Chapter 1: Chapter One: In which my Lord Eames is importuned by a highwayman, and learns to regret making hasty decisions
It did not occur to Lord Eames, fifth Earl of Penrose, the despair of his tailor and well-known bachelor and bon vivant, that he had anything to be concerned about driving home after a profitable evening at the card table.
The road was good and the moon was full, and while he had been drinking freely, it would take more than a few cups to make him lose his precision of eye and hand, and Eames believed that a man who could not bend his team to his will at the end of a hard evening had no right to think he could drive in the first place.
He set a punishing pace; my Lord when he travelled, travelled fast, and his horses, perfectly matched and the envy of many a Corinthian, 1 were used to his hand and his driving and made fast time.
He was more than halfway back to Penrose Hall when the bark of a pistol broke the silence of the night, startling him from his reverie and throwing his team into confusion.
Eames’s first thoughts were for his horses; he brought them back under his control with an iron fist and gentle words. Only then did he look up to see the cause of the interruption.
In front of him on the road was a slim figure, mounted on a high-bred grey, 2 wearing a black great-coat. His features were disguised by a muffler, and in the gap between scarf and hat Eames could see a strip of pale skin and a pair of eyes so dark they looked black.
The stranger had positioned his horse to block the road and was aiming his pistols at Eames.
‘Good evening, my Lord,’ he said, accents muffled by his scarf. ‘If you would kindly pass me your pocket book and any jewellery you might have on your person then I will cease inconveniencing you and we can both head home with no... unpleasantness.’
Eames sneered in derision. In normal circumstances this impertinent whelp would be no challenge for him, but the pistol pointed at him was new and well-made (no doubt stolen from some other dupe, Eames reasoned) and Eames himself was unarmed, having decided to hasten home after leaving Nash’s bed.
He regretted that impulse now of course, but he had made this journey many times over the past few years and had no reason to suspect tonight would be anything other than run-of-the-mill. As the last of the group to leave Nash’s home, he couldn’t even rely on a friend to appear to aid him now, and his anger at himself for his own poor choices exacerbated his irritation at being held up by some common highwayman.
‘Unpleasantness!’ He spat the word out. ‘You may be the one armed at the moment, boy, but you would do well to reconsider that condescending attitude.’
He realised as he spoke that this was no usual brigand. Aside from his slight build, his voice was youthful and educated, and Eames could see him bristle at being called boy.
‘I will use whatever attitude I choose, my Lord,’ he said. ‘And you will hold your tongue and hand over your valuables. Make sure you take them from your pockets slowly, mind, or I shall shoot you and take them from your body.’
Eames growled. The highwayman might be young, but his voice was calm, his hands were steady and Eames had no doubt at all that he would make good on his promise.
He reached into his coat and withdrew a pouch. He had scooped his winnings from the table that evening to the accompanying calls and jeers of his fellow players, and he had won well. Not too well – it was never wise to win too much when Lord Saito sat at the same gaming table as you, but it was an easy enough matter for a gamer of Eames’s skill to strike a balance between profit and caution.
He threw the pouch at the highwayman, who caught it one-handed. The aim of the pistol in his other hand didn’t even waver.
‘And your jewels, my Lord.’
Eames cursed and reached up to his cravat for his diamond tie-pin before taking his watch from his waistcoat and holding both out in his hand.
‘You want me to throw these too, boy?’ He didn’t try to keep the contempt from his tone. ‘They’ll be lost to both of us most likely.’
The highwayman snorted and manoeuvred skilfully over to Eames’s side. He pulled off a glove and hand out one slender hand, the pale skin almost luminous in the moonlight.
‘Don’t play the fool, my Lord,’ he said. ‘Hand them over direct to me.’
Eames dropped the jewels into his hand, aware of the pistol held steady and aimed at his head.
‘You expect me to believe you have no rings?’ The highwayman sounded amused. Eames wasn’t.
‘None for the likes of you,’ he said, and his voice was as cold as he could make it. The highwayman snorted and, pocketing the jewels with one hand, reached out with his pistol and ran it slowly along Eames’s jaw. He chuckled softly, the noise oddly loud in the night.
‘I’d beg you to reconsider. T’would be a shame to mar such a pretty face over a mere handful of trinkets.’ It did not occur to Eames to question whether the highwayman might was serious. Keeping one hand on his reins, he pulled his leather riding-glove off with his teeth, baring his left hand.
‘Allow me.’ The highwayman reached out and took Eames’s hand in his own. His skin was chilled from the night air, and softer than Eames had expected. He removed Eames’s signet ring, the one he had used to see on his grandfather’s hand, and pocketed it, and all Eames could do was try to maintain his composure.
‘Thank you, my Lord. Your contribution towards my upkeep is greatly appreciated.’ The man’s horse shied back slightly, pulling Eames’s hand up, and the highwayman laughed, a free sound in the quiet of the night, and brought it to his lips and kissed the back of it before he let go.
‘Coward.’ The word sprang unbidden from Eames’s lips, though he had resolved not to let his feelings show. A sharp intake of breath was the only sign that he had been heard, and it fanned the rage in Eames’s chest.
‘Take my contribution and be glad of it. Had I my pistols you would not be so brave, boy, but that is always the way of cowards – you hesitate to wager anything of value in pursuit of your desires.’
The highwayman’s horse bridled, and for a second Eames thought his words had struck home, but then the man laughed, contemptuous and cold.
‘The loss of your good opinion, my Lord, is a deep blow indeed, yet I find myself able to sustain it.’ He wheeled his horse around, but paused momentarily. ‘Should we meet again, I will show you exactly what I am willing to risk.’ He moved his ungloved hand down and touched the pommel of his sword lightly, and Eames felt a savage satisfaction rise up in him.
‘We shall see, boy. I doubt you want to learn courage at the edge of my sword.’ But though he doubted they would meet again, Eames was already planning for the eventuality, and he was sure that this upstart child would not best him again. Eames had a will of iron and as his intimates would tell you, what my Lord wanted, my Lord tended to get.
Rage still tight in his chest, he watched the highwayman ride off, before he whipped his team into a fury and drove the few miles back to Penrose Hall.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two: My Lord practices his sword skills and discovers a grudging admiration for his foe
By the time Eames next encountered the highwayman, he had almost succeeded in putting the incident out of his mind.
The bare patch of skin left by the signet ring was the only thing that prevented him from forgetting completely – although even the shock of running his thumb down his finger and missing the familiar rub of metal under his nail had eased in the month that followed.
He had not long returned to Penrose Hall, his mood improved by a visit to Saito’s country house in Oxfordshire. Saito, a favourite of the Prince of Wales these days in his bid to garner colonial support for his regency, 3 knew how to entertain his guests, and Lord Eames had gamed for deep stakes, 4 enjoyed a light flirtation with a society beauty and even raised a sardonic eyebrow in appreciation of Gentleman Jackson’s5 skill in the boxing ring.
Now he was astride his horse – a fine black stallion that he had broken himself, taming the last of his wildness with firm hand and implacable resolve – and heading to Nash’s to dine and while away the evening in whatever manner presented itself to my Lord’s fancy.
He had no real fondness for Nash, but proximity made the choice easy, and my Lord had ceased holding out for love shortly after his presentation at court, when it was driven home to him that men and women alike were blind to his actual virtues – and also to his faults. Instead they saw Penrose Hall, his town house, his racing stables, and drew conclusions about the generosity to which my Lord could be persuaded. Nash at least, like most of the bed partners Eames had chosen since his twenty-first year, had no illusions that he was any more than a convenient distraction.
He was riding down a sunken path, under trees that met overhead. It was cooler here in the dappled shade, a pleasant contrast to the late sunshine of the summer evening. He allowed Forger to fall into a walk. Nash could wait – this evening was too fine to waste inside a curtained dining room.
He was thinking of Saito and his plans for a masked ball that would transform his country house into a theatre of dreams when he was startled from his reverie by a laugh from beside him.
Eames turned, and for a moment he did not recognise the smiling youth perched on the lower branch of a tree, one long leg dangling with an easy grace. He brought Forger around and frowned up at the boy.
‘Something amuses you?’ The tone of his words did not diminish the youth’s smile. If anything it increased, marking his cheeks with dimples.
‘It does indeed, My Lord.’ The voice was familiar and Eames involuntarily tightened his hand on the reins. Forger danced backwards, a startled movement that Eames brought under control with nothing more than the pressure of his thighs and a gentle word.
The highwayman, for that was who the youth was, swung himself down from the branch in an easy, fluid movement, and landed next to Eames.
‘It amuses me that after our last encounter, you are still careless of your safety. Mayhap you enjoy funding my pursuits?’ The highwayman placed an elegant hand on the horse’s bridle and Forger, who tolerated no-one apart from Eames, pushed his head into the gentle caress.
Despite himself, Eames was impressed.
‘Not so careless of my safety,’ he said, withdrawing a horse-pistol from the holster on his saddle. ‘Not careless at all in fact.’ He levelled the gun at the highwayman’s head, though for all the impact this had on the youth’s expression, he may as well have saved himself the action.
‘I thought you were going to teach me manners at the flat of your sword?’ The highwayman’s voice was amused, his eyebrows raised in what appeared to be an honest question. Eames cocked his head to one side.
‘Why would I do that, when I could shoot you where you stand and get my ring from your corpse?’
The highwayman laughed. ‘Oh, you could for certes, if you were certain I had it on my body. But then you would always wear it in the knowledge that you did not deserve it – that you had only gained it by default.’
‘Fine words from a thief.’ Eames’s words were cold, but his interest was piqued. ‘You wish me to duel for my own property?’
‘I do, my Lord.’ The highwayman looked up at Eames, and Eames, uncertain that this was the right decision, but committed regardless, lowered his pistol. He was rewarded by a brilliant smile, and the youth took a firm hold of Forger’s bridle.
‘You may dismount, my Lord,’ he said, almost courtly. ‘I will tether your horse for you while you prepare.’ He looked so enthusiastic that Eames bit back his comments about honour and thieves, and wondered at his own restraint.
‘You are confident,’ Eames removed his coat and undid the cuffs of his shirt, rolling them up as he watched the highwayman lead Forger a small way down the path. ‘But what are we fighting for?’
‘For your ring, of course.’ The highwayman’s voice was light and mocking and Eames smiled.
‘Of course. But if you win? You already have the ring – what do you hope to gain, should you emerge victorious?’
The highwayman turned and Eames could see the thoughts flashing across his face. For a second his smile turned rueful than then he looked Eames direct in the eye.
‘A purse of gold, my Lord. I have a taste for my lifestyle and continuing it at your expense would please me.’
‘I am sure it would, boy.’ Eames unsheathed his sword and moved to the centre of the path, casting a critical eye over the ground, looking for uneven surfaces or roots. ‘But you have not won yet.’
The highwayman drew his own sword, and with a slight bow, advanced upon Eames. The first few passes proved to Eames that this was no common thief – this boy had skill with his sword. Eames smiled in satisfaction.
In truth, they were fairly evenly matched. While Eames had the benefit of experience and strength, the highwayman was fast and accurate.
‘Good technique.’ Eames was breathing heavily as he disengaged from a parry.
‘My Lord’s praise humbles me.’ The youth was circling Eames, looking for a gap in his defences.
‘Oh, you talk a good game, boy...’ the youth surged forward, his blade moving fast and fluid in a series of attacks that Eames could only block with difficulty, ‘but you need to...’ his advice was cut short as he failed to deflect a thrust and the highwayman’s sword scratched down his arm – not a deep cut, but enough to make Eames leap back with an oath.
To Eames’s surprise, instead of pressing his advantage the highwayman lowered the point of his sword and stepped back.
‘You wish for a bandage my Lord? I have some in my pack.’ He sounded calm, but Eames could hear an edge of concern to his words.
‘Nonsense, boy. I have sustained worse shaving cuts at my valet’s hands.’ The young man laughed and Eames smiled. ‘I beg but one favour.’
The highwayman raised a quizzical eyebrow and Eames raised his own sword again.
‘Give me your name, at least. I cannot continue calling you boy.’
He was not sure why he asked, but he was more exhilarated than he had been for months and could not let this moment pass unmarked.
‘You would change the nature of our wager?’ The youth’s insouciant smile forced a laugh from Eames.
‘I would not. Perchance we will duel again and I will remember your terms.’
The highwayman assumed his stance again, raising the point of his sword.
‘Perchance, though you have yet to finish this time, my Lord.’
Eames smiled and attacked, letting go of concern and restraint in favour of enjoying this fight. His technique was flamboyant and brilliant, though it would have made the French fencing master of his youth hiss in horror, and soon his size and his strength were forcing the youth to give ground and concentrate on keeping his defence up.
‘You have good technique,’ Eames wasn’t sure why he wanted to reassure the boy that he had promise, he just knew that he needed to say this. ‘But you lack imagination. Let yourself enjoy the fight.’ He executed a series of moves that made the youth jump back. ‘Don’t be constrained by the rule-book or your training – you are better than that.’
He was sure he saw a flicker of understanding in the boy’s eyes, and he pressed his advantage mercilessly, using his size and his strength and any trick he could find up his sleeve to his best advantage.
‘Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.’
The boy’s eyes widened in shock at the appellation and he stumbled backwards, a boot heel breaking as he did so, sending him tumbling to the ground. Eames spun back and waited for him to get up, taking the opportunity to catch his breath. Fencing had not been this tiring five years ago – but then he did not often have the chance to practice like this, had not had the chance to abandon formality and etiquette in favour of revelling in the joy of a fight.
The youth got to his feet and took a step forward. He tried to disguise the limp, Eames could see him schooling his face against the pain, but Eames had trained for long enough to recognise the symptoms of a too-developed pride.
He sheathed his sword and walked past the highwayman towards his coat, deliberately exposing his back in a show of trust. ‘I am late for dinner, perforce the end of this duel will have to wait for another time.’
His words were casual, and he shrugged his coat on, his back still to the youth to give him some privacy in which to decide his response. It was only when Eames had one foot in the stirrup that the boy spoke.
‘Your ring, my Lord.’
Eames looked down and saw the boy pulling a length of chain from around his neck. On the chain, Eames recognised the cunningly carved ring and he paused, considering.
‘I did not win it back as yet. Keep it until we next meet.’
The highwayman regarded him, dark eyes unusually serious, and Eames dipped his head in salutation before he turned to go.
‘Arthur.’ The boy’s voice was clear in the evening air, and Eames stopped his horse to turn back, raising a quizzical eyebrow. ‘My name is Arthur,’ the highwayman said. ‘You may not have won the ring back, but a fight such as that...’ He shrugged, an expressive movement that Eames interpreted as meaning Arthur (he rolled the name round his thoughts with delight) had enjoyed the fight as much as Eames had himself. An impulse overcame him and he reached into his jacket and withdrew his coin purse, throwing it to Arthur, who caught it on instinct.
‘For a new pair of boots,’ he said, catching the frown on Arthur’s face, and recognizing it as injured pride. ‘I want the chance to win my ring back, and even I will not stoop so low as to win by default.’
He could see the battle on Arthur’s face as his pride warred with his common sense.
‘Take it,’ Eames said, voice softer than any he had used to this boy so far. ‘Take it and equip yourself properly, and meet me again, rested and fed.’
The shock on Arthur’s face made him appear properly young for the first time.
‘I will, my Lord,’ he said, and Eames noted with a half smile to himself, that this was the first time Arthur had used his title without sarcasm or the intent to provoke.
‘Enough,’ he said, though he smiled to rob the word of its sting. ‘I must keep my engagement; else my companions will come looking for me.’
He turned and spurred Forger into movement.
He was taciturn at dinner, though Nash seemed not to notice, too busy boasting about his conquests and consequence and repeating snippets of scandal from the clubs. Eames watched him from behind his glass of claret. Nash’s appeal had never been less evident, and for the first time Eames questioned if their connexion, convenient as it might be, was not an error of judgement.
He drank freely, toying with the food placed in front of him, accepting little and eating less. Such introspection was unusual and uncomfortable and Eames gestured for his glass to be filled again in a futile effort to rid his memory of the duel and of Arthur’s eyes as Eames had ridden away.
‘...and rumour has it that Cobb remains in Italy, beyond the reach of the law and of just...’
‘Enough.’ Eames’s bark silenced Nash. ‘I have no idea why you find Cobb so fascinating,’ he held up an imperious hand to silence Nash’s explanation. ‘And nor am I interested. The disgrace of others, once it has occurred, bores me, and I remember you being one of Lady Malorie’s admirers while she was alive.’
The barb, as he meant it, struck home, but Nash was quick to get his face back under control.
‘I was,’ he said. ‘And surely that is all the more reason to be angry?’
‘Maybe.’ Eames’s interest, desultory at best, was waning rapidly. ‘If Cobb was, in fact, responsible for her death – though I never heard a convincing argument for that.’
‘Talk at the Cobol Club says...’
‘Talk at that club is worth less than even your opinion, Nash, and that is saying something indeed.’ Nash’s face flushed red, and Eames smiled. ‘I knew of Cobb, and I would not have thought him fool enough to lose his lands at the card table, but there is no saying the lengths an expensive woman will drive a besotted man to, and neither of us witnessed the events in question. In any case, the man is now exiled on the Continent and even his friends have vanished in disgrace, so...’ He shrugged and rose from the table. ‘Now, if you will excuse me, I must leave.’
So comical was the look on Nash’s face, Eames nearly laughed.
‘I presumed,’ Nash started, reaching out a hand towards Eames.
‘You presumed too much,’ said Eames, and turned sharply towards the door, gesturing to one of Nash’s servants for his horse.
He rode home through the still of the moonlit night, but although he looked, he saw no sign of Arthur.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three: A masked ball, a confession of sorts, and a kiss
The drawback to being friends with powerful men, Eames thought, is that they expect everyone to do their bidding. He held out a hand, and his valet, ever solicitous, passed him a cravat.
‘What style will you favour tonight, my Lord?’ Yusuf asked, taking a careful step back, critical eyes scanning Eames’s ensemble. ‘The Waterfall? The Mathematical?’6
‘You know damn well that the mathematical is not my strong subject.’ He eyed himself in the mirror. ‘No, tonight I shall go with my own creation.’
‘No. The Inception.’
Yusuf frowned slightly and Eames turned towards him, knowing exactly what his valet was thinking.
‘Your lack of faith wounds me, Yusuf. The Inception is perfectly possible, it’s just bloody difficult.’
Yusuf managed to make his opinion on the matter quite clear in every line of his silent body.
His scepticism was unfounded however, and Eames didn’t need any of the many spare neckcloths that Yusuf had laid out. He regarded himself with some satisfaction, and stood, allowing Yusuf to help him into a jacket so tight-fitting that it took all his valet’s efforts to get it over Eames’s broad shoulders.
‘There,’ he said, at length. ‘You have my mask?’
‘Of course.’ Yusuf sounded offended that he might have forgotten something, and handed Eames a simple black mask.
Eames looked at him, eyebrow raised.
‘Really, Yusuf? What happened to the mask I designed?’
Yusuf snorted. ‘I had assumed that was an amusing joke.’
Eames laughed. It was a matter of no small amusement that he could outrage his valet so easily.
‘No, Yusuf. I think you’ll find that my mask will serve its purpose admirably, so pray, do get it for me.’
Yusuf sniffed, but he knew my Lord well enough not to mistake his pleasant tone for one that would allow liberties. He turned to the cabinet in the changing room and returned before too many minutes had passed with Eames’s mask in hand.
Eames smiled – it was a splendid mask. Still a sober black, to be sure, but with silver lines tracing a paisley pattern over its surface and two long feathers on the right hand side that would draw the eye of everyone on the dance floor.
Smiling his approval at Yusuf, he carefully tucked the mask into his pocket and headed down to dinner.
‘You preside over another social success,’ he said, as Saito rose to greet him, laying aside his book.
‘As you say.’
Eames smiled. For all that Saito was courted by the rich and powerful, he always seemed to regard others at a remove, as if watching a game of battledore and shuttlecock between careless infants.
‘I trust you have invited enough society beauties to enliven the evening,’ Eames said, as a leading member of the Cabinet alighted from his carriage. ‘You know my taste does not run to political talk.’
‘No.’ Saito turned and regarded Eames with a look of speculation in his eye. ‘You are more interested in cultivating the reputation of a rakehell, than in earnest debate, are you not?’
Eames laughed. ‘I am merely playing to my strengths,’ he said, sketching a bow towards his host. ‘Tis not all of us who can be masters of political intrigue – nor who can ensnare the hearts of women as lovely as your wife and mistress. No, some of us needs be content with our lot in life, and are not made for grander things.’
Saito shook his head. ‘Tis not lack of ability with you,’ he said. ‘Tis lack of inclination to show your desire.’
‘You have known me since my come-out,’ Eames said, slightly scandalised. ‘When have you ever known me to not chase what I desire?’
Saito waved his hand dismissively. ‘I am not referring to your lightskirts or your racing horses, Eames, and well you know it. No,’ he gestured out the window to where a man of middle years and high standing in society was handing his wife from their carriage, a look of tenderness on his face. ‘Do you never wish you had that? Something or someone who mattered more than the trumpery trophies you occupy yourself with?’
Eames laughed. ‘There has not been one person who has not thrown themselves at me without hoping thereby to ensnare my heart – and through that gain access to my wealth, standing, and lands.’
‘I notice that you do not say you don’t desire it, though,’ Saito said.
Eames snorted. ‘What I desire is of little importance – tis not likely that I will ever find such as you speak given the company I keep.’ He was startled to hear the edge of bitterness in his voice, and held his hands out, placating Saito to take his word. ‘No, my Lord. I do not seek such things. I must content myself with those who see me as a route to a comfortable life.’
‘I do not notice you fighting them off.’ Saito’s lip curled sardonically.
‘And why should I? I take no unwilling bedfellow, and if they find me less generous than they hoped, well, tis not as if they had opened their hearts to me. No. I doubt anyone will ever break their heart over me.’
Eames fell silent, and for a moment Saito regarded him with an enigmatic expression on his face.
‘Perchance you will meet someone who will show you the error of such suppositions,’ he said at length.
‘Belike that if I do, I shall not recognise them and shall tumble them like any other whore,’ Eames said, uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation and keen to escape to the growing crowd he could hear being announced by the butler.
‘Mayhap you will,’ Saito said, moving toward the door of the library, but pausing with his hand on the handle. ‘Yet you are one of the brightest men of my acquaintance, and I have never known you to let an opportunity pass you by unheeded.’ He smiled at Eames then, with more warmth than was customary for him. ‘I have not yet abandoned the hope, Eames, that you might find a cause to make your own, and that the discovery will be the making of you.’
He stood at the side of the floor as the dancing started, a glass of champagne in his hand and his mask firmly in place.
Saito had invited the usual faces – all the cream of high society was there, and Eames had hopes of dispelling his discomfort in deep basset7 and light flirtation. Yet, as he watched the masked couples make their stately ways across the dance floor, his eye was drawn repeatedly to the slim figure of a masked man, dancing with grace and precision, and muttering soft words that made his blonde partner, beautiful in a low-cut gown of pink silk, smile.
He waited until the dance ended and then made his way across the floor, trying to intercept the man, but as if he was aware of Eames’s intention, the dancer melted away into the crowd, and Eames, shrugging away the feeling of recognition, eschewed the ballroom for the gaming tables.
He won well, luck as much as skill playing its part, and was reasonably satisfied as the call for supper went out. Dancers were abandoning the floor, in search of champagne, lobster and jellies, and he caught another elusive glimpse of the dark haired dancer as he made his way to the supper room.
The food did not tempt him, his interest still piqued by the fleeting sense of recognition, and he rose as soon as was polite to return to his gaming.
Thus it was that he was the first player back in the library in which Saito had arranged the card tables. He sat down at a table, stretching a booted leg out, and picked up a pack of cards.
He was shuffling them, mind a million miles from Saito’s ball and polite society, when he heard the brisk tread of footsteps entering the room.
‘You were looking for me earlier, I believe.’ The voice was familiar, and Eames turned in his seat to see the slim, well-dressed dancer he had been watching.
‘I was… Arthur.’ The slight twist of the man’s mouth told Eames all he needed to know. ‘So, you did you come here to game with me then?’
Arthur moved round the table and sat across from Eames, his eyes bright behind his mask.
‘I did not. But since you ask…’ he gestured with eloquent fingers at the cards in Eames’s hand.
Eames started shuffling the cards in earnest.
‘So, if you were not here to play cards with me, why are you here?’ He paused his hands for a moment. ‘I find it hard to believe that you are an invited guest.’
‘No, indeed. Lord Saito would hardly have acknowledged me even before…’
His voice trailed off. Eames caught sight of his scowl, and even though Arthur’s careless words had confirmed a great deal of his suspicions, he felt an unusual concern for this man.
‘What are the stakes of our game?’ His voice was gruffer than normal, trying to hide his reaction behind the mask of his indifference. Arthur chuckled.
‘There are any stakes you would prefer to this, my Lord?’ Arthur reached into the neck of his shirt and withdrew Eames’s signet ring, suspended on a thin chain.
‘No.’ Reality crashed back in on Eames, and ideas of flirtation were effectively banished from his mind. ‘That is the perfect stake.’ He fixed cold eyes on Arthur. ‘And what do you demand in return?’
Arthur glanced down and bit his lip.
‘A dance,’ he said, and Eames looked up at him, his certainty brushed away again with those two words. He could see Arthur squaring his jaw, just a small tell, but Eames was a master at reading men.
‘A dance?’ Eames asked, drawing out the words. ‘Are you perhaps tired of my funding your lifestyle?’
If he hoped the barb would strike home, he was to be disappointed. Arthur laughed, and Eames, unwillingly enraptured by the dimples in Arthur’s cheeks, let the last of his wariness retreat to the back of his mind and focussed instead on enjoying this game.
‘You are in funds then?’ Eames asked, and started dealing the cards between them.
‘Your concern touches me, my Lord. Rest assured, I shall be in funds enough after this night’s work.’ He gestured at a pocket in his jacket. ‘People are remarkable careless of their belongings at a ball like this.’
Eames nodded. This at least explained Arthur’s presence here, and he had little concern for other people’s possessions.
‘You should hope that Saito does not intuit your intent,’ he said, picking up his cards and gesturing at Arthur to do likewise.
‘Piquet?’ Arthur asked, and Eames nodded in response.
Eames played more cautiously than was usually his wont during the first rubber, assessing Arthur’s skill. He was pleased, though not surprised, to find that Arthur was a skilled card player – perhaps lacking some of the skills Eames had acquired, but not every gentleman had toured the gaming houses of the continent as extensively as Eames had in his younger days.
Arthur won the first rubber by a slight margin, and in the second rubber Eames allowed himself use of some of his hard-won skills. A small frown creased Arthur’s brow at points, but he kept a calm head and his calculation of the odds was very nice. Whatever else this young man was, he was a gentleman, and Eames wondered, curiosity rising with every minute, what had driven him to a life of crime.
‘You are weakest in your discards,’ Eames said, as he won the second rubber, though the margin of his victory was not large. ‘The third hand shall count for all, yes?’
Arthur nodded, attention already on his cards, and Eames could see him coolly assessing strategies for success.
They were not far into the third rubber, Eames grimly satisfied with his hand, when Nash entered the room, joining the growing number of players. He saw Eames, and with a casual smile headed over to the table.
‘Lord Eames,’ he said, and broke off, eyes on Arthur and a frown on his lips. ‘And who is this? I do not believe we have met.’
Arthur had frozen at the sound of Nash’s voice, a small hesitation to be sure, but enough for Eames to mark. It would seem then that these two were acquainted, though judging from the look on Nash’s face, Eames thought he hadn’t fully recognised Arthur as yet. For some unfathomable reason, Eames would prefer that Nash did not make the connection.
‘You may not have,’ Eames said. ‘This is my sister’s husband’s cousin, chance met. He has been demonstrating the latest tricks from Germany, but I feel I have learnt all I can for one evening.’ He threw his cards down on the table.
‘If you will excuse us, Nash, I have promised to introduce him to the finest beauties on the dance floor, and a young man like this should not be disappointed.’
He inclined his head towards Arthur, who followed his lead admirably, rising with a casual grace and executing a small bow to Nash before walking towards the ballroom.
Eames stayed close to him, hand on Arthur’s arm as they made their way into the throng.
‘Nash seems to recognise you,’ he said, the question casual.
Arthur shrugged. ‘Perchance he does. I do not keep a tally of the people I meet.’
Eames looked at him, suspicion evident, but Arthur’s calm façade discouraged question.
‘Indeed. I would suggest though that you make your excuses and leave before his curiosity gets the better of him.’
‘You are the only one here, my Lord, to whom I owe my excuses, but I shall take your advice and slip out from the patio.’
Eames kept a strong hand on Arthur’s arm, guiding him around the edge of the dancing couples, and barely pausing to acknowledge the greetings called out to him.
‘The game,’ he said, voice low, ‘was forfeit, so I fear you do not get your dance.’
They had reached the door to the colonnade, and Eames opened it, allowing Arthur to walk through. His hand was now resting heavy on the small of Arthur’s back and he kept it there as Arthur turned, letting his arm bend to the curve of the highwayman’s waist.
‘Sadly not.’ Arthur was close enough now, that his breath brushed Eames’s face as he spoke. ‘But, forfeit or not, you had best have this.’ He reached up and pulled a chain from round his neck, Eames’s ring hanging on it. He caught Eames’s free hand and pressed the ring into it. ‘I do not know when I will see you again, my Lord, and it was never my intention to keep this.’
Eames tightened his hand around the familiar weight of his ring, pulling Arthur closer with his other arm.
‘You won the ring,’ he said, ‘and I have failed to win it back on two occasions, what would you ask for now in return?’
‘Nothing, my Lord. It is satisfaction enough to return it to its rightful owner.’ Arthur’s voice was slightly breathless, and Eames felt the night, heavy and full of promise around them.
‘Perchance,’ he said, and moved his head forward by the slightest of fractions so that their mouths were a hair’s breadth from each other. ‘But I would reward you, nonetheless.’
He pressed his lips to Arthur’s, felt how Arthur’s breath stuttered before he parted his lips and kissed Eames.
He brought his other arm around Arthur, letting his fingers tangle in the dark hair. He felt Arthur return the embrace, sliding his hands over Eames’s shoulders, tentative at first and then bolder as the kiss deepened.
A raised voice on the other side of the door behind them brought them back to their surroundings at length and they broke apart, breathless and flushed. Eames brought a careful hand to Arthur’s face, tracing the cheekbone with his thumb.
‘I must go.’ Arthur’s voice was shaking and he pushed his cheek into Eames’s hand, letting the palm caress his face.
‘And you do not know when we will meet again?’ Eames could hear the edge of hope in his own voice and marvelled at it.
‘I will do what I can, my Lord. Perchance my travels may bring me back to the environs of Penrose Hall before much longer.’
‘I shall rely on chance,’ Eames leaned forward to press a chaste kiss to Arthur’s lips. ‘It has served me well in the past, and I see no reason to doubt my fortune now.’
Arthur turned his head and kissed Eames’s palm for a long moment, eyes closed and looking utterly at peace.
‘I have commitments,’ he said, his lips moving against Eames’s hand as he talked. ‘But should you be at your estates in a fortnight, you might find the hunting profitable. Now,’ he pulled away from Eames. ‘I must go before the unmasking.’
He slipped away, a dark shadow in the night. Eames pulled a cigarillo from his pocket and smoked it, reflective looking up at the starlit night, before turning and making his way back to the card tables and games that had never seemed less exciting.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four: Nash suffers at the hands of an unknown foe; our heroes face danger and gunfire, and we meet a most intriguing boy
Autumn was falling fast and Lord Eames returned to his country seat, anxious to shake the fidgets from his legs and clear his mind in the pursuit of sport. He filled his days with hunting and fishing, and if he was less inclined to seek company than usual, then no-one commented on it.
He had been home for three weeks now with no sign of Arthur, but Eames was not worried. He took to taking long rides through his lands on Forger, spending the miles lost in a pleasant sense of anticipation, and for the first time in his adult life he lacked the sense of ennui that dogged his steps.
Talk in the village started to be of footpads – Nash’s staff were having the most appalling luck. His tailor had been held up on his way down from London and refused to proceed any further; Nash’s man had been held at gun-point on his way to deliver a pretty piece of filigree to a high-flyer he was trying to woo; and, most gallingly of all, to Nash, at least, his entire delivery of run brandy8 had been liberated from his cellars while he was delaying his return from Saito’s house party.
‘I tell you,’ he said to Eames one evening, while in his cups, ‘I am being targeted here – you mark my words.’
My Lord stifled a yawn behind his hand, surreptitiously admiring the sharp line on the cuff of his shirt.
‘Then do something about it.’ Eames could tell that Nash was not impressed by his advice, but Nash’s emotions, never a priority for Eames in the first place, were paling further into insignificance by the day.
Eames had considerable reason to regret those words within the week, when Nash arrived for dinner as the shadows started to gather in the September evening.
Eames had been standing on the steps of the hall as Nash arrived, scanning the horizon for a slim figure on a white horse. When Nash had arrived, Eames had not even needed to see that he was riding a chestnut gelding – whereas Arthur rode with grace and the sort of fine posture that showed his figure to best advantage, Nash bobbed like a badly tethered balloon. He seemed to be suffering from a considerable excitement of nerves, though, and was shouting his greetings to Eames as he bounced his way up the drive.
‘I took your advice,’ he said, as soon as he was in earshot. ‘Saw one of the bastards in your woods on my way here and shot him before he could get a word out.’
Eames raised a polite eyebrow that betrayed nothing of the shock of cold fear he felt in his stomach at the news.
‘I presume that you ascertained the man actually was a footpad before you shot him?’ That Eames could keep his voice level was testament to the force of his will – he had never in his life been so close to unguarded words.
‘Tis hard to see what else he could have been,’ Nash said, though his words lacked conviction. ‘Why else would a man be on your lands at dusk?’
‘Perchance because he had been invited?’ Eames said, voice getting harder. ‘It occurs to me that I have been waiting this last hour for my sister’s cousin, and that he would have legitimate reason to be in my woods at this time. Did you mark the colour horse that this footpad was mounted on?’
Nash looked openly fearful now. ‘A grey, my Lord,’ he said, and Eames was pleased to mark the respect and fear in his voice.
Not wasting time in responding to Nash, Eames shouted for his groom, calling for Forger. My Lord kept no inefficient servants and it was not many moments before the horse was saddled and in front of him.
‘You had best pray that this was a footpad,’ he called as he swung himself into the saddle. ‘I will take it out of your skin should my sister’s kinsman be injured through your stupidity.’
He could hear Nash’s voice behind him and he rode off down the drive, towards the woods where Nash would have fired his shot. Never had he been more glad for Forger’s sure footing and swift pace. Even so, it felt like an eternity before he was riding through the trees, searching for sign of a grey horse in the gathering dusk. He found her in a clearing, not far from where he had duelled with Arthur, and his worst suspicions were confirmed when he saw her white coat was sticky with drops of blood. He dismounted and took her bridle, whispering calming words as she whinnied in his ear.
‘You have a way with horses, my Lord. She is remarkable calm for you.’ The voice, tight with pain, came from behind him and Eames spun round to see Arthur, black cloaked, but scarf trailing loose, leaning against a tree.
‘Arthur,’ he started forward. ‘You are hurt.’
‘Tis the veriest scratch,’ Arthur began, but Eames was with him, pushing him back against the tree and starting to remove his greatcoat with careful hands.
Despite his care, Arthur drew in a pained hiss of breath and Eames could see that at least the front of his shirt was stained dark with blood.
‘I must take you home,’ he said and Arthur uttered a queer, broken laugh.
‘My thanks, my Lord, but I must return to my hideout. Ari... My valet will be waiting for me.’
Despite his words, Arthur was relaxing into Eames’s hold, letting himself be led to the horses.
‘I will send word to your man. He may wait on you at the Hall.’ They reached the horses and Eames manhandled him into Forger’s saddle.
‘This is not my horse,’ Arthur said, and already his voice was losing some of its force.
‘No, he isn’t.’ Eames swung up into the saddle behind Arthur and pulled him close so his back rested against Eames’s chest. ‘But your shoulder is injured and I cannot tell the extent here. Tis too much of a risk for you to ride in this condition.’
He eased Forger into a gentle canter, using his body to brace Arthur from as much movement as possible. Arthur, faced with a fait accompli, relaxed into Eames’s embrace, letting his head drop back onto Eames’s shoulder.
‘So I am to be abducted, my Lord?’
‘In no way. What? Was I meant to ignore you now? After the effort you have put in to being invited to my home?’
‘T’was not my intention to see it this way...’ Arthur sounded like he was drifting, but he roused himself with an effort that Eames could feel through his entire body. ‘My horse, Byre...’
‘My groom shall be sent for her first thing upon our return.’
‘And my man?’
‘I will get his direction from you after Yusuf has cleaned your wound. Belike he has tired of waiting for your return and shall be abed by now. Tomorrow will suffice for him.’
It seemed that Arthur would argue with this, but Eames hushed him, and apart from some stifled moans when Arthur’s shoulder was jolted, they made their way back to the Hall in silence. It was only when Forger picked up his speed on the approach to the Hall, confident now that he knew the lie of this land, and anxious to return to his stable, that Eames considered that Nash may be awaiting them.
‘Arthur,’ he turned his head so he could be heard, ‘I press you for none of your secrets, but tell me true – do you know Nash?’
Arthur nodded his head faintly in response, but said nothing else.
‘In that case,’ Eames said, ‘you must take care he does not see your face as we enter. I have told him you are my sister’s husband’s kin, and that story will serve us, but ensure you press your face into my shoulder as we enter the house.’
He was heartened that Arthur laughed in response.
‘The lengths you go to, my Lord, to get me in your arms.’
‘They are worth it, I assure you,’ Eames said into the soft skin of Arthur’s temple, and that was all he had time for before they were at the house, and Yusuf was springing from his vantage point on the steps to assist Arthur from the horse and into the house.
‘How is he?’ Eames asked when it seemed he could talk without disturbing Yusuf’s concentration.
‘He’ll live.’ Yusuf tied a knot in the stitch he was placing and snipped the thread close to Arthur’s skin. ‘He lost enough blood, that’s for sure, but he was lucky and the bullet missed hitting anything of major import. He will take no lasting damage from this.’
Eames relaxed for the first time since Nash’s arrival.
‘He sleeps now?’
Yusuf nodded. ‘He does. I dosed him with that new compound I’ve been working on, and I would estimate he has another few hours before he wakens.’
Eames nodded, and watched Yusuf clean Arthur with gentle efficiency before dressing him in a nightshirt.
‘I have done all I can for tonight, my Lord. If you will give me a minute to call the housemaid to sit with him, I shall be ready to help you disrobe presently.’
Eames started from his reverie. ‘Humm? No need Yusuf. Help me off with my boots and I will sit with him tonight.’
‘Indeed, my Lord.’ Eames could hear every one of the questions Yusuf wasn’t asking as he pulled off the boots, careful not to get the hint of a thumbprint on the leather, but then Yusuf had always been the perfect manservant, ever since Eames had met him in Mombasa on his travels. There had been that incident on the first night of their acquaintance – but Eames had yet to meet any one of his peers whose manservant hadn’t tried to kill them at least once, so he didn’t hold that against Yusuf in the slightest.
Eames settled himself in a seat beside the bed and stretched out his stockinged legs. Arthur looked peaceful in his sleep, younger than Eames had thought, more vulnerable without his fiercely intelligent eyes and biting wit shielding him.
Eames watched him, watched the candlelight play across his features, the small movements and noise he made as his eyes moved, tracking dreams behind his closed lids.
He was fascinated by this enigmatic youth. He fought, gamed and talked like a gentleman born and raised, yet the clothes he wore with such flair and elegance were old and worn, though cared for, and Eames would wager all he had that this was not some scion of nobility courting danger and excitement on the roads for sport.
By the time Arthur awoke the candles had burned low in their holders, and Eames would confess that he was dozing in his chair. He jerked from his rest, though, when Arthur uttered a hoarse cry, twisting in the bed as he fought a nightmare.
‘Shh,’ he said, pinning Arthur, gentle as he could, to the bed. ‘Shh. I’ve got you. You’re safe.’
‘Ari?’ Arthur’s voice was scared, and he clearly didn’t know where he was.
‘No, Arthur. It’s me. It’s Eames.’
‘Eames,’ Arthur repeated, and his eyes focussed finally on Eames’s face. ‘Oh... Yes.’ He relaxed, his body going pliant and warm under Eames’s hands, until Eames reluctantly straightened.
‘You should take some of Yusuf’s compound,’ he said, reaching for the bottle of tincture Yusuf had left and measuring out a spoon. ‘T’will help with the pain and ease your sleep.’ He moved round until he could cradle Arthur’s head against his shoulder and feed him the spoon of medicine.
‘Mmmm,’ Arthur said, head falling back and lips medicine-sticky against the skin of Eames’s throat. ‘Tastes foul.’
Eames made a non-committal noise and moved back, laying Arthur gently down before tucking the cover around him.
His sleep was disturbed through the rest of the night, but Eames was able to quieten him each time he awoke, and the fear he had awoken with the first time did not recur. By the time Eames heard the first noises of the house waking up the sun had started to peek in through the curtains, and when Yusuf arrived to relieve him, Eames made no demur, but instead trudged heavy-eyed to his own bed.
‘So, was it worth it?’ Eames asked, lounging at the door of the room.
Arthur, who had been watching Yusuf setting out a bowl of warm water and sharpening a straight razor, turned his head sharply towards Eames, and a smile lit up his face.
‘To sample your hospitality?’ He pulled a thoughtful face. ‘Well, t’were a little extreme, I admit, yet…’
Eames laughed softly, and turned to his valet.
‘You may go, Yusuf. I believe I can help our guest from this point.’
Yusuf bowed to Arthur, the perfect picture of a true gentleman’s gentleman, but the look he gave to Eames as he brushed past out of the room spoke volumes.
‘Your man does not approve, I think,’ Arthur said as Eames approached the bed.
‘Yusuf will approve what he is told to.’ Eames checked the soap, brushes and towels, before testing the water. It was the perfect temperature, and Eames divested himself of his coat and rolled up his sleeves, wetting a flannel and passing it to Arthur to place on his face, before he started lathering up the soap.
‘In future, Arthur, you should avoid going to such lengths. My house is always open to you, and perchance Yusuf would prefer you if he didn’t spend the evening cleaning up your blood.’
Arthur took the flannel off his face and turned towards Eames.
‘As tempting as the offer is my Lord…’
‘Oh, Arthur. I thought we had got over this last night. I do have a name you know.’
‘I know… Eames. But as I was saying I do have commitments, and living like this,’ he gestured at the room, ‘will just remind me of things I can no longer have.’
‘But why can’t you get used to it again?’ Eames could understand pride, but he could see the desire in Arthur’s eyes, and, though such thoughts were alien to him, he could already see the way Arthur fitted in to his home.
Arthur shook his head, a tiny movement, but resolve hardened his features. Eames tilted his face upwards and started to apply the lather to his cheeks with gentle circles of the brush.
‘I wish you would trust me,’ he said as he started to draw the razor down Arthur’s face, and Arthur was biddable under his hand, moving as directed, and Eames felt a rush of arousal and affection.
He hoped that he had reached Arthur, that Arthur would share something of his past now, but as he finished shaving Arthur, and wiped the remains of the soap from his face, Arthur remained silent, and Eames realised it would be a delicate process to break through his resolve.
‘There,’ he said at length, releasing his grip, though allowing himself a last gentle caress. ‘You’re done.’
‘Thank you,’ Arthur said, and Eames could hear how he had caught the ‘my lord’ just in time.
‘Can I do aught else for you?’ Eames asked.
‘I beg you would send for my man, my Lord,’ Arthur said, and Eames, faced with the uncharacteristic uncertainty in Arthur’s eyes, resolved to fetch Arthur’s servant himself.
‘Where will I find him?’
Arthur hesitated, and for a second Eames thought that he would not disclose his location. He continued clearing the room, turning his back to shrug on his jacket again and checked his appearance in the glass over the mantle. Free of scrutiny, Arthur seemed to relax.
‘The Bird in the Hand,’ he said. ‘Tis some five miles hence, near the London road, though not too close.’
‘Obviously.’ Eames straightened his neckcloth and kept his eyes on the mirror before him, wherein he could examine Arthur’s reflection unobserved. ‘And what name should I ask for?’
‘Henry,’ Arthur said, and Eames would wager his life that this name was assumed.
‘Does he go by that? Or by Harry?’ He turned back to Arthur, assuming an indifferent air. ‘Tis merely that you called out for Harry last night.’
Arthur’s eyes widened slightly in alarm, and Eames smiled comfortingly at him. ‘It does not matter, Arthur, I just...’
‘No – Harry is a shortening we used when we were younger.’ Arthur blushed. ‘Tis no secret, my Lord, merely that I did not realise I had been so unguarded last night.’
Eames sat on the edge of the bed and rested his hand on Arthur’s.
‘Twas the pain, that is all. You told no secrets and had you done, they would have been safe with me and mine.’
Arthur looked at him.
‘I know that, Eames. You think I would have given you the location of my refuge had I not trusted you?’
Eames nodded. ‘And maybe one day you will trust me with the full story.’ He rose and brushed his finger against Arthur’s cheek. ‘Now, I must go fetch your man, before he frets himself to flinders imagining you in gaol or worse.’
‘You go yourself, my Lord?’ Arthur sounded surprised, though Eames could hear that he tried to veil the surprise out of politeness.
‘Must I repeat myself, Arthur? My name is Eames, and I make you free to use it. And yes. I go myself. Given the delicacy of your position, it seems like the neatest solution.’
Arthur smiled, but looked uncertain.
‘It would save unnecessary explanations to others, Eames, but it is not the sort of establishment you usually favour.’
‘I had guessed as much, yet I would brave even this to restore your servant to you. Now,’ he drank in the sight of Arthur, relaxed and happy in his bed, ‘I must go. I shall return betimes, and you will have a better caregiver than I to shave you tomorrow.’
He left the room to call for his carriage, the image of Arthur, blushing and dimpled, strong in his mind.
A small child, gender indeterminate under layers of dirt, was loitering around the door, and my Lord beckoned it over with the wave of an imperious hand.
‘Hold my horses for me,’ he said, swinging himself from the seat, ‘and I will reward you with a sovereign.’
The child nodded, eyes wide, and Eames squared his shoulders and marched into the taproom, presenting as formidable an appearance as he could.
The room was near deserted – the landlord cutting a shabby figure behind the bar, and in hush-voiced discussion with a swarthy looking man. They fell silent at the sight of Eames, rendered perplexed and suspicious by his entrance.
‘You have a boy here, called Henry. A servant. Send him to me.’ Eames kept his voice commanding, and offered no explanations to assuage the landlord’s palpable curiosity. The man offered him a cautious bow and scuttled from the room – Eames could hear him calling the boy’s name on the stairs.
‘You’ll get no joy of that boy.’ The words came from the swarthy man at the bar.
‘Your meaning, sir?’ Eames raised an eyebrow in mocking politeness.
‘I mean, there be only one reason why a gentleman fine as yourself would seek the company of a boy like this one, and I tell you again: you will get no joy of him.’ The man hawked a cough and spat on the floor of the pub, and Eames, by no means nice in his tastes or actions, could only suppress a shudder by force of will. ‘His hedgebird master is precious protective of the boy – and be mighty ready with his pistols and fists should a man take too close an interest.’ The man regarded Eames with a cynical eye. ‘Mind’ee, his master has been gone a day now. T’aint no knowing what a boy like this will do when allowed free reign.’
Eames was saved from reply by the landlord, clattering back into the room.
Any suspicions about the nature of Arthur’s relationship with his manservant that Eames harboured were jolted into sharp relief by the boy who entered the room.
He was young and slim built, scarcely more than an urchin, with large, fearful eyes set in a pale, fine-boned face. His clothes were neat but old, like Arthur’s own, and he wore his long hair tied back.
‘I don’t know what he’s done my Lord, but t’aint no responsibility of mine.’ The boy looked more fearful at the landlord’s words, and Eames took a step forward.
‘I come for the boy on his master’s bidding. He wishes you to bring his goods in my carriage.’ The boy looked uncertain and Eames realised he should have got Arthur to write a note for him. ‘He says that Byre does not flourish without your care, Harry, and nor does he.’
As if the childhood name answered some unspoken question the boy nodded.
‘I shall pack now, my Lord.’ His voice was high, a sign of his youth, and Eames smiled despite himself and gestured at the door. The boy fled the room and Eames could hear the rattle of feet on the stairs as he paid Arthur’s shot to the suspicions landlord.9
He had only just got back to the carriage and paid off the child holding the horses when Harry tumbled out of the inn, several bags and packages in his arms. Eames took these and stowed them safely before turning to the boy.
‘Climb in then,’ he said, and watched the boy scramble into the seat. ‘Belike Arthur will be glad to see you after this separation.’
He climbed onto the box himself and took the reins, encouraging his team into a trot. Harry was silent next to him, and when Eames glanced across, the boy looked ill at ease.
‘You have known your master long?’ Eames had never allowed opportunity to slip by untaken.
‘It is as my Lord says.’ The boy looked cautious, before turning worried eyes on Eames. ‘What befell him? He would not have left me like that, in such a place, had he not meant to return.’
The question was so full of concern and genuine affection that Eames felt his heart soften to this strange, quiet, child next to him.
‘Have no fear. He was injured last night, a gunshot, but I found him soon enough and he is safe established at Penrose Hall now.’ He turned and smiled at the boy. ‘My man, Yusuf, has been caring for him, and when we arrive I will deliver you into his hands. No doubt he can give you more detail than I, but when I left your master he was looking more like himself, and was anxious to see you.’
The boy nodded shortly, and the rest of the ride passed in near silence, only a few commonplaces10 passing between them.
He did hear the boy inhale in surprise as they rounded the bend in the drive and the Hall was laid out for them to view. Eames was exceeding proud of his lands, though that he took pleasure in the awe of an urchin boy made him shake his head ruefully. As they drew up to the steps he espied Yusuf by the door.
‘Look boy,’ he said. ‘That is thy master’s true benefactor. T’were his skilled hands that ensured there will be no lasting harm from the wound.’
The carriage was barely at a halt before the boy leaped down and ran towards Yusuf. Indeed, thought Eames, this is a salutary lesson in my value.
‘Yusuf!’ he called, ‘take this scamp to his master’s chamber.’
Yusuf bowed his approval, looking like nothing more than an old tom cat of Eames’s when faced with a kitten and being warned to keep playing fair. As they left Eames could hear Harry shyly thanking Yusuf for the care he’d taken over Arthur and it brought a smile to his face.
He retired to his library, pondering why Arthur would have chosen such a fey youth for his servant. Eames suspected there was a long acquaintance between the two, though this would not necessarily preclude a closer relationship.
Matters of business detained him that afternoon, and the hour was advanced when he walked into the drawing room. He could hear voices from the colonnade, and when he looked out he saw Harry perched on the balustrade, munching an apple and laughing at some anecdote Yusuf was retelling.
He thought to join them, and left the house with an easy smile on his face. Harry, though, dropped the apple at Eames’s approach, and stood, silent and afeard, behind Yusuf.
‘Your master is improved?’ Eames asked, intrigued at how the boy had closed in on himself. He had not thought Arthur a harsh master, but the way the boy acted suggested that he had a lively dread of being out of place.
Harry nodded, mutely, and Eames considered. ‘Tell him I will call on him before dinner,’ he said, and, raising an eyebrow at Yusuf, he retreated to his library.
‘Regardless, he is a dangerous man, and you had best not underestimate him. Ensure you are not alone with him, nor...’ Eames knocked the door and Arthur broke off. He saw Harry dart him a venomous look before obeying Arthur’s gesture and withdrawing from the room.
‘My apologies, Eames,’ Arthur said, ‘tis just some discord...’
Eames waved his hand. ‘You need not explain,’ he said. ‘When you have known Yusuf longer you will discover that he is not stinting in his disapproval should I act contrary to his advice. Tis the mark of a good manservant in my eyes. In any case, Yusuf says you improve rapidly, though from experience I wager you are not comfortable yet.’
Arthur laughed lightly.
‘Indeed not, Eames. It seems I cannot be comfortable no matter how I lie.’
Eames grimaced in empathy, and proffered the book.
‘I thought that Byron’s poetry might make a wakeful night more bearable. Tis solace when sleep eludes me, or dreams collapse.’
Arthur took the book with a nod, and flicked it open.
‘Is not the past all shadow? What are they?
Creations of the mind? The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
I would recall a vision which I dreamed
Perchance in sleep – for in itself a thought,
A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.’11
Arthur’s voice was deep and melodic and Eames smiled at the words.
‘That is a favourite of mine,’ he said.
‘Tis beautiful,’ Arthur replied. ‘I have not seen it before – of recent times I have not had the leisure to read poetry. I thank you for loaning it to me.’
‘I am glad you approve my choice, Arthur, and I hoped you would sit with me at dinner.’ He saw Arthur pause, and gestured down at his own clothes. ‘Tis not formal, so wear what is comfortable for your shoulder.’
Arthur smiled at this. ‘Yusuf brought me a dressing gown, quite resplendent. I should wear that though I fear I shall put you to shame.’
Eames feigned horror. ‘My paisley silk? T’would seem I am not yet forgiven for suggesting Yusuf wear a wig while at Saito’s.’
Arthur moved to get out of the bed, straining his shoulder slightly in so doing. His stifled gasp of pain, though small, drew Eames to his side, and brought Harry back into the room.
Arthur allowed Eames to help him rise and gestured to Harry.
‘Bring me the dressing gown Yusuf sent, if you please.’
Harry uttered a dismissive huff. ‘Gown indeed, Arthur. You will look like a strumpet in such an article.’ Nonetheless he fetched the gown and helped Arthur into it with careful hands.
‘You need not wait up for your master,’ Eames said. ‘I will ensure he comes to no harm and will see him to bed myself.’ He felt Arthur suddenly tense next to him, and put on his most courtly smile before offering his arm as support. ‘Tis only that your boy looked tired,’ he explained. ‘I make you free of Yusuf should you need him.’
He had carefully selected the dinner to tempt Arthur’s appetite, and led the way direct to the dining room. As instructed, the two settings had been laid next to each other, and candles had been gathered around to make the space feel welcoming.
‘I beg you will be seated, Arthur.’ He pulled out the chair and hovered, solicitous, as Arthur seated himself. The servants, mindful of their training, even in the face of their lord’s uncharacteristic good humour, bestirred themselves to serve the dinner.
‘A French chef?’ Arthur asked, eying the dishes laid out before them.
‘Naturally.’ Eames smiled. ‘Francois has a remarkable way with fish, I recommend you try the turbot.’
He waved away the servants, serving Arthur himself, thinking that conversation would flow easier unobserved. And it amused my Lord to see this boy, who should have been adrift in an unfamiliar milieu, sit there and be served with the casual assurance of one born to this station in life.
‘Your valet is very loyal,’ he said, watching Arthur toy with an artichoke heart. ‘You have known each other for a while I would hazard?’
‘We have,’ Arthur said, and shot an evaluating look at Eames from under long eyelashes. ‘I have known Harry from boyhood, and when I needed a valet, t’were the obvious choice.’
‘He is very young for such a post.’ Eames busied himself with a ragout of lobster. ‘You do not find the training tiresome?’
Arthur shrugged, elegant and unconcerned.
‘It has not occurred to me that it might be. When I am not abducted by tyrannical lords and bundled into what passes as clothing in polite circles,’ he gestured at the robe he was wearing, ‘then Harry keeps me neat enough, and has a deft turn with my boots.’
‘Tyrannical indeed, Arthur.’ He waved the servants over and indicated that the remains of the first course be cleared away. ‘Have I been any other than kindness itself to you?’
‘Indeed not, Eames. Yet Harry seems to have a lively enough fear of you, and that puts me on my mettle.’ Arthur’s eyes gleamed in jest, and Eames responded by affecting a mien of affronted dignity.
‘Then I shall make it my goal to woo him over – I cannot have a servant in my house thinking me cruel.’
One of the footmen serving a platter of pheasant, shot on the estate itself, stumbled slightly at this, and Eames shot him a look that belied all his gentler words.
‘I can see that, my Lord,’ said Arthur, shoulders shaking with poorly concealed mirth. ‘An’ I shall await this wooing with eagerness. Tis likely to be unique, at least.’
He smirked, and Eames feigned a scowl.
‘Your condescension is much appreciated, Arthur. Now, I notice you do not eat. You will allow me to serve you a peach at least?’
Arthur raised a hand in demur, but Eames had already taken the peach and started to slice it into neat sections, the juice running over his fingers.
‘They are the last of the crop from my succession houses,’12 he said, holding out a segment for Arthur to take. For a second he thought Arthur would bend his head and let Eames press the fruit to his lips, but the moment passed and Arthur reached out his hand to take the fruit, uttering a polite comment about Eames’s estate.
It set a pattern for the rest of the evening, and though Arthur was polite, responding to every one of Eames’s conversational gambits, and even joining him for a hand of whist, he remained slightly aloof, watching Eames with a speculative look on his face.
He let Eames lead him to his room at the end of the evening, but wouldn’t hear of Eames helping him to bed. And indeed when he opened the door, Harry was sat in waiting, ready to help Arthur. Eames was left with naught but the memory of a brilliant smile and dimpled cheeks as he faced the door, firmly closed by an unimpressed looking Harry. He could hear master and valet start to engage in an overloud discussion as he walked off down the landing,
It was fortunate, perhaps, that Yusuf sensed something of his mood, and Eames had not many minutes been in the billiard room before Yusuf appeared, decanter of brandy in hand.
‘Shall I pour, my Lord?’ he asked and Eames glanced up from where he was frowning over a tricky corner shot.
‘Pray do, and one for yourself. I feel we are safe enough ensconced here that we need have no fear of intruding guests tonight.’ Eames abandoned the shot and started racking up for a new game.
Yusuf poured two generous measures and brought them to the table, shrugging out of his jacket and starting to chalk a cue.
‘Seems to me, my Lord, that not all guests are unwelcome at present.’
Eames gestured to Yusuf to make the break.
‘Perhaps not, though I doubt I am in full possession of my senses. Seems to me he is in love with his valet, and I labour for his attention in vain.’
‘I agree that there is a tie of affection there,’ Yusuf said, straightening from his shot, ‘but I do not think it romantic love.’
Eames moved round the table, assessing angles and opportunities. ‘You have had the greater chance to observe them together, and the lad is more relaxed around you.’ He broke off and looked up at Yusuf. ‘Perchance you have an eye in that direction yourself?’
Yusuf smiled, unfazed. ‘And if I had, my Lord, would it bother you?’
‘Not in the least, my dear boy. Tis the master I would court, not the lad. Too plain for my taste, even if he be a lordling – and he lacks even that surprise.’
Yusuf chuckled and potted a ball neatly. ‘I suspect, my Lord, the youth has his own share of secrets that bear closer examination.’ He missed his next shot and straightened, gesturing to Eames to play.
‘I leave you to discover them then, with my blessing,’ Eames said, sinking several shots in quick succession and rising with the satisfaction of a job well done. ‘Should you prefer a callow youth to a seasoned fighter, then proceed by all means.’ He raised an eyebrow at Yusuf’s mocking smile, and picked up his brandy glass. ‘No, cry peace, Yusuf. Each to his own, and I wish you luck.’
‘And I you, my Lord.’ Yusuf raised his glass in salute. ‘May we each be favoured by Lady Luck in our goals.’
Chapter 5: Chapter Five: In which my Lord mistakes the situation and an agreement is reached
Yusuf gave Arthur his blessing to rise the next morning. Eames, hearing the news as he tied his cravat, went to check up on him and thus entered his bedroom just as Harry was pulling Arthur’s jacket round his injured shoulder.
‘For mercy’s sake, remain still Arthur. I cannot help if you are wriggling like a basket of kittens, you know.’ Harry’s voice was exasperated, but Eames could hear the genuine concern underlying the complaint.
‘Faith, child,’ Arthur’s voice, full of amusement and affection, made Eames’s chest clench, ‘tis only a scratch. I will not leave you yet, you have my word, so be gentle with me?’
Harry uttered a stifled sob. ‘And if you had been seriously hurt, what then, Arthur?’
Uncomfortable in hesitating unseen any longer, Eames pushed the door full open, his face a study in nonchalance. He was just in time to see Harry jump from Arthur’s embrace, his eyes and nose red from tears, though not one glimmer of acknowledgement showed itself in my Lord’s expression.
‘Arthur!’ he said. ‘Tis good to see you up and about already. I would have been forced to shoot Nash like a feral dog had he done you any lasting harm.’ Arthur smiled at him and Eames turned to Harry. ‘And you, boy? You see the improvement in him?’
Harry nodded mutely, and Eames reached over to flick his chin with a careless finger.
‘Then smile. T’will not do your master any great service to see you wreathed in scowls when the danger is passed.’
Harry attempted a half smile, and Eames accepted it as the best he was going to get. He turned back to Arthur and nodded his approval at his outfit.
‘So, Arthur. Yusuf seems to think that fresh air will speed your recovery, but I am loathe to tire you with a walk. Would you care to take a spin around the estate in my carriage?’ He saw Arthur hesitate and cast a glance towards Harry. ‘Yusuf said he would take the boy around the house, to enlarge his education.’ Eames paused. ‘We can but hope that he does not dwell on his laboratory, but if he should then I am sure there will be no lasting harm to anything other than the walls and ceiling, and Lord knows, they are used to disaster by now.’
Harry’s diffidence seemed to evaporate in the face of the promise of an afternoon with Yusuf, and Arthur smiled ruefully.
‘Tis your house, Eames, and if you are willing to bear the risk then I would not deny Harry the treat.’
He nodded at Harry, who all but ran from the room. Eames laughed.
‘He sets no high store upon Lords or etiquette, does he?’ He noted Arthur bristling in defence of his valet and shook his head. ‘No, no. I meant no disrespect. Tis charming to see such enthusiasm, unblunted by society. He is a credit to you.’
Arthur smiled broadly, an expression that Eames had difficulty understanding and walked towards the door.
‘I beg you would excuse him his lack of manners. I would like to think they stem from his youth, but truth be told, Harry is something of an urchin, though loyal and with a good heart.’
Eames led the way down to the stables, maintaining an easy flow of conversation. Arthur laughed and played his part, though Eames still sensed an element of the reserve that had characterised the last night.
He did not bring Arthur straight to the carriage, choosing instead to allow Arthur see Byre in her stable. When Arthur pulled away from the horse, he turned to Eames, gratitude writ large upon his face.
‘You have taken good care of her, Eames.’
Eames swallowed and took a hesitant step forward to rest his hand on Arthur’s arm.
‘I keep telling you, Arthur – I would be very willing to care for you and yours.’
Arthur nodded, an inscrutable expression in his eyes and then turned to the carriage.
‘I believe you were going to take me for a jaunt?’ He smiled shyly and Eames helped him into the carriage, careful of his shoulder. Arthur huffed an impatient sigh as Eames seated himself on the box and took the reins from his groom.
‘You are pained?’ Eames asked, as they pulled off.
‘Not at all, Eames. Tis merely that I dislike being unable to move freely.’ He dragged an impatient hand through his hair and sighed. ‘Perchance I have been too long my own master. Confinement chafes me, apparently.’
‘Belike it will pass soon enough,’ Eames said. ‘You recover quickly already, just show patience and this will pass.’
Arthur gave Eames a smile, small and tight, but remained silent.
‘Aside from Harry, do you have calls on your time?’ he asked as they started down the drive, curious to know more of Arthur’s circumstances.
Arthur shook his head. ‘None but Byre and the need to make my living.’
Eames laughed. ‘Ah, yes. And your employ is to your tastes?’
‘It serves for now,’ Arthur said, sounding guarded, ‘in the absence of aught else. But, enough of me, my Lord. What of you? You find satisfaction in your lands? Or do your tastes run more to the pleasures of London?’
Eames raised an eyebrow at the shift in subject, but allowed himself to be led.
‘I enjoy the city, to be sure,’ he said, ‘and I spend the greater part of the season there. Had you asked me in my twenties I would have professed my ardent desire to spend my entire life in my house in Grosvenor Square, but of recent times I find the country life holds a greater range of pleasures.’ He cast a covert glance at Arthur. ‘And do you enjoy the Season,13 Arthur? Or do you prefer the country life?’
‘Oh lord, no! Should I never attend another ball at Almanak’s14 t’would be too soon.’ Arthur started to laugh, but caught himself when he realised how he had misspoken, but Eames feigned deafness and pointed out a farm they were passing, explaining the improvements he had made in recent years and the dividends they had paid.
Arthur allowed him to steer the conversation, asking questions that demonstrated both intelligence, and perhaps a greater knowledge of estate management than Arthur realised he was showing. When they were hailed by one of Eames’s tenants, Arthur watched the exchange with an interested expression, and as they pulled off down the lane he turned to Eames.
‘You seem to have a greater attachment to your lands than you would have me believe, Eames,’ he said, and Eames shrugged, embarrassed.
‘Tis hardly befitting a gentleman of fashion, is it?’ he said, hiding his feelings in gruffness, but from the smile in Arthur’s eyes he had not been wholly successful.
‘As you say, Eames.’ Arthur glanced away, seemingly preoccupied with the passing hedges and fields. ‘And do you seek to take a wife?’
Eames laughed. ‘I do not at present.’ He looked at Arthur whose attention was still diverted. ‘I am not over fond of Almanak’s either, nor of the sort of women hanging out for a rich husband. I may be growing foolish in my old age, but I would prefer to give my heart to someone who loves me for who I am, and not for the size of my estate or my propensity to be generous.’
When he looked again, he found Arthur fixing him with a penetrating stare.
‘To have someone to stand by my side throughout trials and troubles as you have with Harry, well,’ he turned his attention back to his team and urged them to pick up their pace, ‘that would be something I would cherish indeed.’
Arthur’s face looked infinitely fond. ‘Indeed, I am well aware of the blessing Harry is in my life,’ he said.
Eames felt his chest constrict. ‘You are lucky to have found love, Arthur,’ he said, forcing the words out past a lump that had appeared of a sudden in his throat.
Arthur laid his hand on Eames’s arm, and when Eames turned his head he was confronted by Arthur looking equal parts shocked and earnest.
‘My affection for Harry is one born of long acquaintance,’ he said. ‘You need not fear an attachment that would preclude your affections being reciprocated.’
Eames felt warmth blossom throughout his body, and turned to press Arthur further, but Arthur’s face was unreadable, save for an expression of determination.
‘Harry is a special soul, my Lord,’ Arthur said, and Eames was baffled by his change in subject. ‘If you furthered your acquaintance, you would find him better company than I, by far and…’ his words, and Eames’s confused questions were cut off by the sound of rapidly approaching hooves.
The rider was one of Eames’s grooms, panting with exertion.
‘Your pardon, my Lord, but you have an express from Lord Saito, and his man urges your immediate attention.’
Eames sighed, and urged his team faster.
‘I shall return now,’ he said and turned to Arthur. ‘We should continue this conversation at another time. Saito, like the tides, waits for no man.’
The rest of the ride back to Penrose Hall was accomplished in silence, and though Eames’s mind was full of questions, he knew that this was not neither the time nor the place to press for answers.
‘You are finished, Eames?’ The quiet voice from the doorway of his study made him start, and he looked up to see Arthur watching him, his body an elegant curve leaning against the doorframe.
‘I am,’ he said, and rose, advancing towards Arthur. ‘Saito believes his business interests are more important than the lives of lesser mortals.’ He spared a glance back at his desk. ‘Perchance he is right. I have never failed to profit by doing his bidding, at least.’
Arthur extended a hand towards him. ‘You will tolerate my company at dinner again?’ he asked, and Eames shook his head in wonder.
‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Arthur, but I should change.’
Arthur made a dismissive noise. ‘And I should care?’ He shook his head. ‘Oh no, my Lord. Let us stand on no ceremony together.’ He took Eames’s arm and started to lead him towards the dining room. ‘In any case, Harry visited the kitchen with Yusuf earlier and could barely fix my clothes for stories of turkey poults, rabbit pies and Francois’s temperament. I confess I now have a dread of offending him.’
‘Quite rightly so,’ Eames said, laughing. ‘He is the envy of my circle and my entertainment would be sadly diminished an’ I lost him.’
‘A sorry fate, my Lord,’ said Arthur, looking doleful. ‘T’would be best in that case to come as you are and avoid his displeasure.’
Dinner was a companionable affair. Arthur seemed to have lost much of his reserve and Eames was charmed by his wit and intelligence.
‘Tea?’ Eames asked as the meal ended, and Arthur sat, nibbling a sweetmeat with even, white teeth. ‘Or would you favour brandy?’
‘The latter I think,’ Arthur said. ‘And should you have a cigarillo, I feel I might risk incurring Harry’s wrath to smoke one.’
‘Shall we adjourn to my library in that case? We should make some sort of stand, lest our valets rule us completely.’
Arthur laughed. ‘You think it likely we can avoid that fate? I, for one, abandoned hope within a week of Harry’s... appointment.’
If Eames noted the pause, he gave no sign, merely opening the library door and standing back to allow Arthur enter.
Yusuf had laid out the decanter and glasses, a fire burned bright in the hearth, and the room looked welcoming and warm. Yet by the time both men were seated with their drinks there was an edge of tension running through Arthur. Eames remained silent, allowing him the time to marshal his thoughts.
‘I wish, my Lord,’ Arthur said at length, ‘to speak of Harry.’
Eames looked at him, and could see determination and despair writ large upon his face.
‘You said earlier that you were not in love with him.’ Eames asked, careful to maintain a neutral tone. ‘Did you speak truly?’
‘I did,’ Arthur said, ‘but I needs must tell you more.’
Eames held up a hand, effectively silencing him.
‘If you are not in love with the boy, then what care I for him?’
Arthur finally met his gaze. ‘But, Eames,’ he said, ‘Harry would be...’ He waved a hand, momentarily lost for words. ‘Let me explain more fully...’
Eames leant over and took Arthur’s hand between his own.
‘I beg you will explain, Arthur, as fully as you desire, but rest assured – my interests are fixed on you, no matter what nonsensical idea you have in your head.’
Eames half expected Arthur to pull away from his hold, but instead he gripped Eames’s hand tighter.
‘You say that now, Eames, but when you understand fully I can make you see that Harry is a much better match...’
Eames swung himself out of his chair, kneeling in front of Arthur.
‘Harry can go to the devil,’ he said, raising a hand to cup Arthur’s face. ‘You cannot be this great a fool – I will not allow it to be possible. Can you not see that it is you I want?’
Arthur closed his eyes and let his head rest on Eames’s palm, and in that moment he looked young and tired, worn down by pain and fighting, and Eames’s heart would bleed with it.
‘You would not say such things should you know the full story, Eames. To want me is to court society’s censure. For Harry at least there is hope of redemption, but I am beyond even that now.’
Eames stroked his thumb over Arthur’s jaw.
‘Why won’t you trust me, love?’ he said, willing Arthur to believe him. ‘There is nothing that cannot be dealt with given the resources and connections, and I have both in abundance, and would lay them at your feet if you would only let me.’
Arthur opened his eyes, and smiled at Eames like it broke his heart to do so.
‘I would trust you, Eames,’ he said, ‘but I hardly know where to begin. This has been my burden for so long now, that I fear sharing it has become an impossible task.’
Eames stood up and refreshed their glasses before lounging into the seat next to Arthur.
‘Why do you not start at the beginning? Tis obvious that this wasn’t always your life. I would wager you are nobly born at least.’
‘I was.’ Arthur looked relieved at Eames’s prompting. ‘Not as nobly as you of course, but I have nothing to find shame in. No,’ he dragged a hand through his hair, ‘that came later.’
Eames took pity on his struggle. ‘You need not tell me if it causes you pain,’ he said, and Arthur smiled gratefully.
‘No, you have a right to know. You have been generosity itself to me, and you should know.’ He drew in a breath, obviously steeling himself, and met Eames’s eyes squarely. ‘You have heard of Cobb’s disgrace, I warrant?’
Eames nodded and Arthur smiled mirthlessly.
‘Most have. I was an intimate of him and his wife. I was raised close to Cobb, and we were friends from our youth. When Mal died and Cobb fled to the Continent, I… I asked too many questions about the circumstances and voiced my suspicions too freely.’
Eames nodded in comprehension.
‘I did not know the Cobbs well, but the allegations never struck me as realistic.’
Arthur shrugged. ‘Whether they were or not, I did not believe them. Unfortunate for me that I named the Cobol Club, and questioned its part in what happened.’
‘Understandable, but I guess that they did not take kindly to your research?’
‘Indeed not.’ Arthur looked grim. ‘I was… set upon. On my way home. And I can fight.’
‘As I know to my cost,’ Eames said, and Arthur smiled at him.
‘Yes. But even I can do little when faced with eight armed men.’
Eames winced sympathetically. ‘You were hurt?’ he asked.
‘They left me for dead – or as good as. And after I had limped home and patched myself back together,’ Arthur’s face turned bitter. ‘Well, then I discovered that I had allegedly been caught cheating in a card game, and my reputation had suffered irreparable damage.’
‘You had no family to take your part?’
Arthur shook his head. ‘My parents are dead. Only my sister remains of my immediate family – and I had rather live on my wits and the road than ask for aid from my uncle’s family.’
Eames nodded in understanding. ‘Does your sister still recognise you?’
‘She does but when I was disgraced her suitor, Fischer, dropped the engagement, and she is scarcely better situated than I at the moment.’
Eames frowned. He knew Fischer by repute and had thought better of him. ‘And your home?’ he asked.
‘The man who denounced me was gifted my house.’
Eames hesitated. He hardly wanted to alienate Arthur, yet…
‘How was that possible?’ he asked. ‘We do not live in the dark ages.’
‘No.’ Arthur laughed, but it was bitter. ‘Yet if a man says that I wagered my estate at the gaming table, and if he have enough friends who swear they witnessed the game, then society will believe them. Especially should they have a note forged in my hand.’
Eames shivered, acutely aware of how he would feel should someone try and take Penrose Hall from him.
‘You could not explain the matter?’
Arthur shook his head. ‘The world would not listen to a cheat and my reputation was in such disrepair that I had no recourse but to accept popular opinion and seek my living through whatever means I could.’
Eames bit back expressions of pity he knew would be unwelcome.
‘Who was this man?’ he asked.
‘A kinsman,’ Arthur answered shortly. ‘Acting in the Cobol Club’s interests no doubt, yet I feel he welcomed the opportunity to settle old scores. My family was gentry – not aristocracy like yours, but even in a humble family there can be jealousy, and my cousin was always envious of our house and lands. When he saw a chance to take what he had always most desired, I believe he could not resist.’ He sipped his drink. ‘And he had no fondness for Cobb at all, though I believe that stemmed from jealousy of his wife.’
‘Mal was very lovely, the little I saw of her,’ Eames said, and Arthur nodded.
‘She was indeed. To see her was to fall a little in love I think, and my cousin could never tolerate others having something he desired. Cobol offered him a chance to achieve all his desires, and he would needs to have been a better man than he was to resist.’
Eames nodded, sympathetic and understanding.
‘Perhaps it is my wilful blindness, Arthur, but I see no cause for you to be shamed in this.’ Arthur looked at him, shocked. ‘Tis a dirty tale, for sure, but you have lost nothing beyond hope of recall. I would stand your friend in this, and I flatter myself that I have some power still.’ Arthur smiled, as Eames had intended. ‘I will not press you for more this evening, but once you have slept on this we shall talk again, and see if we cannot find a way through this.’
He smiled at Arthur, gentle, and took his hand.
‘I do not mean to diminish your concerns, but you are young yet, and you have been carrying this burden on your own for too long. Tis no wonder that things have become magnified beyond their proper station.’
The look of dawning hope in Arthur’s eyes touched Eames’s heart, and he tightened his grasp.
‘I will spare you the protestations of my feelings, Arthur, but please know that you are welcome in my home for as long as you would.’
‘You are all kindness, and…’ a blush stained Arthur’s cheeks, ‘your feelings are reciprocated, though I know tis hardly fitting for a hedgebird to love a lord.’
‘There is nothing to be shamed in for one gentleman’s son to love another’s though,’ Eames said. ‘But nor is there any rush. I would seek to remedy the wrongs you have faced so that you may stand at my side as the equal you are, and not out of gratitude or need.’
He rose and pulled Arthur to his feet, pressing a chaste kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth.
‘We will talk on this more on the morrow. You should consider what I have said though. You will allow me to have some knowledge of the world and how it works, and I see no cause for despair.’
‘My Lord, you teach me to hope as I have not done in many months now.’ Arthur raised a hand to the back of Eames’s neck and pulled him in for another kiss, barely less chaste, but Eames could feel the tension grow between them. ‘I hardly know whether to bless you or curse you for it – I had grown accustomed to my lot in life but you give me a prize to fight for again, and I find myself ready to rise to the challenge.’
Eames smiled against Arthur’s face, his hand drawing patterns on the small of Arthur’s back.
‘You would hardly be the man I am falling in love with should you feel otherwise,’ he said, and could feel Arthur’s smile against his skin at the words. He stepped back, catching Arthur’s hands in a loose grip. ‘Now, to bed with you, before you push my resolve beyond its limits.’
The smile Arthur rewarded him with was positively impish.
‘Consider it character building, my Lord,’ he said and kissed Eames again before pulling away. ‘Your reputation says you could benefit from the practice.’ And with that he turned and was out the door, leaving Eames slightly breathless.
Chapter 6: Chapter Six: My Lord is interrogated, suffers from a misunderstanding, and fights in a duel
Considering the conversation he had had with Arthur, he should have expected to face questions, but it came as somewhat of a surprise when Harry let himself into Eames’s room while he was putting the finishing touches to his toilette. He raised an eyebrow quizzically at the boy, but continued arranging his hair.
‘May I speak with you, my Lord?’ Harry sounded hesitant and Eames turned a comforting smile on him.
‘By all means. Do you mind if I continue to dress?’ He spied Yusuf at the door to his dressing room and dismissed him with a barely perceptible shake of his head. To his credit, Yusuf shut the door so silently that Harry remained unaware of his presence.
Harry seated himself on the unmade bed, dangling his legs and looking for all the world like the urchin Arthur had described him as.
‘Well then,’ Eames abandoned his preparations and turned to Harry. ‘What is it that you wanted to say?’ The boy remained silent, and Eames smiled at him. ‘It must have been a matter of some import to desert your master to his own devices while he is dressing.’
Harry smiled weakly at the jest and appeared to summon up his courage.
‘Tis my… master I wished to speak of, my Lord.’
Eames nodded. That much had been self evident.
‘He mentioned that he had told you his history, and…’ Harry swallowed. ‘And I wished to know what your intentions are.’
Eames let out a bark of laughter.
‘You are questioning my intentions, child?’
Harry turned serious eyes on him. ‘I am, my Lord, presumptuous though that is. It’s just… Arthur is the biggest part of my life, and I fear for him.’
Eames made to interject, but Harry held up a silencing hand.
‘No, my Lord. Please let me continue. Arthur accepts his changed circumstances and is my rock, but he could not bear to be disappointed again, and nor would I let him be. He does not deserve that.’
Harry looked pleadingly at Eames, and he felt whatever little irritation he had felt at the boy’s words melt away.
‘I cannot promise not to hurt Arthur, Harry,’ he said. ‘The world does not work like that and I may hurt him unawares. But believe me, I intend Arthur no harm. I intend him nothing but acceptance and love and a place to remain for as long as he wills it.’
He put a hand over Harry’s and felt how the child trembled with emotion.
‘It is a place for you both, child. Together or apart. You need neither of you face this alone any more.’
The look Harry shot him would have touched the hardest heart, and for all his pretence otherwise, Eames had not immured himself to the finer emotions.
‘Come here,’ he said, and caught the child in a rough embrace. ‘You need have no fear, for Arthur or yourself. Now,’ he pulled back and wiped tears from Harry’s cheeks with a calloused thumb, ‘enough of this. Get you back to Arthur, ere he notices you have gone and thinks me assaulting your virtue.’
Harry laughed shakily and clambered down from the bed.
‘My thanks,’ he said. ‘You have put my mind at rest and,’ he blushed, ‘I would think Arthur lucky if half of what you said is true.’
He near ran from the room, leaving Eames smiling in bemusement at the closed door. He did not have long to wait before Yusuf entered the room, and Eames turned towards him, eyebrow raised.
‘What make you of that, Yusuf?’ he asked.
Yusuf shrugged, picking up a clothes brush and giving the shoulders of Eames’s jacket several brisk strokes.
‘The boy obviously cares a great deal for his master,’ he said, ‘and seems to feel he can appeal to your better nature to protect him.’
Eames laughed. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘The innocence of youth, eh, Yusuf?’ He expected Yusuf to laugh with him, but instead he fixed Eames with an unusually penetrating gaze.
‘You say this, my Lord, but I heard what you said to the boy, and,’ he coughed and shook Eames’s jacket, ‘it seems to me that you have been uncommon restrained with Arthur.’
Much to his surprise, Eames felt the colour rise in his cheeks. ‘Tis not restraint,’ he said, his voice brusque to cover his confusion. ‘Tis lack of opportunity is all. Arthur has been shot – I could hardly importune him after that.’
‘Of course not.’ Yusuf coughed, and Eames could swear that it covered a laugh. ‘Yet I do not think that is all.’
‘Oh?’ Eames’s voice was low and dangerous. ‘It seems to me like you have given a great deal of thought to this. Perchance your duties are too light that you have the time for such reflection?’
At this Yusuf did laugh. ‘Your threats ring hollow to me, my Lord,’ he said. ‘No doubt you are a changed person.’
Eames abandoned his assumed hauteur and laughed. ‘It would seem so,’ he said. ‘Mayhap it is more than a game to me this time.’
‘I suspected as much,’ Yusuf said, helping Eames into his coat. ‘Yet I am glad to hear you admit it.’
They were in the hallway, Eames crowding Arthur against the wall in a move that was sorely tempting his resolve, when the bell rang. Eames was dimly aware of his butler going to answer it, but Arthur’s dimples occupied the better part of his attention so he paid it no heed.
It was only when Arthur froze and pulled away that Eames registered someone had entered behind the butler.
‘Mister Nash.’ The butler’s voice was cold, and as Eames turned to welcome Nash he caught sight of Arthur slipping away around the corner. Nash obviously noticed as well if the widening of his eyes was any indication, and Eames cursed his indiscretion.
‘Nash,’ he said, letting no trace of his displeasure show in his voice. ‘I was not expecting you.’
‘Apparently not.’ Nash sounded smug, and Eames was gripped by the desire to punch him. ‘I merely came to check on your kinsman. I heard from the servants that he took no lasting harm, but I thought I had best check for myself.’
‘Kind of you,’ Eames said, sneering. ‘T’were a shame you lacked the same consideration the other night.’
‘I had thought so too,’ Nash said. ‘Yet… It occurs to me that though I know your sister I know of no kinsman like this one.’
‘You had best step into my library,’ Eames replied, leading the way. ‘It seems like you feel you have matters of import to discuss, and this is not the place.’
Nash followed him, silent, yet radiating satisfaction. He lounged in a chair (Arthur’s chair, Eames’s mind supplied) in the library, and allowed Eames to pour him a glass of claret.
‘So,’ Eames said as he stood against the mantle, ‘I beg you to speak plain. You doubt the boy is my kinsman?’
‘I do,’ Nash said. ‘Tis obvious to me that you have taken that hedgebird to your bed.’ He sipped his wine and smirked at Eames. ‘You are hardly the first man to be swayed by a pretty face, and, faith, I know your reputation better than most.’ He cast a disdainful look at Eames. ‘It explains at least why you no longer warm my bed. You always favoured the novel.’
‘Indeed I do,’ Eames said. ‘I also favour intelligence, taste and wit. Make no mistake, Nash, you were convenient rather than my choice.’
Nash looked taken aback and Eames was filled with a grim satisfaction. Nash, however, recovered quickly.
‘Oh, speak gentle, my Lord,’ he said. ‘An’ you not do what I want, I might find the spare time to go to the local magistrate and decry your tame highwayman. T’would be a shame for such a pretty boy to end up in the hangman’s noose.’
Eames watched as Nash stood and advanced towards him.
‘You make many presumptions, Nash,’ he said. ‘You had best not rely on them too heavily.’
Nash smiled in response, coming closer to Eames.
‘I think, my Lord,’ he said, ‘that you will give me whatever I want to save your pretty boy from the gallows.’
He leant in towards Eames, pressing their lips together, and Eames, trying to supress a shudder of revulsion, saw the door of the library edge open.
To his horror he saw Arthur, an unreadable expression on his face, surveying the scene. He waved him away, willing him to understand the gravity of the situation. He returned Nash’s kiss, intent on distracting him, his only concern to keep Arthur safe.
‘You seem preoccupied,’ Nash said, kissing the side of Eames’s face and rutting, impatient against him.
‘Tis a servant,’ Eames replied. ‘No more, though I should see what he wanted.’
He pulled away from Nash and stepped into the hallway.
‘Arthur,’ he said, urgent and low. ‘He must not see you.’
Arthur nodded, white-faced and grim, and Eames was relieved that he understood the importance of the situation.
‘Go to bed. I shall see you anon. Please,’ he caught Arthur’s hand in his and raised it to his lips to bestow a fervent kiss, ‘do not venture forth while he be in the house.’
Arthur nodded and, wordless, walked away. Eames returned to the library, relief in his heart at Arthur’s compliance and understanding.
Nash was waiting where Eames had left him and he had a moment of compassion before Nash met his gaze.
‘You see the validity of my case then, Eames?’ he asked, and Eames felt himself freeze.
‘You presume a lot to make free of my name, Nash, given the nature of the bargain you wish to enforce,’ he said, and noted Nash’s discomfort with some pleasure. ‘Indeed, I am sore tempted to call your bluff.’
‘You would not dare,’ Nash said, though he sounded less certain now.
Eames raised an eyebrow. ‘I believe my credit is good still with the magistrate,’ he said. ‘And there is no proof to your accusations after all.’
Nash attempted to raise an eyebrow. ‘Should you be willing to take the risk, we shall see.’
Eames laughed. ‘We shall. I would take no bed-partner willing to stoop to coercion, and,’ he walked towards Nash, his intent now to menace, ‘I warrant my standing here will convince the magistrate to abandon the search ere he begin.’
He could see the doubts in Nash’s mind, and let them fester, resting his elbow on the wall and playing with his seldom used quizzing glass.
‘Oh,’ Nash said, a sly smile dawning on his face. ‘You fancy yourself in love with this new bed toy? Tis of no great import, my Lord. Fidelity has never been a virtue you have valued. Your passing interest in this youth need not bar me from your bed. Our time together has always been pleasurable, and you will find it no hardship to buy my silence. T’would be nothing we haven’t done before.’
Eames stilled completely. Since his come out15 he had been aware of his worth. Men and women both had valued him for his looks – and for his estate. He had fancied himself in love but the once, with a society beauty, from an eminent family, but one whose fortunes were in disrepair. Nonetheless, he had believed her regard to be true and had been considering the marriage settlements that would be necessary when he had stumbled upon her at a masked ball in a state of some undress and in the company of a notorious rake. He had met with her the next day and left the interview with her laughter ringing in his ears. Eames had been under no illusions as to how society operated, but despite that he had thought to find love in marriage – and more than that, to find an equal who would stand by him, side by side, against the world.
Disillusioned, he had limited himself to the sort of assignations where both partners understood the rules, knew how such transactions worked. He had never since stood in any danger of losing his heart, until now, and though he had enjoyed his trysts immensely, he could face losing them with no pang if by doing so he won Arthur. Certainly Nash no longer held any attraction for him, and looking at the man, his hopeful face and his clumsy attempts at cunning, he could even find it in himself to feel revulsion.
‘Your knowledge of me, Nash, is incomplete, and I would doubt that you could ever comprehend what motivates me. Intelligence has never been your forte after all.’
Nash could obviously hear something of Eames’s emotions in the quietly spoken words and he stepped forward. ‘I meant no disrespect,’ he began, but Eames cut him off.
‘An’ you didn’t this was a most clumsily done thing,’ he said. ‘What? Sought you to force me to your bed? To your arms?’ He sneered. ‘You will get no luck of that, Nash. I would sooner hang myself than willingly embrace you again.’
Nash looked as if he would argue, but Eames cut him off before he could start.
‘No. You try my patience too severely. Get out of my house and off my lands. I would not have them sullied by your presence.’
He stretched out a hand and rang for a servant. Judging from his prompt arrival, he had been warned to expect the summons, and Eames was well pleased.
‘Escort this man from the house,’ he said, not bothering to look at Nash. ‘Should he call again, he is unwelcome and you may do with him as you will.’
Nash swallowed, but the servant beamed. Nash had made few friends among Eames’s staff – they may forgiven many of my Lord’s foibles, but Nash’s lack of breeding had rankled through the whole house.
Eames barely waited for Nash to leave before he headed up the stairs to Arthur’s room. Once there, however, he hesitated, his hand already raised to rap on the door.
There were no sounds from within the room, and Eames, aware of Arthur’s injury and the tight pinch of pain upon his white face, lowered his hand reluctantly, and rested his face against the cool wood of the door.
God alone knew why this boy had touched his heart when so many others had failed, but he had. Eames had been courted by some of the best and brightest of the ton, but he had never encountered such a combination of pride and vulnerability and no matter what his common sense told him, his heart said that he should follow this through to its end.
He stepped away from the door and turned to his bedroom. Tomorrow would give time enough to talk to Arthur again, and a night’s rest would clear his mind, and, with luck, he would see his path clearly on the morn.
‘Your gloom concerns me,’ he said, swinging his feet out of the bed and allowing Yusuf to help him into his dressing gown – a fine crimson affair, bedecked with gold embroidery. ‘So, what is it? Has François threatened to resign again? Has a pig escaped into your herb garden and started to fly?’
‘I haven’t seen Harry yet today,’ Yusuf answered, ‘and he is normally enlivening my morning with his banter long before now.’
Eames grinned. ‘Why, Yusuf. You seem to be remarkable fond of the lad.’
‘I am indeed,’ Yusuf said. ‘And it is unusual for him not to seek out my company before we needs must awaken our betters.’
‘Yusuf, you wound me,’ Eames said, staggering dramatically, then spoiling the gesture by preening at his reflection in the mirror. ‘Tis likely to be nothing. Perchance the boy overslept and is now being brought to book by his master.’
Yusuf nodded, but Eames could see from the look on his face that he remained unconvinced. Eames patted his shoulder.
‘Chin up, man. I shall dress and call on Arthur and you shall see this amounts to nothing.’ Yet for all Eames’s words he could feel a worm of unease in his chest.
Eames surveyed the room, but the image occupying his mind was the expression on Arthur’s face when he had seen Nash with Eames in the library. Fury started to rise in him. Had Arthur so little faith in his avowals? Had he actually believed that Eames would have submitted to Nash’s company, much less his embraces, for anything less than the most pressing of reasons?
Eames clenched his hands into fists and turned to Yusuf.
‘Call my groom and get Forger saddled and brought to the front door,’ he said. ‘By god, he shall not slip off like a thief in the night. He shall account for this, and I will be damned if he does not listen to me.’
Yusuf, well used to my Lord’s temper, slipped from the room while Eames fumed and prepared in his head every word he would say to Arthur when he found him.
He had barely reached the limit of what he wanted to say by the time he mounted his horse, and his burning ire sped him on his journey. He visited the places he had first seen Arthur, but they were empty of aught but trees and birdsong, and Eames found himself inevitably drawn to the inn where he had found Harry.
The bar fell silent as he slammed open the door, and the innkeeper’s eyes widened in frightened recognition.
‘Where?’ Eames snapped, and the man gestured to the stairs behind the bar. Eames didn’t wait on explanations, just pushed one too-slow patron out of the way and bounded up the stairs.
The small parlour over the bar was as shabby as the rest of the establishment, the furniture and décor dirty and worn. The only thing of note in the room was Arthur, resting on a filthy sofa in his shirt-sleeves and stockinged feet.
He jerked upright when Eames entered the room, his mouth tightening and his eyes cold.
‘My Lord,’ he said, all formality and poise. ‘To what do I owe this pleasure?’
Eames was taken aback by his reserve. For all that Arthur had left he had not anticipated this. He did his best to pull himself back under control.
‘I came because you left, Arthur,’ he said. ‘Without a word to me. Without asking for an explanation or…’
Arthur stood, cutting him off.
‘An explanation?’ he asked. ‘I do not think you owe me an explanation, my Lord. Your actions were explanation enough.’
‘Arthur,’ Eames started, his anger melting away, ‘please listen…’
Arthur reached down to where his sword was leaning against the chair, unsheathing it in a smooth movement.
‘Hold your tongue,’ he said. ‘There is nothing you may say that would interest me.’
Eames took a step backwards, raising his hands in supplication.
‘I knew it were a mistake to return here,’ Arthur said, the point of his sword perfectly steady. ‘Rest assured you shall not find me again, should you look.’ He looked at Eames, not troubling to hide his disdain. ‘I should not have come here aside from the fact that I thought your other interests would occupy you longer.’
Eames sucked in a breath, his heart faltering.
‘So you have made your decision then, Arthur?’ he asked. ‘You did not think it worth talking to me first?’
Arthur sneered. ‘Indeed not. I was fool enough to listen to your honeyed lies before – tis not a mistake I shall make a second time. I know your reputation as well as the next man, I will not be another notch carved upon your bedstead.’
‘That was the last thing I…’ Eames’s words were halted by the sharp press of Arthur’s sword to his throat.
‘I would recommend you leave now, my Lord,’ Arthur said, ‘lest I lose my patience.’
Eames’s anger returned full force.
‘Your patience, Arthur? And what about mine? You think I brought you into my home for some game?’
‘T’would not be unlike you. I doubt that you understand the honest emotion that governs us lesser mortals.’
Eames took a step backwards, freeing his own sword from its scabbard.
‘Well, I thank you for clearing up my misunderstanding as to your feelings, Arthur.’ He brought up his blade, batting Arthur’s away. ‘I shall intrude no more on your time. Likely you have coaches to hold up, or another hiding hole to seek.’
He should have expected it, yet when Arthur thrust at him in tierce, he was surprised, though he parried the attack easy enough. To riposte was the most natural thing in the world, and when Arthur disengaged and thrust again the two men started fighting in earnest.
It was not the easiest battleground – the room was small and furniture cluttered it, limiting their movement. Nor was the lighting good. Although it was still daylight outside the windows, such as they were, were encrusted with dirt, casting the space into gloom.
Nonetheless, Eames had to acknowledge that Arthur fought well, and for a long while the only sound in the room was the sound of Eames’s boots and Arthur’s stockinged feet hitting the floor, the clang of blades, and the increasingly loud sound of their breaths.
There was a charge to this exchange that had not been there the last time they fought, and though Eames had the greater strength, Arthur was swift and skilled, and Eames thought that he would not want to be fighting Arthur should he be at full strength.
‘Why do you fight me, hellcat?’ he said, breath coming in pants and sweat dripping from his brow.
Arthur looked in little better state, but he did not let up his attack.
‘You need to ask?’ he said, his breath as harsh as Eames’s. ‘Did you think that I was some harlot? Who could be bought? Kept for when you were not with Nash?’ He pressed forward, forcing Eames to defend himself with desperate strokes. ‘Is it not enough that he has our home? Our lands?’ Arthur panted out, anguish clear on his face. ‘Why must he take you as well?’
Eames staggered at this, his thrust at Arthur going wide, and Arthur, twisting like an acrobat to avoid the attack, tripped on a low stool and fell, heavy to the floor, blood staining his already injured shoulder.
Eames dropped his sword on the instant and leapt the furniture to get to Arthur’s side. He ripped Arthur’s shirt open, and saw the bullet wound, reopened and bloody.
‘You stupid boy,’ he said, ‘do you think I had any motivation other than your safety last night?’
He looked up, desperate to summon aid, and saw Harry, face pale and eyes wide with horror, stood in the door.
‘You, girl,’ he barked, ‘fetch me cloths that I may see to your idiotic brother.’
She departed on the instant and Arthur looked up at him, confusion in his eyes.
‘You know?’ he asked, and Eames was relieved that his voice was strong, despite his injury.
‘Of course I do, darling.’ He heard Arthur’s breath hitch at the endearment, but when he went to pull Arthur’s head onto his lap to ease the strain on his shoulder, Arthur pulled away.
‘I cannot do this, Eames,’ he said. ‘I am a creature of extremes and I cannot bear to share you with the others.’
Eames sighed, all his anger passed now. ‘You should know me better than that Arthur. Why would I want anyone else when I have you?’
Arthur looked away, a blush staining his cheeks.
‘Yet you do not have me, my Lord. You embrace Nash, yet with me…’ Arthur trailed off, his voice lost in his embarrassment, and Eames huffed an exasperated laugh.
‘Should you think I do not want you with every breath I take, then you are being wilfully ignorant.’ He leant over and took Arthur’s hand. ‘You think I do not fight my impulses when I am with you? You think, perhaps, that I do not wish to strip you from those clothes, here and now? Spread you out and lavish you with attention?’ Eames snorted. ‘Should you believe that, then you are a fool.’
‘You would spread me out for your pleasure, Eames?’ Arthur's voice was uncertain, and Eames shook his head and smiled.
‘Oh love, of course I would,’ he said and moved to kneel in front of Arthur, caressing his face with a rough hand. ‘But I fight for control still, as you see.’
Arthur looked at him from under lowered eyelashes. ‘Perchance I want you to lose the fight, my Lord?’
Eames rested his forehead against Arthur's, letting his breath wash over Arthur's face.
‘That time will come soon, I wager. T’was a foolish impulse, no doubt, but I wanted my time with you to be special. I want to know that you have chosen me for my own sake, not for my reputation, nor my lands, or because you feel beholden.’ He ran his finger down the soft skin of Arthur’s cheek. ‘To get so lost in the chase has been a new experience for me, and one that I am glad to have shared with you, for it is yours alone.’ He pressed a kiss to the sweat-salted skin at Arthur’s temple. ‘I would make you mine, love, but not here, with you injured and your sister no doubt hovering anxious outside the door.’
He felt Arthur’s smile rather than seeing it, and hearing the door open, knelt back to wave Ari over.
She was carrying bandages and a bowl of water, and Eames started to bathe Arthur’s wounded shoulder with deft hands.
‘Come home with me, Arthur,’ he said. ‘Let me use my resources to help you. I will send for Cobb from the Continent and we can use our combined skills to bring Cobol to justice.’
‘You should listen to him, Arthur,’ Ariadne said, and Arthur smiled up at her.
‘What? Has the luxury of a fine house softened you, Ari?’ he asked. ‘What happened to your desire to share a life of adventure, living on our wits?’
‘It foundered, brother, in the face of a comfortable bed, and enough food on the table.’ Her voice was arch, and Eames smiled at her.
‘And you have no other pleasure in my home?’ he asked. ‘I fear Yusuf might be destined to disappointment should that be the case.’
Ariadne coloured prettily, and Arthur laughed at her.
‘It seems like I must submit to you both,’ he said. ‘I would not have it said that I stood in the path of true love.’
‘You are selfless, brother,’ Ariadne said, recovering her poise, ‘though I suspect tis not my happiness that is forefront of your mind just now.’
‘Enough, wench,’ Eames said, smiling. ‘Can you not see your brother has been hurt and is in no mood for your pertness? I suggest you gather your things together and make ready to leave.’ He turned to Arthur as she went, finishing bandaging his shoulder. ‘I followed you in all haste and rode Forger rather than waiting for my carriage. If you ride with me, can Ariadne ride Byre?’
Arthur nodded. ‘She is an accomplished horsewoman, though I would prefer to ride with her.’
‘Nonsense,’ Eames said, helping Arthur to his feet. ‘With your shoulder like this you would be of little help. Admit it, Arthur, my solution is the best one.’
Arthur smiled at him. ‘I fear to do so would be to tempt you to self-conceit, but I will ride with you.’
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven: In which there is an interlude for horse-riding, sex, and Arthur being a minx
The problem with being a selfless man, Eames considered as they rode back to the hall, was that one sacrificed ones self for the comfort of others.
They were riding at an easy canter, though Ariadne, her horse less burdened, had pulled ahead of them by some distance. Arthur was pressed close to Eames, a warm weight of muscle, and his hair whipped back into Eames’s face as they rode. Forger bore their combined weight well, and they made swift progress.
The problem for Eames came in the proximity of Arthur and the motion of their bodies as they rode. As he matched the movement of the horse’s stride, his hips described a circle that brought him into contact with the press of Arthur’s back and the swell of his buttocks on each third beat.
What had started as a pleasurable frisson that enlivened the ride had soon become a torturous exercise in self-restraint. It had been weeks since he had indulged himself with someone, coincidentally the night when he had met Arthur first, and the motion of the horse, the scent of Arthur in his nostrils, and the unrelenting friction of Arthur’s body against his own was a sore temptation.
He had, at first, indulged in the hope that Arthur remained in ignorance of his situation, but even this cold comfort had to be abandoned when Arthur writhed backwards, pressing himself closer to Eames, voicing a small moan.
Eames spread his thighs the fraction more he could and Arthur accepted this as the invitation it was, pressing back further, stealing all possibility of higher cognitive function.
‘Arthur,’ he said, and he could swear he felt Arthur purr against him. ‘You are proving to be a sore temptation.’
‘Oh, I feel no fear, Eames.’ And did Arthur’s voice sound slightly breathless too? ‘Have you not told me that you are intent to resist your baser instincts with me?’
He shifted his weight slightly, causing Eames to gasp.
‘I am indeed, though I had not anticipated at the time you would be writhing like a doxie in my lap.’
Arthur laughed. ‘I am merely riding, Eames, as you yourself requested. Perchance you are over-burdened with imagination.’
He ground backward, and Eames moaned. ‘Arthur, you are going to be the death of me,’ he managed when he had managed to regain some semblance of control.
‘I should hardly think so, Eames. A man of such upstanding virtue as yourself should have access to great depths of resolve.’ Eames tightened his arms around Arthur, and Arthur let his head fall back. ‘Besides,’ he continued, ‘we are close enough to your home now that your discomfort should be short-lived.’
Close as they were, Eames feared he may be closer, and it was only with supreme force of will that he kept himself under control. It was with considerable relief that he turned into the drive of the Hall. Ariadne had already arrived: servants were stripping Byre of luggage, and there was no sign of the girl herself. Eames dismounted, uncomfortable but more confident now there was space between himself and Arthur. This space was short lived, however, and when Eames turned to help Arthur dismount he found himself with Arthur’s strong body pressed up to his, far too close for comfort given the state Eames found himself in.
He found himself unable to pull back, and Arthur leaned in to kiss him.
There was nothing chaste about the kiss, and had he not been on the steps of his ancestral home Eames could have lost himself in it.
His hands were tight on Arthur’s waist when he pulled back, and he felt breathless and desperate.
‘Will you come inside?’ he asked. ‘I would toast your welcome properly.’
‘T’would be my pleasure,’ Arthur said, and it was some small comfort that he sounded as breathless as Eames felt. ‘I would suggest that your library would be a fitting venue.’
Eames nodded his assent and they walked up the steps together.
Eames’s butler greeted them at the door, but casting his eye over their faces, he limited himself to taking Eames’s hat and riding whip in silence before absenting himself. Despite his tactful retreat though, Eames was sure he caught sight of a smirk on his patrician face and was unsure whether the proper response would be anger or to reward him.
By the time they reached the library there was an urgency to both their steps, but once alone Eames obeyed the dictates of good breeding and poured two glasses of claret from the decanter on the side.
These were to remain neglected though as Arthur pressed himself close to Eames again, kissing him deeply. Eames pulled him close and threaded a hand through his hair. It did not take long before he was fighting for control again, every bit as diligently as he had been on the ride home, and from the feeling of Arthur’s body against his, he doubted Arthur was in much better case. He tried to pull away, but Arthur maintained a firm hold, biting at Eames’s neck and jaw as Eames fought to clear his head.
‘Tis a good thing, my Lord, that you are not willing to treat me as a lightskirt,’ Arthur said, pulling back at length, ‘else I fear we would disgrace the sombre tone of your library.’
Arthur's smile was positively evil and Eames adored him for it.
‘I believe I have learnt more of restraint this day, than I have through the rest of my adult life,’ Eames said, and moved to fetch the nearly forgotten wine from when it lay.
He was unprepared for Arthur to press him back against the bookcase, his body a hard heat against Eames’s own.
‘Of course,’ he whispered into Eames’s mouth, ‘I made no such promise.’
He snapped his hips forward with determination and Eames abandoned all thoughts of morality and restraint, losing himself instead in the feeling of Arthur's body, strong and hard against him. He wanted this to last – he wanted to savour every moment of this, but Arthur bit at the corner of his mouth and soothed the hurt with his tongue and a gentle noise, and Eames found himself lost. His restraint, fragile at best, shattered and he sobbed his release into Arthur’s mouth. Arthur held him throughout, his kisses tethering Eames to reality.
When Eames collapsed his head onto Arthur’s shoulder, his pleasure spent as it hadn’t been since he was a callow youth, Arthur bestowed a gentle kiss onto Eames’s temple.
‘Indeed, my Lord,’ he said, and Eames could not resent the smile in his voice. ‘I am all admiration for your morals and your resolution.’ He leant in to press a kiss to Eames’s unprotesting lips. ‘And now, I suspect I should retire before Ariadne comes to look for me.’ He glanced at Eames, dishevelled and still pleasure-flushed. ‘She should not be exposed to such lewd sights as this, I think.’
Arthur went to pull away, and Eames caught his wrist to prevent his departure.
‘There are things we must needs discuss,’ he said, pleased to hear that his voice was steadier now, ‘regarding Ariadne and our way forward now.’ He tried to keep the plea from his voice, aware that he had small success. ‘You will join me for dinner again?’
Arthur nodded, and left the room in swift steps when Eames released him. Eames, sated now and with happiness swelling in his chest, picked up his glass of wine and finished it in a deep draught.
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight: Ariadne is restored to her rightful state and plans are set in motion
He found Arthur and Ariadne walking in the garden the next morning. They were deep in discussion but looked up on his approach, and Arthur’s face split into a dimpled smile.
‘Eames,’ he said, and stepped forward.
It was irresistible really, and Eames caught him in a loose embrace, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
‘I hate to interrupt,’ he said, ‘but I must needs borrow Ariadne.’
The look on her face was comical, and Eames guessed that Arthur had remained silent of their discussion over dinner last night.
‘Have I done aught wrong, m’Lord?’ she asked, and Eames, smiling, shook his head.
‘Not in the least, dear girl, tis I who have done wrong in not redressing your situation before now.’
She looked at him in confusion. ‘I know not what you mean, my Lord,’ she said.
‘I merely mean that it will not serve for you to act the boy any longer, Ariadne. Tis time for you to become a young lady once more.’
Ariadne looked alarmed. ‘But how then should I act as Arthur’s valet?’
‘You won’t,’ Arthur said, smiling at her. ‘Eames has made me see the justice of employing a suitably qualified man in your stead, and till I do so has offered to share Yusuf’s services.’
‘And thus has love made a fool of me,’ Eames said, dryly, but Arthur only smiled at him.
Ariadne, however, was scowling. ‘Tis well enough for you then, brother, but I would rather act as your servant than have to be a kitchen maid. I doubt there is any role for women above stairs in this establishment.’
Her words surprised a laugh from Eames, and she turned a dagger gaze upon him.
‘Cry mercy,’ he said, throwing his hands up in surrender. ‘Should that have been the case then things will shortly change.’ He took Ariadne’s hand in a courtly gesture and raised it to his lips. ‘A dressmaker awaits you in the blue bedroom, m’Lady. It is my hope that you will reside here as my guest until we can restore you to your rightful position.’
Her eyes went wide, and she turned to her brother. ‘Arthur?’ she asked. ‘Is this true?’
Arthur nodded, and it did Eames’s heart good to see his relaxed and open smile.
‘But what of the rumours?’ Ariadne asked. ‘Our cousin would still do you mischief if he knew where to find you, and should Robert see me…’ She stopped talking and looked down at her hands, as though shamed.
Eames stroked her cheek gently, waiting until she met his eyes.
‘Should Robert see you, he shall regret having followed his father’s advice to break your engagement, and you shall snub him brutally.’
Ariadne smiled at his sally and he could see her courage returning to her.
‘It is unlikely that he shall see you just yet,’ Arthur said, placing his hand on her shoulder. ‘Eames has offered us the chance to remain here in seclusion for the time being, until we can see our way clear to unpick the tangle we find ourselves in.’
Eames smiled at his words. It seemed he had planted the seed of hope in Arthur, and that it had taken root.
‘Nor is there any risk of Nash seeing you,’ Eames said. ‘According to the housekeeper he has left his house for the attractions of London.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘No doubt he found our recent interaction hard to stomach and has retired to lick his wounds away from the reach of my gaze.’
Arthur smiled at Eames. ‘I could almost find it in my heart to pity him,’ he said, and Eames looked at him in shock. ‘It is hard to be denied when one has had a taste of luxury.’
Ariadne looked at Arthur, her eyes sparkling now. ‘Why brother,’ she said. ‘This must be love.’
Colour flooded Arthur’s cheeks, and Eames took pity on him.
‘Vile wench,’ he said to Ariadne. ‘You should learn to respect your elders, else I fear we shall become stern guardians who insist on employing an elderly doyenne to chaperone you.’
Ariadne treated this with the contempt it deserved. ‘You would not,’ she said, tossing her head. ‘A dandy like yourself would never risk the wrath of his valet.’
‘You mean Yusuf would wish to spend his time with you unaccompanied?’ Eames asked, feigning shock. ‘Why, and the sly dog gave me no clue.’
‘Fine words,’ she said, ‘from a man who will be digging the ashes of his favourite coat out of the fireplace should this conversation be repeated.’
He bowed to concede her point and then offered her his arm to lead her to the dressmaker.
‘I contacted my agent on the Continent,’ Eames said at length, feeling it was time to move the conversation to more serious subjects. ‘He is instructed to locate Cobb and require him to come here.’
‘You’re peremptory in your commands,’ Arthur said, but he didn’t look displeased.
‘I suppose I am in the habit of being obeyed,’ Eames said. ‘And the matter at hand is serious enough that he should not be given room to hide.’
‘Perhaps,’ Arthur said, his attention seemingly claimed by the foliage next to him. ‘Though I can’t help but feel that this is a fool’s errand.’
‘You would give up your claim to your lands?’ Eames was puzzled. ‘Your standing in society?’
Arthur shrugged. ‘I would regain my lands, if I could, and grind the Cobol Club into the ground in the process, but I fear that the rights of the situation will be difficult to redress. The Club has influence and power, and even should we discover the facts of the case, it will be nigh impossible to bring them to public attention.’
Eames looked at him. He made a good point, though Eames was confident he could find a way around the problem. Indeed…
‘Saito,’ Eames said, and Arthur stilled, fixing his eyes on Eames’s. ‘He has the influence we need to challenge the Club, and I would wager that he would not be averse to increasing his standing, should the opportunity arise.’
Arthur nodded. Eames knew that Arthur was not acquainted with Saito, but his reputation went before him, and Eames was confident he would lend them his assistance.
‘And you would be able to approach him?’ Arthur asked.
‘I count him as a friend,’ Eames said, ‘and I believe that the bounds of friendship and his own self-interest shall prove enough for him to agree.’
‘You go to an uncommon amount of trouble,’ Arthur said, leaning in so that Eames could feel Arthur’s breath warm against his skin.
‘I believe it worth the effort,’ Eames said, and turned, catching Arthur’s lips with his own.
‘When you could have me anyway?’ Arthur asked when they parted.
Eames hummed into Arthur’s mouth, before pulling back again. ‘I would have you at my side by choice, love, not because you have no other options.’
Arthur leant in and kissed him, a gentle press of lips. ‘I always have other options, Eames, and I would never again stay anywhere against my will.’
Arthur’s eyes were fixed on the stairs as Ariadne came down, and his smile was fond and more than slightly tinged with nostalgia at seeing his sister restored to him, but Eames’s eyes were fixed on Yusuf.
In all his years of knowing Yusuf, Eames had never seen him look like this, and Eames smiled in satisfaction. He would have to come up with some way of establishing Yusuf sooner rather than later. Managing his West Indian properties might give Yusuf suitable scope for his skills – though it left Eames with the vexatious problem of finding a new valet.
Eames looked up at Ariadne and drew in an awed breath. She was beautiful. Dressed in blue silk, decked in seed pearls, and with her hair caught up in a loose arrangement of ringlets, she didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the urchin Eames had first met. He walked to the bottom of the stairs and raised his hand for her to take.
She did, putting a white-gloved hand into his, and descending the final few steps to stand in front of Eames.
‘Well, my Lord,’ she said, and even her voice sounded more girlish now. ‘Do I pass muster?’
‘You do indeed,’ Eames said, bowing to kiss her hand. ‘You are more beautiful than I imagined.’
‘Hush,’ Ariadne said, a laugh in her voice. ‘Else my brother will be consumed with jealousy.’
‘I think not,’ Arthur said, coming forward to embrace his sister. ‘I am confident that no matter what your charms, Eames knows my skills with my sword would preclude any flirtation with you.’
Eames laughed. ‘That,’ he said, ‘and the fact that my valet might take objection even more strongly.’ He turned to Yusuf. ‘Yusuf,’ he said, ‘may I present Miss Ariadne Wickham. I am given to understand that she plays the pianoforte and paints devastating watercolours.’
‘Eames!’ Ariadne sounded shocked. ‘You intend me to sit politely and work at my needlepoint?’
‘Never,’ Eames said, smiling down at her. ‘Instead I shall teach you to dance and duel, my dear.’
Ariadne smiled at him before turning, a slight blush rising in her cheeks, to hold out her hand for Yusuf to kiss. He did, executing a low bow before her until she pulled him upright.
‘Need we stand on formality with each other, Yusuf?’ she asked, and he shook his head in response.
‘Ah, children,’ Eames said, feeling a paternal fondness that amused rather than alarmed him. ‘Run along and explore the grounds or something. Yusuf? Should you take Ariadne to your laboratory again, pray try not to explode anything. It will be several days before the rest of Ariadne’s wardrobe is fully ready.’
Arthur tightened a warning hand on Eames’s arm, but his lips twisted into a smile nonetheless.
Really, thought Eames, the trouble of finding another valet will be worth it for the look on Yusuf’s face just now.
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine: In which Eames’s plan starts to come together and the truth starts to emerge
It took the best part of three weeks for Cobb to join them, and Eames had never seen his home so full of laughter.
Admittedly, his couture suffered. Yusuf was more preoccupied with Ariadne than the shine on Eames’s boots, and on the morning of Cobb’s arrival Eames was trying to shrug himself into his coat with some difficulty, cursing the leniency that had allowed him to permit Yusuf to walk with Ariadne rather than to attend him.
The knock on his door caused him to frown in consternation. He was by no means ready to greet anyone yet, but Arthur did not wait for an answer and walked into the room, closing the door behind him.
Eames frowned at him.
‘I blame you for this,’ he said. ‘Had you not held me at gunpoint I would still have a valet, and would not be,’ he struggled with his coat some more, ‘suffering now.’
Arthur walked over to him, batting his hands away and starting to pull Eames into his coat with capable hands.
‘The whims of the aristocracy are beyond me,’ Arthur said, frowning in concentration. ‘Have you not another manservant in the mass you employ who could do this for you?’
‘Perchance,’ Eames said, wriggling slightly under Arthur’s rough touch. ‘But I fear admitting the leniency I show Yusuf would cause discontent.’
‘As if that is not already known,’ Arthur said, but his tone was fond. ‘For God’s sake, my Lord, stop your movement. Will you never submit to me?’
Eames stilled on an instant. ‘Oh, Arthur,’ he said, his voice suddenly hoarse. ‘You needs ask?’
Arthur’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. ‘Apparently so,’ he said, using Eames’s stillness to wrench the tight fitting jacket closed before doing it up with gentle fingers. ‘You need help with your boots?’
Eames nodded, mute, and let Arthur guide him to his bed and sit him down.
‘For a man of such power,’ Arthur said, pulling Eames’s boots on carefully to avoid damaging their sheen with thumbprints, ‘you are strangely helpless. Some time on the road, my Lord, would make you more practical.’
Eames smiled and reached out to touch Arthur’s hair when they were interrupted by a knock at the door.
‘Enter,’ he said, and Arthur drew back, going to stand by the window.
A footman came into the room, his face impassive, though his eyes flicked between the two.
‘You asked to be told when Lord Cobb arrived, my Lord,’ he said to Eames, and Eames nodded and stood.
‘Come, Arthur,’ he said. ‘For better or for worse, our plan is now in motion.’
He left Arthur and Cobb alone. Their obvious fondness for each other was easing some of the tension from Cobb’s eyes, and Eames retreated to his library to put the finishing touches to his plans.
He had known of the Cobol Club, of course. There were few who moved in the circles Eames did who hadn’t at one time or another passed an evening there. Eames, though, had never seen its attraction. There was play at the card table he disliked, and a political turn to conversation that made him wary. Eames was too sharp to be fleeced himself, but he had a preference for straight play and pleasant companionship that discouraged him from returning.
He had heard things about the Club since – who hadn’t? But the tales of ruin and intrigue hadn’t affected him, and the circles Eames moved in were so far removed from the shabby gentility of the Club’s regular members that he had managed to put it from his mind.
Now, however, when he could see what the Club’s actions cost the man he loved, Eames found his anger flaring. He would not pretend to care for the Club’s other victims, but Arthur’s problems were not inflicted by his own stupidity and hubris as so many other’s had been.
Occupied by his thoughts Eames entered the drawing room where he found Ariadne holding court. Cobb was sat next to her, smiling at some sally she had made, and Yusuf was watching her with blatant admiration in his eyes. Well he might. Ariadne had recovered her poise with her skirts and was every part the young society lady now.
It was to Arthur, though, that Eames’s eyes were drawn, and he approached the slim figure leaning against the window frame.
‘She is charming,’ Eames said, his voice low.
‘She is indeed.’ Arthur’s voice was full of warm pride. ‘It is good to see her like this again. I feared that she would remain a serving boy.’
Eames touched his arm gently. ‘An unnecessary fear now,’ he said, and Arthur looked away from his sister to smile at Eames.
‘With luck,’ he said, and glanced back to where Cobb was talking on the sofa. ‘What is your plan, Eames?’
‘Merely to gather as much truth as I can now and use it as weaponry when the opportunity presents itself.’
Arthur smirked. ‘Evasive,’ he said.
‘Prudent,’ Eames replied, and placing his hand on Arthur’s arm led him over to the settee.
He had done his best to render the interrogation as pleasant as possible. They were sat in the library, sipping glasses of run brandy in the warmth of the fire, and the conversation, lubricated already by a quantity of claret over dinner, was flowing.
Cobb, encouraged by a story Eames told about his experiences in a Munich gaming house, was telling a story of his own about an encounter with a German fencing master chance met in Rome, while Arthur sat, his body completely at ease and the hint of a dimpled smile on his face.
‘You will excuse me for turning the subject,’ Eames said at length, ‘but, as you may have guessed from Arthur’s presence, I had an ulterior motive in inviting you to visit.’
But for a slight whitening to his knuckles as he tightened his grip on his glass Cobb looked unaffected by the question.
‘I had guessed that,’ Cobb said dryly. ‘And I would have seen your ‘invitation’ more as a summons had I not been assured of your good will.’
He raised an eyebrow at Arthur, who toasted Eames with his glass. Eames smiled. He should have known that, whatever contacts Eames had, Arthur was not without resources of his own.
‘In that case,’ Eames said, ‘you will understand my motivation, and why I must press you for information now.’
Cobb nodded and drained his glass. ‘Yes,’ he said, and Eames refilled the glass for him. ‘I know what it means to be a lover. I know how one would move heaven and earth for their happiness.’
Eames nodded, carefully avoiding eye contact with Arthur. ‘So tell me,’ he said. ‘What happened to Lady Malorie?’
‘It started at the Cobol Club,’ Cobb said. He sipped his drink. ‘That was where I lost everything.’ He trailed into silence, his mind miles away and months ago.
‘I didn’t know you gambled,’ Eames said.
‘I didn’t,’ Cobb said. ‘Not as such, anyway. No,’ he paused and sipped his drink again. ‘The games I preferred were of a different sort.’
He looked into the fire. Eames, judging that confessions of this nature were not easily made in broad light, had arranged for only a few candles to be lit, but had ordered a fire built. He reasoned that men would deal better with uncomfortable truths if they were made comfortable in body. He seemed to have reasoned correctly, as Cobb inhaled deeply and squared his shoulders against the tale he was about to tell.
‘I can see now,’ Cobb said, ‘that I was entrapped as surely as a country squire on his first visit to a city gaming hall. At the time though,’ he looked rueful, and Arthur laid a supportive hand on his arm, ‘I thought I had found fellow free-thinkers. People willing to explore their dreams of a free society – one where we should not be ruled by madmen or their dilettante sons. Where our taxes need not go to pay for a life of wasteful idleness.’
Eames was careful to keep his features neutral. He had heard talk of revolutionary political views at the Club – he just hadn’t appreciated how revolutionary, nor that Cobb had been so involved. He was not here to stand in judgement though – for better or worse Cobb’s actions had dragged Arthur into the Club’s net, and he needed the full story now if he was to disentangle the knot that Arthur was caught in.
Cobb, glancing up at Eames, seemed satisfied that he was not in imminent danger of being denounced, and his mouth twisted into a wry smile.
‘You must know,’ he said, ‘that Mal, my wife, was French.’
Eames nodded and Cobb smiled in acknowledgement, though his expression had little to do with humour.
‘What you may not know,’ he continued, ‘is that her family were emigrees who fled the revolution. They settled here and raised their children in relative prosperity. It was, I believe, a comfortable life, and Mal never complained of her upbringing. Her brother though…’ his voice trailed off, and he pressed his lips into a thin line.
Eames took mercy on him. ‘He was, perchance, a supporter of Bonaparte?’ he asked, and Cobb nodded.
‘He was,’ he said, ‘though he was more interested in expounding on his theories than in offering practical support. In any case, it was he who introduced me to the Cobol Club. He said I would find like-minded people there, and he was right – or at least I believed so to begin with.’
‘Did Mal share his sympathies?’ Eames asked, sympathetic to Cobb’s discomfort and even more sympathetic to Arthur’s tension, but needing to ask nonetheless. When Cobb nodded, tight and defensive, it did no more than confirm Eames’s suspicions.
‘We used to explore these ideas, these dreams, together,’ Cobb said. ‘It started out as an intellectual pursuit, but we went deeper and deeper into them and then…’ He swallowed, the noise loud in the still of the library. ‘She lost track of reality. She started to believe that we were involved in a treasonous plot than and... she wouldn’t believe me when I told her that we weren’t, that we were doing no more than exploring ideas. It became an obsession. She lost interest in the children in her fanaticism. Filled our home with people who shared her conviction. Nash in particular haunted the house, encouraged her to believe she was at the heart of a conspiracy. And I? I sought refuge in the Club.’
Cobb looked shamed, and Eames could understand this, could understand why he had run from the reality his wife had created, but when he looked at Arthur’s face, saw the tight lines of disapproval etched there, he remembered how close Arthur had been to Mal. He walked over to where Arthur was sitting and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. He could feel the tension ebb out of Arthur, how Arthur relaxed under his palm, and when Arthur turned and smiled up at him Eames felt his heart twist, and in that second could not understand how Cobb could have turned his back on the woman he loved.
Something of this must have shown on his face, and Cobb, seeing it, looked away.
‘I know,’ he said, his voice rough. ‘I should have tried harder, should have tried to save her. You cannot blame me more than I blame myself.’
Eames looked away. There was nothing he could say that would lessen Cobb’s pain, and watching his face felt like a gross intrusion.
‘What happened the night she died?’ Arthur’s voice was raw with emotion, and though his face was now turned towards Cobb, Eames could feel the tension thrum through his body.
He took a seat next to Arthur while Cobb composed himself.
‘I don’t know,’ Cobb said at length. ‘I can hazard a conjecture, but I have no way of knowing what happened the night she died. She had not been… well, for a little while. Not since Phillipa was born if I were to be honest.’
‘We argued.’ The words were a confession, and Eames saw that Arthur’s face was pinched, and resolved to question him about this when they were alone. Cobb was telling the truth, he’d warrant, but there was more to the story than he was saying. ‘Nash was present, with two friends I knew by sight from the Club. I,’ he hesitated and drank deeply, ‘did not approve, and told them to leave. Mal insisted they stay, so I left. I visited a friend. It was our anniversary, and we should have been together, but instead I was gaming with people I should never have acknowledged. I remember being dealt in to a game of basset, and I remember being poured more brandy. The next thing I remember is Arthur waking me up.’
Cobb looked at Arthur, and Eames could see the apology in his eyes.
‘Arthur had come from the estate. He had been worried about Mal. Of all of us, he was the one who could see her plight most clearly, and his concern caused him to visit.’ Cobb closed his eyes, clearly replaying the conversation they had had. ‘He found her. She was in her bedchamber, slumped on the floor. She was dead.’
The room was silent for a moment, the only noise the crack and hiss of the fire.
‘I didn’t know what to do.’ Cobb’s words were quiet. ‘Arthur stepped in, started to make the arrangements, but my friends said that I was under suspicion, that the only thing to do was to escape to the Continent while I still could. They said that if I signed my home and lands into their hands they would stop them from being seized and ensure that I and my children had the money we needed to survive. I was a fool to believe them. Once they had the lands and I had escaped, my guilt looked complete. They said that I had lost my home and lands at the Club and that I had killed Mal when she remonstrated with me.’
He drank deeply. ‘I believed their words of brotherhood, of an equitable future. Instead their political beliefs were lip service. They, as the rest of the Club, were more interested in lining their pockets.’
‘Arthur guessed most of this, for which I bear him no ill will. Once I had fled, he started trying to uncover what had happened to my estates, and to prove his conjecture that the Club had orchestrated Mal’s death in order to lay their hands on my assets. You see how they served him.’
‘I would still like to know why Nash was present,’ Arthur said. ‘It strikes me that it was no coincidence that my cousin was there on the night that Mal died. She had no fondness for him, but seemed unable to shake his presence away, and I would wager he could give us a fuller picture of what happened that night.’
‘She never did more than tolerate him until the last few weeks of her life, and then he seemed to have a hold over her that she could not or would not break.’
‘It seems obvious,’ Eames said, ‘that we need to question him more fully. Sadly our last parting would make it difficult for me to approach him without arousing his suspicion.’
Arthur nodded. ‘Tis a shame we cannot see him at the Club,’ he said. ‘It has been at the heart of this, and I believe we should find our answers there.’
‘I agree,’ Eames said, ‘but how do we manage it?’
The hallways were dark when they headed upstairs to the bedchambers and the rooms were cool in the autumn night.
‘Tell me what you held back,’ Eames said when they reached the top of the stairs.
Arthur stopped, his arm linked in Eames’s and his words quiet in Eames’s ear.
‘She was delusional,’ Arthur said. ‘She told me that she was a spy, that Cobb was a spy, and that they were working to help the French cause. The things she said,’ Arthur paused and Eames could feel the pain in his words, ‘she… well. She could no longer tell dream from reality, that much was apparent to me. Cobb was in denial. I tried to talk to him about it, but he raged at me, accused me of meddling and overstepping the bounds of our friendship. He told me I was jealous – that I was become envious of his happiness in my loneliness.’
Eames tightened his grip, and Arthur pressed into him.
‘For the first time I questioned his judgement, and while I have stood his friend, I have never been able to regain my faith in him.’
‘Why do you remain his friend?’ Eames adjusted his grip, holding Arthur closer to him.
‘For the sake of what we once were.’ Arthur’s words were quiet and laced with sadness. ‘I could not abandon him then, much less after Mal died and he was persecuted and reviled.’
Eames pressed a kiss to Arthur’s forehead. He could understand the impulse of honour that had kept Arthur allied with Cobb, and though it had cost Arthur so dearly this just made his sacrifice seem all the more noble to Eames.
‘Do you think she killed herself?’ he asked, though he was loath to cause Arthur more pain.
‘I do not know.’ Arthur pulled away and looked, unseeing, at the darkness of the hall. ‘The Mal of my youth would not have done.’ He turned back towards Eames(,) though his eyes were seeing back through years of memories. ‘She was lovely. She inspired me in so many ways I cannot make you understand. But she had changed. Her illness changed her and there was some other worry on her mind. She fretted about Cobb, about his commitment to her cause. She was not rational. So, no. I do not know if she killed herself.’
‘And did Cobb kill her?’
Arthur frowned. ‘I don’t believe so. He was in company when it happened, as suspect as that company was, and in any case her death was too convenient. Once Cobb’s lands were signed over to them, the Club had the assets to be able to acquire Browning House, and when I still had the freedom to make enquiries, before...’ Arthur made an expressive gesture with his hand, dismissing the fate he had faced with the movement, ‘well, even I could see that it was of great benefit to the Club to have such a prestigious headquarters. It assured their income for one thing.’
Eames nodded. ‘I had noticed that it had become a fashionable haunt,’ he said.
‘For the young and easily duped,’ Arthur said. ‘I myself saw it but the once, and though it is a beautiful building, it was not worth the price of my admission.’
He stepped close to Eames and rested his hand on Eames’s chest.
‘I make mistakes on occasion, my Lord,’ he said, as though confessing to some dark secret.
‘It is in the nature of man to err,’ Eames said, putting a possessive arm around Arthur’s waist, ‘and I am relieved to find that you are human.’
Arthur laughed, his breath gusting against Eames’s face.
‘And what else should I be, m’Lord?’ he asked, his smile curling through his words.
‘An angel, fallen from heaven to show me the error of my ways,’ Eames said, and Arthur laughed again, louder as his cares receded.
‘And do you often find angels in the garb of highwaymen?’ he asked.
Eames pulled him close enough that his lips brushed Arthur’s ear as he spoke. ‘More often than I could account for,’ he said. ‘My soul must stand in terrible danger of damnation.’
‘I would not be in the least surprised.’ Arthur punctuated his words with a sharp nip to Eames’s jaw. ‘I have rarely seen a man so sorely in need of redemption.’
He pressed against Eames, who became suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the strain his unaccustomed chastity was placing him under. He pulled away from Arthur, linking their arms and leading him down the corridor towards his room.
‘You are walking me to my door?’ Arthur’s voice was amused, and Eames felt he had been justified in likening the man to a fallen angel.
‘Yes,’ he said, affecting an unconcern he was far from feeling, ‘for your new valet has not yet arrived and I thought you might appreciate the help.’
‘You are all kindness.’ Arthur opened the door to his room and slipped in ahead of Eames. ‘Won’t you enter, my Lord? I doubt you will find it easy to help me disrobe if you are outside the door – no matter what considerable skills you have.’
He pulled Eames into the room, linking their fingers. Eames followed, curiously nervous, but Arthur, noting his discomfort, only smiled.
‘Tis an easy matter to help me,’ Arthur said, his words gentle as if Eames were a skittish horse he wanted to calm, ‘there is no need to doubt your ability. I am no fribble16 who needs to be pried from my suits.’
‘No, indeed,’ Eames said, allowing Arthur to manhandle him so he was stood with his back to the bed. ‘Yet mayhap I don’t want to take liberties upon your person in my inexperience.’
‘Inexperience?’ Arthur said, running his hands down Eames’s lapels. ‘That is not something I would have expected, my Lord. However,’ he toyed with Eames’s cravat, ‘I am sure I can give you some guidance.’
‘Can you now?’ Eames’s voice sounded breathless, even to himself, until Arthur stopped his words with a kiss.
‘I can,’ Arthur said, pulling away at length. ‘Tis simple.’ He reached up and undid Eames’s neckcloth with deft movements, his brow furrowing in concentration as he did so.
‘T’would not be simpler to demonstrate on your own tie?’ Eames asked, and Arthur shrugged.
‘Perchance,’ he replied. ‘Though less rewarding.’ Pulling Eames’s cravat free, he dropped it to the floor and started undoing the buttons of his shirt. ‘Bear with my lesson, m’Lord. I think you will find it most illuminating.’
He ran his fingers over Eames’s collarbones and Eames shivered under his touch.
‘The trick,’ Arthur said, stroking his fingertips over Eames’s chest, ‘is to pay attention to the details.’ Eames hissed as Arthur skimmed over his nipples. ‘To take your time, and not overlook what your instincts tell you.’
Eames intended to say something, but then Arthur bent his head and sucked on one of Eames’s nipples and every rational thought was driven from Eames’s mind. He moaned, nearly missing the moment when Arthur slipped his shirt from his shoulders. With a final graze of teeth Arthur straightened, sliding his arms around Eames and trailing his hands down Eames’s spine to rest at the small of his back.
‘You see?’ he asked. ‘My methods are always rewarding. Now,’ he stepped back, letting his fingers drag over the skin of Eames’s waist, ‘do you think you have mastered the technique?’
‘Yes,’ he said, his voice quiet and low. ‘I believe I have learnt the principles.’
He brought his hands to Arthur’s shoulders and peeled his jacket from him. If his fingers were unaccountably clumsy as he undid Arthur’s cravat, neither of them commented.
‘You would not prefer to do this yourself?’ he asked as he unbuttoned Arthur’s shirt, unsure why he was asking, but feeling he needed to make the effort – if only in order to assuage his conscience.
Arthur shook his head.
‘No,’ he said, simple, and Eames felt the last of his restraint snap.
He pulled Arthur’s shirt from him, biting at his neck, sucking kisses into the pale skin of his clavicle. Arthur was pliant under his hands, and Eames pulled him into a kiss that built in heat and intensity.
There was nothing hesitant now as he pulled Arthur’s breeches from him, running his hands down Arthur’s thighs as Arthur pressed close to him. Instead he bit scorching kisses to Arthur’s mouth, soothing the hurt with his tongue, laving the perfect curve of Arthur’s lips.
‘Eames.’ Arthur panted the word into Eames’s mouth, his teeth grazing Eames’s full bottom lip as he pulled his head back. Eames moaned, helpless, but let him withdraw.
‘What?’ he asked, hoping against hope that Arthur hadn’t changed his mind. Not now.
‘You are still wearing too many clothes,’ Arthur said, his eyes dark and full of desire, before sinking to his knees and pulling Eames’s breeches down.
‘Oh.’ Eames looked down as his cock bobbed free, at Arthur’s lowered head, at the dark play of his curls and the faint blush that tinged his cheeks. ‘Oh,’ he repeated, and reached down to cup Arthur’s cheek and raise his face so that Eames could see him properly.
He shivered when he met Arthur’s eyes, at the indecipherable expression in them, and he sank to his knees so that he could kiss Arthur again.
Arthur seemed nothing loathe to let him, though he laughed.
‘It seems, my Lord, that there is a serviceable bed close to hand,’ he said when Eames withdrew at length.
‘There is,’ Eames agreed, though he made no move to free his hand from where it was tangled in Arthur’s hair.
Arthur sensed his reluctance to move and his smile widened sinfully.
‘Logic would suggest we use it,’ he said, and he let the back of his hand skim over Eames’s chest.
Eames caught it.
‘Logic seems put to flight in your presence,’ Eames said, ‘and all my senses are scattered to the four winds.’
Arthur raised a finger to Eames’s lips.
‘T’would not do,’ he said, ‘for such a noble lord to lose his senses. Seems I must provide incentive to you to lead you back to sanity.’
He pulled free of Eames’s arms, and with a lithe grace surged onto the bed and reclined on the covers like an artist’s muse.
‘So, my Lord Eames,’ he said, running a hand down his body, stopping when he reached his cock and cupping it, ‘do you hear the call of logic yet?’
Eames rose from the floor, a wolfish smile on his lips, and knelt on the bed between Arthur’s spread thighs.
‘I believe I do,’ he said, and lowered himself to kiss Arthur.
There were tested ways in which this sort of scenario should proceed, but lost in the kiss and with Arthur writhing beneath him, Eames could not recall a single one of them. Instead he pressed his hips forward, aligning his cock with Arthur’s, and let momentum and friction take its course.
It lacked finesse, lacked the forethought and theatre that Eames usually cultivated in his assignations, but as Arthur spilled, hot and wanton, between them and Eames, lost in the sensation and the perfect frictionless glide of the moment, followed, he could regret nothing.
It took him long moments before he could recall himself, before he could fetch a cloth and clean Arthur with gentle strokes. As he wiped himself, more brusque and careless, he intended to retire to his own room, but Arthur stayed him by resting a hand on his shoulder, and in the end Eames fell exhausted into the bed beside Arthur. He had never slept beside any of his conquests before – had made a point of rising, of leaving when his pleasure was spent – yet when Arthur carded a hand through his short hair Eames relaxed into his embrace and slumbered without regret or need for justification.
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten: Lord Saito arrives, our heroes relocate to London, and Robert fears that he is being haunted
They spent the following morning out on the horses, riding around the grounds of Penrose Hall. Arthur looked wild and lovely, his cheeks flushed with exertion as they galloped through the crisp, fallen leaves. He was an intelligent companion as well, and Eames enjoyed the morning every bit as much as he had the night before.
The morning had brought none of the awkwardness that had kept Eames from spending the night with others – he had awoken to Arthur loose-limbed, smiling and every inch himself. Nor had anything changed between them, although Arthur wore a slight smile on his face that was a mirror of Eames’s own. By the time they had breakfasted any fears that Eames had felt had been forgotten. Instead he found himself contemplating whether a more permanent change in accommodation would be easy to effect.
For now though, he was content to ride, Arthur at his side and his lands spread out for his pleasure. By mutual (if unspoken) consent they avoided discussing Cobb’s situation. There would be time to dwell on that soon enough, Eames felt, but this beautiful morning, with Forger fresh beneath him, was too great a gift to be discarded for such mundane matters.
It was only as they cantered back over the lawn under the disapproving eyes of Eames’s head gardener that reality intruded.
Saito had arrived in their absence, and his equipage – the four perfectly matched black horses that had pulled it still steaming from their exertions – was being unloaded. Saito himself was supervising, an elegant and well-dressed figure even after the travails of his journey.
His expression didn’t change as he turned to watch Arthur and Eames ride toward him, though he raised an eloquent eyebrow as Eames dismounted and made his bow.
‘Lord Eames,’ he said, bowing shallowly. ‘You summoned me, and I am here.’
‘My Lord Saito,’ Eames’s voice sounded both horrified and amused. ‘I would hardly call my request a summons. It was in truth an impertinence – though one that I foresee you will benefit from.’
Saito looked at him, assessing. ‘Your impertinences often benefit me,’ he said, ‘else I would have had no reason to tolerate you for this long.’ The words were daunting, but a slight smile on his lips robbed them of their sting and the look he cast at Eames was warmer than was usually his wont. ‘At least this time you have eschewed your petticoats.’
Very aware of Arthur’s curious amusement, Eames coloured. ‘Repetition would be the mark of an amateur,’ he said, ‘and I doubt my forgery would pass a second time.’
Saito actually laughed. ‘Regardless,’ he said stroking his finger up Eames’s blushing cheek, ‘you make a charming girl, and I always appreciate seeing the work of an artist.’
He made a slight bow to Arthur and led the way up the stairs to the door, Eames and Arthur following in his wake.
‘Twas some small bet,’ Eames said, assiduously avoiding eye contact. ‘A dance at a ball, no more.’
‘Indeed?’ Arthur leant close so that his breath brushed Eames’s cheek. ‘My interest is most aroused.’ He pressed close to Eames, proving the truth of his words. ‘There was some talk of petticoats I believe?’
‘Petticoats,’ Eames confessed into the sweet-scented skin of Arthur’s neck. ‘A bodice, wig, make up and a confection of silk and lace.’
Arthur growled and bit at Eames’s ear. ‘And Saito was fooled?’ he asked.
‘As you say,’ Eames said. ‘For the space of a dance or two a least.’ He pressed a kiss to Arthur’s neck, where the stiff shirt point met smooth skin.
‘I wish I could have seen it,’ Arthur said. ‘I cannot imagine you as a woman, though I confess the picture will remain with me for some time to come.’
‘Really?’ Eames kissed the line of Arthur’s jaw. ‘As chance would have it, I retained the dress.’
‘When this is over,’ Arthur said, ‘I shall expect to see proof of your prowess in dissimulation. You still owe me a dance, after all.’
‘A dance?’ Eames asked. ‘And is that all?’
Arthur laughed and cupped Eames’s face, drawing him round to press a kiss to his lips.
‘Not even close,’ he said. ‘But it will do as a starting point, I think.’
It took all of Eames’s considerable skill to ease the discourse – and even then conversation might have been strained had it not been for the excellence of Eames’s cook and the generous comprehension of his butler when fetching and overseeing the pouring of the wine.
Ariadne played her part as well. Not even Saito was proof against her charm, and Eames allowed her licence to chatter as she would, seeing in her the chance to win Saito’s interest and Cobb’s trust.
He waited until they rose from dinner though and withdrew to his library where the brandy was laid out before addressing the matter at hand. Abandoning protocol he had invited Ariadne and Yusuf to join them. Etiquette took a poor second place to efficient planning, after all.
The bare bones of the matter were easily laid out, and the glint in Saito’s eyes suggested that he saw the potential for profit in getting involved.
‘It is true that I have been aware of the Club for some time,’ he said in response to Eames’s questioning look after the story had been told. ‘There is a backer who shrouds himself in mystery and their political leanings have caused comment even at court.’ He sipped his port. ‘Treason aside, their actions impact on my business and I would be willing to lend my support to your efforts.’
Eames smiled grimly.
‘I hoped you would see it that way,’ he said, ‘but I warn you, my Lord, this will be no easy matter.’ He met Saito’s gaze unflinchingly. ‘Tis likely to be a difficult mission, and one that has its share of risk.’
‘I had not expected otherwise,’ Saito said, expression resolute. ‘And you may be assured of my active support in this. But tell me, what is your plan, Eames?’
‘That is the question on all our minds,’ Arthur said, sipping his brandy. ‘Eames has been reticent to share his secrets with us thus far.’
‘Merely protecting my mysterious allure,’ Eames said, swirling the brandy in his glass and watching how Arthur’s cheeks dimpled as he smiled. ‘However, now seems an apposite time to unmask.’
‘As you say,’ Saito said. ‘You will find that a sense of mystery can be pushed too far and there is a moment when dissimilation should end.’
Eames raised his glass, gracefully acknowledged Saito’s point and rose to stand in front of the group.
‘I feel that the key to this whole case lies in the Cobol Club,’ he said, ‘and in unmasking the man who lies behind it.’
‘That much is evident,’ Saito said. ‘But how to do this? I have had no luck in my enquiries, and I flatter myself that my resources are not inconsiderable.’
‘Indeed not,’ Eames replied. ‘But you have not, I think, visited the Club?’
Saito shook his head minutely and Eames nodded.
‘As I thought,’ he said. ‘I, on the other hand, have visited on occasion and I noted that one of its favoured sons is Robert Fisher.’
Ariadne drew in a sharp breath, and Eames was not surprised to see that Yusuf was quick to lay a comforting hand on her arm.
‘He was,’ Cobb said. ‘Though he was not part of the circle that I frequented.’
‘No,’ Arthur said, and Eames could see him putting the pieces together in his mind. ‘He limited himself to the gaming tables, tis true, but he stood on the best terms with Browning.’
‘Browning?’ Ariadne, collected now, raised an enquiring eyebrow.
‘The host of the Club,’ Eames said. ‘A gentleman’s gentleman, established by an ex-master is my guess.’
‘Mine too,’ Arthur said. ‘I remember on my first visit that I felt his face was familiar, though I cannot recall where from.’
Cobb frowned. ‘This is as maybe,’ he said. ‘But where does it get us?’
‘I think,’ Eames said, ‘that Robert is our key to discovering who funds the Club, and I think,’ he turned towards Ariadne ‘that our beautiful Ariadne is the one who can convince him to spill his secrets.’
Ariadne rose from her chair, her face pale in the candlelight and her lips thin with tension.
‘You forget that he was the one who broke our engagement,’ she said, and her voice was steady despite the strain in her expression. ‘I do not think that I have any influence over Robert Fisher that could help you.’
‘I do not mean to pain you,’ Eames said, catching her hand and pressing it between his own. ‘But you have been out of society since the engagement was broken. Had you not been you would have seen that Fisher is a changed man. His father is dying, and Robert himself has withdrawn from society. He frequents the Cobol Club still, but I have not seen him at balls or soirees for months now.’
Ariadne withdrew her hand and returned to her seat.
‘I think it unlikely that he pines for me,’ she said, and though pride was etched strong upon her features, Eames could see the pain behind them.
‘You underestimate yourself,’ Eames said. ‘And I believe that seeing you again in all your beauty and charm after all this time would be the shock we need to break down his defences.’
Arthur frowned at this.
‘I would not risk Ariadne,’ he said. ‘Not her wellbeing nor her feelings. There must be another way to do this.’
‘No, Arthur.’ Ariadne turned to her brother. ‘I believe Eames is right, and I wish to help. Besides,’ she took Yusuf’s hand. ‘Robert has no power to hurt me now.’
Eames smiled at her and turned to Arthur.
‘We would both be there,’ he said. ‘Believe me, Arthur – I would not risk a hair on your sister’s head. But I believe that this might work. That Robert might confide in Ariadne through trust. I believe that he had a true fondness for her, and you and I could not hope to win his trust in the same way. I think he would share what he knows more freely where there is trust rather than fear.’
‘Tis true,’ Cobb said. ‘Positive emotion is more effective than negative. This might work.’
‘Might?’ Arthur said. ‘We will need to do better than that. I will not risk my sister on the strength of such surety.’
‘Trust me,’ Eames said. ‘We will orchestrate their meeting in such a way that there is no risk. It just needs planning and nerve.’
Arthur smiled reluctantly. ‘No one can doubt your nerve, my Lord,’ he said. ‘And I believe I have my own skills in planning.’
‘So you agree?’ Eames asked, and smiled when Arthur nodded.
‘It is settled then,’ Saito said. ‘But what roles do you plan for me and Cobb?’
‘The first step should be for us to remove to London,’ Eames said. ‘We would be better placed there. My Lord Saito, I believe you should hold a ball to mark your arrival, and you should invite Robert. He will not dare refuse such an invitation.’
‘Is a public setting the best one for such a meeting?’ Cobb asked, and Eames shook his head.
‘It is not,’ he said. ‘But I feel that glimpsing Ariadne at a masked ball would plant an idea in his mind that we could exploit later in private.’
‘Subtle,’ Saito said. ‘I will do it. And then?’
‘Then,’ Eames said, ‘we will construct a chance encounter for Robert and Ariadne, and I believe that will give us the ammunition we need for an assault on the Club itself.’
‘And Nash?’ Cobb looked grim. ‘I believe he knows much of Mal’s death that is as yet unknown.’
‘I agree,’ Eames said, and glanced at Arthur. ‘What say you, darling? Are you prepared for a little cross and jostle work?’
‘Utterly,’ Arthur said, a look of satisfaction on his face. ‘Tis time my cousin faced the consequences of his actions, and I am more than willing to administer the lesson.’
‘Then we have a plan,’ Eames said and raised his glass in a toast. ‘To success – and to the confusion of our enemies.’
Saito was as good as his words and sent out cards of invitation for a ball that would be held the next week.
‘He is giving only short notice,’ Cobb said, his disapproval clear, but Eames only laughed.
‘His hall will be full, mark my words,’ he said, and he was proved right.
‘A dreadful squeeze,’ Arthur said into Eames’s ear as they alighted the stairs to Saito’s home.
‘Devilish,’ Eames agreed. Ariadne was on his arm, but it was Arthur, masked and beautiful beside him, who had the largest part of his attention, much to Ariadne’s amusement.
‘Tis a good thing I do not require Eames as a dance partner,’ she said, ‘else I would feel most jealous, brother.’
‘I doubt you will be alone for long, sister,’ he said, and she rapped his knuckles with her fan.
‘At least allow me the attention of my escort until then,’ she said. ‘Once we are inside you may do with him as you will.’
‘I hardly think even Saito would countenance such scandal,’ Eames said, and Arthur laughed before drawing away, leaving Eames and Ariadne to enter the ballroom together.
It was a magnificent affair, and as Ariadne’s attention was claimed by a young man in a deep blue domino, intent on leading her in a cotillion, Eames withdrew to the edge of the room. It did not take Arthur long to seek him out, and they watched Ariadne together, dancing with one man, then another, content in each other’s company.
‘Have you seen Robert yet?’ Arthur asked at length.
‘No,’ Eames said. ‘Though I confess my attention has been somewhat distracted this evening.’
‘Really?’ Arthur’s voice was full of fond amusement. ‘I wonder why that is?’
‘Stop fishing for compliments,’ Eames said. ‘I would say all you wish me to, for God knows I feel exactly as you would desire, but I doubt this will help me concentrate on searching for our erstwhile mark.’
Arthur’s mask did nothing to hide his smirk, but he held his silence and scanned the ballroom instead of bothering Eames further.
It took the best part of an hour before Eames caught sight of Robert. He was clearly recognisable despite his mask, his thin frame and well-tailored clothes almost instantly revealing his identity.
Eames leant over and touched Arthur’s arm, nodding towards Robert’s lone figure.
‘He does not seem to savour the event,’ Arthur said, and Eames nodded.
‘As I said, he avoids social occasions. I doubt that he would be here this evening had he been invited by anyone but Saito.’
Arthur inclined his head, but his mouth was fixed in a grim line.
‘I wonder what makes him so reticent?’ he said. ‘He moved fast enough to drop his engagement to Ariadne when I was disgraced, though I had thought his attachment to her a genuine one.’
‘Was it his idea?’ Eames asked. ‘I know little of Fisher, but what I do know suggests that he allows himself to be led by his father in most matters.’
Arthur shrugged, an eloquent movement of his shoulders.
‘I do not know,’ he said. ‘My main concern was Ariadne at the time. His desertion cut her deep, and I do not like throwing her in the path of hurt again.’
‘Whatever his feelings,’ Eames said, laying a comforting hand on Arthur’s arm, ‘I do not think he was unaffected by her.’ He gestured towards Robert.
The figure of the dance had brought Ariadne and her partner towards him, and he was staring at her masked figure as if he had seen a ghost. She remained unconscious of his presence, and Eames could hear her laugh at some words her partner whispered in her ear. Robert took a step backwards, and despite his mask the pallor of his face was evident.
The dance ended, and Robert made an abortive step forward as if he would approach Ariadne, but she was whisked into the arms of her next partner and Robert retreated to the edge of the room again, his eyes fixed on her.
‘Enough,’ Eames said, his voice low. ‘Tis no part of the plan that he approach her tonight. I will cut in at the end of this figure and bring her away. You go and hail the coach so that we may leave in a timely fashion.’
Arthur looked like he would argue, but Eames silenced him with a shake of his head.
‘There is too good a chance that Robert would recognise you,’ he said. ‘Let me do this.’
Arthur nodded, his mouth softening slightly from its grim line, and he brushed his hand across the small of Eames’s back.
‘Must you always speak sense?’ he asked. ‘Tis infuriating when you are in the right.’
Eames laughed, all thoughts of plans and strategies lost in the pleasure of Arthur’s admission.
‘So you have a score to settle,’ Eames said. ‘You may take it out of my skin later.’
Arthur’s eyes flashed. ‘You make the promise, my Lord,’ he said. ‘Rest assured I will hold you to it.’
He was gone before Eames could respond, passing through the crowd like a dream, and leaving Eames to collect Ariadne from the reluctant arms of her partner as the musicians brought the dance to a close.
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven: In which Robert suffers further provocation, and we discover the reason for his unease
Saito visited them the next morning, the late hour he had kept having no discernable effect on him. Ariadne’s face lit up when she saw him; she had taken an unaccountable shine to Saito and he tolerated her playfulness with every sign of enjoyment.
Eames hid a smile as he watched Ariadne regale Saito with stories of her small triumphs at the ball, and when she ran from the room to prepare for her day, Saito seemed positively approachable.
Some part of Eames’s thoughts must have shown on his face as Saito turned to him with a raised eyebrow.
‘She has such charm,’ Eames said. ‘She could engineer the rise and downfall of nations should she put her mind to it.’
‘Yet she is unconscious of her power,’ Saito replied. ‘The man who she chooses to marry will be lucky indeed.’
He removed a snuffbox from his pocket and took a pinch.
‘It will not,’ he continued, ‘be Robert Fisher, of course. She deserves better than that.’
‘You noted him at the ball?’ Eames asked.
‘We had some words,’ Saito replied. ‘He approached me, not long after you left, wishing to know who the young beauty in the blue was.’
‘And you said?’
‘I told him that one cannot properly keep track of who anyone is at a ball,’ Saito said. ‘Though I did tell him that should she be the beauty I was thinking of, he might do worse than walk in Hyde Park of a morning.’
‘Well said.’ Eames rose from his chair and walked to the window. ‘It should be easy to engineer a chance encounter there.’
‘My thoughts exactly.’ Saito sounded complacent, though he fixed Eames with a discerning eye. ‘And then?’
Eames shrugged. ‘Then we’ll see how he reacts.’
Saito smirked. ‘You play your cards very close to your chest,’ he said, and Eames essayed a bow towards him.
‘I take that as a compliment from you, my Lord,’ he said and was rewarded by one of Saito’s rare smiles.
‘As well you may,’ Saito said. ‘Though I am sure you have a plan that will amaze us all.’ He brushed an infinitesimal speck of dust off his jacket. ‘You generally do, after all.’
‘He does have that tendency.’ Arthur’s voice came as a surprise, and both men turned towards him.
‘Arthur!’ Eames rose and extended his hand toward him.
Arthur waked into the room and took Eames’s hand in his.
‘You thought I would leave you to plot alone?’ he asked, and Eames, so entranced by Arthur’s dimples that he forgot Saito entirely, raised Arthur’s hand to his lips.
‘You are indeed the voice of reason,’ Saito said, and Eames reluctantly dropped Arthur’s hand.
‘He needs it on occasion,’ Arthur said, sounding unaffected by the interruption. He sat opposite Saito and crossed his legs, affording Eames an admirable view of how well fitting his pantaloons were.
‘I agree,’ Saito said, inclining his head towards Arthur. ‘Though less of late, I feel. You exert a calming influence, Arthur.’
Eames caught his breath. Saito had seen him with a variety of partners, but he had not expected the depth of his feelings for Arthur to be so evident.
Saito smiled at him.
‘You need not look so concerned, Lord Eames,’ he said. ‘Tis little of my concern who you love, and Arthur is a remarkable good match for you. Indeed, you almost make me envious. I would that I could find a partner so suited for myself.’
‘You are all kindness,’ Arthur said, reaching his hand out towards Eames. ‘Though I would not change a thing of Eames.’
‘You do not need to,’ Saito said, and for once his sardonic features softened as he watched Eames relax under the pressure of Arthur’s touch. ‘He has found something he values more than himself. That is enough.’
They let Ariadne walk in the park with a girl friend, the daughter of one of Saito’s cronies, and Eames would have to admit that she had rarely looked lovelier.
He and Arthur followed at a discreet distance, the autumn leaves crisp beneath their feet, and the sound of the girls’ laughter drifting to them on the breeze.
Robert was there, his slim figure exquisitely tailored as always, like a plate from a fashion magazine.
He was walking alone, a nonchalant stroll that was belied by the keen gaze he kept on the path, and Eames and Arthur were able to watch unobserved as he saw Ariadne.
The effect was dramatic.
His footsteps faltered, and as at the ball his face became pale and drawn.
The girls did not see him, caught up as they were in their conversation, and the pleasure of walking on such a beautiful day. They walked past Robert, heedless and beautiful, and it was he who looked as if he had been painfully attacked.
‘Your thoughts?’ Eames asked, low in Arthur’s ear.
Arthur made a non-committal noise. ‘I am not sure,’ he said. ‘He looked…’
Arthur trailed off.
‘He looked distraught,’ Eames said, taking care to keep his voice gentle.
‘Yes.’ Arthur seemed reluctant to allow even this, and Eames turned to him, ready to question him but Arthur shook his head.
‘You didn’t see Ariadne,’ he said. ‘Not afterwards. She was…’ he paused, searching for the right words. ‘hurt. Hurt like I had not seen her before, nor would wish to see her again.’
Eames remained silent, leaving his hand as a comforting weight on Arthur’s arm, and at length Arthur smiled at him.
‘I know you would wish me to sympathise with Robert,’ he said. ‘Yet I cannot. I am sorry, Eames, but whatever pain he feels now is no more than he deserves.’
‘I ask you for nothing more than you are willing to give,’ Eames said. ‘But you will forgive me if I do have sympathy for him.’ He looked over at Robert, who was still stood on the path, looking at the place where he had seen Ariadne, an indecipherable look of pain on his face. ‘I cannot help it.’
‘Oh, Eames.’ Arthur’s voice had a curious edge of warmth to it that touched Eames more deeply than he could express. ‘I cannot blame you for how you feel. It is what makes you the man I love.’
Suddenly Robert’s feelings were a matter of little concern to Eames.
‘Truly?’ he asked, turning towards Arthur, the rest of the world falling away.
Arthur’s smile was a thing of beauty.
‘Need you even ask?’ he said, and there and then, Eames found that he did not need to ask after all.
Arthur had been resolute about maintaining his distance from society, even though Eames had done his best to persuade him to take some part in the clubs and meetings that comprised most of bachelor life in the capital. Nonetheless, he had persuaded Arthur to accompany him to the opera. Safe in the confines of Eames’s box, there was little risk that they would be seen, and Arthur had confessed a fondness for a well-told story.
It was a lovely evening, as much for the promise of what would be, as for the pleasure of watching Arthur, rapt and wide-eyed with enjoyment, focus on the opera.
It was as they left the theatre, and walked, arm in arm, towards home, that they encountered Robert.
He was obviously in a rush to be somewhere, and one could possibly excuse the slight disorder of his outfit on that, even if it did not explain the lines newly etched around his eyes. He nearly walked into Arthur and Eames before he noticed their presence, but when he did, the effect was startling.
He stopped, stock still on the pavement, his eyes fixed on Arthur, and his mouth working soundlessly.
Arthur was no less taken aback, but he recovered his composure first, bowing shallowly to Robert when he did.
Robert looked like he might have said something, but from the edge of panic in his eyes, Eames judged that he was struggling to find the right words to say, and besides, he was very aware of the tension thrumming through Arthur’s body, so he inclined his head towards Robert and led Arthur away, ensuring they vanished in the crowd as soon as they possibly could.
He had no doubt that Robert was affected by Ariadne – indeed he was slightly concerned that their actions were having a more profound impact than they had anticipated.
The question was how best to capitalise on this.
He was considering this in the comfort of his library, a fire crackling in the grate and Arthur, a silent yet comforting presence, leafing through the latest dispatches from the front.
Ariadne had gone out shopping. Some small matter of lace to trim a gown. She had waxed lyrical about it at the breakfast table, though Eames would admit that he had been more concerned about his coffee and sirloin than in the vagaries of female couture.
He judged that they still had a few hours before she returned though, and while he was occupied by the next steps of his plans, he had some thoughts as to whether he could persuade Arthur to retire with him upstairs for a mutually beneficial hour together.
He had just looked up at Arthur to suggest this (and incidentally found Arthur’s eyes on him and a slight smirk quirking his lips) when Ariadne burst into the room, her cheeks flushed and her hair in some disorder.
‘Ariadne.’ Arthur rose to his feet in a fluid movement, and was at his sister’s side, before Eames could even react. ‘What has happened? Are you well?’
‘It is Robert.’ Ariadne sounded shaken, and while Arthur led her to a seat, Eames rose and poured her a glass of claret.
‘Here,’ he said, pressing the glass into her hand, and receiving a grateful look from Arthur. ‘Sip this and collect yourself. You are safe here, my dear. Do not distress yourself.’
Arthur watched her drink, his brow furrowed in concern. When Ariadne seemed calmer, he knelt down by her and took her hand in his.
‘You saw Robert?’ he asked. ‘How was this?’
‘I was shopping with Georgiana,’ Ariadne said, her voice marginally steadier now. ‘And she wanted to go to the lending library, and…’ She swallowed and looked up at Eames. ‘We bumped into Robert in the street.’
‘He saw you?’ Eames asked, and Ariadne nodded at him.
‘He stopped in the street,’ she said. ‘I thought he would speak to me, but Georgiana pulled me away, and the street was busy enough that he could not chase us without causing comment.’
‘He did not hurt you?’ Arthur asked, concern evident in his voice.
‘No,’ Ariadne said. ‘Indeed not. He did not look well, Arthur. He was so pale…’ She looked back towards Eames. ‘I have not spoilt your plans, Eames?’
‘No, indeed.’ Eames knelt down next to Arthur in front of her and put his hand over hers. ‘You need not worry, my dear. We will deal with whatever outcome there may be, and you can rest assured that it would take much more than this to derail my plans.’
Ariadne relaxed slightly, and Arthur pressed her hand.
‘All will be well,’ he said, turning his head to look at Eames. ‘Working together, I doubt there is anything we couldn’t do.’
Quite how Eames would have responded, he wasn’t sure, only that the look of faith in Arthur’s eyes would have driven him to any length, but a knock on the door interrupted him before he could say anything.
He rose to his feet, waiting for Arthur to resume his seat, before he bade the servant enter. That it would be a servant, he was completely confident. His staff were too well trained to allow anyone to wander his halls unannounced.
The footman who entered approached Eames with a slight look of concern on his face.
‘My Lord,’ he said. ‘There is a Robert Fisher arrived to see you.’
Eames raised an eyebrow, aware of Ariadne’s sharp intake of breath behind him.
‘He said that you were not expecting him, my Lord,’ the footman said. ‘But he begged your lenience and said it was a matter of considerable importance.’ He hesitated, seeming to weigh his words before deciding to continue. ‘He looked considerably distressed, my Lord, so I put him in the Yellow Morning Room. I hope I acted correctly?’
Eames nodded absently, his mind racing over what this visit meant.
‘Indeed you did,’ he said. ‘Tell him I shall join him shortly.’
The footman bowed and withdrew from the room, shutting the door softly behind him. Eames turned to face Arthur and Ariadne.
‘What do you think this means?’ Ariadne said.
‘There is but one way to find out,’ Eames said. ‘And that is for me to go and see him.’ He flicked Ariadne’s chin with his finger. ‘Cheer up, little one. You really do have nothing to fear.’
‘You will see him alone?’ Arthur asked and Eames nodded.
‘Tis best I do, at least until I find out what he wants.’
Arthur smiled, grimly.
‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘Though it is remarkable hard to be reduced to playing this waiting game again.’
‘Indeed,’ Eames said, walking to the door. ‘But the time for action will come soon, I’d warrant. Do not go far, either of you. Tis my belief I shall need you soon.’
He did not seem to notice Eames when he entered; all his attention was focused on the road outside, his eyes flitting nervously from pedestrian to coach to rider, as if searching for some pursuing foe.
Eames’s voice made him startle, and in his confusion he looked ridiculously young, and Eames was surprised at a pang of conscience. T’was not as if they had been persecuting Robert, or not intentionally, but looking at him now, Eames questioned whether their actions had had a more profound effect than they had planned.
He hesitated, and Robert stepped forward, his face curiously eager.
‘My Lord Eames,’ he said. ‘I hope you will forgive my presumption in calling on you like this. I am aware that I have no call upon you.’
Eames raised an eyebrow, no letting his thoughts show. He would achieve more here, he felt, by showing an impassive face, than in trying to win Roberts confidence. There was something about the young man that spoke of an inherent wariness that would react badly to enforced camaraderie or proximity.
‘And yet…’ Robert trailed off, and his eyes darted back to the window again.
‘And yet, you are here.’ Eames finished for him, and was rewarded by a guilty smile.
‘I am,’ Robert said, and he looked at Eames, considering.
‘Whether or not you have a call on me,’ Eames said. ‘I would do what I can to be of assistance. Will you sit down? May I pour you a little madeira?’
Robert took a seat, but declined the drink with a wave of his hand.
‘I appreciate your tolerance, my Lord,’ he said. ‘I would not have come, save that I could think of no-one else to turn to.’ He paused, seemingly summoning up courage, before looking directly at Eames for the first time since he had arrived.
‘I saw you in the street the other day, my Lord, in the company of a man I had not seen for years, and did not think I would see again.’
‘And who was that?’ Eames asked.
Robert swallowed, but held Eames’s gaze.
‘Arthur Wickham,’ he said. ‘A man I thought at one time I would call brother.’
Eames let the silence stretch for a moment, but Robert did not look away, although the effort obviously cost him some pain.
‘You did,’ Eames said, when he judged the moment had lasted long enough. ‘I am lucky enough to count him as my friend.’
‘You are lucky,’ Robert said. ‘He is a good man, and I have forfeited my claim to calling him friend. Yet,’ he leaned forward, towards Eames, ‘whether he would acknowledge me or no, I must needs see him, and I had hoped you would be able to direct me to him.’
Eames looked at Robert for a long moment, considering.
‘If, as you say, you have lost any claim to his friendship,’ Eames said. ‘Can you explain to me why I should orchestrate a meeting that might cause him pain? He is, truly, a good man, and I would not see him hurt.’
‘I can give you no good reason,’ Robert said, ‘except my heart tells me this is the right thing to do, and I will get no rest until I have made my peace with him.’
He stood up abruptly, and paced sharply to the widow, before turning back to Eames, a haggard look on his face.
‘My Lord, you do not know me, and you have no reason to trust me, but I would beg you to help me. My conscience is troubling me so that I can get no rest, and Arthur holds my only hope of forgiveness.’
Eames nodded shortly.
‘I will help you,’ he said. ‘Though if you hurt him, you won’t just have lost his friendship.’
He stood up and walked up to Robert, crowding into his space.
‘I am, I believe, considered a dangerous enemy to have,’ he said softly, and smiled as Robert nodded, his eyes wide in comprehension.
‘Good,’ Eames said, standing back and letting his face relax into an expression of jovial bonne-homme. ‘Then we have an understanding.’ He clapped Robert on the shoulder, a little too much force behind the movement, and made for the door. ‘I will fetch him now.’
‘He is here?’ Robert said, nervous. ‘In this house?’
‘Surely,’ Eames said, letting his smile widen until it was a feral, possessive thing. ‘Where else would he be, after all?’ and he went to fetch Arthur, leaving Robert to make of that what he would.
‘Of course,’ Eames said, moving towards the decanter, though he doubted his words had been heard.
Arthur looked stern, but self-contained. Eames could tell that he was holding himself in tight check, lest he say something that would drive Robert away, yet the hurt Robert had inflicted on Ariadne could not be far from his mind.
Ever the good host, Eames fetched both men wine, and if his fingers brushed Arthur’s when he handed him his glass…. Well, no-one noticed but Arthur.
‘Arthur,’ Robert began, when Eames returned to his seat. ‘I needed – I need – to apologise to you.’
‘To me?’ Arthur’s voice was incredulous, but Robert just nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘To you. I should never have broken my engagement to your sister. It was the action of a cad. Whatever you did, her honour was never in question, and my sorrow for what I did…’ He looked Arthur in the eye. ‘I do not have the words to say how sorry I am.’
‘And yet you never made any move to remedy the wrong you did.’ Arthur sounded unforgiving, and Eames would admit that he had just cause.
‘I wanted to – I would like to think I would have done,’ Robert said. ‘And then it was too late. Arthur, when I heard of her death, I should have moved heaven and earth to find you, to apologise, and instead I was paralysed by guilt and sorrow.’
He drained his wine, seemingly unaware of the look of shock on the faces of his companions.
‘Since then,’ he continued in a shaky voice. ‘My life has been a living hell. I cannot get her out of my head. She appears to me everywhere – in ballrooms, parks, the street, my dreams – and I cannot approach her, cannot find her, to beg her forgiveness, beg for her understanding.’
He turned back to Arthur, a plea evident in his eyes.
‘Arthur,’ he said. ‘I have done nothing to deserve it, but I am begging you. Please, please, forgive me for causing Ariadne’s death. I… cannot live with my guilt any more. I cannot turn back time, I cannot make this a dream we will wake up from, all I can do is beg for your absolution.’
Arthur looked stricken. He stood up and approached Robert, laying his hand on his shoulder.
‘Robert,’ he said, and the emotion in his voice made Robert look up, hope dawning on his face. ‘I do not know who told you that, but Ariadne did not die. She is still alive – hale and hearty and alive.’
Eames looked away. Some emotions should not be witnessed, and the look on Robert’s face was too intensely broken, too vulnerable, to watch. It took Arthur’s voice to break his reverie.
‘Eames,’ Arthur said, his voice gentle and his hand stroking down Robert’s back. ‘Would you fetch Ariadne please?’ His eyes flashed a warning as he talked, and Eames resolved to take his time on the errand – and to prepare Ariadne well before he brought her to the room.
It said a great deal about her generous heart that her first thought was for Robert. She pressed her hand to her mouth and listened with wide eyes as Eames explained Robert’s story to her.
‘I must see him,’ she said when Eames finished his story. ‘Whatever hurt he did me, he did not deserve that.’
She stood up and paced the room with a firm, quick, step before turning to Eames.
‘God, Eames.’ Her voice was shaking with the strain of supressed emotion. ‘What must our charade have done to him?’
Eames shook his head and caught her by the shoulder.
‘You must not think like that, Ariadne,’ he said, willing her to believe him. ‘Without our charade, as you call it, he would have gone on believing he had caused your death. Believe me, this could be the best thing that could have happened for Robert.’
She nodded, still looking unsure, and took Eames’s hand in hers.
‘Bring me to him?’ she asked. ‘I need to see him.’
She was quiet as Eames led her down the hallways, though her hand was tight on his arm.
‘You’re ready?’ His hand was on the door, but he waited for her to smile shakily up at him before he pushed it open.
Robert and Arthur were deep in conversation, and Arthur was the first to look up. He saw Ariadne and reached over to rest his hand on Robert’s. Robert looked at him, and when Arthur nodded towards the door he turned, his eyes widening and the colour draining from his face.
‘Ariadne.’ He rose, and stretched his hands towards her, and Ariadne dropped Eames’s arm and moved towards Robert.
They stopped just in front of each other, and Robert reached out, sketching the line of Ariadne’s cheek without touching her.
‘You’re alive,’ he said, his voice raw with emotion.
‘As you can see,’ she said, and smiled at him tremulously.
‘We should leave them talk.’ Eames started at Arthur’s voice. With his attention fixed on Ariadne and Robert, he had not noticed him approaching.
‘You do not want to remain in case she needs you?’ Eames asked, and Arthur shook his head.
‘I think she is capable of looking after herself,’ he said, and looking at the couple in front of him, at Ariadne’s gently smiling face and the growing calmness in Robert’s eyes, he found he could believe Arthur.
It was a rewarding task, Arthur looked more at peace than Eames had seen him, and the sight of him, totally at home in this space, brought a smile to Eames’s lips.
‘You have finished with your plotting?’ Arthur asked, sounding fond.
‘By no means,’ Eames replied. ‘But am I not entitled to a break from my work?’
‘Your life is very hard,’ Arthur said, closing his book and laying it on a table.
Eames smirked, ready to answer Arthur in kind, but they were interrupted by a knock on the door before he could utter a word.
‘Hold onto that thought, my Lord,’ Arthur said, a smile playing across his features. ‘Enter.’
‘Oh, please,’ Eames said in an undertone. ‘Do make yourself free of my home.’
‘Oh, Eames,’ Arthur said. ‘I thought that permission was implicit in our arrangement already.’
‘I would hazard you are right in that assumption.’ Eames looked at the door to see Yusuf, a wry smile on his lips that was at odds with the worry evident in his eyes.
‘Yusuf!’ Arthur stood up. ‘Is aught wrong?’
‘No,’ Yusuf said. ‘Save for the fact that Ariadne is closeted with her fiancé.’
He sat down on one of the chairs and stared, broodingly, into the mid-distance.
‘You need not worry,’ Eames said. ‘She is just comforting him. I do not doubt her affection for you.’
‘Tis easy for you to say.’ Yusuf’s brows were drawn together in a frown. ‘I doubt you would be so sanguine if Arthur was locked in conversation with a past love.’
The truth of Yusuf’s words struck home, and Eames blanched.
‘I do not desire to speak for Ariadne.’ Arthur’s voice was low and serious. ‘But Eames would be able to trust that no matter who I spoke to, no matter what my history was with them, he could rely on me, and on my affection for him, to ensure there was no impropriety.’
He went and stood behind Eames, and rested his hand on Eames’s shoulder.
‘This is what love is, Yusuf,’ he said. ‘And you must trust my sister, else what you feel for her is worthless.’
Yusuf shrugged, but relaxed fractionally and his face looked less grim.
Eames stood up and bestowed a warm look on Arthur before turning towards the drinks cabinet.
‘Since we seem to have abandoned even the semblance of formality,’ he said. ‘Let me pour you a drink, so that you may wait in comfort.’
He took out three glasses and had started to pour, when the door opened again and Ariadne walked into the room with Robert following in her wake.
‘Arthur,’ she said, sounding more relaxed than she had so far that day. ‘Robert and I have talked and we agree that we should not suit.’
‘I think not,’ Arthur said, clasping Robert’s hand in his. ‘But I am glad that you agree it, and that he sees that you are still alive.’
Robert smiled, and Eames reached another two glasses out.
‘What I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘is who told you that Ariadne was dead.’
Robert took a glass from him gratefully and moved to a seat opposite the door.
‘It was my godfather,’ he said, he voice barely above a whisper. ‘One of my father’s trusted advisors. A man called Browning.’
Eames caught Arthur’s eye and raised an eyebrow.
‘The host of the Cobol Club?’ he asked, and Robert nodded.
‘My father set him up in business shortly after my eighteenth birthday, and, with his patronage, Browning has been assured of success.’
‘But why did he lie to you?’ Ariadne asked, moving to perch on the arm of Yusuf’s seat and resting her hand on his.
‘I do not know,’ Robert said, frowning. ‘But barely a month after I broke our engagement, he took me aside. I was… distraught. I wanted to seek you out, to apologise, but he said I was too late. That you had gone into a decline and that you had died.’
‘That is remarkably convenient,’ Arthur said, his voice dangerous. ‘And I am starting to think that there are no depths to which the Cobol Club will not stoop.’
‘You blame them for your losses?’ Robert asked, and Arthur nodded grimly.
‘For mine,’ he said, ‘and for more than mine.’
Robert sat, mouth open, as Eames explained their theories, and when he finished Robert shook his head slowly.
‘That would explain their funding,’ he said. ‘My father is generous, but the Club has not been drawing on him recently. Things are difficult just now. My father…’ Robert drew his hand over his eyes. ‘He’s dying, and though I do my best to manage his estates and funds, I have not been able to concentrate on the task as I should.’ He swallowed. ‘I have relied much on Browning of recent times.’
‘An understandable occurrence,’ he said, but Robert’s mouth set into a grim line.
‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But I cannot condone the Club’s actions – his actions – towards honourable men. Nor can I forgive him his lies. They cost me my peace of mind, and though I want to explain them as an action born of caring, I cannot. No.’ He stood up and paced across the room. ‘I fear that this was a deliberate move to weaken me, that he might assume control of my father’s assets.’ He turned to face Eames. ‘I should never have taken him into my confidence. I can see now that was an error of judgement. He would never condone my plans.’
‘Your plans?’ Eames took care to maintain a light tone, but inside his heart he felt a wild surge of hope that his gamble on his intuition was about to pay off.
‘I have plans,’ Robert said. ‘To use my father’s assets to invest in the new technologies. There is much innovation in the world of agriculture now, and I do not want to be the caretaker of my father’s estates. I wish to make my own mark in life.’
‘And Browning did not approve of these plans?’ Arthur asked, catching Eames’s eye.
‘Indeed not,’ Robert said. ‘He has been most diligent in reminding me that a gentleman should take no part in the running of his estate if he has trusted men of business to act for him.’
‘I am sure your father would applaud your enterprise,’ Ariadne said, her voice gentle.
‘Then you do not know my father,’ Robert said in a harsh voice. ‘No. Forgive me, Ariadne. I should not have spoken sharply. Tis just that my father has never lavished his approval on my ideas. Indeed, Browning has been more of a true father to me than he ever has. This is why I was so shocked when Arthur revealed his lie. I had never thought he meant me anything but good.’
‘We must do something,’ Eames said, hoping to plant the seed of action in Robert’s mind. ‘Unchecked, the Club and Browning will grow like a cancer, contaminating all they touch. And I doubt that you will be able to achieve your dreams should they continue to gain power.’
‘You will help me?’ Hope dawned on Robert’s face, and Eames felt all the triumph of an unlikely wager paying off.
‘T’would not be fitting to leave you to face this alone,’ Arthur said. ‘Besides, we have all suffered, and I would like to play my part in bringing those concerned to justice.’
It was the perfect mix of truth and subterfuge, and Robert responded admirably.
‘But how?’ Robert asked. ‘It seems to me that we must uncover the true state of the Club’s finances.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘The easiest thing would be to force a confession from them, but I must confess that I am at a loss as to how we would do so.’
Eames drew his brows in – the perfect picture of confused thought.
‘If only we could have access to the running of the Club,’ he said. ‘It would be a much simpler prospect.’
‘It would cause comment if I were to show an unexpected interest,’ he said. ‘And that might warn them to be on their guard. What we need is someone unknown who can infiltrate the staff.’
‘I could do it,’ Arthur said, but Yusuf shook his head.
‘I’m sorry, Arthur, but your history means that you would be too conspicuous. Besides, Nash still frequents the Club I believe?’
‘He does, and he is a lackey of sorts to my Godfather. You have a connection to him?’
‘He is my cousin, and yes. Even I must own that he would probably recognise me.’
‘He would recognise me as well,’ Eames said. ‘Even if I could disguise myself, he has seen me play a role often enough that there is a risk he would know me.’
‘He would not know me.’
Every eye in the room turned on Ariadne, who raised her chin defiantly.
‘That might work,’ Eames said slowly, running over the possibilities in his mind.
‘Nonsense,’ Arthur said. ‘Tis much too dangerous. I cannot allow it.’
Robert alone of the group looked baffled.
‘It is not a matter of allowing it,’ he said. ‘There are no women in the Club. Ariadne would be unable to gain employment there.’
‘Not in this garb,’ she said. ‘But as Harry I might be able to.’ She looked directly at Robert. ‘Life did not deal kindly with us after Arthur lost his estates. For more than a year I played his manservant.’ She tossed her curls. ‘And I could do so again, and I dare you, Arthur – I dare you to try and stop me.’
Arthur looked at his sister and shook his head with a laugh.
‘Indeed, I should not dare,’ he said. ‘Though I must insist we prepare properly.’ He walked up to her and stroked her cheek. ‘I love you, sister. I do not want you facing unnecessary risks.’
‘You lived as a man?’ Robert’s face was pale with guilt. ‘But, how was this?’
Ariadne drew herself up in her chair.
‘I will wait for no man to rescue me,’ she said. ‘And I would sooner discard my petticoats than my dignity. I am not a chattel to be owned, nor a delicate thing to be cosseted, and if I give my heart to a man,’ she took Yusuf’s hand in hers, ‘then it will be my choice to do so and not a strategy driven by necessity.’
‘Well said, Ariadne,’ Eames said. ‘I think you will play the part admirably, and I promise you will have all the backup you need to be safe.’
Ariadne beamed, and Eames – always calculating the odds – could see how this would come together.
‘We must speak with Saito,’ he said, stripping off his cravat and throwing it, careless, onto the chair by his bed. ‘And I want to remove Nash from the picture as soon as may be. He is an unnecessary complication, and I would be more confident of the outcome if he was not a player at this game.’
He sat on the edge of the bed and frowned at his boots until Arthur came and knelt between his legs.
‘Should we remove him before Ariadne starts to work there?’ he asked, starting to remove Eames’s boots with dexterous fingers.
‘I would wait if possible.’ Eames leant back to give Arthur an easier job removing his boots. ‘Though not long. I hope that we can garner information from him before he is removed from the board.’
‘Humm.’ Arthur placed the boots to the side and ran his hands up Eames’s thighs. ‘You will bring me with you when he is ‘removed’?’
‘I would not dare to suggest otherwise,’ Eames said, pulling Arthur up and starting to unbutton his shirt. ‘Besides,’ he pressed a kiss to Arthur’s collarbone as it came into view. ‘You are a useful man to have beside me, and I think we could achieve more together than apart.’
‘This is true, my Lord,’ Arthur said, straddling Eames’s thighs and claiming his mouth in a kiss. ‘Though I am very glad to hear you admit it to me.’
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve: Matters come to a head
It was a surprisingly simple matter to get Ariadne employment at the Club.
Suggested by Robert, and sponsored by Saito, no one at the Club thought twice about employing Harry as a footman, and Browning went so far as to thank Robert for his new employee.
‘It is always politic to humour men such as Lord Saito,’ he said to Robert. ‘But I am most pleased with the boy. He learns fast and I have promoted him to waiting in the gaming rooms.’
Eames would own to some qualms as he waited with Arthur on the first night she worked above stairs. He had never had to send someone to act on his behalf before in a matter like this and the sensation rankled.
His worry was needless though. Ariadne returned home in the early hours of the morning, slipping through the backstreets and alleys until she reached the house unfollowed and unnoticed.
‘Ariadne.’ Arthur stood up and embraced her. Eames smiled – for all that Arthur had been impassive while Ariadne was out, preferring to occupy himself with his book and gently mocking Eames’s agitation, he had obviously been concerned for his sister.
‘How did you fare?’ Eames asked when Arthur released her, and Ariadne smiled at him, tired but happy.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘It is amazing what people will say in front of servants thinking us no more than mobile furniture.’
‘You saw Nash?’ Arthur asked.
Ariadne nodded. ‘He did not recognise me though,’ she said. ‘So you may take that look of concern off your face.’ She laughed. ‘Oh, Arthur. Do you not know that no one looks closely at the person serving them their wine? And why should he ever suspect that the footman who stood beside his chair as he gambled is the girl he once mocked at our home?’
‘Tis an unlikely enough eventuality,’ Eames said, for Ariadne, dressed in breeches and powdered wig, looked every inch a young man.
‘And did you learn anything?’ Arthur asked.
‘Not a great deal,’ she said. ‘There was talk about a new lamb to be fleeced. Nash said they should employ the usual tactics, but he was hushed quickly enough.’
‘It wasn’t expected that you would uncover all the secrets so quickly,’ Eames said. ‘But I have an idea that might provoke discussion at the Club.’ He laughed at the near identical look of enquiry that Arthur and Ariadne shot him. ‘No! I will not say yet. Besides, it’s late, and Ariadne at least needs her beauty sleep.’
Ariadne shot him a look of poorly suppressed venom, and Eames laughed again.
‘Come, Ariadne,’ he said. ‘You are telling me that my foolish plans are of more interest than in seeing Yusuf?’
Ariadne raised her chin with an air of affronted dignity.
‘I shall seek him out,’ she said. ‘I tire of you and would seek sensible company before I retire.’ She turned to Arthur, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. ‘Goodnight, brother. I wish you luck in dealing with him.’
And so saying she left the room to the background of Arthur’s soft laughter.
Everything was in place. Ariadne had worked at the Club for long enough that she was just a face in the crowd, and while he was confident that they would uncover the evidence they needed if they waited long enough, he preferred to determine the pace of their plans.
As luck would have it, Saito, Robert, and Arthur were dining with him when Cobb arrived.
‘Dominic!’ Eames rose from his place at the head of the table and strode forward to greet him. ‘I am charmed that you could make it.’
‘Your invitation hardly left me with any other choice,’ Cobb said, but he smiled as Arthur welcomed him and as even Saito rose to shake his hand.
‘A technicality,’ Eames said, resuming his seat. ‘I was sure you would want to be here as we near the end of the game.’
Cobb nodded and took his own seat, and Eames turned to Robert.
‘You remember Dominic?’ he asked, and Robert nodded.
‘We are acquainted,’ he said, offering his hand to Cobb. ‘And I understand I have much to apologise for.’
Cobb shook his head. ‘T’was not your doing,’ he said. ‘You neither led me to the Club, nor did you take a part in the games that led to my downfall. In any case,’ he nodded towards Eames, ‘My Lord has explained that you are lending us your aid in this venture.’
Robert nodded. ‘I would do my humble best,’ he said. ‘I would not have wrongs done in my family’s name.’
Saito looked between them.
‘As admirable as this is,’ he said. ‘I thought we had agreed that there was too much risk of scandal for Dominic to join us in London.’
‘Ah,’ Eames said, satisfied now the question had been asked. ‘But that was before we had infiltrated the Club. Now that we have done so and can monitor the reaction, I would be most interested in hearing what response Cobb’s appearance causes.’
‘Interesting,’ Arthur said. ‘You think that his reappearance after so long abroad will cause comment?’
‘I am relying on it,’ Eames said. ‘And with Ariadne in place I am reasonably confident that we will learn much that would benefit us.’
Saito nodded. ‘Your plan is a good one, Eames,’ he said. ‘Flamboyant, of course, but that is to be expected from you.’
Eames bowed his head in acknowledgement, aware of Arthur hiding an amused smile behind his hand.
‘I am glad you think so, my Lord,’ Eames said. ‘Because I hoped that after this meal you might attend the opera with Dominic.’
‘I am your servant in this as in all things,’ Saito replied. ‘Though I pray that you explain why I should do so.’
‘Tis a simple enough answer,’ Eames said. ‘I wish Robert to bring news of Cobb’s arrival to the Club, and I wish to hide his part in our machinations for a while longer. Moreover, I think that an account of Dominic seen in your presence, my Lord, will heighten the concern that is felt at the news.’
‘I am happy to oblige you,’ Robert said. ‘I keep a box at the opera in any case, so it would not be a remarkable thing should I see them there.’
‘I had hoped as much,’ Eames said. ‘And you are willing to play your part, Dominic?’
‘I am.’ Cobb nodded, though his mouth was set in a grim line. ‘Tis not how I wish to re-join society, of course, but I can see the wisdom of your plans.’
‘Then it is decided,’ Eames said, raising his glass in a toast. ‘Here is to a good night’s work, gentlemen.’
He had arranged for Cobb and Saito to return after the opera, and they were waiting with Yusuf and Arthur when Ariadne returned from the Club. Her eyes were wide with excitement, and she was barely through the door before she started relaying the events of the evening.
News of Cobb’s return had been greeted with consternation at the Club. Indeed, there had been an emergency meeting, chaired by Browning and attended by Nash, among his other cronies.
‘And I managed to be the one who waited on them during the meeting,’ Ariadne said, her pride evident.
‘You did well,’ Eames said. ‘But what was said at the meeting?’
‘They were mostly scared,’ Ariadne said. ‘They had thought him safe on the Continent. Believed that he was friendless here. That he was seen walking into a society event in the company of Saito was a sore blow to them.’
‘I had hoped it would be.’ Eames smiled grimly. ‘And what was their solution to this problem?’
Ariadne pressed her lips together and darted her eyes towards Cobb.
‘Browning said that the problem needed to be removed,’ she said, her voice shaking slightly. ‘That Cobb’s presence could not be tolerated. They said that London had got terrible lawless and that it would be a shame if Cobb became a victim of one of the lawless gangs that wander the streets these days. Browning said…’ she looked at Arthur, seeing in his face something to give her strength. ‘He said to Nash that since his contacts had been so useful before that he should be the one to rid the Club of this ‘inconvenience’.’
‘And Nash?’ Arthur said. ‘What did he have to say to that?’
‘He laughed.’ The excitement had left Ariadne’s voice and she sounded almost scared. ‘He laughed and said that it would be his pleasure. That he would arrange for Saito’s house to be watched to discover where they could find Dom, and that once they could find him he was as good as dead.’
‘He won’t get the chance,’ Eames assured her. ‘We shall intervene before he can put any of those plans in action.’
‘We shall,’ Arthur said. ‘And he shall rue the day he decided to betray his friends.’
‘What of Robert?’ Saito asked, and Eames quirked an eyebrow at the unaccustomed interest in his voice.
‘He was not included in the meeting,’ Ariadne said. ‘I saw him arrive at the Club, and he approached Browning, but once the meeting commenced I saw him retreat to the gaming table, and by the time I came down to the members room again, he had left.’
‘I will call on him in the morning,’ Saito said, but Eames shook his head.
‘It would not be wise, my Lord. You have been seen in company with Dom. No.’ Eames tapped his chin with his finger. ‘I shall call on him myself. There is nothing to tie me to this yet and that makes me the best choice.’
Saito looked unconvinced and Eames leant forward. ‘It is the only way to escape remark,’ he said. ‘And I will ensure you are kept informed of events.’
Saito nodded his head reluctantly. ‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘Though I feel that we will need to move quickly now that the game is afoot.’
Eames had seen his guests to the door, letting them out himself, and he was still in the hall when Arthur emerged from the library, a brandy glass in his hand and a soft smile on his lips.
‘You are ready to retire?’ he asked, and his eyes were so fondly amused that Eames found himself smiling in return.
‘Offered such an inducement, of course I am,’ he said, taking Arthur’s free arm in his. ‘Besides, you deserve some reward for your patience.’
‘My patience?’ Arthur said, but he was smiling.
‘Indeed,’ Eames said as they started climbing the stairs. ‘You have not yet asked me about the rest of my plans.’
‘You have plans, my Lord?’ Arthur’s voice was all feigned amazement. ‘You shock me deeply.’
‘As if you could ever doubt it,’ Eames said. ‘You are not anxious to hear them?’
Arthur laughed, opening the door to Eames’s room.
‘Indeed not,’ he said. ‘I am sure I will be hard pressed to stop you telling me of them in the morning, and for tonight…’ he caught Eames by the shoulders and pressed a kiss to his lips. ‘Well, I can think of better uses for your mouth.’
Arthur was grim-faced, but Eames could sense the excitement quivering through him.
‘You are certain we will find him here?’ Arthur asked, and Eames nodded.
‘I have had agents follow him the past weeks, and his behaviour is reliably predictable.’
Eames’s words were interrupted by the door of the cab opening and Nash climbing inside.
He looked at Eames in shock, rain dripping down his face.
‘I apologise,’ he said. ‘I did not know this cab was taken.’
‘Tis no matter,’ Eames said, rapping the roof of the cab with his cane so the cab moved forward. ‘It’s a shocking day and I do not mind sharing, and we are old friends after all.’
Nash nodded slightly, his eyes wary and suspicious, but leant back in his seat regardless, keeping his eyes still on Eames. His attention was all for Eames, and he had not, as yet, noticed Arthur’s presence. Eames simply waited for the inevitable.
He did have not long to wait.
Nash shifted in his seat, adjusting the fur collar of his coat and obviously groping for a suitable way to open a conversation with Eames. Eames would wager that the memory of their last conversation loomed as large in Nash’s memory as it did in his own.
Unfortunately Nash’s fumbling knocked his own cane to the floor, and as he bent to retrieve it he saw Arthur for the first time. He sat up straight, his face paling, and Arthur smiled at him, a dangerous thing with no humour in it.
‘What, cousin,’ he said. ‘You have no words of welcome for me?’
Nash opened and closed his mouth silently, and Arthur’s smile turned positively feral.
‘Come, you are not pleased to see a long-lost kinsman?’ he asked, and Nash’s eyes darted between him and Eames, giving him the look of a trapped animal.
‘I thought you had left the country,’ Nash said in a tight voice. ‘I had thought you with your friend Cobb.’
‘You do not know?’ Arthur leant forward and put a hand on Nash’s knee. ‘Cobb is returned from the continent, cousin. He has returned, and it is time for a reckoning.’
‘I do not know what you mean,’ Nash said, but his face was covered in a sheen of sweat.
‘I think you do,’ Arthur said, his voice deadly earnest. ‘Be sure your sins will find you out, Nash, for there will be a reckoning to pay for the crimes that have been committed.’
Nash swallowed, and the noise was loud in the confines of the cab.
Eames leant forward. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘We are all friends here, I hope. I do not believe that Nash is wholly at fault…’ He paused to let hope dawn for Nash. ‘And I am sure that, as our friend, Nash will be only too keen to help us set things to rights.’
Nash’s eyes filled with fear and Eames gave him a moment to let the implications of his offer sink in.
‘I know you will want to help us, Nash,’ he said, and let Nash nod before he raised his cane so it pressed into the soft meat of Nash’s neck beneath his chin. ‘The alternative, after all, does not bear thinking about.’
Nash looked pathetic, but Eames could not find it in himself to feel sympathy. He let his voice grow hard.
‘You need to make a choice,’ he said. ‘There is no one here to rescue you, and unless you give us the information we need, I will kill you where you sit and throw your body to the dogs.’
‘And if I do help you?’ Nash attempted defiance, but the quake in his voice betrayed him. ‘What is to stop you killing me anyway? What will stop the others killing me? An’ I help you, I will have made powerful enemies.’
‘I offer you the same kindness you offered me,’ Arthur said. ‘If you help us you get the option to flee the country or to try and live by your wits. We will not name you, and we will give you enough time to flee before we act on the information you share. In either case, the life you have led until now is over.’
Eames increased the pressure of his cane on Nash’s neck.
‘You will also sign Arthur’s lands and money back to him,’ he said. ‘I have taken the liberty of having the papers drawn up ready for you, and I care very little if you sign them or if I forge your signature while leaning on your corpse. Either way, Arthur will have his rightful inheritance returned to him.’
He was aware of Arthur’s shock next to him. This was the one part of the plan he had not shared this morning, but it was necessary. Arthur might have accepted Nash quitting his property, but Eames did not trust him not to make mischief in the future, and wanted to guarantee Arthur’s safety – now and always.
‘I will help,’ Nash said. ‘And I will sign Arthur’s property back to him.’
Eames nodded and withdrew his cane.
‘I am glad you see sense,’ he said. ‘It gives me hope we can settle this in a civilised manner.
There was the snick as Arthur eased a flintlock pistol that Eames hadn’t been aware he’d been holding back to half-cock.
‘Let us hope so,’ Arthur said. ‘My patience is worn thin, and I am in no mood for tolerance.’
Nash gulped convulsively, he had obviously been unaware of the gun as well, and the danger of his situation was starting to sink in. Eames did not believe that Arthur would shoot his cousin without provocation, but Arthur had only survived thus far through violence and crime, and Eames realised that he would not care to wager on the chance.
‘Tell me what happened to Malorie Cobb,’ Eames said, his voice low and dangerous and drawing Nash’s attention away from Arthur.
Nash looked at him and seemed to be weighing his options, but whatever he saw in Eames’s eyes seemed to focus his mind. He looked down at his hands, and for the first time in Eames’s memory, he actually looked unsure of himself.
‘It was Arthur who introduced me to Mal,’ he said. ‘The first Christmas of her marriage to Cobb, when they visited Arthur in his home. I was there, under sufferance I would suppose, but Arthur would not turn a kinsman away, especially when he knew they had nowhere else to go. I had never met anyone like her before, and though I knew she was as far outside my reach as the stars in the sky, I resolved that I must have her, be she willing or no.’
He looked between Arthur and Cobb, but there was no sign of his usual self-importance.
‘T’was an easy matter to introduce Cobb to the Cobol Club. I had been a member for some time, and Browning employed me on occasion when he needed someone to act as a crony for one of the lambs he was fleecing. I knew Mal’s brother was a member, though he journeyed a lot, and Cobb was all eagerness to meet up with him when I said he was in town. Browning was more than able to take it from there. He judged it safest if I did not act as a sponsor to Cobb, and it did not suit my purposes to do so in any case. The time that he spent at the Club was time that Mal was alone, and there was nowhere I would rather be than at her side. She… did not like me, nor did she trust me, but she welcomed me for the sake of her brother, and as time advanced I managed to interest her in the political debates I knew that Cobb was part of.’
‘That is not all, is it?’ Arthur’s voice was low and dangerous, and Eames brushed his knee in an effort to comfort him.
Nash took that in, but did not comment. Instead he leant back and fixed his eyes on the roof of the cab.
‘It isn’t,’ Nash said. ‘To my shame I thought that she would me more pliant to my wishes if she was relaxed and so I brought her laudanum. She was pregnant by then, with her first child, and the drug gave her some respite from her nausea. I increased the amount by degrees, until she was dependent on it – dependent on me.’
Eames hissed. He had done many things in his life that skirted the bounds of propriety, but such an act, carried out in cold blood, was beyond his comprehension.
Nash seemed unaware though, and as he continued with his story he lost some of his reticence, seemed almost to take pride in his acts.
‘I was right,’ Nash said. ‘As she increased her dose she became more susceptible. I told her that Dom was at the heart of a Bonapartist plot and she should join it, lest she lose him. She started seeking me out then, eager for what information I could feed her along with the drug. In the end, she believed that she was part of this plot as surely as she believed the sun would rise in the morning.’
‘And then?’ Eames said, struggling to keep the disgust from his voice. ‘On the night she died?’
Nash looked at him.
‘I knew the Club was readying itself to acquire all of Cobb’s possessions. The only question was whether he would lose it at the gaming table or if they would force him to flee the country, leaving his possessions behind him. I knew that this was my time to act, and when Cobb argued with her and left I took my chance.’
He fiddled with the fur of his collar for a moment, and then looked back at Eames.
‘I followed her to her bedroom. I told her that the time had come. That Cobb had decided to act without her, but that he was fallen into a trap. I convinced her that he would be arrested, executed. That his property would be seized and that she would be disgraced utterly. I said I would save her, that I loved her, but that she must leave everything and flee with me.’
He drew a shuddering breath.
‘She was disgusted. She said she would never leave with me. I tried to persuade her, but she wouldn’t listen. She just walked round the room, drinking from her bottle, insulting me… then,’ Nash drew a deep breath. ‘She collapsed.’
‘And what did you do?’ Eames’s voice was loud in confines of the cab. Nash laughed, though the sound was mirthless and harsh.
‘What could I do? I left her, left the house. Made sure that I was with friends when news of her death reached me.’
‘You left her?’ Arthur sounded incredulous. ‘You left her when you could have summoned medical attention? You left her to die?’
‘There was nothing I could have done!’ For all his vehemence, Nash’s words rang empty, and he seemed to realise it. ‘It would have been a scandal had I been found in her bedroom. My part in her addiction would have come out. Arthur,’ he turned to his cousin. ‘You must believe me; my life was in jeopardy. The Club would never have countenanced me being linked to something like this when they were so close to seizing Cobb’s lands. I would have vanished, and I would not have been the first to do so.’
‘Better to have died a man than lived a coward,’ he said. ‘You could have saved the life of the woman you say you loved and instead you did nothing. That is like no love that I know.’
Nash shot a look between Arthur and Eames, and there was too much malice in it for Eames’s peace of mind.
‘What happened then?’ he said. ‘After Mal’s death. What happened about Cobb?’
Nash sat back, a small smile playing at the corners of his lips.
‘Well, then,’ he said. ‘The die was cast. I could not let Cobb roam loose for fear he would discover the truth of what happened, so the next morning I hastened to the Club and met with Browning. I told him that Mal had died after she had argued with Cobb and he had fled the house, and the information was sufficient for him to lay his plans.’
‘Cobb always was trusting, and he was even more so after Mal’s death. He believed that the Club would help him, safeguard his children’s inheritance. He was only too willing to pass his property into their hands and flee. He seemed to believe they had the contacts that you lacked, Arthur. That they could ensure his safety and freedom where you couldn’t.’
Arthur bristled at this, but Eames knew that it was a feint. That Arthur must maintain his composure for them to collect the final pieces of the puzzle they sought.
‘How does the Club operate?’ Eames asked, keen for anything that would move the conversation to less emotional ground. ‘You are deep in Browning’s counsel, you must be able to tell us.’
This appeal to Nash’s self-conceit answered admirably, and he seemed to swell with pride as he turned to Eames.
‘You are right,’ he said, seemingly unable to keep the note of smug self-satisfaction from his voice. ‘Browning relies on me for many things. He, of course, runs the Club, but he gets funding from a powerful benefactor…’
‘And what part does Maurice Fischer play in the Club?’ Eames asked, enjoying Nash’s look of surprise.
‘He provides some funding, of course.’ Nash was quick to recover himself, his delight at having centre stage obscuring all else. ‘But he is old and infirm, and his son is little better than a dandy and a fop. I doubt they know all that Browning does. His is behind all the plans, and when his day comes there will be a reckoning throughout the whole political order.’
‘Tis a shame you will not witness it,’ Eames said, rapping sharply on the roof of the cab and preparing for it to draw to a halt. ‘For now we must steel ourselves to lose your company.’
Nash looked momentarily taken aback, but he quickly recovered and reached for the door of the cab.
Eames knocked his hand sharply back from the door with his cane.
‘Oh no,’ he said, menace in his every word. ‘Did you forget our bargain? You still have papers to sign.’
Nash was obviously reluctant, but as Arthur cocked his pistol he finally reached out and took the papers that Eames proffered.
‘You will regret this, my Lord,’ he said. Nevertheless, he took a quill and signed his name, seemingly careless to the ink blots that spattered from its nib. ‘I have powerful friends now, and you would do well not to forget that.’
‘You had powerful friends,’ he said. ‘Though they will not be so for much longer should they discover you betrayed them.’
He took the papers back from Nash and handed them to Arthur.
‘My advice to you would be to run, Nash. Run and do not look back, for your old life has gone now, beyond hope of recall, and your only hope is in looking to the future.’
The venomous look that Nash shot him did not suggest to Eames that his advice would be heeded, but Nash held his peace as he alighted from the cab, slamming the door in his wake and leaving Arthur and Eames on their own.
‘I am sure of it, love,’ he said. ‘T’would be foolish for you to go in without a disguise yet and time is of the essence here.’
Arthur frowned as he examined his reflection in the mirror.
‘You have an answer for everything,’ he said, but he didn’t sound particularly angry. ‘Tis a shame you are right in this case.’
‘I invariably am,’ Eames said, catching Arthur’s mouth in a kiss.
‘And yet you still forget I am in the room.’ Yusuf sounded resigned as he tidied away Arthur’s clothes. ‘Alas for my life.’
‘Quiet, you,’ Eames said, pulling away from Arthur. ‘Else I will redesign your uniform. I have had some thoughts about paisley of late.’
‘You would not dare,’ Yusuf said, with all the self-assurance of a man who wielded the razor for his master.
‘Perhaps not,’ Eames conceded. ‘But I can remove us to my estate without Arthur and Ariadne.’
‘A likely eventuality,’ Yusuf said. ‘I should mention she is waiting outside the door, perhaps.’
‘You should have,’ Arthur said, opening the door to greet his sister’s laughing face. ‘You are ready for this, Ariadne?’
‘I am,’ she said. ‘If you two are quite ready.’
‘We are,’ Eames said. ‘Are you sure you can get Arthur into the Club?’
‘I am,’ Ariadne said. ‘And you will be able to gain entrance yourself?’
‘Robert has invited Saito and me to dine with him at the Club. It will suffice.’
Robert looked noticeably nervous as he led them through the corridors.
‘Browning will not be pleased to be disturbed,’ he said, ‘and he has security in place.’
‘You doubt that I would have a plan?’ Eames sounded genuinely offended. ‘I have backup in place.’
‘Where?’ Robert looked confused.
‘Here.’ Arthur stepped out of the shadows and Robert jumped. ‘Ariadne got me a position here for tonight, and believe me, I am more than capable of dealing with anyone who Browning has employed.’
‘I cannot doubt it,’ Eames said, reaching out to touch Arthur’s face, and Arthur laughed, a free and happy noise in the stifled air of the Club.
‘Just do your part, my Lord,’ he said, ‘and let me handle the rest.’
Robert inhaled sharply and fixed his eyes on the older man.
‘Father,’ he said, his voice shaking slightly. ‘I am glad you are here.’
‘Indeed.’ Maurice raised a cynical eyebrow. ‘And to what purpose do you barge in here accompanied by such a friend?’
‘Yes,’ Browning said, turning in his seat to look at Robert and Eames. ‘Tis not that you are unwelcome here, Robert, but Maurice and I have private matters to discuss about the running of the Club, and this is not the time nor place for you to introduce an outsider.’
‘It is about the Club that I come,’ Robert said, ushering Eames into the room and pulling the door ajar behind him. ‘Father, do you know what this Club is doing?’
‘Of course I do,’ Maurice said. ‘It is building a better world.’
‘Is that what you call it?’ Robert’s voice was cold, and his father looked at him in some shock.
‘It is,’ he said. ‘Frankly I was always disappointed that you lacked the vision to be part of it. The movement could do with young men of vision, but you have always lacked ambition and drive.’
Eames, stood at Robert’s shoulder, could see the tension in his frame, but to his credit he did not flinch.
‘I am sorry that I have never met with your approval,’ he said. ‘But there are some lengths to which I would never stoop, and if you deserved my respect, you would not wish me to sully myself and betray my principles in order to win your favour.’
A look of confusion passed across Maurice’s face, but it was quickly replaced by contempt.
‘As I said, you have always lacked the attributes that would make you a leader of our new world order.’
‘If your new world comes at the price of an innocent woman’s life and the reputation of good men, then I am glad that you do not deem me fit to be part of it.’
Browning stood, walking round the table till he was stood next to them.
‘Robert,’ he said, placing his hand on Robert’s shoulder. ‘Your father is unwell, and you are clearly upset about something. Why do you not wait in my office with your friend and I will come and talk to you after we have eaten?’
His tone was reasonable, but Eames could see the unease in his eyes. However, before he could say anything Robert broke away from his godfather’s hold.
‘No,’ he said, his voice adamant. ‘I do not know if my father is aware of your tactics or not, but the days when you could brush me aside are over.’
‘What does this mean?’ Maurice’s voice was harsh. ‘What is this nonsense of deaths and reputations and tactics?’
‘Maurice.’ Browning turned back to the table. ‘Robert is distraught. You should not listen to his ramblings.’
Maurice dismissed him with the wave of a claw-like hand.
‘Come here, boy,’ he said. ‘What are you speaking of?’
Robert approached him, and knelt at his side.
‘Father, do you know what this man has done in your name?’ He took Maurice’s hand in his own. ‘We may never have been close, you and I, but do you countenance the death of an innocent woman? The ruin of innocent men?’
‘I do not know what you are talking of.’ Maurice’s voice sounded querulous, but he fixed Browning with a look of suspicion. ‘This is a political Club, Robert, not a den of intrigue as you would make out. A place where men can come and discuss the matters of the day, and through companionship and debate start to forge the foundations of a new world order.’
‘And what of the Cobbs?’ Robert said. ‘Can you deny that their fates were unfair? Or were they merely necessary sacrifices in this grand scheme of yours?’
‘The murderer?’ Maurice said. ‘What does he have to do with me?’
Robert stood up, a look of disgust on his face.
‘As if his wife’s death and his disgrace did not fund this building,’ he said. ‘Can you deny that, father?’
‘Browning?’ Maurice turned away from Robert. ‘Is what my son says true?’
Browning drew himself up, very upright and correct, though an unreadable emotion flashed in his eyes.
‘How do you think I found the funding for the new location, Maurice?’ he asked, and there was something in his voice that made Fischer flinch back. ‘You have been generous, no doubt of that, but your ideal of a club to foster discussion, to build revolutionary ideals through debate and patronage was never going to work in this day and age.’
He looked at Maurice, and his features softened slightly.
‘Maurice,’ he said. ‘Your plans have always been idealistic and I admire that, I really do, but the fact remains, your health is infirm and Robert is not fitted to step into your shoes. You must know that he will break your plans into shards when you die and that we do not have the luxury of time here.’
He moved to the table and sat down, looking Maurice deep in the eye.
‘You may call my methods unscrupulous, old friend, but you must understand that we are masters to a higher cause here. You have seen the insanity of the King, the moral bankruptcy of his sons – you know the need for haste here. And yes,’ he leant back in his seat. ‘Yes, I do believe that we buy our future at a price, and if the price is that of the estates and reputations of the deluded aristocracy or the life of one drug-addled heiress then so be it. We cannot afford to wait longer, Maurice. We must needs seize power by force – and seize it soon.’
‘My God,’ Maurice said, his face pale and drawn. ‘What have you done? You know my mind, Browning, it was never meant to be like this.’
Browning drew back, his face set.
‘Maybe not,’ he said. ‘But what else was I meant to do? You lacked the energy to run the movement properly, and I knew that when you died I would lose access to your funds and friends. No, you cannot blame me for doing what needed to be done. I have raised the funds, I have made the difficult decisions, I have entrapped the sons of the rich and powerful so that there is not a House in the land, be they ever so powerful, who will not hesitate to act against their own.’
‘You mean…’ Robert’s voice sounded soft and unsure in the silence after the outburst, and Browning turned on him.
‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘The Royal family is now involved, and through that our success is ensured. You think I have not seen you with your friend here, Robert? Known that you have been running to Saito? You think to throw your lot in with others, to challenge my power, to make a name for yourself as the companion of powerful men – but you will not succeed. My plans are so deeply entrenched, there is nothing you can do to stop them, and you,’ he turned back to Maurice, his face softening, ‘your vision and work will survive your death, my friend, and your empire will not be forgotten.’
Maurice looked horrified, his breath coming in rattling gasps as he struggled to cope with Browning’s revelations. Robert, concern writ large on his face, hastened towards his father, pressing a glass of wine into his hand and urging him to drink. Taking advantage of the confusion, Eames slipped to the door and pushed it fully open. Saito, as they had arranged previously, had been waiting in the shadows near the door, and he passed into the room, nodding to Eames to signify that he had heard everything that had transpired. He was unheeded by the others; Robert had succeeded in calming his father, and the colour had returned to Maurice’s cheeks.
‘This must be stopped,’ he said to Browning, is body shaking with his urgency to convey his message. ‘I will not have my name associated with these actions.’
Browning shrugged, the look on his face cold.
‘There is nothing you can do about it now,’ he said. ‘Our plans are too well advanced to stop, and should you try then your name and your son’s name will be dragged through the mud.’
‘I think not.’ Saito’s voice came from the back of the room, utterly dispassionate and commanding. ‘You cannot be allowed to continue, and I am here to stop you and your plot forthwith.’
Browning swung round.
‘What mean this?’ he said, his control on his emotions slipping with his surprise. ‘Who are you to intrude here?’ He strode to the fireplace and tugged sharply at the bell-pull to summon a servant, before turning back to Saito. ‘Think you to summon some Bow Street Runner to investigate? Think you to drag us all through the courts to justice?’
‘The evidence is too damning’ Saito said, his voice cold. ‘This cannot be discovered. It would weaken the Crown.’ He flicked an invisible speck off his coat. ‘Thus my involvement. You know my sponsor, I would imagine?’
He raised an eyebrow in query and Browning paled noticeably, staggering backward to a seat.
‘The Regent knows of this?’ he said, and Saito nodded shortly. Eames whistled under his breath. He had no idea that Saito had been acting for the Crown in this, though it made sense, given his connections.
‘The Regent has been aware of the Club for some time. It was, perhaps, unwise to try and involve his family and household. He asked me to investigate, but it was only when my friend here,’ he rested his hand on Eames’s shoulder, ‘contacted me that I managed to piece together a full picture of the extent of the plot.’
He frowned forebodingly at Maurice.
‘Things have advanced to a state that you could never have anticipated,’ he said. ‘We have known for some time that secrets have been passing to Bonaparte’s camp, but it is only over the last weeks that we realised that there has been a deliberate ploy to lure young bureaucrats here and, when they had lost more than they could repay at the gaming tables, to offer them the option of paying their debts with information.’ He sniffed, and settled himself delicately in a chair.
‘T’was ingeniously done. Each man told nothing major and could fool himself that the information was worthless, was an expedient way of saving his reputation without harming anyone, yet collected together, the information was more than enough to give Bonaparte’s troops the advantage they needed.’
Browning’s face was deathly pale, and all eyes in the room were fixed on Saito.
‘How did you discover this?’ he said at length, and Saito smiled mirthlessly.
‘T’was Dominic Cobb gave me the idea,’ he said. ‘He did not realise the significance of his words, of course, but when he told me that the Club was a place for political debate and when he mentioned some of the men who frequented its rooms, it was easy enough to see how your plans operated. I fear you were careless in discarding Cobb as a pawn.’
‘Oh, you are clever, my Lord,’ he said. ‘But what can you do about this now? Treason in a time of war is not something that can be dealt with lightly, and I will have my day in the courtroom to tell all I know of accomplices and the rot that is riddled through society.’
‘It will never get to court.’ Saito’s voice was final. ‘There will be nothing of this in the papers, no word on the street. There will be some discreet resignations, and an unfortunate spate of suicides mayhap, but history will know nothing of this plot nor of the men behind it. We do not wish to encourage other plots, after all.’
Browning rose, walking to the sideboard where he nodded to the newly arrived servant to fill his glass with wine.
‘In that case, my Lord,’ he said, draining his glass and reaching into the pocket of his jacket. ‘You leave me with nothing to lose.’
He spun round, a pistol in his hand and fired, first at Saito and then at Eames. He got no further – he was pushed to the floor by the servant next to him, who twisted his arm back until it broke and the servant could rip the gun from his incapacitated hand.
Eames, fallen to the floor to avoid the shot, looked in shock at the scene in front of him. The servant, sat astride Browning’s back and pinning him to the floor, careless of his screams of pain, looked up with wild eyes.
‘Are you alright?’ The fear in his voice made it harsh, and Eames was pleased, but not surprised, to see that it was Arthur.
‘Yes,’ he said, his own voice clouded by emotion. ‘Have no fear. I’m fine.’
He looked around and his brows snapped together when he saw Saito.
‘Arthur,’ he said.
Robert was next to Saito, a look of horror on his face at the crimson blooming across Saito’s chest.
‘Ariadne.’ Arthur’s voice was urgent and his sister rushed into the room, taking in the scene in one quick glance.
She darted to Saito’s side, starting to tend his wound with her clever fingers.
‘Ariadne?’ Robert sounded bewildered, and she flashed a smile at him.
‘I make a convincing servant,’ she said. ‘I believe you still would not have known me had not Arthur given me away.’
She looked down to assess Saito’s condition.
‘He will live,’ she said, addressing herself to Eames. ‘But I would rather Yusuf was here.’
‘I will send for him,’ Eames said. ‘And quickly. There is still much work to do this evening.’
Saito’s wound was not a serious one, and though it obviously pained him, he remained to supervise the rest of the night’s actions. Eames would have to admit that he was impressive. He dashed off a note which was dispatched with Arthur – Saito would trust no other.
He returned with a retinue of serious-faced men, dressed in black, who waited until the Club was empty before stripping it of every piece of paper. They also removed Browning and several key members of staff, and though Eames was keenly interested in his fate, he could find no whisper of it in the days and weeks that followed. Indeed, Browning vanished as completely as if he had never existed.
‘Tis neatly done,’ Saito said to Eames as he supervised the locking of the Club’s door for the last time. ‘I owe you my thanks, Eames, though I shall call on you once I am recovered to pay my respects properly of course.’
Eames turned to him, and took his hand in a careful grip.
‘It has been an education to work with you, my Lord,’ he said. ‘And I wish that you would return home and care for your wound. I am not sure the country could bear the loss of you.’
Saito laughed and clapped Eames on the shoulder.
‘I will follow your advice,’ he said, heading for his coach. ‘Though tis most unusual that you are the voice of caution.’
‘Indeed not,’ Eames said, pulling open the door to his own carriage and smiling to see Arthur, Ariadne and Yusuf waiting for him. ‘You have been a most welcome member of the team, and I would fight next to you any time you called.’
Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen: In which we hope for a happy conclusion, and find that the best plans and hopes can go awry
Arthur took Eames’s hand as they pulled up outside the townhouse, restraining him until Yusuf and Ariadne had alighted and ran into the house, so caught up in each other’s company that they did not notice they were alone.
Eames waited until they were safely inside before turning to Arthur.
‘You wanted me?’ he said.
‘Always,’ Arthur said, exhaustion and fondness colouring his words. ‘But that is not why I held you back.’
Eames looked at him, waiting for the explanation that would no doubt come, and Arthur smiled at him.
‘Dom is inside,’ he said. ‘And we owe him the truth I think.’
‘We do.’ All levity was banished from Eames’s mind, and he frowned. ‘It will not be an easy interview, though.’
Arthur tightened his grip on Eames’s hand.
‘I love you,’ he said, simply. ‘You will know exactly the right thing to say.’
‘Saito thinks there will be no problem in restoring your lands to you,’ he said when they had finished discussing Mal. ‘He will call on us in a few days time and appraise you of the way forward, but you are a welcome guest here, Dom, now or at any time.’
Dom smiled at him mechanically, and nodded.
‘I appreciate your offer,’ he said. ‘But my wish is to return home as soon as I may, to be with my children there, and to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.’ He looked at Eames. ‘I am grateful to you, you know, and to Saito for making it possible for me to return home, but she haunts me still and I shall know no peace until I have made reparations for my mistakes, and built the home for our children that she would have wished.’
And Arthur? Restored to his lands and his fortune, he seemed happier than ever, a quiet contentment that he conveyed to Eames through every touch of his hands, every kiss, every private smile between them.
When Saito did call, he brought, somewhat to Eames’s surprise, Robert with him.
Robert looked pale and was dressed in full mourning. Arthur took in his attire in one swift glance and stepped forward to clasp his hand.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, his voice very earnest. ‘I did not know your father, but I am sorry for your loss.’
Robert smiled at him.
‘I was never the son he wanted,’ he said. ‘But we reconciled much in his last hours, and I am truly grateful to you and Eames that I had the chance.’
‘And you are faring well?’ Eames said, stepping forward to clasp Robert’s shoulder.
‘I am.’ Robert glanced over to Saito. ‘My Lord has taken me under his wing, and he provides me with great comfort.’
He stepped over to Saito, who ran a comforting hand down the length of his back. Eames raised a surprised eyebrow at Arthur, but Arthur just returned the look with a serene smile.
Saito seemed amused by the exchange, though his smile was more cynical than Arthur’s.
‘I come to settle the final business arrangements,’ he said, reaching into the pocket of his jacket and pulling out some envelopes. ‘I have missed Cobb, I see, so I hope you will pass this to him for me.’
He proffered one of the envelopes, and Arthur took it.
‘He would want me to convey his gratitude, I am sure,’ he said and Saito nodded.
‘Indeed,’ he said, turning to Eames and offering him a second envelope. ‘This is for you. A small mark of thanks from the Regent for your aid in recent events, and yours to do with as you will.’
Eames nodded and accepted the envelope.
‘I am grateful,’ he said. ‘Though I believe I already have all the reward I desire.’
Saito looked between him and Arthur and smiled.
‘So I see,’ he said. ‘Nonetheless, the land is yours and I am sure you will find a suitable use for it.’
‘Enough!’ he said. ‘There is no answer for this but for you to go and survey the lands on my behalf.’
‘May I?’ Her eyes were wide with excitement, and Eames laughed.
‘Of course you may,’ he said. ‘Should your brother approve it.’
‘Arthur?’ She turned to him with pleading plain on her face. ‘May I visit Eames’s new lands? Do say I may.’
‘I should hardly dare to refuse,’ he said. ‘Though I insist on you having suitable escort.’ He smiled, wide enough to show his dimples. ‘Perchance Eames would lend you Yusuf for the post?’
Eames laughed at the blush rising on Ariadne’s cheeks.
‘Tis the perfect solution,’ he said. ‘Besides, it will save me days of Yusuf unaccountably moping.’
It also gave him an idea of what to do with the lands, but looking at Arthur and Ariadne quietly laughing together over her plans, he decided to keep this as a surprise until all the arrangements were in place.
He wanted to keep it from Arthur for as long as possible, so he went to visit his man of business at his office. He was pleasantly occupied on the walk there, imagining Yusuf’s face when he realised that these lands would allow him to marry Ariadne as an equal. He knew Arthur would approve, would be pleased his sister had found the same happiness that he had.
The morning was fine and Eames, uncharacteristically happy and pleased with the world, nodded and smiled at passers-by in a way that would have been unrecognisable only six months before.
He was smiling at a group of pretty maidservants when he became aware of a man on his right. He started to turn, but was stopped by a firm grip on his arm.
‘Oh no, my Lord.’ The man’s voice was low and angry. ‘There is no need to turn. I want no unpleasantness.’
He pressed a folded paper into Eames’s hand.
‘Read that,’ he said, tightening his grip until it bruised. ‘Read that and comply with it, else you will regret it to the end of your days.’
He did not give Eames a chance to respond, dropping his arm and losing himself in the jostle of the crowd before Eames had a chance to turn.
The letter itself was stark, and Eames was not surprised at the signature.
He had, apparently, been correct in thinking that he had not seen the last of Nash, nor in assuming that Nash would do whatever little mischief he could before the end.
Eames’s lip curled as he read. Nash had always lacked finesse, and neither his taunts at Eames’s new ‘paramour’, nor his request for a meeting the following morning in Lincoln Inn’s Fields, came as a surprise. What did shock Eames was that Nash had managed to identify Arthur as the highwayman he had shot, and, as he put in his letter, highway robbery was still a hanging offence. While Eames was confident he could refute any evidence that Nash could produce, the fact remained that such an accusation would cause scandal – and that scandal was the last thing Arthur needed with his lands and place in society newly restored to him.
No, this was a matter to ponder, and while Eames did not trust the meeting, the only other option was to abandon Arthur to further disgrace.
With a determined tread and heavy heart, Eames continued on to his appointment.
Determined to keep his concern hidden from Arthur at all costs, he did his best to thrust all thoughts of the morrow from his mind and threw himself into his role of a charming and concerned host.
He wasn’t sure of his success, however. Arthur seemed watchful, and though he was pliant, laughing at Eames’s sallies and playing billiards with him, he didn’t relax completely.
If he did harbour suspicions, he didn't mention them, and when Eames took him by the hand and led him to the bedchamber, he pressed himself to Eames, returning his kisses with a burning fervour.
It was peculiarly intimate, and though they had done this a score of times before, there was a novelty to it.
Eames spread Arthur out on the bed and lavished attention on him, trying to say with his touch what he couldn’t in words.
When he finally thrust into Arthur, saw him flushed and lovely beneath him, he couldn’t move for a moment, could only hold himself still, watching every expression on Arthur’s face, and revel in his tight heat.
He worried that Arthur would question him then, but instead Arthur pulled him down, capturing his mouth in a kiss and writhing so that his hard cock slid between their sweat-slick bodies.
Reality came crashing back in, and Eames started to move again, feeling every thrust echoed by Arthur until he came, filling Arthur with his release even as he felt Arthur spill between them.
He indulged himself after, letting Arthur doze against him, pressed close to his body, holding him as if nothing could ever part them.
‘We should get clean.’ Arthur’s voice was a sleepy mumble against Eames’s chest. ‘Else we shall be stuck together forever.’
‘That would be no bad thing,’ Eames said, and he felt more than heard Arthur’s laugh.
He rose though and fetched a cloth, cleaning Arthur with a gentle thoroughness that he did not waste on himself. Arthur raised one sleepy eyebrow when he saw Eames pulling his clothes on, but Eames sat on the side of the bed, and let his hand tangle in Arthur’s hair.
‘Go to sleep,’ he said, a smile on his lips. ‘I cannot settle and will just disturb you, so I will go down to the library. You sleep and I will see you in the morning.’
Arthur smiled, and, kissing Eames’s hand, let his eyes fall closed in sleep.
His attention was completely focussed on the letter he was writing, working and reworking the words till they resembled something of what was in his heart.
At length he was satisfied, and with the first glimmers of light appearing in the sky, he sealed the envelope, addressed it to Arthur and left it on his desk along with the two envelopes that he had drawn up with his man of business.
He dressed, simply and neatly, in dark colours and warm clothes, protecting himself as best he could from the cold morning ahead. Then, casting an eye around the library and trying not to let his mind dwell on the morbid fear that he would not see it again, he buttoned his coat and slipped from the room, intent on escaping the house without alerting anyone to his departure.
Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen: We bid farewell to the villain of the piece, while Eames is left to deal with the outcome
He arrived at Lincoln Inn’s Field well before dawn broke, intent on ensuring that he would not be ambushed. He was carrying his sword, but that would be poor surety if Nash had engaged a parcel of footpads to lay in wait. However, the land was deserted, and Eames was able to secure himself in the shelter of a tree to await Nash’s arrival.
It was just after six o’clock when Nash arrived. He was alone, and Eames stepped out from his shelter as he approached.
‘You summoned me,’ he said. ‘And I am here. What is it that you want?’
Nash looked taken aback, and for a moment Eames was reminded of the time they spent together, of the companionship they had shared. Then Nash drew a pistol and aimed it at him and the moment was shattered.
‘Eames.’ Nash sounded warier than a man with a gun usually would. ‘You are alone?’
‘As you stipulated,’ he said.
‘Well t’would be the first time you listened to me.’ There was bitterness in Nash’s voice. ‘I was always just a convenient choice for you.’
Eames was at a loss for words. Though he knew he should placate Nash, he could not bring himself to do so. Nash sneered at him.
‘Cat got your tongue?’ he said. ‘Never mind. I do not need your words, just your money.’
‘Is that what you want?’ Eames asked. ‘You want money?’
‘Not quite,’ Nash said, smiling. ‘I want you to admit that you love me. That what we had meant more to you than what you have with my runt of a cousin.’
‘I can’t do that,’ Eames said. ‘I am sorry Nash, but I cannot compare you to Arthur.’
Nash looked disbelieving.
‘And that is all you can say? That is why you rejected me and tore me from the only place I could belong?’
Eames shook his head.
‘It was not personal, no matter what you believe. The Club brought its end on itself, and you did too. If you are without a place to belong, you have only your own actions to blame.’
For a second Nash looked disconsolate, but then he pulled himself together and steadied his aim.
‘You will regret this, Eames,’ he said, his words full of vitriol, and Eames sighed audibly.
‘What do you want, Nash?’ he asked. ‘I cannot love you on demand, nor can I undo what is done.’
‘I want you to suffer as I have suffered,’ Nash said, his voice shaking. ‘That is all I want.’
He narrowed his eyes to take aim, and though his hand shook, Eames cursed himself for only bringing his sword.
Nash smiled coldly.
‘You always were too confident, my Lord,’ he said. ‘And now you will pay for your pride.’
He stepped back and levelled his gun at Eames.
‘Goodbye, Eames,’ he said. ‘I will ensure that I pass your regards to Arthur when I next see him.’
Eames braced himself as a shot rang out, but instead of the searing pain he expected to feel, Nash collapsed on the ground, twitching once before he lay still.
‘What the hell?’ he said, looking around.
‘You are surprised?’
Eames started as he saw Arthur, slim and beautiful and a more welcome sight than Eames could ever have expected to see, even stood, as he was, next to Saito.
‘Arthur,’ he said, stepping forward. ‘Why are you here?’
‘You apparently needed aid, my Lord,’ he said, and Eames frowned at the coldness in his voice.
Saito seemed to sense the tension and stepped forward.
‘Whatever the cause, it were a good thing Arthur came,’ he said. ‘And that he called for me on his way. I can attest that this was a rescue and no cold blooded murder, though still, I would prefer that both of you were gone ere the long arm of the law arrived.’
Arthur shot Saito a look.
‘You are sure?’ he asked. ‘I would not leave you in a difficult position.’
‘Believe me,’ he said. ‘At this moment my position is nigh unassailable, even if I shot a man in cold blood. No. The risk is greatest for you and Eames and you should leave me deal with the fallout. I shall, I believe, make a tolerably neat summary of the affair.’
Arthur nodded shortly and gestured to Eames.
‘Come, my Lord,’ he said. ‘We have much to discuss on the way home.’
‘I do not know,’ Eames replied. ‘I should have, but I did not know what Nash wanted and I feared what he would do to you.’
It was the wrong thing to say, and he realised it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Arthur frowned and quickened his step.
‘So you did not think I would be able to take care of myself?’ he said, the words coming out angry. ‘You thought it would be easier for me to find your letters when I awoke and to wait at home like a dutiful wife?’
‘Darling…’ Eames began, but Arthur spun round and grasped his shoulder hard.
‘Don’t you dare.’ Eames tried to take a step backwards to escape Arthur’s furious gaze, but he was held firm. ‘Don’t you dare call me that. I could have lost you! Do you not understand the severity of the situation? Did you not trust me?’
Trapped like that, Eames could do little but shake his head, taken aback by Arthur’s rage.
‘I just wanted you safe,’ he said. ‘I could not risk you.’
‘I do not need protection,’ he said. ‘I need a partner who will treat me as an equal, and I do not think you can. You see me as some maiden in need of rescue, not as a man with a life and estate of my own.’
‘That is not true!’ Eames caught at Arthur’s wrist, but Arthur pulled away, moving out of Eames’s reach. ‘I never thought of you like that, and I am sorry that my actions hurt you. I just did what I thought was best.’
Arthur studied him for a moment, then nodded.
‘I believe you meant to,’ he said. ‘But sometimes intentions are not enough.’
‘What can I do?’ Eames asked, unwilling to risk rejection by reaching for Arthur again.
‘Give me some time,’ Arthur said. ‘Go take breakfast in your club and leave me time to think.’
Eames nodded, fighting to keep his emotions from his face.
‘Take all the time you need,’ he said. ‘But remember that I love you, and whatever the outcome, I did not mean to see you hurt.’
Arthur nodded shortly and walked away. Eames watched him go until he rounded the corner and was lost from his sight, then he followed Arthur’s advice and headed to his club.
Arthur was waiting for him in the hallway, and his luggage was packed and neatly stacked against the wall.
‘You have made your decision then?’ Eames’s voice sounded completely foreign to him.
‘I have,’ he said. ‘I need to go home, my Lord. I need pick up the management of my estates, else I will always be your chattel with no life of my own.’
Eames reached towards him, the pain in his heart stealing all his words, but Arthur shook his head.
‘Please,’ he said. ‘If you love me as you say you do, you will let me go home.’
Eames let his hand drop and he turned his face away from Arthur so that he would not see the tears in his eyes.
‘Go then,’ he said, ‘but do not expect me to watch you go.’
He hoped for Arthur to say something, to change his mind, and for a long moment there was silence in the hall. Then Eames heard Arthur’s footsteps, and the quiet, final sound of the door closing behind him.
Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen: My Lord learns from his mistakes and seeks to make amends
Yusuf returned at the end of the week, a fortuitous occurrence for Eames, who was having problems opening the last bottle of brandy in the house.
He passed it to Yusuf by way of welcome, waiting for him to withdraw the cork before holding out his glass to be filled.
‘You have heard then?’ he said, taking some satisfaction in being able to speak without slurring.
Yusuf nodded, and poured himself a glass of brandy.
‘Arthur wrote to Ariadne,’ he said. ‘And she hastened to his side. I said I would send on her possessions.’
‘Good,’ Eames said, considering his glass. ‘I doubt she has such pretty frocks in the rural wilds of Oxfordshire.’
‘And I doubt that is her main concern,’ Yusuf said, taking the seat opposite Eames.
‘No, you are probably right.’ Eames took a deep draught of his drink and looked at Yusuf for the first time. ‘She is probably saving all her care for her brother. I may,’ he drained his glass, ‘have made a slight mess of the situation.’
‘You don’t say,’ Yusuf said, hiding his smile behind his glass. ‘And you are normally such a pattern-card of success in relationships.’
Eames levelled a finger at him. ‘I will remind you, Yusuf, that you are still in my employ, and I will not tolerate such impudence from one of my staff.’
Yusuf laughed aloud. ‘Behold me, my Lord,’ he said. ‘I am all atremble.’
Eames fished under the sofa he was reclined on and withdrew an envelope.
‘I am serious,’ he said, tossing the paper to Yusuf. ‘I am remiss in not having done this long since, but I was selfish and did not want to lose your company.’
Yusuf looked at him, and eyebrow raised in enquiry, before opening the envelope.
‘The lands that Saito gave you?’ he asked. ‘Why do you hand me these?’
‘Because you will need them when you marry Ariadne,’ Eames said. ‘I have not always been the most upstanding of masters, nor the most caring of friends, well,’ he managed to stand up and sketched a bow, ‘behold me, a changed man, learning from my experiences.’
Yusuf smiled grimly.
‘I accept these, my Lord,’ he said. ‘And believe me, I am grateful, but I will not leave you yet.’
Not while you have such need of me his eyes said, and Eames, sinking back to the sofa in the vain hope that doing so would stop the world spinning in such a nauseating manner, found that he could not overcome the selfish pleasure that Yusuf’s words brought him.
He had no taste for town life – the balls and clubs sickened him and he struggled to make even the smallest of small talk.
He heard nothing from Arthur, and though he knew that Yusuf was in correspondence with Ariadne, he had too much pride to ask his friend how Arthur got on.
And Yusuf was his friend now, all pretence of him acting as a servant being abandoned with the gift of lands he had received. Nonetheless, he put Eames to bed on more than one occasion when he had drunk too deeply, seeking to lose himself in the temporary forgetfulness offered by the bottle.
Robert and Saito were true friends as well, calling on Eames and keeping him up to date with all the latest news.
Saito had been correct in his assessment. There were a spate of resignations throughout the government, several young men of prestigious houses took their leave of the Ton17 and sought their fortunes abroad, and there were two members of the peerage who died in suspicious circumstances.
Frankly, Eames struggled to make himself care. Instead he found greater pleasure in watching the growing intimacy between Saito and Robert. They were good for each other, he thought. Saito seemed less reserved, happier, while Robert was thriving in the acceptance of Saito’s regard. Eames did not think it was love, not yet, but unless he was much mistaken it would grow to be so, and he was glad for it.
‘Why do you remain in town?’ Saito asked one evening as they dined together, and while Eames searched hard for a reply, he could not find one.
He did not want to return to Penrose Hall, where every room, every view would remind him of Arthur, so instead he decamped to his hunting lodge in Leicestershire. Yusuf accompanied him, of course. The suggestion that Eames could do without him had been met by some very unflattering laughter, and in the end Eames decided that it was easiest to let Yusuf travel with him.
The country air did him good, and he threw himself into the activities of the local hunt with fervour, finding a release from his over-busy mind in hard riding.
He didn’t consider his behaviour reckless, though. He had always been a neck or nothing rider, and it was sheer pleasure to lead the field, an escape from the doubts and the fears that plagued him otherwise.
Thus it was that he took a tumble from his horse. That it resulted in no more than a concussion and a dislocated shoulder was a miracle.
‘Enough and no further,’ Yusuf said. ‘Do you think Arthur would honestly want you to do this to yourself?’
‘Arthur does not care what becomes of me,’ Eames said shortly. ‘He made that clear enough.’
Yusuf looked at him with pity.
‘That is not what he said and you know it.’
Eames, submerged in his physical and emotional pain, could not keep the self-pity from his voice.
‘Am I such a tyrant?’ he asked, and Yusuf smiled fondly at him.
‘You have the tendency to ride roughshod over people’s plans if left unchecked,’ he said. ‘Can you not understand that Arthur needed to be on his own lands again? To pick up the pieces of his life? He could not be an accessory to yours – he needed to be an equal, and when you refused to go with him, you hurt him deeply.’
Eames looked at him in shock.
‘I didn’t refuse. He never asked!’ Even as he spoke, he knew that he was being unfair. Arthur had needed to go to his lands, but he had never said that he wished to be alone.
Yusuf looked at him with something like exasperation on his face.
‘You will forgive me, my Lord, but sometimes you can be a damned fool.’
‘You only speak the truth,’ he said. ‘But what should I do?’
‘Tis simple,’ he said. ‘Seek his forgiveness.’
Eames frowned. It would not, he suspected, be as simple as that.
‘What if I have left it too long?’ he asked. ‘What if he refuses to see me?’
Yusuf smiled happily.
‘You might,’ he said, ‘throw a party for my engagement. He could hardly refuse to attend that.’
Ariadne had approved the plan, though she had requested an intimate party for their friends in place of the lavish ball that Eames had initially proposed. Eames acquiesced. There was only one person whose attendance he required, and a small party would suit the purpose admirably.
Still, he did his best to ensure the event would be memorable, as much for Yusuf and Ariadne as for his own sake. He paid attention to every detail – from the menu and the wines, to the flowers and musicians, he outdid himself in creating a magical atmosphere.
Everyone who was invited pledged their attendance. Yusuf’s family wasn’t large, but his parents made arrangements to attend. Dom wrote to say that he would bring James and Phillipa with him, and both Robert and Saito sent their acceptance of the invitations.
He did not hear from Arthur, but he had not expected to. As Ariadne’s brother and the head of the family he would attend, and Yusuf assured him that Ariadne had written to say Arthur would be present.
Eames took care not to make Arthur feel awkward when he arrived. Saito arranged his arrival so that the coaches pulled up together, and while Eames was there to greet Arthur and Ariadne, his attention was claimed immediately and Arthur was able to slip away when he had observed the most basic formalities.
He had given Arthur his mother’s old room, worrying that if he housed Arthur in his old room he would see a message that Eames did not intend. Instead he had overseen the room’s renovation himself, decorating it as exactly to Arthur’s taste as he dared, and filling it with as many luxuries as he could without being obtrusive. He had some hope that these measures were successful, as Arthur withdrew to his room and remained there until the bell rang for dinner.
Ariadne was not similarly reticent. Though she greeted Eames coldly, she nonetheless sought him out once she had lavished an affectionate embrace on Yusuf.
‘You will walk with me, my Lord?’ she asked, and Eames bowed gallantly and offered her his arm.
They walked in silence to begin with, down the smooth expanse of lawn towards the lake.
‘It was kind of you to offer your home for our celebration,’ she said at length, and Eames smiled at her.
‘Tis my pleasure,’ he said. ‘Though I have my own motives as you are no doubt aware.’
She looked at him, considering.
‘It had occurred to me that you might,’ she said. ‘Though they puzzle me, I must confess.’
‘I don’t know why,’ Eames said. ‘I love your brother, and I wished to see him again.’ He smiled ruefully. ‘This was the only way I could be sure he would agree to see me.’
Ariadne nodded. ‘You are most probably right. You hurt him badly, you know.’
Eames turned and caught her hands, sighing.
‘Can we assume that I am an idiot?’ he said. ‘T’will make our conversation advance faster.’
Ariadne laughed and Eames could see the ice in her demeanour melt slightly.
‘We are agreed on that, my Lord,’ she said. ‘Only an idiot would let the man he loved walk away and punish him for desiring his own life.’
‘I never intended it like that,’ Eames said. ‘I thought I had offended him past bearing and when he left I did not realise he would want me to follow. I thought he wished to escape from me. That he would be happier without me.’
‘No doubt his foul temper these past weeks are an expression of happiness then,’ Ariadne said. ‘How strange are the ways of men. I wonder if Yusuf’s smiles mean that he is in a rage?’
‘No, Yusuf’s smiles mean he is deeply in love and able to make his life everything it should be, and I am happy for you both.’
The last of Ariadne’s reserve evaporated and she kissed Eames on the cheek.
‘Tell me though,’ Eames said, taking her arm once more and leading her along the edge of the lake. ‘Do you think I have lost my chance with Arthur?’
‘No.’ Ariadne’s voice was very sure, and Eames allowed himself to hope for the first time since Arthur had left. ‘But I will tell you this, Eames.’ She paused until she was sure she held his full attention. ‘If you hurt him again, I will cut your throat in an instant, and there would not be a jury in the land that would convict me.’
They were seated apart by design. Eames did not want Arthur to feel his attentions were forced, and though he longed to approach Arthur, he maintained his distance, merely assuring that Arthur was plied with every comfort.
It was his role as host to toast Ariadne and Yusuf, and he waited until the second course was removed to rise to his feet.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, his voice ringing out in the dining room. ‘I beg that you charge your glasses to drink to the health and happiness of my dearest friends, Ariadne and Yusuf.’
Every eye in the room was on Eames and he drew a deep breath to steady himself.
‘Not all of us are as lucky as they are, for they have found true love. I have seen them together, seen the joy they have in each other’s company, and I am truly happy that they can be with us and let us share, just a little, in their happiness. I trust,’ he fixed his eyes on the table so that he would not be tempted to look at Arthur. ‘I trust that in their lives together they are able to provide comfort to each other, to help the other when they need it most, to never run short of understanding or tolerance, and to never lose sight of their love.’
He did look at Arthur then, forging on despite the serious look on his face.
‘I am no model to follow. I have only fallen in love but once, and I fear I did not acquit myself well. If I had advice to give it would be this – never let your assumptions blind you to what you have, nor to what you risk losing.’ He looked at Ariadne and Yusuf and smiled. ‘Hold on to each other, my dears, follow each other wherever you may go, else you risk losing each other in the misunderstandings of the world.’
He raised his glass in a toast and the table followed his example, adding their own congratulations to the couple. As he sat down and the quiet murmur of conversation started again he was aware of the weight of Arthur’s gaze on him.
Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen: Our story concludes, and we gain a glimpse of what is in store for our heroes
If Eames had hoped that his speech would win Arthur round, it seemed that he would be sadly mistaken. Arthur was elusive after dinner, and as the band struck up and several couples took to the floor, Eames found he could no longer bear the demands of company and slipped from the room.
He found solitude in his bedchamber, and although he could hear the muted strains of music and laughter, he was able to nurse a drink while he sat blowing smoke from a cigarillo out the open window.
He was dimly aware of the door opening as a servant brought him a new bottle, but other than waving them towards the nightstand, he paid them no heed.
The night was very clear, and the stars were bright, and as he looked on them, twisting his signet ring on his finger, he relived the past few months. It seemed evident to him now that he had missed his chance with Arthur, and though the thought ached like a wound that may never heel, he could regret nothing but his clumsy handling of Arthur’s need for support.
‘I had not thought you would be so dismissive of me.’ Arthur’s voice came as a shock and Eames dropped his cigarillo in surprise.
‘Arthur,’ he said, beating at his clothes to put out the sparks, and flushing at the foolish impression he was no doubt giving. ‘I am sorry – I did not realise it was you.’
‘So I gathered.’ Arthur regarded him with an amused eye before stepping forward. ‘Here, let me help you for God’s sake, else you catch alight.’
Eames held out his hands in surrender and Arthur came close, catching the errant cigarillo and throwing it out the window, before brushing the last of the embers from Eames’s body.
He let his hands linger when he was done, and looked up at Eames, more hesitant than Eames had seen him before.
‘Did you mean what you said?’ His voice was so quiet that Eames had to strain to hear it.
He wanted to catch hold of Arthur, but he didn’t dare move.
‘Always,’ he said. ‘Arthur, I was a fool. If you want me to come with you then just say the word, I would never tie you to my lands. I would never want you to be less than what you are.’
Arthur met his gaze.
‘I was hurt,’ he said. ‘You felt you had the right to make decisions for me, and I love you Eames, but I do not need protection. Not yours nor anyone else’s.’
‘I am truly sorry,’ Eames said. ‘I have been selfish for so long it will take me time to learn, but I was acting with the best intentions, and I will learn if you will give me the chance.’
‘I have missed you.’ Arthur pressed closer so that Eames could feel the heat of his body. ‘And Ariadne says I misjudged you.’
Eames let his hands come up to rest on Arthur’s waist.
‘If you give me another chance,’ he said, ‘I will spend the rest of my life proving my love for you. I don’t want a chattel – I have only ever wanted you.’
He would have said more, but Arthur leant forward and kissed him, and Eames, almost giddy with pleasure and relief, could do nothing but kiss him back.
‘You have done a great deal of decorating since I was last here.’ Arthur’s voice was right next to Eames’s ear.
‘I was trying to make things ready for you.’ Eames was being prevarication, and he didn’t even mind when Arthur laughed at his words.
‘I just wanted you to know there was a space for you in my home however you wanted it.’ Eames drew back so he could gauge Arthur’s reaction.
‘You made that obvious in your will.’ Arthur was smiling wryly. ‘I had not realised you felt so deeply. I knew what it meant to you to will the lands and house to me, and I did not want to be your wife, in your power. It scared me, and then I was angry.’
Eames clasped his shoulders. ‘I never want you to be anything less than you are,’ he said. ‘I love you for the man you are.’
‘I know that now,’ Arthur said, catching Eames’s face in his hands. ‘And I am sorry for the pain I caused you as well. Can we forgive each other?’
‘Anything,’ Eames said, leaning forward to kiss Arthur again.
It did not take long for the kisses to turn desperate, for Eames to fumble at Arthur’s clothes until Arthur laughed and danced backwards to disrobe completely.
‘May I?’ Arthur asked, when Eames was naked and laid out on the bed, and Eames, unable to tear his eyes from Arthur, nodded.
They had not done this before, but as Arthur sank his fingers into Eames and ran his tongue along the hard length of Eames’s prick, he had no regrets.
He gasped in pleasure, giving himself over to Arthur’s ministrations until he was a languid writhing thing and Arthur propped himself up on his arms.
‘You are ready for me, my Lord?’ he said, licking the sweat from the hollow of Eames’s neck.
‘God, yes.’ Eames could do nothing more than pant his assent into Arthur’s hair and Arthur, pressing a kiss to his mouth, pushed slowly into Eames’s body.
The stretch was burning, but as Arthur started moving slowly the pleasure welled up in Eames, until he was matching Arthur’s thrusts. Arthur wrapped his hand around Eames’s cock as his thrusts lost their rhythm and Eames came with a shuddering sigh that triggered Arthur’s orgasm.
Afterwards, sated and happy, they lay and held each other. Eames indulged himself, playing with Arthur’s hair as Arthur was pressed to his chest. Arthur had linked his fingers with Eames’s and was idly toying with the signet ring on Eames’s finger.
‘I little thought the first time I met you, that I would see you like this,’ he said, pressing kisses to the knuckles of Eames’s hand.
‘Why did you steal the ring?’ It was something that Eames had wondered before, but had never found the opportunity to ask. Arthur laughed.
‘Because it made you so angry,’ he said. ‘And there is something irresistible about your passion.’
Eames looked down at his hand and withdrew the ring from his finger. He held it up and examined it, his brow furrowed in thought.
‘It occurs to me,’ he said, ‘that I have never won it back.’
Arthur went tense where he lay.
‘I returned it, my Lord, and that is the end of the matter.’
‘No.’ Eames pressed a kiss to Arthur’s temple. ‘I did not gain it fairly, you know.’ He offered the ring on that flat of his hand to Arthur. ‘I feel perhaps you ought to keep it.’
Arthur sat up, his hair falling in his eyes, and fixed his gaze on Eames.
‘I want you to be explicit here, Eames,’ he said. ‘What do you mean by this?’
Eames sat up as well and caught Arthur’s hand.
‘I mean that this is the ring my grandfather wore. It is part of being my family. It ties me to my ancestors and my lands. It is a symbol of everything that has made me who I am. And I would like you to have it. To wear it.’ He reached out and stroked Arthur’s cheek with his thumb. ‘I cannot marry you,’ he said. ‘We are not Ariadne and Yusuf, but I would have the world know what you mean to me.’
He leant forward and kissed Arthur gently.
‘I’m not asking you to make a choice between our lands, love. We will spend time at both, apart and together, I just want to know that home is where you are, wherever that may be.’
‘This feels like a dream,’ Arthur said, reaching out to link his hand with Eames’s. ‘You are offering me everything I could ask for. Belike I shall awaken soon.’
‘Tis no dream, Arthur, I am offering you a lifetime together.’ Eames proffered the ring again, holding it gently between his thumb and forefinger.
Arthur took the ring and placed it on his finger.
‘In that case,’ he said. ‘I accept.’
Afternote: The two following pictures hung in Penrose Hall. The first hung in the portrait gallery and was often marvelled at and pondered over by visitors. The second hung in the master bedroom, and was a much-loved reminder to the family of a proud ancestor and his constant partner. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which the subjects preferred, though I hope you will agree that Lord Eames’s generous reward for the artist was well deserved.
Chapter 17: Footnotes for the Discerning Reader
Chapter by immoral_crow
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Footnotes for the Discerning Reader – a random collection of terms that my beta readers expressed concern about
1) A Corinthian was a gentleman who was both fashionable and known for his sporting prowess.
2) A grey horse is what people who know about horses call a pure white horse. Since I am with RDJ’s Sherlock on horses (‘Dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle’) I am grateful to Hellison for pointing this out to me. Since you are reading this footnote I will reward you with a picture of a naked man on a very nice grey.
3) The Regency ran from 1811 when George III was deemed unfit to rule and 1820 when the Prince Regent become George IV. It was not wholly without problem, and Parliament and the public objected to (amongst other things) the Prince’s massive debts and the fact he had acquired two wives. I am assuming for the sake of this story, that the Prince would have viewed Saito as a useful ally, both for the sake of his finances and because Saito strikes me as someone who would be ruthless in success.
4) Deep stakes – a regency equivalent of high stakes, ie the sort of wagers only to be staked by those with deep pockets.
5) Gentleman Jackson was a celebrated boxer of the late 18th Century. He became Champion of England when he beat the Great Mendoza in 1795. After this he ran a boxing academy in Bond Street. This was popular with the nobility and gentry, and Byron recorded in his diary that he had received boxing instruction from Jackson. The sobriquet ‘Gentleman’ was bestowed on him as though he was commonly born, his sportsmanship and the way he deported himself in the ring, earned him the reputation as one of nature’s gentlemen.
6) The Waterfall and Mathematical were manners in which cravats were tied. You can find a demonstration of the ties here.
7) Basset a card game, infamous for the losses and gains that could be accrued at the table.
8) Run brandy: Brandy procured from smugglers (or runners). A widespread practice in rural, coastal locations, it was an accepted custom and not seen as being morally wrong. The evasion of the Excise Men was considered perfectly rational and acceptable. I am not going to editorialise further here.
9) To pay your shot means to settle your bill, thus Eames was paying the bill Arthur had run up for board and lodging.
10) Commonplaces = small talk.
11) Taken from Lord Byron’s poem The Dream, published in 1816.
12) Succession houses are hothouses of graduated temperature. During the regency period they were indicators of status and wealth in country homes, in the same way that swimming pools and helicopter pads are today.
13) The Season began after Easter and ran until the start of August, and was when the landed aristocracy and gentry repaired from their country homes to the capital where they would socialise and engage in politics according to their tastes. As such, a Season was a defined period when courtship would take place and young men and women were launched into society. A girl in her first season would have just made her come out – one who had been on the shelf for more than three was rapidly becoming unmarriageable. Needless to say, men were accorded more time, and never seemed to get to the point of being beyond hope.
14) Almanak’s were exclusive assembly rooms in London. Entry could only be gained by means of a voucher from one of the Patronesses. It was known as the Marriage Mart by the irreverent since one would visit to be seen and wooed rather than for any real enjoyment from what I can gather.
15) To make one’s come out was to have been launched into Society at a formal event held in one’s honour. For women this also included being presented at Court to the Sovereign – an event which marked the start of the Season. A man would not have a ball held in his honour. He would be more likely to have been presented to the King or the Regent at an informal event, attended by men only.
16) A fribble was an effeminate fop, the term being borrowed from the 1746 play Miss in her Teens by Garrick.
17) The ton was the high society of the Regency period. It is pronounced ‘tone,’ and comes from the French ton meaning tone or style.
This story was the result of six months of work, and Johanirae deserves most of the credit for it. I can’t tell you what a pleasure she was to work with. I sent her each section as I wrote it, and her feedback was insightful, supportive and enthusiastic. I never anticipated how much working with an artist would shape the story – but the sketches she did and art that she sent were hugely instrumental in how the characters developed and acted. Also? There is nothing better than waking up to find a Johanirae picture in your inbox. Seriously – they made my day so many times, and I hope you love them as much as I did.
After her, I need to thank popcorn_orgasms, ladderax, unvarnishedtale, got_quiet, and hellison who all made sense of my writing. Hellison is specially to thank if anything equine makes sense - left to my own devices Eames would have changed gear as he rode. If you ever get the chance, feed her three bottles of champagne and get her to demonstrate the hip movements that you’d use for different horse-speeds – it is most educational. As always, any problems and mistakes that remain are totally down to me.