Teyla caught her breath as her boat drew within sight of Kenil's palace. The tall marble building glittered in the night with hundreds of torches reflecting off stained glass and mosaics. Snatches of string music drifted down the steps, as did the scent of delicately-roasted meats. Behind her, the canal was crowded with intricately carved boats bringing the aristocrats of Castiglio to the palace, each arriving singly, as was only suitable for the masquerade. She could hear them calling poem-challenges to each other playfully over the water. The boat came to rest against the landing and she stood in its prow, suspended in the waves, savoring the splendor that, for once, owed nothing to the Ancients.
The boatman stepped ashore and offered her his hand. She gathered her long train as he helped her out onto the steps, careful that it should not drag in the water. It was fortunate that their deal with Kenil had left them with excellent credit in the city, for the dress was an extravagance of a kind she had not allowed herself since coming to Atlantis. It was a vivid swirl of tangerines and soft reds, cut daringly low in the bosom and high on the legs, but flaring out into a train behind, as if she were some tropical bird. Her domino was orange and feathered. In truth, she had enjoyed hunting down a dressmaker, trading for luxuries rather than for foodstuffs, and she had not bargained too severely. One could not be grudging during revels.
At the top of the steps, she turned and looked back down into the canal, gleaming with slow-gliding lamps. She shook her head at herself as she realized she was scanning for Colonel Sheppard. He would be masked as she was—she would not know him. If he came at all; for all his bravado, she was not sure he would.
Inside, an honor guardsman took her cloak. The entrance hall was thronged with guests. Some of the women were in gowns like her own, others in exotic costumes, lighting up the room with their vivid colors. Most of the men wore the suits of the Castiglian aristocracy, apparently dark, but on close inspection woven with dazzling patterns of glittering precious thread. All were masked.
Kenil himself stood by the foot of the grand staircase, his face the only one exposed. He wore an expression of easy urbanity above his close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. His lean face was ageless, not seeming to have changed in the ten years since she had last visited Castiglio with her father. She paused before him and dipped a knee, and he smiled.
"Welcome," he said in his rich baritone. "This house is your own."
"Your kindness is beyond repayment," she murmured.
When they had happened to visit Castiglio to trade during this season, she had known he would invite her; Castiglian etiquette was clear on the hospitality owed to the unmarried daughter of a deceased friend. She had intended to decline, but Sheppard had surprised her by accepting before she could speak—one of those strangely contrary impulses that ran restless through him at times and which she still did not fully understand. Now, she was glad of his recklessness. She pressed Kenil's hand and turned to the staircase.
Above, the crowd moved in slow currents over the patterned marble floors of the grand reception hall. Beyond, she could glimpse dancing. It was warm, and the air was full of music and scent and the lilt of voices. Heaps of rare fruits and sorbets glowed on the tables, surrounding baroque structures of ice which arced halfway to the ceiling. It was rare to find the Castiglians so bright and festive. The code of conduct that governed their aristocrats was exquisitely complex, but that was precisely why the masquerade had evolved: to allow them to revel without consequence. She moved through the throng, smiling at those she passed. Many of the men's eyes lingered on her, and she studied their faces and their manners of carrying themselves, trying to find her first partner.
The look of awe that lit up a young man's face—the very young man's face, it might have been his first ball—when he saw her decided her. It was almost enough to make her blush, to be looked at in such a way. He was handsome, with the innocent glow of one who had never yet had his heart broken. Like Aiden Ford.
Kenil had said when inviting her, "We do not know whether there are many revels left in our future."
She put out her hand, and the young man took it with an air of disbelief.
Teyla had five partners before the chimes rang out for midnight, and she enjoyed each of them. In fact, it surprised her how much she luxuriated in their touch. She sparred or trained regularly with a dozen people on Atlantis, and she was not shy with the Athosians when she visited the mainland, but the press of her partners' circling arms made her aware of an ache for contact through her whole body. When the musical clock sounded and her last partner, a woman in midnight blue with long golden hair, kissed her cheek, she closed her eyes and stood very still, overcome by a pulse of weakness. When she opened her eyes again, the floor was emptying as the crowd went for refreshments. She moved to one of the high arched windows and let the breeze play in her hair.
"I have been trying to decide if you are one of our roving midnight-spirits," a man said behind her. "They say they come to our dances, when the hour is right."
"Be careful," she warned him, remembering the Castiglian tales of the fairy-courts and their beautiful and terrible inhabitants. "Does it not risk enchantment even to speak to one?"
"It does," he said. "I no longer care."
She liked his dreamy, self-deprecating smile. "Then you must find out for yourself."
From the faint calluses on his fingers, rare among the Castiglian aristocrats, and the extreme precision of his steps in the dance, she guessed him to be a musician-scholar. Indeed, his movements were almost too precise; he seemed to be listening always for perfection rather than surrendering himself to the rhythm. But there was still a passion in him that held her close. Little of the cultures of Pegasus had permeated the atmosphere of Atlantis, and so the air there was always a little dry for her, unless she sweetened it by singing to herself, when she was alone. Watching him close his eyes with pleasure as the strings glided through a particularly lovely passage sent a thrill through her, and she leaned her head against his chest. There was a true rhythm there, the quickening beat of his heart as his hands slid over her waist.
He spoke to her softly then, tales of the history of their city by the sea, its slow rise to greatness, its bitter warfare with the other city-states, the rare depredations by the Wraith that stole only the fairest youths and maidens. The music to which they danced, in fact, was a lament for one so lost.
"And yet it is beautiful enough," she said.
"We have learned to love our losses as well," he said. "We must. The hour is surely drawing near when the Wraith will strike us down in envy of our magnificence."
Teyla shivered a little. She knew this way of thinking, but it no longer seemed as wise to her as it once had.
"Are you cold?" he asked her, lifting her chin with his fingertips.
She shook her head, unable to explain, but the genuine concern in his eyes warmed her. Just as she was about to speak again, the music ended, leaving them gazing at each other.
"The hour has struck," he said. "Will you come away with me?"
She stood suspended, breathless. He was handsome and charming, and familiar in ways that called her back to the days before she had come to Atlantis. Before her father had died. In just a few moments, he had made her feel the princess that the Earthers sometimes called her by mistake. But still she stood thinking, and that meant that he was not the right one. She had to be charmed, enchanted; one could not make these decisions with logic.
He saw it in her eyes and colored faintly. "I am sorry. I hope I have not offended."
"There can be no offense to ask it here," she said. "Perhaps some other season..."
"If there is another," he said, and kissed her hand, and withdrew.
On her return to the reception hall, she found that the crowds had grown less. Some of the older guests had no doubt departed, while others had distributed themselves through the two flanking rooms for dinner, and still others had heeded the call of the hour as she had not and retired further back in the enfilade of rooms. She hesitated; she was not yet hungry, supported by the music and the excitement of the dance.
"Can I get you a drink?" a voice asked her.
She turned her head. The man stood a few feet away, studying her. His suit was exceptionally fine, as if he were one of Kenil's few true peers, but he wore it with a careless air, as if he thought it unworthy to give too much thought to clothing. He was long and lean and handsome, and she had no need to inquire further that night. The rooms were warm enough, and dancing thirsty work. "Yes, you may."
She gently shook off another two suitors before he returned with two goblets. "I wasn't sure what you liked, so I got the marmoz and the tillia."
Spiced wine and bubbly. "The tillia, please." It was light and refreshing, like swallowing laughter. He moved to drink the marmoz, but instead stood contemplating her over the rim of the cup. When she finished, she arched a brow at him. "Yes?"
"You were with—another man, earlier," he said. "It looked—I don't want to interrupt."
She tilted her head and made a small gesture. "I am with him no longer."
"Okay, then," he said, but he still looked uncertain. He spoke more casually than was usual for Castiglians, even on nights such as this, and yet he did not seem comfortable with—She put out her hand to him to dispel all such troublesome thoughts. "Let us dance."
In contrast to her previous partner, this man was clearly not well-versed in the intricacies of Castiglian dance. He was quick to improvise, though, never stepping on her foot or colliding them into another couple, managing to make their errors seem almost graceful, laughing disarmingly. He was more firmly muscled than any of her other partners, quiet danger lurking beneath the meltingly smooth fabric, and yet he seemed more reluctant to hold her as closely as the dance often called for.
"Do you belong to the city?" he asked her as they moved.
"No, I am from a foreign land, invited by the grace of Kenil."
He nodded. "I'm a stranger here myself."
"Kenil's hospitality is renowned. Have you danced well this evening?"
"There are a lot of pretty girls here," he said, "but not til now."
"Ah," she said, oddly pleased by a compliment far less finely-wrought than any other she had received that evening.
"What about you?" he said after a slight hesitation.
"I do not often have the opportunity to taste such pleasures."
"And have you been?" he asked. "Tasting...pleasures?"
She raised her eyebrow again, and he fell back a little, abashed. "This palace is splendid. It is a privilege simply to be here."
"I'm not really much of one for palaces," he said, eyes intent on her face, "but yeah."
By the end of their third dance, they had drifted to the edge of the ballroom. There, they could be concerned less with maintaining their place in the pattern of the dance and more with their slow, tantalizing sway together. Each change in the tune became simply an excuse to shift their pressure together, taste some new friction. Teyla could feel the man's growing excitement, and she herself was quickening with longing, as though the tillia were bubbling through her veins, but she could let herself savor the delay when she was confident of the ending.
When the music ended, she rose on her tiptoes to murmur in his ear, "Come away with me?"
He swallowed. "Are you sure?"
She put her hand to his cheek to turn his face to her and kissed him, a kiss that began steady and reassuring and ended with her teeth grazing his lip. His breath caught in his throat, and his own hand on her shoulder trembled. They turned and left the floor without another word.
Going into the further rooms was like sinking into a pleasurable dream. They were dimly lit and richly, comfortably appointed with couches and rugs and low chairs. They passed many couples, and more than couples, entwined together in intimacy. Their soft gasps and sighs, the occasional glimpse of bared flesh, only stirred Teyla's hunger more, and from her partner's hastening pace, she knew the same was true for him. Still, they did not pause until they reached the furthest room, which two women were passing out of, glowing and disheveled. One of them laughed and grazed Teyla's hair with her fingers as she passed, and her partner breathed in sharply again. He sat on the deep couch and moved to draw her down next to him, but instead she settled directly into his lap, her legs crossing his, her train spreading out softly around her.
He didn't hesitate, but immediately caught her shoulders and covered her jaw and throat with kisses. "God, you're so beautiful," he whispered into her. "You could've had any of them tonight. Why am I the lucky one?"
She'd felt in him the capacity for this the minute she'd seen him, a strange stubborn energy awkwardly restrained. "The women here have much to envy me for," she said, sliding her hand against the back of his neck to urge him on. She wanted him to paint every inch of her skin with his kisses.
He paused, nuzzling at the hollow of her throat, then looked up at her. "Really?"
She pressed her fingers lightly to the high cheekbones just below the domino. "Really."
Impulsively, he caught the jeweled pins from her hair. Her breath hitched as it tumbled down over her shoulders, tickling at her. He flung the pins away, and the extravagant gesture made her throat grow tight and warm with desire.
Now he kissed lower, tracing the slope of her breasts with devoted attention. His hand brushed lightly over the sensitive skin on the inside of her thigh, just below the edge of the dress, already dizzyingly high. She started, then stilled herself, letting her legs drift further apart. The skirt's daring cut now seemed positively shameless to her, exposing so much skin that cried out to be caressed. His fingers returned to satisfy that longing, moving in slow, overlapping strokes up her thigh. It was not long before his hand was entirely hidden beneath the cloth. The slight roughness of his fingertips caught at her here and there, giving surprising little contrasts of sensation that made her throat bubble with giddy laughter. He murmured something low and hot against her skin as he found the scrap of undergarment she was wearing and twitched it away easily.
His fingers traced the outline of her lower lips, then dipped to find her wetness. She had to resist the urge to thrust herself against his hand. She gasped as he circled around her clitoris and kicked out so that one of her shoes flew free. As he continued to stroke her, she curled her toes against the unyielding marble beneath. She would have fallen back, but his arm held her secure. It came to her that, seen from the doorway, they might even be taken to be doing something less intimate, and the thought made her smile breathlessly. Far in the distance, she could hear the formal cadences of the music, almost lost beneath the pounding of her heart and his whispers urging her to c'mon, let go, let him...
Her world contracted around the flare of pleasure through her; she writhed against him, drawing it out for as long as she could. He marked her pulses as well as she did, and slowly withdrew his hand when she was finished. "Thank you," she murmured.
"Thank you," he answered. As he leaned back further in the deep couch and tasted his fingers, eyes half-closed, she realized that she was still eager, still hungry. She shifted herself, enjoying the feel of the soft fabric of his trousers against her bare skin below, until she was kneeling facing him.
"Are you ready?"
He laughed an incredulous little laugh at that and lifted his other hand to cup her cheek. "I've been ready since the first moment I saw you."
He kept her eyes as she undid the complicated fastenings of the trousers and worked him free from his own undergarments, though he grew flushed, his breathing even more heavy. She fondled him deliberately, relishing his weight and hardness in her palm. Nothing remained of his slight, enigmatic reserve of earlier—she could read the hunger in his face as plainly as if he were unmasked. He wanted her, he would do anything for her, and that awareness was almost enough to dissolve her rational mind away.
When she guided him inside her, he groaned and seized her waist. Savoring the feeling of fullness, she ground down against him as he thrust up. It should have been awkward, but it was only fierce rocking pleasure; they were able to read and anticipate each other just enough. Her breasts shook free of the perilously low bodice. They ached with fullness, and he bent forward to mouth each in turn, letting his teeth drag just a little over the nipples.
She heard low voices a little distance away, and the sense of how they must look now flooded over her. She was sitting astride a man, hair flying wild, her skirt ridden up to expose her completely, her breasts hanging free. They had to appear completely abandoned, but the thought only goaded her on. Even before she had come to Atlantis, she had always had to be so careful, never seeming to want more than was wise, or safe. Amongst the strangers, it had been even more difficult, so that she sometimes felt that she spent most of her time buried alive several inches below her own surface. In this moment, given over to utter sensuality, she inhabited every glowing inch of her bared skin.
She pushed him to go harder, more roughly, and he answered enthusiastically, gripping her tightly. She caught words now, from strangers in the doorway: low musical Castiglian voices, warm with appreciation. "Ah, so beautiful."
"And so passionate. We're lucky."
She closed her eyes, welcoming the deeper flush that covered her. Her partner hesitated for a moment, but when she continued to move, he quickly caught back up into her rhythm. Indeed, after a minute, the thought of being watched seemed to spur him on, his thrusts growing even more frenetic. He, too, must have reveled in the purity of this sex without responsibility, without caution, without denial. "Yes," she found herself murmuring, "yes, more, always," heedless of who might hear and how they might answer, and he drove up into her one final time, clutching her hard. Her own answering orgasm overtook her as if it were utterly natural, and they fell together back against the couch.
As they separated, her partner wrapped his arms about her more gently and loosely, then tucked her head beneath his chin. That simple gesture was strangely moving, and she realized this was the first time anyone had held her like this in more than two years. She kept her eyes closed, letting the solid presence of his chest, the reassuring tug of his fingers combing through her hair, ease away the ache of that knowledge. Every little while, he turned his head to brush a soft thoughtful kiss against her forehead, letting out a murmur of gratitude and pleasure. The last time she had been kissed with such intensity, it had meant nothing but violence and shame; to be held as though her partner treasured her presence mingled comfort and melancholy.
But they had already remained together longer than was customary among the Castiglians, and another clock was striking. Teyla sat up, pushing her hair back out of her face. Her partner opened his own eyes reluctantly.
The corner of his mouth twitched. "So these things aren't quite anything goes, then."
She tried to smile herself. "All revels must end."
She began to get up, but he stayed her. "At least tell me you don't want to go."
"This is not my world," she said softly. "There are many reasons why I would not stay if I could. But...my life will be sweeter for having stepped away from it for this night. Thank you."
She kissed him again, slowly. When she pulled away, he reached for her face, and she tensed, suddenly afraid that he would unmask her. But his fingers went higher. He pulled a single bright feather from her domino and held it up, looking the question. She nodded, with a real smile, rose, and left him.
Back in the reception hall, servants had opened every window to let in the colder night air. Only a few guests remained, probably those staying at the house, talking quietly in the corners with their masks abandoned. The ice sculptures had all melted and fallen. Teyla took her cloak from a guardsman and wrapped it tightly around her. She stood on the steps of the palace in the moonlight waiting for her boatman to come to her. She felt as if she had just emerged from a dream. Even if she turned back to the palace, it would no longer be lit for her. He would not be there.
The next day, she met Sheppard at lunch in their hotel to discuss the final matters they had to negotiate before leaving. He showed distinct signs of a hangover—he was probably not aware of the grim reputation that even a fine marmoz had for spoiling the day after a party—but he struggled gamely through the arcaner points of their offer.
"Did you have a pleasant time last evening?" she asked when they had concluded their business.
He nodded, then winced. "Sure. You'd never think people as stiff as the Castiglians could party quite so hard."
"The more severe the rules, the greater the liberty that must be allowed on occasion."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Apparently."
"Your people do not seem to make such allowances."
"Well, under our circumstances, it's hard to find a lot of excuses to party."
She hesitated. "But you do not regret going last night?"
He contemplated his glass of water. "Not for a second," he said softly. Then he glanced up, his expression broadening into a smile. "Next time, we have to drag Ronon and Rodney along."
"I can think of several festivals they might enjoy," she said, matching his smile. "There is the great Celebration of Sheep on M3X-2841, and the Smoked Herring Games of M8X-7491, to begin with..."
He made a face and got up. "And on that note, I think I'll head back to my room and get started on that list for Elizabeth."
"Of course. I will see you after tea." She glanced around for the waiter. Perhaps she had caught a flash of orange deep in one of the pockets of Sheppard's tac vest, high on the left side of his chest, as he had risen. She would not look again to see what it was. There were many things of orange on this world, and many men who could dance well.