Hyde Park, at seven o'clock on a cold March morning, was not where Arthur would have preferred to see the sun rise. He would, in fact, have preferred not to see dawn at all, but rather sleep the morning away and break his fast at noon. But this was an affair of honour, and could not be postponed.
Dominic Cobb, his friend and mentor, was still trying to persuade him to call off the duel. The other man's second, a dark-skinned fellow named Yusuf whom Arthur had encountered last month at the Royal Society, seemed to be attempting the same tactic. Arthur, stripping off his coat with Cobb's help, decided that it would probably be quicker to conclude the matter in the traditional fashion than to quibble about details.
"Mr Eames," said Cobb, stepping into the space between Arthur and Eames, "will you apologise for the insult you have given?"
"Hmm?" said Eames airily, lifting his rapier and sighting along the blade. Arthur had never met his opponent before this morning: Mr Eames' particular brand of insult had been delivered via the medium of the written word. He assessed Eames in a series of flickering glances. Military bearing, which matched with what Arthur had discovered of Eames' history; broad shoulders and muscular arms; his shirt of fine quality, though not new; his eyes (a striking blue-grey colour) keen and clear. "Apologise?" said Eames. "No, I don't think I shall."
Cobb scowled, and sighed. "Arthur," he said, "will you forgive the insult against you?"
"Absolutely not," said Arthur coldly. "Mr Eames has called me a liar, and made insinuations about my private affairs which are both inaccurate and damaging. I--"
"I'm glad to hear they were damaging, Arthur," interrupted Eames, sauntering towards the scuffed turf that marked his place. "But I confess bewilderment concerning your use of the word 'inaccurate'. I assure you that my insinuations, as you persist in terming them, were founded on the most thorough investigations."
Arthur's mouth set, hard and straight. "'Inaccurate' seems the most appropriate word," he drawled, "for the cowardly intimation -- you haven't the courage to state it directly -- that I engaged in illicit acts in the company of a foreign national."
"Of course you'd deny it," said Eames warmly. "But I do have evidence, and I've made certain to document it in case of an ... adverse outcome to our meeting this morning."
Arthur let his lip curl. "Blackmail, Mr Eames? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised."
Eames beamed at him. "Merely a precaution. I'd hate the knowledge to go with me to my grave."
"About that," said Arthur. "Cobb, I'm ready: and my breakfast will be waiting for me, so I'd be grateful if we could hurry things along."
"Very well," said Cobb soberly. He turned to Yusuf and they spoke together in low voices: then Cobb was raising his hand, and bringing it down sharply, and the duel was on.
As the injured party, the choice of weapons had been Arthur's; he had preferred blades over pistols for a number of reasons, amongst them discretion (the sound of a pistol-shot was as good as a signed advertisement of an illegal duel) and the desire to avoid serious injury to either party. The rapier favoured speed over strength, and Arthur was aware of his own limitations in the latter. He'd hoped, too, that Eames' experiences in the Peninsular Campaign had coarsened his style, made him prefer a cavalry sword or a flintlock pistol over the light swift elegance of bare steel.
But Eames was all cool competence. His changeable eyes were flat and metallic: he parried Arthur's blade with a casual grace that made Arthur's blood rush more quickly through his veins.
"First blood!" cried Cobb and Yusuf almost simultaneously, and Arthur opened his mouth to correct them -- he hadn't felt a thing -- before he noticed the red bloom on Eames' linen shirt-sleeve. But Eames was the better swordsman, and he'd had more than enough time to parry Arthur's last attack. And now he was looking at Arthur with ... with something very like amusement.
"Are you satisfied?" said Cobb, stepping between the two men and turning to Arthur.
Arthur did not reply at once. He stared at Eames, hoping for some sign of what his opponent was thinking: but apart from that small, smug smile at the corner of Eames' mouth, and perhaps a ghost of warmth in Eames' gaze, there was nothing.
"I am," said Arthur, grudgingly, at last. "Mr Eames?"
"Thank you," said Eames. He handed his rapier to Yusuf, and shook Arthur's outstretched hand. His palm was warm and broad, slightly sweaty from the exertion of the fight, and he held Arthur's hand for a long moment before releasing it.
"Mr Eames," said Arthur, "I would be honoured if you would join me for breakfast."
Eames' eyebrows went up, and Arthur experienced a quick petty thrill at having surprised him. "The honour would be all mine."
"And perhaps, over coffee, we might discuss this ... documentary evidence that you claim to hold," Arthur went on smoothly. "I would be most interested to learn of your sources, for they are certainly misinformed."
"Arthur," began Cobb, "are you sure --"
"Quite sure, thank you," said Arthur tightly. True, he had other reasons for wanting the two of them, Eames and himself, to speak alone, but he did not intend to share those reasons with Dominic Cobb. Not until he was sure of Eames. "Shall we proceed, Mr Eames? My carriage is waiting. Cobb, I'll call on you this evening."
Arthur waited as Yusuf bound the wound -- barely a scratch, though it had ruined Eames' shirt -- and administered a medicinal draught of spirits. Despite the gusting drizzle, Arthur did not don his coat but merely folded it over his arm. His skin was still flushed with exertion, and with Eames' proximity.
"I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance at last, Arthur," said Eames amiably as he walked with Arthur to where the carriage waited. "I had hoped to meet you in a more civilised setting; but I have heard a great deal about you --"
"Hence this duel" said Arthur, with a half-smile. "And perhaps even your initial insult, eh?"
Eames said nothing, at least not in words. His smirk spoke volumes.
"And do you find your hopes satisfied, Mr Eames?"
"Oh, Arthur," said Eames, with a smile full of teeth and heat, "not quite yet."