Disclaimer: I do not own the characters/world of A Great and Terrible Beauty/Rebel Angels/The Sweet Far Thing. They are the property of Libba Bray and her publishers, who aren't releasing TSFT until December 2007, which is why I have written this to deal with the delay (and some serious Gemma/Kartik withdrawal.). Hope you enjoy.
I'm sitting at the edge of the lake in the realms, Kartik's head nestled in my lap. His long body is stretched out on the grass in front of me, and he is dressed in beautifully elegant clothes befitting an English prince. He looks more the gentlemen than any of the men I've seen in London, and for the briefest moment of selfishness I'm glad that only I am witness to how handsome he is. Sunlight bronzes his skin, makes his long lashes glitter as they rest lazily against his high cheekbones, and his forehead is smooth, unmarred by a single worry line. It is a side of him unseen in the real world. With every passing minute we spend in the realms, he resembles less a darkly serious Rakshana servant bearing the weight of betrayal in all its forms and more like the light-hearted young man he could have been. Should have been.
I long to lean down and kiss his smooth brow, but I hold back. Not yet. I do not want to disturb his serenity.
While he's busy turning flowers into a parade of miniature elephants, whose whisper-like roars make me smile, I braid and unbraid and re-braid his rich dark curls. They refuse to surrender easily to my fingers. Grimly I tug on a few strands that are tangled in such a manner that I am convinced they have maliciously banded together to vex me.
"Ouch!" Kartik's eyes open, and he reaches up to touch his scalp; for an instant his fingers brush mine. "I didn't know when I said you could braid my hair I was signing myself up for torture justified for only the most heinous criminals."
"Beauty is pain," I retort, letting go of Kartik's hair in defeat. "You're just lucky you don't have to walk around in a corset."
Kartik laughs. "I've never understood why Englishwomen wear corsets, or why Englishmen let them. If I was dancing with a woman and I had my hand on the curve of her waist, I'd find the feel of soft, supple skin much more delightful than hard whale bone."
Of course I blush, as I would if anyone else said something so improper, and yet I am not entirely scandalized. A virtuous mind can barely survive in the company of Felicity Worthington. A part of me wants to laugh, and part of the reason I'm so red is because I am fighting down this laughter.
But I'm also fighting down the thought of Kartik's hand on my waist, with only the fabric of my dress separating skin from skin, his fingertips tracing secrets on my lower back until tingles run down my legs…it is a thought which deepens the current shade of my face, a thought I know I must get rid of, but don't wish to part with.
I force myself to smile at Kartik, who's now looking up at me with mischief in his eyes. "I should like to see you converse with a woman about her soft, supple skin and get out alive. Careful, though, our fans may be covered in lace, but they are an excellent form of punishment for men who stray too far from propriety."
"Are you one to inflict such a punishment, Miss Doyle?" Kartik asks, with a lopsided smile. His eyes are lit by the hue of magic that permeates the realm, and now they look positively golden. Drat him. It is absolutely unfair how beauty has such a hold on people – we hover uselessly around its light, unable to touch, yet unable to leave.
"Indeed, and with great zeal," I force myself to say.
Kartik raises his eyebrow. "I believe I'll tempt fate anyway." In one swift motion, he rises from my lap and extends a hand to me. "Care for a dance, Miss Doyle?"
"Why, I'd be delighted." I take his hand as primly as I can. He lifts me to my feet as easily as if he was lifting a sash of gossamer, and holds me close to him. "Which dance do I have the privilege of butchering tonight, my lord Kartik?"
"That would be a waltz." Kartik waves a hand, and immediately a waltz sweetens the air, flawlessly performed by some invisible, magic otherthing.
"I think you're getting too used to this magic idea," I tease him as we glide across the grass. "I remember a time when you wouldn't have even contemplated the idea of it."
Kartik shrugs. "You of all people should know how people change over the course of time. I just never knew what sort of beauty magic was capable of creating." He looks at the tiny elephants, who are now splashing at the lake's surface. "It's intoxicating, sometimes – knowing my heart's desire lies at the edge of my fingertips, if only for a little while."
And exactly what is your heart's desire? I do not ask the question, even though it is ready to burst from my lungs. I fear what would happen to me if his answer was not, You.
His smile turns devilish. "And how was I to know that magic could create a world in which I would be dancing with Gemma Doyle sans corset?"
I realize then that Kartik is kneading my skin softly with his fingers. My next breath is deep, my torso unrestricted by that shield of bone and lace. Heat blossoms from that patch of skin, scurrying across my body, and I'm afraid I'll fall.
He leans forward, and my nose brushes the side of his jaw. "Shall I take it one step further?" he whispers.
I am dizzy. Now is the time. I lean forward to kiss him, but then –
"Kartik!" I pull away from him and clutch at my sides, which are now pale and bare. I am now wearing a sari of midnight blue, and the material is of the richest quality, flowing over my skin like silkwater. A sash of shimmery blue-gray drapes gracefully over my stomach, sweeps across my hips. Women in India step out in saris without a second thought, but in front of Kartik, I feel indecent. Too exposed.
He laughs, and I see that Kartik has taken it one step further upon himself as well. Gone are the clothes of the English prince, replaced with loose pants of midnight blue. His marvelous chest, lean and hard, gleams in the light, and I'm horrified to find myself blushing at the sight of it. He presses his body against mine in a version of the waltz that would not have sat well at all with Miss Nightwing, Lady Denby, and all my other teachers of propriety who wish to bind me with corsets and manners and marriage. His skin is warm against mine.
It should be wrong, what we're doing. And yet somehow, it feels perfectly natural.
"Enlighten me again," Kartik whispers against my ear, "on why we cannot bring our magic back to the real world."
Not the magic. Our magic. He is not talking about the elephants or the music or the various miraculous stages of undress we might find ourselves in. "Because it is forbidden," I reply.
"Is that why it is so sweet?" Kartik asks, but his smile reveals he is only teasing. "Imagine – we could return to India, Gemma. We could marry there and be ordinary. No obligations. No responsibilities. And in our ordinary days, we would shop at ordinary markets –" Kartik waves his hand, and we glide down a busy lane crowded with people and stalls selling shawls and spices – "And listen to wonderfully ordinary music."
The waltz disappears, replaced by the flute, drums, and bells of traditional Indian music. My hips sway to the melody, as though not of my own accord – I certainly have never been taught to dance to this music. Kartik, on the other hand, moves his shoulders up and down and twists his wrists as though he has danced to this his entire life.
Kartik then grabs my hands and spins me around, faster and faster until the wind steals the laughter from my lips. He is just a blur of bronze and black, and we're spinning and floating and breathless and flying…
We collapse against the grass, Kartik's arm wrapped about my waist, catching our breaths. The music and the market vanish, leaving us in the echoing silence of the realms once again.
"At night," Kartik says softly, "We could learn each other. Over and over again. As many times as possible. As often as we want."
A shiver runs up my back, because he is looking at me with his tiger-gold eyes, and his lips are parted so that his breath blooms on my skin, and the hand on my waist has slid down to my hip, pressing down on it with an urgency that nearly has me gasping.
"And if you ever, ever lie back and think of England during any of it," Kartik concludes, "I shall never forgive you."
"Then make sure I never have cause to," I reply, and lift my head to kiss him.
He meets my lips with a ferocity that sends fire racing across my neck, chest, and other, less familiar parts of me. His hand on my hip moves to the back of my thigh, caressing my skin, teasing it with the same delicate, tantalizing manner as his kisses. Then Kartik hooks my leg over his hip so that we're pressed even closer to each other, cream and bronze limbs melding, merging into one another.
He moves his lips to my jaw, tracing a line of soft kisses down to my neck. The kisses become less gentle, and tongue gives way to teeth. At the same time, the hand currently resting behind my knee slowly creeps up again, brushing the sari and sash out of his path, skimming the waistline of my pants, settling over –
"Oh." I bite my lip and close my eyes. My breathing becomes shallower, irregular, interspersed with gasps and a few moments where I can't draw a breath at all. With his teeth and fingers, Kartik has wrought a delicate structure of pleasure and pain within which I find myself bound. I'm surprised I haven't yet melted.
I dig my fingers into his hair, still full of half-finished braids, and press him to me. With my other hand, I explore the muscles of his back, the sharp curve of his spine, the two hollow dimples on either side of his lower back.
Somewhere beyond the haze of my own pleasure, I am aware of something else – something entirely unfamiliar – brushing against my hip. Rather than recoil from it, however, I feel a thrill of power rushing through me. I did this. I made him feel this way.
"You don't know," Kartik says hoarsely against my throat, "All the nights I've dreamed of this." His hips move against mine. "All the times I look at you –" He puts his forehead to mine.
He speaks the thoughts of my heart. And because he speaks the thoughts of my heart, I know exactly what he will say next.
"Waiting until our business is behind us – until Circe is gone –"
Circe. Even as he speaks her name, the light of the realms begins to dim, as though her name alone has brought in a tinge of decay. We can pretend all we want, but it doesn't change the fact that Circe still lives, and until she is gone, the moments we conjure will be just that – pretences.
I open my eyes. Kartik watches me silently, his face blank.
I move my leg away from his hip and press my knees together.
"It is late," I say. "Felicity and Ann will worry." Silence still. "I should go."
A sad smile touches Kartik's face. "When will I see you again?"
"Not for a long time." I contemplate saying goodbye, but I decide against it. It is too sharp a word for this moment.
Kartik touches my cheek one last time, then sighs; his skin breaks apart to form hundreds upon hundreds of butterflies. They brush over my body, his last little kisses, and within seconds my conjuration disappears into the light of the sun.
Somewhere in the real world, Kartik is sleeping. Perhaps he is dreaming about me, perhaps not – I'll never know. Until we face the futures life has planned for us, we will always be a little uncertain around each other. Life is full of uncertainties; every single person I know – Pippa, Miss Moore, Felicity, Father, Kartik – has shown me the uncertainty within themselves. It is, after all, the sole quality that makes us human.
The only thing I am certain of is that it truly is intoxicating, knowing that my heart's desire lies at the edge of my fingertips – if only a little heartbreaking, if only for a little while.