jacket.
"It's beautiful." Gilbert reached out to touch the hand lightly and when Marcel nodded approval he took it between both of his own hands.
"One of my new ones." Marcel watched Gilbert inspect it with mild amusement "I have several ones you've never seen."
"I can't wait to see them than." Gilbert grinned up at him and oh but Marcel wanted this to be flirting. He wanted to kiss Gilbert, sink the fingers of his good hand into Gilbert's hair, make them both tremble ...
A servant pushed the door open carrying a tray which was then set on the low gilded table in front of them. The arrival of tea and cake distracted Gilbert enough that Marcel was able to shift discretely on the couch.
"Here." Gilbert put a small plate with a piece of fruitcake in front of Marcel, licking his fingers off and Marcel avoided looking at him.
Gilbert poured them both tea and then sat back, tipping his face towards the ceiling "What a mess its has all been over the last few months, although," He seemed to brighten slightly and looked over at Marcel. "You should see the new college buildings, they are coming along splendidly. It be long now before we can open."
"Yes I hope to see it soon." Sooner rather than later. He had some questions that needed answering, Marcel though watching Gilbert become withdrawn again frowning slightly.
Marcel sipped his tea.
"I am going to be officially engaged." Only in his shirtsleeves, Marcel lay sprawled across the settee in the small sitting room that connected to his own bedroom.
"What?" Julian turned from where he'd been gazing out of the window and crossed the room. He leaned over the back of the settee and looked down at Marcel. "You are what?"
"Going to be engaged." Marcel smirked up at him "To Gilbert."
"What!" Both of Julian's eyebrows shot up "Don't tell me you've finally convinced him to accept your feeling? Not after all these years of pining."
"I … well no." Marcel felt slightly deflated at that. "The Emperor summoned me to the palace and told me we were to be engaged, Gilbert and I."
"Well." Julian settled into the armchair next to the settee "best of luck with that, although isn't it going to hard? Being married to him, feeling the way you do but knowing he does not feel the same?"
Marcel looked up at the ceiling again "Yes." He said after a long moment "But I can't imagine living with anyone else, building a household with anyone else, perhaps even raising a child if we wished to adopt. For me it has only ever been him."
"I know." Julian's voice was tinged with sympathy.
"Speaking of Berti." Marcel sat up. "Do you know what happened to him while I was gone?"
"What do you mean 'happened'?" Julian frowned.
"I don't know but something happened." Marcel stood now "He wasn't himself when I spoke with him."
"I have no idea." Julian said "but Gilbert and I have never been close. Ask Gregory, he'd know."
"Ah yes. I think I will do that." Marcel began searching around for his jacket. "I've been meaning to have a world with the Marquis de Marche."
The College of Science and Technology would be the first of its kind in the Empire. Modeled on the great University of al-Karaouine where Marcel had just spent the past almost two years studying mathematics.
The building itself or collection of buildings to be precise had been warehouses before the Marquis de la Marche had bought them and the architect Riku Takahashi had redesigned the buildings.
They know sported glass domed roofs and beautiful sculpted metal work that shown in the sunlight.
Marcel climbed the stone steps that led up the front door and pulled them open stepping into the main hall.
The Marquis de la Marche, Sushil Mukherjee and Lady Yujia looked up from where they'd been looking at a blueprint of some sort.
The inside of the great hall still looked like a work in progress with scaffolding and work tables everywhere. Marcel ignored all of it as he headed for the group.
"Marcel!" Gregory was the first to respond striding across the space and hugging him. "I'd heard you were back, come to see the new school?"
"I've actually come to ask about Berti." Marcel said when Gregory let him go. "What happened when I was gone?"
"What do you mean?" Sushil had come to stand a little behind Gregory giving Marcel a puzzled frown.
"I went to see him." Marcel said keeping his voice even. "Something had happened. He seemed ... sad."
"It's probably about Tristan." Yujia said and all three turned to look at her.
"Yes probably." Gregory sighed, running his hands through his hair.
"While you were gone." Gregory turned back to Marcel. "Berti fell in love."
It shouldn't hurt, physically hurt, but it did. It was like being kicked in the gut, Marcel concentrated on breathing.
"Tristan was Charlotte's aid when he came to the palace, good looking enough I supposed if you like them tall, blond and heavily muscled and Berti fell in love."
"He never said." Marcel's voice came out much softer than he'd meant it to and he gripped his cane tighter with his good hand. "He wrote to me, letters so many of them, but never talked about this at all."
"He was really quiet, shy about it. You know Berti. I don't think in the beginning he really believed Tristan was interested and then convinced himself that if he talked too much about it it would all magically go away. But they were really cute together, happy. In the beginning."
"What happen?" Marcel had a sinking feeling he need but he needed to hear Gregory say it.
Gregory, Yujia and Sushil all exchanged looks.
"Tristan left him. They had a fight. I think Tristan cheated although Berti never said. Certain Tristan said unkind things to him right at the end. Charlotte re-posted him to the Tower in Northern mountains and he's not coming back anytime soon."
"Oh God." Marcel looked away from the three of them and then laughed. "We're engaged to be married."
"What?" Gregory stared at him.
"Berti and I." Marcel said, "We're engaged to be married, the Emperor has decided it. And here am I, a mess of unrequited love and he's heart broken because ..." Marcel struggled for a word properly express the amount of anger he felt when he thought that someone had been loved by Gilbert and treated him badly anyway "Some bastard left him."
"You two are getting married?" Sushil repeated as if he really couldn't believe it.
"I'm sure it will work out. You two have known each other for a long time." Gregory clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't give up hope now. I can guarantee you that he loves you more than he ever did Tristan."
"Yes, just not in the same way." Marcel shook himself trying to dispel his sour mood before he became too self-pitying. "So show me the rest of the college while I'm here."
"Sure." Gregory grinned at him and gestured a the rest of the building. "It's coming along nicely I think Riku did a gorgeous job planning it out and of course you'll want to see the mathematics wing where you'll be teaching."
"Not much to see quite yet." Yujia crossed her arms over her chest looking amuse. "the builders have barely started on that section."
"Still might as well have a look." Gregory said cheerily and led the way.
~~~~The ceremony was to be a simple thing, held in one of Henri-André's larger offices.
Gilbert dressed carefully in a very fashionable suit in deep shades of brown with gold embroidery. He tried to ignore the way his stomach flipped as he ran a comb through his hair. It was just long enough to tie back now so he searched until he found a ribbon and combed it back from his face.
His palms were sweating as he found the case with the engagement present he'd had made for Marcel and checked it over for what felt like the hundredth time. It was absurd to be this nervous, he told himself, it was only Marcel and only a political marriage.
He checked his reflection in the mirror one more time, before sighing and turning away. He still could not really believe Marcel had agreed to this. He had been so sure Marcel would say no.
Picking up the case from off the tea table where he'd put it he headed out of his rooms and towards his father's wing of the palace.
Henri-André was already there when Gilbert entered the office, along with Marcel and his mother the Marquise de Montespan. Gilbert found himself a little surprised that she had come, so rarely did she tear herself away from her surgery for anything. Then again Marcel was the only son of the de Montespan line, even if it was by adoption rather than birth. Marcel had originally been born the island of the far east attested to by the dark brown of his skin. He had been a de Montespan since was old enough to talk however.
The Marquise was dressed in a dark green afternoon gown befitting her station and windowed status. She sat in a gilt chair in front of Henri-André's desk with Marcel by her side.
Silk and embroidery were all the rage now so of course Marcel, who liked to stay ahead of fashion trends instead of conform to them, was wearing neither. Instead he was in black with a cranberry red velvet jacket.
His arm was wood and carved to look as if it was entirely made from interlocking leaves as was the cane he carried. Dark brown curls were swept back from his finely features face.
When Marcel saw Gilbert his face broke out into a wide smile.
"Gilbert." The Marquise said also smiling and held out her hand for Gilbert to kiss. "How are you my dear?"
"Well, thank you Madam." Gilbert bent over her hand before straightening to give her a smile.
"I am so glad I lived to see this match come to pass." She reached up to pat his cheek. "Your father and I have been planning this marriage for a very long time.
"He forced a smile for her. "I am happy Marcel agreed." Looking up he caught a strange expression as it passed over Marcel's face -- sadness or regret -- it made Gilbert's insides freeze. Did Marcel not want this after all? But if he didn't why on earth would he have said yes?
The papers were already spread out on Henri-André's desk waiting for everyone to sigh.
"Well." Henri-André smiled at them all, standing and coming around the desk. "Shall we get started?"
Gilbert glanced at Marcel again, but Marcel was smiling and looked fine. "Just a moment." He said "if you and the Marquise don't mind I need a private word with Marcel." He just waited long enough for the two of them to nod, both looking puzzled before gripping Marcel's good arm and leading him out of the room.
"What is this about?" Marcel asked when they were in the hall.
"Do you want this?" Gilbert said "Really want this I mean, because there is still time to say no."
"I... what?" Marcel looked at him seeming genuinely confused.
"When your mother spoke of this marriage" Gilbert said "you seemed unhappy and I don't want you to do this unless you want to do this."
Marcel shut his eyes for a moment looking tired. "I want this." He said when he opened them again "I am happy and I do want this."
"All right." Gilbert searched his face, still unsure what Marcel's expression had been "All right then." He opened the door to the office.
"Everything ready?" Henri-André asked when they stepped back and Gilbert nodded forcing another smile.
"Good." Henri-André gestured to the papers and the Marquise stood and moved to the desk, signing each one in turn. Than Marcel stepped forward his name much more dramatic under his mother's. He handed over the quill to Gilbert when he was done. Gilbert's stomach was cramped into knots but he signed his name anyway and watched as his father readied the royal seal. Henri-André signed his name, and full title, then dripped the wax in a large pool. The seal was heavy gold thing that pressed firmly into the wax and Gilbert forced himself to breathe out as his father lifted the seal away.
"Congratulations!" Henri-André beamed at both of them.
There was a knock on the door and Henri-André answered it waving in a servant carrying a very expensive bottle of champagne and a tray of glasses.
The servant poured and handed them out and Henri-André held his up in a toast. "To Marcel and Gilbert, long might you be happy in your marriage together and may this bring our families closer."
"Yes indeed." The Marquise beamed back raising her glass and Marcel and Gilbert did the same.
They all drank, Gilbert wishing it was something stronger than champagne.
"I we were thinking to make the public announcement at the Christmas ball." Henri-André said to the Marquise who nodded.
"Very good, very appropriate as long as we keep it tasteful." She sipped her champagne.
"Mother." Marcel bent over her, "if you don't mind I would like to take a little time alone with Gilbert, to speak and exchange gifts, now that we are engaged." He smiled up at Gilbert as he said the last and Gilbert looked away not knowing what to do with the way his chest constricted.
"Of course." She waved her hand " Henri-André and I have things to speak about as well."
"Thank you." He kissed her cheek and then nodded at Gilbert.
Gilbert picked up the box with his engagement present in it with fingers that felt a little numb. Then reached for both his and Marcel's glasses with the other hand.
He followed Marcel out of the office and down the hall, heading towards his own wing of the house. Marcel marched them straight to the smallest and most used of Gilbert's sitting rooms, right by his bedroom. The sitting room was decked out in old well used furniture that was comfortable rather than the heavy gilt pieces that filled the rest of the palace. There was already a fire laid in the hearth, crackling warmly.
"Well now that the formal part is over with." Marcel folded himself down onto one of the battered settees in front of the fire and stretched his good leg out. "Come on." He patted the seat next to him grinning at Gilbert who hovered by the doorway.
Gilbert set the glasses on the table in front of them before settling himself down on the settee next to Marcel.
Marcel reached forward picking up his glass of champagne and draining it. "You have anything else to drink?"
Gilbert reached for his own glass and took a sip "I have whatever you want."
Marcel gave him a long heavy-lidded look but when Gilbert opened his mouth to ask Marcel waved his hand "Brandy then."
Getting up Gilbert walked over to the door at the far end of the room opening it and stepping into one of his studies. There was a liquor cabinet at the end of the study and he took out two glasses and poured them both a generous helping of brandy.
He carried the glasses back into the sitting room, handing one to Marcel before sitting on the setting again.
"So I have a present for you." Marcel gave Gilbert a smile over the top of his brandy glass then set it aside digging into his jacket and pulled out a velvet bag. "Just a little something, nothing big."
He handed over the bag and Gilbert too it working the silk cord undone and tipped it onto his palm. Two oval highly polished stones fell out, both a brilliant orange flecked through with brown.
"Amber." He held each piece up and then paused.
"Yes polished amber." Marcel said reaching back for his glass of brandy with "With insects from thousands or even millions of years go trapped inside."
"Oh." Gilbert breathed, sitting forward and holding each piece to the light "I've read of this."
"I know." Marcel said tone dry but please "You read my the passage and then described in length as much you would love to see it for yourself."
One of them was a tiny ant Gilbert could now see holding the piece to the light, the other contained some kind of small winged insect. "They are beautiful." He finally tore his gaze away and looked up at Marcel. "And amazing. Thank you, thank you so much."
"I know you have your doubts about this marriage." Marcel rested his glass on one thigh running a finger around the edge. "But maybe it won't be such a bad thing after all?"
"Marcel I never ..." Gilbert swallowed and took a breath "never meant it like that."
"I know." Marcel smiled at him.
"I have something for you as well." Gilbert's palms started sweating again and he reached for the box he'd set on the table along with his champagne glass. It had been a stupid idea, the present, it wasn't sure now what he'd been thinking. "It's not anything impressive." He picked the box up held it tight, "more like a daydream really. I mean if you don't like it I don't take it personally ..."
"Berti give me the box." Marcel was still smiling as he held out his hand and Gilbert forced himself to hand it over.
Marcel rested it on his lap, flipped open the lid, then paused.
"Like I said." Gilbert braided his fingers together and forced his hands to stay on his lap "If you don't like them ... well I know you don't wear a lot of jewelry"
Marcel picked open up holding it to the light. They were earrings, silver bees each part separately crafted so the legs, wings and antenna all moved independent of each other fluttering with each movement of the wearer's head. There was a silver ring too, in the shape of a rose with a bee resting on it.
It occurred to Gilbert suddenly that it was a very romantic gift, more than he had intended which just doubled his nerves.
"They are beautiful." Marcel said voice soft and sincere. "Here." He held it out to Gilbert. "Put them in."
Gilbert took the silver bee and leaned forward searching until he found the tiny hole in the lobe of Marcel's ear.
This close Marcel smelled of sandalwood and something herbal. Marcel breathed out warm against Gilbert's cheek, and Gilbert sat back reaching for the second one. He slipped the hook through the hole in Marcel's other ear sending the bee dancing it's tiny silver wings beating at the air.
Marcel had been right, they were beautiful, so well crafted they looked like real silver bees. Gilbert touched one lightly with the tip of his finger and heard Marcel's breathing catch. He let his hand drop and sat back.
Turning slowly to face him, Marcel bit his lip for a moment and then smiled "Thank you, they're beautiful."
They were close very close, Marcel leaning in a little lips parted slightly, Gilbert could smell sandalwood again and his stomach gave a queer little flip. Marcel sat back, and Gilbert found himself strangely disappointed.
"So the Christmas ball." Marcel reached for his brandy glass "is when we'll make the announcement?"
"According to my father." Gilbert took a sip from his own glass.
"I must confess I've already told Gregory, Sushil and Lady Yujia." Marcel said. "I went to look over the college grounds and met them there."
"Oh and how are the buildings looking?" Gilbert leaned a little closer to Marcel. He hadn't been working as closely getting this new college of science and technology off the ground as he would like but he was still excited about it. Although he had helped pass the bill that had funded it. Plus he'd also been funding Gregory's research into combining spell craft with technology for years now out of his private funds. He had some ideas of his own spell craft could be introduced into the study if insects, but he'd never had the resources to take that research further. Hopefully he would be able to teach some entomology classes once it opened.
"It looks good." Marcel said "Coming along nicely, it will be a beautiful state of the art facility once it is open. There will be a whole wing dedicated to mathematics you know, rooms especially designed for testing the combinations of spell craft and mathematical theory. I can not wait to teach there."
"Which reminds me we have yet to speak of your studies." Gilbert shifted around show he was more comfortable leaning fully against Marcel's side head pillowed on his shoulder.
Marcel smiled at him with open fondness "It was amazing, I could talk to you about it for hours, studying at the university and living there. I was also finally finally able to manifest my mathematical theories in their pure theoretical form through spell craft. Which I would love to show you sometimes when I have all my notes and charts with me. It is so beautiful, you would not believe. Besides I've now showed up all those people who told me it couldn't be done." Marcel grinned obviously pleased with himself.
Gilbert tipped his head back against Marcel's long, lean form and took a swallow of brandy. More nights spent like this, sitting together in front of the fire, talking about research and drink would not be bad at all. Maybe this marriage would be a good thing.
He finished off his glass in a few extra swallows. Outside the window it had begun to snow, sky light grey flecked through with snowflakes. The fire crackled and hissed as a log fell. The alcohol in his stomach was making Gilbert feel warm, calm and a little sleepy. He'd always been a lightweight when it came to drink, but today he didn't really mind. In fact he could do with another. Fingers carted through his hair, gentle and soothing and leaned into the touch without thinking or really wanting to think.
"I could use another brandy."
Beside him Marcel laughed, the sound rich and deep. "Sorry I can't get you one. This arm is very pretty but not good for anything. You are going to have to get it yourself."
With a slight grumble Gilbert stood reaching for his own glass and Marcel wordlessly handed over his almost empty one as well. Gilbert made his way into the study filled them both up again and then came back settling himself on the settee back propped against Marcel's side. It was Marcel's left side which meant his wooden arm poked into Gilbert's back a little but Gilbert didn't really care. Even less after he'd had a few more swallows of brandy.
"you know what." He gestured with his glass. "I think this marriage won't be that bad, we can talk a lot about science and stuff ..." a few more swallows of brandy and Gilbert felt even better.
"Oh my pretty soon-to-be husband what will I do with you. You are drunk." Fingers carted through his hair again. Gilbert liked that.
"Not pretty." He was slurring a little bit, maybe he really was drunk. If Louis or Philippe were here they'd tease him about it. Not Marcel though, Marcel never teased. He tried to drag his mind back to the conversation at hand. "Frog. Small. Squat. Mouth too big. Like for catching flies." He said indistinctly, nodding to prove his point.
"I don't care what other people say." Marcel's voice had a note of steel to it now. "You are pretty and always have been."
Gilbert laughed because that was really the only thing to be done about a statement like that. He finished off his brandy, hoping he wasn't going to remember this after he slept it off. Ridiculous. He knew he was acting ridiculous.
"Oh Berti, what I am going to do with you?" Marcel said again and Gilbert leaned his head more comfortably against Marcel's shoulder and closed his eyes.
Somewhere in his sleepy haze he heard Marcel ring for a servant.
The first party of the season and the Christmas ball were both held at the palace.
The entirety of the lower section of the palace had been decorated in holly and mistletoe, long silver steamers and more Christmas wreaths then should have been allowed. Huge fir trees has been brought in and stood in each great hall and ballroom decorated with candles.
The tiny white candles were everywhere, once the ball started they would all be lit bathing the inside of the halls as well as the snow blanketed gardens in candle light. Every year they had the candles and every year someone lit something on fire. Henri always said she looked forward to seeing what it would be this year.
All the princes and princess were back. Gilbert had breakfast with his sisters that morning and spent most of his time hiding from his brothers. Louis especially, who was due to become a father any day, had been particularly insufferable about it. Gilbert liked to think his engagement would put a stop to some of Louis needling about how Gilbert was destined to die alone and unloved. Although knowing Louis he'd find a way to twist even that some how.
Gilbert dressed in dark blue trimmed with silver lace. There were tiny snowflakes embroidered along the cuffs and the edge of his jacket. He tied his hair back with a blue ribbon.
Squaring his shoulders Gilbert left his rooms and headed down to the great hall where guests were already starting to gather.
Gilbert made his way through the candles and holly bows watching the lords and ladies of the court mingle together and sip hot spiced wine. There was music playing, light and easily, in the background. A servant handed him a glass of spiced wine as well.
Scanning the room Gilbert tried to pick out people he knew Charlotte was there in full uniform and he caught sight of Philippe but no one else. Not surprising really, it was early yet, people might be running late.
Guests laughed and chatted among themselves. There was a poker game going on one room Gilbert found. By the time he was almost done his glass of spiced wine all of the great halls were packed with people.
The biggest hall had been set up for dancing the musicians there playing much livelier tunes. Gilbert tried to make out familiar faces in the crowd, Gregory, The Mukherjee twins, Takahashi or anyone he knew and liked. He couldn't spot anyone though.
Out on the dance floor all his sibling were dancing, even Henri her dark green gown taken out to accommodate the fact that she was big with child. A large crowd of ladies watched Philippe dance from the sidelines giggling to each other and whispering behind their fans.
Gilbert discovered his glass was empty and went to find another.
A servant helpfully handed him another off a tray and Gilbert leaned against the wall and sipped his wine watching the dancer.
No one approached him, asked him to dance, spoke to him or so much looked in his direction.
A small group young men and ladies passed by him talking to each other and laughing, all holding steaming glasses spiced wine. One of the ladies looked over at him her lips curling into a sneer. She said something to one of her friends and they both burst out laughing.
Gilbert felt his cheeks heat as he looked down at the floor.
By the time he was half-way through his second glass of spiced wine, Gilbert had given up looking for people he knew. Off to his left closer to the doorway a large group of people burst into loud laughter.
As Gilbert watched one of the people detached themselves from the group and headed across the room towards one of the doorway that led into small sitting rooms.
He blinked it was Marcel.
Marcel's jacket was again velvet instead of silk unembroidered, his shirt, cravat, breeches, stockings and jacket were all very slight different shades of dark green, with touches of silver here and there.
Gilbert started after him. By the time he fought his way through the crowd of people to the small sitting room that he'd seen Marcel disappear into though Marcel wasn't there.
There was only a few other ways Marcel could have gotten out of the room though. So Gilbert headed straight across the sitting room opening the door at the far end. This door led into a small library and Marcel turned away from one bookcase he'd been studying as Gilbert entered closing the door behind him.
"Gilbert." Marcel smiled "I was just about to come and find you, sorry I didn't greet you earlier, I was detained almost as soon as I walked in."
He'd been horribly lonely, ignored as usually by the rest of the court. "It's all right." Gilbert said leaning against the door. "You're here now."
Marcel moved to stand beside him and Gilbert saw the arm he had this evening was silver metal with delicate cutout patterns all the way up it so that the entire thing looked like silver lace. The figures looked like they could be manipulated too, and his cane matched, as always. "We should talk about how we are going to make the announcement." Marcel said voice low and deep. They were very close, Marcel had a sprig of mistletoe pinned to his lapel and there was another above the door frame.
"you wore them." Gilbert reached up with his free hand and touched one of the silver earrings Marcel was wearing. The little bee swung its tiny legs, wings working.
"I'm sorry." Marcel said voice low and Gilbert looked up, startled, to ask why?
Then Marcel's metal arm was loosely looped around Gilbert's waist, pulling him in close and Marcel's lips were gently covering his own. For a split second Gilbert didn't respond and then he was kissing back without thinking. Marcel let out a breath as if he'd been holding it and kissing Gilbert with passion this time as if Gilbert's mouth on his was the only thing keeping him alive.
Marcel's mouth tasted like spiced wine, his body was pressed against Gilbert's, slotting them together. His lips were soft, and Gilbert surprised himself by pushing his tongue into Marcel's mouth, one hand gripping tight to the front of Marcel's jacket.
It was Marcel who broke the kiss, stumbling a few paces back. He looked disheveled, lips a little swollen from their kisses, jacket crushed where Gilbert had gripped it.
Gilbert just felt stunned. Marcel had kissed him. He'd kissed Marcel back and he'd ...
"I'm sorry, I ... I just can't ..." Marcel bolted for the door and Gilbert stepped back instinctively trying to get out of the way. Marcel fumbled with the nob, wrenched the door open and almost overbalanced himself in his haste.
Then he was gone out of the study and Gilbert was left standing staring after him.
"Wait!" Gilbert's wits finally caught up with him and he threw himself at the door, through the sitting room and out into the great hall, trying to catch up with Marcel.
Of course though by the time he made it the great hall Marcel was nowhere to be seen.
Well that's all for me folks. I hoped you enjoyed my little part of a story. Have an amazing Holidays and take care.