Lord _______, Earl of Eames, was widely considered to be one of the most eligible bachelors in le bon ton. There was the matter of his title, his attractive face, his good humour, and of course, his personal fortune. The Earl of Eames owned not one but two houses in London, one for himself in Mayfair and one for the members of his immediate family, including his widowed mother and his young sister. He owned a significant amount of property outside of London, including his hereditary lands, which were some of the most fertile fields in the south of England and never lacked for produce or money. In addition to all of this, Lord Eames was known to dabble in business. Just dabble, mind you, no more than was strictly proprietary for a man of his station. But he had a good eye for the market and the ships of his investments carried silk and spices from the East, of which he had first pick.
Every ambitious mama in London had her eye on him, but Lord Eames had grown adept to side-stepping their subtle lures and conversational gambits. He was always polite and usually charming -- he was never rude to a girl, no matter how penniless or long in the tooth she was -- but he never showed marked preference for any. He preferred to spend most of his time with his gentlemen friends, including Lord Fischer and Lord Saito. The three of them whittled away many a jolly afternoon racing their horses or pitching bets over the gambling table at White's.
Lord Eames had been overheard on more than one occasion to collapse loudly on a settee after a long day of sport and declare, "Mark my words, my friends! I shall never marry!" But this was considered silly. Where would his title and assets go if he did not produce a male heir? It was well known that Lord Eames' current heir, a distant cousin named Nash, was a ne'er to do well who would likely run the earldom into the ground.
As August ended and the latest season drew to a close in a flurry of new engagements and broken hopes, Ariadne faced her older brother over the breakfast table and said, "You must marry, you know. You are turning two and thirty in the fall."
Eames spread a generous wallop of marmalade over his toast. "What's the hurry, sweetheart? There will be plenty of virginal young beauties when I am fifty."
"And by then you will be too old to be effective in making sons." Ariadne looked around to make sure their mother was nowhere in earshot. Then she grinned.
"You are incorrigible," Eames said. "No wonder you have yet to make a match."
"The reason I have yet to make a match," Ariadne said haughtily, "is because most men would rather have a wife who knows more about flower arrangement than architecture and structural engineering. I am fortunate in that I have a filthy rich brother who has promised to take care of me even as I become a dowdy old bluestocking."
"Yes, but where is the good fortune for me?" Eames asked.
"Arthur will be very put out if you throw me over," Ariadne replied, and Eames had to concede that point. Arthur, his valet, was extremely fond of Ariadne. He was also extremely efficient in making sure that Eames was the most well-dressed man in town, that his collar points were always properly aligned, that his buttons were not about to fall off from whatever wild adventure Eames was having next, that the shine of his boots could be observed from London to Berlin. Eames would not have called himself a vain man -- though Ariadne would beg to differ -- but he took pride in his couture. Consequently he took pride in Arthur's work. Was there a more satisfying sight than watching his valet's slender hands as he folded Eames' trousers, humming quietly under his breath until he realized that Eames was watching him? Likely not. Those moments when Eames caught Arthur off-guard were jewels that Eames kept in his memory and smoothed over when he was idle and wanted to think about something beautiful.
Ariadne was watching him cannily. Eames shook inappropriate thoughts about his valet out of his mind and said to her, "We can't have Arthur leave us, that much is true. My value on the marriage market would drop fifty places at least if I were to show up at Almack's in last season's coat."
"You hate Almack's," she said dryly. "Though I am not sure that marriage is what you think of when you think of Arthur. At least, not marriage as is defined by the Church."
"You, my pet, have been reading too many French novels," Eames informed her. "That boy who brings them to you, what is his name? Yusuf? I should have Browning bar him from entry."
"Then I shall just climb out of the window and meet him elsewhere," Ariadne said easily, and Eames thought, not for the first time, how obvious it was that they were related. He opened his mouth to address her again but then he glimpsed a tell-tale figure in brown passing by the open door.
"Arthur!" he called out.
Arthur paused. "My lord?" He was carrying a silver tea service, and Eames remarked on it.
"I wasn't aware your duties stretched to tea now."
"I was helping Miss Stalls. She is feeling ill." Arthur lifted his proud chin and regarded his masters impassively, though the coolness that had been apparent in his visage during the early days of his employment had tempered out, replaced by an almost wistful look of fondness when he glanced in Ariadne's way. "Is there a matter in which you require my assistance, your lordship? Else I will be on my way."
"No, no, go do your business," Eames said, waving his hand. "But Arthur, you know that you are as family to us. You may breakfast with us any time you like."
"That would be inappropriate, I think," Arthur said. "It would create jealousies and tensions among the other servants and incite remarks from your peers."
"Oh," said Ariadne, looking disappointed. Arthur gave her a small smile, and Eames' gut, for no apparent reason other than that it could, turned.
"Well then," he said. "If that is the case, make sure my blue coat is ready for when I leave. I am to pay a visit to Lord Fischer and he assures me after last time that we must be complimentary or he shall be too embarrassed to associate with me in public again."
"I doubt that is true," Arthur said.
"Be careful," Ariadne said to Eames. "I know what you are like when you are with Fischer. It is almost as awful as when you are with Saito. Reckless, the lot of you."
"We are young, overly endowed men. It is our lot to be reckless. Society may be scandalized at our flash but trust me, it would be even more scandalized at its absence. Wouldn't you say, Arthur?"
"I really would not know, your lordship," Arthur replied stiffly, and Eames recalled that Arthur probably had never experienced a moment of true enjoyment in his entire stuffy life. Eames frowned at him, trying to convey the sentiment with his eyes, lest Ariadne scold him again for teasing Arthur overmuch. It was not fair, she said, to make poor Arthur suffer such remarks when he had no power to retaliate. Eames suspected that along with the French novels, Ariadne was also partaking of certain French revolutionary texts.
Eames looked at Arthur.
Arthur held his gaze.
"My blue coat," Eames repeated.
Arthur inclined his head and left. Eames most certainly did not watch his backside whilst doing so; he placed his marmalade-laden knife on the table and bit into his toast. No staring at all.
Lord Eames' acquaintance with Arthur came about as the result of an unfortunate mixture of whiskey, unhelpful advice, and a pool of mud. He was three and twenty at the time, an Oxford graduate, and prone to spending his summer at Lord Saito's estate, partaking of the joys in life that an older man like Saito knew how to provide. For a lark, Saito and Fischer had plied him generously with whiskey and then told him the story of an angel who lived in the midst of the woods and emerged every moonlit night for a rescuer. Eames, never one to turn down a challenge, especially not a challenge that required him to prove his charm, finished the whiskey and declared that he would be the one to rescue this poor angel from eternal loneliness.
Saito and Fischer, both sporting a pair of perfect smirks, gave Eames the direction to this mythical wood. And off Eames went into the drunken dark, pitching to and fro, stumbling into trees and crashing into rocks. It was fortunate they were summering at Lord Saito's remotest estate, for if they were in town all the gossip papers would have been wagging their tongues; even as he was barely out of school, Lord Eames was already considered a most eligible bachelor, though in perfect honesty, many would have been willing to overlook a fit of youthful fancy in exchange for a fat purse.
Eames found the wood, looked around for the angel, and then toppled into a pool of mud. It had been raining earlier that day, and the ground was still intolerably wet.
"Oh, la, perhaps next time," Eames said before passing out.
When he came to, there was an angel standing above him. A beautiful, grim angel holding an umbrella, for it was just Eames' luck that it had started to rain again and he was completely soaked, not to mention covered in the most loathsome layer of mud. If Eames had more shame, he would have shied away from this avenging angel's disapproving glare. As it was, he stood up, flicked a spider off his arm, and remarked, "Nice weather, innit?"
"Your lordship," said the young man. "I have been sent by Lord Cobol to make sure you return to the house safely."
"Lord Cobol?" Eames asked, racking his memory. There were at least twenty members of the aristocracy who were staying at Saito's estate, and he could vaguely remember which one was Lord Cobol. The shadowy man who never left his rooms, most like. That would surely be why Eames had never seen this servant before. Most men of his station did not give one whit about their lessers, but Eames had a strong memory for faces, even faces that were politely averted as they brought him tea or wiped his shoes. Nonetheless, even if Eames had not been possessed of a near perfect memory, he was sure he would have noticed this man irregardless.
There was a reason why even though some of the most beautiful and charming women of the ton had thrown themselves at him, Eames had avoided all styles of the state of matrimony.
The man handed the umbrella to Eames. Eames took it awkwardly, having generally considered umbrellas to be a womanly accoutrement. But he was in no mood to argue with this paragon of virtue, nor delay his return to the warm confines of brick and mortar. The two of them began to walk back to the manor, Eames two steps ahead of his stoic companion. He did not like it. He slowed down and asked, "What is your name?"
The young man hesitated.
"Come, you have nothing to fear from me," Eames said and smiled with all the charisma he could muster, which even at three and twenty was quite considerable. "What is your name, how old are you, and when can you leave Cobol's employ to start working for me?"
"I was not aware I had done anything so impressive as to warrant an employment offer," the man said. "Your lordship," he added afterwards, but there was a touch of rebellion in his addendum that made Eames' insides quiver.
"Anyone willing to trudge through the hellish rain for nearly a league is a man worth keeping," Eames said and did not add, And also, my good sir, you have a very fine arse, even though it was perfectly true and the water plastered the man's trousers to said fine arse. "And still you have not yet told me your name, age, and willingness to throw your employer over for me. I consider this a grave fault in your otherwise sterling character."
"My name," said the man in a tone as dry as the deserts in Araby, "is Arthur, I am twenty years old, and I am perfectly content with my status in Lord Cobol's household."
"Content is not the same as happy," Eames observed.
Arthur stopped and looked at him in the rain. "Do you truly think it is a servant's place to be happy?"
"I imagine it is difficult," Eames said. "I am no saint. God help me, I am no saint! However, I have always tried to treat my servants well. I offer generous pay and extended leave. If you choose to marry, I am willing to house your entire family under my roof. Are you in that particular position?"
"You are unnaturally inquisitive, my lord," Arthur said, avoiding the question about marriage entirely. But Eames smiled to himself because at the expression of saintliness, or lack thereof, he had seen Arthur register a reflexive reaction and Arthur's eyes slide down to Eames' thighs. Eames knew people well; he knew how to recognize a man of his own inclination simply by where his eyes drifted when he looked upon a figure.
Eames had bedded many a handsome young fellow before, but he felt that this Arthur -- this stony, beautiful, perfectly put together Arthur of the wandering eyes -- might be the prize of the peacock tail. He reached out and rested a hand on Arthur's shoulder.
Arthur stiffened. He cleared his throat.
"I am not in that way," he said.
Eames pulled away. Perhaps it was merely the cold damp that was clouding his judgment. If Arthur was truly happy with his current position, Eames would bother him no further. He might send flowers or fruit, accompanied by a lavish note of thanks, but he was not the sort of man to long after what could not be his.
Save for the next day, when he turned the corner in a hall and saw Lord Cobol strike Arthur across the face. Cobol was a big man who had served his commission in the army, so the blow was fierce, but Arthur barely responded. He brought his hand to his face to touch the mark, and then he followed Lord Cobol back into his chamber. Neither of them was aware of Eames' presence.
Eames was not easily angered. He preferred to live life with an effortless joie de vivre, for he knew that he was fortunate in his birth and his circumstances. But seeing Cobol strike Arthur -- quiet Arthur, efficient Arthur, Arthur of the slight smile when Eames started talking about his sister last night -- brought out a vein of ice in him. He bid Saito farewell and traveled home where he paid a visit to his business clerk and said, "Lord Cobol. I want you to ruin him. Then I will take his entire staff."
"From what I have heard, Cobol's affairs are ship tight," said Eames' business clerk, whose name was Cobb. "However, he is an inveterate gambler."
"Ah," said Eames. "That is even better."
In the years to come, Arthur made it a point to express how embarrassing it was to be won off a gaming table like a piece of stinking calfskin, but his tone when he said it was never cold, and though there might very well have been ruffled pride and severe words exchanged during the incident, Eames knew the truth.
Or rather, one of the truths. It had been nearly nine years since, and Eames still felt he was no closer to approaching Arthur as a beloved master, as a friend, or otherwise. Despite the wandering eyes when Arthur helped Eames dress, or the slight pause before Arthur ran Eames' bath.
On the other hand, the years had stripped away some of Arthur's mystery. He was, after all, a man of flesh and blood, not a divinely inspired celestial being. For instance, Eames now knew that Arthur took his tea piping hot; that he was slow to rise in the morning and late to sleep at night; that in the evening when the weather was clear he strolled the fashionable parts of town taking notes on the latest men's styles for Eames to emulate; that he preferred somber colours and would object violently if Eames wore anything Arthur considered too dandyish; that he had a sister who died young of consumption; that he'd been well-educated and in his room were stacks of books bought from Yusuf with authors like Spinoza, Locke, Hume; that he did indeed have a sense of humour and could laugh until he wobbled but not during work which limited Eames' exposure to his laughter somewhat, etecetera, etcetera.
What Arthur now knew about Eames was even vaster. He was the one who found Eames in the bath the night Eames' father died, and when Eames asked him to stay, Arthur silently drew up a stool and poured spirits for them both.
"Did you have a father?" Eames had slurred, dropping his head to the brim of the bath with a hard clunk of bone.
"Everyone has a father," Arthur said. Then he uttered Eames' Christian name for the first time. It rolled silkily off his tongue. In any other circumstance it would have been deeply delicious but not then.
"I'm the earl now, my sweet," Eames replied tonelessly. "You'll have to call me Eames."
"Eames," Arthur had repeated, and then he drank deeply.
So that was that then. That was the entire matter wrapped up in soap suds and newly bestowed titles. Well, that and Eames' tendresse for Arthur, which had flared and sputtered depending on Arthur's particular response. Eames trusted Arthur and he was not particularly discreet around those he trusted, so he had let Arthur know, in no uncertain terms over the years, that he was willing, more than willing, to take him to bed. Usually Arthur's responses were polite but cool.
Sometimes though, sometimes --
Sometimes Eames didn't know what to think, and that was shocking because Eames was a great thinker, endlessly cunning. He had crushed Cobol, had he not?
Arthur had a way of twisting up Eames' thoughts. It was frustrating and more than a little cloyingly sentimental. He sought to be rid of it by frequenting the private gentlemen's club on South Arbuthnot Road that Saito had introduced him to. There he would pay the madam and have some beautiful boy with pouty lips kneeling at his feet and sucking his cock. Eames would groan and arch and push himself deep into the boy's filthy sailor mouth until his thoughts were no more than a woolen tangle of heat and satisfaction.
Arthur always knew when Eames went whoring. He could smell it on his shirts.
Good, Eames thought.
At the start of the grouse hunting season, everybody of importance waited for the invitation to spend a week of leisure at the Duchess of Mal's grand estate in the southern tip of the country. It was an offer extended only to the most privileged few. Every year Eames was invited and every year except one, the year his father died, he attended. Arthur went with him, as was natural. Just because Eames was leaving London did not mean that he had to compromise his sartorial taste. The very idea!
This was the year Ariadne received her first invitation. She had crossed paths with the Duchess of Mal at Almack's three months ago and they had struck up what must have been quite the dazzling conversation, leaving Ariadne worshipful.
"I am sure you'll be uncompromisingly bored," Eames told her. "The week will be full of hunting and food and gossip and gambling. You know, all the things you hate."
"But the Duchess of Mal!" Ariadne said. "I am going. You cannot stop me."
Eames did not mention what a killjoy it would be to seduce fresh young lords left and right for a week of debauchery, and then turn around and find his sister present as well. At least, he did not mention it immediately. He did mention it over dinner that night, choosing the moment right when Ariadne had a mouthful of water. She turned red and spat it out. Eames laughed merrily.
"We will pretend not to know each other," Ariadne declared. "If anyone asks, you are just a strange, strange man who bears no resemblance to me."
"Agreed," said Eames. "But I claim Arthur."
Ariadne's face fell. "At least let me have him once in a while. No one can read Spinoza to me the way Arthur does."
"How utterly uninterested I am," Eames said. Then he added, "You are wasting Arthur's talents."
"And you," said Ariadne, "don't even know what his talents are." There was a lecherous and wholly disturbing quality to her remark. Really, someone needed to confiscate her French novels. Someone braver than Eames was.
When Eames informed Arthur that he had accepted the Duchess' invitation, Arthur sighed and looked at the ceiling for grace. "At least this time, try to remove your clothes before you engage in sexual congress. There were grass stains last time. Do you know how long it took for me to remove them?"
"Oh Arthur, have you never been in a fit of passion so strong that it mattered not at all that you were wearing a fine coat or a new pair of breeches?"
"As a matter of fact, I have."
"But I have no wish to share that story, my lord." Arthur busied himself folding Eames' shirts. "I am sure you will only use it to further your licentious causes."
"Well, certainly," Eames said. "But I thought that was the appeal."
"Is it, my lord?"
"My licentiousness is greatly admired by certain circles, I'll have you know." Eames lowered his eyes. Arthur smiled slightly and turned away to place the shirts in the large oak wardrobe that had been passed down through Eames' family for centuries.
"Exaggerated, doubtless," he said, and he must have been in a good humour that night for he sounded fond. Eames was struck with the urge to run his hands through Arthur's coiffed hair and finger it until it became ragged and loose. He settled for smirking and pitching his shoes from one end of the bedchamber to the other.
"You never know, duckling. You never know."
Eames had not expected to see Lord Cobol at the Duchess of Mal's. After he cleaned out Cobol's coffers, Cobol had retired to the Continent and no one had heard a word from him since, not even Saito who had presumably been his friend. Yet there the man was, standing atop the veranda with a glass of claret in his hand and a narrow-eyed glare shining immutably from his eyes. He stepped forward as if to greet Eames, but the Duchess sallied past him and bid Eames and his retinue a warm welcome.
The Duchess of Mal was a wealthy widow. Truth be told, she was the Dowager Duchess but as she was the power behind the title for her five-year-old son, most were inclined to treat her as a duchess proper. She had married the former Duke of Mal in her first season in town, during which she dazzled gentle society with her wit, intelligence, beauty, and ability to recite the complete works of John Donne. This was before Eames' coming of age, but he suspected that if he had been out and about at the same time as the Duchess, even he might have been swayed. Certainly, she was one of his fondest friends, and the company she surrounded herself with in her widowhood was rife with artists, philosophers, and free-minded folk of Eames' taste. Her household was akin to a Paris salon, down to the small sins and delights that occasionally tantalized the rest of their peers.
The Duchess turned her bright eye on Ariadne, and Eames had the rare pleasure of seeing his sister go red-faced and quiet.
Arthur looked amused.
After Eames had been shown the rooms he was to occupy for the duration of the week, he left Arthur to unpack as he joined the other guests in the parlour. Lords Fischer and Saito had already settled into a brisk game of cards. They welcomed Eames easily and Eames waited until Saito had thoroughly trumped Fischer before remarking, "Do either of you know what brings Cobol back from the Continent?"
It was fortunate that the Duchess was occupied in a discussion of economics with Ariadne, for although she enjoyed gossip as much as any bored aristocrat, she abhorred gossip about her own guests.
Saito turned a card over lazily and responded, "Revenge, most like."
"I hear he mutters your name in his sleep," Fischer laughed.
"Pray tell, how would you hear that?" Eames asked. "Unless you are in the habit of accompanying him to bed?"
"Christ take your mouth," Fischer said, but he was used to such bold comments and was not thus overly affected. Though he did sneak a glance at Saito, which Eames observed with mirth. It was not a well-kept secret that Fischer was excessively fond of Saito. "The man has servants who are friendly with my servants."
"Christ is most welcome to take my mouth," Eames drawled. "He might even have a good time."
"No blasphemy before tea," Saito said.
"My apologies, gentlemen. I will profane the Lord after I am sated with biscuits."
"Good," Saito said. He started shuffling the cards again. "For your information, I hear that Cobol has not forgiven you for ruining him at the tables, and why should he? You did it so spectacularly he became a laughingstock."
Eames thought of Cobol striking Arthur. "I did what was necessary, no more. Now deal me in. I have a yearning to whip both of you at your own game."
They played three rounds and Eames won two of them whilst Saito took the third. Eames was in the midst of taking the fourth when the Duchess clapped her hands together and said, "Everybody, Ariadne has suggested a most delightful game for us to play!"
"I am already prepared to run for the hills," Eames said, and Ariadne gave him a rather nasty look.
"One of us will count to a hundred with eyes closed. The rest of us will scatter to the four corners of my estate and hide. Once the count to a hundred has been reached, the seeker will begin seeking. When the seeker has found his first guest, that guest becomes the new seeker, and so on until each of us are found." The Duchess smiled beatifically. "Lord Cobol has been kind enough to offer his services as the first seeker. Shall we?"
It was the Duchess' party and no one wished to disappoint her for reasons both personal and practical. All the lords and ladies gamely left their seats while Cobol faced the wall and started counting.
Eames turned to the Duchess as they were leaving the parlour and said to her, "Your Grace, may I hide under your skirts?"
"You are incorrigible," she said. "And your sister has already asked."
Eames' eyebrows went up. Ariadne, what a sly fox! He felt so proud.
As Cobol continued his laborious count to a hundred, Eames headed for his bedchamber. Arthur was sitting at his table with a book in hand, but Eames pulled him out of his chair and said, "Quick, you must suggest a good place to hide."
"What, are you in trouble?" Arthur asked, sounding alarmed.
If Eames said that Arthur's concern for his safety was not thoroughly satisfying, it would have been a lie. As it was, he allowed himself a lie when he said, "Yes. But I cannot leave the house."
"Follow me," Arthur said, producing a bag out of nowhere and started tossing essentials inside.
"There's no time," Eames interrupted. He grabbed Arthur's hand and tugged him towards the door. Arthur's hands were warm and calloused, and Eames thought about what they would feel like on his thighs. But then Arthur let him go and took the initiative, guiding Eames through passageways and corridors until they reached an unused bedchamber in the left wing. There was a huge wardrobe inside, not unlike Eames' own. Arthur pushed it open and pushed Eames within.
"I will stand guard by the door," he said.
"Like hell you will," Eames said, and pulled him inside.
"My lord, this defeats the purpose of me protecting you," Arthur said. The wardrobe was large but not so large that two grown men could fit inside without being in very close proximity to each other. Eames' leg brushed Arthur's, and he could hear Arthur's breathing in his ear.
"One must be within close range of the treasure to protect it, is it not so?" Eames replied. "And is that a dueling pistol in your pocket or are you simply overjoyed to see me?"
"It's a dueling pistol," Arthur said. "I cannot claim that I am particularly thrilled that you have yet again embroiled yourself in a dangerous situation. Good God, Eames, do you not use your head?"
"Many times a week."
"Not like that."
Eames smiled. Then he shifted into a more comfortable position, which happened to bring him yet closer to Arthur, shoving their shoulders together so that he could feel even more intimately the heat coming off Arthur's body. Arthur was always warm. Eames did not know how this could be, as his house was dreadfully drafty in the winter but even then Arthur remained a source of soothing warmth. Eames craned his neck to get a good look at Arthur's face, and then he said, somewhat amused, "My dear Arthur, are you blushing?"
"Your lordship, with all due respect, you are cracked in the head," Arthur said. However, just then Eames heard footsteps outside the door and he covered Arthur's mouth with his palm. Arthur's mouth was slick and lush, and Eames wondered at his own blush crawling up his neck. They both held still as the intruder shuffled about the chamber. Then there was a nudge at the wardrobe, but Arthur braced it shut as the intruder tugged and rattled the handle. Finally the intruder resigned and left.
"Well done, bonuses for all," Eames said. Arthur released the door and at that very moment of freedom it flung open violently.
"Aha!" Ariadne said. "I knew it!"
"My lady, you must leave us," Arthur said urgently.
Ariadne was puzzled. "How so? Are we not still in the middle of our game?"
"Game?" echoed Arthur, and Eames knew that he would be wearing beautiful but uncomfortable collars for a month.
Despite Arthur's marked irritation and Cobol's persistent animosity, the week passed gaily. Eames hunted, sported, took tea with the Duchess, and took bets on who would end up in whose bedroom after the night fell. He made a few ventures of his own, some successful, although in perfect honesty so many of the guests invited to the Duchess of Mal's were the same each year that he had already moved through his picks and was now simply redoubling. Even so, young esquire Harrow seemed completely willing to lie on Eames' bed and remove all his clothes, and his arse was just as sweet as last time, so Eames was not inclined to complain.
When Arthur entered the bedchamber in the morn, Harrow was still in the bed, his angelic head asleep on the goose feather pillow. Eames had climbed out of the mountain of sheets and was contemplating a flower arrangement on the credenza. Arthur cleared his throat.
"Do you require my services?" he asked without actually glancing at Harrow, though his posture was tense and Harrow must have been the reason why; all else was as it was on a regular morning, including Eames' propensity to maraud around in the bare.
"Why would I not?" Eames asked amiably. "Now, what do you think I should wear to the masked ball this evening?"
Arthur, always prepared on matters of taste, held out the choices he deemed appropriate. Eames examined them and selected the deep green. He looked his most dashing in green, he felt, and also because Arthur had once told him so.
"Mmm?" Harrow was finally awakening. He opened his eyes and stared around him sleepily, his curls framing his heart-shaped face. "Who is this, my lord?"
"My valet," Eames responded. "Don't worry about it, pet. Go back to sleep. I know you must still be worn out."
Arthur rolled his eyes. Harrow, as docile as a lamb, obeyed.
Arthur said, not even bothering to lower his voice -- for he could be as discreet as any servant when he wished to, but he could also be as brazenly opinionated as a member of Parliament --, "He cannot be but a few years out of the schoolroom. Did you have to ask his mother for permission to put your cock in his arse?"
"You are outrageously venomous over a man who has done you no wrong," Eames said.
"You make poor choices. I am merely trying to offer you the benefit of my judgment. I have worked for many other men before; I have seen their follies."
"I tricked you once! My God, stop complaining about it or else your face might match your character and freeze out of sourness," Eames retorted, and Arthur's face did freeze. It went tight and unhappy. Eames regretted the remark nearly as soon as it had been uttered. It was not true in the least. Arthur was prone to his sulks but he was also thoughtful and efficient and generous with his time. Most of his efforts were directed towards Ariadne and the other staff, and mayhap that was the cause of some of Eames' jealousy, but there was no denying that he had been good to Eames too. When Saito offered to hire him off Eames some five years ago – Saito, like Eames, having no compunction about servant-poaching – Arthur had denied his considerably impressive offer. He had chosen instead to remain in Eames’ household and bear Eames’ quirks and sly humour. It was not his fault that his continued presence caused his master to become irrationally in love with him.
Yet Eames had his pride. His damnable shield-like pride. He kept it to him as he faced the wardrobe and said, "The green coat has a loose button. See to that."
Arthur complied. Eames gritted his teeth.
Fire and brimstone! Why was this so difficult?
The green waistcoat, sans loose button, appeared in Eames' rooms two hours before the masked ball. Arthur was nowhere to be seen near it. Later on, when Eames turned his back whilst preparing for the ball, he found a cup of steaming black tea waiting for him, which was baffling because he had not even heard the door open. The tea was prepared to his exact preferences: very little sugar and with a hint of cream.
Eames drank it but felt a stone fall heavily in his stomach.
The ball was every bit as glimmering and charming as was the Duchess of Mal's wont. She possessed a reputation for recognizing the best of beauty, and the potent mixture of the decor, the orchestra, and the candle-lit softness of the ballroom made the more impressionable ladies -- and a few of the gentlemen as well -- ooh and aah when they saw it.
Eames' black domino fit snugly over his eyes, though it was but the smallest of pretences. All of the Duchess of Mal's inner circle had known each other for years by now and could not be fooled by a piece of well-turned cloth. Similarly he recognized Lady Wainwright even through her mask covered her entire face, and Ariadne, of course, he could pinpoint by the sound of her unladylike tromp.
"Like a horse galloping over cobblestone," Eames remarked.
"You keep your mouth shut," Ariadne said. "In any case, I thought that we were pretending not to know each other."
"That was until you made Arthur angry at me."
Ariadne adjusted her domino. "If you were the one lying to him and engaging him in a game against his will, then I do not see how it was my fault that he is wroth with you." She added, "Sometimes when you are with Arthur, I wonder if I am not secretly the older sibling."
"He does bring out my youthful good spirits," Eames agreed.
"As well as your schoolboy stupidity," Ariadne said, tossing her head. "I am not sure that you were so silly with me when we were young, and you once emptied a bucket of manure over my head."
"What of it? Father spanked me in punishment," Eames reminded her, and unbidden his mind supplied an image of Arthur bending him over with a willow strap, stern and commanding. He swallowed against his neck cloth at the same moment as the Duchess entered the ballroom. Ariadne's smile emerged as bright as the splendor of a hundred suns.
"Oh!" she said.
Then she looked to her left and said "oh" again, this time in much more dejected tones.
"What is it?" Eames asked her.
"Lord Cobol has been staring at me strangely," Ariadne said. Eames made a sound in his throat but she put her gloved hand over his arm. "Do not make a fuss."
“I do not trust him.”
“And I do not want you to embarrass me tonight.”
"Very well," Eames said shortly. "Let us hope that he stares because he admires your dress and not for any deeper purposes."
"You think he might want to court me?" Ariadne laughed. "I have turned down better men than Cobol. You need not worry about me." She pushed past him in the direction of the Duchess, and it was a signifier of how close the two of them had become that although the Duchess as hostess of the masque was flocked by scores of well-wishers and admirers, she excused them when she saw Ariadne approach. They looked a pair of lively songbirds when they began conversing, and the Duchess threw her head back and laughed at one of Ariadne's quips.
Eames looked towards Cobol once more. The man was in a corner exchanging pleasantries with Lady Wainwright, but even as he spoke to her, his eyes drifted towards Ariadne and the Duchess. Eames frowned.
Saito relieved him from dark thoughts by clapping him on his shoulder. "It is unusual for you to be standing alone at an event!” he said. "Where is your beauteous Harrow?"
"Off being beauteous with someone else in the garden, no doubt," Eames said and smiled at Saito with a flash of white teeth. "And you, my friend?"
"I," said Saito, "am always beauteous. When God first made the world, He held out His great hand and said, 'Lo, there be the Earl of Saito, whose quality all men should aspire to.'" Eames snorted and Saito continued, "Now, I am not one for dancing and small talk. Fischer and I are planning on throwing dice in the parlour next door. Will you come?"
"Only the two of you?"
"Some of the servants who have the night free are joining us. They plan to smuggle us the good wine from the Duchess' cellars. I believe your valet is among them." Saito tilted his chin pensively. "I am told that he is uncannily good at these games."
Arthur would be excellent at dice, all passive expression and hooded eyes. But Eames loathed admitting anyone’s superiority over his own considerable ability to gamble, so he said, “We shall see” and followed Saito out.
Eames dreamt that night. It was an uncommon practice. Since the age of one and ten, Eames could count on his fingernails the number of times he had dreamt, and never like this. The vividness of the dream was astounding, as was the depth of its breath, pulse, and life. He dreamt that he was in his house in Mayfair, sitting at the breakfast table reading his correspondence while partaking of his cook's best kippers. He was not alone. Arthur sat beside him on his right hand side, eating his own plate of kippers whilst sorting through the letters for Eames to read.
"This missive is from your lord father," Dream Arthur said, extending a cream-coloured envelope with gold script.
"My father is dead," Eames said.
"Nevertheless," Dream Arthur replied and would not relent until Eames had slit open the envelope and seen what was inside.
"He loved you," Dream Arthur said. "He loved all of you."
"You did not know him."
"I knew him," said Dream Arthur cryptically. "And here are your other letters: one from God, one from the Bishop, one from the Prince, one from the whore you took last week -- the one with the bright green eyes -- and one from your sister."
"Why on earth would Ariadne write to me?" Eames asked. "She can bloody well visit and say whatever it is to my face, as she always does."
"Your other sister," Dream Arthur corrected, and Eames closed his hand around his fork as he remembered little Sarah drowning in the lake outside their family seat and his own weak, wearied body struggling in the water, thrashing against it. The groundskeeper had rescued him, the heir, but by then it was too late for Sarah. That was when he had stopped dreaming. "You never told me," Dream Arthur said, watching him. "There is more to you than I had originally supposed."
"You unmask me too skillfully," Eames complained, and he had to turn his face away from Dream Arthur's inquisitive stare, even as he was not a cowardly man, nor one given to being intimidated. Then Dream Arthur was rising from his chair and crossing over to Eames' side. His right hand grasped Eames' chin. His left hand grazed Eames' cheek. It was an oddly tender, familial embrace, but still Eames felt a shudder run through his torso, for while Arthur had touched him in many guises in the past -- taking his shirt off, wriggling his boots on -- it had never been with an intention as soft as this.
"Speak plainly," said Eames. "What of your life? Were you always a valet? Did you come from a family of valets?"
"No," Dream Arthur said.
"I searched, I'll have you know. I am a curious bastard. I searched for information about you, but it seems as if you are truly a phantom. No one knew of you before you began working for Cobol. You have no relations that can be unearthed. Your own dead sister, the one you said died of consumption, has no recorded existence."
Dream Arthur laughed. "A phantom. Yes, something like that."
"What is your true name?"
"Arthur is real enough. It is my family name that is a lie." He stroked Eames' cheek. "You are a thorn in my side and you ask too many questions. Search no further for my past. I could not bear to see you in harm's way."
-- and Eames would have kissed him, kissed his laughing mouth and all of his mystery, but then the dream fell into pieces as a scream woke him.
The scream came from the direction of Ariadne's chamber. Eames ran as quickly as he was capable of, pausing only to snatch a dueling pistol from the pair he kept in his traveling bag. Eames was not one of the young bucks prone to challenging any minor offender into a duel at dawn, but he had fired his pistols before and knew how to use them well, as Lord Gregory of the injured shoulder could attest. He turned the corner and burst through the door into Ariadne's chamber where there was already a small crowd.
Ariadne was sitting on the bed in her night shift, huddling behind the paltry modesty of a blanket that she clutched to her chin. Lord Cobol was lying supine beside her, looking as smug as a cat at a mouse trap. Completing the picture was Lady Wainwright standing two hands' breadth from the bed, her mouth open in a shocked slant.
Her shock was mirrored in the expressions of the other gawkers, some of whom Eames knew personally to be the most cynical members of the ton. But he supposed, in the portion of his mind that tried to remain calm and dispassionate, that it was Ariadne's reputation as a hopeless old maid that caused their current surprise at seeing her so compromised. She looked close to tears as it was, and part of her shift was sliding down her bare shoulder.
Eames strode forward and slid the shift back up. "What happened?" he demanded, his voice as thin as mountain air. Lady Wainwright wobbled on her feet as she hurried to explain.
"I discovered them in bed together! With his lordship naked!"
Eames cast a glance at Cobol and saw that he was indeed trying to cover himself with the remains of Ariadne's blanket, tugging it between them in a grotesque parody of play. "This is ridiculous," he snapped. "Why were you in this chamber to begin with, Lady Wainwright?"
"Not me," said Lady Wainwright, pointing to a nervous maid in the corner. "It was Mary."
"'Scusing me, my lords," Mary stammered. "I was just bringing in Lady Ariadne's laundry. I didn't mean no harm. I was just startled, is all."
"I heard the noise and I came to see what was going on," Lady Wainwright said. "What I found was the two of them lying together like man and wife!"
"We were not like man and wife!" Ariadne interrupted. "I was asleep the entire time! Alone!"
"My dear," Cobol said, grasping for Ariadne's hand whilst Ariadne tried to move as far away from him as she could on the bed. She dared not stand since she was not fully dressed, but she lingered on the edge of the mattress, looking increasingly desperate. "My dear," Cobol repeated. "There is no use in lying to these good people. We have been discovered."
"We have not!" Ariadne hissed, and Eames coiled in preparation to grab Cobol by the shoulders and give him a solid introduction to his fist. He would have done just that -- was in fact reaching out for Cobol's disgusting smirk -- when the Duchess entered the chambers.
"What is this?" she asked coolly. Lady Wainwright rushed to explain for the second time. Eames rushed to raise his voice above hers, and Ariadne rushed to speak even faster and louder than both of them. The Duchess raised her hand for silence.
"This is indeed a strange situation," she said. "However, what is done is done. Ariadne, if you wish to preserve your reputation, you must wed Lord Cobol."
"Hang my reputation!" Ariadne cried.
But the Duchess smiled sadly and said, "You are young yet and full of ambition, but you will discover that such a thing is impossible. And Lord Eames, control yourself. You are a guest in my house. There will be no violence."
Eames simmered. "This is not acceptable. I will not let this happen." He jabbed his finger at Cobol. "You. You have tested me to the end of my patience. I will hunt you down. I will gut you. I will mangle you. I will--"
The Duchess said, "You will do no such thing while you are under my roof."
"Then afterwards," Eames vowed. He yanked the blanket from Cobol entirely, ignoring the scandalized gasps of the others as Cobol was bared down to his tiny prick. He threw the blanket over Ariadne and helped her to her feet. She was still shaking, and he could see that fury robbed her of her words. "Come with me," he said. "We are leaving right this minute and I dare anyone to stop us."
"You must challenge him," Arthur said immediately. His lack of hesitation brought into mind the countenance of a colonel assessing the battlefield, even in the midst of fetching Ariadne a cup of tea prepared exactly the way she preferred it, which was with more sugar than tea.
Eames sprawled on his chaise longue and tapped his fingers on his knees in a regular pattern. "I daresay that is a very reasonable idea."
However, Ariadne shook her head insistently. She did not even touch the tea despite Arthur nudging it in her direction repeatedly. "Hardly reasonable to anyone with a sound mind. I have said it before and I will say it again. I don't want any fuss to be made over me."
"There already is a fuss over you!" Eames informed her. "Or do you not think Lady Wainwright will whisper about you and Cobol to every person that she is acquainted with? Do recall that incident with Fischer and Blunden. When she learned of it, she was instrumental in besmirching what was left of Fischer's reputation. He is fortunate in that he is rich and titled, so people will still acknowledge him. You are not so lucky."
"And I say that I do not care!" Ariadne responded, eyes flashing with anger. "I have never given one jot about what the rest of you want for me. So polite society will think I am a whore? I will go live with the Duchess of Mal, who is kind and understanding."
"So kind and understanding that she was the first to denounce you," Arthur said.
"Of course she said that then. There were others watching. But I know that she will say differently when we are alone." Ariadne lifted her chin proudly. "We have an understanding, she and I."
"Just because a rich woman wants to tumble you does not mean she will be your patron through all storms," Eames said ruthlessly and he did not enjoy being the cause of Ariadne's suddenly stony expression -- the same expression she wore whenever he brought up their father or Sarah -- but he felt it was a necessary evil. It was one matter for Eames to have a laissez faire attitude towards his own conduct, but he was under no illusions that the rules which applied to him and Fischer would be the same rules for his sister. Nevertheless, he decided, it mattered not that Ariadne seemed ignorant of the severity of her scandal. She would not marry Cobol if Eames had any say in it, and he had much, much to say.
"If I drove him out of England once, surely it cannot be difficult to do it again," he said.
"You will not catch him gambling," Arthur warned. "That isn't to say he has given up the tables. I doubt that is the case. But he no longer gambles in public and he will certainly not admit you to any of his games."
"You keep up with his affairs then?" Eames asked, a strange sensation tightening his throat. He did his utmost to ignore it. He needed to focus on Ariadne. She was more important right now than any silly back-and-forth with his valet.
"I would be wholly lacking in curiosity if I did not," Arthur said evenly. Then, as his masters watched him, he walked to the door and bolted it shut. He performed the same action for the windows, drawing the curtains tight so that no light could enter. When he was satisfied, he turned around, looked Eames in the eye, and said, "I know many details of Cobol's affairs that I have not yet divulged. I saw no reason to until now. He was thwarted, he left for the Continent, and I believed that would be the last of him. I didn't think he would return. Clearly, I misjudged."
"Arthur, what are you on about?" Ariadne asked, reaching at last for the tea. She pursed her lips when she saw how hot it was but continued drinking nonetheless, demonstrating -- as per usual, in Eames' opinion -- more bravery than sense.
"Have you ever heard of the Brotherhood of Morpheus?" Arthur asked quietly.
"I am readily suspicious of brothers in general," Eames said. "Thank God I do not have one."
"I wish I could say the same," Ariadne said.
Arthur was not pleased with the interruptions. "My lord, my lady, I would never purposefully be rude but--"
"Is this a jest? You are rude every day," Eames exclaimed. "But we have learned to tolerate it. So yes, do carry on. Tell us about this Brotherhood of Morpheus, which sounds delightfully arcane. Is Cobol one of those types then? Does he dabble in spirits and Eastern mysticism?" He hadn't the foggiest clue where Arthur was heading with this line of thought, but Arthur had been known to produce brilliant plans in the past, so Eames could wait out Arthur's bull-headed exasperation.
"The grain of thought possessed by the Brotherhood may well have originated in the East," Arthur said. "However, it would be an insult to the fine Eastern emperors and kings to suggest that the Brotherhood's current inclinations are in any way inspired by them." He stood behind Eames and pressed his palms flat against the fabric of the chaise longue. Eames was forced to tilt his neck at an awkward angle to look at Arthur, who blazed above him like a seraph of righteousness. "The Brotherhood of Morpheus believes that one can infiltrate another person's dreams and change it to one's own liking."
"Bollocks," Ariadne said. "Such an idea would go against God and Nature."
"The Brotherhood is not overly concerned with God or Nature," Arthur said dryly. "Also, I was not under the impression that you cared much for either."
"I don't," she said. "However, most of the country does and it baffles me to think that there could be a whole group of people running about with heretical opinions and never be caught. This must be a very secret secret society if even Yusuf has not heard of it, and I will have you know that he informs me of everything."
"You are a frightening woman, my lady," Arthur told her. "And you are correct, of course. The Brotherhood of Morpheus takes great pains to maintain its secrecy."
"Then how do you know of it?" Eames asked. "I cannot imagine Cobol confiding such secrets to a mere valet."
Arthur's face changed, and Eames cursed his own tongue. Mere valet -- it had been a slip. "I learned of the Brotherhood long before I knew Lord Cobol," Arthur said snappishly. "The Grandmaster is my father. I was raised in it."
Eames recalled his vivid dream of nights before and a devilish chill passed through him. Arthur, as if sensing his apprehension, continued with only the slightest of twitches, "Rest assured I have never manipulated any of your dreams. As I was saying before I was interrupted yet again, the Brotherhood seeks to distort the fabric of men's dreams but it has so far been unsuccessful. This does not stop them from trying, however."
He paused for a measure and his voice went low, as if he feared an eavesdropper. "I quote from Ørsted when I say 'In order to achieve completeness in our knowledge of nature, we must start from two extremes, from experience and from the intellect itself...when the empiricist in his regression towards general laws of nature meets the metaphysician in his progression, science will reach its perfection.'"
"Science? It sounds more like magic," Ariadne scoffed.
"Mayhap to us," Arthur acknowledged. "To Cobol, the Grandmaster, and the other members of the Brotherhood, it is very much a science. As such, they subscribe to methods of observation and hypothesis. It seems harmless enough, but these particular men, or should we say monsters, are in the practice of purchasing prostitutes, poor women whose absence will not be missed. They use them as slaves. They bind them to beds and test elixirs on them. They see how long they can go without food and water, hoping starvation will induce a trance. They also...sometimes they cut them open to examine their physical composition."
Ariadne put her hands over her mouth. Eames clenched his jaw. "You have seen this?" he demanded.
"With my own eyes," Arthur said.
"And this is how you grew up?" Eames said angrily. "With grandeur-obsessed monsters?"
"One cannot help one's upbringing," Arthur retorted. "You of all people should understand that. My lineage was what it was, and I was in no position to refuse. My father and Cobol held me by a leash. It was not until you came along that I could even fathom..." His voice dimmed and he looked aside. "Release me from my service now, if I offend you so much."
"He will do no such thing!" Ariadne interjected.
Eames held his tongue at first. He rose to his feet and paced to the other side of the chaise longue, forcing Arthur to track his movements. He stopped when he was before Arthur, and Arthur lifted his chin with a defiant expression. "I did my small part to help," he said. "Oftentimes it was not enough. My sister...she did not die of consumption. I am sorry that I lied."
"And you think to clear all your small sins before I sack you?" Eames said.
"Yes," Arthur said.
"Not bloody likely," Eames said. "Arthur, you perform the duties of the other servants when they are ill or need go to their sister's friend's child's baptism, or some such. You feed stray dogs on the streets. You are endlessly polite to the grand dames and the unfortunate old maids. You are a good man. Arrogant and insufferable at times, but we live in an imperfect world, alas, and I shall wait until we are at St. Peter's gates to ask God to make you over."
"Many thanks," said Arthur, and he smiled. There was a dimple in the corner of his mouth that Eames wished very much to lick, but he restrained himself for the sake for Ariadne, and for Arthur as well, who would likely not appreciate his employer deciding to molest his person after a heartfelt confession.
Thus Eames said, in what he hoped was a smooth voice and not one indolent with a desire for molestation, "To bring this matter back to its original cause, how are we to salvage Ariadne's reputation and prevent society from shaming her into marriage with Cobol, who now seems more dastardly than ever."
"I am reaching that segment of my thoughts, my lord," Arthur said. "I believe that if we expose the Brotherhood of Morpheus, then it will become perfectly believable that Cobol might have orchestrated the scandal with Ariadne, as it will reveal his true character. In any case, no one will demand marriage, as one can hardly expect Ariadne to wed a criminal."
"London is marriage-crazed enough, I would not be surprised if they did," Ariadne muttered. Eames tossed a throw pillow at her. She caught it and hugged it to her chest.
"How can we expose Cobol?" he asked Arthur. "If he is so private and well-guarded about his scientific pursuits?"
Arthur's smile was brilliant this time, a true corker, and it made him look as young and mischievous as a country boy with a frog. The season might have ended but Eames mentally girded himself for what he could only imagine would be a very eventful month ahead. "Well and good," he responded. "I will do all that is in my power to see your plan along. I do have some skills, you know, other than being rich and handsome and a genius in bed."
Ariadne pulled an expression of revulsion as she did whenever the subject of her brother's sexual prowess came up -- a topic surprisingly often breached before this lady of gentle breeding --, but her frown hid the trace of a smile, and that smile was all either man wanted of her. Eames had seen scandal crush women's spirits before; he could not bear it for Ariadne. "I will still ask the Duchess," she warned. "Do not think you have convinced me otherwise."
"La, and we shall see what she says," Eames said. "In the meantime, I would rather place my bets on Arthur."
"If that is indeed so, my lord," Arthur said, "then I will ask you: how good are your fisticuffs?"
"Let me see if I have this perfectly accurate," Eames said that night as Arthur prepared his bath, Eames standing by the door listlessly and also quite naked. "You want me to pretend to have an argument with you in public, in the vicinity of Cobol, and then you want me to take a swing at you."
"That is the gist of it, yes," Arthur said.
"What if I hurt you?"
Arthur gave him an amused look beneath his lashes, an action likely more flirtatious than he had intended. "My lord, there are benefits to being raised in a secret society of madmen. I will not go into them excessively as many of them are rather boring -- I am a fine hand at cutting pheasant, for example -- but just so you know, it is highly unlikely that you will hurt me in any serious manner."
"My pride, she is weeping!" Eames said, and then the bath was ready and he was dipping his toe inside. Arthur turned to leave, but Eames, who did not want him to, went on to say, "Do you truly believe that Cobol will hire you back if he thinks we have had a falling out? It is quite possible that he bears a grudge against you for leaving him."
"I have no doubt he does," Arthur said. "But the notion of possessing the Grandmaster of the Brotherhood's son as a servant is too thrilling for him to pass." He rubbed his cheek where Eames had once seen Cobol strike him. Eames' blood burned, but Arthur seemed philosophical about the memory, constructed out of more intellect than passion. "Men like Cobol are not difficult to predict. They desire only one thing: mastery over others."
Mayhap Eames was more like Ariadne than he had supposed, for he did not bother to contemplate his next words. He simply let them rush out of his mouth like a phaeton, may they crash where they landed. "Do I fall into that category of predictable men?"
"Most of the time," Arthur said. "Oh, do not look so put out! If you were not a creature of routine, I would be at my wits' end trying to anticipate your needs. I am glad for it, truly."
"Yet you compare me to Cobol."
"You are nothing like Cobol," Arthur replied. He remained a looming presence in the doorway but now he was leaning against it, his hand holding the frame far too strongly than was necessary, the rest of his posture alive with nervous tension. Eames slid deeper into the water and reached for the soap. He gave Arthur no order to leave, therefore it seemed that Arthur was unsure of what to do. The ambiguity made Eames' skin prickle, but he knew how to wait. For Arthur, he had learned patience. Learned it painfully and perilously, but learned it all the same with his fear in his pocket like a soldier advancing a conquered line but who just wants to go home.
There was a small slanted scar just beneath Arthur's neck, exposed when his collar points flattened as they did at the end of the day. Eames wanted to know its history. He wanted to study its mythology. He wanted to exalt it like the nave of a cathedral and then bring it down to earthy sweat and toil. It is a good thing that I do not write verse; I am awful at it, he thought with a rueful laugh as Arthur finally loosened his grip on the doorframe and cleared his throat.
"Your lordship," he said hoarsely.
"The thought of striking you makes me ill," Eames confessed.
Arthur's mouth opened. Eames could not hear his sluice of breath but he could imagine it -- his mama had remarked on more than one occasion the ample imagination possessed by her only son. But he did not expect the accompanying encounter, which was not to say that he was entirely surprised by it for he had seen its progenitors over the years, but he had not envisioned it happening here and now. Arthur made a quick lunge for the bathtub, and it was by sheer grace that he did not stumble as he went on his knees so that he was at eye level with Eames. Eames made an undignified sound as Arthur pressed their mouths together violently.
Eames wrapped his hands around the back of Arthur's neck, dampening the hairs there as he pulled him in closer, his own body scrambling up the claw-footed tub for balance. The displaced water sloshed dangerously around him, running over the rim and onto Arthur's thighs, his knees, his feet. Yet still Arthur kissed Eames, fierce and terrible, and Eames finally pulled himself into a fully sitting position where he could better return Arthur's kiss, sliding his tongue into the dry heat of Arthur's mouth.
Arthur's hands trembled, and Eames murmured, "You needn't be nervous, love. I am sure that you are capable of destroying whole armies."
Then he was pulling Arthur even closer to him, and Arthur was half toppled over into the bathtub. Eames thought that here there could have been an objection over the ruining of clothes, and thus he was privately overjoyed when Arthur said not a word on the subject. Arthur hoisted one knee on the rim, slid down, and then slithered the rest of the distance that kept them apart. The water rose and fell with an uncontrollable splash, and Eames closed his eyes briefly as Arthur was in the bathtub with him, running his hand through Eames' wild hair and kissing the droplets off his nose.
Eames breathed into Arthur's mouth, so wet and red, and pushed his hips up so that his cock ran along the seam of Arthur's trousers. Arthur pushed down, letting go of Eames to hold the sides of the tub, the muscles in his forearms openly visible with the tightness of his soaked shirt. He pressed his mouth to the side of Eames' neck and bit down hard.
And then, as quickly as he had initiated the kisses, Arthur ended them. He scrambled out of the tub, heavy with the weight of so much water but fleet-footed enough that Eames could not stop him. "No, this is folly," he said. "I cannot. Lord Eames, David, I cannot."
"Why?" Eames asked harshly. "You know that I care for you." He was weary of this game, so weary.
"That was an extremely poor decision on your part," Arthur said, and he was so beautiful with his hair slicked back and his well-kissed mouth and that scar on his throat, that bloody damn scar. "You will marry one day and then where shall we be? I refuse to be a party in betraying your wife, and I have no interest in being your mistress. Let us stop this where we can."
"Let it all go to Nash! I don't care!" Eames said.
Arthur shook his head. "If a Duchess cannot choose her desires, then how can I? Good night, my lord, please do try to forgive my behaviour." Trailing water all over the floor, he departed soundlessly. That was, until Eames heard the door to his bedchamber shut with the force of a gale. Then he considered it appropriate to bury his face in his arm and groan for the second time, no longer pleased at all.
As Eames had no inclination to garner a wholesale reputation for peevishness with his hired help, it was therefore resolved that his and Arthur's confrontation must necessarily be as out of the public eye as possible. This left out Lord Cobol's usual haunts, such as his morning strolls along Hyde Park, and he was not a regular patron at White's either, which would have been Eames' preferred choice. However, Arthur knew of a more exclusive gentlemen's club called Vexcombe's where Cobol occasionally took his meals, and it was a matter of using his under the stairs connections to discover Cobol's Vexcombe's schedule.
They agreed that it was fortunate for all parties involved that Cobol chose not to retire out of season to his country manor as so many other nobles did. "He rarely follows that pattern of migration," Arthur confided. "The Brotherhood is in London and where the Brotherhood is, Cobol will stay."
Eames was finding it exceedingly difficult to look at Arthur properly without being overwhelmed with an urge to shake him and then kiss him. Arthur was suffering a similar inability to meet Eames' gaze without suddenly discovering a forgotten task or a domestic emergency that required his attention, despite the fact that his position as a valet did not include wiping spills in the kitchen or aiding the butler with the house keys. Ariadne did not improve the mood with her glum disposition. She had sent a letter to the Duchess of Mal's city house and was still awaiting a reply.
All in all, his lordship's residence was grimmer than the Styx, and by this point Eames would not have minded a nice, peaceful spot of boating.
"What is that mark on your neck, dear brother?" Ariadne asked. "It looks like a Hindustan tiger attempted to chew on you."
"Oh, piss off," Eames said, whilst Arthur became fascinated by the arrangement of the silver in the cupboard.
"Well, I still think that whatever crackpot scheme the two of you have planned will burst into flames and be utterly ruinous, but it is for my sake and I suppose I am charmed," Ariadne responded. "Do not come running to me if Cobol tries to use you for one of his unholy elixirs, that is all!"
"At least we are attempting to set matters aright," Eames snapped. "It strikes me as odd that you, the one most affected, are the one least interested in thwarting Cobol."
"I wish to thwart," she said. "Do not mistake me! I am quite interested in seeing Cobol clapped in chains. However, I must be rational about it. If neither you nor the Duchess can change my state of affairs, then I have means to retire to the Continent. Cousin Sophy and her husband live in Paris, do you remember? I will go and stay with them. I do imagine it will be easier to purchase French books in France." She smiled wanly.
Eames said, "Damn it all, you will read your French books in England, or I will go with you!"
"This is what I mean," Ariadne said. "I am the only rational member of this family. If the classical Greek philosophers were resurrected in our parlour, I would be their darling and you their motley fool."
"Bah," said Eames.
They supped early but sumptuously that night. The cooks prepared for their pleasure Davenport fowls in tarragon sauce, Soup a la Reine, Rhenish cream, broiled mushrooms, and baskets of freshly baked pastry -- Eames did so love his pastry and employed among his exceedingly exemplar household one of the most gifted Frenchmen to ever touch a lump of dough. Yet with that said, his spirits remained gloomy and he did not go for second portions of the soup, which was his usual wont. He was quiet as he rendezvoused with Arthur on the steps where they secured Eames' barouche -- which Arthur did not approve of, feeling personally that a barouche was too gaudy for a bachelor, but Eames preferred to stretch his legs. They sat beside each other inside the barouche, their limbs very carefully ordered as not to brush, and spoke little and inconsequently till they reached Vexcombe's.
The doorman at Vexcombe's recognized Eames but was forced to say, "My lord, I do not believe that you are a member."
Eames spun his cane in a fashion meant to convey astonishment. "Where am I?"
"Vexcombe's. A private gentlemen's establishment."
"Vexcombe's? Never heard of it!" He said to Arthur in increasingly rising tones, "Have you given the driver the wrong directions yet again? My God, you are hopeless, man! This is the fifth time this month!"
Arthur bowed his head in shame. It was, Eames thought, the first time he had ever seen Arthur look properly ashamed, the cheeky bastard. He went on. "Now I suppose we are in some Godforsaken corner of London where I will no doubt be set upon by cutpurses and beaten until dead. Is that what you want, Arthur? Is that what you were planning?" He proceeded to lose his temper in an exaggerated, splendid burst of accusations and agitated jabs of his cane on the ground. The doorman began to look quite alarmed, and Eames made sure to raise his voice loud enough that he knew those inside the club -- with its open windows and slightly ajar door, for it was a simmering, humid night -- could hear.
"My lord, it was an accident," Arthur said, and as agreed he began edging towards the door. The doorman made a futile attempt to stop him, but Arthur was stronger and in the moment it took Eames to switch from insulting his intelligence to insulting his barnyard parentage, Arthur dashed inside.
"Bloody hell!" the doorman exclaimed, and repeated it when Eames set after his errant valet. By now they were a commotion that only the extremely obtuse could fail to notice. Eames caught up with Arthur inside the dining room of Vexcombe's where he spied Cobol in the corner, looking up from his Savoy cake and watching intently. Eames pretended not to see him at all, settling into his role with a sort of loose enjoyment. He might have wanted to be an actor, once; at school, he had declaimed Marlowe's Faustus to the amusement of his peers.
Though he was doubtful that the great men of the stage had ever found themselves in quite the situation that Eames did. Certainly, he doubted that they would raise their cane and bring it over their valet's hard head.
They had discussed this, the two of them. They had agreed that Eames as the tyrannical master should be the one to wield the blows. Thus Eames was rather unprepared for Arthur's fist meeting his jaw, sending him tumbling backwards into a table and an unfortunate gentlemen, who spilled claret over his breeches. His jaw smarted. The impact had sent bone sliding across bone. He gazed up at Arthur, who stood there imperiously, the king of his own domain. "Is this how you touch me?" Eames asked under his breath, recalling the events of the bath. Arthur did not hear him. He said, more audibly, "Consider yourself sacked!"
"I am glad," Arthur replied viciously, and either he was a better actor than Eames or there was a wealth of true unhappiness in his declaration. He might have said more, to the detriment of all, but two hardy men appeared and clasped him by each arm.
"Throw him out, and may the dogs feast on his bones," Eames said coldly, and though he heard the noise of flesh meeting stone, followed by a tinkling of glass, he acted as though there was naught amiss. All the gentlemen were staring. They were mostly minor gentry or men of business. He nodded to one or two of them he knew by name, avoiding Cobol, and he allowed the servers to pour him a glass of wine to soothe his nerves.
"There's no way to handle the servants these days," remarked Sir Lansdowne with what he assumed was a compatriot pat on the back. "One must show an iron arm, and even then they get uppity."
"Indeed," Eames said, and drank his wine.
Three days later, one of the maids woke Eames in the middle of the night and said, "My lord, Arthur is at the door and he says it's of utmost importance that he speaks to you. I tried to tell him you were asleep, I did, but he insisted."
Eames threw the covers off and followed her to the kitchen where Arthur sat eating the day-old bread. "You needn't have hit me so hard," Eames said as he walked in. "A light tap would have been convincing enough. As long as you laid hands on me, it would have..." He stopped short when Arthur tilted his head up and he saw the darkening bruise over Arthur's left eye.
"It's no bother," Arthur said.
"No bother? You look as if you have been painted over!"
"What did you think would happen when I returned to Cobol? You said it yourself that he would not be pleased with me." Arthur bit off the last remaining segment of bread. He swallowed and chewed whilst Eames struggled with the words to express how ludicrous it was that Arthur had let Cobol strike him yet again. But he could not say it, for Arthur had the right of it. He had led him down this path and shown him the way.
"Well?" he asked, letting more impatience creep into his voice than he would have liked. "Were you able to secure the elixir?"
"Not yet, but I will soon," Arthur said. He wiped the back of his mouth with his hand, an uncharacteristically graceless gesture that spoke to how badly Cobol must have been treating him. "I have secured the keys to Cobol's private cabinet where he keeps his toxins and tonics. I haven't found the right opportunity to access the cabinet but I think I know how. It will involve his dogs."
"As long as you know what you are doing," Eames said, taking a seat beside Arthur and dismissing the maid. "I admit some hesitance to this leg of your plan now that I have had time to think it over. Are you sure that once Cobol ingests this elixir you describe, he will be put into the right state of unbalance?"
"The elixir is designed to blur one's awareness of waking and dreaming," Arthur responded. "It is one of the few experiments of the Brotherhood that has been successful."
"And you are certain Cobol will confess his sins if he thinks he is dreaming?" Eames tapped his mouth with his pointing finger thoughtfully. "I have many sins and I sleep, and somehow I have managed to avoid announcing them to all and sundry."
"Cobol is more arrogant than you are," Arthur said. "If he thinks he is dreaming and there are no repercussions, he will want to talk about his deeds with the Brotherhood. He is proud of them."
"Whilst we have a Bow Street Runner within earshot."
"Yes," Arthur said. "You have secured the right man, have you not?"
"A friend of a friend," Eames said airily.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "With the way you say that, why I do suspect you are speaking of a former lover?"
"Why do you think you have any right to ask when you won't give me time of day?" Eames said, and he gifted Arthur with a razor-edged smile as he rose and brushed his hands of kitchen crumbs. "Upon my soul, it is late and I will be returning to bed. You can join me, if you like. I am sure Cobol will not need your services until dawn." His smile widened as Arthur lowered his head. "Or shun me again. The choice is yours."
"You are really such a stupid man," Arthur said, "if you cannot even see why any liaison between us would only end in disaster."
"So stupid that I have made my fortune twice over," Eames agreed.
"All that money does not keep you from your dreadful sense of style," Arthur retorted. "I am gone for three days and look at what you are wearing. Beau Brummel would give you the cut direct if he saw you."
"For Beau Brummel I would wear nothing at all," Eames said. "For you, well, you still simply have to use your imagination. Good night, my little sputtering darling, and try not to dream of me too much!" He ducked as Arthur threw an apple core at his head.
Eames did not hear from Arthur for two weeks. Two bloody whole weeks. He was of a mind to send another servant to investigate, but then Ariadne opened her mail one morning and said, "Oh! It is from Arthur." This was among a stack of other missives awaiting her. Since the loss of her virtuous reputation, she rarely ventured out of the house and communicated with her friends entirely by mail. She had also taken up permanent residence at Eames' Mayfair address rather than the house she otherwise shared with their mother. He barely noticed this last change. It made not a large difference when Ariadne was constantly at the Mayfair address to begin with.
Eames tried to snatch the letter from her, but Ariadne held it out of his reach. "You cannot monopolize Arthur, you know. He is my friend too," she scolded and then she read the letter to herself. "He says that he is well and that we must prepare the Bow Street Runner to meet him at Cobol's residence after midnight on the 23rd."
"Is that so," Eames said, sorting through his own significant but otherwise dreadfully boring set of letters. "I will pass the message along."
"It is excessively melodramatic, if you don't mind me saying." Ariadne put her chin in her hands and stared at him. "The two of you and the Bow Street Runner plan to...what, exactly? Stage a dream for Cobol and make him confess to his nefarious hobbies? And then arrest him?"
"That sounds about right," Eames said.
"Could you not have thought of a simpler plan?" she asked. "With your combined intellect, I'd have imagined something less likely to appear in a Shakespearean comedy."
"You are the most ungrateful accused harlot I have ever had the pleasure to meet," Eames told her. "And trust me, I have met a great deal of harlots."
"What a compliment," she said. "By the bye, do you still have your garments from when you were a boy? Do you think Mama will have held on to some, you being her only son and all that?"
"I cannot fathom why you would ask."
"Mere curiosity," Ariadne said, and he did not believe her one whit. However, he told her that yes, there was a good chance their mother had kept some of his boyhood clothes. She was preoccupied with that thought for a while, in whatever bizarre direction it would take her, and thus he saw it as the perfect moment to spring his question on her. Deviancy, after all, was invitation for more deviancy.
"What do you think of my not marrying?"
"At all?" she asked, a knowing gleam in her eye.
"At all," he confirmed.
"I would say that I have been expecting such a confession from you since you were eight and ten and aflutter over Phillip Aven," she said.
"I was not aflutter over--"
"Butterflies landed in your hair," she said.
"He did have a very nice arse," Eames said in defense of his younger self.
"Oh, it was luscious," Ariadne said. "Like two peaches ripe for the picking."
"I hadn't thought it possible, but you have managed to make me uncomfortable," Eames drawled. "I did not breach this subject to discuss Phillip Aven, as luscious as he was and no doubt still is. I am asking your opinion on whether it is worth it if I simply retired a bachelor and let the estate and my finances go to Nash and his heirs after I die."
"Nash is a worm," Ariadne said.
"The wormiest of them all," Eames agreed.
"He will not take care of the servants or their children," Ariadne said. "If I am still alive, he will no doubt snub me of any aid. He will gamble and drink and throw the whole Eames title into the chamber pot. Nevertheless, as long as you do not contrive to be trampled over by a horse next Wednesday, it will be a long while before he has his hands on your assets."
"Pray, do not say assets like that, you make it sound filthy," Eames interrupted.
"Your assets," Ariadne repeated firmly. "God willing, it will be years before we have to worry about Nash. I do not think I could stand to see you unhappy for years."
"But, as you say, the servants and my other dependents," Eames said. "That is the crux of the matter. It makes little difference when I am rotting in the ground, but there are too many people who make their living by mine. I could not subject them to Nash's carelessness."
"We can have Cobb set up a fund," Ariadne said. "Nash does not have to know. We can siphon off a portion of your trade profits and erase it from the books. I have done the calculations. I can show you later, if you'd like." She gave him a small, private smile, rife with her own sadness, and Eames marveled at the whimsy of the world that would have ordained him as the firstborn son and she the inconsequential daughter. It should have been the other way around, he thought. It should have been the other way around.
"This is all conjecture, you understand," he said. "What I speak of, this hypothetical situation, would depend on a series of understandings that I am not sure is understood. That is to say, of all the means in which to respond to a potential suitor, I have been faced with the coldest."
"It is because you do not look hard enough. If you did, you would see that Arthur would run with you to Gretna Green if you would but ask him to."
"I cannot imagine that," Eames said truthfully. "When I do, all I see is him with a sour expression, telling me to take him back to England immediately and am I not aware of what an embarrassing waistcoat I am wearing."
Ariadne laughed. "Dare to dream a little bigger, darling."
Cobol's London house that he had purchased after his return from the Continent was not nearly so impressive as his house before his financial downfall, but it had many of the same recognizable features and imitated the same general desire to keep others out. It resembled a fortress more than domestic abode. Even were Cobol not the man that Eames knew him to be, he could not envision Ariadne being mistress of such a house. She belonged with colours bright and clever, not with dreary, shadow-bitten stone and leaf. Eames and the Bow Street Runner, whose name was Sutcliffe, appeared at the servant's entrance a quarter past midnight as Arthur had instructed. Eames rapped his knuckles against the door and waited.
"This is all very unorthodox," said Sutcliffe, who was a mild-tempered man that Eames had taken an immediate liking to. "But I can't say anything less is necessary to catch a lord. It's a good thing that my superior has suspected Cobol for ages. Otherwise he'd never let me do this."
"I will vouch for your actions to whoever needs justification," Eames promised.
"That's good to hear." Sutcliffe pulled his coat around his ears. "Now will someone bloody let us in from the cold?"
As if possessed of keen hearing like an elemental spirit, Arthur swung open the door. Eames' eyes tracked him over critically, searching for any new bruises and cuts. The old bruise over Arthur's eye had faded and he could find no signs of fresh abuse, though he knew this meant little; Cobol could simply be hitting him in less visible places. "I have slipped Cobol the elixir. He should be waking in the liminal state in an hour or two," Arthur informed them.
"Liminal state?" Sutcliffe echoed good-naturedly.
"From the Latin word 'limen', which means 'threshold,'" Arthur said. "It describes a state of anticipation from one condition to another, such as between life and death or dusk and night. Or in Lord Cobol's case, between waking and dreaming. The elixir that I have used on him, the Oneiros, is designed to produce that confusion of threshold experience."
"Right," Sutcliffe said. "I brought my pistol, will that help?"
Arthur smiled. He cast Eames a brief look, indeterminable, and then he led them to the kitchen where there was a familiar woman sitting at the table, peeling a piece of fruit with her nails. "You!" Eames exclaimed, and the Duchess of Mal looked up. "If you have brought Ariadne with you, send her back immediately. I do not want her anywhere near Cobol."
"Of course I have not brought Ariadne," the Duchess scoffed. She was dressed simply -- many would have been scandalized to even know that she owned such a cheap dress as the one she was wearing now. "However, she told me the time and place, and I contrived to be here. I have a vested interest in seeing Cobol get his comeuppance. Your valet had no objections. Do you?"
"He does not," Arthur answered for Eames. To Eames, he said, "Think it through. It will lend even more credence to our arrest that a personage as high as Her Grace can provide testimony."
"So I, a mere Earl, count for less than sticks?" Eames asked, resigned. He did not have any true objection to the Duchess of Mal being present. It was simply that he had supposed this would be his and Arthur's victory -- Sutcliffe being present, of course, but biddable and in the background. The Duchess of Mal was certainly not biddable and even less likely to remain in the background.
"Precisely," Arthur said. "Now here, take these cloaks." He fetched them from a crate by the stove and handed a length of black cloth to each person. "These are the ritual robes of the Brotherhood of Morpheus. They will hide your faces and identities to Cobol. When we are in his room, do not speak. Or if you must, such as if he directs a question at you, speak with a concealed voice. A masculine voice, I regret to say," he added to the Duchess.
"I thought that would be so," she said calmly. "Don't worry. I spoke for my late husband many a time when he was on his deathbed. No one was the wiser. I shall affect a sore throat."
"An excellent idea," Arthur responded. Eames experienced a twist of petty jealousy. Arthur had never looked so approving of any of his ideas, not even the one that released him from Cobol's service the first time around. He worked his torso into the cloak quickly and threw the hood over his head. Sutcliffe and the Duchess did the same. Arthur did not.
"Are you not joining us in this sack-cloth dress?" Eames asked.
"There is no need," Arthur said. "I am not a full member of the Brotherhood and Cobol will not startle at seeing me in his dream." He picked up the candle waiting patiently for him to his left. "I believe we are now prepared. Cobol should be waking soon. Follow me."
Cobol's chamber was cluttered with mounted animals and strange knickknacks from far-off lands. There were puzzle boxes, arrowheads, pornographic paintings, and a life-sized female doll with stringy yellow hair that stared eerily at Eames as he took a position by the bed. Cobol was stirring from his drug-induced sleep, moaning softly as Arthur held the candle above him and said, "My lord, my lord, the house is burning."
"Let it burn," Cobol said.
Cobol did not see -- his mind seemed blurred somehow, its usual sharpness halved by the Oneiros -- but Eames watched intently as Arthur reached into his pocket. His hand was a fist when he emerged and he dropped whatever was in his clenched hand onto the candle flame, where there was a sudden bright flash that illuminated the chamber in a ghastly scene and made everybody startle.
"The house is burning," Arthur said again, and there was a deep layer of history in those words that Eames was not privy to. Arthur had known Cobol for many years before he had ever met Eames.
Cobol groaned again and spoke, as if in ritual, "Let it burn. None of this is real. I am having a dream where I know that I am dreaming. I have many these days. The Grandmaster has bidden it so."
"What else does the Grandmaster bid you do?" Arthur asked, beginning to pace in slow circles around Cobol's bed. Cobol's eyes moved slowly as he attempted to follow him.
"You need to ask? He's your damned father."
"The house is burning," Arthur said.
"Let it burn!" Cobol shouted. "Let it all burn! Let it burn the potions and the knives and the women. Goddamn, let it burn the women! I cannot stand their wails!" He buried his head in his hands, a man at pain, but Eames felt no pity for him. "They are in the service of a worthy cause. Their sacrifice will help England catapult into the future where no other nation can hope to match our dreaming! Don't they understand that?"
"What sacrifices do they make?" the Duchess of Mal asked in a low, shaky tone.
Cobol did not even look at her when he replied. "Small ones only. All they are required to do is lie in the bed and keep still. Is that not what a whore is good at anyway?"
"You bastard!" Sutcliffe said. "I have heard enough. I am taking you to the magistrate!"
Cobol shook his head wildly. Then Arthur sprinkled that powder over the candle flame again and a second flash filled the chamber, as bright as wild day. It must have been a ritual of the Brotherhood so militarized that their bodies were trained to obey, for Cobol's eyes rolled to the back of his head and he fell into sleep, true sleep, his body slackening. Eames felt cold and tight and wondered at the absence of an ecstasy of victory. Instead he felt weary, doubly so when the Duchess of Mal said, "I will make sure he never sees light again."
"He is a lord," Eames said. "He will find a way to bribe a guard or lessen his sentence. I have seen it happen countless times before." He looked at Arthur, whose grip on the candle was trembling slightly -- strange, that, when he had seemed so authoritative moments earlier. "But his reputation is ruined for good. No mother will wed her daughter to him, and no club will invite him into their midst."
"We do not have the rest of the Brotherhood of Morpheus," Sutcliffe said reluctantly. "This is only one man."
"At this moment, yes," Arthur said, wiping a hand over his eyes. "But if you are patient, sir, I will give you the others. I will make it my life's work. Do not read me wrong: I am interested in pursing the study of dreams and dream manipulation. I believe that there is much use to be gained from it. But I do not approve of the Brotherhood's methods. Our goal may go against all that is right in God and Nature, but even so there must still be standards!"
Eames stepped closer to him and laid a hand on Arthur's brow. He hoped that the caress would appear brotherly to the others, but in truth he was disinclined to care. If there was ever a moment for recklessness, this was it. "Ask and I will help," he said.
Arthur was proud, too proud for his own salvation sometimes, but tonight he lifted his hand gradually and looked at Eames. "I am asking," he said.
After they returned home that night, after Sutcliffe had hoisted a still-sleeping Cobol over his shoulder and took him to the magistrate, after the Duchess of Mal had bid them farewell and departed in her landau, after Eames had checked in on Ariadne to find her still in bed snoring -- after all of this, Arthur followed him into his bedchamber and started folding his dirty shirts.
"Oh for God's sake!" Eames bit out. He grabbed Arthur's hands and pulled them away from the shirts. "You listen to me now. You have had a long, no doubt exhausting few weeks. I do not need you to fetch my water and arrange my wardrobe. I need you to get some sleep."
"Ariadne has turned my room into some sort of lending library," Arthur said.
"Then you may sleep here." Eames cast a rueful eye over the bed, which was more than large enough to fit two and had been purchased for that very accommodation. "If it bothers you, I shall retire to one of the guest chambers."
"That makes no sense," Arthur said. "I should take the guest chambers."
"The mattresses are lumpy. I have been nagging Henry for ages to change them," Eames lied. "You shall have a more peaceful sleep on my bed, I assure you. This is not a sordid attempt to seduce you, Arthur. I do occasionally have other concerns on my mind." To prove his statement, he began gathering his belongings and heading towards the door. "Good night," he said, and left Arthur alone in his bedchamber, in his bed, looking around as if he had no notion what to do.
The mattress in the first guest chamber was perfectly adequate. Eames fell asleep in short time, dreaming of nothing at all until he was woken some time later by a body sliding into the bed beside him and arms wrapping around him. "What in the world--?" he began, but then he heard Arthur's murmur by his ear, and he smiled to himself before closing his eyes again. This bed was not nearly so spacious as his own, but he was grateful for it when it slotted Arthur against him so tightly and warmly.
When he woke, there was light in the room and Arthur was blinking at him sleepily, stubble dotting his jaw. "Mmph, what hour is it?" Eames asked.
"I have no idea," Arthur said, and looked somewhat embarrassed at having crawled into his master's bed and held him all night. Eames sought to banish every trace of that shame by leaning forward and kissing him briefly. At least, that had been the original intention, but the briefness turned into a rather long moment while Arthur, who seemed to have lost some of his inhibitions or mayhap it was because he was happy, jutted against him.
"I do not want you as a mistress," Eames said, biting along Arthur's lower lip. "I want you as a companion, as a partner for always."
Arthur's cheeks were flushed and his hair was in disarray. He was the most tempting image Eames had ever seen, the devil take Aphrodite and all the Hellenistic beauties. Eames would rather have Arthur No Last Name Given. "Ariadne was not actually asleep when we returned last night," he said. "She was merely pretending. She came to me after you had left and we discussed...many topics, but chief among them was your decision not to marry and have children. Are you certain, my lord? I do not want to be presumptuous and think that I am the cause, but--"
"Be as presumptuous as you like," Eames said, and pushed him down onto the blankets, mussing them beyond all repair. Arthur's fingers wound into Eames' hair and he kissed him back fervently, his tongue meeting Eames' in a shock of arousal. He was wearing only a night shirt that fell to his rather knobby knees, and it was a simple enough of a matter to hitch it up and bless kisses on Arthur's knobby knees, and then the skin of his inner thighs. Arthur's knees fell open in response, and his mouth flattened into a tight line that might have been disapproving in another circumstance but was only overwhelmed now. Eames lathed his tongue over the mole near Arthur's hip and then he removed all the remaining pieces of clothing and lowered his mouth over Arthur's cock.
"Jesus Christ," Arthur blasphemed. Eames laughed merrily, his mouth full of delicious cock, and Arthur twisted his body on the sheets, whined, and whined some more when Eames' hands closed over his hips to hold him down. Arthur bucked up, pushing his cock deeper inside Eames' mouth. Eames retaliated by tightening his cheeks and then running his tongue over the wet tip.
Arthur flung his arm over his eyes again, but Eames lifted his mouth and said, in a voice so raspy that it astonished even him, "I want to see you."
"What?" Arthur panted.
"Let me see you," Eames said, kissing Arthur at the base and then sliding upwards in an open-mouthed trail. "If I am to give up a golden future with children on my knee and grandchildren to make me pull out my hair, I want to see you."
Arthur lowered his arm. His pupils were dilated so that all Eames could see was black. Then, moving as quickly as a house cat, he pushed Eames off of him and flipped him over. Eames' back hit the mattress with a soft oomph, and he found himself looking up at Arthur's slight smile. Arthur's mouth looked as soft and open as that day in the bath, and he used his nimble hands to divest Eames of his garments before dipping his heavenly mouth to Eames' navel. Eames giggled girlishly, for he was ticklish, and Arthur's laughter rumbled in return.
"I have oil," Arthur began.
"You do?" Eames said. "To what end?"
"Your Hessians do not polish themselves," Arthur said, and then he wrapped himself around Eames' body and continued. "I want you to fuck me." He pushed his hips against Eames' thigh suggestively and danced his fingers over Eames' forearms. "What, no response?" he asked sleekly, and there was that kingly intonation in his voice again that had made Eames fall in love with him in the first place, all those years ago on a rainy night with an umbrella.
Eames took the oil and slicked his fingers till they shone. Arthur turned over, bracing his elbows and knees on the bed as he pushed his arse upwards, turning a trifle pink after Eames did naught but stare for a moment, simply appreciating the sight. Arthur did not approve. "Well, get on with it. I am not a statue for you to stare at," he said crossly, and Eames smiled as he smoothed his fingers over Arthur's arse, dripping oil between his cracks.
"That mouth of yours," Eames said. "I am going to give it something better to do." And thus he slipped one finger inside of Arthur, getting him good, wet, and messy. As he crooked his finger, searching for Arthur's pleasure spot, Arthur fulfilled Eames' prophecy by letting out a low groan that shook his entire body. It sounded painful for him, as if he had tried his utmost to not make a sound at all but failed. Eames saw this as an excellent opportunity to introduce Arthur to two fingers, and Arthur was only too pleased to accept it, gasping and pressing down on the mattress so that his cock had a surface to rub against. His cheek was flat against the goose down pillow and his eyes stared out at nothing in particular.
Eames twisted over to kiss him. Arthur's eyes snapped to attention, and in the midst of the nearly bruising kiss Eames lined his cock up and pushed inside. Arthur tensed at the intrusion, but then he clutched the pillow and said, "Yes." Just that simple word riding along his breath that made Eames see light behind his eyes and bury himself the rest of the way in. Arthur was no virgin -- nor had Eames expected him to be -- but he was tight all the same, his arse as form-fitting as the best pair of gloves. Eames moved until his balls rested gently against Arthur's astoundingly white skin, which inspired its own set of urges, including the urge to see it reddened by a slap, but there would be time for such sins later.
Arthur's breathing was uneven. So, if one were to remark on it, was Eames'. Eames rested his forehead on the small of Arthur's back as he started to thrust. His rhythm was slow at first, as he was content to rock gently and listen to the small symphony of noises Arthur graced him with. However, this condition of affairs could not last. Arthur grew impatient and shoved his arse back, taking Eames in with a force and determination that made Eames laugh. "All right, pet," he said, straightening and bracing his knees on the bed as he picked up his pace.
Let no one ever claim that the Earl of Eames did not know how to ride.
Arthur arched his back to better brace Eames' thrusts, and when that failed to keep him anchored, he reached for the bedpost. His knuckles were white, and his back was red and freckled, a long line of beauty as his hips worked to meet Eames. His mouth opened and closed, producing only pants and guttural syllables. He appeared incapable of speech. Eames reached around and grasped Arthur's cock, earning himself a barely comprehensible curse. He pressed his thumb tight against the tip as his thighs strained with the efforts of fucking Arthur hard. Arthur shuddered and released one of the bedposts so that his hand could wrap around Eames'.
"Arthur," Eames said helplessly, feeling the last vestige of his control spiral away from him. He slammed in deep and vicious, rubbing Arthur's cock, and promptly Arthur came, shaking and gasping, a marvelous disaster.
Eames fucked him through the pulses, through the highs and the lows, and then he grunted as he emptied himself in a desperate rush of heat, his muscles burning and his head somewhere high above the clouds.
The sight of Arthur's arse wet with his seed made him hold his breath. He inserted a finger inside, carefully, and listened to the delicious squelch as he moved it in exploring circles. When he pulled out, Arthur turned around and kissed him fiercely. Eames trailed his finger down Arthur's cheek, filthy wondrous and as joyous as he had ever been in his entire life.
There was ill news in the morning.
"Cobol escaped from the magistrate's," the Duchess of Mal said, appearing on Eames' doorstep like an apparition, albeit an apparition that could afford the latest French fashions. "He had aid from the Brotherhood of Morpheus, I suspect. The Runners are searching for him as we speak, but I doubt they will find him. He is too crafty for that."
"God's balls!" Eames exclaimed whilst Arthur moved stiffly beside him, pouring tea and looking utterly delectable. They both looked to Arthur, who was the expert on all matters Cobol, but Arthur merely wiped a stray droplet of tea from his sleeves and was calm.
"We will find him again. The important part is that the world knows the truth and Ariadne's reputation is restored," he reminded them. "This was all for Ariadne. We needn't dream bigger than that."
Eames scowled at Arthur's practicality. He halted when Arthur sent him a more private look behind the Duchess' back, calling into remembrance the promise they had made at Cobol's to hunt down the rest of the Brotherhood. "Yes, you are right," he said at last.
"Where is Ariadne? Is she well?" the Duchess asked anxiously.
"She is in her chambers, reading something she ought not to be, I presume," Eames said. "Arthur, will you show Her Grace the way?"
"Yes, my lord," Arthur said and allowed Eames' fingers to linger on his back when he moved past him. If the Duchess noticed the inappropriate breach of master-servant relations, she did not say. She hurried in the direction of Ariadne's chamber, and Eames thought that mayhap even if she did know, she would not object, kindred souls and all that. When they had departed, Eames leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the ceiling, painted speckled blue as a robin's egg. He wondered what the future had in store for them. Then he put those thoughts out of mind and plotted how best to corner Arthur in the kitchen and have his merry way with him there.
He needn't have worried about finding Cobol. Four days later, a letter arrived at Eames' residence. Arthur, who by now had no compunction in invading his lordship's privacy in every conceivable way, opened it first. "Mmm," he said thoughtfully. "How interesting."
"Is it from my mother? I've told her once, I've told her a hundred times--"
"Cobol is issuing you a challenge to duel."
Eames lifted his eyebrows. "I shall have to say yes. We may not have another chance to bring Cobol to justice. Tell me, is he a good shot?"
"Passable," said Arthur. "But you are much better."
"Well, that goes without saying," Eames said and smirked at him, recalling their recent encounter in the gardens of Vauxhall when Arthur had to stuff Eames' mouth with his neckcloth to keep him from crying out and alerting passers-by. "Send him a response. We shall meet tomorrow. Not at dawn, however. I cannot bear to wake up that early."
"Pistols at eleven o'clockish. It doesn't have quite the same charm," Arthur mused, but he sent the response as Eames directed. They received confirmation later that evening, and when Ariadne found out, she threw up her hands and flounced to the music chamber where she banged out an off-key pianoforte melody in her frustration at their manly stupidity. The sauteuse never sounded so condescending as when Ariadne played it.
Eames retired that evening to prepare his pistols, the pair of them which bore the names Annette and Lucinda, after two of his aunts. Arthur showed up soundlessly and Eames handed him Annette without word. He watched as Arthur turned over Annette between his long, calloused fingers. "Are you worried, dear?" he asked sardonically.
"Not at all," Arthur said. "You will let me be your second though? Just for custom's sake?"
"By all means," Eames responded.
Arthur was silent for an intent moment. When he spoke again, his voice sounded more hushed. "There is a matter I must confess to beforehand. When I said that I had never manipulated your dreams...more than likely it is true, but I do practice some of my father's methods when I am bored. I am not always able to judge my own successes, if they are successes at all and not whimsical fantasies. Gad, you must think I am a lunatic. What am I even saying?"
Eames set Lucinda aside. "It matters not," he said.
"I said, it matters not. And am I not an honest man?"
"Not at all. You are an inveterate liar," Arthur said, mollified.
"Well then," Eames said. "I do not wish to ravish you right here and now. And afterwards, I do not wish to lie in bed and eat oranges until our mouths hurt." There was still a measure of hesitance in Arthur's expression, so Eames grasped his hands and tugged him in. "What say you?"
"Aye," Arthur said. "But not in your good shirt. If you wrinkle it, I swear I will bash you over the head with a rock."
"I trust we can manage to avoid that dilemma," Eames replied, and unbuttoned it.
Cobol awaited them in an alley behind Vexcombe's. Clearly he had used his connections, for the alley was abandoned and deathly silent. Only pigeons remained to watch as Eames and Arthur strode towards Cobol, who looked grey in the face and was sweating profusely, though it was a cloudy day.
"We finish this here," Cobol said angrily. "No more sneaking around. No more silly plots and counter-plots. We face each other as men of our stations, do you understand?"
"Perfectly," Eames said. "Is twenty paces acceptable to you?"
Cobol jerked an affirmative nod. Arthur came forward and offered the pistol case to Eames. Eames unclasped it and removed Annette and Lucinda, cleaned to perfection. "I will beat you black and blue when I have you back," Cobol warned Arthur, but Arthur simply smiled and stepped out of the way. Eames kissed Annette on the nose, and then Lucinda.
"Where is your second?" he asked.
"I do not need one," Cobol said, lifting his own pair of pistols. "Are you prepared?"
"Yes," said Eames. He turned his back and started pacing, counting with each large step. "One. Two. Three," he intoned. He glanced at Arthur, who nodded to show him that Cobol was obeying the rules of the challenge. "Four. Five. Six." Visceral excitement thrummed in his abdomen. To shoot Cobol would be even more satisfying than tricking him and seeing him in jail. He was glad that events had turned out like this, very glad indeed!
A shot rang out in the air.
Eames spun around. So Cobol was not as gentlemanly as he had proclaimed! He had been prepared for this exact situation and he readied to fire off two shots in defense, but he halted when he saw that Cobol was stumbling in pain, blood pouring from the vicinity of his knee. He would have then berated Arthur for being overeager, but Arthur had no pistol on him, and there was a boy standing at the mouth of the alleyway with a smoking pistol aimed directly at them.
The boy turned and ran.
"Wait!" Eames ordered. "Arthur, you stay and watch over Cobol. Be sure that he does not leave!"
He did not wait for Arthur's response. He was already sprinting after the boy, but the streets near Vexcombe's were lively at this time of the afternoon and he very quickly became lost. The boy wore blue and grey, but there was a great deal of blue and grey to draw Eames' eye. He was forced to return to the alley where Arthur stood over Cobol, Annette cocked and loaded. "You shan't be troubling us again," Arthur was telling him coldly. "Neither you nor my father. I will make sure of it."
"I could not find the boy," Eames announced. "I daresay he did us all a favour."
"We will ask the Regent to make him a baron," Arthur agreed and nudged his foot from where Cobol was attempting to wrestle with it. "Now, if you are not overly exerted, my lord, go call the Bow Street Runners and have this man taken in. Again."
"I do everything for you, you bastard," Eames grumbled, but he smirked at Arthur as he departed. There may have also been a slight spring in his step, but his lordship was a learned man of the world and would never have admitted to anything as asinine as that.
Ariadne was still on the pianoforte practicing her scales when Arthur and Eames returned. "Oh good, you are not all bloody and disgusting," she said.
"Let me tell you, it was the damndest thing," Eames said to her, removing his hat and handing it to Arthur. "There was a boy who arrived and shot Cobol before I could. A boy wearing some very familiar items of clothing."
"Oh?" Ariadne asked disinterestedly.
"We shall have to thank him if we ever see him again," Arthur said.
"I am sure he will appreciate it," she responded. "I am merely relieved that this whole awful scandal is over. I will be paying a visit at the Duchess of Mal's this afternoon. Do not worry if I stay overlong. I am sure you will appreciate having the house to yourself for the night. Both of you." With that, she rose from the pianoforte bench, smiled amusedly, and went off in search of her bonnet.
"Well!" Eames said.
"It is better not to ask," Arthur said. "You do not want to have grey hairs before your time."
"I believe I would look rather distinguished with grey hair," Eames said. "You shall have to inform me when the time comes." He regarded Arthur, who was staring out the window where the clouds had opened to give way to drizzling rain. "I mean it truly," he continued. "You shall have to be there and tell me."
Arthur removed his gaze from the rain and looked at him. His lips parted slightly as if to protest, but then he shook his head. "I am afraid," he admitted.
"As am I," Eames said. "Now see, that is one similarity that we share, class differences or no." He reached for Arthur's hand and brought it to his lips, a silly romantic gesture that he had always been fond of. Till now, he had lacked reason to do it -- whores and one night affairs in general did not stand for silly romantic gestures. "May it be the least of things."
"Yes, I suppose," Arthur said. Eames gave him a fishy look, so Arthur repeated more firmly, "Yes." He drew Eames close to him and put his hands on Eames' hips. "Yes," he said again. "Yes, yes, yes, and now can I stop agreeing and start kissing you?"
"Yes," Eames said, "you may."
"Really, the two of you are sickening!" Ariadne said as she sallied past them to the front door and opened her umbrella.