They were, all of them, gathered in the private rooms at Quex’s and there was a distinct air of celebration about the place. It was Friday and this week had been the first in nearly a year and a half that all of them had gathered together regularly, unhindered by dramatics. After Richard and David had returned from their long stint abroad, Julius, Harry, Francis and Ash had all disappeared only days later to the Far East on a several months’ tour of various textile producing regions and peoples. It had been Julius and Francis’s scheme, for it was in their genuine realm of interest and all who knew them would think nothing of Harry and Ash accompanying them to keep them from murdering each other along the way.
Privately, Richard had been quite concerned that Harry and Ash’s diligent interventions wouldn’t be enough, but even more horrifyingly, they had all four returned thick as thieves, each of them now wearing an earring, a little set within a set. Richard had had no choice but to strike ‘lengthy row between Julius and Francis’ from the list of things he feared most in this world, right after drawing down the wrath of David and drawing down the wrath of the Cirencesters. Now in its place was ‘Julius or Francis viciously defending each other to an unsuspecting third party in polite society’.
Overlapping with that trip, Absalom Lockwood had taken his young Oxley, who was now acting as his secretary, up to Scotland to see to some very small and obscure piece of land that his distant relatives were having legal trouble over. They’d gone touring around the Cairngorms for a long and spirited holiday - Absalom had come back looking like he’d lost a good deal of extraneous weight and gained several years of life back. Richard had never seen him so bright-eyed. He now went around waxing lyrical to anyone who would listen about the wonders of whisky, mountain air and snowshoeing.
It had not been a coincidence, their set’s long and circuitous collective absence from London, but rather the the deliberate ploy of one David Cyprian to lie low and give them all a chance to recover from the faint air of scandal that had rolled over them. It was simply not how the Ricardians conducted themselves. Their safety lay chiefly in the impossibility of reproach. Should they wish to continue operating in peace, they all knew they had a responsibility to each other to uphold a façade of respectability. Not that it even really was a façade, Richard reassured himself. Not that any one of them wasn’t respectable at heart. Indeed, what made them all so good at playing respectable was that they really were, quite. With the... possible exception of Dom’s Mr Mason. But even he was here tonight, with a shaved face and hands stained with ink only from words that he could put his own God-given name to.
Richard was tucked up in a corner with Dom. Though he hadn’t been on a world tour like most of his compatriots, Dom had stuck to his end of the bargain by drowning himself in work and barely surfacing, except for an occasional glass of brandy at Albemarle Street every other week or so. Richard steadfastly refused to feel even the tiniest drop of jealousy that Dom saw Mason a good deal more often, under the guise that Richard often lent out his bookman to his literarily inclined friend. On top of that, Mason seemed nearly as capable at sneaking about as David, despite being a good deal larger and not half as slick. After all, Richard saw David every morning, noon and night and he didn’t like to contemplate taking even a half step back from that, so he really couldn’t begrudge Dom or Mason the time.
Richard had been beginning to wonder, in his secret and anxious innermost heart, why he was even bothering to pay exorbitant fees to Quex’s and keep the private chambers always at the ready. But finally, here and now, he was at peace again with his circle around him, all of them safe and little thought of in society for several months at the very least.
He and Dom were quietly gossiping in the way that they could only gossip to each other - better that no one else know they were capable of such indecorous behaviour. Harry, Julius, Francis and Ash were all crowded into a little group. Harry and Ash animatedly played cards and Francis and Julius, shoulder to shoulder, admired the sight with nearly identical smirks of reserved satisfaction.
Mason, Absalom Lockwood and the young Oxley had all ganged up on poor Peter Arlett on some minor matter of what supposed rights an English citizen was due. It felt quite new to have Mason and Oxley among them, but Lockwood was still in a honeymoon phase with Oxley and had privately begged Richard to allow him entrance to their usual evening gatherings. Richard was apparently going soft - he’d agreed with barely any encouragement needed. The next day, Dom had merely raised one dark eyebrow and Richard had immediately admitted that if he had decided a secretary was to join them, a bookman could too. Mason had appeared only minutes later, as if summoned. Mason had looked about as unsure as Richard had felt, but Dom had gone and sat right at his feet with an expression of total relaxation on his face that Richard hadn’t seen since they’d been boys swimming at Tarlton March in the hottest depths of summer - what could he say to that?
In fact, perhaps spurred on by this development, on one or two occasions in the last few days, David had even come in for no reason other than to lean over the back of Richard’s chair, his mouth close enough to Richard’s skin to raise the hairs on the back of his neck, commenting cuttingly on what the others were wearing and making Richard hide private smiles in his glass.
For all that they had become increasingly careful with the rest of the world, amongst their set the balance had shifted in the opposite direction and every passing day they were less and less careful with each other. There were few true secrets between them now and Richard, who had spent too much time in the last few years chafing at the precariousness of their group, was beginning to see its strengths again. To be known was worth far more than they had yet been asked to pay.
So when, perhaps only forty minutes into their collective evening, David came quickly through the door without knocking and without invitation, none of the Ricardians batted an eyelid at the impropriety.
He came straight across the room, a little more pale than usual, saying “Richard, there is an urgent message for you.”
When Richard replied, “Have it out then, my dear,” only the ever watchful Mason and nosy Julius even glanced in their direction.
“It’s a private message,” David relayed. “It is to be delivered into your hands by the boy who brought it and comes direct from the Marchioness of Cirencester.”
Richard stood quickly, fear taking a tight grip on his shoulders and making him even more upright and rigid than usual. Dom started to stand, saying, “Shall I come...?” and then he saw that David already had his hand in the small of Richard’s back and was leading him, with their bodies close together, towards the door. He sat back down and put his hands on his knees like he didn’t know what he should do with them.
The message, once Richard had divested it of the seal with Will Quex’s letter opener, was as confusing and worrying as Richard possibly could have imagined. The shakiness of Eustacia’s hand was perhaps the most upsetting aspect of all.
There has been a private, family emergency and though I wish I felt that Philip and I could divest ourselves of the issue without even your esteemed outside intervention, matters have evolved and I fear I require your expertise. No one is hurt physically, please don’t fret, but if you are able, attend us at Tarlton March at your absolute earliest convenience. Though I shouldn’t imagine any reason you wouldn’t, please bring your Cyprian.
He handed it off to David to read as soon as he scanned the few scribbled lines. David quickly read through it with his usual efficiency while Richard worked to keep his hands still and the direction of his thoughts rational.
“You know,” David said, his hand still settled firmly on Richard’s waist, “I honestly didn’t realise that she knew anything of my... talents. But I suppose it is always a mistake to underestimate a lady such as the Marchioness of Cirencester.”
“Yes,” Richard said, deeply troubled as he read through the letter for a third, unsatisfying time. “I cannot think of what trouble they could possibly have. Eustacia is not one to inflate matters. Whatever it is must be severe for a letter like this. We’ll have to leave at first light.”
They both went back into the upstairs rooms, Richard’s face still, shadowed and David close behind him. The room turned to them with clear concern the moment the door creaked open - it was obvious that they’d all been discussing Richard’s rather theatrical departure.
“I must go to Tarlton March immediately,” Richard said. “And there is no use in any of you pestering me because I don’t know any of the details myself, it was just a summons.”
“We’ve done nothing wrong?” Ash asked, a little tremulously.
“No, no,” Richard said. “It’s nothing to do with us that I can tell. But she did ask for Cyprian by name.”
This created a little stir of discussion. After all, David was their secret weapon and a secret weapon stopped being a weapon at all once its anonymity waned. “I shouldn’t concern myself too much on that front,” Dom said, comfortingly. “I’d imagine that Eustacia makes it her personal business to know what the Vanes are up to. And after the falling out in White’s last year she could have put two and two together from the copious other tidbits you’ve bestowed upon her. She and Philip know you.”
Richard was inclined to agree and with a quick glance to David for reassurance, he moved swiftly on. “I must know,” he said. “Have any of you heard even the slightest word of gossip about the Cirencesters?”
None had. Richard wasn’t surprised, but rather relieved that Eustacia had not waited too long to involve him. In short order, they had arranged that Harry and Julius would accompany them also, but would stay with David’s mother incognito, in case backup should be needed for any reason. Harry was a Vane, at least, so if Richard insisted they needed some further help, he could use that to appease any fears Eustacia and Philip might have.
Alternatively, if there was a need to stay longer term at Tarlton March, they would ‘arrive’ the next day to make it look to the rest of the world as if there was simply a little country party being arranged. Richard would have to cancel appointments and it was better if there was some kind of reason, even if it was a frivolous one. Dominic promised he would come later in the week once arrangements could be made, if there was any further need of support.
Richard went away from Quex’s that night feeling curiously buoyant.
“I shouldn’t like to be whoever it is that has crossed the the Marquess and Marchioness,” David said in the bedroom as he took off Richard’s coat and began to brush it out while Richard undid his cuffs.
“No, it seems they won’t fare well at all,” Richard agreed and felt his own face curving into a sharp and dangerous little smile, mirroring the familiar expression on David’s face.
That was just it, Richard thought. He had not once felt panicked tonight, at least after he’d read the letter and seen something of what kind of problem the Cirencesters had suffered. He had marched back up to the room with grim determination and had not even thought to demur to his crowd or put them off by saying that nothing was wrong and that it was his own trouble to deal with. And in response, every man there had been ready to drop their own life and follow on where he needed them, like a pack of fiercely trained hunting dogs.
“Well,” David said, reading his mind as usual. “When you have all committed gross acts of perjury and slander on each other’s behalves, it does somewhat set a bond.”
“I feel as though I am an archer, with bow taut and perfectly aimed, hidden in the trees above this unsuspecting party,” Richard said getting into bed, a little amused by his own fancifulness.
“No,” David said, deliberately climbing in from the same side Richard had so that he had to crawl across Richard to get his his part of the bed. He paused after a long moment of squirming around, pretending Richard’s prone body was too difficult to traverse and sat up, straddling Richard’s hips. “I am the archer,” he said, teasingly, leaning in close and taking hold of Richard’s wrists and pushing them firmly against the headboard. “And you are one of the many poisoned arrows in my quiver.”
They came upon Tarlton March that morning as the sun burned the last of the frost from the grass. Harry and Julius had already broken off and headed to the village. David had been certain it would be no trouble to his mother. He’d been up to visit only a week ago and knew they were not likely to be busy.
There was a distinct, crisp autumnal taste in the air, like a very dry white wine. Richard wished they had really come for an impromptu party in the countryside, and that he might go out riding with Julius and Harry until they had all thoroughly exhausted themselves and then eat too much at dinner. He wished to take David for a long walk in the early morning when there was sometimes a millimetre thin film of ice on the surface of the far ponds and you could sit for an hour in the perfect stillness, surrounded by red and gold leaves watching little silver darting fish kiss the underside of the ice like enchanted creatures on the other side of a magic mirror.
Eustacia was pale and underslept when she greeted them, while Philip was nowhere to be seen. She insisted Richard have a chance to refresh himself from the travel and then that he take a restful cup of tea. Richard saw that she was ready to go on like that indefinitely if no one intervened, so said finally, “Out with it, my dear. I did not rise at the break of day and rush to your side so that I could eat fairy cakes and read by the window for a spell.”
Eustacia looked dismayed and Richard feared that he had been too harsh, but then the steel in her backbone forced her upright. With a drawn face, she said, “I merely have no sense of where to begin.”
“At the beginning of last year I employed a new tutor-” She paused and sucked in a breath. “No, I must go back earlier than that.”
“May I ask in my valet?” Richard said.
Eustacia put her face in her hands for a short moment and took a steadying breath. “Yes,” she said without looking at him. “You had better.”
Richard went to the door. David was standing just outside, as still and cool as one of the garden statues. Nevertheless, Richard could see in the amber glint of his eyes that the crack in the door had not escaped his notice and he had been listening.
“Cyprian,” he said. Such a short time ago, he would have given David at least a cursory look of disapproval for that, and yet now he only touched David on the elbow and invited him right into the room, his co-conspirator.
Richard sat back down on the velvet upholstered chair he had been occupying and David took up his position just to the side and behind him. Eustacia’s hands were now folded calmly in her lap. Her eyes were firmly fixed on the floor.
“I have thought very hard about whether it would be right for me to voice what I am about to say,” she said. “Please, I beg of you, I know I may be wrong, I may be somehow misled. You must not take offence at what I am about to say, but I feel that it is quite relevant to the situation Philip and I find ourselves in, so I must--”
Silence fell. Richard and David both waited with perfect patience, not making a single sound. After a moment Eustacia squared herself and looked up, meeting Richard’s gaze as directly as she ever had. There was a good deal of grey in her hair now and since Eustacia had never been a delicate flower, she could not wilt - it looked very well on her.
Richard thought of the visit they had had several months ago, right after Richard and David had returned from the continent. Richard had been too long out of London and all of the formality had temporarily been washed right out of him. They’d sat in the garden for hour upon hour, laughing together and watching the children try to catch butterflies. Richard had never in his life been truly close to a woman before her. Here and now, he felt her eyes on him, a weighted winter duvet, going right through him, finding a way into his head. Like David did, but not the same, taking up a brief residence in his point of view. It was a moment of profound empathy, and Richard knew that Eustacia was feeling as he felt, thinking as he thought, knowing what he knew.
“The portrait, Richard,” she said. Her eyes flicked to David, to his hair. David let out a tiny sound of surprise. Richard tried to catch David’s gaze, uncertain. What did David understand now that he had not?
“Are you... and your Cyprian... When we spoke about matters both honest and private--”
“Oh!” Richard said. It all fell into place like tumblers in a lock. His hand flew involuntarily to his mouth. He could not help himself, he looked to David in desperation, but David looked just as shocked. “Eustacia--” he said, helplessly.
“My dear,” she said. “Do not look so terrified. It is an expression I have never before seen on your face and I find it very unsettling, especially with my nerves at the moment. I have thought a long time about whether I should say anything to you, for fear of being wrong, for fear of shaming you in any way. I had decided I would leave matters be until recent events...”
“Does Philip know?” Richard asked. His conspicuous absence suddenly felt like an awful slap in the face.
“It was he who first--”
“Oh God!” Richard said. He was ashamed at the outburst, but what else was there to say? His heart was racing - he could feel the threat of everything he’d ever loved coming down around his ears.
“Please, my lady,” David said, quietly but firmly. He put his hand on Richard’s shoulder and anticipated his flinch, clenching his hand and pushing down forcefully as though Richard was about to float away and David was securing him back to the Earth. “What does this have to do with the new tutor?”
Richard had entirely forgotten about that part.
“Yes,” Eustacia said, nodding sharply at him. “That is the real matter at hand, here. It will become clear why your relationship is relevant.” She did not stutter or hesitate even a fraction, and Richard let David’s steadying hand act as it was intended. He sat up straighter in his chair.
“Philip is not angry with you, Richard. You are a grown man who knows his own mind. He is angry about the real problem at hand here and has taken himself off until he is ready to converse civilly.”
Suddenly, the door to the sitting room flew open and Eustace, the second Cirencester son, who had turned sixteen a few months ago while Richard had been visiting, burst into the room barefoot and in his shirtsleeves.
“Don’t tell him, mother!” he said, panting with exertion. “You can’t! It’s not fair! Everyone will think so ill of me--”
Richard stood up with alarm. “Eustace! Is that how you speak to your mother?”
Eustace saw Richard’s towering form drawn to its full height, still a little too pale from the news he’d received moments ago and with a spot of colour that might easily be mistaken for fury in each of his cheeks and collapsed in on himself, his eyes glazing over with unshed tears and his bottom lip quivering.
“Aha,” David said.
“Will someone please finally enlighten me as to what the actual emergency is?” Richard asked forcefully.
“Eustace has--” Eustacia began, half out of her chair. She hovered uncomfortably, looking like she wanted to go to her son but could not.
“Please, mama.” Eustace said. As with other namesakes in their family, Eustacia had a particularly close relationship with her second eldest child. Richard could see in Eustacia this made whatever trial they were suffering a good deal worse. “If it must be said out to Uncle Richard, then please let me speak for myself, at least.”
“Perhaps if you all sat,” David suggested lightly.
“Yes,” Eustacia said, and smiled warily at David like she had not quite known what to expect of him and was finding him an immense relief. “You must sit too, Cyprian.”
Richard, David and Eustace raised their eyebrows in surprise, but David faltered for only a mere second before he took the chair beside Richard. As he did so, he poured a cup of tea for Eustace and put it in front of the sofa.
Poor Eustace sat down in the indicated spot, shaking a little with emotion. The seat put him lower than the three adults and Richard privately thought that this had been David’s intention, to remind the boy who was in charge, which might serve as both a reprimand and a comfort.
“Tell us what has happened, then,” Richard said, making his voice contain a patience he didn’t feel.
“So last year, Henry came to work for us--”
“Mr Ringford,” Eustacia said, tightly.
Eustace rolled his eyes and Eustacia erupted in response.
“He is blackmailing you!” Her voice was ice. “How can you speak of him with any affection? He is blackmailing you and your whole family!”
“Fine!” Eustace said. “Mr Ringford became my tutor last year. I thought he was fantastic. He’s so very clever, funny. He makes jokes all the time, even while we’re doing our lessons. I was learning loads from him. I paid attention better than I ever have before. Especially at awful old Harrow.”
“You know we took him out of Harrow last year after there was some unpleasantness with a few of the other boys,” Eustacia added.
“They tried to drown me,” Eustace said, severely. “It wasn’t unpleasantness. They tried to drown me because they caught Roper and I--” He froze.
Richard understood, finally, but he made himself hold his tongue. It was right, he saw now, to let Eustace say this out for himself, as far as he could. This was a gift that he could give that he’d never had at that age, except in a roundabout way with Dominic. It wasn’t the same at all, speaking to a peer in the same position as you and as speaking to your elders and having them... what were Eustacia, Richard and David doing for him? Listening. Without harsh judgement.
“So Henry - Mr Ringford - he’s been my teacher for the past year and I’ve never in my life had a more wonderful time and I wrote him...” His voice faded, quieter and quieter. “I wrote him a letter. Telling him so. And he didn’t tell me off for it, so I wrote him another one and another one. And he didn’t say anything and I asked him about them and he said ‘Well, it’s very prettily done, but I think we’ve still some work to do on the grammar’ and he didn’t tell me off but he didn’t say anything more than that either! I was getting quite frustrated, so I did one more, but Lillian found it and gave it to her maid and her maid made her give it to father...” He was crying a little again, silently, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“What did the letter say?” David pressed, as kindly as he could.
“It said that I was in love with him,” Eustace said, a little defiantly, voice stronger than it had been. “And that I thought we should run away together.”
“Father came to confront me about it and I sort of let slip that there was a whole stack of them. He went off and dragged Henry out of the library and told him that because he hadn’t let on about any of it back at the beginning, he couldn’t be trusted and Father said he was dismissed on the spot with no reference and Henry -- oh God -- he said awful things.” His voice wavered.
“He said he had all the letters locked up and that they were significantly detailed enough to put me to trial, and after what happened at Harrow, I bet I could be. He said if that wasn’t enough, he knew that Father couldn’t read and he’d do his best to ruin Father’s business reputation and he said that... he said more besides. That I’m ‘just a foolish boy’.” It was clear that the last had cut the deepest.
Eustacia leaned forward. “We hired him on as a favour to his family, you see. He’s an eighth son, if you can believe it, supposedly a natural born son, so with no inheritance to speak of. He never finished his own schooling despite being quite well learned from travel, so he’d have to get another tutor position on reputation alone if we dismissed him in the manner we threatened, and yet what other choice do we have?”
“More reasons for blackmail than some out there need,” David said.
“So,” Eustace said, quivering. “What do you have to say to me then? That I’m disgusting for falling in love with a man? That you can’t stand the sight of me anymore and if it weren’t for the family, I’d get what was coming to me?”
“I think that would be a bit hypocritical,” Richard said. Eustace’s head snapped up, wide-eyed.
“All three of us, sitting here, have fallen in love with men,” Eustacia said. “That is not the wrong that has been done, my dearest.”
Richard glanced up at her out of the corner of his eye, almost as surprised as her son. There was too much else to think of now, but he couldn’t doubt that his whole world was shifting beneath his own feet.
“And where is Mr Henry Ringford now?” Richard asked.
“He’s gone down into the village.” Eustacia answered. “He told Philip that he’d give us a week to make up our minds. That we could keep him on, or we could pay him off in an exorbitant yearly sum, but those were our only two options. It’s not even the money but the principle of the thing! To live forever with a dark cloud...”
“Hmm...” Richard said. “David, will you send--”
“A note down to Henry and Julius, to keep an eye on Mr Ringford and find out what they can? Certainly, my Lord.”
“Richard,” Eustacia said, with alarm. “You needn’t involve anyone else-”
“Eustacia, Harry is a Vane and he will act accordingly,” he said, calmly. “You were right to call me. To call David. But now you must let David go to work. I have learned from long years of experience that it is better, at this point, to merely stay out of the way and not think too much on it.”
Eustace let out a little cry. “What will you do to him? He hasn’t really done anything so bad!” he begged.
“I think what I have heard is enough,” Richard said. “But I am not in the habit of ruining people lightly. We will consider our actions with care. I only stoop to murder in true desperation.”
Eustace gasped and his mother glared at Richard. Richard could not help but let slip a little grin. “Perhaps it wasn’t the moment to jest.” To Eustacia, he said. “I know it seems a very lot. But we have dealt with worse. Now, I think I must speak with my brother.”
He stood up an authoritative finality and made for the door, David following him a tight pace behind. David’s movements were exactly as precise and neat as they had been when he’d entered. There was something reassuring about it. He saw that Eustacia felt it to, even as she went over to the sofa, sat down next to her son and let him put his face in her lap and cry.
The hall was blessedly silent and empty as they went out into it. “I do mean to go and speak with Phillip right away,” Richard said, exhaustedly. “But might we go up to my rooms for five minutes to think, first.”
“For once in my life, I might need five minutes to think, myself,” David said. “I had better go and send that letter down to Harry and Julius though. The sooner we have eyes on this Mr Ringford, the better.”
Richard conceded the point and took himself upstairs alone. He lay on the bed sideways and closed his eyes for a minute, trying to think of nothing but his breathing and failing desperately. After a few minutes the door opened on nearly silent hinges and David came in, crossing the rug on soundless feet so Richard startled when he felt the bed depress under another body’s weight next to him.
“Are you alright, my love?” Richard asked.
“I think that’s what I’m meant to be asking you,” David replied.
“I know, of course, but it does feel better to turn these things outwards,” Richard said.
“I’m fine. I suppose a little bit shaken. I’m rarely surprised by a piece of information. I’m afraid I should tell you I did know why your nephew was taken out of Harrow last year, but I didn’t think much would come of it, at least for a good few years since they so quickly pulled him out and put him into private tuition.”
“Well, we were on holiday,” Richard agreed. “I suppose you worried I might feel I had to rush home.”
“I’ve heard how boys schools can be. I honestly thought nothing might come of it.”
“I’m not berating you in the slightest, my dear,” Richard said, sighing. “I know that if you let every little thing that crossed your desk flow through to mine, I’d never have time for another thought to myself again for as long as I lived.”
“Well,” David said, preening a little.
David went up on one elbow and turned to Richard so they could look at each other. Richard reached up to brush his thumb over David’s mouth. “What can be done, my silvertongue? How can we dispose of Mr Ringford?”
David eyes were the exact colour of the local ale they served at the pub down in Cirencester village and as they caught the light from the window, Richard felt that he could almost see the ticking of David’s thoughts behind them, like the ineffable movements of an enormous golden clock. “It will be tricky,” David admitted. “We are still too vulnerable to have a visible hand in this, as the subject matter is perilously similar to both the fall out with Maltravers and - though I realize it is a lesser matter - the even more recent situation with Lockwood and Oxley. It would be better if we could arrange things all from a distance, somehow. I have had a few preliminary ideas already though.”
“Of course you have,” Richard said, running his hand through David’s hair.
They lay still, against each other with Richard moving his hand in soothing circles and David watching him for several long moments. Finally Richard sat up. “I had better find Philip,” he said, weary.
“Your brother loves you dearly,” David promised him.
“Yes,” Richard said. “That is what makes it so hard.”
Philip was sitting in the grass way out in the garden, with his feet dangling out over the ha-ha. He had a little wooden flute in his hands, one of the younger children’s toys, and almost before Richard could see him, he could hear that every now and then Philip was raising it up, playing a few short bars and then pausing again, considering the tune, before starting afresh. Richard had not even known that Philip knew anything of music and it made him feel uncomfortably like he was walking out to meet a stranger.
Philip set the flute down as Richard approached and climbed to his feet to greet his brother with the same warm handshake and clasped arms that he had since they had first become men.
“May I sit with you?” Richard asked.
“Of course,” Philip said.
They both looked out over the field below. In the far distance, several of the furry, Cirencester cattle were placidly grazing. Richard experimentally kicked one heel at the bare stone wall dug into the ground, and a pleasingly voluminous cloud of red-grey dust rose up, just as it had when they were young boys.
“I can’t think of the last time I came and sat out here,” Philip said.
Richard could think of the last time he’d been out here, alone and thinking. It had been near the end of the decoupling process with Dominic, a very long time ago, now. Leaving aside what Philip might and might not know about Richard, he didn’t think this was exactly the moment to bring any of that up. He waited instead, knowing that Philip would come around eventually to the angle he wanted to begin from.
“So you’ve heard it all out, then?” Philip said, eventually. “From Eustacia?”
“Partly,” Richard agreed. “And partly from Eustace, himself.”
“Well, that shows backbone, I suppose,” Philip said. “I’m going to... I’m going to have to ask a lot of advice from you, to know what to do with him.”
“I think you must parent him with the same love, patience and attention that you have your other children. No more and no less will be asked of you.”
“How can you say that when... Well, look what has just happened.”
“No father has ever had to wonder desperately what to do about a problematic encounter with a tutor on behalf of his daughter? No father has ever had to worry of the reputation of his children, regardless of their sex or who they take an interest in?”
Philip sighed. “Yes, of course--” He left the sentence hanging in midair, like he knew there was more to it, but not what.
“Eustacia says it was you who... figured it out.”
“I did,” Philip said quietly, staring fixedly at the cattle in the distance. “While I was at your house a month back, perhaps, I went past the library and your Cyprian--” He paused, seeming to realise the double meaning in his phrasing, and then he shook his head, barreling on. “Indeed,” he said, more to himself than to Richard, “Your Cyprian, and that rather roguish bookman you’ve employed were chatting away. A social call. It was quite late, I suppose they’d finished all their other duties.” He paused again, turning this thought over in his head. Richard tried not to wince.
“Anyway,” Philip persisted, “I happened to overhear the book man call Cyprian ‘Foxy’. I laughed privately to myself. Very apt, I thought. I considered it no further until I returned to Tarlton March and I happened to walk down the hall with the portraits and I happened to look at yours and somewhere in my hindbrain, I laughed to myself and said ‘oh, of course, Foxy’. I must have frozen on the spot and looked at the portrait for another thirty minutes in shock. At first, I thought, well, a man may have a servant whom he trusts above all others, is that really so wrong, and then I thought, are you stupid Philip, will you do yourself the disservice of lying to yourself so plainly even in your own mind? Because I knew you must... I knew you must love him. You have been overwhelmingly in better spirits this last year, and well, truly I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t had those few discussions about love that could not be brought out into the light, but we did speak on it and the last puzzle piece fell into place. There you have it.” Philip said.
Even with such a final sounding statement, Richard could feel his brother wasn’t finished. He wasn’t a man of a particularly talkative nature, but he didn’t leave things half-said either.
“For one terrible moment,” Philip said, finally. “I did blame you. I did think of all the trouble we’ve been having over Eustace and I did curse your name, as if somehow it was your fault that Eustace had to be removed from Harrow, that perhaps a strange and unexpected quirk of human emotion might be catching. And then, as is the way with these things, I remembered who you are and I came back to my senses... but you did make me lie for you, didn’t you? With Lord Maltravers. He wasn’t... a lunatic after all, was he?”
Richard clenched his fists in his lap. “I am sorry for that, Philip. I didn’t mean for you to be in White’s that day. It was pure coincidence. And I’m afraid that, in my opinion, just because Maltravers wasn’t necessarily making up the contents of that letter, does not exclude him from lunacy. His own brother, for god’s sake! And he really did strike David full across the face for refusing to inform on me.”
“David--?” Philip said, hesitantly and then answered his own question, the tips of his ears going a little pink at the realisation. “Oh, Cyprian.”
“Yes,” Richard said, a little playfulness in his tone. Against his better judgement, it was possible that he was testing Philip slightly. “I’m afraid when we were on the continent I did pick up the habit of referring to him by his first name. He is managing to dissuade me from it at a pace much slower than his liking.”
“I cannot pretend to fully comprehend this, Richard. But please do not think for even a moment that my understanding of you is a requirement of my devotion to you as my brother. Eustacia tells me than men are hard to love and I ought to respect you all the more for this,” he said, fondly.
Richard laughed. “I do not know that men are any harder to love than women, though I haven’t had the chance to compare. But I fear Vanes are quite difficult to love indeed, and the both of us should feel lucky, if nothing else.”
“Hear, hear,” Philip agreed. “That’s something to drink to. Shall we go in?”
“I suppose we better or they will think we’ve simply run away to become fishermen to get out of trouble.”
“What should I do about Eustace?” Philip asked, as they pulled each other to their feet and set about the lengthy and trying process of dusting off their trousers.
“I think a broken heart is punishment enough,” Richard said. “I will have some words with him after things have calmed down.”
“I’ve half a mind to send him to London with you, Richard. You certainly made good on that Harry lad when old Gideon put him under your wing. Eventually, anyway.”
“Perhaps in a few years,” Richard agreed. “He’s very young still. A child. There is too much trouble he could get into running with my set.”
“Yes, I agree with that, at least. He’s still a child. Are all of your friends--?” He trailed away. There was no hint of judgement in his voice, but he sounded like a man who had looked under his bed and discovered that an entire other world existed down there, where he’d least expected it.
Richard wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Not every single one,” he said. “I should rather think it’s their own private business, Philip.”
“Of course,” Philip said, backing away instantly from the subject. He thought for a moment. It was fascinatingly different watching Philip think than watching David. David was like a still sea where you knew that great beings must be moving beneath the surface because something so mirrored had to have depths. Philip was the opposite. Each of his musings moved ponderously across his face, not giving themselves away, exactly, but certainly showing you proof of his thoughtfulness. “Dominic, though,” Philip said after a moment. “You and he... must have--”
“Yes,” Richard said.
“But not any longer,” Philip confirmed.
“No. It was very difficult for me.”
“I can imagine. I used to be quite jealous of the two of you. I’d never had such a dear friend, until Eustacia, I suppose, and that was different. Well, perhaps it wasn’t very different after all, but at the time I’d thought it was. Yet you’re still close?” he asked. “Even though the separation must have been painful.”
“We didn’t have much choice,” Richard said. “At the time of our parting, Dom was just about the only person in the world who knew me truthfully, and I the same for him. That is not something lightly given up.”
Philip’s face turned grave. “I had not even thought of that - to hide so much of oneself, continually from the world. How can that be borne?”
“Is there another way?” Richard said. “I have not found it. To be true to oneself and to be an honest man. Well, we’ve circled back around to the crux of the matter we discussed more than a year ago. It seems like a lifetime to me. I only do what little I can to be known by those I choose and to make that same opportunity for those I love.”
“I am sorry you didn’t think that I had a place in that circle,” Philip said, quietly.
“You are here now, Philip. I could not be more glad.”
“If anything like that situation with Maltravers comes up again, you must be honest with me about it and I will do whatever I can to help you.”
Richard blinked in surprise. “That’s a lot to offer,” he said.
Philip shook his head. “I have had a long month to think about this matter,” he said. “Even longer if you count all the way back to us removing Eustace from Harrow. I am ashamed to say the fall out from that was mainly that I distanced myself significantly from my beloved second eldest and I think I must do some work now to make up for that. I have studied my bible on the matter. Eustacia and I have discussed it endlessly in nearly every private waking moment. In fact, Eustacia has also read me a few absolutely shocking pamphlets on the subject. I dread to imagine where she sourced them from. I have made up my mind about very little of it, but all I can say is that if a decent man is acting within his principles, he must be allowed to get on with it. What are those principles, you ask? Surely it is not for me to decide! Please, God, let it not be for me to decide! I think at least, that you are decent man and I think you associate yourself with decent men and for now I must leave it at that.”
Philip spoke so forcefully, Richard did not know how to reply. They were both quiet again until they were nearly back up at the house. “I think I will owe you after the Ringford mess is resolved, anyway,” Philip said.
“Certainly not,” Richard said. “Let us please say that between brothers, there is nothing to be accounted for.”
Philip nodded firmly and held out his hand. They shook on it, decidedly, smiling openly at each other. Richard was very surprised that he had been carrying a great weight on his chest he had never realised existed, but as it lifted he could suddenly breath more easily than he ever had since he was a boy.
“Before we go in,” Philip said. “Your Cyprian... your David. Is it... I don’t know how to put what I mean to say. Is it what you wanted?”
Richard paused, not sure how to answer. “It is not what I wanted,” he said finally. “If I could have everything that I wanted, I should think I would marry him. But there you have it, I can’t and so what I have is enough.”
This finally did seem to shock Philip a little, that Richard might indeed think of his valet as his spouse. It was, even Richard could admit, perhaps one of the most ungodly things he had ever said, so totally against the natural order of things, but he meant it, and this was not the moment to shy away from the truth.
“I suppose,” Philip said, slowly. “Asked and answered. For my part, I wish I could become his friend as you have done with my Eustacia, but I don’t know how I would possibly go about it.”
“We will see what the future holds,” Richard chuckled. “There is no need to turn the world inside out all in one afternoon. Shall we leave it at that and have the blessed relief of talking about the weather for a half hour or so, now?”
“Please,” Philip said laughing, with no small part of genuine relief on his face. They went in through the glass side door from the patio.
Eustacia and David were talking with each other by the grand staircase. David was holding one of Richard’s shirts like perhaps he’d been on his way to press it when he’d passed by Eustacia. Eustacia was holding a handful of fresh cut flowers, like perhaps she’d been on her way to spruce up the vases in the front hall when she’d passed by David. They had their heads close together, and their postures were both relaxed - they’d clearly stood there whispering to each other for a good long time. As the brothers came in, they stepped apart a little guiltily, like they’d been caught conspiring.
“My dear!” Eustacia said at exactly the same time and with exactly the same tone of voice that David said, “My Lord!”
“Oh!” they both said, again together, jumping even farther apart, both of them flushing with embarrassment.
Richard could not contain the absolutely glowing smile that broke across his face. It was somehow the most charming picture he’d ever seen.
“Well,” Philip said, laughing heartily. “I guess the world can fold in on itself just as quickly as it likes!”
That night, as an inky, cool autumnal darkness had settled over Tarlton March, Richard and David rode down to Cirencester village to gather with Harry and Julius around the Flemming’s neat little kitchen table. Ellie and her husband were just going up to bed as they arrived. After delivering a cheerful kiss on the cheek to Richard, Ellie and her son went into the other room to briefly catch up with each other while Richard delivered the details he’d gleaned from the Cirencesters with the others.
“Lord above,” Julius said, with no small amount of sympathy. “Are you alright, Richard? I should think it’s a lot to take in.”
“I can’t say that I have taken it all in, yet,” Richard said. He thought for a long minute before finally admitting, “You know, I think that I will not trust any of the matters that are related directly to David and I until I’ve had several long visits at a particularly trying time of year - perhaps a holiday party to which all the extended cousins are invited - and see that Philip and Eustacia do not treat me any differently. Is that very incredulous of me - am I not giving credit where credit is due?”
“It sounds reasonable to me,” Harry said, patting him firmly on the shoulder. “I honestly can barely believe that they really have taken this all in their stride.”
“I think ‘taking it in their stride’ may slightly belittle the scene of drama that has unfolded before us this afternoon,” Richard said, dryly.
Harry gave him an apologetic little half smile. “You’re right of course, Richard, as always.”
“Shall we turn our heads to the matter at hand, then?” Julius asked, business-like.
“I think we must,” David said as he came in, as usual, giving the impression that he had somehow gleaned every word that had passed between them while he was out of the room from thin air.
He sat down at Richard’s side without being invited. It pleased Richard that neither Julius, Harry, nor indeed he himself seemed to feel the slightest bit of surprise, unless you counted that Richard was thinking about it now. David’s hair caught the candlelight, a hundred shades of burnished autumn. It was windswept from their ride down to the village and he hadn’t bothered to smooth it back to perfection in his own family home. Richard found himself staring without meaning to. David caught his glance and accepted it for the unintentional gift it was with a pointed little smirk.
“Have you found anything out about this Mr Ringford?” David asked. He let his legs fall a little apart in his chair so his thigh pressed against Richard’s.
“Nothing too telling,” Harry said. “I’m afraid to say, if anything, he has garnered some sympathy from us.”
“He was easy to spot,” Julius said. “He spent most of the day sitting in the pub with his head in his hands looking like the most miserable sod in the world. He certainly didn’t look like a man who thought he’d gotten a good opportunity to make a living without work, as one might expect from your story.”
“Hmm.” Richard and David made identical thoughtful noises, which made Julius laugh at them.
“You’re having such a worrying affect on one another,” he said.
Richard and David laughed at the same moment which prompted Harry to agree.
“It’s a little frightening,” he said cheerfully. “Well, anyway, with Mr Ringford, I took the chance of going over to him, saying I was visiting relatives nearby, that he looked like a London sort, what was he doing out here in the country, did he know when there might be an assembly in the local hall and that sort of thing, just to see if I could get anything out of him.”
“Well, it was interesting, I suppose, but not very relevant to our situation. He seized on my kindness right away but he was very morose at first. He said he was a scholar and not much else. We talked a little about travel after I admitted that I’d been on the continent as a boy - I was just talking at him for a good ten minutes to see if anything sparked, you see, and I was playing that I was a bit foxed so my friendliness wouldn’t be suspicious. He perked up a bit then, saying that he’d been all around the world, and had I been elsewhere besides Europe. I admitted I had recently, with a friend in manufacturing. And then we discussed Indian textiles for a good twenty minutes. He was quite knowledgeable about all kinds of antiquities. Finally he said “Oh how I should like to go back and-- well, I won’t have the funds, so it doesn’t bear thinking about” and then he shut up like a trap.”
“So either he’s got some horrible debts to pay off, or he thinks his ploy with the Marquess won’t work, after all,” David said.
“Or both,” Julius said, grimly. “Though it doesn’t seem likely he’s so wretched because of debts. Surely he’d have been suffering over that before, and nothing you’ve said gave any indication he was particularly gloomy as a tutor.”
“Maybe he feels guilty,” Harry offered, softly. Julius looked on him with the deepest fondness.
“You could honestly find the better nature of a box of rocks,” Julius said.
“A box of rocks is very unlikely to have done anything wrong,” Harry said, confidently. “I should think that would be quite easy.”
“We musn’t rule anything out,” Richard said. “Philip would have been paying him well, as it’s not in his nature to do anything less, so perhaps, employed, he’d had the debt well in hand.”
“I’m rather interested that he was so keen to speak to you about textiles,” David said. “And I’m even more fascinated to know that he didn’t recognise you as Harry Vane. You’ve made enough spectacle of yourself on more than one occasion. He must be well out of London society.”
“He did say, right at the start, ‘I can’t imagine what you could possibly see about me that might identify me as a London sort’. To be true, there wasn’t anything that set him out as distinguished or even a particular gentleman. I was just trying to figure out some way of starting a conversation and then later it all worked out because it seemed that I’d somehow gleaned he was well educated and mistaken that for being a socialite.”
“He’s not even well educated,” Richard said. “That’s part of why he needs this post with the Cirencesters so badly.”
“Shocking as it may be, my dear,” David said, “one needn’t have attended a famous school to completion in order to come across as quite intelligent.”
Richard coloured a little with the chastisement and guiltily uttered, “Of course, David.”
“What’s the relevance, Cyprian?” Julius dragged them back to the matter at hand. “Of the textiles and his... I don’t know, for lack of a better term, his ignorance.”
“I begin to see a way to go about this,” David said, thoughtfully. “Richard, you’re not going to like it.”
Richard laughed. “Do I ever?”
“And I’m afraid it’s going to be a little more complicated than usual, in order to keep us all out of the direct line of fire. We must keep our noses as clean as possible, I should think. London’s memory is far too long.”
“Right as ever,” Julius said, soundly.
“A lot of moving parts,” David said, more to himself than any of them. “Now then, tomorrow, Harry, you’ll need to seek out Mr Ringford again and tell him that, because you’ve recognised his judicious eye in the matter of antiquities from the east, you’re inviting him to a Textile Party that you’re throwing along with Webster in London at the end of the week.”
“Whatever is a ‘textile party’?” Harry said.
“Well, it’s the newest rage, didn’t you know!” David said. “Julius and Webster will throw a little faire together of everything you’ve brought back with you, plus the prototypes of the pattern replications Webster has been working on. We’ll have it sent about that it’s the cutting edge to be in on this gathering and everyone there will get the first look at whatever fashions are about to take London by storm.”
“You think he’ll come?” Harry said, curiously.
“A man in his position has no choice. He’ll be wanting to increase his social standing in whatever way possible. Even if he means to make good on the blackmail, any good extortionist knows that it’s a terrible mistake to rest on one’s laurels.”
“Well, what are we going to do to him there?” Richard said. “I can’t imagine he’s going to forget all about Tarlton March just because he’s been invited to one obscure London party.”
“How much do you know about the Murder?”
“The hellfire club?” Julius said with grave alarm.
David smiled impishly and Richard said, “Absolutely not, you utter madman!”
“I told you that you wouldn’t like it,” David said, like the fact quite delighted him.
“You’re honestly going to be the death of me,” Richard said, putting his face in his hands.
David said, “Your Ricardians, as you are well aware, are becoming increasingly vulnerable. The Murder offers a very different way of going about things than we can.”
“Leaving aside that I am still not even contemplating that we might take up with them, why, in heaven’s name, would that group of libertines, who, as far as I have heard, might make Silas Mason look a conservative man, want to take up with us!?”
“Well, for the moment, we need their brimstone,” David said. “But even the Murder might, one day, want for some of our respectability. Surely you heard of the dramatics from a few months ago, with that young lady who broke her leg on Sir Philip Rookwood’s property? Besides one wife of a minor scientist who was there, they barely managed to get an upright women to stay with the injured girl out of fear for their virtue, nor a nurse. I know you heard about it, Richard, since you were gossiping about it with Sir Dominic just the other day.”
“David, you cannot think that us making a connection with a group known as ‘the Murder’ will do us a single bit of good in the long run.”
“Well, not if we go about advertising it, it certainly won’t,” David said caustically. “That’s not what I’m suggesting.”
Richard privately thought David was being a little harsh. It wasn’t the fault of the rest of them that their minds didn’t run at the pace of a particularly fine race horse like David’s did. David seemed to see the offense taken and he took a breath, resting his hand briefly on Richard’s knee under the table. “I have reason to believe,” he explained, more patiently, “That Viscount Corvin’s little group is something of a shadow court to the Ricardians. It could do both parties good to make that reflection official and purposeful. Behind closed doors, of course. Confidentiality is, as usual, what will give us power here. I have long thought this connection might be worth pursuing but there was never a true need. Now we have our perfect test case.”
“Test case!” Richard said, bristling.
“Yes, my lord,” David said, sharply. The formality went through Richard like a drink thrown in his face, making Richard consider who exactly was in charge here.
Richard sighed. “You are the archer,” he said, quietly.
David’s shoulders smoothed back into a sloping line where Richard had not even realised they’d been stiff and straight-across. His hand returned to Richard’s knee. It was exactly like watching the hackles smooth back down on a fox’s back. Richard found himself unaccountably indulgent.
“Well, I can’t pretend I yet see the whole picture,” Julius said. “Though I can perhaps glimpse the distant gleaming outlines. But how exactly should we go about subtly forming this connection?”
David turned to look at Harry.
“Oh!” Harry said, in surprise. “You know, I had not even brought the two thoughts together in my head. I know the lady who’s leg was broken! Sergeant Rawling’s doctor is the same man who attended her out at Rookwood Hall, David Martelo. They are newly married and I have had dinner with them a few times at Verona’s. In fact, Mrs Amanda Martelo’s brother, who is Sir Philip’s secretary, was there also last time we all met a few weeks ago. I’m sure I could somehow think to invite one or two of them along to this ‘textile party’.”
“Do you know, I have heard that Rookwood has decided to finally redo that property of his brother’s and make it his own. Perhaps he needs some new upholstery for the furnishings,” Julius said.
“As long as we keep Lord Corvin out of it,” David said. “We must prevent the link from becoming obvious. We’ll not have Richard at the party either. We’ll find some other engagement for him that takes precedence. If neither of the de facto leaders of the two clubs are present it shouldn’t draw the kind of attention we don’t want.”
“Richard is always at the height of fashion, though,” Harry said. “Won’t it look odd that he’s not there?”
David laughed. “Of course not,” he said. “Richard needn’t spend a single moment of his dignified time worrying about fashion. That’s what he employs me for. We shall make him up a new set of drapes in the front windows in one of the finest of Webster’s new fabrics tomorrow, I’ll brag about it in the right places and anyone thereafter will see that he didn’t bother to attend because he already has the best of everything.”
Julius rolled his eyes. “When in your life will you finally fail to be given the best of everything, Richard,” he said.
Richard simply could not help the self-satisfied expression that crossed his face.
Julius’s words continued to roll over in Richard’s mind all the way back to Tarlton March.
They’d taken one horse for ease, speed and since David wasn’t much of a rider. On the way out, the stable master had looked a bit askance at the whole situation, repeatedly asking if they were certain they didn’t want a carriage brought round. It was, Richard had thought at the time, likely to be the first of many choices he would be making and keeping to that would earn him odd looks at Tarlton, but he meant to live a little differently if he knew he could get away with it.
On the return ride, his thoughts wandered to more pleasant places. The chill in the air was fierce with the clearness of the night and their path was well lit by the low, apple-gold moon. David leaned against him, warm and soft with sleepiness. The tension Richard had been carrying in his back since he’d first read Eustacia’s letter finally began to ease. After all, he was confident matters were now firmly in hand. The best of everything, he quoted to himself in absent refrain as they approached the silent, unlit stables.
It was dark enough inside that Richard led them over to the mounting block mostly on memory. They horse knew what it was about too and stood perfectly still, allowing David to slide off easily. Richard dismounted and led the horse back to his stall, unsaddling him and briefly rubbing him down while David rested against the gate, head tipped to the side, watching Richard work through the white clouds of his own breath forming in the crisp air.
“I can never tell whether you look better laid artfully out in leisurely repose or with a sweat on,” David remarked, idly.
“Oh?” Richard said.
“Or, come to think of it, whether you look better dressed by me, just so, with not a single hair out of place or rumpled in your shirt sleeves.”
Richard laughed at him, sounding pleased with himself.
“It’s an important line of inquiry,” David said, in mock insult. “As my chief artform, it is your duty as well as mine to consider how you are best presented.”
“And you’ve not considered me out of any clothes at all and arranged on a backdrop of white bedsheets?”
David’s smile flashed in the dark. “Not for a public showing, anyway,” he said, sighing.
Richard gave the horse a final, firm pat on the flank and came out of the stall. He wiped the horse sweat from his hands on a clean cloth hanging from a peg next to the saddles and then, since he’d been itching to do it all night, he brushed his fingers through David’s hair. David turned his face up to Richard’s at the touch, asking to be kissed.
“God,” Richard breathed. “You know it’s been a long time since I was foolish enough to kiss a man in these stables at night.”
David didn’t wait for Richard to decide if he was still foolish and closed the distance himself, putting his hands on Richard’s shoulders and silencing him, insistent and sweet, his fingers inching up to brush the stubble along the line of Richard’s jaw. Richard gave in and let David push him back against the wall, his hips pinning Richard’s thighs in place.
They kissed for an age. There was something especially sweet about it - layers of innocence and knowledge, the echo of Richard as a laughing boy not much older than his troubled nephew was now. Or maybe it was just the country air.
David was panting a little. “Have you have fucked someone here?” he said, breathless. “In these stables?”
Richard hesitated. “Yes,” he said, finally, not wanting to elaborate, though it was obvious to both of them who it had been and when.
David didn’t seem to find it a sore subject on this occasion. He appeared only curious as he kissed Richard’s fingers, putting them into his mouth and sucking lightly while Richard watched him with hooded eyes. There was a long few moments of silence, where the quiet of the stable was broken only but the hushed sounds of cloth moving against skin against cloth. Richard could feel a thoughtfulness in David's movements.
“And have you ever fucked anyone in your bedroom?” David asked, finally. “If you took me upstairs, in your ancestral home, and laid me out across the bed in the room you grew up in, would I be the first there?”
Richard’s voice was hoarse when he spoke. “Yes, you’d be the first I fucked in my bedroom,” he said.
It was almost too much to think of. To take his valet, his David, upstairs, under the guise that he was helping him undress and then to keep him there all night, taking him apart and sending him back out at dawn to do all the things valets did in the early hours, just used and shaking with it. Richard rocked up against David’s hips and watched the reaction on David's face, devious and wanting, his lips shiny.
But Richard didn’t have the control for that kind of thing here. It wasn't Arrandene or Albermarle St, with everything arranged just so. What if someone else in the servants quarters noticed David’s absence and mentioned it to the housekeeper who mentioned it to Eustacia out of duty and Eustacia asked him if he knew where his valet had been and what would he--
The realisation hit him like a tonne of bricks. Eustacia would know and it wouldn’t matter. She knew. They knew. The thought had barely left his mind all evening yet he was only just beginning to understand what that meant. If some nosy do-gooder came reporting on Cyprian’s strange hours, Eustacia would be there to glaze it over on his behalf. Richard’s breath caught in his throat. Quite suddenly, all the fear that had ever been in him briefly vacated his body and he was left with the sole burning desire to fuck David in his own bedroom at Tarlton March like it was his God-given right to do so.
David was pliant in Richard’s arms and it was all Richard could do to stop himself from sweeping David off his feet into his arms and carrying him out into the night like some mad conqueror.
“Let's go then,” Richard said, swallowing around his desperation.
“Are you sure--?”
Richard cut David off with a searing kiss and tugged him out the stable door and onto the grass path up through the garden and to glass doors at the back of the house. He made himself let go of David’s arm as they made their way soundlessly through the still, unlit halls of the house in case they should encounter any staff or one of the children, wandering after a bad dream.
He practically threw open the door to his rooms and then stood for a long moment, staring at the bed he’d slept in since he was twelve and had come out of the nursery with a kind of distant curiosity. He was going to put David in that bed with him because it was right that it was theirs together which it would have been if they really did live in some other time and place and David was his spouse. He knew he was as close to that know as he would ever get (though he'd thought that before and been proved wrong).
David mistook Richard’s pause for second thoughts and put his hands on Richard’s sleeves in his distinctly professional way as if to say, 'It’s okay, we can just be this for now.' Though Richard knew it was meant to be a comfort, he ripped his hands out of David’s grasp and stood, panting with something emotion that he couldn’t fathom, filling up his chest. It was like rage but the opposite.
“Let me--” Richard said, abortively. “Let me--” He sank to his knees and put his hands on the buttons of David’s trousers. “Is this okay?” he asked.
“The door!” David whispered. Richard turned with alarm to see that he hadn’t even closed the door to the room behind them. David put one quietening hand on Richard’s shoulder and then went across to close and lock them in. He left Richard where he was, on his knees as he lit the candles and took off his jacket and finally he came back to stand before Richard like he was presenting himself as a gift.
“Do what you will,” he said, there was still some little shadow of concern in his face. Richard knew it was because he was behaving like he’d become partially unhinged, but that phrase “the best of everything” was going around and around in Richard’s head and he wanted it to be real for once, in a way that really mattered down in his bones and in his blood.
He undid David’s trousers with one hand, pulling him closer with the other and took David’s cock into his mouth, feeling it stiffen in his throat. David’s breath came gasping out and his hips stuttered as Richard sucked. “Please,” he whined.
After a few moments, Richard sat back on his knees. “Get on the bed." David scrambled to comply, wiggling out of the rest of his clothes as he went. Richard stood looking at him spread across the sheets for too long, till David began to fidget. David wrapped his hand around his own cock and stroked twice.
“Neither of us is acting as a piece of art now, my dear. Haven’t we waited long enough?”
Richard had. He climbed in, putting his knees either side of David’s hips and his hand around his own cock and David’s and worked them together while David sighed, writhing under him. Once they were both leaking, he forced himself to lean back and shift them into a better position, putting David’s thighs on top of his and tilting him back at an angle. He put one hand back on David’s cock and with the other, he pushed one finger against David’s hole.
“Do you have anything?” David asked. “Don’t tease me if you’re not gonna give it to me.” His accent was sliding in and out of focus. It made Richard’s chest tight.
“You'll have it,” Richard said. “Look in the side table.”
David reached out one hand blindly, fumbling with the drawers in the little French decorative table. Finally after a maddening minute of feeling around while Richard paced out the movement of his hands, slow and perfectly consistently, making David loose concentration twice, he threw a little clay bottle of golden oil at Richard’s head.
“Thank you,” Richard said, smugly. Richard spilled the oil into his hands and set about working three fingers in, intently, one by one, watching David fade into incoherence, his skin flushed pink all over, head thrown back against the pillows.
“Come on, come on,” he begged. Richard took him at his word and with no warning, shifted up onto his knees and slid inside David in a single, agonisingly smooth stroke.
Neither of them lasted long after that. It was a frantic coupling, both of them pressed tightly together. Richard had to put his hand over David's mouth to keep him quiet and the feeling of Richard's hand pressed there imperiously made David throw his head back and close his eyes tight - he felt so tightly wound. Richard let each of the forward thrusts of his hips settle, crushing David into the sheets like he was aiming for them to leave a permanent dent in the mattress. David gasped against his hand with each harsh movement, Richard's weight and girth forcing him down and pressing the oxygen right out of his lungs. When Richard spilled, he held on to reason for just a minute after to stroke David hard and fast till he finished just as Richard pulled out of him.
They were both ones to talk after sex, but somehow, there was little to say tonight. It seemed that for once, everything was done and settled just so. Richard blew out the candles, drew a blanket from the floor over the wet spots and fell asleep with one arm loosely draped over David’s waist.
Guy brought out the letter after dinner, once they’d retired to the drawing room. He was laid languidly out over Philip’s lap. Corvin’s head rested on Guy’s knees and in turn Corvin had John’s feet in his lap.
“You are a pile of ill-mannered cats,” David remarked as he came into the room with Amanda on his arm.
“I take offense, sir,” Guy said, picking his head up to observe their entrance. “I have it on faith from all three of these respectable men that I am very well mannered indeed.”
“On faith, is it,” Amanda said, fondly. “Well, that means a lot coming from them. Guy, my dearest, I begin to fear for you. You have no one decent to compare yourself to anymore. How quickly a Godly man may fall.”
“Manda, you are enough to measure myself by. I think I shall yet keep my wits about me.”
“Well, sit yourselves down,” Corvin said, waving his hand at David and Amanda. “I am positively desperate to finally hear the contents of this mysterious letter. Amanda, do you know how it was received? I heard it was... perhaps unconventional?”
David laughed. “Has the word unconventional ever so crossed your lips before?”
“Alright, alright,” Corvin said, sitting up. “I am the devil’s own and you and the rest of London know it.”
“It was through our invitation to the Rawlings for tea that Guy came to accept the letter. Just as we were about to take our leave this afternoon, Mrs Rawlings’ cousin, Harry Vane, came upon us in the doorway and held out this letter and said, in his overt and cheerful way, 'Here, you must take this for me and we will not accept no for an answer.' And then he gave a second letter and said, ‘And if you are amenable to the first, you may read the second.’” Amanda narrated.
“It was very strange.” Guy assured them.
“Will you read the damn letter?” John said.
“Here it is, then,” said Guy, who had been waiting through all their chatter very patiently with the manner of one who had become well used to it. He read aloud:
Dear Sir Philip Rookwood,
I write to invite you to a gathering, which will be a wide showing of textiles, art pieces, antiquities and curiosities manufactured abroad from as far and wide as India and China and indeed many also manufactured in our own factories here in England in the latest and most fashionable styles. I thought of you naturally, for my good friend Harry Vane had it from your man of business that you are remodelling one of your country properties, so it is likely that you may have an interest in such furnishings. As it will be possible to order and make some purchases at our showing, you are encouraged to bring your man of business along.
Mr Francis Webster
“And underneath that it gives the time and place,” Guy said. “There you have it.”
“Well,” Philip said. “I suppose I am amenable?” It came out as a question because surely it was a little odd, though he couldn’t put his finger on why except that it just seemed so bizarre that one of the affectedly upright Ricardians should be inviting any one of them anywhere at all. No one seemed to know what else to say about it.
“We’re all thinking it,” John spoke, finally. “No reason for us to be shy about it, it’s damn peculiar.”
“The second letter, then,” Guy said, passing it over. Philip peeled the seal off by hand and unfolded it with no small amount of curiosity, drawing out the tension for the waiting crowd. He scanned it through.
“Huh,” he said.
“You’re killing me, Phil,” Corvin said.
“Yes, yes,” Philip said and read it out to them:
Dear Sir Philip Rookwood,
I write to request a favour from you. I know it may seem rather forward, but I shouldn’t think it will be a great trial, though it may be a long-winded process. I will leave it at that for now. If I have piqued your curiosity, please visit us from tomorrow afternoon at Arrandene, my estate in North London. I realise it is a little far to travel and at such short notice, but it is a matter with a time limit and one that is best kept as confidential as possible. We will make a party of it till Thursday, when you’d of course be obliged to return for the textile party.
Excuse the awkwardness of this invitation, but I aim to presume as little as possible. The offer at Arrandene is extended to any of your club you care to attend with you - Lord Corvin, of course, though a friend of mine who will be in attendance, JC, has asked also after John Raven. There is also space for yet more besides them.
Ever at your service,
Lord Richard Vane
“Jesus Christ himself has asked after you, darling?” Corvin asked, turning to John. The look of wide-eyed shock writ across John’s face shut him right up. It was about as far from John’s usual manner as could be borne.
“It’s Jack Cade!” John murmured.
“The pamphleteer?” Corvin said, equally stunned. “I thought for certain that he must be dead or locked up. He’s not published in more than a year!”
“Who is Jack Cade?” Guy asked.
“He wrote radical papers: some of the best, most incendiary literature you can find anywhere out there. And then about a year ago, he disappeared off the face of the Earth. I thought he’d probably hung,” Philip explained.
“I never met him in person,” John said. “I met with his printer a few times. A decent sort, Mason, he was called. And we used to exchange a lot of letters. He was a fantastic writer in every sense. I did some engravings for him, of the crowds at Peterloo, that kind of thing.”
“And now he’s apparently holed up in Lord Richard Vane’s country estate?” Guy asked, incredulous. Even he knew it was a rather implausible tale.
“Isn’t Sir Dominic Frey, the notorious Tory, Richard’s bosom friend?” David asked. “I can’t imagine what he’d have to say about that.”
“You know,” Corvin said. “He took a position in the tax office nearly two years ago. Just at the same time Cade disappeared.”
“Well,” Philip said, decisively, speaking directly to the letter clutched in his hands, “I think, Lord Richard Vane, it is safe to say that our curiosity has indeed been piqued.”
It was quickly decided that Philip, John, Corvin and Guy would go. Amanda was desperate to come and threatened to write a book about a group of snobby socialites with a terrible dark secret titled “Lord Charles and the Carolinians” if she wasn’t brought along to ‘dispel her imagination, which would run amok without any factual input’. David had to stay for work, unfortunately.
“We could call upon Mr and Mrs Salcombe-Street,” Philip offered to Amanda and David. “You are only recently married after all, I’m sure we could all do without any further drama in the propriety department.”
“I wouldn’t want to put them out,” Amanda said. “Are they not part way through the final stages of collating some great research paper at the minute? I thought that was why they’d absconded into the dark recesses of academia.”
“If needs must,” Philip reassured her. “They’ll come of course. Or Isabella, perhaps?”
“They’ve just gone to Paris,” Corvin said.
“Ah, I’d forgotten,” Philip admitted.
David shook his head. “I don’t think it will matter to be honest with you,” he said. “If I’ve gleaned one thing from that letter, it’s that the entire party is going to be completely hush hush. Obviously I trust Amanda, so just take her along.”
Amanda flicked her eyes to her brother and he held up his hands as if to say, don’t ask me. “For once, I think I can leave it to you to decide, Amanda.”
They sussed out that the rest of the extended Murder was likely to be busy or uninterested. Philip and Corvin shared a long and complicated silent look that said, in the timeless language of arched expressions and raised eyebrows, it was probably for the best since none of them exactly knew what they were getting into. If everything was somehow more nefarious than any of them expected, with only five in attendance at least they could get away on the four carriage horses in the dead of night.
“What if they’re the real hellfire club, and we’ve just been a shambles all along?” Corvin asked, laughing.
John ran his fingers through Corvin’s hair. “No one’s as bad as you, don’t you worry your pretty little head.”
They left later than they meant to and with probably a lot more packed in the trunks than anyone needed to be away for two days. None of them had any idea what to expect, though, so they’d gone for the full range, from riding outfits to good dinner clothes to their usual laissez-faire attire.
Philip and Guy went in one carriage, so they could stare lovingly into each other’s eyes out of the way of everyone else, and John, Corvin and Amanda took the other so they could gossip properly. By the time they’d arrived at Arrandene several hours later, she’d just about planned the whole thing out. What was the favour? Lord Richard needed help with a haunting. Why the need for secrecy? Lord Richard had killed a villainous man with the assistance of the infamous Jack Cade, of course. And of course, why was the Murder required to deal with this predicament? The Ricardians had sussed out that they were, on the main, atheistic, and only men who had fallen from God’s grace could take on the twisted, satanic rituals needed to dispense with an evil spirit.
“And Francis Webster’s ‘textile party’, whatever the devil that is,” John said, with one raised eyebrow. “How exactly does that fit in?”
“Don’t be a spoilsport,” Amanda complained. “You are supposed to be the one who understands my artist’s soul.”
“I, for one, am now desperate to read ‘Lord Charles and the Carolinians’!” Corvin announced as the carriages pulled through Arrandene’s swept open gates and onto the gravel drive. It was already growing dark and the lamps framing the great door were lit. A footman let them out of the carriage. Philip and Guy were already ahead of them perched on the stone steps next to the butler, ready to take them inside. They looked somewhat disheveled.
“You’ve done up your buttons wrong, my dear,” Corvin whispered into the shell of Guy’s ear as they came up the steps, making him jump.
“Whoops,” Guy said. “Thank you!” He flushed temptingly. Corvin would have to pester Philip about another little liaison soon. As a group, all four of them were still settling. It seemed that, for the foreseeable future, Guy would remain mostly under Philip’s protective wing. But they had taken a few gently-paced forays into the unknown all together and Corvin was delighted and rather relieved to find that he could see what Philip saw in Guy both in and out of his clothes.
They went up the stone steps and into the entrance hall which was lush with landscape tapestries in deep shades of green. Candles lined the staircase leading to the dim upper rooms of the house and the chandelier above cast shimmering, golden shadows down on them, making the foyer seem like a forest in summer, dappled with sunlight.
“Welcome to Arrandene,” the butler said, with a little bow. “Your luggage will be taken up for you.” He mainly addressed Corvin but gave a respectful little nod to Amanda as well, as the only lady among them. Nothing about his manner suggested that he was perturbed to find her alone with three unmarried men and her brother. She is married herself, of course, Corvin told himself. On the other hand, to be unperturbed is the primary artistry of a butler. He was a little disappointed to find himself worrying about it at all. Until he knew what this was all about, he’d be wrongfooted, there was nothing to be done about that.
They went up a few short stairs to the right of the hall, and there the butler’s service was relieved by a shortish man with red hair. Well, he could never get away with calling it russet, Corvin thought. He had to admit it didn’t matter a whit. The man was perfection. He wore the same green livery as the footmen had, but in an entirely different way, as though he had worn it first and Richard Vane had seen him pass by and thought it such a good style he’d taken it up for his own household. I think this must be the great Cyprian, Corvin observed, with no small amount of fascination.
The potential Cyprian led them down a long, dark wood-panelled corridor hung with a variety of suitably masculine portraits of horses, dogs and prized cows. Corvin could practically feel the disdain coming off John in waves. He had a lot of thoughts about portraits of livestock, chiefly that unless they had been collated specifically with comedy in mind, they didn’t belong in plain sight. “I’ll be able to tell you’re a bachelor even without seeing evidence that you want to fuck your horse hanging from the walls,” was the keystone argument of one of his more colourful rants.
Finally, they halted before a set of heavy oak doors. There was a line of light around them and the faint sound of voices within. Cyprian stood still at the door. The hallway was utterly still. If someone had asked Corvin to make a bet as to whether the great Cyprian needed to breathe, he would have had to fold, for he was the most unruffled human being Corvin had ever seen. Cyprian turned to look at their assembled party. It was perhaps the strangest thing that had yet happened, for servants did not, as a rule, ever let on that they were looking at you and yet here Cyprian was, studying them, his gaze assessing and sharp as a boning knife.
Taken aback, Corvin felt himself draw towards John a little, for comfort, perhaps. Even stranger still, he saw Cyprian notice the movement and it was this that seemed to decide him, for he turned on his heel and drew both the doors open. In the room, all conversation ceased at once. Corvin thought, for one wild second, of Amanda’s ghostly theory and a shiver went down his spine. Bizarrely, Cyprian then quite deliberately preceded them into the room, leaving all five of them out in the corridor, peering in through the open doorway like begging ragamuffins.
It took only one glance to understand nearly every strange turn of events from the beginning. The Ricardians knew what they were about and had arranged themselves in a tableau, facing the door, casting the Murder as the audience and themselves as the actors. It was an ironic kind of scene, for they knew instantly they were seeing a truth laid bare, yet it was theatre all the same.
“Oh!” Guy breathed, just behind Corvin’s shoulder. Philip made a noise of shocked enlightenment to his immediate right.
At the card table, Harry Vane and Francis Webster were playing a game of piquet in two wingback chairs. Leaning in his effortlessly languid way across the back of Harry Vane’s chair was Julius Norreys, his lips a scant centimetre from the shall of Vane’s ear, ready to mutter a lascivious secret at the drop of a hat. Gabriel Ashleigh was perched on the arm of Francis Webster’s chair and one of Webster’s long fingered hands was gently tethering Ashleigh in place, just above his hip, thumb just dipping out of sight below the waistband.
Across from them, on the sofa, was a man Corvin didn’t recognise, not dressed in a gentleman’s clothing but good quality tradesman’s fare. He had a face that had seen a fight on more than one occasion and Sir Dominic Frey sitting at his feet. Sir Dominic’s arms were crossed proprietarily over the stranger’s knees, chin resting on his forearms.
The crowning glory was Cyprian, who crossed the room to where Lord Richard Vane was sitting in a large leather armchair by the fire and, as they stared, stood expectantly at Lord Richard’s side. Lord Richard greeted his Valet by briefly grasping his hand. Corvin heard one of his party hitch in a sharp breath. For all he knew, it might have been himself, so earth-shattering was the sight of Lord Richard turning his face up to meet Cyprian’s eyes and that very particular kind of spousal communication passing between them.
“Please do come in and make yourselves comfortable,” Lord Richard said. They all went in rather gracelessly, minds racing. It was a little like having one’s own trick performed on the stage by another magician and somehow not being able to figure out the turn.
“Silas Mason?” John asked dubiously from behind Corvin, stepping past him into the middle of the room.
The man Corvin hadn’t been able to identify gently extricated himself from Sir Dominic and came right across the room to give John a hearty handshake. “John Raven, as I live and breath!” His smile looked like a hard-won thing.
“As you live and breath is right,” John said. “Am I to take this to mean that you were Jack Cade all along? I thought for sure you were dead.”
“Not for any lack of trying,” Mason said. “Come and sit down.” He pulled John after him to the couch and beckoned Sir Dominic up from the floor, who obligingly sat on his other side. “You’ll have to meet my Tory, I suppose,” he said. “I guess it’s his fault I’ve not been strung up where I belong.”
Corvin could see that John was trying not to be rude, but that the shock of discovering that Jack Cade was fucking Sir Dominic Frey was just shy of ripping his very soul from his body. Mason seemed to expect this entirely. In fact, he was perhaps enjoying it somewhat, as he said. “You can shake his hand. He’s not hiding a warrant in his coat.”
“You needn’t really,” Sir Dominic said. “I’m used to being despised and I’m afraid to say, no longer capable of taking it to heart.”
“If I had to like every man whose hand I shook, I’d have quite the troublesome reputation,” John said and did offer his hand, which Sir Dominic took neatly.
“I think you’ve managed that anyway,” Silas said.
“I read your pamphlet,” John said. “The one read out by Wilberforce. I thought it was very good, though in the third section, was it not a little theatrical when you wrote--”
“It is just as I said to you!” Sir Dominic crowed at Mason, leaning in like he’d caught the scent of blood. “I argued for hours with him about how the facts should stand on their own feet in that section, where otherwise he was at his finest!”
They seemed to be off the the races, at that, both John and Sir Dominic’s voices going fast and quiet and Silas Mason’s between them, his eyes lighting up with pleasure like a lamp in a dim room.
“Will you come and sit with me?” Lord Richard asked. Corvin realised that the rest of his group had already been subsumed into the party out from under him. He’d been distracted by checking that John was alright and realised that in the few minutes he’d been watching them, Philip, Guy and Amanda had already been taken in by the card players. Indeed, Guy was now sitting in one chair with Amanda across from him and Francis Webster had his eyes on Amanda’s hand, telling her what to do with her cards, while Philip and Harry Vane had their eyes on Guy’s.
Gabriel Ashleigh was telling Amanda, “Francis is a very good teacher when he can be bothered, and I’ll keep him from biting, I promise,” while Harry Vane was saying to Phil, “What have you been teaching the poor man in your so-called ‘hellfire club’ if not gambling!” To Guy he said, “I never played a gentleman’s card game until I was three and twenty, and now I could take on half the men in London without breaking a sweat, so you needn’t look so worried.”
“Oh, half the men in London without breaking a sweat, you say,” Norreys said archly and Harry swatted at him, the tips of his ears going red.
“Lord Corvin?” Richard prompted.
“Yes, thank you,” Corvin said, trying his utmost not to appear flustered as he accepted the seat which Richard had gestured to.
“A drink?” Richard asked.
“A whisky will do nicely,” Corvin said. As Cyprian went to the drinks cart across the room, Corvin said, “The great and upstanding Lord Richard Vane is sleeping with his valet.” He could not keep the sneer from his voice, for he had been told to his face that he was disreputable all his life, while Lord Richard had clearly never had his reputation questioned in front of him in any way that had left a mark. Now they found themselves standing on a level field, or perhaps even with Richard a step below him, since John Raven had been treated as Corvin’s equal in public and private since the moment Corvin had had the power to affect the change. Though Corvin knew there was no justice in the world, it seemed now that the duty had fallen to him to eek some out.
“Believe me,” Lord Richard said, in his serious, miles-deep way, “it is not for any lack of my trying to elevate him.”
“You are comparing me to John Raven in your head, which discredits us both,” Cyprian said from behind Corvin’s shoulder, making him jump.
“For fuck’s sake,” Corvin said, catching his breath. “Where did you come from?”
“One gets used to it eventually,” Richard said affectionately.
Cyprian looked at him with an expression that told Corvin he was being laughed at, though Cyprian did no such thing. He set the whisky down on the small table at Corvin’s elbow and then resumed his place at Lord Richard’s side.
“I have chosen this,” Cyprian said. The finality, the self-assurance in his voice cut Corvin off right there.
“Very well,” he said. He looked around the room at their little clubs intermingling, before finally settling back on Richard and his Cyprian. They made an undeniably pretty pair. For one moment, he let himself imagine them together, Cyprian beneath Lord Richard, completely naked while Lord Richard was not, perhaps. Lord Richard’s height and width had to give a fuck with him the feeling of the whole world pressing you flat into the bed and having its way with you. He imagined Lord Richard’s wonderfully large, perfectly kept hands grasping Cyprian’s neat little hips, holding him open with his thumbs. Corvin flicked his eyes up to Lord Richard’s and let the direction of his thoughts show on his face for a shining second.
He knew what he looked like, when he wore this expression. He looked like sin incarnate. Lord Richard swallowed convulsively. It felt very good to have the upper hand back and Corvin offered them both a languid smile. Cyprian raised one perfect, foxy eyebrow. Well, there was never going to be any winning against the great Cyprian. That, Corvin could accept.
“So,” Corvin said. He blew his breath out slowly and leaned back in his chair, canting the angle of his hips and casually collecting his glass from the table. “You did say something about a favour, did you not?”
“Yes,” Richard said, looking relieved to finally come to the matter at hand. “There is a man I need you to... well, I don’t exactly know what I want you to do to him. I rather think Cyprian will have some ideas on the matter to expand upon in a moment, but whatever it is, at the end of it, he must be left very publically unemployable. If you think you can do it... well, we’ll be in you debt.”
“The Ricardians indebted to the infamous Murder. I am intrigued, Lord Richard,” Corvin drawled. “Please go on.”
The clock in the hallway intoned a deep, singular chime. “It’s one in the morning?” John said, surprised. His voice was rough from talking so long. “God, I can’t think of the last time I argued so well,” he admitted.
Of course, the Murder supplied more chances at good conversation that most men probably saw in a lifetime, but there was a marked difference between talking with people who largely agreed with you and talking with someone who didn’t. When you all agreed on the main points, there always came a point when discussion boiled down to semantics and it was better that everyone just go to bed. If he argued with someone whom he didn’t agree with on serious matters, usually John’s patience would grow too thin in mere minutes, for most of the time he was either being unconscionably patronised or his conversation partner was too ignorant to bother with.
Sir Dominic Frey was like a glass of fresh water. He spoke very eloquently, intelligently and offered up his respect up to John like it was entirely obvious that John deserved it. Silas, of course, spoke brilliantly and mainly took John’s side of things, but never once did being teamed up against give the slightest hint of breaking Frey’s patience. They carried on their conversation all through dinner and on into the upstairs drawing room, and looking around him, he saw that they’d carried it on right through everyone else taking themselves off to bed. He’d hardly noticed.
“Did they get this matter of favours and debts sorted out between them, then?” John asked, looking around the empty room.
“I assume so. We have all learned it is better to leave these things to Cyprian as much as possible,” Sir Dominic said.
John blinked with surprise. “So it is a valet who is the great mastermind behind the Ricardians and your ability to keep your linens so spotless.”
“Well, the few times we’ve had to take a crack at sorting things out, we’ve ruffled feathers,” Silas said. “We leave Foxy and Vane to their plans as best we can. This debacle has naught to do with Dom or I, anyway.”
“But you’re here,” John said, prodding.
Sir Dominic smiled. “We are a united front.”
John smiled back at him. “Well that’s something I can commend you for, even if every other thing you’ve spouted tonight is absolute twaddle.”
Sir Dominic rolled his eyes. “You’ll have to admit, I had you on some of the foreign policy points...” His sentence trailed away as he yawned hugely. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “I’ve worked straight for most of the the last forty-eight hours so I could escape up here.”
Though he was bright-eyed, John could see that Sir Dominic was physically tired. He’d slid further and further into Silas’s side as the night went on. At some point, probably after dinner, he’d shucked off his jacket so that he could curl up comfortably, legs up of the sofa, resting his head on Silas’s broad shoulder.
With a start, John noticed that Sir Dominic was absently rubbing at his wrist, stretching it back and forth, revealing a wide blue-green bruise that went all the way around it, half visible under his shirtsleeves. John must not have noticed it when he’d been wearing his jacket and he’d probably been too alert to give into the temptation of worrying at it. In fact, now John was looking, he saw that the other wrist was similarly bruised. As he tried to decide what that might mean, Silas Mason caught him staring.
Wordlessly, Silas leaned down and took both of Sir Dominic’s wrists in his hands and pushed the sleeves back just enough to show the full mottled colouration of the bruises, yellowed enough to have been healing a few days. He encircled Dominic’s wrists with his own fingers - the jury was out on whether this was a deliberate demonstration of how the marks had been created, but John could see how perfectly the shapes fit Silas’s hands. “Leave that, Tory,” he said. His voice was low, but it contained the sharp crack of a whip. He tightened his grip for one hard second and Dominic let out a nearly inaudible gasp and went absolutely limp, face rolling into Silas’s neck and Silas’s hands around his wrists seemingly the only thing keeping him from sliding right off the sofa into a puddle.
John didn’t know where to look. Perhaps for someone only moderately in the know, it wouldn’t have seemed like much. It was a good deal less graphic than the searing kiss Gabriel Ashleigh had delivered to Francis Webster earlier when he’d retired and certainly less had been said than when Ashleigh insisted, with details, that Webster hurry to bed as soon as the cards had concluded. But John knew this kind of game very well. The liquid compliance that Dominic offered up with his needy, deep sea eyes was very possibly the most shocking thing John had seen all night and wildly attractive to top that off.
“Silas,” Dominic pleaded into his neck.
“Hush,” Silas said. He flicked his eyes up to John and offered a deviant smirk. “You know,” he said to John. “We usually only argue politics at length like this with each other. I reckon we’re both a little riled. It’s been a few days.”
John opened his mouth and nothing came out.
Dominic, face still turned into Silas’s body, whispered, “I know what you must think of me.” There was colour high in his cheeks, two spots of red.
“I think,” John said, finding his voice again slowly. “That I expected I would hate you, was very disappointed to discover I did not, and am now even more baffled to find that I might rather like you in the end.”
Dominic laughed a little and rolled up enough to offer John a coy glance from under the dark fringe of hair that had fallen across his face. “Yes, well, I am a complicated man,” he said, and the truth of it hung like a struck bell.
Silas released Dominic’s arms and brushed the hair back out of his face with the roughest kind of affection. Dominic’s expression was glazed and sleepy now. Silas said, “Come on then, let’s get you into bed, and I’ll see if I can’t uncomplicate you a bit before you pass out.”
Silas rose and Dominic went with him, letting himself be lead, leaning too heavily. Silas manhandled him towards the door. It was clear, even through all the gruffness and pushing, that Silas was finding Dominic’s drowsiness charming.
As they reached the door, Dominic turned and gave John one last, lingering look. John thought immediately of Corvin, so sinful and intense were Dominic’s eyes. John shifted in his chair, trying to arrange himself. “Goodnight,” Dominic murmured.
“Well, if you’re going to be like that,” Silas said, stopping abruptly, his hand not quite on the door handle. “I might as well just let him fuck you.”
Dominic drew to a sudden, stiff halt. John stiffened in a rather different way. “No,” Sir Dominic whispered.
“No,” Silas said, turning to him and meeting his gaze with an affected blankness that was no less disconcerting for its evident artifice. “Is it really for you to decide? No?”
Dominic’s eyes were wide as dinner plates, his breath coming high and short. “Please don’t,” he said. “Please.”
Silas paused and considered him, assessing. His voice, this time, had a little less command when he said. “No?” he asked. “Or no, Silas?”
There was nothing that could be considered certain about Dominic’s voice when he replied, yet there was a marked difference in his tone when he said, again, “No.” Some of the attack went out of Silas’ posture but then Dominic paused, and his eyes flicked back to John. “But...”
It was thrilling to watch them negotiate. Besides himself and Corvin, John had never seen a well established couple do this kind of giving and taking. It was something very different, undeniably breathtaking, watching lovers go about it rather than strangers in an assignation house or Corvin with some short term fling.
“Oh,” Silas said. His voice was gravel. “Shall I let him watch, then? Hmm?”
Dominic didn’t speak. He was quivering, hands clenched against his dark trousers. “Please,” he whispered, like he was begging for it, and then a long hesitation. He shifted foot to foot. “Don’t, Silas.”
At the sound of his name, Silas’ mouth curved into the thinnest and most vicious smile. “I think I might...” Silas said. “I might just.” He looked up to check on John. “What do you say, Raven?” he asked. “Would you like to watch a wanted man, your friend, the notorious Jack Cade, fuck Sir Dominic Frey until he doesn’t remember his own name or station?”
“Well,” John said, in the most nonchalant tone he could manage. “I always accept an invitation to free entertainment. And since he’s so... desperate for it.”
Silas gave the lightest touch with one boot to Sir Dominic’s shin and he dropped straight to his knees like he’d been kicked. Silas put his hand in his dark hair, not gently, and tilted back Dominic’s head so he could still look him in the eyes.
“Do you want John Raven, of the wicked and disreputable Murder - a known engraver of the most ribauld scenes - a man I know must have been on one of your lists,” he spat the word, “watch while I fuck you until you can’t speak.” He hissed these last words, leaning down into Dominic’s face, ending with his mouth close enough to offer a kiss. Silas’s eyes were the colour of the healing edges of Dominic’s bruised wrists. John had to grip the arms of the chair to keep himself from putting a hand down his trousers.
Dominic whined. He was barely breathing, staring up at Silas, looking for absolution and knowing for a fact he wouldn’t be getting any. “Please, Silas,” he murmured, almost inaudible. “I’m tired. Can’t we just go to bed?”
Silas scoffed. “Making excuses, are we?” he said. “You know right well what I think of that. You better apologise by taking my cock in your mouth.”
Dominic was still a moment. His head was tilted back, throat a vulnerable, exposed white column. He flicked his gaze to the side and held John’s glance for a second and then, with no further fuss, he leaned into Silas’ hand still gripping his hair, undid the front of Silas’s trousers and slid his mouth as far down Silas’ cock as he could without choking straight off.
Silas groaned in surprise and pushed up a little into Dominic’s mouth, “Oh,” he said. His voice was still controlled, taunting, though John could see from his face that he was straining to hold it together. “So you’ve decided you might like to be good for once, is that it?” he mocked.
Dominic only responded by clasping one hand around the base of the cock in his mouth and pumping while he licked lavishly at the head.
“Have you decided you’d like to show off, Tory? Is that it?”
Dominic made a little involuntary sound and the tips of his ears went pink. Silas grinned down at him devilishly. “That is it. You want to show our guest how good you can be if you put your mind to it. And you can be good, can’t you, Tory?” He rocked again in Dominic’s mouth, forcing himself a little deeper, and Dominic obligingly put his free hand around the back of Silas’ thigh to give him some leverage. He took it and took it. There was a glittering tear held in the corner of each eye. He didn’t even try to touch himself as Corvin would have, just kept to his knees as neatly as he could and let Silas fuck his mouth.
Finally, Silas pulled free. “Fucking hell,” he gasped. “Don’t you look pretty there?” Sir Dominic did look very pretty indeed. He was an attractive enough man, but John hadn’t thought much of him personally till now, with his sharp collar bones standing out over the white lawn of his half opened shirt, his mouth red and swollen with pressure, shining eyes and lips, flags of colour in his cheeks. His nearly black hair was a tousled mess, falling across his forehead.
“Stand up,” Silas ordered. Dominic stared up at him, totally guileless. “We’ve been over this before. You’re not to be rude in front of a guest. Do as you’re told.” With a faint, injured noise, Dominic wobbled to his feet. He was shaking all over and his trouser buttons were strained obscenely tight.
Dominic hesitated a mere second and Silas grabbed him by the back of the neck, yanking him in close, pressing hard enough to visibly blanch Dominic’s skin at the four points where his fingers dug in. “I thought you were following orders tonight,” Silas growled.
Dominic gave a tiny, desperate nod and began to fumblingly unfasten his trousers. After a moment of struggle, Silas seemed to take some small amount of pity on him - or perhaps he’d just grown too impatient - and ripped at the buttons himself, undoing them in a short second and forcing Dominic’s trousers to his ankles. Dominic kicked them off and then drew his shirt up over his head and dropped it to the floor behind them. His cock was standing up straight enough to nearly touch his belly, already wet at the tip.
“Very good,” Silas said, putting his hand briefly around Dominic’s cock and giving it one merciless stroke that made Dominic cry out. “What do you think, John?’ he asked. “Do you think he’s ready?”
“I think I’m fucking ready, anyway,” John said, unsteadily.
“Touch yourself if you like,” Silas said, his voice very different from his sharp redresses to Dominic. “I don’t mean to deprive you.”
“I may yet,” John agreed. He hadn’t quite decided what he wanted. Of course he’d like to bring himself off right this second, but he had half a mind to wait it out watching them till he could stand it no longer and then run off and find Corvin to take out his frustrations on.
Silas stepped up behind Dominic, making him list slightly, pulled by the unseen magnetism of bodies so that they leaned back to chest, his head tipping to rest on Silas’s shoulder. On any other two men, it might have looked sweet, but the tension in the muscles of Dominic’s tilted neck and the way Silas had commandingly grasped Dominic’s hip with such possessiveness... John shivered.
“Now you’re going to tell him what you want me to do to you,” Silas said, lips nearly at Dominic’s temple.
Dominic said nothing, looking desperately up to Silas who returned his glance with a razor thin smirk. “Oh,” he said, biting. “Do you not know what you want? Shall I tell you?”
“Yes, Silas,” Dominic replied, a murmur that seemed torn out of him.
“Oh, Dom,” Silas said. His smile finally reached all the way up to his eyes. He bent down and kissed Dominic. It was a good kiss, one that would have made anyone breathless - a full, gently delivered, blooming thing completely at odds with the rest of their manner. Dominic turned into Silas like he was the sun and John felt like he was seeing them for the first time - it was not often that John Raven was surprised by people. Till now it had seemed impossible to forget that he was watching Jack Cade fuck Sir Dominic Frey. For one glowing moment he did forget, and then just as quickly, Silas broke the kiss, murmured something into Dominic’s ear, and then then pushed him forward, roughly enough that he stumbled a step.
“He says...” Dominic was panting. “That I want him to put me over the back of the sofa,” he stuttered out. Silas leaned down and whispered a few more words. “And I want- I can’t say it, Silas.”
“You can’t have it if you don’t say it,” Silas said, evenly. “Do you want to put your trousers back on and sit pretty on the sofa?”
“No,” Dominic said, petulantly.
“Then what do you want him to do?” John asked - he couldn’t help himself. Silas Mason was a master of anticipation. John had to congratulate him for it. He had it in his writing. It lurked all the time in his guarded eyes, a feeling that one was always just about to hear him say or do something - for lack of a better term - revolutionary.
“I want him to...” Dominic swayed hard, like he might lose his balance. “I want him to put me over the back of the sofa and-” He swallowed. His eyes were fixed on the floor. “I want him to put his fingers in me until I’m crying for it, and then I want him to fuck me so well I come from it.”
“That’s very well said,” Silas said. “Anything else? Better not to leave our company guessing.”
Sir Dominic spoke in a rush. “And I don’t want him to stop, no matter what I say.”
“Oh,” John said. “It’s like that, is it?”
“With my Tory,” Silas said, directing Dominic round the the back of the sofa and pushing him down across it with one rough hand on the back of his neck. “It’s almost always like that.”
Silas made good on his word and within minutes, Sir Dominic was begging incoherently, one minute sobbing for more and then next for Silas to stop and then whining “please, please” - a gradual break down till John saw that he no longer knew what he pleading for. John unbuttoned his shirt collar. It was almost too much to watch the urgency of Dominic’s need, how he was choking on it.
“There, there,” Silas said, and finally, gloriously fucked into him. He was behind both the sofa and Dominic, so John had an imperfect view of it, but he could see Dominic’s face well enough and it was more than enough to watch his expression. He saw the moment that Silas entered him - a look in his eyes like a prey animal taken down by a bullet it had known was coming all along. Dominic’s breath was forced out of him in a rush, his mouth open, his face shocked.
Quite suddenly, as though at the behest of some unheard plea, the mood changed and Silas was moving against Dominic lovingly. Silas folded down over his back, hands on Dominic’s chest, tilting him up so they could have as much skin to skin contact as possible. Silas’s mouth was on Dominic’s neck, half kissing, half gasping. The need to touch came over John like a summer storm, the electric tang of lightning rolling over him, now at the moment when he knew he would be least welcome between Silas and Dominic.
He stood, trying to look casual about it. He met Silas’s eyes, and Silas gave him a wry little grin before turning his face into the damp hair at the back of Dominic’s neck. John hesitated, his eyes still stuck on Dominic’s enraptured face. It was too much to stare, but where else was there to look? Silas was murmuring into his ear. Whether they were a lover’s words or filthy encouragement was anyone’s guess.
Dominic began to cry out brokenly with the rhythm of their movement and Silas shushed him gently. John took the moment of distraction to slip out of the drawing room, where he leaned against the wall in the cool hallway for a good few minutes, trying to collect his wits about him. After he thought he could walk normally, he made a beeline for the rooms Corvin was occupying.
He opened the door without asking, but the blasted man wasn’t even there. Without second guessing himself, John went down the corridor to Phil’s room and tapped lightly.
“Come in,” Guy’s voice said softly from the other side.
John pushed the door open. He felt distant or drunk, like he was watching someone else’s body take over his own actions. Guy was sitting up in bed, reading by the light of a candle on the bedside table. The covers were rumpled and indistinct in the half light of the slim flame. “Is V here?” John asked.
Corvin sat up in the bed. His tousled hair was falling into his sleepy-eyed face, and John had to physically plant his feet to keep from striding across the room in three good steps and throwing Corvin across the bed, so strangely and fortuitously alike was his dazed expression to the one Sir Dominic had worn.
“I need you,” John said.
“Now?” Corvin asked, yawning lazily. Phil sat up next to him, between Guy and Corvin, decidedly rumpled.
“You might have to excuse him,” Phil said, looking pleased with himself. “I’m afraid we’ve rather worn him out.”
“V - don’t make me ask twice,” John said, allowing the faintest edge of iron to glint in his voice.
“Oh, I see,” Corvin said, giving him a shrewd look which, on any other day, John might have taken him to town over. At the moment, he felt it was best to pick his battles. “Well then, boys!” he said, jovially to Guy and Phil. “Duty calls, I must take my leave of you.”
John practically dragged Corvin back to his bedroom. He made himself close the door behind them calmly, with only the most mild snick and then he was on Corvin, pushing him down into the bed, holding his delicate, lordly wrists against the headboard and kissing him viciously.
There were bite marks on his thighs, still red and freshly tender to the touch and John let the rush of adrenaline carried by a sweet and stinging wave of jealousy sweep over him with a complicated and fierce desire. John ran his hands over Corvin’s thighs, pushing them apart and pressing his thumbs down firmly over each newly blooming bruise.
“What has gotten into you, tonight?” Corvin asked, breathlessly, squirming and gasping at John’s rough-handed touch.
“That blasted revolutionary and his little lord!” John said. “They’re going at it right now in the drawing room.”
“No!” Corvin said, adding in disbelief, “Not like this, surely.”
“And worse besides,” John said, slapping Corvin’s thigh for effect. Corvin jumped at the sensation, his cock twitching. John was unable to resist sucking him for a moment.
“Oh God,” Corvin moaned, tossing his head back and closing his eyes. He was oversensitive with whatever else had been done to him tonight.
“Not God, I shouldn’t think,” John growled, pulling away for a second. “He wouldn’t have you. You’re all mine.”
Corvin was moaning rather ecstatically, but broke off to gasp, “Yours, yours, always yours.”
Always yours, John thought. But never only yours. Didn’t that just burn deliciously down into his belly, reaching inside him and hollowing him out with fire in a way that nothing else could.
Curiously, mouth still full, he pressed a finger against Corvin’s entrance and slid in easily. Corvin whimpered. John sat back onto his knees, admiring how wet and open and lovely Corvin was. “Did Phil have you?”
“Both of them.”
John grinned down at him. “Oh, V, my love. I should think it’s been some time since you’ve had three men in one night.”
“Please, John. Please, please, please. I can take it. I promise I can.”
God, the way V wanted it so desperately - to be used. How had men like he and Silas come to deserve such a gift? Another human being, someone he loved, no less, had chosen him, or rather begged him, to take charge. He’d watched Dominic do it and he watched Corvin do it now - they shed the burden of dignity and placed it into someone else’s hands, trusted them entirely with it, and said, as they bared themselves, ‘I know you are a man that will respect me as I am.’
His patience was finally at its end. He turned Corvin over, pushing him up against the headboard on his knees. He wanted to take him just as Silas had taken Dominic. Not because he wanted to be fucking Sir Dominic, but because he wanted to live inside the feeling that he’d recognised in Silas.
Was there anything so good? Needing and being needed, wanting and being wanted, taking always just a little too much so that you owed something you’d have to come back to return. And upon coming back, you might be tempted into taking more again. He pushed inside Corvin easily and Corvin responded with a long moan. John could feel where his hands clenched around Corvin’s hips that his belly was quivering with sensation. John gripped Corvin’s cock and he jerked like it was too much.
“Ah, ah,” he panted in little, abortive gasps.
“You take what I give you,” John said into Corvin’s shoulder, sharp.
Corvin put his forehead against the wall and keened. John put one hand in Corvin’s hair and pulled hard. The sound cut off abruptly with a shocked breath. The look on his face - John could see it if he craned his neck - was perfect, just like Dominic, a creature who had walked knowingly into a steel trap yet could not understand how it had been so caught.
It was over too quickly for John, who’d been on the edge for nearly an hour. It took a while longer for Corvin, well used as he was, but John had the time for him after he’d come himself. He laid Corvin out on his side and and worked him over with slippery hands, jerking and fingering him until he came, crying.
John cleaned them both up after and then they slept in bed, together, in a near stranger’s house, as deeply as they ever at home, never once anxious that an overly familiar host or prying servant might discover them. Finally they rose together for the breakfast bell at twenty past nine the next morning and went down together. They put their chairs as close together as they could go, since John liked to dote on Corvin if he’d given him a particularly rough go of it. Last night had hardly been particularly rough by their standards, but no one blinked an eye, so why not revel.
John thought little of it till they were tucked up in the carriage on the return journey the next day, but when he did, it seemed the most miraculous thing of all - to go to the house of a Lord who they barely knew and sleep in a bed with Corvin sprawled across him, in a house where nearly every bed was similarly occupied.
He allowed a bitter little tragicomedy to play out in his head in which some unsuspecting officer of the law somehow accidentally stumbled into the house in the night and discovered the scandal of a century and all of them were ceremoniously packed off to gaol. Then it occurred to him that there would have been thirteen of them and one law man, and they might well have done away with the poor unsuspecting fellow quite easily. No matter what Amanda might have jested, though, he couldn’t imagine Lord Richard Vane stooping to murder and Corvin had had enough of it already for any man. However, between the lot of them, the majority such powerful, monied men with a network of further people at hand, there would have been some way of quashing such a scandal. Suddenly he had no doubt of that. He had to revise the ‘tragi’ right out of the comedy. A strange feeling came over him, like cool water poured down his back on a hot day. It was a feeling somewhere in the realm of relief, a kind he’d never before experienced and could not have described, except to call it ‘strength in numbers’.
“Have we...” John spoke aloud slowly as he came out of his reverie. Corvin looked up at him from across the carriage, away from the book he’d been aimlessly flicking through. “Have we made ourselves untouchable?” he asked. “I mean... who could stand against us now? Who in the whole country? We stand with... men on both sides of politics, high born men, low born men, men above and below stairs, women also, people who could threaten, people who could cajole, people who could out-class and out-argue anyone who said a word in bad taste and provide pay offs with buckets of money to spare. What angle have we left uncovered? I can think of none.”
“Neither can I,” Corvin said with such a knowing, carefully honed pleasure John dared any man to go against him - against them all - without shivering in his boots.
In the end, unexpectedly, it was the Frisby siblings who sorted out Mr Henry Ringford in all of forty-five minutes at the Textile Party. Phil, David, Amanda and Guy arrived at the party well after it was already in session. It was in the Assembly Halls on West Brom Avenue, a reasonably well dressed establishment, far enough away from Quex’s and Lord Richard’s usual haunts that it had evidently been chosen deliberately to seem outside of the Ricardian purview.
Phil privately thought the Textile Party had been the thinnest of all the pieces of their trap, but as they arrived he was surprised the find the place thronging with everyone who was anyone in London. They’d been lucky with the timing since it was the height of the season. The place was packed out with an unusual variety of people, from business types in dark suits scrutinising samples, to fashionable ladies in huge excessively-trimmed hats picking over tables of neatly organised antiquities.
The atmosphere was halfway between a ball and some kind of market. Everyone was dressed as well as they could turn themselves out, and though no place had been cleared for dancing there was a cheerful little quartet of musicians gathered in the back corner. Every available sofa was taken up with men and women gossiping behind cups of tea and glasses of warm brandy. The air was thick with chatter. There were tables and large booths filling the hall and further rooms beyond with strangely decorated fans, brightly patterned fabrics and one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture which were being poked and prodded by potential buyers and shrewd looking secretaries holding tight to their masters’ purse strings. Even Phil could admit that it was an event worth attending. He had half a mind to actually look for some new fabrics for the dining room at Rookwood Hall.
Francis Webster was holding forth with a stern and knowledgeable air in front of a display of his factory’s pattern samples. Julius Norreys was on the far side of the room explaining the fashions of the East to several other flamboyantly dressed gentlemen. He himself was wearing an impeccable waistcoat of pale green silk that had a pattern of thin leaves embroidered in a subtly shimmering thread and looked like part of the display. Gabriel Ashleigh and Harry Vane were busy proving their little bit of knowledge next to some rather fanciful vases. A gaggle of younger women stood around them hanging on every word.
As their little group was spotted, Harry Vane broke away and approached. Phil was relieved to see the man wasn’t an idiot, and though he greeted Amanda and David warmly, he allowed David to introduce him to Phil and Guy as though they’d never met before.
“He’s already arrived,” Vane said, once enough polite small talk had been exchanged that they’d been able to drift closely together so their words would be difficult to overhear. They took turns surreptitiously looking over at Mr Ringford once Vane had pointed him out. He was standing on the edge of a bustling group of socialites, trying rather unsuccessfully to appear like he had just turned away from some important conversation for a moment to observe a set of calligraphic brushes.
“Oh, he is pitiable, isn’t he?” David said, observing the scene with evident discomfort.
“We’d better put him out of his misery,” Phil agreed, grimly.
They sent Amanda over first, being both an innocuous connection to make and charming enough that her random interest in making conversation with a sad-eyed stranger would not seem out of place to either Mr Ringford himself nor any onlookers.
The intention was that Amanda would introduce the man to Phil and Phil would invite him to aid in acquisition of antiquities for Rookwood Hall. Upon delivering the goods to the Hall, Corvin would embroil the man in some damning indecency, possibly by seducing Mr Ringford himself or possibly by enlisting the help of Isabella and Marianne - one could do a lot to a man’s reputation by spreading about the rumour that he’d shared a bedroom with an actress. Marianne cared not a whit and they all knew from recent experience that one could find no better place in England than Yarlcote for quickly making a little rumour into a life-destroying scandal. What better way to do away with a blackmailer than to give him a taste of his own medicine?
Phil couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Mr Ringford, watching his face light up with deepest relief as Amanda saved him from the icy and unending awkwardness of standing alone at a party where everyone else seemed to be getting along so well with each other. She conversed lightly with him for a few minutes while they all tried not to watch.
In order to distract themselves, they did their best to involve themselves in the wide variety of curiosities on offer. Vane went over to Mr Norreys and allowed himself to become absorbed by the party of fashionable gentlemen. Lady Abelton, a widow and particular fan of George Penn who’d frequented the summer concerts in their company last year, happened upon their cohort by chance. They exchanged musical news for a while. David pulled Guy away and lectured at him while pouring over the illustrations in a medical text from Yunnan.
Just as they’d forgotten to pay attention to Mr Ringford, Amanda reappeared at Guy’s shoulder and drew him away with her. Phil watched them go, their twinned dark brown heads bent together, whispering hastily. They crossed through the crowds, back to where Mr Ringford was awaiting them. He had his arms folded defensively across his chest and his face was pinched with concern. Shouldn’t Amanda have retrieved Phil, if he was to engage Ringford’s services? Anyway, Mr Ringford didn’t look like a man who thought he was about be given the job offer he’d been hoping for. Phil was about to make his excuses to Lady Ableton and go over there when David put his hand on Phil’s arm.
“Frisbys can be trusted, Phil,” he said.
Philip stilled under David’s touch. He was right, of course. Amanda and Guy might not be worldly or dagger sharp like most of Philip’s people but they could handle troubling matters of the heart better than the rest.
The crowd swirled, and when it parted again Amanda, Guy and Mr Ringford were gone. Philip hoped David was right. At one point Harry caught his eye and raised one thick Vane eyebrow. Philip gave him the most confident grin he could muster and made a subtle hand gesture that he hoped conveyed ‘it’s all under control’.
David, Philip and the unsuspecting Lady Ableton made increasingly tense small talk until finally Guy appeared on the far side of the room and beckoned Philip towards him with a jerk of his chin. Philip left Lady Ableton to David as politely as possible.
“What’s happened?” he murmured as he allowed Guy to lead him by the elbow through a pair of thick velvet curtains. They emerged from the drapery on an empty balcony. The bite of winter was already in the night air as it brushed fine hairs from the back of Phil’s neck, making him shiver a little. Guy wrapped one warm arm around his middle as the curtain swung shut, sealing out the raucous crowds within the hall.
“I’ve offered him the position,” Guy said.
“Yes,” Phil agreed. “And?”
“No, I’ve offered it to him for real. We won’t ruin him when he comes, we’ll just hire him to actually re-do the Hall. No mysterious scandals. Well, other than being in our employ, but he’ll have the job for a good while and we’ll find some other reasonable place for him if he’s no longer useful. In return, he’s agreed to destroy the evidence he has over that Vane boy and leave the Cirencesters be.”
“What?” Phil said. “You talked to him about the blackmail?”
“Phil, don’t be cross with me. I took one good look at him and I knew we’d be the worst sort if we went through with it. He’s... well, he’s me, isn’t he?”
“You!” Phil said, disbelieving. “You’d never blackmail anybody!”
“I don’t rightly know what I would’ve done if I’d had to give you up, flee my Aunt and her debts and find some position tutoring that I had no choice in - because I’d have had to take any place that I was offered. There’d be no picking and choosing and no escape. And if I’d then lost that place over a suspected dalliance with a pupil - and you know Henry Ringford didn’t dally with that boy, he just didn’t turn the poor child in to his parents, which I can only respect him for. God, what a mess!”
“He told the Cirencesters he’d do his best to ruin the boy and his father both, you know. I think he was rather nasty, all said.”
“Oh,” Guy said, a little sharply. “Is that something we’re in charge of now? Punishing people who’ve gone outside the bounds?”
Philip allowed himself to think for a minute, allowing the chastisement to sink in. “No,” he said finally. “Oh course not. And... as David said, Frisbys are trustworthy so perhaps I should do better than berate you.”
“Will you confirm the job offer?” Guy asked. “I know it’s the right thing, my dear. I think Corvin will quite like him, truth be told.”
“Yes,” Phil said, sighing. “If... well, I rather think that he should apologise to the Cirencesters. Do you think we could convince Ringford to suck up his pride? I feel we need to offer Lord Richard some kind of reassurance or recompense. Not that we owe him, of course. It’s blasted complicated, this.”
“No it’s not,” Guy said, sounding unusually assured of himself. “Come talk to Ringford.”
Amanda and Ringford were leaning shoulder to shoulder against the railings on the far side of the long balcony promenade, two shadows against the golden glow of London at night with arms crossed against the bitter wind. As they came close, Philip could see that Ringford was the picture of anxiety. His face was drawn and pale. Dark circles under his eyes indicated days without proper sleep. His shirt collars were starched with too much stiff precision, while his jacket was all wrong, a few seasons out of date and cut badly for his slim build. His whole being radiated an unbecoming desire to be well thought of. He’d rarely seen a man so wracked with guilt.
“Well, Mr Ringford,” Philip said, maintaining a neutral expression. “Have you anything to say to me?”
Ringford was stricken with indecision. “I don’t know where I might begin, sir,” he said, wavering. “I can only say... thank you for the opportunity and I promise that though I may not have the credentials to back it up, my expertise is unparalleled. I’ll make Rookwood Hall the most enviable house in society.”
Philip laughed. “I should very much doubt that you’ll manage that,” he said.
“Please, sir,” Ringford said. “I know...” He hung his head. “I know I’m not well turned out. And it does my claims little favour, but it’s not by my own choice. Mr Frisby said you’d understand my means are... few at the moment, but I assure you that if we went back in that hall now, I could tell you the value, provenance and history of any item in that room and choose you three that will be all the rage in London in a months’ time, besides - even so out of contact with London society as I know I must seem. I could get a reference for that, perhaps. I worked half a year at an auction house in Paris. Everyone said I was the best at valuations by far.”
“Relax and take a breath, man,” Philip said. “I only meant that it would be quite a feat to increase the popularity of a house frequented by the infamous ‘Murder’. Are you even certain you want to take that on?”
Finally, the edge of a mischievous grin barely curved Ringford’s downturned mouth. “You needn’t be popular or even be respectable to be enviable, Sir Philip,” he said. There was the barest hint of confidence in his voice. “Before my luck came to an end, I lived by that rule. Your Lord Corvin knows what’s what in that department, besides.”
Philip smiled at him. “Perhaps you’re right in that regard. And maybe Mr Frisby is correct to think I have need of professional advice. But... I have one request.”
“Anything, sir,” Ringford said, mournful again.
“Will you apologise to the Cirencesters?”
Ringford looked very surprised. “Would they allow it? I hadn’t dared hope they would grant me a visit. And do you think... oh, poor Eustace. I’m worried I broke his little heart. But God, what choice did I have? When I read that first letter of his my blood ran cold, for what could I do? I would have left to save the boy and myself the trouble, but my job with them was a lifeline, such as it was. And then how quickly things shifted: blackmail or destitution. What choice is that?” he repeated, quivering. He had large, clear grey eyes, shining with tears. There was something pretty about him, and Philip imagined he would probably look very well indeed cheerful and better rested. Guy was right - Corvin would have him for dinner.
“I think Lord Richard would like it if you offered,” Philip said. “The rest is for the Cirencesters to decide.”
“Take this, Mr Ringford,” Amanda said, passing him a square of lacy-edged cotton from her drawstring purse. Ringford accepted it delicately and patted at his eyes.
“It doesn’t concern you,” he said, warily. “What I did, at Tarlton March? That I didn’t pass on that boy’s .... secrets to his parents? Because if you’re going to somehow use it against me later, I’d rather just take the fall now. I’ve seen how Lord Richard will play this. Anyway, I knew as the words were leaving my mouth that it was a fool’s errand and that my attempt to save myself was as futile as it was vile. I won’t try to move against them whatever they do. I probably never would have really managed it if they’d tried to call my bluff. Not that it was a bluff, but you know what I mean.”
“He’s rather a talkative one, isn’t he?” Philip observed airily.
Mr Ringford pressed the handkerchief to his mouth with embarrassment. “Sorry,” he whispered. “Nurse despaired endlessly of it when I was a child. I never learned keep my mouth shut, as I fear is quite evident. Will you put me out of my misery?”
“Fear not, Mr Ringford. Thus far I like only two things about you. One is how charmingly you can’t shut up and the other is your crime of omission towards the Cirencesters. I think you shall find yourself in good company in our little set.”
“Oh, Corvin is going to eat him alive,” Amanda said, patting Ringford consolingly on the shoulder.
“Lord Corvin,” Mr Ringford said, with poorly concealed alarm. “I suppose he’ll be around a lot?”
“The enviable gentleman himself, I’m afraid,” Philip agreed, smiling down at the smudgy, fearful face of his newest employee.
“He’s very dashing, at least,” Mr Ringford said. He drew his shoulders up, steadying himself. “You know,” he said. “I think I need a stiff drink.”
Amanda took him inside to secure him one and Guy and Philip followed at a slower pace, shoulder to shoulder. Guy was laughing and Philip elbowed him in mock irritation.
“Oh yes, he’ll fit right in with your lot,” he said to Philip.
“Your lot, too,” Philip pointed out.
Guy smiled fondly at him. “Well, you’ve got to keep someone around to pour,” he said. “And I don’t think our Mr Ringford is going to be your man, the way he was shaking, so you’ll have to stick with me.”
“I think I can resign myself to that,” Philip said.
The next day - Friday - Philip, Guy and Corvin met with Lord Richard and his valet in the dead of night in the private rooms at Quex’s. They’d come in hats and oversized, dark coats to avoid being recognised, though none of them saw anyone as they went up the street and through the parlours of the club in the silent hours. Philip suspected that now the danger had passed, they were perhaps all enjoying the idea of having a secret friendship quite a lot. It was rare that Corvin’s hellfire club had cause to deserve the title and this did seem in the right realm.
“We’ve decided to keep him,” Corvin announced, once they were all settled in comfortable chairs with drinks to go around and the fire burning warm and low in the grate.
“Keep him? I’m afraid you’ll have to elaborate,” Cyprian queried.
“We had a good look over the pitiable Mr Ringford and none of us are up for destroying the man. I’m afraid a lot of us have sympathy for him,” Philip said. “But he’ll be out of your hair, that we can promise.”
Lord Richard looked askance. “He’s a blackmailer!” he said.
“Oh,” Guy said, pointedly. “And you would never stoop so low?”
Cyprian bestowed Lord Richard with a wicked smile. “They have us there, I’m afraid, Richard.”
Lord Richard thought for a long stern minute and then threw his hands up in the air, turned his face upwards and said, “Very well then, God save me from troublesome bastards.” He looked quite accusingly at Cyprian and said, “You probably knew this was going to happen,” with such an air of resignation that they all had to have a good laugh.
Lord Richard did indeed request that Mr Ringford make an apology to the Cirencesters and Philip felt very glad to tell him that Ringford had been hopeful for the chance. He was hesitant to promise that Ringford would be allowed to speak to Eustace without first receiving permission from the Marchioness, but Philip felt it would come to rights.
After that, they all got horrendously drunk. The most entertaining development was that Corvin took it upon himself to flirt shamelessly with Lord Richard. In turn, Lord Richard got increasingly fidgety under the attention and Cyprian seemed to fluctuate minute to minute from finding it all hilarious and trying his very best to conceal a pretty jealousy that sat well on him and made his eyes light up. Philip thought it might do the pair good, with the way Lord Richard was practically falling over himself - if any man so poised could be said to fall over himself - to insist with every glance and action that he had no interest in Corvin. Guy finally took pity and forced them to say their goodbyes. They went out into the first shreds of dawn and walked home, arms linked three across and feeling like they’d done a good deed in the end.
Morning sun was already streaming into the bedroom as Cyprian and Richard climbed into bed, loose-limbed and bleary eyed. Richard had swept into the house at half-past six and mustered up just enough dignity to firmly announce to the butler that the servants were all to be given the morning off if appropriate and that he did not want to hear one sound made in the house until at least two in the afternoon.
“I can hardly believe it was only this time last week that we were setting off to race to Tarlton March to uncover the depths of the trouble. This may be your neatest work yet, all said and done,” Richard said, drawing the bed curtains around them.
“Let us hope,” David said. “I can’t say it felt like very neat work.”
“It’s as you said,” Richard said. “A lot of moving parts.”
They lay still for a while and just as Richard thought David had drifted off to sleep, he spoke again.
“You were - are attracted to him though?” David said quietly into the the cool, dim shadows of the closed off bed. “You looked at him.”
“Are you really fretting about this?” Richard asked, sleepily.
“No,” David said. “I don’t think you’re about to leave me for him. I’m just... surprised, I suppose. Lord Corvin and Lord Richard. You’d be quite the formidable pair.”
Richard laughed. “We are quite the formidable pair. Do you not feel the ground tremble where you tread, my dear? How Corvin’s set stared at you at Arrandene. It is only usual that eyes should follow me, but you have made yourself someone to watch.”
“But you looked at him,” David said. “I only wondered why. It’s the red hair, isn’t it. Predictable.”
Richard sighed and sat up on his elbow, rolling in close to David and using his other arm to pull them together, skin to skin. “If you must know, he made me wonder what you’d be like as a Lord. If you’d been born into a different life.”
“I don’t think I should be like Lord Corvin,” David snorted. “He’s exhausting!”
“You’re not so alike, I agree. I’ll have to admit to you that it probably is the hair which made me first draw the comparison. But I can imagine it, all the same. Perceptive, self-assured, certain that you could put each man into his right place.”
“That’s not Lord Corvin you’re describing, my dear,” David said. “You’re describing yourself.”
Richard turned this thought over for a silent moment. “Perhaps,” he said. “So you and I are alike, then?”
“I’m afraid so,” David said.
“I’m not sly, though,” Richard said, after a while. “And I’m embarrassed to say that perhaps that’s one of my favourite things about you. And what I might have liked in Corvin.”
“Why should that embarrass you?” David said, turning his face into Richard’s neck.
“It’s not very dignified, to love slyness in people. I don’t think that would be on the Marquess of Cirencester’s list of desirable traits.”
“And yet,” David said. “It’s perhaps one of my favourite things about you - that you love the slyness in me.”
Richard kissed him then, with intention, but they both fell out of consciousness before they could do anything about it and slept the deep, dreamless sleep of mostly honest men.