At the presentation, every step is planned. The choices of dance speak of the politics of the day. The order of the suitors is reflected in the ebb and flow of power.
— Renard Robins-Grace, Musings of a Failed Society
Dame Dorin’s School of Dance was a small studio on the corner of Apple and Oak. It used to have a reputation of being a great school but time and scandal had whittled away at its reputation to nothing more than an old building with too much paint and creaking floors. However, Dorin’s lessons were still cherished and her price low enough for those seeking to enter High Society.
Galadin had been training for a month now. Dame Dorin’s teaching style was brusque but effective. She had precise ideas of where the hands, feet, and hips all went to ensure a courtly dance in synchrony with everyone else on the floor.
His mother stopped at the entrance. She looked up at a nearby clock tower and hissed between her teeth. “I’m late to arrange for a carriage. Go inside and behave.”
She gave him a perfunctory kiss on his cheek before crossing the street.
Galadin watched her until a trio of mechanical vehicles roared pass, obscuring everything in a cloud of sharp-tasting steam. He turned and headed up the stairs.
“Gal! Wait for me!”
At the sound of Kalir’s voice, Galadin smiled to himself. He and Kalir had met on the first day of their lessons at Dorin.
About the same age as Galadin, Kalir was a fit young man who had a promising future. He also had a smile that caused Galadin’s stomach to flutter and his cheeks to blush.
Galadin turned around.
Kalir wore a leather jacket with an embossed symbol of the Tarsan Navy. Unlike Galadin who was to marry up into High Society, Kalir had already gotten his foot past the threshold with a letter of commission as a junior officer. He had to be married before he gained more than a few ranks and the presentation balls were the best place to find a wife.
Galadin smiled brightly. Dance lessons next to Kalir were one of the highlights of his day.
“How are you doing?” asked Galadin. “Usually you beat me here.”
“Well, I want to claim Missun’s hand before you got your fingers on her. I’m sure she has eyes for slender, delicate men like you.”
Galadin shrugged. Missun and her sisters were attractive, but they didn’t fan any flames. “You can dance with whoever you want.”
“But she’s the prettiest.”
He couldn’t explain that he had no interest in either of the girls that took classes with them. They were nice and friendly, but he didn’t find his eyes drifting toward them when they weren’t looking, not like Kalir did. Instead, it was Kalir that drew Galadin’s sly attention.
“You can have Talin,” Kalir said patted Galadin’s shoulder. “She’s pretty enough.”
Kalir ran his hand through his thick hair and smiled.
Galadin blushed faintly. Then a surge of guilt rose inside Galadin and he looked away. He cleared his throat to distract himself. “Usually you beat me here” before he realized he had already said that.
“I got distracted and almost forgot to show up.” Kalir glanced over his shoulder as a second man started up the stairs. “I almost didn’t come.”
The newcomer was just over six feet tall and gorgeous. He had a casual grace as he walked up the stairs, his hands buried deep in a pair of plain but functional-looking trousers. He had an open navy jacket, not unlike the one Kalir wore, but it had the insignia of a First Lieutenant and a single gold bar underneath it. The new man shared Kalir’s smile, but somehow it was brilliant and stunning, refined by age and confidence.
Galadin’s throat grew dry. He was standing in front of a fantasy.
Kalir twisted his face into a scowl and gestured to the door. “Come on, we’re late.”
The other man chuckled and then gestured for Galadin to go ahead through the narrow door. He had large hands that were heavily tanned, no doubt from hours in the sun.
Galadin stared at him for a moment, a strange fluttering growing in his stomach. “Um, I’m Galadin.”
“Benard, Kalir’s older brother. Though I think I’m also the more heroic one at the moment.” He smirked. “I like saying that part.”
Kalir glared before storming inside and slamming the door behind him.
Benard grinned. “I’m afraid my younger brother doesn’t care for me. Whenever I’m around, he’s sour toward everyone else because he isn’t allowed to slug me. Don’t take it personally. I think he doesn’t like me anymore.”
“Oh,” Galadin said before he headed up the stairs. “Why?”
“Probably the same reason most of my family hates me: I prefer the company of men in my bed instead of women.” Benard waved his hand nonchalantly.
Galadin froze when he heard words that reflected his own thoughts only moments ago. Love between men was forbidden which is why Galadin kept his own desires hidden. To hear it spoken casually and openly shocked him. Whatever Benard had done to be a hero obviously gave him the confidence to be open with his forbidden interests.
“I’m just tired of keeping it a secret and messing around. That is why they sent me to the Navy, to keep their dirty secret hidden. But then I had to go and save a ship.” He grinned and shoved his hand back into his pocket.
“I-I…” Galadin stammered.
Benard reached around Galadin. His arm brushed against Galadin before he caught the handle and pulled it open. “Here, let me.”
A waft of his cologne, a musky scene with a hint of cedar washed over Galadin. It smelled good. It also set off a rapid beating of Galadin’s heart.
Nervous, Galadin look at him with confusion. He wanted to ask questions, starting with “why?”
The naval officer inclined his head and then smiled, his lips curling and drawing Galadin’s attention. “Don’t worry, it isn’t contagious.”
“No… I… I didn’t think… sorry.”
Benard gestured again. “Please, don’t worry about it. Let’s enjoy an afternoon of tripping over our feet instead?”
“Okay,” Galadin said in a distracted voice. He felt hot and dizzy. His stomach fluttered as he mulled over Benard’s words.
Inside the studio, Dame Dorin paced back and forth. Her neat bun of light brown hair had a few strands peeking out like a fan. “Three, only three? I can’t work with only three gentlemen. Why couldn’t at least some of the ladies come? They can’t all be indisposed.”
Kalir looked disappointed. He turned and peered out a nearby window toward the street.
Dorin grumbled for a moment. “They aren’t coming, Besire Kalir. They appear to have a case of… bad food and are too sick to learn how to dance. Damn the Couple, I can’t reschedule this. There are far too many lessons before the balls.”
Benard stepped up next to Galadin. His body heat and scent washed over Galadin again, sending little flutters from their closeness. “Then you be one of the partners.”
She narrowed a glare at him. “You should have stayed on the sea like a man of your…” Her eyes scanned him over. ”… nature.”
He shrugged and smiled. “I earned this, Dame. You know that.”
She stared at him for a moment. Galadin could see her resolve cracking.
“We can switch leads, it’s better than nothing. You and I trade places with the boys.” He had a smirk that Galadin couldn’t tear his eyes away from.
“That is improper.” She turned on him. “You might think it is fond idea, but I will not allow you to—”
Benard interrupted her with a grin. “Blame me then. That’s how I got here, isn’t it? By the way, how are your brothers? I heard they just got out of hospital.”
She took a deep breath and let it out, her body shaking with the effort to calm down. When she spoke, her voice was calmer. “You don’t have to remind me how you earned that commission, besire. Or that you saved them.”
He inclined his head but said nothing.
Galadin frowned as he looked back and forth.
“Not more than a few minutes at a time, I don’t want you giving them any foul ideas.” She pointed accusingly at him. “And no touching where you aren’t supposed to.”
Kalir held up his hands. “I’m not dancing with… my brother. I’m not the girl!”
She almost lost her temper. “Fine, you dance with me.” She pointed at Benard. “Start with Galadin and switch roles. I’ll give directions to all three of you.”
Galadin’s heart beat faster. He turned to his new partner. His throat felt dry and constricted. He wanted to reach out and touch him, to feel the rough skin on his fingertips. No girl had ever made him feel that way and he felt foolish for not realizing it.
Benard smiled warmly and gave a little bow. His smile was hard to look away from. He seemed more comfortable with himself than anyone Galadin had known, as if he had chosen his body and wore it like a well-tailored suit.
Galadin felt a little jealousy. He didn’t feel the same about his body. It was wrong, it didn’t fit. He couldn’t say why, only that he was uncomfortable inside his own skin.
“Now, the first dance we’re going to do the Fox Square,” announced Dorin. “Start with Galadin and Kalir in the lead. Lift your right hand up, palm up…”