Actions

Work Header

Victorian Boy

Chapter Text

A boy’s horse is his heart.

Harry’s horse was a small mare named Bertie. She was a common carthorse, white with a black mark between her eyes. The horsekeeper planned to put her down. She was not strong enough to work the land and not regal enough to pull a carriage. Harry rescued her when he was visiting the stables one afternoon and she broke out of her stall to nose his chest.

He knew no other boys his own age. As the lone heir of the Duke of Somerset, Harry wasn’t permitted to leave the estate, go to school or associate with those of low birth lest he catch typhoid or scarlet fever. He spied on the footmen’s children with his mother’s opera glasses from his bedroom window, longing to join them.

Bertie was his only friend and he doted on the sweet-tempered mare, sneaking cakes from the breakfast table down to her stall every morning.

His father commented on how plump she was getting. “Soon she’ll be too heavy to ride. Do choose a proper horse for hunting.”

Harry didn’t care for hunting.

Lemon teacakes were Bertie’s favorite. Harry hid them in his waistcoat so his father wouldn’t see and ran to the stables. From there, he walked Bertie to the riverbank where he would feed her treats and scratch behind her ear until her tail swished with delight. Sometimes he would tell her about his day and pretend that she was telling him about hers.

One cool April morning as he was brushing Bertie’s mane, he noticed that the thoroughbred in the next stall had been replaced with an Arabian stallion—muscles long and lean, coat as black as midnight. Harry poked his head over the stall door to get a better look at him and the horse struck the ground with his hoof in protest.

Harry found the horsekeeper and asked about him. Alfred lifted his tweed cap. “He’s not ours, my lord. Your father had him imported from Egypt. He’s a gift for the new Duke of Warwick.”

“A visitor? Father didn’t tell me.”

“Perhaps he didn’t want to overexcite you.”

“Why would a gentleman’s visit excite me?”

“Because the Duke of Warwick isn’t a gentleman.”

Harry was confused.

“He’s a boy.” Alfred smiled. “No older than you.”

A boy, Harry marveled, here?

Later he asked his mother if it was true and she said it was. In a fortnight they would receive Louis, the new Duke of Warwick, a boy his age, of noble birth. Harry would be permitted to sit with him, speak with him. For the first time in his life he would have a real friend.

Harry hardly slept thinking about the Duke’s arrival. He wondered what he would be like and what his interests were.

In preparation for his visit, Harry organized his coin collection. He went to the library and plucked from the shelves all the books he thought the Duke might want to discuss. He practiced his best arrangements on the piano in hopes that one might please his ear.

On the day of the Duke’s arrival, Harry and his family stood outside the manor to receive him.

The black carriage barreled down the path in a cloud of angry white dust. When it came to a standstill, a footman opened the carriage door.

Harry caught a flash of red.

The blazing summer sun paled beside him.

He had the shape of a boy but was dressed like a man, with an ivory cravat tied in a bow and a gold-tipped walking stick, the tails of his red coat licking the air behind him like flames.

He was everything Harry dreamed he would be and yet wildly different from the image he had in his mind.

Etiquette dictated that his father greet the Duke first but Harry was too excited. He threw his arms around the boy’s neck and kissed his cheek. “Welcome, friend!”

The boy stiffened.

Embarrassed, Harry’s mother pulled him away. “Forgive my son. He’s not used to company.”

Inside, the butler took his walking stick. Louis kept his hat tucked beneath his arm. His hair was the color of fox fur and parted neatly to the side. Harry tried to smooth his own dark curls to no avail.

They led the Duke into the drawing room for tea.

Harry tugged on his sleeve. “Would you like to see my coin collection?”

His father brushed him aside and began to discuss the Duke’s succession. They sat opposite each other on leather armchairs.

“You had two older brothers?”

“Three.”

“And they all passed away in the accident? With your mother and father?”

“They did.”

“Yet you survived. Quite… miraculous.”

Louis lifted the teacup to his lips. “Isn’t it though?” The china’s swirling blue pattern echoed the storm in his eyes.

The young Duke was in bad temper.

Harry played his finest arrangement on the piano to cheer him, but he wasn’t listening.

By supper, Harry had barely spoken two words to the boy.

As the butler swanned in with the soup terrine, Harry cleared his throat and said, “I read Bleak House this winter with my governess. I quite enjoyed it.” He turned to Louis. “Do you like Dickens?”

“I loathe him.”

They said no more on the subject of books.

The boy chatted politics with Harry’s father instead, debating the result of the Blackburn by-election and sparring with him on the subject of voter intimidation, until the Duke of Somerset became weary and conceded his point.

Harry ate in silence. He pushed the last morsel of lamb around on his plate and kicked the legs of his chair.

The young Duke barely touched his food. His blonde lashes beat heavily on his cheeks. He announced that he’d had a long journey and would be retiring early.

Harry panicked. Louis was leaving the next day. He may never get an opportunity like this again, and he wanted so badly to make a friend.

“How did your family die?” he blurted out.

His mother pinched his leg. “Harry!”

His father shook his head. “Honestly, child.”

Louis stood and dragged a hand through a candle flame without flinching. “House fire.”

***

It was Harry who prepared the Duke’s gift, the stallion he named Achilles.

Originally, he asked the horsekeeper to adorn the reins and saddle with green ribbon that matched the Warwick family crest. But Louis appeared to prefer red. Harry had them change it at the last minute so that everything would be perfect.

Harry could tell the young Duke was an accomplished rider from the shape of his legs. He’d attended the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire six times.

Louis asked Harry which club he belonged to. Harry kicked the grass sheepishly. “None. I’m not allowed to leave the estate.”

He sprinted ahead of his father and the Duke to the stables to fetch the horse.

Achilles wouldn’t budge. Harry tugged on his reins and he turned his head and sniffed haughtily. It took three farm hands to coax him out of his stall.

The beast was even more magnificent in motion. He trotted into the sunlight, his muscles rippling like the sea beneath his glorious dark coat.

Louis was impressed. He put his hands behind his back and examined the horse’s hindquarters and forelegs.

As Louis thanked the Duke of Somerset, Harry snuck away to the stables to feed Bertie the biscuit he nicked at tea. She neighed with excitement when he came near. He opened his hand and felt the tickle of her soft nose as she gently lifted the biscuit from his palm.

He heard footsteps behind him.

“Is she yours?” Louis approached, his manner relaxed now that Harry’s father wasn’t there.

“Yes. Her name’s Bertie.”

“She’s a carthorse,” he said, his blue eyes scrutinizing her the way they did Achilles. “You like her?”

“She’s my best friend,” Harry replied with a catch in his throat.

Bertie shied away from the Duke. His eyes made her nervous.

“Here.” Harry took the boy’s hand and removed his glove, exposing the warm skin beneath. “She likes to be scratched behind the ear.” He placed a hand on top of Louis’ and moved their fingers together through the thick white fur.

Louis stared at him.

Harry felt his cheeks get hot. “I wish you would stay for one more day.”

Before he could answer, Louis’ footman walked into the stable.

“Your grace, pardon the interruption but we’re preparing to leave. The stallion is being loaded into the crate.”

The young Duke stopped him. “No.” His eyes met Harry’s and his small pink pout spread into a smile. “Take the mare.”

Harry felt the blood drain from his face. The footman opened Bertie’s stall door and Harry heard himself yell, “no, no, no!”

His father walked into the stable to see what all the commotion was about.

“You can’t let him take her, Papa! She’s mine!”

Insulted, Harry’s father asked, “What would you want with this pitiful creature? The stallion is worth ten times as much. This one isn’t worthy of a farmer let alone a Duke.”

“I like a challenge.” Louis tapped the mud off his boot with his riding crop. “I can make a champion out of dreck.”

Bertie wasn’t dreck, Harry sobbed, she was everything to him.

Harry’s father sighed, ignoring his son’s cries. “As you wish.”

Trusting and sweet, Bertie followed Louis without struggle.

Hot tears spilled down Harry’s cheeks.

Instead of leading the mare to the crate, the Duke had her saddled. “I’ll ride her until she tires.”

He didn’t wait for his men to follow with the carriage. He leapt onto Bertie’s back, yanked her reins sharply and tore down the grassy knolls, through the iron gates.

Chapter Text

FOUR YEARS LATER

In August, before the harvest and after the mass for John the Baptist, the unthinkable happened, the thing that they had feared and guarded against since the day Harry was born.

Typhoid fever.

Harry’s father had gone into the village alone to worship with the citizens of their land holdings while Harry escorted his mother to mass at the private chapel on the Somerset estate.

When the Duke returned later that evening, his head burned with fever and blood dripped from his nose like spilled ink.

The Duchess turned to her son: “Go.”

Harry froze. He couldn’t leave his father. Two footmen dragged him away to the east wing of the manor kicking and screaming.

He was locked up like a prisoner in his bedroom for weeks. No matter how much he protested they wouldn’t let him out.

It struck him after some time that life as a prisoner wasn’t much different from his ordinary life. He had books instead of conversation and his coin collection instead of friends. He composed a piece of music to keep him company but without his piano this sharpened his loneliness instead of assuaging it. He stared out the window. Stared at same view he’d stared at for seventeen years.

During the day he would press his ear to the floor and listen to the hurried footfall of physicians and nursemaids. Listening for a sign. Were these anxious steps? Calm steps? The steps of someone tending to a strong patient? A dying patient?

It happened in the night.

He didn’t hear footsteps at all, just his mother’s helpless scream. It pierced him like lightning. He was desperate to go to her but the door was bolted from the outside.

“Let me out!” he cried.

They didn’t unlock the door until the next evening after the body had been prepared. His butler, Charles, came in carrying Harry’s mourning clothes in a neat square pile on his forearms. Harry hadn’t slept. He let Charles remove his nightshirt and gently dress him.

“He went peacefully, your grace.”

This was little consolation to a son without a father.

Charles helped him into a pair of trousers and buttoned a shirt over Harry’s pale chest, nimble fingers working quickly. He tied a black cravat around his collar and slipped on his black vest, waistcoat and gloves. Then he presented him with one more article of clothing.

“You’re mother wants you to wear it.” It was a black satin surgical mask. Harry had only seen them pictured in French medical journals that discussed germ theory.

He protested but his anger quickly dissipated into soundless sobs, like those a sleepy child who’d worn himself out fussing. He turned and bowed his head, letting Charles tie on the mask. He looked sinister with half his face obscured.

“Should you be wearing one?”

“The aim is to protect you, your grace. It’s simpler if you alone wear the mask than entrust the task to the entire staff.”

Charles opened the door for him.

For the first time in weeks, Harry exited his bedroom.

Though not as himself.

He was now the Duke of Somerset.

***

The body was in the parlor room. Every funeral custom was observed: curtains were drawn, clocks stopped at the time of death, mirrors covered to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped inside the looking glass. His father’s body was propped up with pillows on the settee and surrounded by laurels of yew and candlelight to mask the odor. He was dressed in his military uniform. Someone had placed his pipe in his hand and tinted his cheeks with rouge. Yet, he didn’t look like himself, he didn’t look like anyone. The face of death was that of a doll, a mere rendering of who one used to be.

Harry’s mother clutched a handkerchief and rosary to her breast. She was in a heavy black frock, the track of tiny pearl buttons down her back like a second spine. A black veil covered her face. He couldn’t tell if she was crying. Harry wanted to hold her but knew that she found affection cloying.

“Mother.” He took her gloved hand in his.

The wake lasted three days and was attended by few relatives, but the burial was quick, Harry and his mother joined only by their servants. His father was laid to rest with his head to the West and his feet to the East. There was a chill in the air but the earth retained the warmth of summer. Loose soil fell over the coffin like a blanket.

For days afterward they were listless, without knowing what to do and with the will to do nothing.

The Duchess was more protective of her son than ever before. He indulged her neurosis and always wore his mask and never left the manor, not even to visit the stables or his father’s grave. Paradoxically, she was also adamant that he marry quickly and produce an heir. Harry did not know how he could manage to court a woman let alone marry one when she wouldn’t let him leave the house.

He performed all his daily rituals under her watchful eye and when he was idle she invented new rituals. Together they opened and read the condolence letters every afternoon at tea.

The letters arrived en masse in near-identical ivory stationary with black trim. His mother would read each one aloud, perched on the edge of his father’s leather chair in her iridescent black mourning frock like a raven.

“Isn’t that kind of them,” she would say folding the paper and tucking it back in its envelope. They all sounded the same to him. The poetic turn of phrase. The empty platitudes.

Harry chose the next one. He reached down into the satchel and instead of an ivory envelope, he’d picked one that was blood red.

He broke the seal and his eyes scanned the letter inside.

“Red… Who is it from?” his mother asked.

Harry’s throat went dry. “The Duke of Warwick.”

She brushed a crumb that had fallen on her lap. “The boy who stole your Bertie?” she teased. “Thoughtful of him to send his condolences.”

“He hasn’t.”

The words were embossed in gold, the ink fresh, sent after his father’s passing but with no mention of it.

“It’s an invitation.”

Chapter Text

Death does unexpected things to the living.

All his life Harry had been taught to fear the outside world. It was a place filled with unknown dangers and disease. But when sickness finally fell upon his house and took his father, he no longer feared death. He feared regret and wasting what precious little life he’d been given.

The letter from the Duke of Warwick read as follows:

Dearest Harold,

The pleasure of your company is requested at the Bilsdale Fox Hunt on the sixteenth day of September, hosted by me, club president, at Warwick House in York.

Join us for a fortnight of dinner, dancing and games, culminating in what is sure to be the liveliest hunt of the season.

Ever your affectionate friend,
Louis

What was he playing at? Harry wondered. The invitation was not sent in earnest. They were not friends and Louis knew full well that Harry did not hunt. Was this mockery? A dare? He thought back to Louis’ visit four years prior with humiliation. His cheeks burned at the memory of boldly lacing his fingers through Louis’ to stroke his mare. How foolish he had been to open his heart to that boy. He certainly wouldn’t make that mistake again.

He stood and tossed the invitation in the fire, watching the red paper curl into a black fist and vanish into ember and ash.

“The Duke is cruel,” his mother agreed, reading his thoughts like she did when he was a little boy and trying to conceal them. “Are you going to your room?”

“I’m going to the stables.”

“The stables! Whatever for? You’ll catch a chill.”

Harry beckoned Charles and asked for his overcoat and hat. “I’m preparing Achilles for our trip. We’re leaving for York at dawn.”

***

In all his seventeen years, Harry had only ever made one short trip. It was to the village. He stayed in the carriage while his father bought him a rare coin from a local collector—a Hadrian 119AD ancient Roman gold coin depicting a resting Hercules. He peered through the small curtained window of the carriage at the colorful storefronts and villagers bustling past. The outside world looked like an oil painting, a reality that didn’t exist, not for him. He’d never left the estate for a long journey before and never by himself.

He didn’t go down to the stables often. After Bertie was taken from him it was too painful to see her empty stall and then when another horse took her place that became a source of pain as well.

He visited Achilles from time to time but neither of them enjoyed it. This time was no different. He unlatched the stable door and Achilles sniffed, a puff of cold air escaping his large black nostrils.

“Now listen here you brute. We’re going on a long journey to York. When we get there, I’m going to ride you and you’re going to let me!”

Achilles kicked the stall until the wood splintered.

Harry tried to grab hold of his headcollar and the beast bit him.

“Ow!”

Alfred came quickly. “Your grace, are you alright?”

“Prepare this… creature. I’m travelling to York for the Bilsdale Fox Hunt. I’ll need you pack all the riding accouterment and have him crated. Muzzled preferably.”

Alfred removed his cap revealing a few white hairs sprouting from the top of his head like horse whiskers. “Is this wise? You’ve never actually ridden Achilles before. Shouldn’t you train?”

“There’s no time for that.” Harry was already clomping across the muddy field back to the manor, Alfred chasing after him.

“Then perhaps take one of the less difficult horses.”

“No, Achilles is the finest horse we have. This is my introduction to society and I need to make an impression.”

“You will most definitely make an impression, your grace...”

When Harry returned to the manor, the Duchess was hysterical. She clutched the broach fastened to her collar. It had a lock of his father’s hair inside. She just lost her husband and was sure her son was being taken from her too. Nothing could convince her that the outside world wasn’t certain death. Harry could hear her roaming outside his room muttering to herself like Lady Macbeth.

“Mother, if you have something to say to me, please state it plainly.”

Suddenly, she slammed his bedroom door and tried to bolt it shut. He overpowered her and pried the door back open.

She called out to the footmen. “Contain him! He’s in danger! Contain my son!”

They came running and didn’t know what to do. They hated to see the Duchess vexed but Harry was the Duke. They took orders from him now.

She stood in his doorway and gathered the folds of her dress like she might collapse under the weight of her heavy heart.

Harry reached out to her but she was elusive. She did not like to be touched. He remembered being so starved for affection when he was a child that he would purposely fall so she might kiss his knee.

“I’ll only be gone a fortnight, plus three days for travel.”

Charles was fastidiously packing his bags on the bed beside him, folding his starched trousers like they were plates of gold.

Harry lifted his dinner jacket. “There will be women and dancing. Perhaps I’ll find a wife.”

His mother steadied herself on the vanity. “If you survive the northern climate long enough.”

“It’s barely autumn.”

“And what of the plague that’s gripped Middlesbrough and Huddersfield?”

He sighed. “I’ll wear my mask on the journey.”

She was desperate, clinging to any excuse like a life raft. “It’s not safe there! The Duke of Warwick. There are rumors, you know. They say he—”

Harry folded his arms around her slender shoulders. She gasped, scandalized by his impropriety. He kissed her cheek and buried his face in the high collar of her dress. She smelled of talcum powder and perfume, roses and rain. She was home, thorny and elusive but all he’d ever known.

“Goodbye, Mother.”

The dark truth was, it was precisely the dangers of the trip that excited him. Harry would prove to Louis that he was not the sniveling lonely child from their first encounter but a fearless Duke, the same as he.

Chapter Text

Harry left all his precious objects behind. His coin collection, dusted fossils, brass telescope, paint-chipped train set, books, sheet music, pearl fountain pen and a faded map of a world he’d never seen.

He looked at his bedroom one last time. Who was he without these objects? What would a boy with no life experience have to discuss with men of the world? Harry was suddenly seized with the urge to cancel the trip altogether when Charles came in to take the last of his luggage.

Charles, the bespectacled son of a watchmaker, took great pleasure in planning every last detail of the trip. He lived for this. He carried around a checklist, an itinerary and a contingency plan for every possible mishap that could befall them. He was actually excited to discover that there was a road closure on Wade's Causeway. He would have to devise an alternate route. More planning!

By the time Harry got to the carriage all of his belongings were neatly stowed away and Achilles was locked in his crate. The farmhand who wrestled him in there had a bloody lip.

As they pulled away from the manor, Harry watched his home grow smaller and smaller until it was no bigger than a car on his train set.

Besides Achilles thrashing around in his crate like a convict, the journey was quite comfortable. Harry crossed his slender legs, breeches tucked snugly inside knee-high leather boots. He wore his surgical mask and gloves on the journey, and an austere black tailcoat and cravat since he was still in mourning. He gripped the silver horsehead on his cane as he watched the afternoon sky and countryside roll by in a carousel of green and blue.

They dined in villages and retired at local inns for the evening. Harry was overwhelmed by the crowds, the noises and smells, like a lapdog who had never been let outside before.

The most rudimentary customs confused him. The first night when the innkeeper waited with his hand open for payment, Harry panicked. Though he possessed one of most extensive coin collections in England he’d never actually used money for its intended purpose. He almost gave the man a set of 6th century Persian Sasanian silver when Charles quickly paid the sum from his change purse to spare Harry any further embarrassment.

As awkward as these exchanges were, Harry knew that social maneuvering among the gentry at Warwick House would prove much more difficult and complex.

Unlike Somerset Manor, which rested on rolling green countryside as far as the eye can see, the Warwick estate was surrounded by a thick forest. The carriage nearly lost a wheel navigating the rough terrain. Harry stuck his gloved hand out the window and touched a sharp branch as though shaking the hand of an old acquaintance.

The house itself was cast in shadow from the foliage. The Baroque structure had two symmetrical wings and a crowning central dome with Corinthian pilasters. The coronets and cherubs that adorned the building were tinged green with moss from lack of sunlight.

The house had been restored since the fire. The parts rebuilt were lighter and mainly on the east wing, which was where the family had slept.

The horsekeeper greeted them at the gate and saw to Achilles and the carriage.

Then the door to the house opened.

Harry removed his hat and gripped his cane tightly, prepared to come face to face with Louis.

It wasn’t Louis. It was his butler, a slight frazzled man who kept checking his pocket watch.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said without smiling, and helped Charles with the luggage.

The two men wrestled with the larger bags while Harry held onto his cane and hat. No one offered to take them from him.

Charles was not used to this kind of informality. As they carried the bags up the stone steps, he immediately launched into matters of servitude. “The Duke of Somerset rises at six and takes his breakfast in bed. A fire should be lit in his room before he rises and—”

The other butler looked at him and laughed. “Six? In the morning? That’s the hour these men retire!”

As they entered through the tall double doors, the butler, Theodore, explained that the interior of the home had been completely remodeled to Louis’ liking after the fire, though there was still the taste of ash in the air.

The walls were blood red and the raucous laughter of men echoed from every room like the pulsing chambers of a heart.

Harry found himself staring at a family portrait that had been rescued but badly burned. He could make out Louis’ father, a broad shouldered man with a playful grin, and his mother, who looked a lot like Louis, especially her iridescent blue eyes, which the artist was able to capture with flecks of gold. Louis was just a baby in the painting sleeping in his mother’s arms. His brothers’ faces were almost completely blackened.

When Harry turned around, Charles was gone. He must have followed Theodore upstairs.

A large, ruddy-cheeked man with a rifle over his shoulder entered the foyer.

“Who called for a surgeon?” the man barked, more lumberjack than gentleman.

Surgeon? Harry thought. Then he remembered he was still wearing the mask. He tried to take it off but he was holding his cane and hat making it impossible to unfurl the tight knots Charles had fastened.

Then another man entered, a fop in a violet tailcoat, hosiery and breeches in the Parisian style with buckled high-heeled shoes. “He must be here for Oscar. Remember, he got that ghastly rash when he fucked a scullery maid at Longleat. Are you here to castrate him?”

“I’m not a—” Harry began, when another man entered.

“Roy, Frederick,” puffed an older gentleman smoking a pipe. “Did you send for a surgeon? What in God’s name happened?”

Roy leaned on his rifle. “Oscar fucked a scullery maid and this chap’s here to cut his balls off.”

“No, I’m not going to cut off anything!” Harry cried.

Frederick shrugged. “You’re the doctor.”

“I’m not—”

Then a ginger with a funny walk entered the foyer, ears pricked.

“Speak of the devil,” said Roy. “Oscar, the surgeon’s here to cure you of the little gift from your Longleat whore.”

Oscar turned bright red. “Her name’s Mabel!”

The men roared with laughter.

How would Harry endure an entire fortnight with these savages?

“If the surgeon isn’t here to see Oscar,” Frederick purred, “then, pray tell, who are you here to see?”

It was then that Harry spotted Louis.

He was upstairs leaning on the polished bannister with his arms folded, looking down at the scene with amusement.

“Me,” said Louis, descending the staircase. “And he’s no surgeon. Gentlemen, may I present to you the Duke of Somerset.”

The men eyed him skeptically.

Louis was wearing a red tailcoat like the one he wore when they first met, only his cravat was untied and the top button of his shirt undone. Harry’s eyes unwittingly fell to his exposed neck and collar bone.

He reached behind Harry’s head and laced his fingers through his hair.

Harry stiffened.

Louis’ nimble fingers swiftly unfastened the mask and drew it off his face.

“Welcome, friend.”

Chapter Text

After being mistaken for a surgeon Harry was humiliated and overcome with shyness. The bold and dignified introduction he’d hoped to make had been completely ruined. Now he would be branded with the grotesque nickname, “the Surgeon” for the duration of his stay.

Instead of joining the men for a late supper—because every event at Warwick House was hours late—he retired for the evening.

The room he was assigned had once belonged to Louis’ eldest brother. The walls were, of course, red. Harry missed the cool grey walls of his bedroom at home and its unassuming Georgian furnishings. Louis’ taste was an ornate Rococo nightmare, with gold moldings, garish carvings and marble tabletops.

Harry was fairly certain the room was haunted and thought the ghost of Louis’ brother, who had apparently burned to death in that very room, would keep him up all night, but he could scarcely hear his own thoughts over the noise downstairs. The men drank and gambled until dawn.

Charles was shocked when he came into Harry’s room to dress him in the morning. “Are you ill, your grace?”

“No, tired. I didn’t get a wink of sleep,” he moaned, as Charles buttoned his shirt. “How could you sleep through that dreadful racket last night?”

Charles slipped on his breeches, left leg and then right like he’d done every day since Harry was little.

“The servants quarters are in the west wing. I slept like a log. Theodore looked frightful though. He retired late, with his master, and had to rise early to ensure the race starts on time. The Duke of Warwick is a terror,” he tsked.

Harry sat on the edge of the bed while Charles fastened his riding boots.

“Are you sure you’re prepared for this, your grace? I don’t want to speak out of turn but you’ve never raced before…”

“Charles, I’ve studied physics since I was three. I could recite Newton's laws of motion before most of these men could ride. If there’s one thing I know it’s velocity and speed.”

***

The race was not the Derby, the Ascot or the Goodwood, but rather an informal match among Bilsdale club members at the track in nearby Weatherby. However small, it had all the flare and pageantry of a society event.

They were running an hour behind schedule.

The men were on the track with their with farriers and handlers, attending to hooves and saddles. Harry searched the crowd for Louis’ red tailcoat. He thought he caught a glimpse of him but it was just Frederick brushing and primping his chestnut stallion until his fur shone like his owner’s bronze hair.

Ladies were in attendance, watching from the lawn on picnic blankets in their finest fall frocks and fur-lined pelisses. They looked bored and miserable.

Harry heard a loud neighing in the distance. He knew before looking that this must have been Achilles.

Two men were using all their strength to drag him by the reins onto the track.

Despite his unseemly behavior, he was an extraordinary sight, a black dahlia among English roses. The ladies clapped and the men congratulated Harry on owning such a fine specimen. Even Frederick and Roy came around to examine him.

“The Surgeon truly has the finest stallion this club has ever seen,” Roy noted gruffly. “Who would have thought?”

“I don’t know that any horse is finer than my Belvédère, but he is divine, isn’t he?” Frederick said, reaching out to pet Achilles then quickly changing his mind.

The horsekeeper was less impressed. He was a skilled handler but nowhere near as patient as Alfred.

It was the moment of truth. Harry tried to casually mount his horse. He got one foot in the stirrup when Achilles pulled away nearly taking his leg off. “Whoa, boy, easy.”

The men snickered.

He tried again and Achilles grew even more agitated, tossing his head and flicking his tail. When Harry tugged on his headcoller to admonish him, Achilles broke free and rose up on his hindquarters.

Everyone staggered backward.

“That’s enough!” The horsekeeper bellowed. “This beast needs the whip!”

“I don’t whip my horses,” Harry said.

He spotted Louis out of the corner of his eye putting on his gloves, his red coat like hellfire against the grey horizon.

Harry tucked his foot into the stirrup and whispered, “Please Achilles. Please be good. Just this once. Everyone is watching.”

Achilles was steady.

“Good boy, good.”

With one foot in the stirrup, Harry swung his other leg over the saddle. He had almost mounted when Achilles bucked, throwing Harry to the ground.

“That’s it!” the horsekeeper spat. He pulled out his whip and raised his arm high in the air to strike the stallion’s back.

“No!” Harry jumped up and threw himself in front of Achilles.

The whip came down and lashed Harry’s arm.

The ladies screamed.

“I—I’m so sorry, your grace.” The horsekeeper tried to attend to Harry when Charles pushed him out of the way.

“Dear God, are you alright!”

“It’s just a scratch,” Harry puffed.

“Let me see.”

Harry felt the welt throb beneath the fabric of his black coat. He couldn’t expose his bare arm in polite company. It would be a scandal.

“Fashion me a sling.”

A footman handed him a used pinafore and Charles shredded it.

As Charles tended to his arm, Frederick took it upon himself to announce Harry’s forfeiture to the crowd: “Attention everyone! Attention! We’re one man down! The Surgeon is injured!”

Harry’s humiliation knew no bounds. He was now out of the race and guided off the track to a blanket beside the ladies.

It was the happiest the women looked all afternoon. They crowded around him like he was an object of curiosity.

“Poor thing.”

“His arms are delicate for a boy.”

“His poor arm!”

“It’s like a sparrow’s wing.”

“Poor little sparrow.”

Wonderful, he thought, another nickname.

“He’s so handsome.”

“No, pretty.”

“I have to set my hair for hours to get curls like these!”

They fed him biscuits and tarts while a lady’s maid came over and served him tea. Lady Finnes, the eldest woman, wrapped her shawl around his shoulders. Harry didn’t mind their companionship. He missed his mother.

Though they knew of him and his family, Harry was the only eligible bachelor among their ranks who had never been out in society. They had a barrage of questions.

“When did you become a member of Bilsdale?”

“I received an invitation to the hunt shortly after my father’s passing.”

“Louis is very strict about membership. Have you met before?”

“He visited Somerset when we were children.”

“You must have been the best of friends!”

“He ignored me the entire time and stole my mare.”

Lady Finnes looked up at the grey sky wistfully. “I knew a boy like that once.”

“What did you do?” Harry asked.

“I married him.”

The ladies covered their mouths and giggled.

Harry frowned and turned to the track. The men were all on the starting line, Frederick proudly atop his pampered chestnut stallion and Roy standing beside a sleek prizewinning thoroughbred. Oscar was on the far end, soothing his own anxious mare.

Louis was last to take his place. He trotted past Harry and tipped his hat to the ladies. When Harry saw the horse he was riding, he almost spilled his tea.

“Bertie!” Harry’s heart burst with happiness at the sight of his old friend. She looked exactly as he remembered her, with downy white fur bright as snow, and a signature black mark between her shy eyes.

But this bout of happiness was short lived. As Louis approached the men they all pointed at her and laughed.

“What in tarnation is that?” Oscar quipped. “A carthorse?”

“Barely fit to pull a cart.”

“She’d make a fine meat pie.”

“Barely fit for meat.”

“I’d send her to the glue factory myself.”

“Is this another one of your tiresome jokes, Louis?” Frederick yawned.

“Really, Louis, you can’t be serious,” Roy sniped, kicking dirt in Bertie’s eyes as he mounted his thoroughbred.

She shook the dirt off her face but didn’t buck or fuss. She was still sweet-tempered, still his Bertie.

“I assure you, I’m quite serious,” Louis said calmly.

What was Louis thinking? Harry loved Bertie but even he knew that she was not built for racing. She looked so small and common standing there among champions. He felt embarrassed for her, and furious with Louis for making a mockery of her.

The Starter pointed his blank pistol in the air and they got on their marks.

The pistol fired.

They were off and, just as Harry feared, all the thoroughbreds pulled far ahead of Bertie.

His heart sank.

A group of women jumped up and began cheering and waving their handkerchiefs. Some cheered for Roy, others for Frederick. Both men were now in the lead, neck and neck.

Bertie was in last place.

Harry could hardly bring himself to look.

Then halfway through the race, as they turned the corner of the track, Louis leaned down and scratched behind Bertie’s ear, just as Harry had shown him in the stable when they were boys.

Her speed increased.

She overtook Oscar’s mare.

Louis rose above the saddle slightly, the fine shape of his legs defined by his tight breeches. His body moved not in reaction to her but with her, like they were one.

Bertie’s hoofs pounded on the mud, heavier and harder than the agile thoroughbreds but twice as fast.

She inched past another horse.

And another.

And another.

Now she was in third place, just two horses behind.

Roy was out in front with his thoroughbred, whipping him fiercely with his riding crop until flecks blood splashed off the horse’s back onto Frederick’s white lace shirt.

“Fiend!” Frederick cursed.

His chestnut stallion Belvédère was unperturbed. He was born to run. It was inconceivable that Bertie could pass him.

Louis flexed his thighs, urging her forward.

Impossible. Belvédère was faster but Bertie surged ahead through sheer will, drawing all her strength from Louis.

Now she was closing in on Roy.

They were seconds away from the finish line.

Harry jumped up and down, cheering louder than all the women put together: “GO, BERTIE! GO!”

Roy beat his horse raw and bloody. The animal winced but went faster.

Louis and Bertie were moving in unison, sharing one body. One heart.

Roy was whipping harder, his thoroughbred’s lean legs practically flying across the track.

Bertie’s heavy legs couldn’t carry her any faster but her eyes were determined. Louis spoke affirmations in her ear and she pushed herself, listening intently to the sound of his voice. She was doing this for him. His will was hers.

Defying all the laws of physics, Bertie overtook Roy’s thoroughbred.

The entire crowd was on their feet. No one could believe their eyes.

Louis and Bertie thundered across the finish line in first place.

“THAT’S MY MARE!” Harry cheered, pumping his fist in the air.

Everyone looked at him like he’d gone mad.

There was an informal winner’s ceremony where Louis was handed a bouquet of white roses and a small medal by the Bilsdale club officer. Then he and Bertie did a victory lap around the track. Bertie seemingly aware of her accomplishment had an extra bounce in her step and sparkle in her eye.

As they trotted past, Louis tossed his bouquet to the women.

Harry dove down and caught it with his good arm.

The losers of the race gathered to grumble about Louis’ shocking victory, all except Frederick who was more angry that Roy ruined his lace shirt.

The handlers wrangled the horses on the track. Instead of heading back to the house with Charles, Harry slipped a lemon tart in his pocket and snuck off to see Bertie.

He was afraid she wouldn’t recognize him, that she would stare at him blankly, their friendship erased by time. But the second she saw him she broke away from her handler and nosed his chest. He scratched behind her ear and pressed his forehead to hers. “I missed you so much,” he whispered, kissing the black mark between her eyes. She sniffed the lemon tart in his pocket. He laughed.

“What are you doing?”

Louis was standing behind him with his arms crossed. He was still flushed from the race, hair dewy with sweat.

“I’m giving Bertie a treat.”

“My animals don’t eat treats. And her name isn’t Bertie anymore, it’s Albertine.”

Harry puffed out his chest. “She won the race she deserves a treat.”

“I won the race.” Louis then noticed the bouquet tucked in Harry’s sling and arched an eyebrow. “You caught my flowers?”

“They… landed in my vicinity.”

Harry stretched out his hand to feed the tart to Bertie.

“Come, Albertine,” Louis ordered.

The mare was confused. She looked from side to side. At Louis, then at Harry. Her nostrils flared. She really wanted that tart.

She chose Louis.

He took her reins and patted her neck.

Harry stared sadly at the crumbling tart in his palm.

As Louis began to walk away he stopped and said, “I saw what you did for Achilles. I would have done the same.”

Then he snatched the tart from Harry’s hand, took a bite, and winked.

Chapter Text

Harry asked Charles to put his bouquet in water. The soft white petals reminded him of Bertie. The vase of flowers was a tiny oasis, pure and true, among the bedchamber's otherwise oppressive artifice.

Even though he'd already suffered one astonishing failure at the racetrack, Harry was less nervous about sporting events than he was social events. He'd ridden horseback before, he'd never once been to a dance.

While he waited for Charles to iron his cravat, he practiced his dance steps and greetings in the mirror, bowing and extending his hand: "may I have this dance?" He cleared his throat, "may I have this dance?" No, he thought to himself. "Good evening. You're looking fetching tonight. May I have this dance?"

Charles smiled, eyes crinkling with the pride of an older sibling. "They won't be able to resist you, your grace."

Harry examined his slim limbs and the baby fat that rounded cheeks. "I'm the youngest bachelor here. The women call me, little sparrow," he sighed.

"Who doesn't love sparrows? They're charming creatures."

Charles brought him his cravat. It was green.

"I can't wear this," he said, shaking his head. "I'm still in mourning."

Charles ignored his protests. "It belonged to your father. He had the tailor create a dye to match rolling green hills of Somerset. He would have wanted you to wear it today. In honor of Somerset. In honor of him."

"It's poor etiquette."

Charles shook his shoulders. "You are more Victorian than Queen Victoria herself! Wear the cravat. It brings out your eyes."

***

Navigating Warwick House was like making his way through Dante's Inferno. If Harry's bedchamber was a gaudy nightmare, the ballroom was the last circle of hell. The blood red walls and gold moldings of the ballroom were punctuated by nude sculptures and violent, sexually charged allegorical paintings. He had no place to rest his eyes that wasn't filled with debauchery and sin.

Men were conversing on one side of the ballroom and women on the other. Harry pulled out his lucky coin and recited the greeting he had been practicing all afternoon. "May I have this dance, may I have this dance, may I have this dance..."

The music started but nobody moved.

That is until Louis entered the room. Harry almost didn't recognize him. He wasn't in his signature red but a brilliant blue tailcoat.

Without hesitation he crossed the floor and extended his hand to the most beautiful woman in the room. He didn't even ask her to dance, he simply nodded and she obliged.

Then the other men traversed the ballroom floor.

Frederick, in breeches trimmed with ribbon, chatted up a coterie of debutantes, and tried to decide between them.

Like a hunter, Roy picked a girl who was separated from her pack of friends.

Harry froze. He knew he had to go over there but his legs wouldn't budge. All of these bodies in an enclosed space, touching and breathing on one another, only made him think of one thing: disease.

Lady Finnes was sitting on the settee enjoying the music when she spotted him. "Little sparrow!" she called.

He walked over and bowed at the waist with his hands behind his back. "Good evening, Lady Finnes."

"Why aren't you dancing? You have many admirers." She motioned to a group of young women huddled together, staring at him anxiously. Their silk taffeta gowns, each a different color and pattern, made them look like a basket of Easter eggs.

"I'm working up the courage," he whispered.

"I would dance with you myself, but sadly my husband's here."

Harry laughed.

Louis waltzed by them, his partner whispering in his ear. His reply landed on her long, swanlike neck.

Lady Finnes shook her head. "In my day, one didn't dance the waltz in genteel society. We danced the quadrille. Look at that closed embrace! Lady Calder has no shame."

Harry sighed. "Still, I wish I was as skilled as our host."

"Louis? He's had a lot of practice."

"He goes to many dances?"

Lady Finnes covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. "No dear."

Harry didn't follow.

She pointed to the Bronzino beside him: Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

"He has many lovers."

Lovers.

Louis had lovers.

As in, he'd made love.

To more than one person.

Harry wasn't near a mirror but he was certain his face was scarlet, redder than the red walls around them.

He watched Louis glide his partner across the ballroom with a sure grip on her waist. Perhaps it was all the obscene artwork, but Harry was now picturing Louis in those allegorical paintings, Lady Calder beneath him, unraveling with pleasure like Venus.

He tugged at his collar. The room had become unbearably hot. He felt even more nervous about asking someone to dance. Every time he quelled his anxiety and tried to approach a woman, she was already taken.

His hesitation cost him three dances. Now everyone was dancing but him.

He stood with his back against the wall and watched the other guests enjoy themselves. It was ironic. He'd spent his entire life alone in Somerset, but here, among all these people he felt just as lonely. Somerset wasn't a place in the countryside he realized, it was a place in his mind and there was no escape.

The song ended and the musicians took a short break.

When no one was watching, Harry crept over to the piano and struck the ivory keys. Everyone else was distracted by lively conversation so he sat down and began to play.

Music had always been a dependable friend. It wasn't a puzzle to him the way people were. He shut his eyes as he played and let the sound reverberate through his fingertips.

The beautiful thing about the piano was that it was actually two instruments in one. It was a string instrument because the sound came from the strings inside the piano, but it was also a percussion instrument because the strings made sounds when they were struck by the hammers attached to the keys. It was the happy marriage of two opposing ideas.

When he opened his eyes a small crowd had gathered around him. Frederick, his three debutantes, Oscar, even Roy. They clapped.

"The Surgeon has many talents! Play us another," Frederick crooned.

The ladies began shouting out requests, and excitedly he played each and every one, which drew an even larger crowd.

"Marvelous!"

"He can play any song, any song at all!"

Some of the guests tried to stump Harry, but they were no match for him and his long memory, which retained every piece of music in his father's extensive library.

"Incredible!"

"Bravo!"

"Play us some Balfe! Le Puits d'amour!"

"No, Barnett! Play something from Fair Rosamond!"

Then someone in the back said in a quiet voice, "Bach, Agnus Dei."

Harry smiled to himself. "Ah, from the Mass in B minor. You're in luck. That's my very best arrangement!"

"I know. You played it for me at Somerset."

The voice belonged to Louis.

He pushed through the crowd and sat beside Harry on the piano bench. He smelled like perfume and wine.

"Well, go on."

Harry could feel Louis hot breath on his cheek. He wondered if this was how Lady Calder felt when they were dancing. His hands trembled as they hovered over the keys.

He thought back to that day when he played for Louis in his family's parlor room. Louis hadn't even looked in Harry's direction, much less commented on his playing. But he was listening. He remembered.

Harry began to play the somber arrangement, the rich melody swelling beneath his fingers. The piano was a Steinway and held the notes almost as long as the cello. Everyone was watching his hands, except Louis. Louis was watching him.

His heart beat faster and faster.

When he finished, the ballroom broke into applause.

Harry turned to face Louis, hoping for a friendly smile or a nod of approval.

He was gone.

The doors to the ballroom opened. A guest had arrived. A man who wasn't at the race a day earlier.

Louis greeted him with acid politeness. "Cousin. You decided to join us after all."

The man was tall with dark hair and a trimmed mustache. His clothing was plain, the muted colors of London's sky at dusk, compared to the sapphire blue donned by Louis. The man couldn't have been more than thirty but his face was lined with the wisdom of someone much older.

"Frederick, the Viscount Greindl; Roy, Earl of Pembroke," he said by way of introduction, "you remember my cousin, Sir Clarence Blackwood. He's a chancery lawyer in London."

There were murmurs among the guests. It was almost unheard of for a nobleman to work.

"I apologize for my lateness. I've been busy with a new case."

Theodore rushed in to take his hat and cane. Sir Clarence reluctantly allowed Louis' valet to attend him.

"My cousin settles squabbles over wills and estates."

"Should I spend my time on dancing and sport instead?" he retorted.

Louis lip curled. "Tell us about your latest case."

"It's between the son and an uncle over the family fortune. I'm defending the uncle. It's interesting."

"Really?" Frederick said, unconvinced.

"The son killed his father."

"Then what is he doing in chancery court?" Louis asked impatiently.

"You know as well as I do, cousin, that the gentry have a way of escaping justice in this country."

Harry had never heard a man speak ill of his own class before.

"If we're not careful this country will go the way of France. How long before the poor rise up? The unelected House of Lords refuse to pass reform; only nobility are able to become MP's. We're standing on a volcano. Revolution is coming."

Louis pinched the bridge of his nose like he had heard this speech a million times before. "Then what are you doing at the lowly chancery court? Why don't you become a member of parliament where you can wield real power and affect change?"

"Because, to affect change, one must become the change." Then he cleared his throat and began to recite a quote: " 'There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise—"

Harry finished the quote, " '—the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.' "

Sir Clarence smiled. "You've read Bleak House?"

"It's my favorite novel! I adore Dickens."

Louis looked at Harry then at Sir Clarence with annoyance. They waited for him to introduce them but he fell into a stubborn silence and refused.

Sir Clarence extended his hand. "Sir Clarence Blackwood."

"Harry III, Duke of Somerset. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

The violinist tapped the music stand with his bow and the quartet resumed playing.

Louis grabbed Lady Calder by the hand and practically catapulted her into a Viennese waltz. She threw her head back with delight.

Sir Clarence leaned against the wall next to Harry, ignoring the ladies nearby.

He didn't dance. He didn't drink. Harry had never met anyone like him before, a nobleman who was completely uninterested in the pleasures of society and devoted entirely to justice.

"Why aren't you dancing?" he asked Harry.

"My family, they were scrupulous about disease. I have an aversion to germs... I apologize. I must sound mad."

"Not at all. The body is a reflection of the soul. You are pure through and through." Then he gestured toward Louis. "Unlike my cousin over there."

Louis was dancing with another woman now, a voluptuous blonde whose bosom was spilling out of her bodice.

Harry felt his face get hot again thinking of what Lady Finnes said about Louis' many lovers.

Sir Clarence and Harry sat and chatted for the rest of the evening about books, politics and Harry's coin collection, which Sir Clarence was keen to see—even the bronze coins from the Roman Empire, 240-410 AD, that were not so rare. No one had ever asked to see his coins before.

Sir Clarence had also met Harry's father briefly when he was alive, and was familiar with his charity. "He built schools, hospitals and churches across the West Midlands. I admire his work tremendously."

Harry stroked his green cravat with pride.

As the evening drew to a close—and Louis had danced with every woman in the room at least a dozen times—Harry and Sir Clarence decided to retire for the night.

Just like Harry had failed to race at the race, he had failed to dance at the dance. However, the evening did not feel like a failure because he had made his very first friend.

In the foyer, Sir Clarence stopped suddenly and pointed out Louis' burned family portrait. "My dear aunt and uncle. They were taken from us too soon."

"Yes, what a tragic accident."

"Oh, it was no accident."

Harry was confused but Sir Clarence said nothing more.

Together they ascended the grand staircase. Harry heard soft laughter and voices at the top of the steps.

It was Louis' voice, in the corridor, outside his bedchamber.

He wasn't alone.

Sir Clarence pressed a finger to his lips and they peeked around the corner.

Louis was there but it wasn't Lady Calder who was with him, nor the voluptuous blonde.

It was Frederick. And Roy.

Their bodies were entwined, Frederick untying Louis' cravat as Louis undid Frederick's breeches, Roy sliding his arms around Louis' waist and kissing his neck from behind while Frederick kissed him hungrily on the mouth. The three of them tumbled into Louis' bedchamber and locked the door behind them.

Harry was white as a sheet.

Sir Clarence turned to him. "You didn't know? My cousin is depraved."

Chapter Text

Louis rarely slept alone.

In London he shared the bed of the Prince Consort; in Paris, the Marquis d'Oilliamson; in Madrid, the Lord of Lazcano; in Bavaria, the Freiherr von Eichendorff; in Amsterdam, the Baron De Haan.

He had a man in every city, for every season, and every mood.

At his home in Warwick, he had a footman warm his bed but when the Bilsdale club met, he preferred Frederick the Viscount Greindl or Roy the Earl of Pembroke.

Frederick, a fine-boned blue blood, had a haughty equine elegance in the bedroom that delighted Louis. Roy, a muscular marksman, possessed a direct brutishness that brought him to his knees begging for mercy. On this night he couldn’t quite figure out what flavor of pleasure he craved and decided to have them both.

They stripped off the last of their clothes between urgent caresses and hot, breathy kisses. Louis drew back the curtain of his four-poster bed. Frederick was taking ages with the pearl buttons on his shirt. Roy tried to help him only to have his hand slapped away. Impatiently, Louis pulled the shirt off over his head and pushed him onto the bed. Frederick arched his back with naked indifference. Louis liked it when he played coy and lay down beside him. Roy lay beside Louis as they began the slow pointed touches that were the preamble to lovemaking.

“This bed is huge,” Frederick remarked twirling a finger in Louis’ hair. “I was worried Roy wouldn’t fit.”

Roy pressed his length against Louis thigh. “I always fit.”

“Perhaps we should invite a fourth next time.”

Louis flipped Frederick on his knees and got behind him, “You insatiable little minx,” he growled, holding the Viscount’s hips. “Who did you have in mind?”

Roy came up behind Louis and licked his neck, the scruff of his cheek sending a shiver down Louis’ spine.

“What about The Virgin Duke of Somerset?”

Harry thought the men’s nickname for him was The Surgeon, but they only called him that to his face. His real nickname was The Virgin.

Louis stopped. “No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” Roy whispered in his ear. “I’d love to deflower him. He has the prettiest head of dark curls. And the things I’d like to do with that mouth--”

“I said, no.”

Frederick rolled over and drew Louis’ head between his thighs. “You’re right, darling. He’s a terrible bore just like your cousin.”

Roy chuckled. “They do have a lot in common.”

Louis dropped Frederick from his mouth. “I have more in common with Harry than stuffy old Clarence!”

“Like what?” Roy asked, sinking his teeth into the flesh of Louis’ ass.

Louis thought for a moment but couldn’t come up with anything tangible. All he knew was that his desire for men, every sexual experience he’d had, could be traced back to one singular moment in time, in a stable four years earlier, when a curly-haired boy removed his glove and showed him how to pet his mare...

“Can we please stop talking about that dull virgin!” Frederick slipped his tongue into Louis’ mouth, while guiding Louis’ length to his soft velvety entrance.

Normally he loved nothing more than to take Frederick apart like a delicious confection but he was irritated by all this talk of Clarence and Harry. He couldn’t concentrate.

“Enough.”

“Fuck me.”

Louis jumped up and put his nightshirt on over his naked shoulders. He rang for his valet, Theodore.

It took only a few minutes for an exhausted Theodore to appear at Louis’ bedchamber.

“You rang.”

“Oh good, you’re up. Do we have a copy of Bleak House in the library?”

Theodore blinked slowly. “Your grace, you hate Dickens.”

“That wasn’t my question,” Louis snapped. “Do we have a copy of that bloody book or don’t we?”

“I have a personal copy signed by the author…” Theodore looked over Louis’ shoulder at the two men naked in his bed, Frederick spreading for Roy like an animal in heat. “What are you going to do with it?”

“What do you think! Bring it to me. Now.”

Theodore came back moments later and reluctantly handed over the leather-bound edition.

Roy had moved in on Frederick. He had him bent over a pile of lace pillows and was ready to mount. “Come, Louis, join us.”

“Start without me.”

He sat at his desk and lit the wick of his oil lamp. As the lamp slowly saturated the room with amber light, he opened the book and began reading. One sentence in and he was already bored senseless. He pored himself a glass of red wine from the decanter and took a sip.

It was impossible to focus with Frederick’s screams just a few feet away.

“Harder!”

“I’m trying, Frederick! You’re tight as a vise. Louis, where do you keep your oils?”

“They’re in the chiffonier.”

Louis read and read and read, each page no closer to understanding Harry than the page before. Why were there so many characters? Who was Jarndyce? What in tarnation was this book about?

Roy hit his stride and Frederick clung to the headboard for dear life, his pink toes curled, his voice high as a flute.

“Quiet!” Louis hissed.

Frederick’s darted tongue over his sweaty lip. “Make me.”

Roy moved aside, his length heavy and oiled. “Here, have a turn with him.”

Louis looked longingly at his lovers.

He craved the sweet release that came from being deep inside another man, the release that came from having a man deep inside him, and the exhilarating sensation of both at the same time… But for some inexplicable reason he felt compelled to keep reading this god-awful book.

He sighed and turned the page.

By dawn, Roy had fucked Frederick into a stupor and the two lay in a still embrace, Roy’s heavy leg hooked around Frederick’s pale hairless torso, holding him to his chest like a porcelain doll.

Louis was still awake. He read the last few pages before collapsing face first onto the book and drifting off to sleep himself.

***

When he opened his eyes his lamplight had been snuffed out and Theodore was shaking his shoulder.

“Your grace, wake up! Wake up! You’re not going to believe this but today’s event is running precisely according to schedule. We’ll be able to start the event on time! Isn’t it splendid?”

“Cancel it. I’ve barely had a wink of sleep.” He threw back the remainder of his wine and touched his bed, Frederick and Roy were gone and his sheets cold.

He paced around the room.

Theodore chased after Louis to get him dressed. He was impossible to pin down. Even as a child, Theodore had to wrestle him into his breeches.

“Teddy, I’d like to have tea with the Duke of Somerset today.”

“Whatever for, your grace?”

“Because we have a massive amount in common, that’s why! I’d like his private counsel on a literary matter.”

Theodore arched an eyebrow but knew better than to ask questions.

Louis was told by one of the maids that Harry was in the library. Perfect! He smoothed his hair in the mirror above his fireplace and tucked the copy of Bleak House beneath his arm.

On the way to the library, William, the eagle-eyed new footman tried to get his attention. He was young, having only come of age in the spring, but he was ambitious and had moved up the ranks from pageboy to first footman in less than a year. It was not hard to see why. He was eager to please and fiercely devoted.

Unlike Theodore who was resigned to the chaos of Warwick House, for William every issue was a matter of hysterical urgency. There was some row among the footmen that resulted in a broken leg; Lady Calder lost a ring at last night’s dance; and his barrister had a land accord that needed to be signed posthaste.

All this before noon!

He quickly signed off on the accord. He ordered William to dismiss the footman who started the row. If the parlor maids hadn’t found the missing ring in the house that meant her ladyship dropped it in the garden and it was most likely lost forever.

***

Harry was indeed in the library. He had a large atlas spread out before him. A dark curl had fallen over one eye and his lips were parted. He was in black again, a hard tone on a boy so soft. Louis would have liked to see him in pink or lavender.

He was examining a map of the West Midlands, his finger tracing the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway.

Louis cleared his throat. “What are you looking at?”

His eyes didn’t lift from the book. “A map of the lands where my father built churches and hospitals. He was a very pious man.”

“I too spent the night reading,” said Louis, patting the book under his arm.

Harry glared at him. “Oh really?”

He seemed testier than usual, Louis thought. Was he still cross about Albertine?

Louis cleared his throat and fumbled his way through a quote from the book: “…injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “Are you mocking me?”

His eyebrows shot up. “Mocking? No! I take literature very seriously. Especially the grave scene in the courthouse.”

“It’s satire.”

Louis laughed airily. “Of course it is! That’s what I meant. Gravely… humorous.”

He wandered over to the shelves and pretended to busily scan the titles. “Would you,” Louis began, “care to discuss the passage over tea this morning?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry, I must have misheard you.”

He slammed the atlas shut. “You didn’t mishear me. I don’t wish to have tea with you. Not now. Not ever.”

“And why not?”

Harry got up from his chair and headed for the door. “I know what you are,” he said and left.

Louis’ gloved hand curled into a fist.

Clarence.

The club had convened in the dining room for breakfast. The room was filled with a heavy smoke from their pipes and the sound of arguing, this time over trade and the price of tea from India.

Sir Clarence was silent at the head of the table reading The Daily Telegraph, a proletariat rag. Without uttering a word the man was insufferably smug. Louis hated his cousin. His defense of the poor wasn’t a selfless act, just the opposite, it was a way to distinguish himself from others and sneer and scorn at a society he was incapable of charming. He was suspicious of those who were charming, suspicious of men like Louis, who moved through social circles with confidence and ease.

Louis snatched the paper out of his hand.

“What did you tell him?”

Clarence removed his round reading glasses, calmly folded them and placed them in his breast pocket.

“If you’re referring to the Duke of Somerset, I didn’t tell him anything.”

“I know you, Clarence. You’ve been meddling in my private affairs for years.”

The man thought he was a genius because he deduced that the fire that killed Louis’ family wasn’t an accident. Any idiot could see that.

“What vile lies have you told him?”

Clarence leaned in, mustache twitching as spoke. “He saw you, with his own eyes, carrying on with two men outside your bedchamber like the whore of Babylon.”

Events from the previous night were a bit hazy after all that wine but things slowly came into focus. Louis groaned when he realized the scene Harry must have stumbled upon.

“Well,” he recovered, “at least he knows where I stand.” Louis plucked an apple from the fruit bowl and took a juicy bite.

“Yes. With the DEVIL.”

“You’re so dramatic.”

“And you’re a sodomite.” Clarence tapped his soft-boiled egg with a spoon. “The boy turned white as a ghost when he saw you three. I thought the shock alone would kill him. He’s never seen something so depraved in his entire life. He didn’t even know it was… possible between men. He asked me to escort him to both morning and evening mass to pray for forgiveness. He thinks he’s sinned just by looking upon your depravity.”

“You’re not even Catholic.”

“My grandmother was Catholic.”

Louis threw up his hands. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”

The Duke of Somerset was overly emotional. His cloistered upbringing had made him sensitive as a hothouse flower. Louis had never known anyone so sheltered. It made him furious to think of Harry locked up in that sanitized manor his entire life with no siblings or friends. Louis spent his youth covered in mud with his brothers chasing frogs, and later at boarding school chasing boys.

Louis checked his pocket watch. “The event is cancelled today. You best be going or you’ll miss your train back to London.”

“I’ve decided to stay until the hunt.”

“What about your work?”

“The Duke of Somerset is my new cause. I won’t let you defile that boy.”

Defile him, Louis thought, how utterly preposterous! He merely wanted to discuss literature over tea. Was that a crime?

***

Louis searched the entire grounds of the estate. Harry told no one where he went, not even his valet, Charles.

He decided to look in the last place anyone would expect to find him and he was right. Harry was outside the stables with Achilles.

He was holding a whip.

“I thought you didn’t whip your horses,” Louis said.

The stallion was cowering by a tree his head dipped down in a protective posture.

Harry sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “What else can I do? He doesn’t listen to me! He doesn’t obey!” he cried, voice cracking.

This emotional outburst was about much more than a disobedient horse. Louis hated the thought of Harry’s anger toward him being taken out on such a magnificent animal.

He took the whip from Harry’s hands and tossed it to the ground.

“Why are you tender with Albertine and cross with Achilles?” Louis asked.

Harry put his hands on his hips. “Firstly, her name is not Albertine, it’s Bertie. Secondly, Bertie is sweet-tempered, Achilles is defiant.”

“Ah,” Louis examined the horse’s eyes. “That makes him sweeter still. The more defiant a horse, the bigger his heart. You have to earn his love.”

“How?”

Louis motioned for Harry to bring the horse forward. Harry grabbed him by the head collar. Naturally, the horse resisted.

Louis grabbed Harry roughly by his lapels.

“Hey!”

“Does this displease you? Then don’t do it to Achilles. Understand?” Louis said firmly.

Harry huffed and straightened his tailcoat.

Louis approached Achilles and the horse’s nostrils flared. He smoothed a gloved hand over his crest and withers. He held his hand against his flank and felt the heavy thudding of his heart. The animal was anxious but Louis’ touch was calm.

“A horse is like a lover. You must understand his body in connection to yours. Become a source of comfort to him.”

Achilles leaned into Louis. With utmost ease, Louis placed a foot in one of the stirrups and leapt onto his back.

Harry’s eyes widened.

“Here,” Louis said, climbing off the horse’s back and handing Harry the reins. “You try.”

Harry, who was still very much the little boy eager for friendship took the reins. Then he looked down suddenly, his green eyes troubled. Something was holding him back.

“I saw you last night. Outside your bedchamber,” he said.

Louis was used to receiving this type of reprimand from Clarence, but coming from Harry, it cut him. “I’m not ashamed of what I am.”

Harry was scandalized. His entire body tensed, hands gripping the reins so tightly the leather nearly snapped. Achilles’ ears flattened in an expression of bewilderment.

“Calm,” Louis instructed. “Like a lover, remember.”

Louis knew damn well that Harry had never made love to anyone. He just liked to make him blush.

Harry’s eyes fluttered shut, dark lashes sweeping his rosy cheeks. He took deep breaths until his nerves steadied and his heart was beating in tandem with that of Achilles. When he opened them he slid his boot into the stirrup and clumsily swung his other leg over the saddle.

“I did it!”

Louis smiled in spite of himself. “Good! Now bring him to a trot.”

Harry squeezed the reins and tapped Achilles with his heel. Together they trotted in a circle around Louis.

He had a lovely boyish build and, even though he was barely in control of his long limbs, it pleased Louis to watch his thighs loosely straddle the stallion. It pleased him very much.

Perhaps he would try to invite him to tea again. This time he might say yes.

Louis cleared his throat and just as words began to form on his lips, a dapple grey thoroughbred galloped toward them.

“Sir Clarence!” Harry called.

“Stunning creature you have there. Care to go for a ride?”

“Yes, lets.”

With newfound confidence, Harry leaned back in the saddle and tugged the reins, instructing Achilles to turn left.

Clarence tipped his hat to Louis. “Afternoon, cousin.”

***

He waited for them by the parlor room window, nursing a bottle of sherry. It was dusk and they still hadn’t returned from their ride. Then Louis remembered that Clarence said they would be attending evening mass together.

Instead of joining the rest of the men for a lively game of cards, he retired early.

There was someone waiting for him outside his bedchamber.

“William.”

“I found her ladyship’s ring.”

He must have scoured the garden for hours. His trousers were muddy and his hands scratched to bits from the thorny rosebushes.

Louis smiled weakly and leaned his head against the doorframe. “Good. That’s very good, William. Thank you.”

He took the ring and headed inside his room when William placed a hand on his shoulder. “I would do anything for you. Anything at all, your grace.” His eyes drifted toward the bed.

Louis paused. Then he turned and held the young man’s face in his hands. He kissed his full lips and waited for the familiar stirring in his breeches, waited for his passion to ignite and catch fire and consume them both.

It didn’t.

Instead, he entered his bedchamber and locked the door behind him, and for the first time in months, the Duke of Warwick slept alone.

Chapter Text

The next event was a game Harry had never heard of. Military officers brought it back with them from Calcutta, where two British soldiers had established its first club.

They called it: Polo.

One played it on horseback with a wooden ball and mallet in two teams of four.

The rules were unfamiliar to Harry but Charles was encouraging. Since none of the men had played the game before they would all be on equal footing.

It was a fine October day, clear as a brook and crisp as his mother’s stationary. Out on the verdant field, he received an armband from the umpire. The teams were divided by color: purple, red, yellow and blue. Harry was on the purple team. Charles fashioned himself a purple flag to cheer him on from the sidelines.

Harry and Achilles weren’t quite friendly but they appeared to have reached a truce. Harry was careful to introduce him to the ball and mallet before the match. There were two swings in Polo, the pendulum and the plane. The former followed the length of the horse’s body, the latter cut across his neck. Harry practiced both swings with Achilles earlier that morning. The stallion didn’t protest but seemed skeptical.

With some finessing, Harry procured a spot on his team for Sir Clarence. He was the only acquaintance Harry had that wasn’t a servant and he was desperate to stay in his good graces.

Sir Clarence crossed the field puffing his pipe, grey smoke dotting an otherwise cloudless blue sky.

They spent the most rewarding time at mass the evening prior. The villagers were more deferential than was customary and Harry was puzzled as to why, when he saw his father’s name on a bronze plaque above the church door. Sir Clarence surprised the duke with one of his father’s philanthropic causes! Harry didn’t know that his charity extended this far north.

The scourge of tuberculosis had struck the village and many had lost wages and were living on a pittance. Sir Clarence suggested they return the next day to bring them bread, and apples from the Warwick orchard. Harry thought this was a splendid idea.

As they discussed their donation, the red team approached. Frederick, Lord Beardsley and Lord Graves, were led by Louis who greeted his cousin with an impertinent pout.

“Planning to take apples from my orchard are you.”

Sir Clarence turned to Harry. “You’ll have to excuse my cousin. He’s about as charitable as Marie Antoinette.”

“A charming woman,” Louis quipped. “She was very misunderstood, you know.”

“She starved her people to death!”

“Vicious propaganda started by bloodthirsty revolutionaries!”

Sir Clarence tipped his pipe in disgust.

Harry couldn’t look Louis in the eye and Frederick’s presence made it even harder. The Viscount caressed the head of his mallet and smirked.

“We’d like to take a barrel of apples, if you permit it, cousin.”

“Naturally, Clarence. You needn’t ask. Frederick and I may even come along. You’d like to visit the poor wouldn’t you, Frederick?”

“Who?”

“The poor!”

He made a face.

They went back to their horses. Sir Clarence leaned over his freshly oiled saddle and cautioned Harry not to go into the village with Louis. He went a step further and added that Harry should never be alone with his cousin, full stop.

“I don’t mean to speak out of turn but you know what he is. Why do you think he waited until your father passed before inviting you to join Bilsdale? You’re a devout young man but not even the best among us is immune to the charms of the devil. I’ve watched him turn husbands, fathers and heads of state into his concubines. There are rumors he bedded the Archbishop of Canterbury in the back of the abbey.”

Harry’s eyes widened in horror.

“Buggary is a felony in this country. If he weren’t a nobleman, he would get prison, the pillory or death. But he’s Duke, the law won’t touch him. You know how he became Duke, don’t you? You’ve heard the worst rumor of all?”

The umpire blew his whistle.

The other members of the purple team were Roy, who winked at Harry making him turn crimson, and Oscar, who was standing on the sidelines with his legs crossed. His ailment was acting up again. They were one man down.

Louis beckoned someone else from the sidelines to join them.

Lady Calder stepped forward. Everyone gasped.

Sir Clarence pursed his lips, his mustache forming a straight line. “You can’t possibly demean a woman in this fashion, cousin.”

“Demean her? She’s a stronger rider than you, Clarence. You’d be lucky to have her on your team.” Louis and Lady Calder exchanged a knowing look. “Good luck, my lady.”

“I don’t need it, your grace.”

She disappeared into the house and changed into a back tailcoat and breeches, and donned the purple armband. She had a slim physique and with her hair tucked into a cap, she looked like a boy in man’s dress.

She was playing an offensive position and Harry defense. She trotted over to him on her mare. He was expecting a formal greeting and pleasantries but she immediately launched into a plan of attack: “Louis rides high in the saddle. Adopt a clean half-seat. Lean forward and sink down into your knees, chest in front of the pelvis. He’s left-handed, and the game is played with the right. He will get Frederick to take the shot. Keep between them.”

Harry nodded and tried to memorize her instructions.

It was a sport that placed style above strength and speed. They were supposed to ride their horses at a canter and hold the mallet with a light grip, swinging it like a brick on piece of string.

However, none of them had mastered this technique.

Instead of using the momentum of the swing to strike the ball, Roy whacked it like he was trying to bludgeon it to death. Because he was left-handed, Louis miscalculated and tore up mounds of grass with each shot. Frederick had excellent form but no strategy. Even Clarence struggled with the rotation of his shoulder on the plane shot. And poor Bertie kept trying to eat the ball.

Only Lady Calder and Harry worked consistently to get the ball to the goal posts. The score was 3-0. Harry might have found his niche!

The red team had a huddle.

They changed formation. Louis couldn’t depend on his pendulum, so he covered Frederick instead. Their horses were nearly touching and Harry could not come between them.

Frederick scored.

The two men cheered and clicked their mallets together. “Jolly good shot!”

The next round they used the same formation. Frederick made a fanciful swing and scored again. This time Louis leaned over, and when no one was watching, stole a kiss.

Harry felt that familiar ache in his chest, the one from the night of the dance when he watched Louis kiss Frederick and Roy outside his bedchamber.

The red team used the same formation again, and again, until the match was tied. The wooden scoreboard read 3-3.

Lord Beardsley hit the ball center left and Frederick dashed after it, Louis beside him, practically joined at the hip.

Frederick was about to take his shot. Harry cut in front of him and instead of hitting the ball, struck Frederick’s shin with his mallet.

He yelped.

“Careful, Surgeon!” Roy called, “the Viscount’s bones are brittle as glass!”

“Shut up, you ogre!” Frederick yelled, leaning over in pain.

Louis immediately tended to his injured friend.

Harry’s hands tightened on the reins. His heart rate increased and so did that of Achilles who stepped anxiously from one hoof to the other.

Lady Calder passed him the ball but he wasn’t paying attention. The next thing he knew, Roy and his thoroughbred were hurtling down the field like a freight train. He whacked the ball so hard, it flew off the field and toward the house, crashing through a second story window.

Achilles’ ears pricked.

He bucked and threw Harry off his back.

Harry’s head hit the ground and the world went black.

***

He awoke in what appeared to be a tiny rectangular room. The walls were opaque and the ground more yielding than grass.

“Am I dead?” he whispered.

There was a crunching sound beside him. “I suspect not.”

His eyes slowly adjusted. It was Louis. He was eating an apple.

These weren’t walls around him they were curtains.

This wasn’t a room but a four-poster bed.

Louis’ bed.

He rushed to get up but was seized by a splitting pain in his head. Only days into his stay and he was trapped in a sodomite’s bed. His mother was right, he never should have left home. This place wasn’t safe for him.

“Don’t overexert yourself,” Louis instructed. “You need to rest your head.”

“What am I doing here?”

“You fell off your horse. I carried you to bed.”

“This is not my bed!”

“Mine was nearer.”

Louis was turning something over in his hand. Harry felt that his boots had been removed and his cravat untied. His neck lay bare and exposed. He groped the sheets until he found the silk fabric and tied it hastily around his neck.

“Stop it, you’re strangling yourself!”

“I can’t be here. I can’t be here like this. Where are my boots?”

“They’re in the servant’s hall being polished.” Then he held up the object in his hand. “I found this inside.”

It was a gold coin. “It’s for luck. I keep it in my boot when I ride because it falls out of my pocket.”

Louis didn’t hand it back but weaved it between his fingers like he was about to perform a magic trick.

Harry tried to sit up and snatch it back but was bound to the bed by pain. “Does my valet, Charles, know I’m here? Does Sir Clarence?”

Louis smiled wickedly to himself. “Yes, and they’re absolutely livid! There’s nothing they can do. I’m Duke, master of the house, and you’re my guest.”

“You mean your prisoner,” Harry said.

“You sound like your valet. He’s writing to your mother as we speak to tell her how beastly I am.” He placed his apple core on the sideboard and licked its juices off his fingertips.

“I demand to see a doctor!”

“A doctor’s been in. He prescribed rest.” Louis fluffed Harry’s pillow and lay beside him, propped up on one elbow. “I would have given you a nurse but all six are tending to Frederick. Oh, his leg is perfectly fine. He’s quite dramatic. He even has Roy stationed outside his room like a dog!” Louis leaned over. “You don’t need a nurse. I’ll look after you.”

Harry pulled the blanket up under his chin so that not an inch of his body was visible.

Louis noted his modesty with amusement. “So, pray tell, what gossip has Clarence repeated about me?”

“That you’re depraved.”

“This fact you knew already.”

Harry fiddled awkwardly with the lace corner of the bed sheet.

“What else?”

He seemed to be searching for something specific but Harry didn’t know what and, under his breath, he relayed the most scandalous bit: “That you bedded the Archbishop of Canterbury in the back of the abbey.”

Louis rolled onto his stomach and howled with laughter. Harry had to laugh too. It sounded preposterous.

“It isn’t true?”

“The Archbishop WISHES it was true.” Louis examined his nails, “No, he’s not the sort I like. This might surprise you, but we sodomites can be quite particular.”

Harry was not used to low talk. He’d never heard someone speak so frankly on the subject of fornication.

“I like young men, with dark hair and—”

“Frederick has light hair,” Harry interjected then quickly flushed.

Louis arched an eyebrow. “So he does.” He pulled out the coin again and changed the subject as not to embarrass Harry further. “Why do you like this one?”

“It’s a Byzantine solidus of Justinian II. He was the last Emperor of the Heraclian Dynasty. The end of his line, like me. He wasn’t as successful as his father Constantine IV, but he was the first emperor to put the bust of Christ on the obverse. His own portrait on the reverse. See.”

Louis flipped between the two. Emperor and Christ.

“Two very different sides,” he mused, examining the coin through a veil of long lashes.

“All coins have two sides.”

“As do all men.”

Harry didn’t know if he was referring to himself or someone else or speaking more generally but watching Louis closely examine a coin in his collection made him self-conscious.

He took the coin from Louis’ hand. “My collection is the second most valuable in the country and the fifth most valuable in the world but I know it must seem a small, trivial hobby to someone like you.”

Louis’ expression softened. “My eldest brother collected stamps.”

“Really?”

“He was obsessed with the Penny Black.”

“I adore that stamp! I have a mint. It’s divine.”

He laughed. “You remind me so much of him. He also liked books and music.”

Harry felt himself relax. He loosed the blankets around his shoulders and faced Louis, leaning congenially on his elbow in a similar fashion to the duke.

“I thought all your brothers were like you.”

“Edward and George were, but not James. He was ill and it frightened the gentry and layfolk so he spent most of his life at home.”

It sounded like a mirror image of Harry’s own life. Harry was kept indoors fearing the world outside, while James stayed indoors because that same world feared him.

“When I was seven I stole his large print block of plate 11 to write General Garnet Wolseley in India, ordering our infantry to invade the North-West Frontier.”

“Oh, you were a terror!”

“I was,” he admitted, folding his arms behind his head. “But James wasn’t cross. He said he admired my pluck… He was my best friend.”

For a brief moment Harry felt sympathy and then he remembered his own misspent childhood and his mood darkened. “I didn’t have any friends. Not a single one my entire life. All I had was my mare… and you stole her from me.”

Louis sat up. “Is that really what you think happened?”

“That is what happened.”

“You mean after all this time you still don’t realize?”

“Realize what?”

“Harry, I wasn’t stealing your mare, I was giving you my stallion.”

He was confused.

Louis continued. “You were affectionate with me in the stable. I was fond of you. I wanted you to have something of mine to remember me by and I something of yours.”

“But—but I cried! I told you Bertie was my friend! I begged you not to take her!”

“Albertine is the horse you want but Achilles is the horse you need.” He swept a dark curl off Harry’s brow. “Your heart doesn’t know it yet but it will.”

Just then there was a frantic knock at the door. Night had fallen and Charles demanded that Harry be escorted back to his bedchamber at once.

“Shall I let him take you?” Louis whispered.

Harry thought for a moment. “No,” he said, and repeating Louis’ sentiment from earlier: “I’m duke, same as you, I don’t take orders from my valet.”

“Masters of our houses!” Louis cheered, jumping up and down on the bed, before collapsing beside him like a marionette.

They were lying side by side in the candlelight. Louis’ hair was tousled and his eyes bright and mischievous. Harry often forgot that they were the same age, but when he was being silly like this it reminded him. He had the sudden urge to throw his arms around Louis’ neck and kiss his cheek like he did the first time they met at Somerset. But what would his friend Sir Clarence say? He decided he would not tell him. It would be between him and Louis. His secret friend. True, Louis was a sodomite who stole his mare, but Christ forgave even Judas.

Louis misread his expression and got up before Harry could deliver his well-planned embrace. He drew back the curtains to his four-poster bed and sat in the armchair in the corner.

“I’ll sleep here,” he said, unbuttoning his waistcoat. “Wake me if you need anything.”

He nestled his head against the wing of armchair and crossed one shapely leg over the other. Louis wore his breeches very tight Harry noted, very tight indeed.

“Goodnight, Duke of Somerset.”

“Goodnight, Duke of Warwick.”

Outside, the sky was swirling black and starless. A storm was passing overhead. In the distance the hounds howled. He had not yet visited the kennel but could hear their howls in every part of the house, at all hours, day and night, reminding him why he was there: the hunt.

Louis shut his eyes and Harry peeked at him from beneath the covers.

“If you didn’t bed the Archbishop then what is the terrible rumor about you?”

Louis yawned. “That I’m a murderer.”

Chapter Text

At dawn, Charles led Harry out of Louis’ bedchamber by the scruff of his neck. He may have been Harry’s servant but he was also a proxy of the Duchess, charged with protecting her son at all costs.

Back in Harry’s bedchamber Charles undressed him angrily while the boy recounted his adventures.

“I fell off my horse!”

“I nearly died!”

“I slept in my riding attire!”

His valet fetched a hot towel from the basin and dragged it over his face. “You’re a frightful sight. I scarcely know what to do with you.” He leaned in and sniffed. “Is that brandy I smell?”

“The Duke gave me a thimbleful for the pain.”

Charles threw down the towel. “This house is bacchanalian!”

He picked up the silver-toothed comb and began combing and arranging Harry’s dark curls, restoring them to their natural luster, while Harry chomped wolfishly on his breakfast and slurped his tea.

“There’s a rumor that the Duke’s a murderer. Can you believe it?”

Charles pursed his lips and pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. “You shouldn’t gossip, your grace. And yes, I can.”

Harry smiled. “Charles, you’ve a wicked tongue!”

After much needling, Charles recounted night of the fire as told to him by a scullery maid, who’d heard it from a parlor maid, who’d heard it from a footman, who’d eavesdropped on the valet Theodore telling the butler in the servant’s hall.

The facts were these:

1. The fire occurred at midnight on the East wing of Warwick House.
2. It was the eighteenth birthday of Louis’ eldest brother, James.
3. Every member of the family was asleep in their bed.
4. Except one.
5. Louis was nowhere to be found.

Harry thought the details curious but they were far from an indictment. Louis loved his family, his brother James in particular. Harry was sure there was a perfectly reasonable explanation why Louis was not in his bedchamber that night. Moreover, Harry didn’t believe the rumor because his innocent mind simply couldn’t conceive of such evil.

Fully dressed with the blush of health on his cheeks, Harry made his way to the library with an armful of books. The day’s sporting event was canceled due to inclement weather. It hadn’t begun to rain but the clouds were black and grey as though etched with charcoal.

He had the Latin poems of Ennius to amuse himself on such an occasion. He planned to work on a light translation of The Hedyphagetica in the morning before moving onto to The Epicharmus after lunch.

He spotted Sir Clarence in the rotunda. He had circles deep as wells beneath his eyes and was puffing on his pipe, examining an oil painting of a hound.

Harry waved, teetering under his stack of books. Sir Clarence nodded but did not wave back. Harry approached, the heels of his boots unsteady on the plush Oriental rug.

“Good morning.” When his friend didn’t respond, Harry added, “is something wrong?”

“You shared my cousin’s bed last night.”

Harry was dumbfounded. “Nothing of the sort. I mean, yes I was in his bed but—”

“The men say he defiled you.”

Harry dropped his books. “That is not true!”

Gossip was not so amusing when one was the subject, Harry realized.

Sir Clarence bit down on his pipe and put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I know you wouldn’t do it by choice. Tell me, did he force himself on you?”

“No—no. He slept in the armchair.”

“But he tried.”

Harry touched his neck. “He untied my cravat—”

“I knew it. Shameless sodomite,” he muttered through a cloud of smoke. “You’re lucky you came out unscathed.”

Sir Clarence picked up Harry’s books and carried them for him.

Lord Beardsley and Oscar passed them on the way to the drawing room. They looked him up and down and whispered conspiratorially. Harry felt the eyes of the whole world upon him and his face burned with shame.

The storm began with a clap of thunder that made the hounds howl and paintings tremble on their hooks. A chorus of heavy rain followed, loud but not loud enough to drown out the whispers.

Roy and Frederick were gossiping tête-à-tête in the corridor. Across from the library was the dining room where men were coming and going from a raucous, smoke-filled breakfast of black pudding, sheep’s kidneys, poached eggs and marmalade.

Harry’s stomach churned.

He and Sir Clarence sat at a large cherrywood partners desk with a green leather top and lined up the books, fountain pens and stationary before them. Harry got to work immediately, carefully converting Latin grammatical constructions without distorting the text’s meaning—difficult work—but no matter how hard he tried to concentrate on the passage, all he could hear were the men’s voices and he was certain they were talking about him.

Louis suddenly appeared in the doorway. He was wearing his riding breeches and boots flecked with grass. His white shirt was completely soaked and clung to his sinewy arms and chest. He had come from the stables.

“Ah, Harry, just the person I’ve been meaning to see,” he said out of breath, dripping all over the fine rug. “Excuse my attire. I was comforting Albertine. She’s afraid of thunder as I’m sure you know.”

Harry swallowed, scarcely able to look up from his book.

“Now that I’ve nursed you back to health I was wondering if you would finally agree to have tea with me,” he asked, slicking back his wet hair with a confident smile.

Harry glanced at Sir Clarence, then back at Louis. “I’d rather not.”

“Why?”

“I’m frightfully busy with this translation of The Hedyphagetica.”

“You have all day to translate the whatever-ica. With whom will I discuss stamps?” he teased.

“I told you, I can’t.”

Louis looked puzzled. “Are you quite alright, Harry?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re pale.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Perhaps you haven’t recovered after all.” He reached out and pressed a cool hand to Harry’s forehead.

Harry slapped his hand away. “I’M NOT A SODOMITE.”

Pain flickered across Louis’ face like he’d met the end of a whip.

All chatter in the house ceased. Every man in the dining room craned his neck to gawk at the scene. Frederick and Roy who were never short on clever barbs were dead silent.

The light in Louis’ blue eyes was extinguished. He addressed Harry in the acid tone usually reserved for his cousin.

“Very well then. Good day, Duke.”

Harry scrambled to take it all back, his words like unspooled thread in a tangle before him.

“Louis, wait! I did not mean—”

But he was already stomping down the hall, a young dark-haired footman chasing after him. “Your grace! Your grace! Are you alright?”

“Come, William.”

***

The storm was unrelenting. Fast winds and buckets of rain beat down on the house, tearing the shutters off their hinges. It went on all afternoon. The sky was so dark Harry hadn’t realized the day had turned to night.

Sir Clarence was an ideal studying companion. He brought casework from London and reread the tax code for pleasure. He could read an entire book without blinking. Harry on the other hand curled around his book like a cat, chewing his lip and absentmindedly twirling his hair—until Sir Clarence cleared his throat and he sat up straight.

They took their dinner privately at Sir Clarence’s suggestion.

On the other side of the wall, in the parlor room, he could hear the laughter of Louis and his friends playing cards. Harry would stop occasionally and try to make out their conversation.

Sir Clarence plucked two more books from the shelf, their embossed titles glowing like molten gold in the firelight. He stopped and spoke. “You shouldn’t feel guilty about upsetting my cousin. If you knew what he’s done, you would feel nothing but loathing.”

“I know about the rumor.”

“You don’t believe it?”

“It’s curious but none of the facts incriminate him.”

“Facts demand to be examined.” He sat across from Harry and lowered his voice. “I shouldn’t be speaking this aloud but I trust you: I’ve been building a case against my cousin in secret.”

Harry tugged at his collar. “A murder case?”

“I could use a keen mind like yours to help me.”

The men on the other side of the wall laughed again. Harry did not want to refuse Sir Clarence but he did not believe Louis capable of such a crime, and especially not when he was just a boy.

He quickly made some excuse.

“I just remembered that I forgot a book in my bedchamber. Let me fetch it and later we can discuss your case.”

Harry dashed up the grand staircase to his bedchamber but he did not grab a book. He grabbed his money purse, which contained all of the funds for the journey home and crept downstairs to the parlor room.

Like Sir Clarence, Harry’s father had disapproved of gambling. He said it was a disease of the mind and like bodily diseases, should be stamped out. But Harry did not travel all the way to Warwick House to play the obedient son; he was there for adventure, and wherever Louis went excitement seemed to follow.

He stood outside the parlor room door and took a breath. As he turned the brass knob he was hit by a cloud of smoke—not the smoke from a pipe, but the sweeter scent of French cigarettes.

As the smoky air thinned he saw Frederick, Roy and several footmen.

They were all sitting at the cards table.

And they were all stark naked.

Harry had never seen a naked person besides himself, and even then he thought it prudent to avert his eyes.

The footmen were the only ones to display any modesty. They covered up as best they could with their arms and hands. One ran behind a curtain.

“We’re sorry, your grace.”

“Forgive us, your grace.”

Harry froze. “It’s my mistake, I thought you were playing cards.”

Then Louis appeared through the haze at the far end of the table. He was fully dressed. “We are.”

“Oh, um…” Shakily, Harry held out his money purse. “I’ve got money.”

Roy, who was wearing nothing but one boot, laughed his voice hoarse from the whiskey. “Does it look like we’re playing for money?”

“No, I suppose not.”

Frederick slinked around the table, gesticulating with the cigarette between his fingers. “This game is by invitation only, Virgin. Go back to the library with your dull companion Sir Clarence.”

Virgin. The most accurate nickname was somehow the most hurtful.

Louis steepled his hands beneath his chin. “Now, now Frederick. Let’s not be too hasty. How much money did you bring, Duke?”

Harry swallowed. “One hundred and fifty-three pounds, seven shillings, and six pence.”

Louis turned to his dark-haired footman. “Deal him in.”

Harry sat down at the felt table, careful not to touch anything or anyone. William dealt him a hand.

He wiped the cards with his handkerchief.

It was only Harry and Louis playing. The others either had no interest or no means. Harry tried to be as unassuming as possible, but a Catholic in his mourning attire surrounded by a group of naked sodomites was bound to stand out. It certainly didn’t help that every word out Frederick’s mouth was another poison dart.

“Can you even play poker?”

“I’ve played Old Maid with my governess.”

“Do you hear that gentlemen, he’s played Old Maid with his governess!”

The naked Viscount smoothed a hand over the back of Harry’s chair, his member near enough to touch. Harry tensed.

“Don’t worry, Duke,” Frederick purred. “We know you’re not a sodomite. The whole house heard you this morning.”

“The whole village heard him.” Roy stood and kissed the top of Louis’ head protectively.

Harry didn’t mean to stare but he was staring.

Frederick arched an eyebrow. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” he quipped.

There was a nervous chuckle from the footmen, who didn’t want to insult the Duke by laughing nor the Viscount by staying silent.

The room was bathed in amber light from the candelabra on the piano and a beaded chandelier that hung above them like drops of honey. The men’s naked flesh appeared rich as cream as they leaned over the table and watched him.

Harry hid shyly behind his cards.

He won the first couple hands and was feeling confident. He called Louis’ ten pounds and raised him ten more. Louis blindsided him with a straight.

During the next hand, Louis’ blue eyes betrayed a similar excitement, so Harry folded, only to be shown Louis’ cards. He had nothing. He was bluffing.

Their dance continued. Louis would set up a trap of false confidence then pull the rug out from under him.

Harry realized just how easy it was for Louis to deceive, how good he was at it, as though it were second nature. Harry could not read him at all.

He was down to the end of his purse. If he lost, he would have to write his mother and explain that he had gambled away all his travel money and send for more.

Frederick sat on Louis’ lap, his naked arms draped around the Duke’s neck like a mink stole. “Finish him, Louis.”

Louis moved two hundred pounds to the center of the table. Harry would have to go all-in to call.

He had a decent hand, two pairs—jacks and queens. He narrowed his eyes at Louis across the table. He thought he saw a twinge of displeasure at the sight of his cards. Was it a bluff? No, he reasoned, the pained expression was too close to the one Harry had witnessed earlier when he insulted the Duke.

Harry called, and almost instantly regretted it, for that twinge of displeasure on Louis’ face transformed into one of pure glee.

Before they showed each other their cards, Louis held up his hand. “Wait. This isn’t all of his money. The Duke is deceiving us.”

Harry had never told a lie in his entire life. “This is everything I have!” he cried, horrified by the accusation.

Louis motioned to Roy. “Check his pockets.”

The naked Earl leaned over and groped inside Harry’s waistcoat. He’d never been violated in such a fashion.

Roy held up a coin. “What have we here?”

It was Harry’s Byzantine solidus with the bust of Christ and Justinian II.

“That’s an artifact, part of an invaluable collection!”

“It’s also money.” Roy flipped the coin into the pot.

Louis fanned his cards on the felt table and just as Harry feared he had a royal flush. Hearts. Harry lay bare his own inferior hand of pairs.

Frederick clapped and Louis hugged his pile of winnings, Harry’s Byzantine coin the cherry on top.

William shuffled the deck, beaming proudly at his master. The other men threw back their spirits, eyes wandering over each other’s bodies, waiting anxiously for the night’s debauchery to resume.

Harry stood, chin quivering. “Well, Duke, you’ve vanquished me.” He addressed the rest of the table. “Goodnight gentlemen.”

Louis struck a match and lit the cigarette dangling from Frederick’s lips. “Wait, Harry, you’re only out of money. You still have your clothes.”

Louis had slapped one cheek by taking his coin and now the other with this lewd invitation.

He walked out.

“Sleep well, Virgin!” Frederick called.

His heart hammered harder than the thunder that shook the house to its foundation. Once again, he had completely underestimated Louis and the depth of his cruelty. No kindness Louis showed Harry could be trusted.

Instead of going back to his bedchamber he went to the library, where Sir Clarence was sitting exactly as he’d left him.

“When do we start?”

He looked up from his book.

“I want to help you build your case.”

Sir Clarence’s mustache drew up at the corners into a victorious smile. “Meet me back here in the library at dawn.”

Harry nodded and went upstairs to retire for the night, still furious but full of resolve. He had not thought Louis capable of something as evil as murder but now he believed the Duke capable of almost anything.

He could hear the men, wild as dogs, in the parlor room below and could only imagine what Louis was doing.

He did not have to imagine. Louis wasn’t in the parlor room, he was standing outside Harry’s bedchamber flipping his Byzantine gold coin in the air and catching it.

“Heads or heads?” he said with a grin.

“I hate you.”

He had lost his waistcoat and Harry wondered with irritation which of the men won that hand.

“I’d like to give you a chance to win your coin back.”

“Why? So you can give me another lashing?”

“You deserved it.”

The two men were silent for a moment.

“Come with me into the forest,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

Harry glanced outside. The sky was black but for a bolt of lightning.

“It’s the middle of the night and pouring rain!”

“Are you afraid?”

“No.”

He was terrified.

Chapter Text

They tied their cloaks around their shoulders and reached for their walking sticks—both with horse head handles, Harry’s in silver, Louis’ in gold.

The rain was heavy enough to drown in.

Harry shielded his face, doing everything he could to protect himself from the downpour, while Louis forged ahead unperturbed. He swept into the forest as though in collusion with the wind and part storm himself.

The grass was slick beneath their boots as they traversed the garden. Two bent trees formed an opening to the woods like a hellmouth. Harry sank into the mud, the soaking earth threatening to swallow him whole with each step.

What was he thinking following a possible murderer into the forest in the middle of the night? Not a soul knew they were out there. Louis could kill him and be in bed before breakfast without anyone being the wiser.

“Where are we going?” Harry asked, wet branches clawing at his cloak like the fingernails of a witch.

Louis hopped over a log. “My father always said ‘if you want to catch a fox, you have to think like one.’”

“My father always said, ‘stay out of the rain, you’ll die of pneumonia.’”

They went deeper and deeper into the woods. There was no pathway and even if there were one, it would be imperceptible in the dark. Louis didn’t appear to be following landmarks either. He knew the place intuitively, the way one navigates a dreamscape.

The deeper they walked into the woods, the heavier the foliage, until in blotted out the night sky completely. Harry could only make out vague shapes and shadows. When they reached what felt like the deepest, darkest part of the forest, Louis stopped.

There was nothing there.

He’s going to kill me, Harry thought. The Duke of Warwick is mad as a hatter and means to butcher me tonight.

Louis kneeled down and swept away a pile of leaves to reveal a mound of earth with an opening on the side.

Harry crouched down beside him and swallowed. “A grave?”

“No,” he laughed, “a fox den.” He then proceeded to crawl inside. “Come on.”

“Goodness gracious, I’ll soil my breeches!”

Louis grabbed his hand and pulled him in.

It may not have been a grave but the space was no wider than a coffin. They had to cram together cheek to cheek in order to fit.

Louis lit a match.

As his eyes adjusted, Harry realized that this was not an ordinary fox den. There were trinkets, toys, and maps of the colonies lining the mud walls. Louis’ flame met a small candle in a tarnished brass holder bubbled over with dried wax. He rested it by their heads.

“This place was much more spacious when I was a child.”

“You did this?”

He nodded. “It was my second bedchamber growing up.”

“My parents would never let me sleep outside.”

“Neither would mine.”

“You disobeyed them?”

“Naturally.”

Harry’s eyes widened.

“Every night after Teddy tucked me into bed, I would sneak out to the woods and sleep in my fox den.”

Harry finally understood why Louis brought him here. “This is where you were the night of the fire.”

He smiled.

Harry reached out and touched his keepsakes: a broken zoetrope, marbles, a spinning top, a deck of dusty playing cards and rows upon rows of toy soldiers standing perpetually at attention.

Louis placed a hand on Harry’s waist. “What? I have nowhere else to put it,” he said innocently.

Harry examined a set of stamps. There was a Penny Black and a mint block of perforated Penny Reds.

“This is all that’s left of my brother’s collection. The rest burned in the fire.”

In the corner of the den was a stack of periodicals. Harry recognized them instantly for he had read the exact same ones. “Bulletin de l’Académie Imperiale de Médecine,” he gasped, pointing at Vol. 8, which rested on top. “You read French medical journals?”

Louis’ voice became distant, the flickering candle flame reflected in his glassy eyes as he spoke. “My brother had the best doctors in England but none could diagnose him. I thought if I kept up with the latest advancements in medicine from the continent I would be able to help him somehow. It was all for naught. In the end illness didn’t take him, the fire did.”

The candle was suddenly blown out by a gust of wind.

They lay there in complete darkness. Harry felt the Duke’s warm breath on his cheek. It traveled up his neck to his ear.

“We better get back,” he whispered.

“Yes.”

Harry crawled out first. His breeches were wet and caked with mud. The storm had somehow worsened and rainy winds slapped him up against a tree.

They advanced toward the house. Harry’s cloak was soaked through and chilled him to the bone. Another gust of wind beat them back and the bough of a tree snapped in half nearly crushing them. Even Louis was concerned now. He broke into a run. Harry tried to run with him but he was too cold, his wet clothes tethering him to the ground like an anchor. He tripped and fell.

Louis ran back for him. He wiped the rain from his brow and extended his hand. “Get up!”

“I can’t!” Harry yelled over the sound of the thunder.

“Yes you can!”

He clasped Louis’ hand and pulled himself up. They linked arms and cut through the sheet of rain together. Louis shielded Harry with his cloak.

The door to the house opened with a groan, and the wind nearly took it off the hinges. They pushed it shut.

Harry collapsed onto the floor.

“Shall I fetch your valet,” Louis breathed.

“No! Charles would kill me if he knew I went outside tonight.”

“The drawing room then,” Louis said, untying his cloak.

Harry wheezed with shortness of breath. He felt sickness creeping into his chest. This was quite easily the worst night of his life. Why did he not listen to his father’s wisdom? He was raised not to gamble and he gambled and lost all his money and his lucky coin. He was raised not to go out in the rain and now here he was dying of pneumonia!

In the drawing room, Louis kneeled by the breche violette fireplace. An equestrian motif was carved into the swirling marble and a gold gilt mantel clock was perched on top. He rolled up some paper for kindling.

“Shouldn’t we ring for a parlor maid?”

“I know how to start a fire,” Louis said, then laughed at the implication of his own words. “You know what I mean.”

The flames licked the kindling and wood, popping and crackling as they grew taller.

Louis peeled off his shirt. His coltish body appeared softer in the firelight, the curve of his back like a swatch of satin. He had a line of downy blonde hair that dipped just below his navel.

He caught Harry looking.

“You should take off your shirt too,” he said, “you’ll catch a cold in that sopping wet clothes.”

Harry scowled and inched closer to the fire. “I won’t sacrifice my modesty, least of all in the presence of someone like you.”

Louis’ naked chest and arms already glowed with warmth and his breeches were nearly dry. “Suit yourself, Duke,” he said and wandered over to the bureau to fetch a cigarette.

Harry sat on the floor in his wet clothes like a stack of soggy newsprint.

With his monogrammed lighter in one hand, Louis rifled through the clutter on his desk to retrieve his cigarette case.

“Who are all those letters from?” Harry asked, pointing to the piles of unopened correspondence.

He lit a cigarette and fell into the wingchair, crossing one leg over the other and coquettishly rolling his ankle. “A fling I had in Moscow.”

Harry hugged his knees unsure what to say. He’d never been to Moscow and he’d certainly never had a fling.

Louis tapped his cigarette into the iron floor-standing ashtray by his side. “He’s a composer. His name’s Pyotr.”

Harry lifted his head. “Tchaikovsky?”

“You know him?”

“Of course! Or rather, I know of him. I play his concertante pieces. What’s he like?”

“Handsome. A decent kisser,” Louis mused, exhaling up at the mural on the ceiling, “and clingy.”

“That’s not what I—”

“He’s in love with me, I’m afraid. He won’t stop writing. His English is horrid but he says he can’t live without me. He’s so miserable he began composing a ballet about a dead swan! God almighty, I didn’t even bed him! We did everything but.”

Harry nodded like he understood what “everything but” entailed. He had no idea. Was it kissing? Hugging? Holding hands perhaps? How many acts could there be? he wondered. It was an embarrassing question to ask but he was curious. He fidgeted with the buckle on his boot. “When you say ‘everything but’ what sorts of things do you mean exactly?”

Louis pressed his pale lips together, trying very hard not to smile. “Duke, I would never utter such vile things in your presence. We wouldn’t want you to sacrifice your modesty now would we?”

Having his own words thrown back in his face made his curiosity that much more humiliating. Harry hugged his knees tighter. “Just wanted an example is all.” He felt his ears turn pink. They were the only part of him that was warm.

“Cigarette?” Louis offered. He controlled the ebb and flow of their conversation, extending his kindness and then taking it away as soon as Harry reached for it.

Two could play at that game.

“No, I don’t smoke, and when I do it will be from a pipe like my father and Sir Clarence. Cigarettes are for women and deviants.”

Louis laughed. “Try it.” He cupped his mouth pretending to whisper. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Harry knew he should not smoke with an impending pneumonia, but surely one puff wouldn’t hurt?

As he reached out to take the cigarette from Louis’ hand, the Duke pressed it to his lips so that Harry unwittingly kissed his fingertips. His heart skipped at the intimate gesture. He wasn’t prepared for it. He flushed, quickly closing his eyes, and inhaled deeply. Smoke filled his lungs, heat expanding inside him, his head swimming from the rich tobacco.

He coughed and Louis pulled away.

“It’s good,” Harry hacked into his sleeve.

“Really?” Louis grinned.

“Can I have another, um, puff?” he choked, eyes watering.

The mantel clock chimed.

“You’ve had enough for one night. We should retire.” He crushed the cigarette into the ashtray. “Teddy will have a conniption if tomorrow’s event is delayed.”

Louis lit a candle on the bureau and led them out of the drawing room into the darkened corridor.

Harry scrambled to his feet, his clothes still wet and heavy on his narrow shoulders. “My coin. You said you’d give it back if I followed you into the forest.”

“I said you had to win it back.”

He chased Louis up the staircase. “In which game? When?”

Louis stopped outside his bedchamber and twirled a finger ‘round one of Harry’s damp curls. “Darling, we’re already playing.”

***

Harry woke the next morning with a runny nose. His muscles were weak and his breathing shallow. He was not quite sick but not well either. He couldn’t risk participating in the day’s sporting event.

He had to wear his mask.

Sir Clarence was waiting for him in the library, standing over a book with his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his waistcoat. He didn’t recognize Harry. His pipe dropped from his mouth.

“I apologize for the surgical mask. My respiratory system has been compromised.”

Harry did not reveal the details of his night with Louis. He had nothing to be ashamed of but he knew his friend would disapprove.

Sir Clarence flipped open a map of the region to show him something. In the light of day, Harry felt conflicted about helping him build a case against the Duke. He now had a new piece of information: Louis wasn’t in his bedchamber because he was asleep in his fox den. It seemed a more likely scenario than him murdering his entire family.

He was afraid someone might overhear them so Harry rose to shut the library doors. As he did, Frederick walked by, whistling the tune to Frère Jacques. He was carrying his rifle like a walking stick, his bronze mane in a bouffant atop his head like the plumage of a bird.

“Surgeon!” he screamed with a hand over his heart. “You scared the devil out of me. I hope you’re not planning to hunt in that ghastly accessory. You’ll spook the pheasants.”

“I won’t be joining the hunt,” Harry said drily.

“Performing surgery instead? Whom are you chopping up today?”

“You.”

Frederick delighted at the barb. “I’m beginning to understand what Louis sees in you, Duke!” He blew Harry a kiss and headed outside to join the others.

Sitting on either side of the cherrywood partners desk, Sir Clarence and Harry reviewed the facts of the case, many Harry had heard before and some that he had not.

“Did you know that the fire started in James’ bedchamber?”

Harry swallowed. “No.”

He flipped through a book on estate law and placed it beside the map. “What about the fact that it happened the night before his brother’s introduction to society?”

“James turned eighteen that day. What’s unusual about that?”

“James wasn’t supposed to turn eighteen. The doctors said he would die well before his sixteenth birthday.”

Sir Clarence pulled out a piece of onionskin paper and laid it overtop a map of Yorkshire. Then he drew a triangle that represented the Warwick land holdings. There were three. One by the sea that controlled access to the East Port, one in the West on top of a coal mine and one in the North, where they were now, over a rich forest. While no one ever spoke of it, it was understood that James would die and Louis would control one of the land holdings along with his two older brothers. The night they announced that James was well enough to inherit, someone set fire to his room.

“James was Louis’ best friend.”

“Oh, I’m sure Louis adored James when he thought he was a dead man!”

“Even if James inherited, Louis would still have wealth and a title.”

“Yes, but he would have no power, and that’s what Louis craves above all things. My cousin is a classist but he isn’t stupid. He knows that the future of this country belongs to industry, not the crown.”

Harry thought back to Louis’ story about writing the infantry in India when he was a child, the way he spoke politics with his father at Somerset, the time he advised Sir Clarence to exploit his title in parliament. He was the youngest president the Bilsdale club had ever known and wielded his position with aplomb. He did enjoy power.

“Now,” Sir Clarence continued, tapping the map pensively with his pipe, “do I think he meant to murder his whole family and take everything? I’m not sure. I think James was the primary target. Louis felt he was owed his death. The other deaths were most likely a happy accident.”

A series of gunshots rang outside. Harry looked out the window. Louis was pointing his rifle up at the sky. A dead pheasant spiraled out of the air and fell at his feet in a heap of mangled feathers and blood.

“There’s more.” Sir Clarence opened his satchel. Inside was a leather ledger. Very, very carefully he slid the contents out of their protective cover.

They were pieces of burned paper. “This was the catalyst of the fire. These papers were twisted together, doused in turpentine and placed beneath the curtains in James’ bedchamber.”

“How did they not burn?” Harry asked, examining the pages.

“These particular pieces slipped beneath the floorboards. Investigators missed them. I discovered them when I examined the room myself. I haven’t turned them over because it was clear from the start that the investigation was tainted. Louis must have paid off the magistrate.”

Harry examined the pages closely. They were torn from a periodical. Pages six to eleven of Vol. 8. He saw the title and gasped: Bulletin de l’Académie Imperiale de Médecine.

Sir Clarence examined his eyes. “What? Do you know something?”

“No,” Harry stammered. “I read the same journal, that’s all.”

Sir Clarence stroked his mustache. “I’ve searched his room and haven’t been able to tie Louis to these papers in any way. I was hoping the volume from which they were torn would still be in the house somewhere but he probably got rid of it.”

Harry remained silent. He didn’t know why but he couldn’t bring himself to reveal what he saw in the woods the night before. Not only could he tie Louis to the Bulletin de l’Académie Imperiale de Médecine, but to the exact volume that Sir Clarence was searching for.

His mask concealed the anguish on his face.

Chapter Text

Louis was disappointed to find Harry elusive after their night in the woods. The Duke said he had fallen ill, though Louis only heard him sniffle once. He spent all day in the library with Sir Clarence, refusing to hunt pheasant and join the men in the parlor room that evening for music and cards.

This put Louis in bad temper. And when Louis was in bad temper he drank. And drank. And drank.

He woke up the next morning with a bottle of brandy in his arms and Roy’s boot in his face. They had fallen asleep on the divan in the games room. He was reminded of their time at Eton when the prefects locked them out of the dormitory for missing curfew and they passed out in the courtyard under the school’s statue of Henry IV.

William was curled up on the floor beside him. Devoted as he was, the footman refused to leave his master’s side until his mood improved.

There was a clacking sound on the other side of the room that gave him a shattering headache.

“Enough with that infernal racket!”

It was Frederick and Lady Calder playing billiards.

“Good morning, your grace.” Eleanor swished over in a grey day dress and ruffled his hair.

“Morning! Woman, you know I don’t rise a minute before noon!”

Frederick held his cue stick over his shoulder. “We thought you might fancy a game.”

“What I fancy is tea with the Duke of Somerset. Where is he?”

The Viscount bent over the table and lined up his shot. “Where do you think? He’s gone to church with your dreadful cousin.”

“On a Wednesday? Whatever for?”

“It’s Thursday. And you know what Catholics are like. He’s probably flagellating himself before the cross.”

Louis groaned and swayed on his feet, his mind muddy as a swamp from the brandy. William was quick to catch him. He put an arm around the footman’s shoulder to steady himself.

“No one romanticizes human misery like the Catholics,” Frederick pontificated with his bony white finger in the air. “They’re spectacularly morbid.”

Eleanor tucked a loose strand of hair into her chignon and sank the red ball for three points.

“Dash it!” Frederick cursed.

Roy yawned with a growl and stretched his oversized limbs, making him big as a bear. “Shall I have a go at you next?”

He grabbed a cue stick, but the moment he attempted to play, Frederick flung himself on the billiards table, boyishly drawing up one knee, his brassy blonde tresses splayed out on the green felt.

“I’ll leave you boys to it,” said Lady Calder with a wry smile.

Eleanor had been Louis’ betrothed since birth. Their mothers made the match. The pair became fast friends as children and never objected to the arrangement. Eleanor was a puckish girl and the only playmate that could keep up with him. She understood and accepted Louis’ nature. Most men assumed women craved love but Louis knew that what women truly craved was freedom. A life with Louis meant that Eleanor would have security, wealth and position in society with none of the shackles that marriage imposed on a woman. She was free to indulge her hobbies, travel at her leisure and take as many lovers as she liked.

Louis grabbed hold of her wide pagoda sleeve. “Wait, I need a favor. Switch places with Harry at dinner this evening.”

She crossed her arms. “Are there not enough rumors about you? Must you continue to make a spectacle of yourself?”

“Please.”

“Lady Silcox will have my head! She’s besotted with the Duke. She’s been talking about the seating plan for days!”

“He won’t spend time with me otherwise!”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why are you so fixated on the Duke?”

“I fixate on all beautiful creatures,” he said, gesturing to billiards table where Frederick lay in a pose that demanded he be ravished at once.

“No,” she said. “This is different.”

She saw the crestfallen look of Louis’ face and conceded with a sigh. “Oh fine, but do behave yourself.”

He kissed her hand.

Lady Calder settled up with Frederick and left the games room, the folds of her dress rustling behind her.

The late morning sun rose over the trees in the forest and sliced through an opening in the velvet curtains. Louis paced the room with his hands behind his back, his hangover and the Duke of Somerset weighing on his mind like an anvil.

He collapsed on the divan and watched as Roy pinned Frederick’s pale wrists to the billiards table, untying the Viscount’s lace cravat with his teeth.

William got down on his knees and rested his head on his master’s lap. Louis stroked the footman’s dark hair, lost in thought.

“Your mood hasn’t improved, your grace?”

“No.”

William looked up shyly and began to unbutton Louis’ breeches. The Duke glanced down at the pretty boy with boredom. He had a lot on his mind and wasn’t feeling particularly amorous.

However, one lick and a confident stroke brought his member to life at once.

“Where did you learn to do that?” he gasped.

William blushed. “I asked the older footmen to show me how you like it, your grace. I’ve been practicing in order to please you.” He licked Louis again and tilted his head. “Does this please you?”

By God this chap was ambitious! Louis marveled. If he wasn’t rich it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

He leaned back and drew William’s face between his legs. “It pleases me.”

The footman slipped his lips over the Duke’s length administering pleasure with the same slavish devotion he showed his master in all daily tasks.

Louis moaned and locked eyes with Roy who was in a similar state of bliss with Frederick spread beneath him. They were rocking together on the billiards table with their shirts open and breeches around their ankles. Frederick’s pale chest flushed with lust as Roy gripped his hips and entered him with deep languid thrusts. The two looked so deliciously sinful Louis didn’t even care that they were wrecking his table!

The Duke arched his back and laced his fingers through the footman’s dark hair, prepared to flip him around and take much more than his mouth, when he felt a coin roll out of his pocket.

The gold Byzantine face of Christ stared back at him.

He paused.

William’s wide brown eyes gazed up at his master inquisitively.

Louis turned to Roy and Frederick. “Gentlemen, get dressed, we’re going to the village.”

***

Of all God’s creations, leaves were the only ones that looked most beautiful when they were dead.

The three men took a carriage to the village. Orange, red and golden leaves fell from above like confetti celebrating their arrival.

Louis pounded on the button-tufted leather interior with his walking stick. “Stop here,” he instructed the coachman.

The clip clop of horse hooves on the cobblestone streets came to an abrupt halt.

Frederick drew back the tasseled curtain and shielded his eyes from the high October sun. “He’s joking, right?” he whispered to Roy.

Outside the carriage stood Saint Edward King and Confessor Roman Catholic Church.

“We can’t go in there,” Roy said.

“I wasn’t planning to.”

Louis led them around the side of the limestone building. They edged their way along the wall, crushing the carefully planted primrose beneath their boots.

The windows were stained glass depicting the fourteen Stations of the Cross but they found a small chip in Veronica’s Veil.

Roy peered inside.

“Do you see him?”

The Earl removed his hat and inched closer. “Yes.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Praying.”

Frederick examined his nails. “You don’t say.”

Louis pushed Roy out of the way. Harry was in the first pew, kneeling with his hands pressed together and his head bowed. His dark hair curled around his small shell-shaped ear while his lips, pink as rosebuds, moved in silent recitation.

What beauty! What grace!

Harry was the picture of purity, though admittedly Louis’ thoughts were anything but.

Frederick shoved him aside and looked for himself as the priest performed the miracle of transubstantiation. “Ghastly faith! It’s like the living haunt the dead. They’re practically pagans!”

They began to sing. Louis peered inside. Harry’s pink lips formed a tiny “o” as he sang the Eucharist Adoration hymn. There were at least a hundred parishioners but he would recognize Harry’s sweet sanguine voice in a crowd of thousands. It sailed above like an arrow and pierced his heart.

Since Harry was a member of the gentry, he received communion separately while the rest of the congregation watched. They seemed as enchanted by the boy as Louis was, though Harry was completely unaware of his charm. He held his hat in his hands as he approached the altar. The priest lifted the host and the Duke opened his mouth to receive it.

Louis was staring so hard he accidentally hit his head against the glass.

After the Concluding rite, parishioners began to shuffle down the aisle to the door.

Louis, Frederick and Roy dashed back to the front of the church just as Harry was exiting, as if by chance.

He stood on the stone steps in deep conversation with Sir Clarence. They spotted Louis and stopped talking at once.

“Fancy running into you here!” Louis exclaimed, tipping his hat.

Harry tipped his hat in turn. “Good morning, Duke.”

Tightening his gloves, Sir Clarence remarked, “What brings you to the village, cousin, you know the opium dens aren’t open this early.”

“I have plenty of opium at home,” he quipped. “No, I’m here to greet the citizens of my land holdings,” he said, as Frederick smacked a peasant with his walking stick. “Where are you off to?”

Harry glanced at Sir Clarence before answering. “There’s a bazaar in the village square. Merchants from across Yorkshire have come to sell their goods.”

“How terrifically middle class! May we join you?”

It visibly pained Sir Clarence to acquiesce, but to say no would have been a scandal. Clarence was the eldest and dearest of his father’s nephews. After his own parents passed he became like a son to the Duke, spending his summers and Christmas at Warwick every year. As much as he loathed Louis, he respected his dead uncle’s memory more.

They walked down the cobblestone streets together, Harry in his mourning blacks and Louis in red, like two playing cards of different suits.

The shops were unevenly stacked on top of one another like broken piano keys and smoke curled from the chimneys of their slate shingle roofs.

The square was filled with people. A man played the accordion and there was a puppet show, mimes, and food vendors selling ginger beer and meat pies on every corner.

To Harry who had never left home, this was a world of wonders, to Frederick, the depths of hell.

“Shall I buy this for you, Frederick?” Roy was holding a violet scarf that flattered the Viscount’s coloring. “How much does it cost?” he asked the silk merchant.

“Egad!” Frederick cried. “Don’t ask the cost! That’s so vulgar.”

“How on Earth are we to buy goods without knowing the cost?”

“Let Sir Clarence handle such indelicacies. He’s a chancery lawyer. Being vulgar is his profession.”

Louis’ cousin frowned and spoke to the merchant on their behalf.

Harry was examining a set of bone china when the priest from Saint Edward’s approached.

He complimented him on the service.

The stout, aging priest tossed his head bashfully. “Aye, it was an honor to have you, your grace. Your father was always so good to us.”

“Sir Clarence told me he sponsored the church’s restoration.”

“Not only that! We used to house the ill and infirm in the church cellar. Your father founded the region’s first sanatorium: Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow.”

Frederick shot Louis a smirk.

“We at Somerset are nothing if not scrupulous about disease!” Harry said brightly. “Oh, I would love to visit, but I’m recovering from a brief respiratory malady myself.”

“That is most wise, your grace. Perhaps another time.”

“Yes, I’ll be sure to visit before I return to Somerset.”

While Sir Clarence discussed the church food drive with Father Michael, Louis followed Harry around the bazaar, peeking over his shoulder to see what goods interested him. He stopped at a booksellers stand for an awfully long time.

Louis glanced at Roy, who was draping the violet scarf he bought around the Viscount’s slender shoulders. Frederick admired his reflection in a shop window.

Perhaps I should buy something for Harry? Louis thought. He carded through the stacks until he spotted a beautifully bound book of hymns. He flipped through and saw that it contained the same hymn Harry sang earlier that morning. Louis slipped the merchant a few schillings and had the book wrapped with paper and string.

He carried the parcel beneath his arm until he met up with Harry again by the tea dealer.

“I bought you something.” He held out the package. “It’s a book of hymns. You sang the Pange Lingua Gloriosi with remarkable feeling this morning.”

“You heard me?”

“I would know your voice anywhere.”

Harry’s lily-white cheeks turned crimson. He reached out to take the parcel and their hands touched. For the briefest of moments, he could have sworn Harry let his hand linger. Was he attempting to… flirt?

But before Louis could suss him out, a voice hissed behind him.

Murderer.

And another.

Killer.

And more still.

It’s the monster of Warwick House!

Blood on his hands!

He spun around. A crowd had formed. Their taunts and jeers grew louder and louder.

Burned his family in their beds, he did!

This, he knew, was what everyone thought of him, but unlike the gentry, the lower classes lacked the veil of civility that concealed their suspicions.

Shame!

Shame!

The crowd was so large that he lost sight of Harry and the rest of his party. He had his back against a brick wall.

A cruddy-faced boy picked up a large rock and held it over his head when Roy suddenly broke through the mob.

He grabbed the lad by the collar. “Drop that rock or I’ll beat you to death with it.”

The boy blanched.

Roy wrapped an arm around Louis and guided him through the mob. “To the carriage! Quickly!”

Louis staggered beside him, looking over his shoulder at Harry who was holding the parcel against his chest.

***

In the privacy of his bedchamber, Louis splashed his face with cold water. Droplets hung from his lashes magnifying his blue eyes. He clutched the sides of the basin and stared at his reflection in the mirror.

Murderer.

Killer.

Shame.

Shame.

He was shaken but allowed Teddy to dress him for dinner. The world was against him but the only opinion that mattered to him in that moment was Harry’s. If Eleanor kept her word, they would sit together at dinner and he could redeem himself.

The men wore white tie and black tails, while the women donned a kaleidoscope of fall colors. Eleanor looked beautiful in a burgundy evening gown and Louis told her so as he held her chair.

Frederick sighed. “That’s why I’ll never find a wife, you know. What woman is prettier than I am?”

The ladies roared with laughter. Frederick’s vanity was second only to his wit.

Harry stared at his plate while speaking with Lady Silcox, who wore a pumpkin-colored frock and tight ringlets. She was a girl of fifteen, as hopeless at courtship as Harry. She didn’t know how to draw him out of his shyness and instead chattered at him incessantly about everything from the weather to her upbringing in Essex. She had yet to learn that it’s the words left unsaid that make the greatest impression on a man.

Louis nudged Eleanor’s elbow.

She cleared her throat. “My, is there a draft in here? I seem to be trapped in a cross breeze!”

“I’m hot,” said Roy cutting into his mutton.

Louis glared at him until the Earl caught on.

Eleanor turned to Harry. “Duke, would you mind terribly if we switched places?”

“Not at all.”

Lady Silcox gripped her oyster fork like she might draw blood.

Then, just as Eleanor and Harry rose from their seats, William stepped forward. “I brought your ladyship’s shawl from the drawing room. Now you needn’t switch places with the Duke.”

All eyes were on Eleanor.

She took the shawl and sat back down beside Louis.

What was William doing! Louis thought. Was he not privy to their conversation in the games room that morning?

To make matters worse, everyone had heard about Louis being mobbed in the village and could speak of nothing else.

“I don’t care what Rousseau said about men being born good!” Frederick declared over the tinkling of crystal and silverware. “The poor are inherently wicked!”

Naturally, this enraged Sir Clarence who launched into a dreary lecture on British socialism.

Louis sighed.

During the second course, he tried to carry a conversation with Eleanor and Lord Graves about the British timber trade but he was distracted, so she did most of the talking. Her ladyship was very knowledgeable on the subject. She had familiarized herself with all of the Warwick land holdings and business ventures.

Meanwhile, Harry was nodding along to Lady Silcox’s descriptions of her many corgis. When she inexpertly switched the subject to marriage Harry nearly choked on his cabbage.

Dessert was served and Harry quickly spooned the pudding into his mouth.

They were supposed to retire to the drawing room for coffee and tea but Harry excused himself. He said the village had tired him and went directly to his bedchamber.

Another day wasted, Louis thought to himself miserably.

He picked up a teacake from the tiered serving tray and stormed out of the drawing room. As he reached the door, he ran right into William.

“Your grace? Where are you going? Shall I come with you?”

“No, you shall not,” he said curtly. “I don’t wish to see you at all. What were you thinking fetching Lady Calder’s shawl at dinner?” he scolded. “You heard our conversation in the games room this morning! Did you not know that I wanted to sit beside the Duke?”

The footman’s wide brown eyes welled with tears. “I did.”

It was clear to Louis now that William wasn’t just an ambitious servant. He had formed an attachment to him.

“I hate myself for displeasing you, your grace.” He hung his head with shame. “Please don’t be cross with me. I can’t bear it!”

Louis’s voice softened. “It’s fine, William, really,” he said patting the boy’s shoulder. “I’m going to the stables. Finish your work. We’ll discuss this in the morning.”

He nodded with a sniff.

Louis took the path through the gardens. It was dusk, the sky as orange as the rusting azaleas that had not yet wilted.

He unlatched the creaky stable door. The groom was done for the evening. Louis was completely alone with the horses. Albertine was down on the end. She poked her snowy head over the stall door.

He scratched behind her ear and she batted her black eyes contentedly. Her large pink nostrils flared as she sniffed his waistcoat.

“Yes, yes, I’ve brought you your treat.” He dug into his pocket and unfolded the napkin to reveal the piece of vanilla layer cake he’d nicked from the drawing room. The mare nearly knocked him over as she gobbled it up. He laughed.

Then his eye caught the shape of someone moving outside.

Far in the distance he spotted the tails of a black dinner jacket.

Harry was walking into the forest alone. What was he doing in the woods at this hour?

Louis lifted Albertine’s heavy saddle off a hook on the stable wall and placed it over her back, bending down to fasten the straps beneath her. He slipped her bridle on over her white face. She bowed her head, excited to go for a ride.

They galloped over the grassy knolls and slowed to a cantor as they entered the woods. He couldn’t see Harry but followed the sound of his footsteps.

He found the Duke staring at the ground, kicking up a pile of leaves.

“I thought you were tired,” Louis said, loosening the reins.

He was startled. “I was, but I—I couldn’t sleep so I decided to go for a walk.”

The sky had turned from orange to deep purple.

“It’s dangerous out here at night if you don’t know the way.”

Harry swallowed sheepishly. “I was just heading back.”

As he began to walk away, Albertine licked his cheek.

He smiled. “Do you mind?” he asked, as he patted her neck.

“I’ll allow it.”

Harry cooed and peppered the mare’s muzzle with kisses. Perhaps one had to be a horse to gain the Duke’s affection, Louis mused jealously.

Harry stopped and blinked up at him. “She has cake crumbs on her muzzle.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Yes, she does. I thought you didn’t feed your animals treats?”

“I don’t!” Louis said defensively.

Harry threw his arms around the mare’s neck. “Oh Bertie! Even the cruel Duke of Warwick can’t resist your charms!”

Louis would have been insulted if the Duke wasn’t so infuriatingly lovable.

Then he had an idea. “Would you like to ride her?”

Harry’s entire being burst with happiness. “I would adore that! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

Louis grinned and extended his hand. Harry didn’t realize that he meant for them to ride together but by that point it was too late, he’d already agreed.

Louis pulled Harry up and he swung his leg over the saddle. The young Duke’s thighs pressed snugly against his own and he smiled to himself.

Harry’s arms hung by his sides as Louis brought Albertine to a trot. He increased her speed and turned sharply to avoid a tree. Harry gripped the edge of the saddle, nearly falling over.

“Have you ever ridden in the forest?” he asked Harry casually.

“No, there are only fields and meadows in Somerset.”

“Hang on tight!”

Louis weaved in and around the trees at breakneck speed. Harry threw his arms around the Duke’s waist and hung on for dear life. He grinned and went faster.

He slowed as they neared the riverbank, letting Albertine lean down for a drink.

He expected Harry to let go but instead he rested his chin on Louis’ shoulder.

“Being with you is… exciting,” he whispered.

Louis’ heart was pounding. “Is that a good thing?”

“I don’t know yet.”

It was night now. A bright star punctured the dark sky like a pinhole camera. They listened silently as Albertine lapped at the water. While they waited, Louis pulled out the gold Byzantine coin and flipped it. This time the face of the Emperor stared back at him.

“This game we’re playing,” Harry asked, “who’s winning?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a draw.”

It wasn’t a draw. Harry had won. He’d won a thousand times over, with every gesture, every word, and the impossibility of his innocence. Harry had no idea the power he held over Louis but if he dared move his hands up an inch he would know it from the beat of Louis’ heart, which sang over and over: I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours.

Chapter Text

The Warwick forest was dark and vast, as unknowable as the bottom of the sea. Yet, in its gnarled fist of branches lay the key to Louis’ guilt or innocence.

Bulletin de l’Académie Imperiale de Médecine Vol. 8.

Harry had to find it.

If pages six to eleven were intact, that meant Louis hadn’t started the fire. If they were ripped out, it was almost certain that he had.

It was dawn. Harry brought strips of ribbon to tie to the trees so he wouldn’t get lost.

He wandered around for hours trying to retrace his steps from the night of the storm, but all he could remember was Louis’ red cloak billowing in the wind.

Harry hopped over a log and came across a mound of earth that looked familiar. It was a large fox den, only partly visible.

He kneeled down and brushed away the dead leaves and twigs.

As he peered inside the entrance, a small, furry head popped out.

“Oh! Pardon me, Mr. Fox! Wrong den.”

The animal tilted his head and gave him a sly look, not unlike Duke of Warwick. Harry was so charmed by the creature, he reached out to stroke its fur. And, not unlike Louis, the little devil bit him.

“Ow!”

He ended his search shortly thereafter. It was almost noon and he was getting nowhere. He headed back to his bedchamber to prepare for the day’s sporting event: Archery.

As he stepped into his rooms and removed his calfskin gloves, he noticed a note on the floor that someone had slipped beneath his door.

Meet me in the garden.

Harry’s breathing quickened. He read and reread the five words over and over. Meet me in the garden. Meet me in the garden. Meet me in the garden...

He went to the mirror and fixed his curls. His cravat had come loose on his walk so he retied it and added a pearl broach for a touch of ornament.

Then he dashed down the grand staircase and across the rotunda to the drawing room. He flung open the French doors and weaved in and around the bloomless garden, scanning the juniper for that familiar flash of red.

There was no one there.

Then he felt a tap on his shoulder.

He swiveled around and his face fell.

“Lady Silcox.”

“Were you expecting someone else?” She frowned.

“Yes—I mean, no—I mean, I didn’t know who to expect.”

She was in a mauve frock, and fur-trimmed pelisse, though it was unseasonably warm. She took his arm and they walked through the barren garden as she described what every dead flower looked like when it was alive. She talked a lot but Harry was grateful because he had no idea how to entertain a lady.

“Ivy climbed these walls before the fire. Louis never replanted them,” she said wistfully.

“What are your thoughts on the fire?” Harry asked. “Do you believe it was an accident?”

Her dark eyes lit up. She was thrilled to be asked her opinion on so serious a subject.

“I’m not a gossip,” she said, as she proceeded to gossip, “but Lady Finnes was staying at Warwick days before the fire and she heard someone having an awful row with Louis’ father in the parlor room.”

“What about?”

“James.”

Harry swallowed.

“Lady Finnes said the Duke was fiercely defending his eldest son.”

“With whom was he arguing?”

Lady Silcox sighed. “She couldn’t make out the other voice, but she knew from the Duke’s response that whomever it was did not want James to be introduced to society the coming season.”

Wind whistled through the briars.

“Let’s walk to the kennel,” she suggested. “I want to visit the hounds.”

The hounds were beastly. Harry had heard them during his stay but this was the first time he laid eyes on them. They barked and howled, baring their teeth, their wet snouts sticking out the wrought iron gate of their enclosure.

Lady Silcox swept up to the kennel, ringlets bobbing behind her, and unhooked the latch with the flick of her wrist.

A gamekeeper ran up to them. “You’re ladyship, back away! These dogs are not pets!”

She ignored him and opened the gate.

“They’re dangerous!”

“Nonsense,” she said as they crowded around her, jumping and snapping at her heels. “Sit,” she ordered, and miraculously the all sat, staring at her adoringly with their tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths.

She bent down and made kissing sounds. “Aren’t you darling!”

Harry leaned over the gate and folded his arms. “You’re wonderful with them.”

“I love dogs above all earthly things. Look at them!” she said, admiring their gait as they ran circles around her. “I can’t wait to see them during the hunt.”

“I’ve never been fox hunting.”

“The hounds are the most important part,” she said primly, checking the dog’s teeth for good breeding. “The pack is led to the coverts, where foxes lay during daylight, and pick up its scent. Then they track the fox until they find him. When the pack have him in their sights,” she smiled, “one snaps his neck while the others disembowel him and rip him limb from limb. It’s divine.”

Harry thought of the little fox he met in woods that morning and his chest tightened.

“They’re so beautiful though.”

“Foxes? Yes, but violence gives their beauty meaning.”

He wasn’t sure he agreed but he admired the sentiment. “You’re very wise, your ladyship.”

She blushed. “Call me Beth.”

They bid farewell to her canine companions and Harry escorted her back to the house.

Once they arrived at the French doors, they stood for a very long time staring at each other’s shoes.

She seemed to be expecting something but what?

A kiss?

Where?

The cheek?

The lips?

He didn’t know what to do or even what he wanted to do, so he kissed her hand.

This didn’t please her exactly, but she seemed as satisfied with him as she was with the well-bred hounds.

As he lifted his head he was distracted by his distorted reflection in the glass doors.

It wasn’t his reflection.

It was the young, dark-haired footman, and he was watching them.

***

The archery targets were made of tightly compacted straw painted with concentric circles in white, black, blue, red and gold.

The men were already practicing, casually dressed in just their waistcoats and breeches, the sleeves of their white shirts flapping like sails in the wind.

A few men were sprawled out picnic blankets. Frederick had his head in the lap of his valet who was feeding the Viscount grapes.

The men were all terrifically cheerful. Oscar patted Harry on the back and Lord Beardsley asked if he wanted to smoke cigars later. Even Sir Clarence was in shockingly good spirits. He gave Harry a nudge and wink.

The only person not congratulating him was Louis. He was holding his bow and arrow with one eye shut. He released the bowstring and the wooden arrow sailed into the grass.

Harry picked up a bow. “Good afternoon, Duke.”

“Is it?”

Louis released another arrow and once again missed.

The dark-haired footman was off to the side sharpening arrowheads and keeping a careful eye on his master.

“How long has he worked at Warwick?” Harry whispered to Sir Clarence.

“William? His entire life. He was born in the kitchens to a scullery maid. He’s a smart lad—what a waste,” Clarence sighed.

Roy was up next. The marksman’s clear eyes honed in on the target like a hawk.

Louis crossed his arms, hip out, weight resting on one leg. He looked very striking, as striking as he did on horseback.

“Perhaps we could go for another ride in the forest this evening?” Harry asked.

“Perhaps you should take Lady Silcox.”

“Beth?”

Louis turned to him. “Beth. ‘Beth’ is it? Well, excuse me, perhaps you should take BETH for a ride in the forest.”

Harry was taken aback. Why was Louis so cross, he wondered?

As Roy drew back the bowstring preparing to take his next shot, Frederick threw a grape at his head. “Sit with me. I’m bored.”

“In a minute, you minx!”

“Do I have to make myself a target to get your attention?” Frederick held up an apple like Eve tempting Adam.

Roy swiveled around and shot an arrow straight through the apple in Frederick’s hand. The Viscount gasped with delight.

Harry had read up on archery in the library and went through all the steps in his head. As he carefully placed the shaft of the arrow on the arrowrest and positioned three fingers behind the fletching feathers, he noticed the men nodding at him with approval.

Why were they all so pleased with him? The last time he was the subject of gossip they were not so kind.

He drew back the bowstring, hand trembling as he shut one eye and aimed.

“That’s it, Harry!” said one of the men.

“Steady does it!”

“The lad has no problem hitting his target,” one chuckled.

He could see Louis seething out the corner of his eye.

“I reckon this is a bit easier than his last target, eh Harry?” said Lord Graves.

What were they talking about?

Louis tapped his foot impatiently. “Well, go on then, tell us?” he spat, “how was it kissing Lady Silcox?”

“What!” Harry whipped around with surprise and accidentally released the arrow.

It happened in the blink of an eye.

He’d shot Louis right through the arm.

Oscar dropped his bow.

Clarence covered his mouth.

Only Frederick had the wherewithal to speak: “Oh. My. God.”

Blood seeped through the Duke’s white sleeve forming a red ring around the wound like a bullseye.

He swayed and fell to his knees.

Teddy ran circles around him, tearing his hair out. “Everyone stay calm! I said stay calm!” He fanned Louis with his handkerchief. “Your grace! Your grace! Oh dear! Can we not get through one event without an injury!?”

“Send for a doctor,” he whispered.

Roy took Louis’ arms and Teddy his legs. Together they carried him into the house, while Louis’ footman ran ahead to fetch the doctor.

Harry stood with the bow in his hand, completely horrified.

He felt Sir Clarence clasp his shoulder. “Cheer up. It was just accident.”

***

News of Louis’ condition spread through the house early that evening.

The doctor had cleanly removed the arrow and stitched the wound. Miraculously it hadn’t hit any nerves or arteries.

Louis was in his bedchamber recovering.

Though the garden was bloomless, Harry found some wildflowers by the edge of the forest. He picked chicory, white clover and pennyroyal to make a modest bouquet.

Teddy and the footman, William, were stationed outside Louis’ bedchamber like the Queen’s Guard.

“May I see him?” Harry asked sheepishly.

The footman flared his nostrils.

“Please, I’ve come to apologize,” he said, holding up the bouquet.

“Haven’t you done enough?”

“Very well.” Teddy interjected. He plucked the brass key from his pocket and unlocked the door. “But don’t disturb him, he’s asleep. Leave the flowers on the sideboard.”

Harry nodded. “I’ll only be a moment.”

The room was dark but for a single candle. Harry drew back the sheer curtains that hung from the canopy of the four-poster bed.

Louis’ eyes were shut, his chest rising and falling with the rhythm of the tide. His shirt had been cut off and his bare skin looked golden in the candlelight, the bed sheet tangled between his legs. A thick bandage was wrapped around his smooth, wiry arm where Harry’s arrow had pierced him.

Harry set the flowers down on the sideboard beside the candle and a vile of Laudanum, which the doctor must have prescribed to help him sleep.

He sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands.

“Louis,” Harry whispered even though the Duke couldn’t hear him. “I’m so sorry I injured you. I didn’t mean to. It was a terrible accident. I—I feel so guilty. I’m in agony, even more agony than you’re in now knowing that I hurt you.”

Louis looked picturesque lying in bed with his wounded arm and his pink lips parted in repose, like Saint Sebastian after the archers from Mauritania shot him full of arrows. Louis had only been shot by one arrow, of course, but he had a flare for the dramatic.

Harry reached out and brushed a damp lock of hair from his brow. “Goodnight, Duke.”

Louis’ eyes flipped open and he grabbed Harry’s wrist. “Stay.”

Harry tried to get free but Louis’ grip was too tight.

“I want to hear more about the agony you’re in.”

“You’ve been awake this entire time!”

Louis grinned.

“You’re impossible.”

He loosened his grip and pouted. “Keep me company. I nursed you back to health when you fell off your horse, didn’t I?”

“I was unconscious and you held me prisoner!”

“You shot me with an arrow!”

Harry sighed. “Oh alright, I’ll stay, but only for a little while.”

The Duke nestled back down on his pillow contentedly.

The house was quiet. Most of the men had retired early for the evening. Without Louis to entertain them no one was in the mood for drinking and gambling.

“Are you in pain?” Harry gestured to his arm.

“Yes, but it wasn’t your arrow that hurt me.”

Louis took the bouquet from the sideboard. “You picked these for me?”

Harry nodded. “Few flowers are in bloom this time of year. They’re not much but I thought they would brighten your bedchamber. Do you like them?”

Louis didn’t answer but held the bouquet against his chest.

“Did you really kiss Lady Silcox in the garden?” he asked, not quite able to look him in the eye.

Harry was perplexed by the question. Was that what all the men were teasing him about?

“Yes, but only her hand.”

The Duke extended his hand. “Show me.”

Wracked with guilt over the archery incident, Harry indulged him.

Louis’ hand was broader than Beth’s but no less soft and delicate. He held it for a moment then leaned over and gave it a quick peck.

“That’s all wrong,” Louis tsked.

“Wrong!”

“Here, I’ll show you how it’s done.” He sat up and took Harry’s pale, slender hand in his, the bed sheet pooling around his naked waist. “Contrary to popular belief, you never kiss the top of the hand. Hold the fingers loosely, like so, and place your lips between the first two knuckles.”

“Why?”

Louis parted his moist lips and rested them ever so gently between Harry’s knuckles.

Heat rose beneath Harry’s collar.

“Then, when he—I mean, she—is weakened, turn her hand over and bring it up to your face to kiss the inside of her wrist.”

He drew Harry’s hand up to his face and held it against his warm cheek.

“If you place your lips on her pulse,” he murmured, “you can measure her arousal.”

Louis shut his eyes as he slowly kissed the tender flesh of Harry’s wrist.

He became dizzy as the Duke’s breath and lips grazed his skin. His kiss deepened and pleasure rippled throughout Harry’s entire body, building to a hot, shameful stirring in his breeches.

He panicked and squeezed his thighs together to make the feeling go away.

Louis’ blue eyes flashed at him, his lips still resting on Harry’s skipping pulse.

Harry snatched his hand back. “I have to go.”

“Harry, wait—”

“I never should have come.”

Louis folded his hands beneath the bed sheet. “I’m sorry. I won’t touch you again, I swear it.”

Harry’s eyes pricked with tears, not because Louis touched him but because he liked it.

“Please don’t go!”

Harry stumbled backward and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Your grace, is everything alright?” the young footman inquired with suspicion.

Harry brushed past him without a word.

He was not alright. He was depraved.

With Lady Silcox his desire was opaque as a sheet of paper. With the Duke, it was a pane of glass, the sun pouring through with white-hot clarity. He had no idea how to be affectionate with Beth, and while he didn’t know how to be affectionate with Louis either, his body knew and this terrified him.

The library was empty. He lit a candle and took Paradise Lost down from the shelf, hoping Lucifer’s fall from grace would scare some sense into him. If he buried himself in a book perhaps he could bury his impure thoughts.

Then he heard someone enter the room behind him. Lucifer himself: Frederick.

He was sipping a glass of sherry and leaning against the doorway, in French hosiery and breeches trimmed with ribbon. His lace shirt was open and his neck dotted with mysterious bruises.

“You’ve really done it this time, haven’t you, Virgin?”

“It was an accident!”

“You don’t fool me. I know you’re up to something.”

Harry wanted him to leave so he could get back to his book. Instead, the Viscount wandered around the library, his glass clinking against his gold rings.

The Warwick coat of arms hung on the wall above the fireplace and he stopped to examine it: the horses, the crossed swords, the shield and, of course, the crown.

“They’re a complicated family,” Frederick mused.

“All families are complicated.”

“Not all make enemies of each other.” He traced the rim of the glass with his finger and the sound reverberated eerily throughout the library.

Did the Viscount know that Harry and Sir Clarence were investigating Louis?

“It’s sad that Louis and his cousin don’t get along,” said Harry, not wanting to reveal his hand.

He laughed. “Clarence really does have you wrapped around his little finger, doesn’t he?”

“What do you mean?”

“Clarence and Louis bicker but they were never enemies.”

“Who then? Clarence was the Duke’s dearest nephew.”

“And James his dearest son.” Frederick took a long sip. “You really don’t know? Clarence and James loathed each other.”

Chapter Text

Harry’s true legacy wasn’t the Dukedom, it wasn’t Somerset, nor the rich farmland he’d inherited. His true legacy was charity.

His father was devoted to many causes, but chief among them was helping the sick and infirm.

Harry was determined to honor this legacy and prepared for his visit to Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, the sanatorium his father founded.

He tried to convince himself that he was going for selfless reasons, but the truth was he needed to get away from Warwick and clear his head. Perhaps Charles was right and the Duke was beginning to corrupt him. Or perhaps Harry was already corrupt and the Duke was the only one who could see it?

He climbed into the carriage and smoothed the tails of his coat beneath him, adjusting his hat in the window.

The coachman snapped the leather reins and the carriage rolled away from the house, the view of Warwick swallowed up by trees and shadow.

They picked up speed once they cleared the gate. He was about to draw the curtains when he heard a tap on the glass.

Someone was clinging to the outside of the carriage.

Harry screamed.

Suddenly the door opened and Louis swung inside, his injured arm hanging stiffly by his side. “Pardon me, coming through.”

“What are you doing here!?”

“Joining you on your trip to Our Lady of Eternal Misery,” said Louis as he collapsed on the seat across from him.

“Perpetual Sorrow,” Harry corrected. “And I don’t need an escort. I’m Duke, not a child.”

Louis crossed one leg over the other and retrieved his monogrammed lighter from his breast pocket. “Let me ask you something. Have you ever seen the inside of a sanatorium?”

“No,” said Harry petulantly.

“Then you need an escort.” He tapped a cigarette against its silver case before bringing it to his lips and lighting it.

The carriage wheels skipped over rocks and pebbles.

The two Dukes didn’t say much on the ride there, the awkwardness of their encounter the previous night hung between them like the smoke from Louis’ French cigarettes.

Louis cradled his wounded arm but didn’t complain. Harry wanted to ask if he was in pain but was afraid it would rouse last night’s feelings. He couldn’t risk it.

They arrived at the sanatorium in the afternoon. The Franco-Gothic structure stood on twenty-two acres of parkland. It had a bell tower and pointed arches flanked by weeping stone angels. It reminded him of the architecture on his family’s estate. His father had constructed this place in Somerset’s image. It felt like home.

Father Michael met them at the gates. The priest was in black robes, a heavy wooden rosary hanging from his hip.

Harry greeted him warmly. “It’s good to see you again, Father.”

“Welcome! I did not know the Duke of Warwick would be joining us. Two Dukes, what a blessing!”

Louis extended his hand limply. “I’ve been told my presence is more of a curse.”

The balding priest laughed nervously.

They walked around the property and Father Michael gestured to a group of patients outside in grey smocks getting their daily exercise.

“As you can see the patients are quite happy here.”

“We’ll be the judge of that,” Louis snapped.

Harry pinched his arm. “Don’t be unkind!”

He pinched back. “Don’t be naïve!”

Just then a little girl, no older than ten, wandered up to them, blonde plaits down her back and a bright smile on her lips. She looked like the picture of health. Harry wondered what someone like her was doing in such a place.

She stuck her tiny hands into the pockets of her smock. “Beautiful day isn’t it.”

Harry removed his hat and went down on one knee. “Yes, it is!”

Then he pulled a coin from behind his ear, a magic trick his governess taught him.

The girl blinked. “Beautiful day isn’t it.”

“Yes,” he said slowly. “What’s your name?”

“Beautiful day isn’t it.”

Harry furrowed his brow in confusion. “Tell me, girl, are you happy here?”

“Beautiful day isn’t—“

Father Michael put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll have to excuse Mary. She’s recently been treated for hysteria.”

Harry rose to his feet. “Hysteria? She’s just a little girl.”

“And what was the treatment?” Louis asked drily.

The priest clasped his hands together excitedly. “Psychosurgery, one of the latest advancements in medicine from Switzerland. They cure madness by removing parts of the brain.”

“I knew it,” Louis hissed.

“When will she be back to normal?” Harry looked into her vacant gaze.

“This is her new normal,” said Father Michael. “We’ve cured her of all unpleasant thoughts.”

“You mean you’ve cured her of thinking. Is she going to utter the same phrase for the rest of her life?” Louis was incredulous.

“Yes, but they are happy words, aren’t they?”

The girl smiled up at the priest. “Beautiful day isn’t it.”

The inside of the sanatorium looked more like a grand home than an institution. There was fine furniture and women knitting and sewing ragdolls by the fireplace. A man was hunched over the piano striking the same key over and over, his broken song echoing down the empty corridors.

They were escorted to a ward on the first floor.

Harry read the brass plate on the wall: Tuberculosis.

Consumption.

The White Plague.

He tied on his mask.

While he’d read countless articles about the disease in medical journals, he’d never come face to face with it.

They could not go inside but peered at the ward through a glass partition. It was worse than he’d imagined. Patients were violently coughing up blood: on their smocks, the white bed linen, the nurses, and the waxed floors. Every surface was stained with sickness.

As Father Michael described the recent renovations to the ward, a patient wandered out the double doors, mad with fever.

Harry threw Louis up against the wall. “Cover your face! Do it now!”

“What?”

Harry took a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it over Louis’ mouth and nose until one of the nurses guided the sick man back to bed.

He slid off of Louis’ chest, panting.

“Harry, had I known you’d react this way I would have exposed myself to tuberculosis much sooner.” Louis smirked.

He dabbed his brow with the handkerchief. “That is not even remotely amusing.”

Next, they viewed the mental ward.

In one room a man was bound by the head and wrists to a wooden chair. The doctor put a rag in his mouth and retrieved a metal prong attached by a wire to a whirring machine at his feet.

“We’re at the forefront of technology when it comes mental health. Here our doctors and nurses perform something called Electroshock Therapy, a new treatment devised by the French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne.”

“You shock your patients with… electricity?” Harry asked.

Louis lit a cigarette. “That doesn’t sound horrifying at all.”

“I assure you it’s perfectly safe, your grace.”

They viewed the laboratory next and were then guided to the offices.

Harry clasped his hands behind his back as he examined the portraits of doctors, scientists and philanthropists that lined the stone walls.

“Are we ever going to discuss what happened last night?” Louis asked gently.

“I think not,” Harry answered, cleaning a smudge on the plaque beneath his father’s portrait.

“I apologize. I got carried away. It was the Laudanum! I know you’re not a—like me. You hated it. Forgive me.”

Before he could respond, Father Michael took him aside and began to introduce him to the staff. Harry carefully memorized the names of all the administrators and doctors so he could write to them once he was back at Somerset. In his naivety he hadn’t realized that patients were being mutilated, and he certainly could not have guessed that they were being electrocuted! He was interested in the progress of patients like Mary who was convalescing and wanted monthly reports on the condition of all patients.

As they discussed which research needed funding, a new patient was being admitted a few feet away.

He was short and extremely thin with clubbed fingers. He began to wheeze suddenly and his mother patted his back to loosen the mucus in his chest.

Once the admission papers were signed, two orderlies put him in restraints.

The young man panicked. “Why am I being restrained? Where are you taking me?”

“The ice baths.”

“Mother! Mother!”

He began to struggle. His mother was weeping but instead of helping him, she walked away.

Harry turned to Louis. He was already running down the corridor. “Let this man go!”

“Stay back. He may be contagious.”

“No, he isn’t! My brother suffered from the same ailment. Do NOT put him in an ice bath, you’ll make his condition worse.”

Louis tried to free him from their grip and another orderly came between them.

“He is diseased. Stay back! It’s for your own good.”

“No, he’s not contagious! Do you hear me! You’ll kill him if you send him to the baths!”

Harry’s heart was pounding. The sound of the sick man’s wheezing crept into his bones making him shudder with fear and disgust. But something about the desperation in Louis’ voice struck a chord.

Louis lunged for the man and one of the orderlies grabbed his shoulders and held him back.

Harry pulled off his mask. “This is the Duke of Warwick,” he boomed. “Unhand him at once!”

“We’re sorry, your grace—” the doctor interjected meekly.

“My father founded this place and if you’d like to continue receiving donations from our estate, you’ll obey me. Now,” he demanded, his walking stick striking the travertine floor like a clap of thunder.

They released Louis and he swiftly untied the sick man from his straitjacket.

The Duke shocked Harry further when he embraced the man.

No donation or grand institution could compare to the gesture. Human kindness was the purest act of charity.

***

They were very quiet on the journey back to Warwick. The sun was setting over the glen and dusk’s gold light spilled through the windows bathing the carriage with warmth.

Louis broke the silence. “Thank you for helping me help that man.”

“Anyone would have done the same in my place. It was nothing. But you—”

“You removed your mask, that’s not nothing.”

Louis’ hand gripped his walking stick with discomfort. Harry moved to the other side of the carriage and glanced at the Duke’s injured arm.

“Does it still hurt?”

The sun made his eyelashes appear almost white, and his blue eyes clear as water.

“No,” he lied.

Harry’s gloved hand fell between them. “I didn’t hate it.”

“The sanatorium?” Louis asked.

“No, what happened last night. You said I hated it. I didn’t.”

The words sounded small when they escaped his lips but it was the boldest thing he’d ever said to anyone.

Louis picked up Harry’s hand and finger-by-finger removed his leather glove.

Harry drew a breath and waited anxiously for Louis to bring it to his lips like he did the previous night. Instead, Louis placed it on his lap.

Harry was touching the Duke’s thigh.

Louis then removed his own glove and placed his hand atop Harry’s with affection. “You’re as difficult as Achilles and no less sweet,” he whispered into Harry’s ear.

Harry felt a familiar stirring in his breeches, only this time he didn’t try to stop it. He let it happen. It felt good. Better than good. He wanted to sit like this forever, aching and touching the Duke’s shapely thigh for all eternity.

The carriage rocked back and forth as they crossed the marsh.

Louis’ lips parted. His expression might have been one of agony or bliss. Harry looked down and saw that his hand was just inches away from the most tender part of him. Was Louis aching too?

Harry did not know what would happen next, but he was desperate for Louis to guide him there. Oh Duke, guide, my hand! My lips! My heart!

Then out the corner of his eye he saw the coachman turn his head.

Harry took his hand away and blushed furiously. “Not here.”

Louis was somehow out of breath like he’d been running for miles. “Where.”

“I don’t know.”

“Dine with me alone tonight.”

“I can’t. I’m dining with Sir Clarence.”

“After dinner.”

“Clarence and I will be in the library working on my translation.”

“Latin is a dead language, Harry! We’re alive, flesh and blood! What is the hold my cousin has on you?”

The carriage rolled through Warwick’s thick forest, blotting out the sun.

As they approached the house Louis pleaded, “Let me come to your bedchamber tonight.”

“I—“

The door to the carriage flew open. Charles was there to greet him. He saw the Duke of Warwick and frowned.

“Come along, your grace,” he said as he whisked Harry away into the house.

***

Dinner with Sir Clarence was uneventful, a blend of lukewarm soup and lukewarm conversation. In the library they turned the facts of the case over and over like a puzzle box. Clarence leaned back in the creaking leather chair with his fingers steepled beneath his pointed chin. He didn’t have anything new to report and Harry still hadn’t revealed what he saw in the woods. He wanted to be sure of what was there before bringing this information to light.

Instead, he tried to get Clarence to talk about his relationship with James, but the mustached lawyer was always diplomatic in his response.

Harry didn’t leave it to chance. He’d put the question to Charles, who then questioned the servants.

That night, as Charles dressed him for bed, his valet relayed what he’d heard in the servant’s hall:

“Politics.”

“They belong to different parties?”

“You have much to learn about the world of men, your grace.” Charles fastened the ribbons around his cuffs. “No, they belong to the same party.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The fiercest political battles are not fought between parties but within them. James was a moderate and Clarence a radical. They were young men fighting for the future of the Liberal Party.”

Charles tied the satin ribbon around Harry’s collar.

“Their rivalry came to a head when Sir Clarence funded the rebels responsible for the Cotton Mill riots. Twenty-six people were killed. Clarence did not denounce the violence. He said it was a means to an end. James never spoke to his cousin again and all but banned him from Warwick.”

This was so unlike the even-tempered man Harry spent his evenings with in the library. Could Clarence have acted violently toward James, violent enough to start the fire? If so, why build a case against Louis? It didn’t make any sense.

Charles finished dressing him and Harry examined his reflection in the gilded mirror.

His nightshirt was that of a child’s, white with a ruffled collar and cuffs. It had not occurred to either of them to change his nightclothes when he came of age. Now the contrast made him painfully aware of his burgeoning manhood.

“What about Louis’ politics? With whom did he side? His brother? Or is he a Tory?”

Charles cleaned his spectacles with his handkerchief. “Neither. The Duke of Warwick is a monarchist. I reckon he’d burn down parliament if he got the chance.”

“Charles!” Harry smiled in spite of himself and climbed into bed beneath the covers.

His valet blew out the candles. “Goodnight, your grace.”

“God save the Queen.”

Harry shut his eyes and replayed the day’s events in his head. It was gentlemanly of Louis to apologize for the previous night. He needn’t have gone to the trouble. How sweet. And he looked so dashing in the carriage with his cigarette and red jacket. The way he swept his sandy hair off his brow and gripped the gold head of his walking stick. The way he pulled Harry’s hand onto his lap with confidence and removed his glove…

Harry’s hand travelled guiltily down his chest and up his nightshirt, feeling for that delicious ache between his legs. He’d touched himself once before, after staring at a painting of Greek combat in his father’s study. Evidently the piece had a similar effect on his mother, because his father got rid of it immediately. Harry didn’t need paintings anymore. In his mind’s eye he painted his own picture of his hand on Louis’ thigh in the carriage.

There was a knock at the door.

He scrambled to his feet, adjusting his twisted nightshirt and combing his curls with his fingers.

The Duke tiptoed to the door and held his breath as he turned the brass key, his heart practically bursting out of his chest.

Slowly, he opened it.

“Charles.”

“Forgive me, your grace. I forgot to shut the window. I wouldn’t want you to catch cold again!”

His valet shut the window and left.

Harry sighed and buried his head in the pillow kicking his bare feet in frustration.

Moments passed and so had his amorous mood. He was beginning to drift off to sleep.

Then came another knock at the door.

He groaned and climbed out of bed. “What is it now!”

This time it wasn’t Charles.

Chapter Text

Standing outside of Harry’s bedchamber were Frederick and Roy.

“What are you two doing here?”

“We’re kidnapping you,” said Roy as he threw the Duke over his shoulder.

“Stop it! No! Put me down!”

“This is what you wear to bed?” Frederick held up the frilly sleeve of Harry’s nightshirt.

“What do you wear?” Harry hissed, trying to break free.

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

“How does one take it off?” Roy asked curiously, slipping a hand beneath the folds of white fabric.

“One doesn’t!”

He was carried down the darkened corridor and staircase to the drawing room. Candlelight and smoke seeped from the crack beneath the door.

Harry was put down and pushed inside.

Lady Calder and a few footmen were standing around the piano sipping mulled wine, while William played them a sonata. Two drunken pageboys sat at their feet gambling with dice.

They all stopped and stared at him.

On the other side of the room, Louis was lying on the divan with his shirt open, a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips. He was reading a book on Latin grammar.

The moment he saw Harry he dropped the book and jumped to his feet.

Frederick swanned into the room and put an arm around Harry’s shoulder. “Look, we brought you a present! He even has a bow!” the Viscount laughed, tugging at the ribbon around Harry’s collar.

Louis covered his mouth trying very hard not to laugh. “Duke, have they been horrible to you? You look frightfully cross.”

Harry straightened the collar of his nightshirt. “I just wasn’t dressed for the occasion,” he huffed, attempting to recover his pride.

“Come,” Louis said. “Let me pour you a drink.”

He wanted to run back to his bedchamber but feared that would only cause him further embarrassment.

As Louis handed him a glass of scotch, Frederick and Eleanor flipped through a stack of sheet music by the piano.

“Play Wagner next,” said Frederick. “He’s my favorite. I saw Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Munich four times and I’m seeing Siegfried in Bayreuth in the spring.”

Eleanor flopped down on the divan. Her dark hair was loose and fell down her back like unspooled silk. “I adore his operas but my father says it’s just noise.”

“My mother thinks George Macfarren is a good composer. I sympathize.”

William stared blankly at the sheet music and shuffled though the curling pages. His hands shook with frustration and they fell to the floor.

“I can’t read it, your lordship.” His face reddened. “I only play by ear.”

“Dash it!” Frederick pouted. “I was really looking forward to hearing some Wagner tonight.”

Harry rose from the divan and stepped over to the bench in his bare feet. He sat beside William and arranged the sheet music on the rack. Though Harry was out of his element in nearly every way at this soiree, the one place no one could touch him was at the piano.

“Listen,” he said to William.

Harry began to play. He read quickly and the footman turned the pages for him, nodding along and watching his fingers glide over the keys. It was a difficult piece with frequent octave jumps, alternating articulations, and complicated polyrhythms. He would need to play it a few times for William to pick up on the key changes.

However, when Harry finished the movement, William didn’t wait to hear the piece again. He began to play. He mimicked Harry exactly, with the same technique and musicality.

Harry drew a breath. “That’s remarkable.”

“For a footman.”

“For anyone.”

William lifted his chin. “May not be educated and refined like you, your grace, but I’ve other talents.”

The drawing room swelled with music.

Roy pulled Louis up from the divan and they began to dance. Harry had never seen two men dance together before, and even though he’d witnessed Louis and the Earl kiss once, this was somehow more shocking.

Eleanor and a footman danced alongside them.

Not to be outdone, Frederick whipped Harry into a waltz. He never imagined that his first dance would be barefoot, in his nightshirt, with the Viscount Greindl, but the evening was full of surprises.

He had no idea where to put his hand when dancing with a man so he placed it on Viscount’s slender waist. Frederick was quick on his feet, twirling and turning sharply while Harry counted the steps in his head and tried to keep up.

This was so different from his experience in the ballroom. Wild and free. There was no etiquette or social niceties to be observed and therefore one could make no mistakes.

Harry couldn’t help but steal a glance at Louis, who was laughing softly, eyes crinkled, as he chatted and swayed in his friend’s arms.

“Roy was Louis’ first,” Frederick whispered. “They met at Eton.”

First what, he wondered before slowly realizing that Frederick meant lover. He tripped over his feet.

“Did you attend Eton?”

The Viscount glared at him. “I’d slit my own throat before attending that slum. I went to Harrow. Where did you go?”

Harry fidgeted with the hem on Frederick’s velvet waistcoat. “I was privately tutored. My father wouldn’t let me attend school, what with the close quarters and risk of disease.”

Something resembling pity flickered across Viscount’s icy features.

It was moments like these that made Harry realize how different he was. There would forever be a gulf between him and other young men, because they had school, memories and each other, while he had nothing but his coin collection, the busts of dead Emperors and Kings. It was ironic looking back on his childhood. His father was so terrified of disease he locked Harry up like a prisoner, while at the same time founding a grand sanatorium for the very people he feared most.

Louis peeked at Harry over Roy’s shoulder and mouthed: are you having a good time?

Harry nodded and gave Frederick a spin.

The song ended. They bowed and went back to their drinks, the Earl and Viscount sitting on a divan across from the two Dukes.

William switched seamlessly to one of Tchaikovsky’s concertante pieces. He knew it well. Louis explained that the footman had accompanied him on his trip to Moscow and could play the composer’s full catalog.

Frederick and Roy exchanged glances.

Louis twisted the stem of his wine glass between his fingers. “You two can stop making faces. The Duke knows all about me and Pyotr.” He turned to Harry. “Like I said, we never consummated the relationship.”

The Viscount narrowed his eyes. “Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Tsar walked in on them at the palace. They were both stark naked in his bed, the composer on all fours, Louis ready to mount him like a dog!”

Louis rubbed his temples. “Thank you, Frederick, for that vivid description.”

“You’re welcome.” He hopped onto Roy’s lap.

Harry nursed his drink. Louis had only poured him a finger of scotch, but each drop felt like fire in his throat. At this rate it would take him all evening to finish.

The music softened to a ballad and so did their conversation. Half the candles had been blow out and everyone in the drawing room quickly paired off.

Harry searched Louis’ face in the dimness, his cheek illuminated by a single candle on the credenza behind him.

“You have an affinity for composers. Did Tchaikovsky play for you?”

“You were the first boy who ever played for me.”

“Not the last,” Harry quipped.

Louis arched an eyebrow and took a sip of his drink. “Touché.”

Though the whiskey had dulled his senses, the smell of spilled wax, perfumed cigarettes, and spiced wine were as heavy as the velvet drapes.

He could make out the silhouette of Lady Calder kissing one of the footmen on the settee. Frederick was on Roy’s lap sharing a cigarette, until suddenly they were kissing too.

Everything was permissible in Louis’ world. There were no rules and no shame, only pleasure. Was this heaven or hell?

Roy flipped Frederick on his back and climbed on top of him, hungrily nipping at his mouth and neck while the Viscount wrapped his spindly legs around the Earl’s waist.

Harry looked up at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” said Louis. “My friends are usually much better behaved.”

“No, they’re not.”

“You’re right, they’re savages. Cigarette?”

Harry accepted, holding it clumsily between his fingers as Louis brought the lighter to his lips. He inhaled and coughed.

Louis leaned back and took a long swig of wine, rolling his ankle to the melody of the music. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone and in the dimness Harry could see the shadow of his collarbone and the fine golden hairs on his otherwise smooth chest.

Like in the carriage earlier that day, Harry let his open hand fall between them, and waited for Louis to notice.

The Duke peered down at it with amusement but did not move to hold it.

Harry took his hand back and flushed, completely mortified. Of course Louis didn’t want to sit there and hold hands like a stupid child. He had lovers all over the world, lovers in that very room! Harry felt so foolish. This was a huge mistake.

He crushed his half smoked cigarette in an abandoned teacup on the ottoman. “The hunt is in a few days. I’ll be returning to Somerset immediately afterward.”

Louis smiled at this. “Oh, really.”

“Yes,” Harry sniffed, picking up his glass and swirling the amber liquid inside. “You’ll probably never see me again. I don’t care to join the Bilsdale Club. I doubt we’ll ever cross paths. ”

Harry was hoping these words would injure him but the Duke’s blue eyes twinkled.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. It’s not as though you care.”

“Harry,” he laughed gently. “I’m only teasing. You’re as transparent as that crystal in your hand.”

He slammed the glass down on the tea tray. Coin or no coin he was done with this game.

“Duke, did you know that I never had a single friend my entire childhood? When I wanted to play, I played alone. When I wanted to talk, I talked to myself. Every night I would go to sleep and dream of the boy who would be my friend but when I awoke I was alone again. Then one day, I learned that a boy was coming to visit. It was the happiest day of my entire life. I thought for the first time I would actually have someone to play with, to talk to. I thought I wouldn’t be alone anymore. When he arrived, he was better than I ever imagined—“

The smile left Louis’ lips. “Harry, stop.”

“I thought my dream had come true—”

“Harry, I was very young.”

“So was I. You broke my heart.”

Louis took both his hands. “Let me mend it.”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut afraid he might cry. “Please don’t tease me anymore. I can’t bear it. Not from you.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

He opened his eyes. “Louis, I’m so lonely,” he confessed.

The Duke brushed Harry’s cheek with the back of his hand and Harry leaned into his touch, like a rose seeking out the sun.

“You sweet boy…”

Suddenly a window flew open. The remaining candles were blown out by a gust of wind and everything went black.

The music stopped.

The voices of footmen, Frederick and Roy rumbled in complaint. He heard bodies fumbling around in the dark, the clattering of glasses and cries of stubbed toes.

Louis couldn’t find his lighter.

“Matches,” Eleanor said. “They’re in the bureau.”

Harry was closest. He stood and felt his way around, grabbing the back of the divan, then skimming his fingers along the textured wallpaper and carved picture frames until he bumped into the bureau. He slid open the top drawer and felt around. His fingers first grazed what felt like a day planner. The letters embossed on the cover weren’t Louis’ initials but rather the initials of his father. He continued to feel around for the small matchbox. When he had it in his grip, he turned to make his way to the candelabra on the piano.

Someone pushed him from behind.

He fell to the ground.

The blow knocked the wind out of him and it took him a moment to recover. When he stood, he stumbled to the candelabra. He struck a match on the box’ sulfur strip and a flame bloomed with a hiss. Slowly he lit each wick.

The room now illuminated, he saw William sitting on the divan next to Louis, holding his master’s hand.

Louis jumped away from the footman. “Dear God, I thought he was you, Harry!” He pointed to the door. “William, you’re dismissed for the evening. Go.”

Harry glared at the dark-eyed footman, who crossed the drawing room with a smirk.

“Told you I had talents,” he whispered, and left.

The party died down after that. The room was eerily hollow without the sound of William’s playing, as though a spell had been broken.

Everyone chose a lover for the night: the two pageboys paired off, Eleanor and a footman, and Roy and Frederick.

Louis extended his arm. “Shall we?”

They followed Frederick and Roy up the staircase.

“I’m sorry about William,” said Louis. “He’s fixated on me. It’s a terrible nuisance, honestly.”

“Perhaps Warwick is not the best place of employment for him.”

“His family has served us for generations,” he sighed. “Of course, if you feel strongly about it...”

Harry thought back to William’s embarrassment at not being able to read, and the remarkable way he played. Clarence said he was born to a scullery maid. The chap probably didn’t have a cent to his name. Harry chose to forgive him.

“Just be careful,” Harry warned.

The Earl and Viscount chased each other up the steps like schoolboys. Frederick tripped on the laces of his high-heeled boots. Instead of helping him up Roy tackled him and ripped open his shirt, kissing the Viscount’s pale chest and slipping a hand down his breeches.

“Will you animals at least wait until you’re in your rooms!” Louis barked. “This is uncivilized!”

Roy turned to face him. “Louis, I’ve fucked you on these very steps in broad daylight.”

“Shhhhhhhh,” the Viscount said tipsily. “He’s trying to impress the Virgin!”

They howled with laughter. Roy scooped Frederick up into his arms and carried him, the Viscount’s legs swinging excitedly as Roy kicked open his bedchamber door.

Harry stopped outside the door to his own bedchamber. Louis put his hands behind his back and they both stared awkwardly at the brass doorknob.

Harry broke the silence. “It’s nearly dawn. Charles will be up soon. He keeps a close eye on me and writes my mother every day. She knows I gambled away my money and caught a cold.”

Louis smiled. “What can she do? You’re Duke.”

“You don’t know my mother.”

They looked at their feet and chuckled. Louis didn’t seem quite ready to go and Harry did not want him to.

“It was the same for me. At Somerset,” he said.

“What was?”

“You were better than I imagined. I liked your… knee socks.” He grinned.

Harry raised his eyebrows. He didn’t think the Duke noticed him at all when he was at Somerset, let alone his socks.

“Let’s start again,” he said.

“Would you like to see my coin collection?”

“No!” Louis pushed him playfully.

Harry knew what he meant. The first time he saw Louis, he was so excited he threw his arms around the Duke’s neck and kissed his cheek. It was different now. A child could be forgiven for displaying emotion but it was unbecoming in a gentleman. He placed his hands on Louis’ broad shoulders and in a more formal display of affection, embraced him.

Louis did not stand there stiffly the way he did four years ago at Somerset.

He seized Harry by the waist and embraced him in turn, kissing his cheek and nosing his dark curls.

“Charles will be here any moment,” he gasped.

Louis held him tighter.

“Ride with me this afternoon,” he whispered hotly in Harry’s ear, pinning him against the doorframe.

“Where.”

“We’ll take Achilles and Albertine through the woods, to the riverbank. I’ll bring a blanket. No one will find us.”

The Duke’s heart was pounding so hard Harry felt it beat inside his own chest.

Louis wanted him. Not the way he wanted Frederick or Roy or the countless footmen he’d seduced. He wanted Harry the way he won a race or hunted an animal, with determination so fierce he would not stop until he claimed his prize. This might have made Harry feel helpless, instead he felt dizzy with power.

“On one condition.”

“Anything,” Louis breathed.

“Take me back to your fox den.”

Chapter Text

Upon hearing that the cricket match he organized would be canceled, Teddy threw his pocket watch at the wall. Its cogs and springs burst from their silver casing and rolled around the freshly waxed parlor room floor.

Louis knew his valet would have a conniption at the news but it couldn’t be helped. His time with Harry was too precious. The young Duke was leaving for Somerset after the hunt and Clarence monopolized every other minute of his day.

Harry’s valet, Charles, who just so happened to be the son of a watchmaker, painstakingly picked up each and every cog and spring. He placed the pieces in a handkerchief and turned to Teddy. “I’ll take it to the servant’s hall and repair it,” he said, and shot Louis a reprimanding glare.

Teddy was so vexed that Louis had to ring for one of his footmen to prepare him for his ride. Naturally William was the first of his men to appear.

“My coat and gloves,” Louis said curtly.

William bowed his head, a crown of curls falling in his face. He looked so much like Harry at times. Except for his eyes. William’s eyes shone like black pearls.

Louis slipped on his calfskin gloves and William did up the brass buttons on his coat, his hands lingering on the Duke’s chest.

Louis stepped away from him toward the door and the footman grabbed his arm.

“Choose me.”

“William—”

“I love you.”

Egad! How did Louis always manage to find himself in this situation? Had he misled William? Was he too careless with boys’ hearts?

“I have to meet the Duke.”

William eyed him fiercely. “I know I am nothing and no one but you are everything to me!”

Louis looked around to make sure no one was witnessing this outburst. “You’ve seen me with other men. What’s brought this on? It’s most unlike you.”

“You’ve stopped seeing the Viscount and the Earl in your bedchamber and you sleep alone instead of ringing for a footman. It all started the moment he got here. Tell me the truth, has he won your heart?”

“He has,” Louis admitted. “But I have yet to win his.”

“You’ve won mine,” William said in a small voice.

Louis shook his head and embraced him. “You’re a beautiful lad and I’m very fond of you. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”

Then he untangled himself from the boy’s arms and left.

Harry was outside the stables standing beside Achilles on the grassy knoll. His legs looked especially long in his riding boots and breeches. Even though he wasn’t a strong rider, Louis loved to see those gangly limbs wrapped around a powerful stallion…

“Afternoon, darling.”

Harry put a hand on his hip. “I’m furious with you.”

Louis grinned and motioned for the groom to fetch Albertine. “What have I done this time?”

“Teddy is in a wretched state over the cricket match! My valet has been consoling him all morning. You really shouldn’t vex him so. We have a responsibility to care for those who serve us.”

“He serves at my pleasure and it pleases me to go riding,” Louis said, buffing his nails on the lapel of his red coat.

“You’re a terror.”

Louis enjoyed getting a good scolding from the Duke. He wondered what other terrible things he might do to provoke him.

Albertine was led to Louis already saddled, her heavy hooves clomping on the grass. Unlike Achilles who was stubbornly pulling away from Harry, the mare nosed his chest with affection. He smoothed a gloved hand over her snowy white crest and withers. She was saddled to his satisfaction but something was missing.

“We’ll be needing a blanket as well.”

“A blanket,” the groom repeated, eyes darting between the two Dukes.

Harry covered his face with both hands, mortified.

“Yes, a soft blanket.” Louis smiled.

Once on their horses and in the woods, Louis led the way—a pity since he quite liked watching Harry bounce up and down on his saddle.

He looked behind him at Harry who was trotting off in the opposite direction.

“Achilles!” he barked, trying to steer the stallion that defied him. “Left, you brute! Left!”

If only Harry understood how communicate with the animal. He was such a fine specimen and Harry such a brilliant mind. They would be invincible if they would learn to listen to each other.

It was a crisp fall day, the wind as sharp as the leafless branches that formed a canopy above their heads.

“Are we close to your fox den?” Harry inquired.

Louis stopped. He swung his leg over the saddle and hopped onto the ground. Harry clumsily slid off Achilles.

“Harry,” he said. “I know why you want to go back to my fox den.”

“You do.”

“Of course.”

The Duke blanched.

“My brother’s stamps!” Louis laughed. “I remembered you eyeing the Penny Reds. You two are exactly alike!”

Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re right.”

“I fetched them for you this morning and had them brought to your bedchamber. The fox den is west and riverbank east. It’s too far out of our way,” he explained, tucking his boot into the stirrup and climbing back on his horse.

Slowly Harry did the same.

They heard the river long before they reached it. The rushing water sounded like the whispering of angels. The Dukes tied their horses to two trees and stepped through the brush into the clearing.

This spot, with its smooth pebbles, shimmering water and ribbon of blue sky was the perfect home for their passions.

Louis spread the blanket out on the grass. “I swim here in the summer,” he said, pointing to the deepest part of the riverbed.

“In the nude?”

In the nude. How cute.

He found himself wishing it were summer. He would have taken Harry to that very spot and guided him by the hand, naked and pale, into the moving water.

But autumn had its own charms. They sat on the square blanket framed by fallen leaves: the portrait of young love.

Harry lay down on his back, knee bent, and watched the clouds drift overhead. The wind nipped at his cheeks and his skin pinkened like the blush on a rose. At the tender age of seventeen Harry maintained his boyish grace, though the line of his jaw hinted at his approaching manhood.

Louis lay beside him propped up on one elbow.

An almost imperceptible look of worry crossed the Duke’s patrician features, a look only Louis would recognize since he spent so much time staring at him.

“No one will find us here,” Louis reminded him.

He nodded unconvinced.

“Annuit cœptis,” Louis said in Latin, which, loosely translated, meant, God approves our undertakings.

Harry didn’t look at him but said, “You were reading a book on Latin grammar last night in the drawing room and Bleak House a few days before that.”

Louis could have said something clever or witty at being called out but he chose to be honest. “I only read those books because you love them.”

Harry turned to him. “You know, you could just give me back my coin.”

Louis rolled onto his back and laughed. “Where’s the fun in that?” He put his hands behind his head. “Besides, if you want your coin, take it, I won’t stop you.”

This was such a shameless ploy to get the Duke to touch him that he was amazed it actually worked!

Harry sat up and gingerly patted the front of Louis’ coat feeling for his precious coin. He undid the brass buttons and slid his cool hands inside, checking the lining and pockets. When this turned up nothing, Harry’s fingers skimmed his fitted waistcoat and then the fabric of the thin shirt beneath.

Louis was in heaven.

His hand slowly moved down to the pockets of Louis’ breeches.

“Find what you were looking for?”

“Yes.” Harry tipped his head shyly.

There was no coin. Louis left it back at the house. At what point did Harry realize or had he known all along?

Maddeningly, the boy continued his exploration.

His fingers moved from the waist of Louis breeches and trailed down the seam as though he were following the route of a map, lower and lower and lower…

Louis couldn’t take anymore.

“Harry.”

He hooked a hand in Harry’s curls, drew him near, and pressed a hot desperate kiss onto his lips.

The young Duke was startled. He didn’t know how to kiss. But he parted his pink lips and let Louis in.

Louis slid his tongue into the boy’s mouth and pulled him on top of his chest. They tumbled around on the blanket, kissing frantically between gasps for air. He ripped off his cravat and then Harry’s, both of them burning feverishly despite the cool autumn breeze. When Louis kissed his bare neck, Harry let out a soft cry that drove him completely mad. Kissing had never before sent him into such a frenzy. Soon their hips aligned and he felt Harry’s excitement mounting against his own.

Could he have him there on the riverbank? He hadn’t intended to but nature had other plans. Their bodies ached for one another.

He placed a hand between Harry’s legs.

“Don’t,” Harry whispered.

“What do you mean? This is agony!”

“I like being in agony.”

Frederick was right about Catholics: they were masochists!

Harry’s rule about touching did not extend to Louis’ body, however. He began to paw him through his breeches, his curious fingers tracing the shape of Louis’ length.

“Don’t start something you don’t intend to finish,” Louis breathed dangerously.

Harry ignored him. Of course he did. Louis had laid bare his feelings and Harry knew he could do anything he liked.

Their kisses slowed and deepened, Harry’s lips and tongue clumsily mirroring his own. They weren’t just kissing, Harry was learning how and by God that made it so much sweeter.

The soft wool blanket shifted beneath their weight and he heard the rustling of the tall grass and the goldfinches that had not yet flown south for winter but seemed to remain at Warwick solely so they could sing for them in this moment.

Harry’s touches became less exploratory and more pointed, his long fingers sliding over him with increased pressure and speed until Louis was fully aroused, straining against his breeches.

“Wait. I need to compose myself.”

Harry furrowed his brow. Ironically, he did not like being asked to stop.

He twirled a finger in Louis’ hair while they waited anxiously for his excitement to subside, but that only made him more excited. Louis then made peace with the Lord because he was probably going to die on that blanket.

Impatient, Harry reached for him again. Louis had never met anyone so repressed and so starved for affection. He wondered what, if anything, Harry knew about lovemaking.

He laced his fingers through Harry’s and pinned him to the blanket. The young Duke gazed up at him, panting, black lashes sweeping his flushed cheeks.

“Harry, do you know how a man loves another man?”

“My father once owned a painting by William Etty.”

“Is that a no, or—”

“It was a Greek subject, with one soldier poised to plunge his sword into the heart of another.”

Louis’ head fell on Harry’s chest and he laughed softly.

“It’s a very stirring piece!” Harry said defensively.

“I believe you. Now tell me, are you the sword or the heart?”

He bit his lip thoughtfully. “What are you?”

“Accommodating.” Louis smiled.

Harry smiled back and eyed his lips.

Louis kissed his eyelashes, his cheeks, his ear, his dark glossy curls, the hollow of his throat. He quoted Dickens and whispered every word of Latin he knew, even silly words, like iris and capra to amuse him. He hummed Bach’s Agnus Dei, which Harry had played for him on the piano, and recited the prayers Harry spoke in church. Louis worshipped at the altar of Harry’s beauty.

They lay there for hours but it could have been seconds or centuries. Time had no meaning. The only thing that meant anything to Louis was Harry’s mouth when they were kissing and his sighs of contentment when they paused to rest.

Harry reached for his gloves. Even something as small as Harry’s hands being cold made Louis’ chest ache.

“Put your hands under my coat. I’ll warm them.”

It was more than just his hands. The blush on Harry’s cheek was gone. His skin was pale under the silver light of the moon.

The moon.

It was night.

They had to head back.

Riding horseback after hours of tumbling on the blanket with Harry was less than ideal. He was tempted to jump into the icy river to cool off.

They trotted slowly, side-by-side, not speaking but sending each other conspiratorial glances and shy smiles. Harry had done something with Louis, however innocent, that he had never done with anyone else. This bound them together.

When they emerged from the brush and approached the stables, they saw Sir Clarence standing outside smoking his pipe. He wasn’t cross, he was too calculating to be cross. Louis could practically hear the cogs in his brain turning.

Louis dismounted and handed Albertine’s reins to the groom.

“You’re back,” he said, leaning on the weathered stable door. “Everyone’s dined without you. I’ve asked the kitchen to prepare something for just the three of us.”

The three of us.

“How generous of you to invite me to dinner in my own home!” Louis said as he snapped off his gloves.

Clarence must have suspected that Louis had won the young Duke’s favor, because he was being suspiciously congenial. He even had the cook prepare lamb, Louis’ favourite.

During dinner, his cousin enlightened them on the new tax legislation making its way through parliament. Much like the new bill, the conversation moved at a glacial pace. Louis was too tired to change the subject.

Harry scarcely breathed a word. In a misguided attempt to act natural he looked guilty as sin. His eyes never left his plate. Under Clarence’s watchful gaze the Duke didn’t dare acknowledge Louis’ presence or speak about their ride, though it was fairly obvious what they’d been up to from his tousled clothes. Also, he had a leaf in his hair.

Why did his cousin have to ruin everything? Louis did not spend the entire afternoon carefully cultivating an amorous mood to have it wasted on a tedious lecture about the tax code!

While eating dessert, Clarence looked at Harry and gestured to the library.

“I can show you a copy of the proposed bill.”

Harry pushed his dessert away untouched. “It’s been a long day. I think I’ll retire early.”

“So will I,” Louis agreed with an exaggerated yawn. “Long day indeed.”

“Stay, cousin,” Clarence said lighting his pipe. “It’s so rare that you and I talk.”

Begrudgingly, Louis pulled out his cigarette case and put his boots up on the empty chair beside him.

Harry gave Louis one last surreptitious glance before escaping the dining room.

The moment he was gone Clarence placed his palms on the white tablecloth. “Why doesn’t he want to go to the library with me?”

Louis tapped his lips with an unlit cigarette. “Let’s see. Perhaps because your dull.”

“He did not find me dull yesterday.”

“Then perhaps it’s because he’s your social better and doesn’t take orders from the lower ranks.”

“You’re vile.”

“I’m Duke, his equal, it’s only natural that he would prefer my company to yours.”

“James would be horrified to hear you speak this way.”

“He has, and yet he loved me anyway. What does that say about you, whose politics he shared?”

Cruelly Louis glanced at the portrait of his father at the head of the table, who he knew his cousin missed terribly.

“Why is it you never went into politics, Clarence? Was it really because you didn’t want to or would my father’s party not have you? They would have had James.”

“We’ll never know. Someone took him from us.”

“Someone. Yes, on that we can both agree.”

Louis finished his cigarette and snuffed it out on his plate. As he began to stroll out of the dining room, Clarence stopped him.

“There’s just one thing,” he said, packing the bowl of his pipe. “I see families every day at the courthouse whose loved ones have been murdered. Some of these cases are decades old… You let the magistrate declare the fire an accident.”

“I was a child at the time in case you’ve forgotten.”

“You’re not a child anymore. Yet you never reopened the case. Why wouldn’t you if you believe there was foul play?”

Clarence was worse than a hound. Once he picked up the scent of fear he was relentless.

Louis did not have an answer. “Leave it.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Clarence’s trimmed mustache. “Curious isn’t it?”

“I said, leave it!”

He stormed out before his cousin could utter another word.

In the dim hallway Louis leaned against the wall and caught his breath. Fire. He could still smell it. Four years later and ash hung in the air like it was yesterday. He pulled out his lighter and dragged a hand over the flame, possessing it, reminding himself that it could not consume him.

His small light illuminated the drawing room a few feet away. He noticed something shifting in the darkness.

He stepped closer. Harry was sitting inside on a wing chair.

“I thought you’d gone to bed.”

He rose. “I forgot to say goodnight. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Louis wanted so much to be invited to Harry’s bedchamber or to invite him to his, but he knew that suggesting it might make the Duke uneasy. Their afternoon on the riverbank had been perfect. He didn’t dare spoil it.

Instead, Louis simply said, “I leave my bedchamber door unlocked at night.”

“I see.”

Harry said nothing more and Louis did not press the matter.

They were about to head upstairs when Harry stopped him.

“Wait, I have something I need to tell you.”

And in a mad hot burst of affection, the young Duke threw his arms around Louis’ neck and whispered in his ear: “I’m the heart.”

Chapter Text

Harry couldn’t sleep.

He kicked off his blankets and flung open the windows. The heat was unbearable, Louis burned inside him like a fever that would not break.

As he flopped back down on the bed he felt something beneath his pillow.

An envelope.

He broke the wax seal and peered inside. It contained the stamps Louis retrieved from his fox den that morning. The perforated Penny Reds were bright as Louis’ red tailcoat, their sharp edges like the tines on a crown. Harry was cursing himself for not coming up with another reason to go back to the den but all was not lost, at least he now knew that it was west of the stables. He would try again in the morning.

There was something else. Louis had written him a note on a slip of paper. In the Duke’s hasty cursive, were two words:

Dearest one

Harry felt his entire body levitate. He held the piece of paper against his chest. This was the closest thing to a love letter anyone had ever sent him. Dearest one. He was dear to Louis, dearer to him than anyone else.

He read it over and over, tracing the jagged pen strokes with his finger.

Dearest one

He kissed the piece of paper and put it on his pillow, smoothing the empty space beside him with his hand.

Dearest one

Oh how he longed to lie next to the Duke! Could he go to his bedchamber? What would he say? Louis told him that he left his bedchamber door unlocked. It sounded like an invitation but what if Harry had misunderstood?

He needed a reason to go to him. He’d already said goodnight. He glanced at the envelope. He could thank him for the stamps!

Harry sat at the vanity. He ran a silver comb through his curls and dabbed some rosewater on his neck and wrists. He pinched his cheeks to make them glow, and bit his lips to make them full and red. His shapeless nightshirt with its ruffled collar and cuffs was as arousing as his mother’s curtains but he didn’t have any other nightclothes. He unfastened the ribbon around his neck. This would have to do.

Quiet as a church mouse, he tiptoed to the door and turned the knob. As he exited his bedchamber he closed the door behind him with a careful click.

The second he turned around he bumped into someone in the dark.

“Harry!”

“Lady Finnes.”

The older woman’s grey braid fell over one shoulder like an ashen snake. She was in a yellowing nightgown with quarter-length sleeves and a square neckline. Harry was embarrassed to discover that his nightshirt was more modest than that of an elderly woman.

“Insomnia,” she said, shadow deepening the lines of her face. “Walking helps pass the time.” She lifted her candleholder and looked him up and down. “It’s nice to see a boy your age with some modesty. I would present my granddaughter to you if you weren’t Catholic.”

“Thank you. I think.”

“The young gentlemen of Bilsdale could learn a thing or two from you. I’ve just witnessed the most scandalous scene outside my window, the Earl of Pembroke and the Viscount Greindl mounting their stallions for a midnight ride...”

Harry swallowed.

She laughed to herself knowingly. “Innocent child. You haven’t a clue what I’m implying!”

His palms were damp.

“Where are you off to tonight?”

“Me? Library.”

Harry was sure that if her ladyship stared any harder, she would see right through him to every sinful thought and impulse.

But she moved her candle away and bid him goodnight.

Heart pounding he walked down the grand staircase, pretending he was going to the library. He waited at the bottom of the steps until he was sure that Lady Finnes was in her room.

When he heard her door close, he doubled back to Louis’ bedchamber.

This was mad. He had every reason in the world not to step into that room. Yet his body called out for Louis and it felt like a sin against his very nature not to be with him.

He turned the knob. For a brief moment he thought it was locked but the brass bolt was simply worn and rickety. The door creaked open.

On Louis’ sideboard was a candle that had melted down to the wick, its bright flame struggling in a pool of wax. Had Louis lit this candle for him?

Asleep in bed, Louis had his back to him. His bare skin was golden and his hair, soft as the softest fox fur, culminated in a swirl at the nape of his neck. Harry was seized by the urge to kiss this swirl but gripped the chiffonier instead.

The Duke stirred and sat up. He rubbed his eyes. “You came.”

The boldness of Harry’s visit was apparent to both of them and he quickly deflected.
“I wanted to thank you for the stamps.”

“Come here and thank me.” He patted the bed beside him.

Boldness came naturally to Louis.

He was naked from the waist up with the sheet pulled around him.

“Are you in the nude?”

Louis laughed.

“Stop laughing at me!”

“Stop saying, in the nude!”

He pulled back the sheet. “I’m wearing an undergarment.”

This was not helpful. The white cotton was tantalizingly snug and flattered the Duke’s shape. Harry was already devising ways to slip his hand inside them. He sat on the edge of the four-poster bed with one leg tucked beneath him. With his other foot on the ground they weren’t technically in bed together he reasoned.

“Come nearer,” Louis coaxed. “You were not so shy on the riverbank.”

“A bed is different.”

“Are you afraid of what I might do?”

Harry wrung his hands. “I’m afraid of what we might do.”

He felt the bed dip under Louis’ weight as he moved closer. The candle flickered wildly, casting shadows on the room’s baroque furnishings that made the latticework and carved rosettes come to life.

“Did you mean what you said in the note?” Harry asked as Louis’ breath grazed his ear.

“Dearest one,” he said softly. Hearing the words spoken aloud made Harry tremble.

“How do I know you haven’t said these words to dozens of boys?”

“You don’t.”

There it was. That inscrutable gaze, the same look he met when they played cards.

Harry called his bluff. “I don’t believe you have. I believe you’ve only ever said those words to me.”

This disarmed him and Harry knew in an instant that it was true.

He leaned in and kissed Louis on the mouth. His movements weren’t as practiced as the Duke’s. His lips were too wet and he opened them too wide, his tongue seeking out Louis’ with too much eagerness. But Louis liked the messiness of Harry’s kiss and kissed him back with a schoolboy roughness that Harry had come to admire.

Louis’ lips moved to the ivory column of Harry’s throat. Here his kisses were tender. Harry lifted his foot off the ground and climbed into bed beside him.

In only his undergarment, Harry was able to discover Louis’ body anew. His hands roamed over the curves of his sinewy arms, back and heavy thighs. A rider’s thighs, he mused as he squeezed them. Powerful and strong.

Louis tugged at his nightshirt. “Take this off.”

“No.”

Louis could scarcely hide the disappointment in his voice. “We don’t have many days left before you leave for Somerset.”

How could Harry explain that he still questioned Louis’ character, that until he knew for certain what was in that fox den, he would always question it? How could he explain that once he gave his body to Louis, it would change him forever? He was ready to do the unspeakable, or as Louis called it, “make love,” but he was not quite ready to say goodbye to his childhood. Nor did he know how to reconcile the act with his faith. He needed time to make peace with the choice in his heart.

“The night of the hunt,” Harry suggested.

“Then we’ll only have one night together.”

“The night before the hunt?”

“I don’t mean to be indelicate, forgive me, but you won’t be able to ride the next day,” he said, sliding a hand over Harry’s backside.

His frankness made Harry unbearably shy and he flushed with either fear or excitement, he couldn’t tell which.

“Frederick rides every day,” Harry countered.

Louis muffled a laugh with his pillow. “Egad! Don’t compare yourself to the Viscount! You have yet to be deflowered and his petals have been plucked a hundred times over.”

“Then the night before that.”

“In my bedchamber.”

“At midnight.”

“Agreed.”

“Agreed.”

He took Harry’s hand in his.

A deal was struck.

The night before the night before the hunt they would do the unspeakable. But the current night still stretched before them like a cat and Harry was feeling amorous. Might he convince the Duke to entertain his affections even if they led to nothing more than a sweet caress?

He reached out and playfully pawed his undergarment to test the waters.

“Harry,” he reprimanded gently. But he didn’t refuse him. He would never refuse him because Harry was his dearest one.

Still, Harry didn’t want to vex his companion. He pressed a cool hand to his cheek like nursemaid to soothe his longing.

When Louis’ breathing evened, Harry caressed his golden chest, his golden belly, and the thin line of golden hair that dipped beneath his undergarment. My golden boy, he thought to himself as he slipped his hand inside.

“And you say I’m cruel,” Louis breathed.

“Hush.”

To Harry’s delight, the Duke roused immediately. He carefully wrapped a hand around him. Ooooooooh. The skin was smooth and delicate like slip of satin against his palm. How lovely.

“Lord have mercy,” Louis cursed, biting down on his pillow.

This felt much nicer than stroking him though his breeches. He could feel every inch of his tender manhood, every twitch of excitement and a delicious wetness when his thumb circled the tip. It felt so nice in fact that Harry felt a dampness between his own legs that seeped through his undergarment and nightshirt.

Louis suddenly seized him by the shoulders like a man drowning. “If you won’t let me touch you then press yourself against me,” he pleaded. “Show me you feel the same as I do. I’m begging you!”

If Harry did this then Louis would feel his dampness. Mortifying. But was Louis not damp too? If he did not find Louis’ body shameful, why then should he be ashamed of his own body?

He was about to press himself against Louis’ hip, when he thought perhaps it would be polite to warn him. “I’m wet,” he announced.

Curiously, this sent the Duke into a frenzy.

Before Harry could even rest himself against his hip, Louis had flipped him onto his back and pressed his mouth to the wetness on Harry’s nightshirt.

Never in his wildest dreams could he imagine someone doing such a thing. Heavens above, he did not know such an act even existed! Clearly he underestimated the depth of the Duke’s depravity.

Louis buried his face between Harry’s thighs with the nightshirt and undergarment acting as a barrier. It was a wonder he could breathe. He nuzzled and kissed Harry through the fabric until he ached with arousal. What had been the source of so much anguish and shame throughout his life was now being worshipped like it was the most glorious part of him.

It was too much. Harry placed a hand on his head to push him away. Instead, he ran his fingers through his hair and stroked the swirl at the nape of Louis’ neck.

He lifted his hips to meet Louis’ most devilish of kisses.

“Yes!”

The sensation was every sly look, hot touch and sharp word from Louis magnified and set on fire.

Harry loved it so much he wanted to share the sensation. “Let me kiss yours now,” he said, rolling out from under him.

Harry crawled between his legs, the heat from Louis’ thighs warming his cheeks. But before he could kiss the Duke’s manhood, Louis pulled away and wrapped his arms around his knees.

“Don’t you dare!”

“You would deny me a simple kiss?” Harry said in the most wounded voice he could muster.

“You deny me release! I do not enjoy being in agony, Duke.”

He rested his chin on Louis’ knee. “Please.”

The Duke appeared to be weakening when—smack—he hit Harry with a pillow.

Harry picked up a pillow and hit him back, feathers sailing on the air around them like snow.

Louis tackled him.

They got into a scrap, grunting as they tried to outmaneuver each other. Harry was shocked by the violence, when he realized: this is what boys do! Boys who were companions. Boys who were not held prisoner inside their parents’ home.

Eventually they tired and lay panting in each other’s arms. Louis drew him near and ruffled his curls, his blue eyes bright and crinkled with a joy only Harry could know because he felt it too. His heart skipped anxiously. He did want to give Louis release. He wanted to give him everything. Why should they wait? Couldn’t he forget the world around him and live in the moment for just one night? He glanced up at Louis, not quite able to form the words but hoping the Duke would ask him once more to take off his nightshirt.

Ask me again! I’ll say yes!

Louis misread his expression. “Sleep?”

Harry shut his eyes.

“Haven’t you ever been held before?” Louis asked, loosening Harry’s stiff arms while trying to find a position that was comfortable.

“Charles hugs me once a year on my birthday.”

“And your mother and father?”

“Perhaps when I was an infant but I can’t remember that far back.”

Louis’ arms tightened around him. “Then I will hold you all the more, dearest one.”

It was a common thing, being held, experienced by peasants from York to London, yet Harry had never felt richer. He nestled into the embrace and fell asleep with Louis’ lips on his forehead.

***

Harry had a curious dream in Louis’ bed that night. He dreamt it was the night of their clandestine soiree in the drawing room, only this time Lady Finnes was there. She was not passing judgment on their dancing and drinking and kissing, which was most unlike her.

She stood by the bureau and pointed at the drawer.

***

He woke with a start. The sun was coming up over the forest and the thrushes perched on the windowsill began their morning call, which sounded like pleasantries when one was happy and squabbling when one was cross.

Harry was cross. He had to be back in his bedchamber before Charles came to wake him.

Slowly, he tried to duck out from under Louis’ arm but the Duke threw a heavy leg overtop of him. “Not yet,” he moaned. “Another hour.”

“It’s dawn!”

“Half hour.”

Harry wrestled himself away, Louis' hand grasping the air to catch him.

“I do hope you won’t leave me for your valet the morning after we make love,” he pouted.

Harry kissed his cheek. “I’ll stay with you the morning after,” and then grinning, “In the nude!”

He made it in the nick of time. No sooner had he snuck back into his room then Charles swung open the door to wake him. Without a second to tuck himself in, he sat on the edge of the bed with his feet together and his hands in his lap.

His valet surveyed the room with suspicion. Everything appeared as it should but his master was not usually up before Charles woke him. He draped a towel over his forearm and poured a pitcher of hot water into the basin to wash Harry’s face.

Their morning routine went on as usual. Charles was tired. His eyes were red from staying up late to repair Teddy’s watch, so he did not notice the stain on Harry’s nightshirt, nor did he ask why Harry was already awake when he entered.

After his hair was combed and he was dressed, he thought he’d gotten away with it when he heard Charles’ voice behind him.

“Dearest one?” He lifted the note off Harry’s pillow. “Who sent this to you?”

“Nobody,” Harry said quickly.

Charles slid his spectacles down the end of his nose to examine Harry’s face. “Then you won’t mind if I throw it away,” he said holding it above the dustbin.

Harry shrugged.

With his eyes still on his master Charles began to tear the paper in half.

“DON’T!” Harry screamed.

He snatched the paper from his valet’s hand and smoothed it against his chest.

“Is it from the Duke of Warwick? What’s the devil done to you?”

“Nothing!”

He crossed his arms and tapped his foot waiting for a proper answer.

“Fine, if you must know… he kissed me.”

Charles blinked. “I’m going to the police.”

“No!” Harry howled, and burst into tears.

Bewildered, his valet took out his handkerchief to dry his eyes the way he did when he was but a tiny lad.

“Your grace, the wicked Duke of Warwick has corrupted you,” he tsked. “Don’t you see?”

“I don’t care if he’s wicked! He’s my golden boy and I’m his dearest one,” Harry sobbed. “I’d rather be wicked than be without him.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

Harry hugged his valet’s shoulders even though it wasn’t his birthday. “Please don’t tell mother.”

“I won’t, your grace.” He pursed his lips. “But only because it would kill her.”

Harry sniffed and composed himself. “Thank you, Charles.”

He did not mean for his valet to find out this way but he was glad he did. He was Harry’s most trusted confidant and Harry hated keeping secrets from him. Now all he had to do was find a way to explain that he and the wicked Duke of Warwick would be doing the unspeakable…

On his was to the library to meet Sir Clarence for their morning debrief, he replayed his dream in his head. It was such an odd notion, Lady Finnes standing in the drawing room during their soiree yet somehow it rang true. What was the connection between Lady Finnes and Louis’ bureau?

It stumped him until he saw Lady Silcox standing in the rotunda gushing over the painting of the hound.

During their walk in the garden she told him a rumor she’d heard from Lady Finnes about an argument Louis’ father had days before the fire.

On the night of the soiree, when a gust of wind blew out the candles, Harry searched the bureau for matches when he traced the initials of the late Duke on an old day planner.

The day planner.

If Harry could figure out whom Louis’ father met with the day of the argument, he might learn the identity of the killer!

He ran to the drawing room and pulled on the drawer. It was locked.

“Beth!”

She poked her head in the door. “Good morning, Duke.”

“Do you know how to pick a lock?”

Beth tossed her head, curls bouncing with indignation. “Harry, I’m a lady.” She swept past him and took a pin out her hair. “Of course I do.”

They hovered over the bureau together, her tiny fingers working quickly to jimmy the bolt inside. Harry looked over his shoulder anxiously.

“May I ask why we’re robbing the Duke of Warwick?”

“We’re not robbing him.” He reminded her of the rumor and explained about the late Duke’s day planner.

“I’m solving a murder mystery!”

“Possibly,” he said watching the door.

Then they heard it. A click. The drawer was unlocked. But at that exact moment, Louis came thundering down the hall with half the club behind him like cavalry.

“Take out the pin,” Harry hissed.

“I can’t, it’s stuck!”

Louis’ voice grew louder.

Her bottom lips trembled with fear.

“Go, Beth, I’ll handle this.”

She scurried away through the French doors into the garden as Louis entered the drawing room.

Harry sat perched atop the bureau, his swinging leg obscuring the drawer’s keyhole.

Louis was in his cricket whites with a bat over his shoulder. He must have rescheduled the match and made amends with Teddy.

“Why aren’t you dressed for the match?”

“I wasn’t aware it had been rescheduled.”

He leaned on his bat. “Well it has. You best get into your cricket whites so I can admire your bottom on the pitch.”

“Are we on the same team?” Harry asked, hoping Louis did not notice the prick of sweat on his brow.

“You’re on Clarence’s team. He thinks I’ve corrupted you. Imagine that? If only he could have seen you last night, begging to kiss my—“

Harry slapped a hand over his mouth.

The Duke kissed his palm and winked.

It looked as though he would turn to leave when he slid between Harry’s thighs. If Louis glanced down he would see the pin sticking out of the keyhole.

“Forty-six hours until our night together,” he murmured, brushing a thumb across Harry’s cheek.

“You’re counting the hours?”

“I’m counting the hours, the minutes, the breaths until I join my body with yours.”

A few days ago Harry had no love life to speak of, now his life was constant romance!

He came closer. Harry was petrified the pin would graze his leg.

Louis stopped and smiled. “Don’t be long!” he called, swinging his bat as he left the drawing room.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

Alone again he was able to twist and dislodge the pin.

He slid open the drawer.

There in the center of the drawer sat the box of matches.

The day planner was gone.

Chapter Text

The gilded face of the grandfather clock struck seven. It was a mere twenty-nine hours before his night with Louis.

Harry was beside himself with fright. When people spoke to him he jumped, when food was placed before him he had no appetite.

The Duke’s blue eyes, like still waters, betrayed no emotion. He carried on as host to the members of Bilsdale, smoking, playing cards, laughing as though he wasn’t about to change Harry’s life and the very essence of his being forever and ever.

Harry was bitterly disappointed that they couldn’t find any time alone together if for no other reason than to reassure him that Louis really did care for him.

But just as Harry doubted the Duke’s affection and felt like all hope in the world was lost, Louis would place a hand on his knee beneath the table and every doubt in his mind was completely obliterated by lust.

Twenty-eight hours.

Louis, Oscar and Lord Beardsley were in the drawing room discussing the club’s restructuring. Lord Graves was stepping down in the spring and they needed to appoint a new treasurer. It seemed as though Beardsley was making a play on behalf of Oscar who, fidgeting with his pipe, was not nearly as articulate.

On the divan there was no opportunity for them to touch and being in the same room as Louis with no way to touch him was misery, so Harry went to his room to sulk and count the hours alone.

Once in his bedchamber he heard a sharp knock at the door. His heart soared. Was it the Duke here to save him from his loneliness?

It was Frederick.

He extended his arm to Harry. “Walk with me.”

They linked arms and wandered through the house’s empty east wing. Harry couldn’t resist touching the sleeve of Frederick’s fine velvet jacket. It was violet, with silver stitching and gemstone buttons. No matter the occasion the Viscount always looked like the inside of a jewelry box. It made Harry self-conscious of his own black clothing and he wondered if it was finally time to come out of mourning.

They said nothing for a while. Frederick broke the silence. “So, you’ve kissed him.”

“He told you!”

“No, you did.”

Curses.

“More than a kiss?” he purred.

The Viscount was the last person on Earth Harry wanted to confide in, but Louis was busy playing host, Clarence thought Louis was a murderer, and Charles was convinced he was the devil incarnate. Harry was desperate to talk to someone so he turned to Frederick.

“Tomorrow night there will be more than a kiss. Much more.”

Frederick grinned. “You’ve scheduled it? Will the Queen be in attendance?”

“It’s an important occasion!” Harry said defensively.

They stood and examined an oil painting of The Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartans fought valiantly but were no match for the Persian forces. The Viscount’s half-lidded gaze fell over the blood and blades with resignation.

He must have felt the tension in Harry’s arm because he said, “Don’t fret, Virgin. Louis will be gentle.”

Harry blinked at the gashes on the soldiers’ ivory flesh. “Will it hurt?”

Frederick wasn’t one to coddle. “Yes.” He then took it upon himself to educate Harry about the more practical aspects of lovemaking: cleanliness, oils, and Harry nearly burst into flames.

He squeezed Harry’s arm. “It will also feel wonderful. Louis cares about his lovers’ pleasure.”

Harry didn’t know what was more awkward that they were talking about Louis pleasuring him or that Frederick was speaking from personal experience. Since they were already in the middle of the most uncomfortable conversation in human history, he had nothing to lose and asked the burning question on his mind.

“Frederick, what does Louis… like? I’ve never… I don’t know how to please a man,” he blurted out.

The Viscount released his arm and faced him. Harry braced himself for mockery but Frederick’s expression was serious.

“Harry, I’m only going to say this once, so listen carefully. Louis is in love with you. You are what gives him pleasure.” Then he looked down and sighed. “Please don’t hurt my friend.”

Harry was speechless. He wasn’t capable of hurting anyone!

They linked arms again and kept walking.

It was Harry’s turn to break the silence. “I heard you and Roy went for a midnight ride.”

Frederick returned to his old self and lip curled he asked, “Who told you that?”

“Rumor,” Harry said coyly.

The Viscount slipped a hand into his pocket. “He gave me his college pin.”

The gold caught the light. It was a beautiful pin with a crest of three lilies, the French fleur-de-lys and the English lion, both taken from the Royal Arms. The motto was Floreat Etona, May Eton Flourish.

“Hideous, isn’t it? At Harrow our crest is the lion rampant and two silver arrows enfiled with a wreath of laurel. Our motto, Stet Fortuna Domus, Let the Fortune of the House Stand.” He slipped it back in his velvet pocket and cocked his head. “Do you know what it means when a man gives you his pin? It’s like a ring between man and woman. It’s a pledge of his devotion.”

Harry furrowed his brow. “Louis has given me stamps and a book of hymns. No pin.”

Frederick slapped his back. “Duke! You have to do a lot more than kiss to earn a man’s pin!”

They both laughed at that.

They walked down the staircase to the rotunda and Harry spotted the grandfather clock.

“Twenty-seven hours,” he said anxiously.

Frederick put his hands on Harry’s shoulders, “You will love it,” and surprised him by kissing his cheek.

This filled Harry with ease and a strange sense of tenderness for the prickly Viscount.

They parted ways. Frederick had a card game to attend with Roy and a few of the countless footmen and pageboys they drew into their orbit. Love looked so different on the Earl and the Viscount than it did on the two Dukes, like a crest with different symbols and motto but no less meaningful.

Harry thought he might take another peek at Louis in drawing room. He was exactly where he left him with Oscar, Lord Beardsley, and a fresh glass of sherry. They were arguing now, Louis talking emphatically about the club’s ledgers while Beardsley droned on about tradition.

Harry rested his cheek on the doorframe and sighed.

Louis’ eyes flashed at him for only a brief moment before pursing his lips and returning to his conversation.

Harry wouldn’t leave but fingered the molding on the doorframe and watched him.

Louis shook his head and mouthed: you’re distracting me!

This pleased him. Perhaps if he were distracting enough Louis would join him upstairs.

But before he could spirit Louis away, Sir Clarence came up from behind and clasped his shoulder.

“Come with me to the library. I have something to show you.”

Clarence had become suspicious of all the time Harry spent with Louis, but the Duke assured him that he was only getting close to Louis in order to dredge up information. This wasn’t a complete lie since he was closer than ever to discovering the location of Louis’ fox den.

In the fire-lit library, Clarence grabbed his satchel from the chair and turned it over. Dozens of letters poured out onto the desk.

Harry picked one up. They were Louis’ private correspondence with his barrister.

Clarence dragged a hand through his unkempt hair, a few grey strands sticking out like corkscrews.

“You read though half and I’ll read through the other half,” he ordered.

Harry lifted one of the envelopes and touched the jagged edge of its broken seal.

“This is the Duke’s private correspondence.”

Clarence held an unfolded letter in one hand and made notes in his journal with the other, pen violently scratching the paper with each stroke.

“How did you get these?”

“Never mind how I got them!” Clarence’s fist struck the desk angrily.

Harry had never seen him lose his temper. It was ugly and it made Harry feel ugly for ever having agreed to help him.

Then he composed himself. “An acquaintance of mine at the courthouse retrieved them from his barrister’s office.”

“These are private letters!” Harry cried. “It’s illegal! It’s wrong!”

He turned to leave when Clarence grabbed him roughly by the arm and swung him around. His eyes were wild, his skin grey, dry as parchment, as though he hadn’t slept in days.

“Sometimes you have to do wrong to make the world right! My uncle, my aunt and my cousins are dead, burned alive in their beds! Is what happened to them not illegal?”

His argument was nonsensical.

“We don’t know that Louis’ guilty. I can’t betray him this way!”

The fire hissed and crackled across the room. Clarence lowered his gaze. “You already have.”

He was right. Was Harry really any better than Clarence? They had conspired together for weeks. Harry had been searching for the fox den. He broke into Louis' bureau. He suddenly felt deeply ashamed. If he truly cared for the Duke why didn’t he trust him? Why was his word not enough?

Harry wanted to end his involvement in this investigation but he had gone too far. He knew too much. He was afraid of what Clarence might do or say if he refused him now.

“I’ll read them in my bedchamber,” he said, unable to stomach Clarence’s presence.

“Good.”

Clarence handed him a leather folder to conceal them.

He did bring the letters to his bedchamber, shoved them in his vanity, but he had absolutely no intention of reading them. He would hand them back to Clarence in a few days time and say he learned nothing and leave it at that. If Clarence didn’t believe him he could read the letters himself.

***

Louis glanced at the clock on the mantel beside his desk.

Thirteen hours.

He felt his breeches tighten. He leaned over and groaned. He would have done away with this ridiculous plan of waiting and ravaged Harry yesterday had the infuriating business with Lord Graves not sprung up.

It killed Louis to see the young Duke pining for him without being able to hold and comfort him. But he had to resolve this issue about appointing a new treasurer while the club was still convened at Warwick.

Though there was much debate, in the end Louis managed to convince them to appoint Roy. While Lord Beardsley was adamant that the spot go to his soon to be son-in-law, Oscar, Louis knew the position would require complete transparency, and he could think of no one he trusted more than his best friend.

Louis thought Beardsley should worry less about Oscar’s club standing and more about the lad’s pathological lust for scullery maids. Revolting, truly.

Roy was meeting him in his office that morning where he would deliver the good news.

The Earl lumbered into the room and closed the door behind him. His hunting jacket smelled of pine and sparkled with drops of fresh fallen rain. It’s earthy tones brought out the warmth in his eyes.

He was surprised by the news and gladly accepted the position. Louis pulled a cigar out from his desk and handed it to his friend to celebrate.

Roy then glanced at the clock. “So… Thirteen hours.” He smirked.

“Who told you!”

“Frederick.”

“How on earth does he know!”

Roy sat on the edge of Louis’ desk and brought the match up to the cigar on his lips. “The poor lamb is frightened of the act,” he puffed. “He needed Frederick’s guidance.”

Louis banged his head on the desk. “Did the fiend terrify him?”

“He told him what he needed to know.”

“What did Harry ask?”

“How to pleasure you.”

Oh sweet angel! Did he really not know that his beauty was all the pleasure in this world?

“He also asked if there would be pain.”

Louis’ heart burst at the thought of Harry’s innocence.

He circled his desk and stood in front of Roy, taking the cigar from his fingers.

“God, was I ever that innocent?”

“Never,” he replied in a way that said precisely the opposite.

Louis fell into Roy’s arms. “Help. I’m in love,” he said, words muffled by the thickness of Roy’s tweed hunting jacket.

The Earl patted his head. “I know you are.”

Then Louis heard the familiar thudding of Roy’s heart quicken.

“Louis, there’s something I need to tell you…”

“Oh?”

“I’ve given Frederick my pin.”

Louis looked up with confusion. He didn’t know why this surprised him. The two had become inseparable the past few weeks, though the thought of the icy Viscount being in love with anyone was perplexing to say the least.

“What did he say?”

“Oh, he was quite horrified. Told me a Harrow boy in possession of the Eton crest was next to treason.”

Louis could picture him saying exactly that. “And?”

“He accepted it.”

“I see.”

Roy touched Louis’ cheek. “You’re not cross, are you?”

He wasn’t angry but he couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. He and Roy had been lovers since their first year at Eton. Louis seduced Frederick at the opera when they were just fifteen. He understood why they loved each other because he loved them both.

No, it was more than jealousy. It was fear, fear of change, fear of giving his heart to just one person.

Roy put the cigar out on the standing ashtray and a thick curl of smoke rose to the ceiling. “You know you’re always welcome in our bed… You and young Harry.” He winked.

Louis jumped on his back and wrestled him to the ground laughing.

After his meeting with Roy he still wasn’t able to go to Harry. He convened in the parlor room with the rest of the club to confirm Roy’s appointment.

He watched out the window as Harry rode by at gallop on his stallion. Those long legs would soon be wrapped around him…

Six hours.

In the dining room, Eleanor pinched Harry’s pale cheek and urged him to take her place by Louis’ side as she took a seat next to Lady Finnes whose husband was in bed, ill.

He wasn’t eating.

Louis squeezed his thigh beneath the table. This was agony! He wanted to reassure him that there was nothing to worry about but he was unable to steal away even a minute to speak with him privately.

Louis leaned over. “Eat. You’ll need your strength.”

Harry jumped.

Why did Louis say that? Could he not come up with a gentler phrase? Egad! The boy was trembling!

Teddy entered the dining room and directed the footmen carrying platters of roast pork. His pocket watch was fixed and Louis could have sworn the infernal thing was now twice as loud. As his valet walked around the table all Louis could hear was its incessant ticking circling he and Harry like a fly. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.

As dinner ended and his guests rose from the table he felt Harry place a hand on top of his. “Will you sit with me this evening? Before we…”

But Louis was already being whisked away by Lord Beardsley to the drawing room for brandies.

“You owe me a drink and an explanation, Duke!”

He stroked Harry’s hand with his thumb. “Five hours,” was all he managed to say.

Harry was too vexed to sit in the drawing room and instead wandered off with Frederick. God only knew what abominable things the Viscount was teaching him.

When Louis finally did have a spare moment to comfort him, the boy was nowhere to be found.

Then he remembered how Harry fussed over the note he had left with the stamps. He took a piece of stationary and a pen from his bureau. He decided to write him another note and sneak it into his room so that Harry would find it when he was preparing for bed.

See you soon, dearest one.

Yes, the phrase Harry loved so much would be the perfect antidote to his worries.

He dashed upstairs and opened the door to Harry’s bedchamber. Harry would not be sleeping in his bed that night so there was no use slipping it under his pillow as he did with the stamps. Where would Harry find it that his valet wouldn’t?

Louis then remembered how Harry smelled so sweetly of rosewater the night he came to Louis’ bedchamber. Louis would slip the note beneath the bottle.

Harry’s perfume was not resting on top of the vanity. It must have been inside one of the drawers.

Louis pulled on the gold leaf handle. There was Harry’s rosewater among a pile of letters sticking out of a leather folder. Curious that Harry would have received so much post after such a short stay.

Louis held the candle closer.

These letters were not addressed to Harry.

They were addressed to Louis’ barrister.

These letters were from Louis.

His hands were shaking so badly wax spilled from the candle onto the stationary. Why was Harry in possession of his private correspondence? And then he noticed the initials on the leather folder that contained them.

Clarence.

It all came rushing to him at once, like sour wine spilling over a goblet and staining everything it touched. That’s what they had been meeting about every day in the library. His cousin was trying to incriminate him and Harry was… helping him.

He took back the letters before slamming the drawer shut and accidentally dropped the note on the vanity.

Louis stumbled out of the room. He felt dizzy. Sick.

How could he have been so blind? Harry wasn’t in love with him. Born in the sterile halls of Somerset, he was as cold as the mother and father who raised him. He wasn’t a victim of his parents, he was his parents. What was Louis to him? An intellectual curiosity? An insect he could pin behind a plate of glass alongside the rest of his collections?

He arrived at the door of his bedchamber where William was waiting for him as he did nearly every night.

The footman, youngest of his rank, would wait there for hours, until dawn if he had to, in case Louis was in need of anything before bed. Even after Louis had rejected him, tossed him aside like he was nothing, William was still fiercely devoted to him.

A pup with the will of a hound.

“Your grace, what’s wrong? What’s happened?” He stood, dark eyes gleaming with worry.

Louis had planned to be alone, to tell no one, but the pain was such a heavy burden it fell uncontrollably from his lips.

“He betrayed me,” Louis choked and pressed the letters against William’s chest.

William knew who he was because there was only one he who possessed Louis’ heart, one he with the ability to break it.

He looked at the letters with shock. William hated Harry but even he didn’t think the Duke was capable of such a thing.

“He doesn’t love me.” Tears fell from Louis’ eyes before he had the wherewithal to stop them.

He felt William’s soft breath on his cheeks as he kissed his tears away. “I love you.”

Louis let himself be kissed.

Daringly, the boy wrapped his arms around his neck and held him tight. “I love you,” he said again.

It felt good.

The grandfather clock chimed downstairs and Louis’ head snapped around at the sound.

One hour.

“Shall I leave you?” William whispered.

Louis touched a dark curl that had fallen over the boy’s eye.

“No, join me in my bedchamber tonight.”

Now William was near tears. “Me?”

“You.”

Louis grabbed him by the hips and hungrily filled the poor boy’s mouth with his tongue. William cried out between gasps of pleasure. They tumbled into Louis' bedchamber kissing frantically.

“Tell me again,” Louis hissed as he fumbled with the buttons on William’s uniform.

“I love you!”

“Again,” Louis breathed furiously.

William dropped to his knees and hugged Louis’ waist. “I love you!”

Louis hooked a hand 'round the back of the boy’s neck. “Again!”

“I worship you! I adore you! Take me! Make me yours!”

Each word flowed through Louis like a dose of opium numbing his pain. The young footman began to unfasten his breeches and Louis felt euphoric.

Chapter Text

Fifty-nine minutes.

Fear was beginning to give way to excitement.

He went to Frederick’s bedchamber after dinner and the Viscount lent him a lace-trimmed nightshirt that he procured in France. It exposed the collarbone and knees and was the most scandalous article of clothing Harry had ever laid eyes on. He categorically refused to wear it but when the Viscount argued that it would allow Louis to kiss his neck and thighs, Harry quietly slipped it beneath his arm.

In his own bedchamber, he rang for Charles and sat at the vanity. Curiously, his bottle of rosewater was on the ground by his boots. He picked it up and rested it next to the mirror, where he discovered a note. It was from the Duke.

See you soon, dearest one.

***

William unfastened Louis’ breeches. He was about to take the Duke in his mouth when Louis placed a hand on his head and stopped him.

“No, I want to fuck you.”

The footman scrambled to his feet and began taking off his clothes. He turned around. Louis wondered why he was being so modest, when he noticed that the boy’s shirt was old, likely a hand-me-down, with holes that had been darned more than once. He then folded his shirt and pants and placed them on the chiffonier in that careful way the poor treat all their possessions, because they had so few.

Louis undressed and threw his clothes to the ground.

***

Forty-seven minutes.

Charles arrived to prepare Harry for bed. Instead of allowing his valet to wash him, Harry grabbed a rag from the basin and began fastidiously washing himself, every crevice, even between his toes.

“You’ll scrub your skin off!” Charles exclaimed. He fetched a fresh rag, dipped it in the soapy water and gently washed Harry’s back.

When he was done he wrapped the Duke in a Turkish towel he had warmed by the hearth and reached into the wardrobe to retrieve his nightshirt. Harry pushed his way to the wardrobe and handed him the new nightshirt he received from Frederick.

“What is… this?” He cleaned his glasses with his handkerchief to get a better look at it.

“A gift from the Viscount Greindl. Do you like it?”

He held it up to the candle. “It’s obscene.”

“It’s French!” Harry chirped.

His valet removed his towel and carefully slipped the nightshirt over his head. The sight of his young master in something so provocative made him blush.

He picked up Harry’s clothes from the chair and began folding them.

“Do you think I’m handsome?” Harry asked, adjusting his nightshirt and posing in the large gilt mirror.

Charles put a hand on his hip. “You’re the handsomest boy in all of England!” he snapped, affronted by the mere suggestion that Harry may not be handsome.

His was hardly an objective opinion. Harry searched his reflection in the mirror and hoped that Louis would find his appearance pleasing.

Charles folded Harry’s tailcoat over his arm. He would bring it down to the servant’s hall to be washed and ironed. A dozen others exactly like it hung in the wardrobe.

Harry touched the black fabric.

“I’ve decided to come out of mourning, Charles. Send for some new tailcoats. Velvet. Like the ones the Viscount Greindl wears.”

Charles frowned. “The Viscount Greindl is a fop who spends his evenings at the opera, and his nights doing… Lord knows what.” He tugged at the hem of his master’s nightshirt trying to cover his knees.

Harry put a finger to his lips thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should start attending the opera? I do love music.”

“Be a good boy and continue studying music at Somerset. Play for your mother. She adores your little concerts!”

Harry rolled his eyes then listed some potential colors for new tailcoats: sapphire blue, rose red, emerald, lavender, blush pink, gold...

“You really think it’s time, your grace?”

Harry picked up the note from Louis. “I’m no longer grieving the past. I’m celebrating the future. Charles, I’ve never been so happy!”

***

Louis guided William to the bed.

Walking across the room that had once belonged to his mother and father he tried to remember what it looked like before the fire. His fingers skimmed the gold leaf sideboard that had once been oak, the red wallpaper that had once been dove grey.

Louis asked William to lie down but did not immediately join him.

He poured himself a glass of wine from the decanter on the sideboard and took a sip.

Watching the spidery minute hand of his wall clock, he wondered if Harry had noticed that the letters were missing from his vanity. When he did, surely he would deduce that Louis was the one who found them. Harry was too clever not to.

He lit a candle by his bedside and gazed at the naked boy through the sheer panels of the canopy. William lay on his belly and crossed his legs at the ankle, the pads of his feet pink and warm. His skin was ivory like Harry’s but with a light smattering freckles like a star map along his shoulders. He was slimmer than Harry too, his muscles hard and wiry from work, except for his ass, his ass looked soft as a ripe peach.

***

Twenty-one minutes.

Charles turned down the bed and Harry toed the Persian rug beneath his bare feet. It depicted a peacock its tail feathers the motif of the rug’s intricate pattern. Harry thought it was the height of tackiness the first time he stepped into that room but now the ostentatious creature charmed him.

He hugged the bedpost and watched as his valet folded the sheet-corner at a perfect ninety-degree angle.

“You won’t find me here in the morning.”

Charles didn’t look up from the bed but continued fluffing Harry’s pillows, pretending he didn’t understand why Harry wouldn’t be in his room in the morning, like he pretended he didn’t know why Harry insisted on washing himself that night or why he wanted to wear a revealing new nightshirt.

“I will ring for you from the Duke’s bedchamber.”

His valet stopped fussing over the bedding and said quietly, “Please don’t do this.”

Harry explained like he was relaying something he’d learned in a textbook: “We need to be together the morning after we--I’ve never done this before but I gather that’s the proper etiquette. Two lovers,” Harry felt his entire body turn crimson. He couldn’t believe he’d actually said the word aloud, “They hold each other and perhaps talk about the act. Say kind things about it. Perhaps they do it again…” This was more of a hope than a hypothesis. “I don’t know. I don’t have all the facts yet.”

“It’s an abomination.”

Harry didn’t know what to expect when he told his valet but he was disappointed.

“It’s between me and God,” Harry said firmly. He’d never before acted like master to Charles but he was the authority on the subject of his own soul.

He waited for Charles to scold him, lecture him, threaten to tell his mother but his valet became somber and still.

“He is not who you think he is, your grace.”

“I know his heart.”

“Even those who serve him, those closest to him, believe he’s guilty.”

“There’s no proof,” he said with a twinge of shame. If anyone would know it was Harry. He’d poured over the facts of the case for weeks.

“They saw him outside that night, by the edge of the forest, watching the house burn.”

Louis was in his fox den Harry said reassuringly to himself. That’s why he appeared by the edge of the forest. He wasn’t running away from the fire he was running toward it.

Not unsubtly, Charles handed him his rosary for his nightly prayers.

Harry looped the opaline beads around his slender hands. He didn’t care if the whole world was against Louis. He had faith in him.

***

Louis crawled through the canopy onto the bed, sleek as a fox in his covert.

He caressed the footman’s leg and goosebumps rippled across the boy’s pale flesh.

It felt like a lifetime ago that he had planned to make love to Harry in this bed. He had planned to be gentle. He would have undressed him slowly, untying the ribbon on his nightshirt like the bow on a precious gift. Then he would have kissed every inch of him until Harry unraveled with pleasure beneath his lips. He would have watched the color rise to his full cheeks as he eased inside him and read his every breath and moan as he deflowered him with deep, careful thrusts.

His eyes fell on the letters where he had tossed them on the rug beneath his discarded clothes. Every day Harry met with Clarence in the library to “translate Latin.” How could Louis have been so blind? No, deep down he knew something was wrong. He simply did not want to believe it. He wanted to believe Harry loved him. He wanted to believe it so badly.

In the candlelight with his face pressed into the pillow and his dark hair already sweaty, curling at the nape of his neck, William looked almost indistinguishable from the Duke.

Louis no longer had any desire to be gentle.

The footman rubbed his cheek on the lace pillow, surely the finest fabric he’d ever laid his head on, and said, “I’ve dreamed of this night.”

Louis sank his teeth into the back of the boy’s thigh and he yelped.

His memory flashed to his family’s screams.

All screams sound the same when they are one’s last. Woman, man, adult, child, mother, father, brother. A cacophony of pain.

***

Charles left.

Alone in his bedchamber Harry dabbed the rosewater behind his ears and on his wrists, the blue veins behind his translucent skin like the lively brushstrokes of a seascape. He glanced at the wall clock’s porcelain dial.

Nine minutes.

It would take less than one to walk to Louis’ bedchamber.

He peered out the door to see if Lady Finnes was on another one of her late night strolls. He couldn’t risk anyone seeing him in this nightshirt. They would know immediately that he was wearing it for erotic purposes.

He waited with his ear pressed to the door until he was sure not a soul was awake.

***

Louis had been with servants before but William was different. He didn’t just say he loved Louis, he meant it.

His desperate declarations of love became sweeter still the closer they came to the act.

“I love you,” he whispered into the pillow as Louis hovered above him. “I love you,” he mewed again as Louis slipped a hand beneath his belly.

He lifted the footman’s narrow hips off the bed until he was on his hands and knees and pressed himself against the boy’s round ass. William’s spine dipped down and he parted his legs slavishly, exposing himself to his master in the most sinful way. It was something the Duke always appreciated about him. He could read Louis’ mind, anticipate his every desire. He was the best servant Louis ever had and was sure to make a fine young lover.

But Louis wasn’t thinking about William’s future prospects as a bedmate. He wanted to be inside him now, quiet the voices in his head until he could no longer think or feel anything at all.

Murderer. Killer. The monster of Warwick House. Blood on his hands. Shame. Shame.

As Louis was about to enter the boy, William turned suddenly and threw his arms around Louis’ neck.

“Wait, your grace, there’s something I must tell you.”

No, no, no, Louis did not want to speak!

“Do you remember the day your parents took you and your brothers to London for The World Fair?”

“What?” he gasped, trying to turn William around again.

“You said your boots were so shiny you could see your reflection in them. Do you remember?”

Louis nodded as though he remembered but he did not.

“I was the one who polished them! Old Jimmy said he done it, but it was me! I never said. Didn’t want you to think me boastful. Happiest day of my life.” He hugged Louis’ neck tightly. “Until today.”

Louis held the boy’s thin frame loosely in his arms. How young he looked, naked with his heart laid bare.

Most masters would have pitied the lad but Louis was envious for he knew exactly what it was to love the way William loved him. He felt it only once in his life.
William’s breathing deepened with arousal. Unabashedly, he picked up the vial of oil from the sideboard and poured some in his palm. He spread some on himself before giving the Duke a slow practiced stroke, leaning in to kiss his mouth.

Louis looked into the boy’s dark eyes and said, “I can’t.”

***

Harry waited anxiously as the minutes ticked by, so eager to see Louis he thought he might run down the hall and burst through the door five minutes early.

He composed himself. He did not want to arrive early or late but perfectly on time for their perfect night.

So many questions were running through his mind. How would it start? Would he take his nightshirt off, or would Louis? Should he kiss Louis first or wait to be kissed? Should he lie on his back or on his front? Would Louis put the oil on himself or was that Harry’s task? When he posed these questions to Frederick, the Viscount said that nature would answer them. Lovemaking was the language of the body, not the mind.

Harry had to trust his own urges and Louis’ too.

***

William was shaking. “Is it something I said?”

Louis brushed away a stray tear with the back of his hand. “I simply can’t.”

“Is it because of him?”

As he began to rise from the bed the footman grabbed both of Louis’ wrists, his bony white fingers like iron shackles.

“I know you don’t love me, why would you? I’m a mere servant, born to a scullery maid, the lowliest among us.” He shook his head woefully. “I can’t imagine how low I must look in your eyes. It shames me to think of it. But I… I can be him.”

William kissed Louis softly, messily and slipped an exploratory hand between his legs, touching him the way a virgin would, expertly mimicking Harry’s shy gaze beneath his curls. His demeanor was so like Harry’s Louis felt bewitched and threw William off of him in terror.

“Enough! How can you debase yourself this way?”

He looked at the mirror across the room, his boyish features now twisted with anguish. “Because I am nothing.”

The violence he directed at his own image scared Louis. This was a mistake. He should have kept his distance from William. A love like his was as dangerous as it was beautiful. He’d awakened something terrible in the boy.

“Go, William!” he said, an eye on the clock. “Sleep in one of the guestrooms. I’ll see to you in the morning.”

Louis couldn’t stand to be near him but he feared the boy might harm himself if he were sent back to his tiny cell in the servants’ quarters.

Catatonic with grief William stepped naked toward the door.

***

Harry’s palms were sweaty.

He crept down the darkened hallway with no candle only his touch to guide him. His fingers groped Louis’ doorframe and he stood before it, heart beating through his chest.

One second.

***

William turned the brass knob.

***

The door opened.

***

Harry. No.

The young Duke was standing barefoot in a seductive new nightshirt that was so plainly designed to titillate, Louis actually blushed on his behalf.

Had he not noticed that the letters were missing from his vanity? Or was this a ruse?

Harry looked at William standing naked in front of him and Louis lying naked on the bed, still hopeful, as though his mind did not want to believe what his eyes were telling him.

This was no ruse. Harry had come to his bedchamber in earnest.

He eyed the vial of oil by Louis’ side and his bottom lip began to tremble.

He brought his arms across his body trying to conceal himself with shame even though he was the only one among them who was dressed.

“Good evening, your grace,” William said, voice teetering on a knife’s edge.

He reached for his pile of clothes atop the chiffonier and left, pushing past the Duke in the doorway.

Harry’s shoulders collapsed like the leaves of a wilting rose. “You betrayed me with your footman?”

Louis did not dissuade him of the notion.

There was no point.

Harry would never believe him. He had made his mind up about the type of man Louis was the moment he decided to conspire with his cousin.

“You were right about me all along, Harry. I am everything they say I am.”

Louis wrapped a sheet around his waist and retrieved Harry’s coin from the sideboard. Their game had come to a crushing end. He flung it at him with such force it bounced off his hands to the floor.

“Take your two-faced coin. You win.”

“I thought you cared for me,” Harry said in a voice so small Louis could barely hear him.

“Me? How could I possibly care for anybody? I’m the Wicked Duke of Warwick, remember?” Louis’ words were thick with venom.

Harry touched his red cheeks. “But you kissed me on the riverbank. You called me dearest one.”

“It didn’t mean anything.” It meant everything.

Harry looked down at his lacey nightshirt and squeezed his eyes shut. “I feel so foolish.”

Louis weakened. He couldn’t stand the sight of Harry in pain. What if he explained himself, the letters, William, the fire, what if, what if, what if—and then he remembered all those afternoons and evenings Harry spent in the library with his cousin. He lied to Louis every day. Every minute he stood there without confessing was a lie by omission.

The young Duke’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Why would you do this to me?”

Louis shrugged. “Why not?”

Harry’s nostrils flared. “You’re mad! You should be--”

“What? Locked up?” He laughed. “You really are your father’s son!”

“Don’t you dare speak ill of my father.”

“Oh, you’re still in mourning, how could I forget! Tell me, why didn’t you just crawl into the coffin with your dear papa?”

“At least I didn’t kill him.”

A hit, a very palpable hit.

***

Hot tears spilled down Harry’s cheeks as he ran back to his bedchamber. He tore off the French nightshirt with humiliation, fell to the floor and hugged his knees. Lips parted he sobbed soundlessly into the dark. Pain bloomed in heart as though his blood had been poisoned.

Strangely, it wasn’t Louis’ rebuff that hurt him most. It was the memory of every soft touch and kind word that led to that night. No one had ever shown Harry affection before. No one had ever held his hand, kissed him or written him a love note. No one had ever called him dear or expressed such fondness for him, not even his own family. Was there something wrong with him? Was he really so unlovable? He thought he had finally found a companion, someone to share his days. It was a lie. He was alone, he always had been, and he always would be, his loneliness now sharpened by Louis’ betrayal.

Suddenly he was a child again, standing in the stable watching helplessly as Louis led Bertie out of her stall. “Take the mare.” The Duke had broken his heart for the second time and Harry was foolish enough to let him.

He pictured them together. Naked.

He couldn’t help but compare himself to William. The brazen young footman was clearly experienced. Unlike Harry, he would not have had a million rudimentary questions about lovemaking. What would Louis want with a dull virgin like Harry? How could Harry think he could excite someone so worldly when the only experiences he could claim were the ones he’d read about in books?

He meant nothing to Louis, so little in fact Louis had forgotten about Harry and made love to someone else. No, Louis remembered and thought it would be amusing to humiliate him.

Louis and William would probably laugh about it later, how the Virgin Duke of Somerset came to his bedchamber actually believing they were in love.

How could Harry have been so foolish? Charles and Clarence both tried to warn him. Why didn’t he listen? They were older and wiser. He wished he had heeded their advice. He wished he had heeded his mother’s advice and never left Somerset to begin with. He wanted to go home. It may have been a prison but at least there no one could hurt him.

He glanced at the vanity.

Perhaps Clarence was right about doing the wrong thing in service of something good. Harry would read through the letters and search for anything incriminating.

Before he opened the drawer he spotted Louis’ mocking note, See you soon, dearest one, and tore it up into tiny pieces, knocking his rosewater to the ground where it spilled and stained the proud peacock on the Persian rug.

He paused. Clarence had been reading through his batch of letters day and night and found nothing. No, the truth he sought would not be found in a barrister’s letter but in the dark heart of the Warwick Forest.

He took out his black mourning attire and a heavy black cloak.

The night was as dark as it had been when Louis first showed him the fox den and that made it all the more familiar to him. The hounds howled as he cut through a tangle of branches and his cloak floated in the wind as though he were sailing on vengeance.

Unlike all of his fruitless searches during daylight, the night with it’s sinister shapes and shadows revealed a crooked path hidden from the sun. It had never occurred to Harry to recreate the conditions of that night, but now that he was in the dark forest, with a storm brewing in the inky sky, it all looked familiar to him. Perhaps it wasn’t just the hounds howling but the dead crying out and guiding him. He hopped over a log. He recognized that log and before long he recognized a soft mound of earth covered by leaves.

Louis’ fox den.

He dropped to his knees and crawled inside.

Chapter Text

The air was stale and thick as molasses inside Louis’ fox den, the earth moist from the recent rainfall. Harry picked up the box of matches on the small mud shelf and tried to light a candle, but the matches were damp and splintered between his fingers.

He felt around for the pile of journals. He took the first one he touched, remembering that the volume in question rested on top. He grabbed it and crawled back outside. He could barely make out the title in the moonlight: Bulletin de l’Académie Imperiale de Médecine, Vol. 8. He was about to open it when he stopped himself.

Thunder clapped overhead and rain began to patter on the fallen leaves at his feet. The storm was back like a symphony returning for its encore.

He couldn’t risk getting the journal wet if it was to be evidence, so he tucked it inside his cloak and ran back to the house, the heels of boots stabbing the wet earth like daggers with each step.

Above him he saw the silhouette of Louis standing by his window.

The door to the house was heavy and creaked open. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he looked upon the burned faces in the Warwick family portrait. The face of Louis’ brother James was completely burned, a simulacrum of the real James who lay burned in the earth. Eyeless, the image watched him as he ran across the rotunda and up the staircase.

He quietly crept to his bedchamber, cold still clinging to the wool of his cloak.

As he turned the corner of the east wing, past the painting of The Battle of Thermopylae, one of the doors opened a sliver. The shadowed face peering through the crack was unmistakably that of William. He was staying in one of the guest bedrooms? This stung almost as much as seeing him with Louis. William, a servant, was given his own room in the upper part of the house near his master. He had won the Duke’s favor and likely his heart.

Once inside his bedchamber, Harry sat at the vanity and, hand quivering, lit a candle. The orange flame blossomed on the wick and the room flickered into view. This room had once belonged to James but after Louis’ restoration bared no mark of its previous owner. Even still Harry felt James’ presence in the walls, the floorboards and the very air he breathed.

Harry didn’t drink but he craved a finger of brandy to steady his nerves. He swallowed and placed a hand on the journal’s tattered cover, touching the square typeface and imperial coat of arms.

The pages used as the catalyst for the fire were numbered six to eleven.

Harry opened the journal.

One. Two. Three.

He skimmed past illustrations of anatomy, medical equipment and detailed descriptions of disease. His stomach churned.

Four. Five.

On the fifth page was a description of a disease that very much sounded like what James suffered from: une respiration sifflante, une toux persistante, essoufflement…

Harry held his breath.

Six.

The sixth page was there. And so was the seventh, the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh.

The journal was intact.

More than that, the margins of each page were filled with Louis’ handwritten notes. In the inky, lopsided cursive of a child he had marked beside each symptom the degree to which brother was affected in a tone that precociously mimicked the journal’s scientific rhetoric:

The patient’s cough worsens in the cold, even when I bring him an extra blanket.

Patient cannot finish his supper, including the potatoes, which happen to be his favorite.

Patient is too weak to take me riding even though it is sunny and I asked him very nicely.

Patient is too tired to shoot rabbits with me but not too tired to call me a holy terror and return to his book!

Patient has difficulty breathing but feels better when I pat his back.

Patient asks for my help up the steps.

Patient is older than I am but smaller and light as a feather.

The paper was inconclusive about whether the disease was contagious, but Louis wrote a definitive, No. I hug the patient every day.

He loved James. He was telling the truth. Louis really did want to find a cure for his brother.

Harry had to bring this information to Clarence. They had to return the confidential letters to Louis’ barrister in London and stop this investigation at once. He opened his vanity to retrieve the letters when he noticed that they were missing.

Had Clarence taken them? Had one of the servants?

His eyes roamed over Louis’ note, See you soon, dearest one, which he had torn to pieces, and the bottle of rosewater on the rug. Reluctantly the answer came to him. Louis had found the letters. That’s why Harry’s vanity was in disarray earlier that evening, the note carelessly strewn beside the mirror and the rosewater on the floor. That was why Louis was so vicious, why he said those hurtful things and why he bedded his footman.

Cruel fate! Oedipus! Antigone! Love wasn't a Greek battle, it was a Greek tragedy. Too late, too late you see the path of wisdom, Sophocles warned. Harry was the catalyst of his own heartbreak and Louis’ anger the fire that consumed their love and turned it to ash.

He could not wait another moment. He had to bring this information to Clarence and right the wrong that had been done. He stood up, the candleholder in one hand and the journal in the other.

His door was open ajar and he stepped outside.

Louis was leaning in the hallway fully dressed in his red tailcoat smoking a cigarette.

“I saw you out my window.”

Harry couldn’t lie anymore and blurted out, “You’re not a murderer.”

“How kind of you,” Louis said sharply.

That did not come out the way Harry intended. “I can prove that you’re not a murderer.”

This piqued his interest.

As Harry extended the journal toward him and was about to explain, the floorboards creaked.

Louis looked over his shoulder and said, “Not here. Library.”

In the library they sat across from one another at the large cherrywood partners desk, Louis in red and Harry in black, just like the day Harry had arrived at Warwick. Cold gaze scrutinizing cold gaze. They had turned back the clock. The affection that they had so tenderly nurtured was gone, as though it had happened to two different young men.

“Cigarette?” Louis offered stiffly.

Harry declined.

“Brandy?”

He accepted and watched as Louis poured the amber liquid into his glass. It looked like dark honey, though it was anything but sweet. Appearances could be deceiving.

The embers of a dying fire glowed in the hearth. Louis grabbed a poker, stirred them and added another log.

Harry explained that Clarence was in possession of pieces of paper that were the catalyst of the fire. He explained that they were pages from a medical journal, and that since Louis possessed the same volume, and the pages were intact, it was unlikely that he was responsible.

“How did it start?” Louis asked as he flipped through the journal and tapped his cigarette on a crystal ashtray, the cut crystal like a kaleidoscope reflecting Louis’ red cuff.

“The fire?”

“No. Your partnership with my cousin.”

Harry placed his hands shamefully on his lap beneath the desk.

“The night you teased me during the card game. I was angry. I agreed to help him build his case out of spite.”

Louis drummed his fingers on the desk’s leather top.

Harry continued with his confession.

“As my feelings for you deepened, I continued to meet with him every day here in the library and each time it was to discuss his case. Even after you held my hand in the carriage… I told you he and I were translating Latin. It was a lie. I lied to you every day.”

Louis couldn’t stand to hear another word. “Harry—”

But Harry didn’t stop there. He bowed his head, curls veiling his guilty gaze, like he was confessing to a priest.

“When I made the connection that the pages Clarence possessed were from the same journal and volume as the one in your fox den, I knew I had to retrieve it and find out if they were from the same copy. Only, I couldn’t remember where your fox den was. That’s why I asked you to take me back there. The day we kissed, which I treasure still, is tainted by my lie.”

Louis’ blue eyes were glassy, as though he wanted to cry but his anger had turned his tears to ice.

“There’s more. I broke into your bureau to search for evidence.”

“You what?”

“I asked Lady Silcox to pick the lock. But don’t blame her! It was I who implicated her in my diabolical scheme.”

Harry was sweating and he had not yet come to the worst of it. He took a sip of brandy.

“When Clarence handed me your barrister’s letters I knew it was wrong and though I had no intention of reading them, I took them anyway. I didn’t expose his wrongdoing for fear of exposing my own. I’m a coward.”

There, that was all of it he thought miserably. There were no longer any secrets between them.

Looking at the fire, Harry thought about Louis—not the Louis sitting across from him but the sweet little boy who’d written in the journal, who watched his family burn to death. He thought about the rumors and innuendo he had to endure since. Louis trusted Harry and Harry was no different than that mob taunting him in the village. No, he was different, he was worse because he concealed his doubt and suspicions. He deceived the Duke.

Then he asked Louis to confirm what he already knew: “You found the letters in my vanity?”

Louis nodded slowly.

“And William…”

“He was standing outside my bedchamber. I was in tears and he comforted me.” Louis held Harry’s gaze. “He kissed me.”

Harry’s stomach twisted with a jealousy so fierce he thought he might burn down Warwick himself in a fit of rage.

“And you kissed him back?” Harry spat. “How could you? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. He is your favorite after all. He accompanied you to Moscow, and you made him first footman when he’s barely come of age.”

Louis didn’t answer.

But Harry was consumed by thoughts of them together. He could think of nothing else and would not stop obsessing.

“Did he enjoy it? Did you? What am I saying, of course you did! It’s written all over your face! Is he your companion now? Your concubine? I see he’s been given a room in the east wing. The servant’s hall is no place for the lover of the Duke.”

Louis lifted his hand. “That’s enough.”

Harry’s cheeks were hot, his heart pounding. He couldn’t believe the words that began to tumble out of his mouth.

“Did you kiss him between his legs like you did to me? Was he wet? Did you let him do it to you? Were you inside him or was he inside you? Did he moan with pleasure? Did it happen more than once? Did you talk sweetly to each other afterwards? Did you hold him and call him dearest one?”

Harry was crying now. Had he been crying this whole time? Possibly. There was no sense stopping it. He had nothing left to lose. Not a shred of dignity.

Louis handed him a handkerchief. How pitying and impersonal, Harry thought. They’d gone from love notes and clandestine meetings in the Duke’s bedchamber to handkerchiefs and formalities in the dusty library. He couldn’t help but think of Frederick receiving Roy’s pin and how something like that could never happen to him. He had been raised to be alone and alone he would always be. Doomed to romantic failure forever.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Harry said, more to the linen handkerchief than to Louis. “I can’t bear to stay for the hunt. I can’t bear to bear to be near you. I’ll explain everything to Sir Clarence before I go.”

He reached for the journal, when Louis placed a hand on his. “No, I’ll deal with my cousin.”

Dear God. Harry still craved Louis’ touch. How horrifying after everything that happened! But the body is not privy to what’s in the mind, it keeps craving long after love is lost.

And perhaps because he would be going back to Somerset in the morning and because he might never have this experience again, perhaps because he wanted something to hold onto in the long lonely years ahead, he asked one last desperate question:

“Do you think we were in love?”

For the first time during their meeting the Duke averted his cold aristocratic gaze and his voice broke, “I believe we were.”

***

Charles was surprised to find Harry in his bedchamber the next morning. The young Duke didn’t ring for him. His valet had come to hang freshly pressed tailcoats and shirts in the wardrobe and was startled when his master sat up in bed.

When Harry told him sleepily that he would not stay for the hunt the following day, that they were to leave for Somerset at once, Charles naturally assumed the worst: that Harry had been brutalized by the depraved Duke the night before and clutched the bedpost lest he faint.

“It was nothing like that,” Harry assured him weakly. “We didn’t...”

A sigh of relief. Charles could hardly contain his happiness. He asked no more questions and ran circles around his master to pack his trunk for the long journey ahead.

He stopped suddenly when he saw how despondent Harry had become sitting in bed with his knees drawn to his chest.

“Can I fetch you anything for the journey, your grace. Some sweets perhaps?”

Harry had no appetite and thought he might be falling ill.

“Bring me my mask.”

***

No one was less pleased that they were leaving Warwick than Achilles. He had to be strong-armed into the crate by two grooms, whom he kicked and stomped on as they led him screaming into the enclosure sliding the deadbolt behind him with a fearful slam. Perhaps Harry hadn’t made much progress with the stallion after all.

The carriage was nearly loaded and the windows washed so that the glass was as transparent as air. The windows on a closed carriage were called quarter lights, which Harry used to think sounded whimsical, but there wouldn’t be much sunshine on their journey south and even if there was he would probably draw the tasseled curtains shut.

Harry tightened the strings on his mask and dragged the silver tip of his walking stick along the spokes of the wheel. It sounded like a xylophone from his childhood. When he was a little boy he could entertain himself this way for hours. But the prospect of entertaining himself seemed impossible now that he had been introduced to the pleasures of society.

How could he go from kissing and dancing and games to his empty bedchamber? Perhaps there would be other invitations, other hunts, other parties, but without Louis to draw him out, Harry would be trapped inside his own head.

Two footmen loaded the final trunk. Another opened the door for him and unfolded the iron footplate so he could step inside. Harry entered the carriage with Charles following breathlessly behind him.

“Let’s go!” he sang excitedly, reviewing the map and itinerary. “Let’s be on our way so we can make it to Middlesbrough in time for tea. The Duke adores their cakes!”

Harry took one last look at the house from the carriage. Who would burn this place down, he thought, and why? Nothing about the case made sense: the medical journal pages, targeting James who was so vulnerable, the argument Louis’ father had days before the fire, the day planner that mysteriously vanished from the bureau. Louis’ innocence answered one question but it posed a million more.

As the coachman snapped the reins, Frederick skipped down the manor steps in his high-heeled boots, his golden hair like a halo in the morning sun, though the Viscount was no angel.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” he yelled.

Though Charles urged him not to, Harry opened the carriage door and stomped out to defend himself.

“If you are referring to the Duke, the matter is private.”

“I know everything.”

Of course he did.

Harry’s face reddened and he crumbled. “I betrayed him and he betrayed me and all hope is lost.”

“Surgeon, did I or did I not specifically tell you not to hurt my friend?” The Viscount ripped off Harry’s mask and tossed it to the ground.

“He hurt me too!”

“You tried to implicate him in the murder of his entire family!”

“Why does it sound so much worse when you say it?”

Frederick pulled him aside by the elbow away from the prying eyes of the coachman.

“Go to him. Make amends. He says he doesn’t want to see you but I know there’s nothing he wants more.”

In his mind’s eye, Harry relived the humiliation of seeing Louis and William naked in the Duke’s bedchamber while he stood trembling in the doorway. He knew he could never get past what Louis had done to him no matter how badly he wanted to.

“I can’t, not after what he did. It’s impossible.”

Frederick narrowed his eyes. “What is it you think he did exactly?”

“He made love to his footman. I saw them together in his bedchamber.”

The corners of Frederick’s lips twitched into a smile.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Because he didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“He really is quite wicked,” the Viscount mused with his hands behind his back.

“What do you mean?”

“He didn’t make love to his footman. The pretty lad spread for him but Louis couldn’t go through with it.”

Harry furrowed his brow. He did not understand.

“Why would he lie and say he had?”

“DO I HAVE TO EXPLAIN EVERYTHING TO YOU?”

“YES.”

“He wanted to punish you.”

“That’s awful!”

“Well, I never said he was perfect.” Frederick flipped the blonde hair out of his eyes.

No, Louis wasn’t perfect. But neither was Harry.

“Where is he?”

“The stables, with Albertine. The mare became anxious when the grooms removed Achilles from the stall beside her.”

Charles popped his head out the carriage window, waving the itinerary. “We really must be going, your grace.”

Harry looked down the grassy knoll at the stables on the forest’s edge.

“I’m going to say farewell to the Duke. I’ll only be a minute.”

“No!” Charles cried.

But Harry was already running down the hill to ask his friend’s forgiveness and to offer his forgiveness in return.

Chapter Text

Four years earlier Louis stood at the stable door at Somerset watching Harry comfort his mare. Now Harry was at Warwick watching Louis do the same.

Louis didn’t see him come in. His eyes were closed, his cheek resting on Bertie’s snowy muzzle as he stroked her crest. He was dressed casually in his riding breeches and a billowy white shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

A piece of straw snapped beneath Harry’s boot. Louis startled and lifted his head.

Bertie’s ears were down in a relaxed pose and she nosed Louis’ chest, urging him to continue petting her. Harry realized that she had now belonged to Louis longer than she had belonged to him. She trusted him and he adored her. Why would a Duke who owned some of the finest horses in the world be so attached to Harry’s small carthorse? It perplexed him.

“I came to say goodbye,” Harry said, stepping closer.

Louis did not respond.

“Actually, I came to ask for your forgiveness.”

Still, no response.

Harry approached them and scratched Bertie behind the ear.

Louis’ expression became sly. “You’ve forgotten how she likes it.” Roughly, he removed Harry’s glove and rested his hand on the tender spot behind the mare’s ear just as Harry had done with him four years earlier.

Emboldened by the Duke’s touch, Harry said, “I know that you didn’t bed your footman.”

Louis was surprised for a moment that Harry had found out, then shrugged.

“Why didn’t you?” Harry asked.

“You know why.”

An awkward silence fell between them.

The mare’s large black eyes blinked at one Duke and then the other.

“You’re good for her,” Harry said. “Better than I was. I made her weak, you make her strong, a champion, just like you said you would.”

Louis resisted the compliment at first, fussing over her bridle, and then said, “She is the gentlest and sweetest mare I have ever had the pleasure of training. You nurtured these qualities in her because they exist within you.”

Harry’s chest swelled.

Suddenly his valet’s fretful cries rang outside the stable. He had to go.

Louis extended his hand and called a truce. “Friends?”

Harry took it keenly. “Friends.”

As he turned to leave he said, “Duke, it’s rather lonely at Somerset. I should like to have something to look forward to. Will you promise to write me?”

Louis hid a smile. “I’ll write you,” he agreed.

“I shall check the post every day for your letter!”

Outside, Charles collected him the way he did when Harry was a small boy and late for tea. He threw a cloak over his shoulders and they shuffled along the grass and back to the carriage as his valet scolded him for delaying their journey.

Harry wasn’t paying attention, he was thinking of his future letter from Louis. He was already desperate to read it and it hadn’t even been written! Perhaps the post would reach Somerset before he did and a letter would be waiting for him when he arrived.

They were halfway to the carriage before Harry realized that Louis was walking some distance behind them.

“Stay for the hunt!” he called. “You came all this way. What’s one more day?”

***

To say Charles was furious about Harry’s decision to stay another day at Warwick was putting it mildly.

Peevishly, his valet crashed through the manor with Harry’s trunk apologizing profusely to Warwick’s servants for the abrupt change of plans and the terrible inconvenience it would cause, saying it loudly enough for Harry to hear and grow a tad peevish himself.

Since the hunt was the following day, the whole club convened in the drawing room that evening with their pipes and brandies to discuss strategy.

Louis was the club’s Huntsman, owner of the hounds who controlled them with the sound of his horn, and Oscar his whipper-in, tasked with collecting straggling hounds and sighting the fox.

The rest of the men, known collectively as “the field,” were led by the Field Master, Lord Beardsley. The field were to be kept well in the background while the hounds were drawing the fox out of its covert. It was not until the hounds were well on the scent that the field were permitted to follow on.

As a member of the field, Harry was relieved that his role in this sport was ceremonial, though he still had to ride Achilles, which presented its own unique challenge.

The hounds were louder than usual that day. He could hear them from their kennel, as clearly as if they were standing in the next room.

“They’re starving.” Lady Silcox sidled up to him. “They are given no food the day before the hunt. It heightens their senses.”

She was the only woman in the drawing room, and the only woman allowed to participate in the hunt because of her skill at handling and reading dogs. She wore a fitted green jacket over her dress, presumably to try and blend in. It must have taken a lot of courage for her to stand in that room. Though the men conceded that she understood the sport, none of them took her seriously enough to ask her opinion. She was purely ornamental, her intellect nothing more than a parlor trick.

“I saw that you were going to leave this morning,” she said. “What changed your mind?”

How wide her dark eyes were, how hopeful. Harry wished he could say that it was she who changed his mind but it wasn’t.

She followed his gaze, which was rested unwittingly on Louis. He was sitting on the wingchair by the fire, Roy sitting across from him, Frederick perched on the arm of his chair like an exotic pet.

Harry saw that she was crestfallen and quickly changed the subject. “Beth, will you be my guide during tomorrow’s hunt?”

She brightened. “I’ll teach you everything you need to know!”

Since none of the other men would converse with her, Harry kept Beth company the rest of the evening as she explained the sport: “The whipper-in isn’t the only one who sights the fox. As members of the field we also keep a look out. If you see the fox, you have to cry ‘gone away’ and indicate the direction of the fox with your hand or a handkerchief.”

Harry noted her instructions but knew that if he saw the fox he would never tell. He hoped the beautiful creature survived this ghastly game.

“Once the hounds are on a scent,” she continued, “the Huntsman signals to the Master using the horn, and we gallop on after. Some hounds yelp when they find the scent, some hounds hunt silently. If the pack loses the scent, the Huntsman will cast them in a wide arc hoping to pick it up again. This may take several hours and go well into the night.”

“Good god!”

“I haven’t even told you the best part! The blood of the killed fox is smeared on the face of a newcomer witnessing their first kill. I’ve already told Lord Beardsley that this is your first hunt. You will get the honors!” she clapped excitedly.

Harry blanched. “Thank you, Beth.”

Harry wasn’t the only one gazing at Louis that evening. Clarence was smoking a pipe and watching him from across the room. Harry tried to read his expression but the air was thick with smoke around him. All he could make out was his mustache and the rim of his glasses, like a half-finished portrait. Had Louis already spoken to his cousin? Did he know that Harry had confessed about their secret meetings?

When Beth left the room to powder her nose, Louis approached to nibble the food on the tiered serving tray.

“Good evening, friend.”

“Have you told your cousin the truth?”

Louis popped a grape into his mouth. “And miss an opportunity to torment him? Never.”

“He’s trying to find evidence to incriminate you!”

“Let him whittle away the hours reading through every tedious letter on estate tax. He won’t find a thing.”

Louis underestimated his cousin. Truth could be bent and twisted. Clarence wasn’t the mousy chancery lawyer Louis and his friends made him out to be. He was obsessed and dangerous. If he was willing to break the law to steal those letters, what else might he be willing to do?

“I’m telling you this as your friend.”

Louis’ softened. “And as your friend I’m telling you not to worry.”

Harry wanted to say: I do worry! Not only as a friend, as much, much more! But they were pulled apart again, Louis to the fire with Lord Beardsley and Harry over by the divan with Lord Graves.

As Harry chatted with the aging Lord on the topic of equine lineage, he watched Louis. The Duke stood contrapposto by the breche violette fireplace gingerly lighting the cigarette that hung from his lips. He tucked the lighter into his breast pocket. Harry remembered rifling through those pockets the day they kissed on the riverbank. He remembered how the Duke’s heart thudded wildly when Harry’s hands touched his chest.

He could have sworn Louis glanced over at him briefly but perhaps he was imagining it. They were friends now and nothing more.

The conversation turned, the way conversations do, like a change in the wind. Lord Graves was now engaging two other members of the club in a conversation about the favorable scenting conditions and how they hoped to kill their quarry above ground, as it’s more sporting.

Harry wandered over to the piano and began to play, tinkering really, a performance that lacked any sense of occasion. Some carried on with their conversations, others stopped to listen. He wondered if Louis noticed or cared. He was desperate to read his thoughts but Louis’ back was to him. The Duke was staring into the fire.

Soon men began to retire for the night. One or two and first, and then groups of four or five.

Harry could hear Louis and Lord Beardsley’s low voices behind him as he continued to play.

Between a sonata and a concerto he saw Lord Beardsley leave the drawing room out of the corner of his eye.

Harry turned a page of sheet music on the rack and casually glanced at the Duke. He was sitting on the wingchair listening to him play.

Harry feigned surprise. “You’re still here.”

“I live here.”

Harry smiled at the quip. His hands slid over the keys and he began to play Bach’s Mass in B minor, Agnus Dei, their old song. A harmless flirtation, he thought, for old times’ sake.

When his fingers struck the final key, the note hung in the air between them like a whiff of perfume or the promise of something just as sweet.

Harry’s pulse skipped waiting for a response of some sort, applause, a kind word, but Louis stood and walked over to the globe by the door.

The spherical, scale model of Earth stood suspended in a mahogany frame with a polished bronze orbit, lacquered continents and oceans, islands and streams. Louis spun it backward.

How Harry wished the real world worked this way. He would spin back time to the day on the riverbank and make love to him in the grass.

“I should retire. It’s getting late,” Louis said.

“Yes,” Harry said, rising from the piano bench and bowing his head to bid him adieu. “Sleep well, friend.”

“You too, friend.”

Mischievously, the Duke gave the globe another spin, faster this time, then stopped it with the tip of his finger.

“You know, Harry, in some countries, France for example, friends kiss on the cheek.”

Harry paused. “I’m a quarter French.”

“Are you?”

Harry, trying to appear impartial walked over to him and said, “I suppose we could be friends who kiss on the cheek.”

“I don’t see why not,” Louis agreed.

He leaned over and kissed Harry’s cheek, which was now blushing so brightly the Duke probably thought he had scarlet fever.

Harry reciprocated, lingering on his cheek to savor every last moment of Louis’ soft skin on his lips.

He thought Louis would turn and head through the door, when the Duke’s finger trailed the globe again.

“Of course, in some parts of the Mediterranean, friends kiss on the mouth.”

“I hear Cyprus is lovely this time of year,” Harry added breathlessly.

Once again, Louis leaned in. Harry shut his eyes. Out of habit, or perhaps madness, he parted his lips.

Louis seized him.

The Duke wrapped his arms tightly around Harry’s waist and filled his mouth with the heat of his kiss.

Before he even knew what was happening, they had kissed their way across the room, over to the wingchair where Louis drew Harry onto his lap.

“Come.”

Harry had never been to the Mediterranean but he was fairly certain that this was not how friends kiss, not there, not anywhere.

The Duke’s cradled him against his chest and mussed his curls. “You minx, teasing me with that piano playing of yours,” Louis scolded, lips to Harry’s temple. “Why must you vex me so?”

“I only wanted you to notice me.”

“As if I could notice anyone else! You drive me completely mad! I have a club to run!”

Harry straddled the Duke’s lap and pinned his shoulders against the back of the chair. “I thought you would never kiss me again! I wanted to die!”

“So did I.”

“Really?” he said, fidgeting with Louis’ cravat.

“You know what you are to me, don’t be coy.”

Harry knew but he liked hearing him say it.

He wound his arms around Louis’ neck and kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his lips, with childlike affection. Louis leaned back and sighed blissfully, the corners of his eyes crinkled with happiness, letting the young Duke do as he pleased.

“Dearest one,” he breathed.

“Golden boy,” Harry answered. Louis gave him a curious look and Harry said, “That’s what I call you in my dreams. You’re precious as gold.”

Louis cupped Harry’s face and smothered him with a kiss so deep it touched every part of him. A strangled cry escaped the back of Harry’s throat and he rocked back and forth on the Duke’s lap. He felt Louis’ excitement mounting beneath his own, tender and sore with longing.

Louis eyes darted to the gold gilt mantel clock, its clawed feet perched menacingly atop the marble fireplace.

“The hunt is in eight hours.”

“I don’t want to stop.”

“Neither do I.”

Harry reached down and touched him pointedly between his legs. He could no longer distinguish the heat from the fire and that from their bodies.

The Duke suddenly lifted him up off his lap and took his hand. No words were spoken. They didn’t need to speak. Harry knew what was about to happen. It was just as Frederick said, the body had a language that the mind could not conceive of.

They took the servant’s stairwell so they wouldn’t risk running into any club members in the rotunda, stopping every second or so seized by the urge to kiss. Louis pinned him up against the bannister.

“My bedchamber.”

Harry’s memories of that place were tainted by visions of William. “No, mine.”

They chased each other up the creaking steps. Louis peeked around the corner of the east wing. Harry pulled him toward his bedchamber but Louis pulled him the other way.

“I have to fetch the oil.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“You will thank me for this later.”

Louis ran into his room and practically knocked over his sideboard and broke a lamp trying to retrieve the vial.

They heard footsteps.

“Hurry!” Harry whispered.

He tucked the vial into his pocket and they kissed in the doorframe. Louis rubbed himself against Harry’s thigh and moaned. It felt good. Too good. Harry was worried they wouldn’t make it to his bed, that Louis would mount him in the hallway.

Harry dragged him by the lapel, like a dog by the collar. They were moving again, carefully since neither had thought to bring a candle.

Then the glow of someone else’s candle appeared around the corner. No, no, no! Harry thought. Could nothing in this godforsaken house ever go as planned!

Lady Finnes. She couldn’t sleep and was going for another one of her late night strolls, her floor-length nightgown trailing behind her as though she were a ghost floating through the house and haunting them.

She lifted her candle and examined both boys with disapproval. Harry’s curls were tousled and Louis’ cravat undone.

Louis was quick to take her ladyship’s hand and kiss it.

“Why, Lady Finnes, you look ravishing tonight. If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were trying to seduce us—”

“Enough, Duke.” She drew her silver braid over one shoulder and huffed, “What are you gentlemen doing together at this late hour?”

“Us?” Harry squeaked. “Why, I’m fetching a book for the Duke from my bedchamber.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What book?”

The Miser's Daughter.

Louis put a hand over his heart. “Literature is my life. I adore Dickens.”

She shook her head and tsked.

They shuffled past her awkwardly. Once in his bedchamber, Harry locked the door behind him and burst out laughing.

“‘Literature is my life’? The Miser's Daughter is not by Dickens! It’s by William Harrison Ainsworth.”

Louis tore off his tailcoat and tossed it over the chair by the vanity, hopping on one foot as he pulled off his boot.

“Pick something easier next time instead of showing off!”

“Then it wouldn’t be believable!”

They both laughed.

Alone now, with nothing and no one to disturb them, they stared at each other in the darkness. The moon out the window was snug behind a blanket of clouds. The minute hand on the clock’s porcelain dial inched them ever deeper into the stillness of the night.

Louis began to prepare. He lit a candle, fetched a small towel from the linen trunk, turned down the blankets on the bed, and placed the vial of oil beside the pillow.

Lovemaking was theoretical just a few moments ago but now the physical reality of the act was upon him. Harry flushed and hugged the bedpost. He was lightheaded. Was it possible to faint from shyness he wondered?

Harry was still clinging to the bedpost when he felt Louis come up behind him and kiss the back of his neck.

“Wait,” Harry said.

“What is it?”

“I have to put on the nightshirt Frederick gave me.”

“Why?” Louis asked.

“To arouse you.”

Louis bit his bottom lip. “It would arouse me to see you in nothing at all.”

He slipped Harry’s tailcoat off his shoulders until it fell to the floor.

“Oh, I see.”

He trembled.

Sensing his fear, the Duke pressed his chest against Harry’s back. His heartbeat was steady and reassuring. It said everything Harry needed to hear without saying anything at all. Harry belonged to this body and this body belonged to him. You’re mine, you’re mine, you’re mine, it sang.

Harry could hear the rushing water of the river in his ears the first time they kissed, touch the grass. They had spun the Earth backward. That morning they were enemies, then friends, and now they would become lovers.

Chapter Text

Louis rarely entered the room that had once belonged to his brother. It was the source of his greatest joy as a child and later his greatest sorrow. When James was too ill to go outside they would play chess in bed all day and catalogue the new stamps in his collection. His middle brothers, George and Edward, would leave James behind to go riding but there was no place Louis would rather be than by James’ side.

Louis was standing near the curtains where the killer would have stood when he set the room ablaze. Harry was in bed, where James was when the villain took his life.

The young Duke was so shy he undressed beneath the sheets.

Louis, poised to take the boy’s innocence, suddenly felt like a villain himself.

He climbed into bed beside Harry, who shifted out of his breeches and undergarment blushing fiercely. Louis did the same. Why was Louis undressing beneath the sheets? Why was he blushing? He wasn’t a virgin, far from it. Harry’s innocence was contagious.

Harry looked at him, furrowed his little brow, and said with the utmost seriousness: “I’m in the nude.”

“As am I,” Louis replied, trying to be equally as serious.

They were so close the heat from Harry’s skin burned against his own beneath the bed sheet. He was dizzy at the thought of the tenderness between the young Duke’s thighs so near. All he had to do was reach over and touch.

He stopped himself.

The sweetest pleasures in this world were given not taken.

He waited for the boy to come to him. Harry peered at him shyly through a veil of long lashes. His red lips were a painting, his curls a sculpture. It seemed impossible that this cherub harbored any earthly desires. Then Louis felt a soft hand on his thigh.

The bed sheet was thin as paper but now felt like an iron gate between them.

Harry must have been thinking the same thing because he said, “No one has ever seen me. Not even my valet. He averts his eyes when he undresses me.”

How could anyone look away? However pure his valet’s intentions, what man could resist resting his eyes on a boy so beautiful? Perhaps this was the source of Harry’s beauty. Like primrose, Harry bloomed under the cover of darkness.

Louis did not pull down the sheet to expose him but widened his own thighs. This invitation proved irresistible to Harry whose greatest pleasure on Earth was tempting Louis to the brink of madness with his caress.

Those long nimble fingers that moments ago brought music to life on the piano now brought Louis to life beneath the bed sheet. He lay still, resisting the urge to thrust against the young Duke’s gentle hand. Unlike his piano playing, Harry’s strokes had no rhythm. What was so maddening about his caress was that it was pure affection without pretense.

“It’s warm,” he remarked. Red lips parted, Harry was breathing heavily as though he were the one being touched and Louis’ pleasure merely an extension of his own.

Paradoxically, the closer they came to making love the further away it felt. Louis did not know how much longer he could remain a gentleman.

“May I kiss it?” Harry asked.

May I. He was so precious. Louis could hardly bear how precious he was! He nodded into the lace pillow, unable to even form the words, “you may.”

Harry lifted the sheet off Louis’ body.

The young Duke’s eyes flashed with excitement. He leaned down, curls falling forward on his brow. Louis assumed Harry understood what this act entailed, but he didn’t. He kissed it. No less sweetly than he kissed Louis on the lips.

Louis moaned, the kiss lingering between his legs.

Seeing Louis lay bare in both body and feeling gave Harry courage. Bravely he sat up and slipped the sheet off his own long limbs.

“This is what I look like.” His ears turned pink anxiously awaiting Louis’ response.

Louis didn’t know how to respond. He had scarcely been exposed to Harry’s wrists and ankles and couldn’t quite believe his eyes. Harry’s body, on the cusp of manhood, was smooth and pale, the muscles of his chest and limbs a faint sketch: here was the promise of a man with the softness of a boy. Louis’ gaze fell to the most delicate part of him, which was fully roused and aching like his own.

Louis wanted to mount.

He reached out and stroked Harry’s taut, hairless belly. The young Duke’s naked body, which had never before been stroked, jolted at the sensation. How could he teach this body to yield to him, Louis wondered? It was one thing to rouse a boy it was quite another to make him surrender.

He picked up Harry’s hand, kissed it and then placed it against his cheek. Come to me, darling, this touch said, there’s nothing to fear. Remember how I kissed your hand after you pierced me with your arrow? I am as weak for you now as I was then.

Harry rested his cheek on the Duke’s shoulder.

Ah, so tenderness was the key to unlocking his deepest desire.

Harry had never been held as a child, so instead of kissing and caressing him, Louis closed his arms around the boy and simply held him. “I care for you.”

Harry held him back tightly. “I care for you too.”

This simple act of kindness awoke a hunger in him that was unmatched in any of Louis’ former lovers. He had been starved of affection his entire life and now craved the deepest form of affection one man could share with another.

He pressed the vial of oil into Louis’ palm, then breathed a kiss onto Louis’ lips and lay down, his chest flushed, his length resting hard against him. It was pink and pretty as every other part of him. Louis was desperate to take it in his mouth but he didn’t dare touch it. He would save this pleasure for last.

Louis poured a generous amount of oil into his palm and then stroked it onto himself.

Watching this, Harry was seized by the urge to spread for the Duke. He turned over onto his belly and with one knee bent, parted his thighs.

Louis had never had a boy present himself so beautifully. “Oh Harry.” It was so beautiful in fact that he lost whatever remained of his sanity and buried his face in Harry’s virgin flesh.

Harry let out a frantic cry, not understanding what was happening but wanting it to keep happening all the same.

Dizzily, Louis’ tongue lapped at that tiny pulsing point in which he was to enter. Harry mewed in anticipation, desperate for him to mount. But Louis wanted to hold onto this moment a little longer, savor the boy’s innocence against his lips.

When the young Duke was sufficiently supple and yielding, and Louis could wait no longer, he straddled him and kissed the back of his head. A farewell to his virginity and the boy he once was.

“It’s going to hurt, dearest one. Forgive me.”

Harry gave him a determined nod, desire outweighing his fear.

Heavy and oiled, Louis began to breach the boy. Harry was so tiny here Louis almost felt guilty about how good it was going to feel. Almost.

Tenderly he pushed himself inside.

Harry drew a sharp breath while pleasure tore through Louis’ body with the force of a Spartan army.

What cruel irony that one of life’s greatest pleasures was the source of its greatest pains.

Harry muffled a sob with the lace pillow. He was trying to be brave. Louis had never been more grateful for a gift then the one Harry was giving him in this moment.

He smoothed a hand down the white plane of Harry’s back to ease his pain. That’s it, take all of me, darling. Slowly, the young Duke’s body enveloped Louis in its velvety heat.

Louis lay on top of him and began to move with the shallowest of thrusts. The tenor of Harry’s cries changed from lilting to low, on the precipice of pleasure. Louis couldn’t help himself, he indulged and went deeper.

The candle on the sideboard wavered and Louis prayed it didn’t go out. The sight of himself inside Harry was so glorious he wanted to witness every second of it and commit it to memory.

Harry looked over his shoulder and caught Louis in his green, half-lidded gaze, his lips wet and open in awe.

“It’s deep,” he mewed.

Louis crushed a kiss against these wanting lips, thrusting deeper still.

Harry cried out again and Louis nuzzled the nape of his neck to soothe him.

They continued this dance of wanting and thrusting and soothing, Harry tentatively finding pleasure in these deeper thrusts, while still too shy to say so, only hinting at it so Louis might guess.

Louis guessed.

He was so absorbed by the song of Harry’s cries that he hadn’t noticed his own or how close he was to release. He stopped and caught his breath, dabbing the sweat from his neck and brow. He needed to compose himself.

Propped up on one elbow, Harry turned with his backside tantalizingly exposed. “Spill inside of me.”

Where did he learn to say such a thing!

This was certainly a welcome change from the surgical mask and fear of germs.

Then the boy got on all fours and arched his back beckoning Louis to reenter him. Demanding. Lovemaking brought out the aristocrat in him.

Oh, Louis would serve his young master. For the first time he did not hold back in any way. He gripped Harry’s hips and plunged into him. Hard. “Is this what you long for, your grace?”

Harry’s knees buckled. Shakily he got back up and struck a sinful pose, fully aware of his beauty and its effect on Louis. “You long to spill inside me.”

The cheek of it! Louis wrestled him onto his back and pinned his wrists to the bed. “You’re quite sure of yourself,” he panted, “aren’t you?”

“Am I?” he said innocently.

Louis hooked Harry’s leg over his shoulder and nipped his inner thigh. Harry was not prepared for this sensation and gasped.

“Not as sure as I am.”

Then Louis’ breath grazed the tender manhood that he had planned to savor for a moment exactly such as this. Harry wriggled beneath him, the tenor of his cries reaching a fever pitch. There were many things Louis could have done, many things he wanted to do, but Harry was so tender, so sensitive that in the end all he needed to do was kiss it and Harry unraveled, pulsing and spilling all over his own chest.

With Harry completely undone beneath him, Louis reentered his lax body with ease. Harry’s cherub lips and curls appeared at once innocent and sinful splayed out with his sweet nectar on his small hairless chest.

Even in his state of euphoria, the boy widened his thighs for Louis to move more deeply inside him, making his body the perfect instrument of pleasure so that they may be in bliss together.

It didn’t take long. Louis thrust and spilled deeply, shuddering and shaking, his sweaty brow collapsing in the crook of Harry’s neck.

Now it was Harry’s turn to soothe him. He stroked the back of Louis’ head until he was fully sated and his breathing even. How sweet he was!

Louis drank a kiss from the young Duke’s open mouth. These were the aimless kisses of those who were wholly content and longed for nothing else in this world.

Then they began the messy business of untangling their bodies.

They looked down and Louis seed seeped out of Harry onto the lace-trimmed sheets. He took the towel and gently cleaned Harry’s chest first and then the rest as best he could. Harry looked away embarrassed but embarrassment was a lovely problem to have given the conflict that plagued them just a day earlier. To think that they might not have forgiven each other! Might not have shared this night!

Louis hastily wiped himself down and fell onto the pillow beside him, utterly exhausted.

Harry had almost returned to himself. He looked at Louis expectantly and said, “I enjoyed that very much.”

Louis couldn’t help but laugh at his gentility. As though they’d spent an illuminating evening at the theatre.

“Shall we discuss the parts we liked best? I like your--”

“Shhhhhh.” Good Lord, was he planning to write a review? Louis wrapped his arms around the boy and mussed his hair. “Sleep, you minx!”

“I’m not at all tired.”

How could he not be tired? Louis was near death!

He assumed they would spend the rest of the evening asleep in each other’s arms, but Harry was feeling rather chatty and took this opportunity, and Louis’ weakened state, to corner him into the conversation he’d been dying to have since the very first second they met: he began to describe his coin collection.

“You see, most collectors mistakenly focus on Ancient Greece and the Romans: Alexander the Great, Augustus. These are popular, not rare mintages. I myself have hundreds, but I digress. What sets my collection apart is its Eastern emphasis…”

He went on and on.

This talk should have bored Louis, but he found himself listening with rapt attention, his heart bursting with fondness. There was nowhere else he would rather be. And as he stared at Harry, he saw not a Duke, but his love for his brother reborn.

Harry put a finger to his lips and in deep thought said, “Actually, I believe I brought a Sassanian coin with me. I can show you what I mean.” He got up and tiptoed naked to the chiffonier.

Louis marveled at this. Here was the boy who earlier that night was so shy he undressed beneath the sheets. And now his long, pale limbs and darling bottom, slick with oil and Louis’ seed, were proudly on display. He felt himself rouse again as he watched the young Duke flip through his coin album.

Harry examined the mintmark under a magnifying glass to make sure it was the correct coin when Louis came up behind him. He knew he shouldn’t indulge in the boy again. They had to ride in the morning. It wasn’t right. But he couldn’t resist.

“Fascinating,” Louis said, kissing his shoulder and placing the coin atop the chiffonier.

Harry’s hands chased after the piece of silver until he felt Louis hard against his backside and drew a surprised breath. Then, as though it were an instinct more natural then breathing, he leaned forward and braced himself against the chiffonier to let his lover in.

Since Louis had already indulged twice, what was a third time or a fourth?

It could be an action as simple as Harry walking across the room naked or sighing or twining a curl around his finger and Louis would find himself hard and needing to be inside him again and again and again…

***

Louis was awoken by a knock on the bedchamber door.

It was barely dawn and they’d had less than an hour’s sleep. The clock’s porcelain dial, an accomplice in last night’s passions, now mocked him.

He slipped on his undergarment and answered the door, careful not to disturb Harry who was asleep naked on top of the sheets, swimming in lace and linen.

He rubbed his eyes and turned the brass knob. It was Harry’s valet.

“Good morning, Charles,” Louis yawned, taking the silver breakfast tray from his hands. “No need to bring me anything, I’ll have a nibble of Harry’s toast.”

The valet wouldn’t let go. His face turned white as paint and the tray rattled in his shaking hands. “You most certainly will not!”

Harry stirred face down on the bed behind him. “I’m sore,” he moaned.

Charles dropped the tray and ran to his master’s bedside. “What has he done to you? Are you hurt, your grace? I’ll fetch a doctor.”

Louis was dumbfounded. “Pardon me, can you please clean this mess?”

The valet was hysterical. “You’re a monster!”

Louis blinked. “Harry, do your servants not understand that they’re servants?”

Harry sat up and was, for some bizarre reason, deferential to his valet. “I’m not hurt, Charles. I swear it!”

His valet began to wrap the sheet around him, shielding him from Louis’ eyes. “We’ll go to your mother and together you can go to the police and press charges. We won’t let this brute get away with it.”

“Can’t you see? He’s my lover!”

“Don’t use that language!” Charles scolded.

Then Louis’ valet Teddy walked in. He must have been preparing for the hunt because his hair was standing on end like he’d been tearing it out all morning.

Louis looked up at the heavens. “Teddy, thank goodness! Clean this mess and draw us a hot bath. Tell the club the hunt has been postponed. The Duke of Somerset is unable to ride.”

“POSTPONED!” Now Teddy was yelling. Had everyone gone mad?

All of this squabbling was trying Louis’ patience. “Out! Both of you!” he ordered. “Send a maid to clean this mess, and prepare us a bath in the lavatory. I’m tired of having to explain myself to you lowborns.”

“What do you mean ‘prepare us a bath’?” Charles said, scrutinizing Louis through his spectacles. “Surely you don’t mean to bathe together!”

Even Harry who had spent the entire night being defiled was scandalized at the suggestion. “Can we do that?”

“We’re dukes, we can do whatever we like.”

Teddy dragged a protesting Charles out of the room, muttering obscenities under his breath about the change in schedule.

When the door clicked behind them Harry arched an eyebrow and flung the sheet off his body. “So, a bath. Does that mean we’re no longer getting dirty?”

“Don’t tempt me, minx!” he said, slipping on a dressing robe. “This is a serious matter. I need you fully recovered by tomorrow morning. If I postpone the hunt another day Teddy will have my head.”

“Don’t your servants understand that they’re servants?” he teased.

Louis tackled him on the bed and Harry laughed.

***

Both valets were standing stiffly in the bright, tiled lavatory with towels neatly folded over their arms. Steam rose from the claw foot tub. The water, scented with lavender oil, and dotted with the flower as a flourish, was an oasis made for lovers. Louis dipped a hand inside to test the temperature. It was hot and would make Harry’s skin flush to the same delicious pink when they made love.

They disrobed and climbed in together, Harry holding Louis’ hand for balance.

Charles coughed loudly, noting his disapproval.

Louis glared at him.

Once in the bath, Harry dunked his head and emerged blinking droplets of water off his lashes, purple petals clinging to his dark wet hair. Louis did the same, and water spilled over the side of the cast iron tub onto the travertine floor. The tub was large enough for two but small enough that they had to bend their knees to fit.

Charles picked up a sponge and prepared to wash his master’s back like he always did, when Louis snatched it from his hand. “I’ll do that.”

Harry turned around and nestled between his lover’s legs. Louis dismissed the valet with the flick of his wrist.

It looked like Charles might lunge for Louis so Teddy held him back and kept him in line.

“How can you tolerate this?” Charles hissed.

Louis’ valet looked through Charles as though he hadn’t slept in decades. “I have bigger problems.”

Even Harry’s bare shoulders aroused Louis, and since their valets couldn’t see inside the tub, he pressed himself against the small of Harry’s back.

“I don’t think I can go a whole day without it,” Harry whispered.

Harry, who had gone his whole life with scarcely an embrace, now couldn’t bear the thought of going a single day without Louis inside him! Egad!

“This is cruel,” Harry complained with a splash. “Why should I be denied pleasure? I don’t even like hunting! It’s stupid! Can’t I stay back at the manor and wait for you in bed?”

“Will you listen to yourself? You can’t miss the hunt. It’s ungentlemanly! I will pleasure you in other ways,” Louis promised, moving the sponge between his legs.

“Yes, kiss it,” Harry agreed.

“You know, Harry, some people do more than just kiss it… Some people put it in their mouths.”

Harry tilted his head. “You’re lying.”

Sweet, sweet boy.

Louis was smiling. Charles was most definitely not.

“I’ll show you later,” Louis whispered.

They massaged soaps and fine oils into each other’s skin. They kissed and laughed, their voices echoing off the white tiled walls. Harry caressed him in the water discreetly, away from the prying eyes of their valets. Though when Louis caressed Harry there was no mistaking it because he would stop laughing and grow quiet and adorably serious. Louis considered bringing the boy to climax right in front of Charles—when Teddy interrupted them.

“Are you clean, your grace?” he asked, pocket watch swinging from his index finger.

They waited for Harry’s excitement to subside.

He held his breath, dunked one last time and emerged shaking his head like a dog. “All clean!” He grinned.

They stepped out of the tub. Teddy wrapped a fluffy Turkish towel around Louis’ shoulders. Charles placed a towel over Harry in a frigid manner, particular to those at Somerset, scarcely touching him.

“You’re doing it wrong!” Louis snapped. “It’s a wonder he hasn’t frozen to death already!” He pushed himself between them to swaddle Harry and hug him until he was warm. Then he kissed his cheek and dressed him in his robe before putting on his own.

“I’ll take breakfast in my brother’s bedchamber this morning,” he told Teddy. “The Duke’s bedchamber.”

Teddy nodded.

They had the whole day ahead of them with nothing to do but restore Harry to health. He couldn’t remember the last time he was so happy.

Harry linked an arm through his on the way to the bedchamber. “What shall we do all day since you refuse to mount me?”

Was this a question or a dare?

“Do you know how to play chess?”

“I happen to be an excellent chess player. Care to make a wager?”

Louis smirked. “Why not. I’m feeling lucky.”

***

William wandered through the halls of the east wing, hoping to run into his master. The night Louis cast William out of his bedchamber he followed the Duke downstairs to the library and overheard the Duke of Somerset confess everything. He heard all about the Duke conspiring with his master’s cousin and lying. Now that his master saw him for what he was, surely he could no longer love him.

William memorized everything he planned to say. The proper thing would have been to write it in a letter but he couldn’t read or write well enough to prepare such a document. A failed attempt would only embarrass them both. Instead he would ask his master if he was well and then apologize for debasing himself and making his master cross and say that his heart still belonged to him and it always would.

He brought a rag and polish with him. He hoped he could shine his master’s boots as a peace offering, making them gleam the way he did that day when they were boys and the Duke so kindly remarked that he could see his reflection in them.

When he walked past his master’s bedchamber door he noticed the Duke’s valet Teddy inside fishing a chessboard out of the trunk in the corner.

“Where is the Duke? Why aren’t you preparing for the hunt?”

“Oh, hello William,” he said with a frazzled sigh as he tucked the chessboard beneath his arm. “The hunt has been postponed. The Duke is in his brother’s bedchamber.”

“Why’s that?” William asked.

“He’s having breakfast with the Duke of Somerset.”

William’s heart fell to the pit of his stomach.

“I thought he left yesterday.”

“He changed his mind and decided to stay.” On his way out the door the valet remembered something. “Be sure to remind Charlotte to snuff out the fire. The maid lit it assuming the Duke would be taking his breakfast in his bedchamber. Tell her she needn’t light it again until after the hunt… I reckon he’ll be staying with the Duke of Somerset for the duration of his visit.”

Gutted, William looked at the fire, flames reflected in his glassy black eyes. How could his master go back to the man who betrayed him? William had never betrayed him! He had always been loyal. Look what loyalty brought him.

Then he became angry.

What did the Duke of Somerset do to earn his master’s love? Why did he deserve happiness while William was made to suffer? Born with nothing, he slept like a dog in the kitchen where his mother worked, clawed his way up to pageboy when most bastards would have been turned out on the street, then became footman and later first footman, all before he turned sixteen. It was unheard of. Everyone asked him how he did it. The answer was simple. He worked. Every hour of every day until his fingers bled and he collapsed with exhaustion.

He glanced at the sideboard and spotted the French medical journal. He picked it up. Peppered throughout was the unmistakable penmanship of his master. As he flipped through the pages he remembered what the Duke of Somerset said about the journal. Pages six to eleven of this same volume were the catalyst of the fire that took the Duke’s family, and were now in his cousin’s possession.

He flipped to these exact pages and one by one, tore them out and threw them into the fire. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. He watched as the paper ignited and curled into ash.

The young maid, Charlotte, entered the room. “I was told to put the fire out,” she said.

“Let it burn.”

He stormed past her with the journal in his fist and she yelled, “You’re needed in the servants hall. Where are you going?”

“To find Sir Clarence.”

Chapter Text

Harry captured Louis’ pawn.

They lay stretched out on the four-poster bed in paisley dressing robes, the curtains of the canopy drawn shut around them so that the bed became a room within a room.

A silver serving tray sat beside the chessboard with crumpets, berries and tea. Louis lifted the porcelain cup to his lips as he contemplated his next move.

“You’ve left your king at the center of the board. He’s unguarded. Not castling is very risky,” Harry reprimanded. “I thought you said you played chess with your brother?”

Louis inched his rook forward. “We did, but I’m his little brother. He let me win.”

Harry captured Louis’ vulnerable knight. “You’re not my brother. I’ll do no such thing.”

Louis frowned. He excelled at intuitive games, like poker, where he could read his opponent and conceal his hand. Strategic games, like chess, where his pieces were on the board for his opponent to see, proved more difficult.

It was late morning. The sun pricked through the fabric of the canopy illuminating the checkered board and ivory pieces. It was light enough beneath the canopy to know a new day had begun but dark enough to pretend otherwise.

Louis was feeling amorous and tempted to forgo the chess game but thought it prudent to pace himself. He wasn’t sure they could temper their passions. Harry’s flushed chest betrayed his arousal but he too acted enthralled by the game.

“Your weakness, Louis, is defense. You underestimate your opponent. When calculating your move, and your opponent's possible responses, pretend you are he. Think of the best possible move for him in response to your next move, and assume he will play it.”

“The best possible move…” Louis repeated.

Shared memories of the previous night flared between them and Harry looked down with a shy smile.

Louis moved his bishop. “Not the move you were anticipating?”

“I was hoping for another,” he confessed.

Even lovelier than touching Harry was simply basking in the knowledge that he could. What bliss! He could see why Harry liked to collect coins: there was deep pleasure in possessing one so rare.

It was Harry’s move. His thoughtful green eyes rested on the board as Louis turned to the tray to take another bite of his crumpet. When he turned back he saw that Harry had captured his rook. And slipped out of his robe.

Well played.

Harry lay on his side, head nestled in the crook of his arm.

Louis stared hard at the board and tried to ignore him. “You’re sore,” Louis reminded him, eyes fixed on his remaining knight.

“I don’t mind,” Harry sang, voice as lilting as the lark on the windowsill.

Louis stayed strong and ignored his pleas. “It’s your move.”

With the swoop of his arm Harry knocked over all the pieces. “Oh dear. I guess the game is over.”

Minx!

Louis pushed the tray and chessboard aside. Harry was looking quite sure of himself but Louis was confident he could still make him blush. He rolled the boy onto his back. Harry’s chest rose and fell rapidly with excitement.

Louis leaned down and nuzzled between the young Duke’s legs. He still smelled of lavender from their bath.

Harry grew hard and looked away embarrassed by how easily roused he was.

Louis didn’t find it embarrassing in the least. He found it endearing.

“You’re too tender to mount. I’ll take you in my mouth.”

Harry covered his face with both hands, a note of shame in his objection: “I can’t ask that of you.”

“It’s my pleasure.” Quite literally. Louis was growing hard thinking about it.

He wrapped his lips around the tip of Harry’s pink and aching manhood. Harry’s eyes were wide with disbelief. Louis moved slowly at first then quickly, hungrily, relishing the boy’s taste and texture on his tongue. He drew his lips back and Harry placed a hand on his head with a whimper, urging him to continue.

“Spill inside my mouth,” Louis instructed.

These words sent Harry into a frenzy. But instead of letting Louis guide him back to his lips, he immediately turned around and spread. “Take me.”

Louis shook his head. “Harry! The entire purpose of this demonstration was to give you pleasure without mounting you.”

“Yes, mount me,” he agreed, ignoring everything else Louis just said.

Faced with the softness of Harry’s pale round flesh and his silky pink entrance, which seemed to invite him despite or perhaps because of its tenderness, he began to weaken.

He could be gentle, he thought stroking the tender spot with his finger. He didn’t have to have him quite so deeply. What would be the harm indulging one more time? It was still morning after all. Plenty of time to rest and recover before the hunt, he reasoned. Harry was right: it was cruel to deny the boy pleasure when he displayed nothing but sweetness.

Louis held the boy’s hips and licked the supple flesh that beckoned him. “I can’t resist.”

He slipped off his robe and reached through the canopy for the oil on the side board.

“Yes,” Harry breathed as he reached behind to guide Louis inside him.

Then suddenly they heard the door open. Someone had entered the room.

“Dash it!” Louis hissed wrapping the robe around himself as Harry dove beneath the bed sheet.

The curtains around the bed flung open and Frederick stood before them with a wry smile. “Hello lovers.”

Roy was behind him holding four glasses and a bottle of port. “Drink anyone? It’s almost noon.” He looked from one red-faced Duke to the other. “I hope we’re not interrupting anything.”

“I hope we are.” The Viscount climbed into bed between them and tried to steal a glance at Harry’s body beneath the sheet.

Roy hunkered down on the other side of Harry and brushed a thumb along his swollen lips. “He’s aroused.”

“You’re frightening him! Stop it!” Louis barked trying to swat them away.

“Why? He’s already lost his innocence,” Frederick said.

“He’s innocent still,” Louis countered protectively.

“He appears rather sinful to me.” Roy mussed the young Duke’s curls. “Have you not had him this morning? He’s aching for it.”

Harry drew his knees up to his chest completely mortified. Poor lamb. Did these heathens have no respect for modesty?

Roy popped the cork on the bottle of port and poured them each a glass, while Frederick nicked a strawberry from the serving tray and slipped out of his boots. They were certainly making themselves comfortable.

Frederick was wearing Roy’s pin. The yellow gold caught the light and mirrored the luster of his hair. It had migrated from his pocket to his velvet waistcoat where he flaunted it proudly. Harry couldn’t take his eyes off it. Did Harry want Louis to give him his pin? No, it was too soon. Harry would find it cloying. He didn’t want to appear possessive.

The Viscount and the Earl apprised Louis on the gossip in the house, which was plentiful in the few hours Harry and Louis had been tucked away. Club members were furious about the postponement of the hunt. Some were threatening to leave Warwick, Bilsdale or both while Beardsley was staging a coup.

Louis, an expert in testing the patience of those around him, remained unfazed.

“It’s a mutiny,” Roy said lighting a cigarette and using one of their half empty teacups as an ashtray.

“Did Teddy not tell them that the Duke of Somerset is feeling unwell?”

“Your valet must have thought that would arouse suspicion, so he said you were feeling unwell. Tempers would have cooled had your cousin not fanned the flames.”

“If Clarence is against me, the club will only hold me in higher regard. I knew there was a reason I invited him.”

“He knows your harboring a boy up here and he’s telling anyone who will listen. The insipid man takes every opportunity to deliver a blow to your reputation.”

Louis winced.

Yes, and Clarence was hoping to deliver the final blow: convince the world Louis was a murderer. Just when he thought the past was long buried, his cousin would dig it up again. Would he ever find peace in this life?

Out the corner of his eye he saw Frederick and Harry, laying side by side whispering to each other and laughing softly into the pillow. The Viscount fixed the dark curls that Roy had mussed and placed his hand congenially on Harry’s shoulder. What was that serpent teaching him now?

They finished their port. The small dessert glasses clinked together as they set them down on the silver tray. Roy snuffed out his cigarette and stretched his long heavy legs among the fallen chess pieces, the bed dipping beneath his weight. He laced his hands behind his head and stared up at the canopy. “What shall we do this afternoon, gentleman?”

The words were vague but the implication was clear, they wanted to join Louis and Harry in their affections.

“No,” Louis said, knowing Harry would be offended at the mere suggestion.

“Then let us watch you,” Frederick offered with a coquettish head tilt.

Harry pulled the sheet up over his shoulders, petrified.

“No,” Louis said, more firmly this time.

He surprised himself with his sternness. It was always he who brought a gaggle of boys up to their room at Eton, where he traded them with the Earl like playing cards; he who would ravage the Viscount and ask his footmen to watch.

Curiously, with Harry, he had no desire to trade or invite others to look upon him.

“Then perhaps you’d like to watch us?” Roy shrugged off his tweed waistcoat and tossed it to the floor. Roughly, the Earl wrestled Frederick onto his back and climbed on top of him. The blue-blooded Viscount looked as though he might shatter like a porcelain teacup, but he could withstand and even enjoyed the Earl’s brutishness.

Louis poured himself another glass of port and nibbled a strawberry.

Frederick loved the theatre--to him, the bed was a stage—and Roy, with cut jaw and booming voice was the perfect leading man. The Viscount’s slender fingers worked over the front of Roy’s trousers. He was about to unleash the Earl from his undergarment when Harry cried, “No!”

Louis dropped the strawberry. “How dare you!” he chimed in, a beat too late. “Leave us. Harry has witnessed enough of your depravity.”

Roy and Frederick exchanged confused looks.

“Goodness gracious. Have you no decency!” Louis added for good measure.

“Yes, Sir Clarence,” they mocked in unison.

Rolling their eyes, the Earl and the Viscount collected their clothes and put on their boots. Frederick nicked another strawberry from the tray.

As they sulked out of the room Louis threw his arms around Harry to console him.

“Darling, are you alright? I don’t know what came over them. They’re positively beastly. What can I do to comfort you?”

Harry saw right through him, though he wasn’t angry. “I know your tastes are exotic, Louis, but mine are simple. I only wish to be with you.”

Boys had said these words to Louis before but never had he understood this feeling or felt similarly. The young Duke was awaiting his response. Was this a good time to fetch his pin and pledge his heart?

As he debated this, Harry rose from the bed naked and locked the bedchamber door. Understandably, he was afraid they would be interrupted again.

“I only wish to be with you,” Louis said finally.

Harry smiled. “How do you wish to be with me?”

He wanted to be with him in every way. But hearing those precious words roll off his tongue made Louis crave one thing and one thing only.

“Your mouth,” he whispered guiltily. This was presumptuous and he knew it. He would not normally have asked this of one so inexperienced, but Harry had been very honest a moment ago so he felt inspired to do the same.

Harry kneeled with a blush and Louis sat on the edge of the bed, perhaps a little too eagerly. Harry unfastened the silk belt of Louis’ robe and let it fall open. Louis thought he might begin by kissing it when suddenly Harry opened his mouth like he was waiting for Holy Communion. Lord, Louis thought, he wasn’t going to last long. He cradled the back of the boy’s head and guided it toward him as he slid past his lips into heavenly softness of his mouth.

Harry either wasn’t paying attention to Louis’ demonstration earlier or he simply didn’t care because he held the Duke’s hips and took him as deeply as he could until Louis pressed against the back of his throat. Louis was too aroused to advise against such a bold maneuver. Harry wasn’t wasn’t even moving his head but the sight of the boy’s lips wrapped around him excited Louis beyond reason. He widened his thighs and ran his hand through Harry’s dark curls. “Yes, that’s it.” His green eyes flipped up at Louis, unfocused with lust. Harry moved only to try and take Louis deeper. The boy moaned and Louis felt the vibration all around him.

He was grateful Harry wasn’t moving much because it looked and felt too good and, dear God, he never wanted this moment to end.

What he didn’t anticipate was Harry’s own desire taking hold. Harry slid his mouth back and simultaneously slipped a hand between his legs to touch himself, Louis’ tip resting precariously on his bottom lip.

Louis was so excited he promptly spilled all over the boy’s lips and down his chest.

Harry licked his lips bewildered. “Oh dear.”

“I’m so sorry!” Louis said, furiously wiping his face with a napkin from the serving tray. “I should have warned you.” This was not the romantic finale he had envisioned.

“It’s my fault. I didn’t do it correctly.” Harry climbed back up on the bed.

“No! You did wonderfully. Too wonderfully. It excited me to watch you.”

He brightened. “Thank you. I improvised.”

Harry was so darling, Louis didn’t know whether to kiss him or cry.

“Everything you do excites me. I’m mad for you and you know it.” Louis put his head in Harry’s lap. “I’ll mount you if you like, I’ll do whatever you wish, I swear it. You only need ask.”

Harry stroked Louis’ hair. “There is one thing I’d like you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Defend your king.”

He picked up the fallen chess pieces and one by one set them on the board.

Louis laughed and rubbed his hands together gamely. He was no better at chess than he was that morning, but he now knew where his weakness lay.

***

Sir Clarence was facing the fire with his hands clasped behind his back when William entered the library.

Papers with his writings littered the desk. His pen strokes were so heavy inkblots dotted the pages like drops of dried blood.

William had never approached a member of the gentry with information on another, but Sir Clarence was not like most noblemen. He worked for wages in London and spent more time in the servant’s hall than he did the drawing room. When William was seven, he convinced the former Duke to increase his mother’s weekly wage so William could have a new pair of shoes. After spearheading the resistance that led to the Cotton Mill riots he became something of a legend. He lived among the rich but he fought for the poor.

William hugged the medical journal snugly inside his jacket. “You’re looking for information about your cousin.”

He swiveled around. His expression was not unkind but it was serious. “What exactly are you implying?”

“Nothing! Only, I might have something that could help you.”

“The Duke and I may have our differences but I would never plot against my own family,” Sir Clarence said drily.

The footman chastised himself. Of course a man such as he wouldn’t reveal his plans to just anyone, least of all William who was devoted to the Duke. William was a fool. As he turned to walk away, Clarence saw the corner of the journal poking out of his jacket.

“What do you have there?”

“It’s a medical journal, with some missing pages, Sir.”

Calmly, Sir Clarence said, “Sit.”

William sat in the mahogany chair. No one had ever invited him to sit in this room. Then without looking up from the desk he spoke the lie he’s rehearsed in his head.

“The Duke of Somerset found it in the forest and returned it to my master. I heard him say that you were investigating the fire for foul play, and possessed the missing pages that were the catalyst. He’s been deceiving you. The Dukes are lovers, and co-conspirators in concealing my master’s crime… I stole it for you.” William rubbed the back of his neck and anxiously tried to justify his deception. “It’s just like cotton mills riot isn’t it, Sir? Doing the wrong thing to stand up for what’s right?”

Sir Clarence’s small eyes lit up through his spectacles. “You are indeed standing up for what’s right, my boy.” He circled around the large partners desk, his charcoal tailcoat trailing behind him like a cloud of smoke. “Men like the Duke escape the law because of their title. One day there will be no titles, no masters and servants, no rich and poor. In the new world a man like you is as worthy as any Duke.”

William’s eyes pricked with tears. He could scarcely imagine a world where he was worthy.

“Now give it to me.”

William paused. “What will happen to my master if he’s found guilty? Will they take his land? He was only a child when it happened.”

“Hand me the journal.”

He pulled it out of his jacket and had a sickening feeling. “Will he be put in prison?”

“Give it to me!” he thundered.

William let Sir Clarence take the journal from his hands. He flipped through the pages and noted Louis’ cursive in the unsure hand of a child. He caressed the jagged spine where William and not Louis had torn out the pages. “Checkmate.”

“Send for my carriage.”

“Are you going to the magistrate?”

“No, the High Circuit Court. I need to reach Teesside by nightfall.”

“Please tell me what will happen to the Duke if the court finds him guilty?”

They walked through the rotunda at a brisk clip. The hounds in the oil painting seemed to spring to life out the corner of his eye.

Because Sir Clarence refused to employ a valet, his cousin’s footman fetched his cloak.

“What is that song they sang during the riot, William?”

William sang it:

How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor's rod
For cruel man who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress and, leech-like, suck
The life's blood of a brother?

“Blood for blood.” Sir Clarence slipped on his black gloves. “The punishment is death.”

***

Harry had dozed off after their last game. The young Duke had won. His fingers curled around Louis’ ivory knight as he slept.

Louis would give Harry his pin, he decided, but not today. Tomorrow at dawn, before the hunt, he would take him to spot where they shared their first kiss and pledge his heart. He could hardly wait but wait he must if he wanted the moment to be perfect.

His gaze fell on the stables in the distance. He would have to ask the groom to prepare Achilles and Albertine for their ride in the morning.

Then, just as he was about to return to bed, he spotted William below loading a carriage. Louis frowned. Had one of the club members really decided to leave? This did not bode well for his reelection as club president.

But it was his cousin who appeared on the flagstone and with great haste. He jumped into the carriage and tore down the dusty path before the door had even closed.

Harry rubbed his eyes and yawned, awakened by the clomping of hooves and the squeak of carriage wheels. He stepped over to Louis and wrapped his arms around his lover’s neck.

“Who is leaving?” he asked.

“All of our worries,” Louis replied.

Chapter Text

Without realizing it, Harry had begun a new collection.

Unlike his coin collection, which was made up of objects similar in form and function from all over the world, this collection was made up of different objects from a single source.

While he had thrown his invitation to Warwick into the fire, he’d kept the envelope and its broken red seal. He’d kept the white flowers Louis tossed in his direction after he won the horse race. They’d wilted but Harry pressed their petals in a book to preserve them. He kept the book of hymns Louis bought for him at the bazaar, the note Louis slipped beneath his pillow, “dearest one,” and the stamps that had once belonged to Louis’ brother. He had even kept Achilles, Louis’ first bittersweet gift.

It was in Harry’s nature to collect. Objects were how he made sense of the world. In a panic he found himself wanting more. He wanted a piece of Louis’ clothing, his lighter, a half-smoked French cigarette, a lock of hair…

He reached over to touch his lover’s side of the bed but it was cool and empty. Louis was awake. He sat at the vanity with his legs crossed, white breeches tucked into his black dress boots with brown leather tops. He already donned his hunting pinks. Harry wondered why these jackets were called “pinks” when they were scarlet. Only a gentleman member who had earned his colors was entitled to wear a scarlet jacket. It had gold buttons embossed with the hunt’s emblem. Masters signified their position by wearing four buttons and a huntsman, like Louis, wore five. He looked so dashing Harry wanted to undo every one of those shiny well-earned buttons.

He sat up in bed and stretched, smacking his lips drowsily. “May I have a lock of your hair?”

“Whatever for?” The Duke’s hands flew up to his head.

“My mother wears a lock of my father’s hair.”

“Your family is macabre,” he said sharply.

“All the widows wear it nowadays.”

“I’m alive, Harry!”

Louis rang for Harry’s valet. He said they were going for a ride before the hunt. Harry threw himself down on the bed, and kicked his legs petulantly. He was nowhere near ready to leave the sanctuary of their bedchamber.

“Come, Harry, the riverbank is where we shared our first kiss.”

“This room is where we first made love!” he argued, clinging to the sheets.

Louis joined him on the bed to comfort him. Harry wrapped his arms around the Duke’s neck, then scratched at his scarlet jacket like a cat begging to be let in.

Sensing his insecurity, Louis said, “Nothing will change when we step outside that door. I will love you out there as I did in here.”

Harry acquiesced.

Charles dressed him in a black oxford hunting jacket with plain black buttons and black dress boots with garters. It wasn’t mourning attire but proper etiquette for a gentleman who had not yet earned his colors. All that was missing was the helmet, a brimmed cap with black velvet covering. He tucked it beneath his arm.

He and Louis stepped outside the bedchamber and made their way down the staircase side-by-side as though Warwick now had two masters instead of one.

The men regarded them with suspicion.

Harry’s starched collar itched and palms were sweaty. Anxious as he was he could not seek out the comfort of his lover in the company of others.

Louis who had confronted the reality of his nature a long time ago, switched between worlds with ease, while Harry couldn’t watch Louis speak without feeling that that soft pink mouth pressed against his own, couldn’t look at his hand on the bannister without feeling it slide down his thigh.

Beardsley greeted them at the bottom of the staircase, fury concealed beneath a twitching mustache. As they went over the procedure for the hunt, Harry momentarily forgot himself and swept a loose strand of hair behind Louis’ ear. Both men stopped speaking at once and stared at him.

When Beardsley left, Louis turned to Harry and said firmly, “You musn’t do that.”

Harry flushed with shame. “I thought you said your feelings for me wouldn’t change.”

“They haven’t. But men like us need to be careful.”

Harry kicked the air with his riding boots. “Oh, I see.”

Louis softened. When no one was watching, he took Harry’s hand and guided him into the darkened corridor that led to the powder room. Alone at last the Duke pressed him against the wall beside a gilded mirror. Harry drew his knee up boyishly.

“What am I going to do with you?” Louis tsked.

“Kiss me?” Harry suggested.

Louis shook his head and laughed. He leaned in to steal a kiss, but stopped when he spotted someone’s reflection in the mirror.

Beth.

She was almost unrecognizable, wearing a navy hunting jacket and breeches, her curls twisted into a handsome chignon.

Louis sprang away from Harry and straightened his jacket. He noted the awkwardness between them and politely excused himself, reminding Harry to meet him by the stables for their ride.

He nodded.

Louis was no longer cross or jealous of Beth, but empathetic. He kissed her hand and left them.

She did not seem to know what to say. She wasn’t a worldly girl and likely did not understand what she had just witnessed.

“You and the Duke have become good friends,” she said quietly.

“We’re… fond of each other, yes.”

She twisted her riding crop in her small, gloved hands. “Will you still ride with me during the hunt?”

“Of course!” Harry exclaimed. “No one knows the hounds like you do.”

Beth stepped toward him. It was so strange to see her in breeches, legs moving freely, unburdened by the heavy folds of a dress. She leaned in as Louis did and for a moment Harry thought the girl might kiss him. But this intimate posture was to tell him something in confidence.

“I’m worried about the hounds,” she whispered. “Because the hunt was postponed they have been starved for two days. I visited the kennel early this morning. The beasts were mad. It wasn’t safe for me or even the gamekeeper to step inside.”

Harry did not know much about dogs but he remembered something Beth said the other day. “Perhaps it will make for a livelier hunt? Their sense of smell must be quite keen now.” The hounds were starved in order to heighten their senses and more easily detect the fox’s scent among the coverts. He glanced at the grandfather clock. “I’m terribly sorry, Beth, I must go and—”

“Meet the Duke.”

“Yes.”

For a moment he thought he saw a flash of understanding in her dark eyes. Impossible. A fifteen-year-old girl could not possibly conceive of love between two boys, could she?

***

William was standing by the window in the parlor room when Sir Clarence’s carriage pulled up to the manor.

The footman waited for a parish constable to step out, or for officers of the court to follow behind in their own carriage. Curiously, Clarence was alone. The gentleman’s face was as grey as the early morning sky without a lick of sunlight upon it.

He met Sir Clarence outside on the flagstone. “Are they going to arrest him?” the boy asked in a hushed tone while taking his satchel.

Eyes darting wildly around the manor he said, “Where is he?”

“The Duke? Why, he’s gone for a ride to his favorite spot on the riverbank.”

***

Achilles veered off the path and into the brush, bucking at Harry’s commands, while Bertie clomped obediently ahead.

Why couldn’t he communicate with this bloody animal? It mystified him. Louis said they simply had to hear each other’s hearts, but his heart appeared to speak a different language.

Louis looked back and searched for them among the branches. “Perhaps it would be quicker if you walked.”

“How droll,” Harry quipped.

When they neared the riverbank they dismounted and tied the horses to two thick trees a few yards away from their spot.

Achilles rested his head on the back of Bertie’s neck, grooming and nickering affectionately to his pasture mate before they were parted.

The mare put her ears back and blinked sweetly at him.

***

Sir Clarence locked the library door behind them. He paced around the room, heels clicking against the polished floorboards with the haunting rhythm of a metronome.

The boy was panicking now. His bony legs shook like saplings. What if the court realized that the evidence had been falsified? What if Sir Clarence was going to prison? What if he was going to prison?

“Tell me, Sir, what did they say at the high court,” he begged, wringing his hands. “Please!”

“Hush! I’m thinking.”

Clarence stopped dead in his tracks. Some terrible idea had just occurred to him and his frown morphed into a toothy grimace.

“I need you to fetch two things for me, William.” He hunched over the desk. “I need you to retrieve a piece of clothing worn by your master but not yet washed, and a hunting knife.”

“Sir—”

“Go!”

***

They unfurled the thick wool blanket. Though it was still autumn there were shades of winter in the frost-covered grass and branches. Harry would normally be cold but since the moment Louis deflowered him, his skin ran as hot as a kettle.

Louis, a sportsman, thrived outdoors. His blue eyes became clear as gemstones and his cheeks flushed with vigor. His hair appeared lighter in the sun and windswept, fell romantically over his brow.

He lay supine on the blanket and watched the river, threading his fingers through the grass. He seemed troubled. Harry smoothed the Duke’s worry lines with his thumb, which made him smile.

Harry wondered if the Duke would invite him to stay the summer. They could swim nude in the river and make love all afternoon in the grass. He would wait to propose such a naughty plan. Perhaps he would write it in a letter, omitting the words “nude” and “make love” of course lest it fall into the wrong hands.

“There’s something I would like to give you, Harry.”

“You’ve decided to give me a lock of your hair after all? Splendid!”

Another piece for his collection, he thought excitedly! Harry considered showing Louis this new collection but supposed it childish and changed his mind. He needed to appear aloof and mysterious to maintain the Duke’s interest. Louis was accustomed to sophisticated society men, not adolescent hobbyists.

Louis slipped a hand into his breast pocket. “It’s not a lock of hair.” He paused.

Why was he so vexed? It was making Harry vexed. What was in that pocket? A parting gift? Was this goodbye? The end of their tryst? He couldn’t bear it. “Don’t tell me it’s over! I’ll die!” Alas, so much for being aloof.

“Over?” He tossed his head with amusement. Then he took a deep breath. “As you know, the reason I visited Somerset four years ago was because my family died. Their lives ended but mine had only just begun because… that was when I met you. I never knew a moment so bright could be born from one so dark.”

He removed an object from his pocket. Harry knew what it was from the way he held it in his hand. It was small but heavy as a heart.

“I pledge myself to you. Will you accept my pin?”

***

William returned to the library with a long Paget hunting knife and the Duke’s billowy white shirt, which he nicked from the maid’s basket while she was laundering his sheets.

It was clear now that no officers were coming to Warwick.

“They aren’t coming, are they, Sir?”

Turning the knife over in his hand, Sir Clarence relayed the news from the high court: they would not press charges.

The torn medical journal, and corresponding burnt pages doused in turpentine, was compelling evidence, but inexplicably not enough to convince the court to arrest someone of the Duke’s stature and put him on trial for murder.

“I’ve seen the same prosecutors put an orphan in prison for theft because he had crumbs in his pocket,” he seethed, “hang a shoemaker based on nothing more than hearsay.” His voice teetered on the edge of madness. The court’s decision confirmed every suspicion he’d ever harbored about the system and justified every rebellion against it. “The law has failed us, so we must make our own justice. It’s the only solution. I should have seen it all along.”

“We’ll be hanged if they catch us!”

“For a just cause.”

There were two parts to Clarence’s plan as he described it. Both unthinkable. He wanted Louis to suffer for his crime. Only, it was the wrong crime. Louis was cruel but he was no murderer. William had made the whole thing up!

He cradled the shirt against his cheek. It smelled intoxicatingly of his master.

Clarence saw hesitation in the boy’s dark eyes. He saw the twisted flame the boy nursed for his master despite all the ways he had wronged him. Clarence put a hand on his shoulder.

“It is natural for servant to love his master, he knows no better, but a master never loves his servant, for if he did, he could not bear to watch him degrade himself in servitude. Louis would not show you the mercy you are showing him now.”

William clung fiercely to the shirt. “I simply can’t.” He had to confess the truth about the medical journal.

But Clarence interrupted him. “You would side with your master over me? Let me ask you, would he side with you over his companion, the Duke of Somerset?”

The footman grew cold.

“Do you think he would ever choose a servant, however loyal, over his own kind?”

Clarence gently took the shirt from the boy’s shaking hands.

William had pledged his heart, only to be cast out of his master’s bed while a traitor, with fortune and fine clothes, had been let in. And like a loyal dog, William couldn’t stop loving the Duke no matter how many times he’d been kicked aside.

Perhaps Clarence was right. In the future there would be no rich and poor, no servants or masters. But that future was not today. There was only one place where he and his master could be together and it wasn’t in this life.

Clarence held out the shirt and the hunting knife and asked William to choose.

William chose the knife.

***

Harry picked up the pin from Louis’ palm and repeated his words, “I pledge myself to you,” voice echoing throughout the forest. There was no priest, no congregation, only sparrows tittering in the trees but he felt like he was in nature’s cathedral with a choir singing behind him.

He had wished for this moment and at the same time did not dare wish for it in case it didn’t come true.

Here it was, the crown jewel of all of his collections, his most prized possession. It wasn’t valuable and it wasn’t rare, thousands of boys who passed through the halls of Eton College had the exact same one, but this pin, slightly scuffled with a tiny dent on the fleur-de-lys, didn’t belong to just any boy, it belonged to his boy and that made it invaluable.

Louis was nervous, which Harry didn’t expect. Gone was the confident Duke that expertly guided Harry’s urges in the bedchamber. Love was as new to Louis as it was to Harry. He tried not to prick Harry, while Harry tried not to cry.

As Louis fumbled with the pin on Harry’s waistcoat, concealing it beneath the young Duke’s hunting jacket, Harry held his wrist. “No, no, on my cravat.”

Louis embraced him suddenly, overcome with emotion.

Hunting etiquette required men to wear a plain gold pin on their cravat. Harry knew it was poor form to wear the Eton crest but he didn’t care. If he couldn’t kiss his lover openly he would honor him with this symbol of their devotion.

***

William made his way through the Warwick forest on foot, the knife in a leather sheath on his hip.

He shouldered through the pine trees and then he spotted them.

Achilles and Albertine.

He approached the stallion first. The beast’s black nostrils flared dangerously. He had a notorious temper that all his handlers warned about, and immediately mistrusted the footman.

William stepped closer.

The stallion struck the ground with his heavy hoof.

“Don’t be afraid ‘ol boy. It’s your chum, William. I’ve come to scratch your ear.”

Achilles rose on his hindquarters.

William backed away nearly falling over.

Then he turned to Albertine.

The mare was anxious. William opened his hand to her. She was wary but too obedient to refuse him. William stroked her snowy muzzle and behind her ear, the way he watched his master soothe her before a ride.

He gripped the handle of the knife.

It slid from its sheath with a quiet hiss.

***

Harry tipped his head back and bared his throat.

Louis slid the pin’s sharp gold bar through the silk cravat and closed the clasp.

***

William placed the blade beneath the mare’s mandible.

“That’s it, girl. Come a little closer.”

She was unfamiliar with the footman, but, trusting and sweet, bowed her head and submitted to his touch.

He slid the knife across her snowy white throat.

Her eyes went wide with panic but it was too late. The blade had pierced the jugular vein and blood spilled like a fountain down her soft white fur and onto the dead leaves beneath her hooves. She wavered and collapsed heavily to the ground kicking and struggling for life.

The stallion let out a scream, yanking the reins that bound him to the tree.

***

Harry’s lips brushed Louis’ to seal their pledge with a kiss, when he heard a scream from the forest. “Did you hear that?”

Louis stood and pulled Harry to his feet. “The horses. Something’s wrong.”

***

“Calm,” William told the stallion, “Calm.”

The beast would not calm down. William would have to stab its body where he could, incapacitate it instead of delivering a clean and quiet kill.

He lifted the blade above his head when suddenly the leather reins snapped. The stallion broke free and ran.

Behind him the footman could hear the two Dukes approaching from the brush and he too ran, back to the house to see if Sir Clarence had begun to carry out the second half of their plan.

***

They noticed the blood first. There was so much it inched toward their boots in a large dark pool.

Louis fell to his knees when he saw her, hoofs moving weakly in the loose earth. He took off his jacket and pressed it to her neck, trying to staunch the bleeding in vain.

She was already growing cold and Harry threw himself on top of her to keep her warm. “No, no, no,” he cried. “This can’t be happening! Who would do such a thing?”

He heard her large heart thudding slower and slower.

“Save her, Louis! Save her! Please!”

Louis held the mare’s head in his lap, her dark eyes gazing up at him with terror. His jacket was soaked through with blood.

Her heart stopped.

In the distance Achilles neighed wildly.

“Go to him!” Louis choked, still holding Bertie.

He couldn’t bear to leave them but Achilles might have been injured too.

Harry scrambled to his feet and ran east as fast as he could, following the stallion’s cries. The wind dried his tear-stained cheeks as he leapt over logs and fallen branches. All he could see was blood. All he could hear was Bertie’s last heartbeat. He had saved her from death when she was still a carthorse and now death had come for her again and he could do nothing to stop it. He hated himself and whoever had done this.

He found the stallion in the middle of the forest, trembling behind a tree, too afraid to approach.

Though badly spooked, he didn’t appear to be injured. Harry breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t realize how much he loved this animal until he thought he might be taken from him too.

Tentatively, the stallion clomped toward the young Duke, his large eyes knowing.

I wish I knew what you were thinking. I wish I knew what you saw. Who did this, Achilles? Who did this?

He was about to grab the broken reins when they heard a horn in the distance.

It was the huntsman’s horn, though the hunt was not for another three hours.

He led Achilles toward a clearing where he could see the manor. The hounds were descending on the forest in a large hungry pack, their noses to the ground, heading west. Neither Beardsley the field master, nor Oscar the whipper-in, were leading them. Instead he saw Sir Clarence atop his dapple grey thoroughbred holding a white shirt.

The hounds had picked up a scent.

It took Harry a moment to realize that they weren’t hunting the fox.

Louis was their quarry.

Chapter Text

Achilles would not move.

Harry snapped the reins and tapped the stallion’s flank with his heel and riding crop but he stubbornly refused.

The sound of the dogs’ hungry snarls rose above the trees like a storm brewing while Clarence’s horn grew louder and louder as he drew near.

Angrily, Harry yanked the reins. Achilles clamped down on the bit and stomped forward with a woeful neigh.

***

Albertine.

Louis stared at his reflection in her large blank eyes as death’s mask crept over her sweet expression. Oh how he adored this creature! How he doted on her! When Harry was all but a memory to him, alone at Somerset with his cold father, Louis gave Harry’s mare all the love and affection he could not bring himself to bestow upon the young Duke during his visit. She was the thread that connected them across fields and hills, rivers and years.

Who would dare sever this thread?

The horn must have been blaring for some time, but in his grief Louis couldn’t hear it, not until he heard his cousin’s voice issuing commands to the hounds.

“Lieu in!”

That was a command to search the coverts. Had the hunt begun without him? Why was Beardsley, the Field Master, not issuing these commands in Louis’ absence?

A mile away, he spotted his cousin beneath the claw of a bloomless willow tree. They locked eyes. Only, Clarence’s eyes were as empty as those of the dead mare in Louis’ arms.

“Holloa!” He called, a command to alert the hounds that the fox had been spotted.

Louis looked over his shoulder. There was no fox to be seen.

“Cousin!” He yelled, drying his tears with the back of his hand. “Where is he?”

“Holloa!” Clarence called again.

“Cousin?”

Three hounds with their heads low to the ground crept through the brush.

Louis’ heart thudded in his chest. “Cousin… what are you doing?”

“Holloa! Holloa! Holloa!”

The hounds lifted their heads and spotted him.

Louis broke into a run.

***

Holloa.

Harry heard Clarence’s command as he rode at a cantor beneath canopy of buckthorns. He panicked and snapped the reins as hard as he could.

Achilles stopped, tossing his head fretfully. Harry felt like he was riding in quicksand, the moment he would gain traction, the stallion would fight him and he in turn would fight the stallion until they were at an impasse.

Finally the beast moved forward, spurned by his own frustration and not Harry’s. They were two animals with two hearts when they should have been acting as one.

“Come on boy, that’s it,” he coaxed.

Harry spotted several straggling hounds with their noses to the ground. The pack was dispersed.

There was still time.

***

Louis’s boots pounded on the muddy trail as he ran. It was a riding path, the earth loosened by the heavy hooves of horses.

He knew his cousin detested him. He knew he thought him responsible for the death of his beloved uncle. But this—this was unimaginable. Clarence fought with words, his pen, the law. His only attempt at violence was to fund small workers’ rebellions and watch on the sidelines as factories burned. Never had he taken up violence himself. Louis always thought him a coward. He’d underestimated him, just as Harry warned. It was a fatal error in judgment.

Harry. Louis ran east, so the young Duke would be safe on the western edge of the forest with Achilles.

Cold air moved in and out of his lungs until his chest tightened.

Think like a fox.

He thought back to all of the foxes that had eluded him in hunts past. What did they have in common?

They threw the hounds off the scent.

Louis needed a distraction.

***

Harry had Clarence in his sights, which meant Louis couldn’t be far off.

Rather than cross his path he decided to ride parallel through the bush and reach Louis undetected.

Achilles bucked and resisted the change of course but Harry urged the beast forward with the flex of his thighs.

Through the brush it was harder to see and navigate, but there in the distance he saw Louis’ black boots with tan leather tops treading wildly in the mud, three hounds snapping at his heels.

“Come on, boy, just a little bit farther,” Harry whispered in Achilles’ pricked ear.

He couldn’t call out to Louis lest Clarence spot him. If Achilles kept a steady pace for a while longer, they would outrun the hounds, sidle up to Louis and together ride to safety.

He was nearly there, galloping against the outstretched hands of dead braches, when seemingly out of nowhere a chestnut thoroughbred savagely cut him off and brought his stallion to a halt. This was Frederick’s horse Belvédère, but it wasn’t Frederick sitting atop him.

It was William.

Achilles rose on his hindquarters with a scream and threw Harry to the ground.

***

Hounds possessed endurance but lacked speed.

Louis had outpaced them with only seconds to throw them of his trail. He took off his socks and shredded them, tying the strips of fabric to the trees heading north while he slipped his boots back on and headed southeast along the river.

When he looked back, he saw the hounds sniffing the trees.

Head north, head north, head north, he prayed.

***

William trotted ‘round Harry on the stolen thoroughbred. “Good afternoon, your Grace.”

The boy’s limbs were as gangly and untrained as Harry’s as they hugged the beast, but no less determined. He wasn’t wearing his footman’s uniform but proudly donned his own clothes, a patchwork coat and trousers worn at the knees with frayed cuffs.

Harry had hit his head and felt the sting of a split lip. His mouth was wet with blood and his temples throbbed with pain and confusion.

The footman cupped his mouth “Lieu in!” he called to the hounds. “Pack up!” Dozens of dogs came out of the brush to form a tight pack. To Harry’s horror, he realized that William was Clarence’s whipper-in, collecting the straggling hounds to unite the pack in their hunt.

Achilles, more anxious than he had ever seen him, was about to bolt when Harry grabbed his reins.

“Don’t do this, William,” he cried. “You’ll be hanged!”

The footman lifted his young pale face to the sky. “Aye, you don’t understand. I want to die. Then me an’ my master can finally be together. In the next life, none of your kind can come between us. In death he won’t be Duke an’ I won’t be a footman. He’ll see me for who I really am. He’ll finally know my heart.”

Harry clenched his bloodied teeth. “If you do this your heart is black!”

Then Harry noticed a hunting knife in a sheath on the footman’s belt.

“Bertie.”

William stroked Belvédère’s crest with a broad smile that never reached his eyes. “It was quick and painless for her, not so for your lover. Hounds like to play with their food.”

***

Louis didn’t dare stop running. If the hounds had turned around and followed him, he was afraid to look and stare death in the face.

Wind shrieked in his ears and the river slapped against the rocks to his right. Instead of song, the only sound from the birds came from their beating wings as they flew from the trees. The music of the forest which moments ago played a sweet sonata for the two dukes now played a frantic allegro.

Filled with terror, and maybe courage too, Louis stopped to look behind him.

His blue eyes scanned the brush.

Mouth dry and gasping for breath he was delirious with the realization that he may be safe. There were no hounds behind him.

He followed the hush of the river and kneeled on the riverbank. With two hands he cupped the water and took a drink.

It was when he lifted his head that he heard it.

A hound stalking him with a growl.

***

Harry touched the blood from his split lip.

Holding the reins in one hand, he placed his foot in the stirrup and desperately tried to climb atop Achilles. The stallion jolted violently and tried to flee.

He scarcely had a grip on him. Achilles was worse now than he was before when he found him spooked. Worse than he was back at Somerset, all of Harry’s hard work with the beast undone in an instant.

He took a breath and tried to compose himself, remembering what Louis taught him. You must understand his body in connection to yours. Become a source of comfort to him.

It was Louis who was a source of comfort to Harry whenever he was feeling anxious or frightened. It was Louis’ firm and gentle touch that soothed Harry as he was being deflowered even though he was scared and in pain. He did not know how to be a source of comfort to someone else.

He removed his gloves and ran his hand along the stallion’s crest and withers, sleek black fur sliding between his pale fingers.

Achilles dipped his head down and brushed his muzzle against Harry’s cheek.

The young Duke threw his arms around Achilles’ neck and pressed his chest against the beast. “Please hear my heart,” he wept.

The sound of Louis’ cries rang through the trees, clear as a pistol at the starting line of a race.

***

The first hound was joined by a second. The fur on their back was raised and strings of saliva hung from their dark lips.

Two he could handle.

But the first hound let out a high-pitched whine to alert the rest of the pack. He could hear them barking and then Clarence and the hooves of his horse drawing nearer like the drumbeat of an executioner.

If they found Louis it was over.

***

Harry leapt on the stallion’s back and together they tore through the woods.

He held the reins tautly to navigate. Achilles intuited Harry’s commands before he even delivered them. Harry didn’t feel as though he were riding a horse but that he was Achilles and Achilles was he. They were moving as one. One body. One heart.

Achilles soared over logs and fallen branches. Harry had never ridden so fast. The stallion’s hooves hardly touched the ground. It felt like they were flying.

Sir Clarence was yards ahead, weaving through the silver birch trees on his thoroughbred. Harry spotted his cloak billowing like a black sail in the wind. The dogs were just ahead of him, dozens in a tight hungry pack, whining to be fed.

Harry would never pass them. In no horse race could such a large gap be closed.

But he had to close it. Somehow he had to save Louis.

Harry rose above the saddle and impossibly Achilles found it deep within himself to run faster.

Bertie had won the Bilsdale race for Louis in spite of her physical limitations because she loved him. Achilles was the perfect physical specimen--his flaw, that he did not love Harry and Harry did not know how to love him in return. Now that their hearts beat as one, they were unstoppable.

Louis’ words about giving him Achilles suddenly felt prophetic: Albertine is the horse you want but Achilles is the horse you need.

***

A third hound joined the fray and the rest of the pack was not far behind.

Louis tried to run but they had him surrounded.

He never handled the dogs directly, but knew enough to know that one wasn’t supposed to look them in the eye.

If he stayed still and averted his gaze, he thought, they would wait to attack. But even in his stillness they sensed the telltale mark of prey: fear.

Louis blinked and felt the first hound’s canines and incisors sink into the flesh of his leg.

The feeding frenzy had begun.

***

Harry was right behind Clarence now.

He glanced at Harry over his shoulder, calculating dull eyes replaced with the gleam of vengeance.

“You’ve made a huge mistake siding with my cousin. He is going to pay for his sins, and with his death, you will pay for yours. You never should have defied me.”

“I’m Duke,” Harry spat, “I don’t take orders from a chancery lawyer.”

Achilles surged forward, black muscles rippling gloriously in the sun, neck-and-neck with Clarence’s dapple-grey thoroughbred.

***

He felt another dog tear into his flesh. His white shirt, which was stained with Albertine’s blood, now blushed with his own.

He tried to beat them back with his fists but that would only lead to another angry snap, and another.

One sank his teeth into the Duke’s tender side while the other lunged for his throat to break his neck.

The rest of the pack began to appear through the brush licking their lips, eager to join their starved kennelmates to disembowel the Duke.

Louis, weak from the loss of blood, could do nothing but submit to fate.

***

Achilles was growing tired, his breathing labored. Though the other horse had been running a longer stretch, Achilles was running faster, overexerting himself.

Feeling Harry’s heart beating urgently to save his lover, Achilles pushed himself beyond what he or any other horse on this earth was capable of.

Clouds of hot breath escaped his large black nostrils in the cold air. Harry squeezed his legs, thrusting down and forward in the saddle with his hips.

They inched past Clarence and caught up to the pack.

The hounds had surrounded their quarry.

Clarence was in earshot yelling the command to kill.

***

Death’s heavy curtain fell before him and Louis peered into a world that was quiet and dark.

This place was neither heaven nor hell but the cold and indifferent Underworld ruled by Hades that welcomed saints and sinners alike.

From the shadows, the outline of five familiar figures took shape. They were all there. His father holding a pipe, his mother on his arm, in tableaux, as though their family portrait had been restored and brought to life. The only piece that was missing was Louis.

George and Edward pushed past their parents’, jockeying for position to greet their brother.

Louis had aged four years and was now a man but they hadn’t aged a day and looked exactly as he remembered them, with ruddy cheeks and cropped dark hair just like their father.

“There you are old chap!”

“Took you long enough!”

“We’ve been waiting for ages!”

Louis drew a breath as James stepped forward from the shadows.

He was no longer sickly and limping but tall with the brilliant light hair and blue eyes they shared with their mother.

His arms opened to embrace Louis. “Oh, how I’ve missed you, little brother!”

***

The heavy beating of hooves was enough to disperse the hounds for a moment but they were so starved, they kept coming at them like a lapping wave of hunger.

They snapped at Achilles’ legs. The stallion stumbled but didn’t flee, remaining fiercely devoted to Harry.

Louis lay in the tall grass unmoving with his eyes shut covered in fresh blood.

Clarence was approaching screaming at the hounds to attack.

His body was heavy but Harry found the strength to lift Louis up onto the saddle and hold him from behind while he climbed atop Achilles himself and furiously snapped the reins.

Achilles could easily outrun the hounds but it was too far to the manor and Louis was barely breathing. Harry needed to apply pressure to his wounds and staunch the bleeding. The horrible image of Bertie bleeding out from her neck flashed before his eyes and he blinked back tears.

He took him to the safest place he knew: Louis’ fox den.

They rode for minutes but it felt like hours.

When he recognized the spot, he dismounted and brushed the leaves from the earth’s opening. He cradled the Duke’s body and carried him inside the musty solitude of the den.

Sunlight sliced through the lair like a scalpel.

Harry unbuttoned his shirt and saw the gashes, blood so thick it was black as oil. He grieved at the sight of his lover’s pierced flesh but there was no time to weep. He removed his jacket and waistcoat tearing the fabric to fashion bandages and gauze. He was not an actual surgeon but came from a family so preoccupied with illness and the terrors of human anatomy, that he might as well have been.

He tightened a knot around Louis’ waist where the hound’s teeth had badly pierced his side.

Applying pressure to the wound, Harry kissed Louis’ pale lips feeling only the faintest of breath upon his.

He clung to the Eton pin on his cravat and the vow they’d made to each other on the riverbank. This day was supposed to be the beginning of their lives together, not the end. Not yet. Louis was his golden boy and Harry his dearest one.

“Please don’t go,” he begged. “We were going to swim in the river, remember? I haven’t even played you my favorite concerto or read you my favorite poem. With whom will I dance and sing? Whom will I share my collections with? My bed? My life?” Harry curled an arm around his lover. “Don’t leave me, Louis, you’re all I have, you’re my whole world.”

***

“Join us, brother.”

James reached out to him, melancholy in the blue eyes that were a mirror image of Louis’ own.

Clarence was right. Louis was guilty. Though his crime was not murder; it was survival. He did not deserve a life of happiness when theirs was so brutally taken from them. He should have died in that fire four years ago, burned beside his mother and father and brothers, beside James who was a better version of him than he could ever be.

“I’m coming, James!” Louis shouted, and ran toward death’s dark theatre. “At last I’m coming home.” Here with his family was where he belonged.

But as he approached, another figure took shape in the darkness, looming over his brother’s shoulder.

He recognized the person instantly.

His family’s killer suddenly appeared beside them and beckoned Louis.

“Yes, join us.”

Chapter Text

In the afterlife hate has no color. All that remains is the mere impression of hate, like the dent of a pen stroke on a pad of paper. Much like their bodies, his family’s feelings toward their killer were spectral.

The killer came toward Louis, his outline taking on a crisper appearance than the others since he had only just passed.

Somewhere far away lay Louis’ body, alive, and as blood pumped to his heart, so did hate, vivid and in full color.

“Come, I know you long to be at peace,” the killer said with eerie confidence.

“I will never know peace in your presence.”

“That’s a lie. We’ve always been quite cordial. If you truly hated me then why did you never tell anyone of my crime?”

Louis did not answer.

“Perhaps it was because I made you Duke,” the killer said. “Perhaps you were secretly grateful.”

He would be grateful to see this man tortured and killed but, of course, he was already dead.

***

Blood seeped through the fabric of Louis’ makeshift bandages onto Harry’s hands as he held the Duke’s waist. Time was running out. They had successfully eluded the hounds but not death.

He heaved Louis’ body with all his might onto the stallion’s back and rode to the manor as fast as he could. Not only did Achilles obey Harry, Harry obeyed Achilles. His strength and speed forced Harry to become a better rider. The young Duke’s slender thighs hugged the beast’s flank as they weaved through the trees and over rocks and fallen branches.

From the hilltop, Harry could see club members scattered about the property in uniform like toy soldiers. None seemed to understand what was happening. The kennel was empty, the hounds gone, but they did not, could not, comprehend what that meant. They must have thought it a prank of some kind.

The two dukes arrived over the grassy knoll, Louis’ head swaying with the rhythm of the stallion’s cantor. Harry called out for help. They thought this was in jest.

“Please help us!” Harry cried.

Beardsley cursed the Duke with his riding crop in the air.

The others howled with laughter.

Beth stepped forward and narrowed her eyes. She noticed at once that Louis was not wearing his scarlet hunting jacket but a white shirt soaked with blood.

She screamed.

The men dashed toward them and crowded ‘round. They quickly helped Harry lift the Duke’s body down from the saddle. Roy carried him in his arms to the manor while Teddy, ashen-faced, sent a pageboy to the village to fetch the surgeon.

Harry chased after them and stammered, “Clarence… the hounds… Sir Clarence took the hounds.” He tried to make himself clear but he was frantic and out of breath.

An accident they assumed.

“No!” His voice cracked in the air like a horsewhip. “Clarence meant to murder his cousin!”

This was a call to arms.

The men, along with Beth, took to their horses and galloped into the forest embarking on a mission far nobler than the symbolic victory of the hunt.

Harry followed Louis inside the manor. The gentry received surgical procedures in the comfort of their own home. Maids bustled past him into the solarium with pots of boiling water, iodine and fresh linens. They brought extra oil lamps in case the procedure lasted into the night.

The surgeon hadn’t arrived yet and every second was precious. Harry stared at the face of the grandfather clock, wringing his blood stained hands.

He slid down the wall of the rotunda and watched through a crack in the doors as they lifted Louis’ body onto a long refectory table draped in a white bed sheet.

Roy slid down the wall beside him. The Earl removed his riding cap and placed it over his heart. “He can’t die, he’s my best friend.”

“He’s my—” Harry began with a catch in his throat.

Roy glanced at the pin on his cravat and touched the young Duke’s cheek. “I know, darling.”

Frederick tapped his polished boot loudly on the marble floor, firing question after question. “Why would Clarence do this? Where? How?”

“He believes Louis started the fire that killed his family. He set the hounds on him during our tryst on the riverbank.”

The Viscount’s voice became shrill and his words accusatory. “Why was he alone on foot? Where were you?”

“Frederick!” Roy scolded. “Ignore him, Harry. He does not fare well in a crisis.”

Harry continued shakily. “Clarence was aided by William. The footman slaughtered Albertine. Achilles ran off. I chased after the stallion… Frederick’s right. I should have stayed with him.”

“Then you would both be dead,” Roy said flatly. “Achilles is the only reason you were able to reach him alive.”

Frederick looked unconvinced.

The surgeon arrived. He handed his black leather satchel to the apprentice by his side as a nurse tied on his mask. The irony. Weeks ago, Harry had arrived through the same doors wearing the same mask with the same men mistaking him for a surgeon. He hated the implication and the nickname, now he would give anything for the ability to save his lover.

Then Harry remembered something else. “Oh, also, William stole Belvédère.”

“HE WHAT.”

The Viscount picked up a glass vase and smashed it against the wall, nearly maiming the pageboy. He stormed off before Roy could stop him.

The house was quiet now but for the sound of the surgeon’s forceps and lancets, clinking against a metal tray, and the hushed commands he gave the nurses to “hurry” with this, or be “careful” with that.

The club remained outside combing the forest for Clarence and the hounds.

Then the maid, Charlotte, approached them with a letter.

She was a hardy girl and an efficient maid, mannerly and curt. That practiced veneer had cracked. Her voice wavered with emotion.

“I didn’t know who to give this to, now that my master is…” She handed the letter to the Earl and covered her mouth, which hung open in a soundless scream.

Roy’s dark unblinking eyes scanned the page. “It’s a suicide note. William has taken his own life.”

The footman could barely read or write, but he had put the facts down in his crude hand and disjointed prose. He confessed to everything. How he had stolen the medical journal from Louis’ bedchamber, ripped the pages out and made Clarence think it was the evidence he was searching for. How the high court refused to hear Clarence’s case. How he went along with the murder so he could possess in death what he could never possess in life.

Harry took the letter. Louis’ disapproving cousin may have been a murderer, but it was William, his most loyal servant, who sealed Louis’ fate. The betrayal. How could the same hands that played the piano so exquisitely, commit this heinous crime?

Frederick reappeared, this time with a rifle over his shoulder. He pointed it at the terrified pageboy. “You there, fetch me a horse. I’m going to shoot that footman like the animal he is.”

Roy jumped up and placed a hand on his chest. “Wait! William is dead.”

Frederick loaded the gun and slid the safety bolt with an expert click. “He most certainly is.”

They read him the letter but there was no stopping him. Frederick would not rest until he either found William’s body or shot the boy himself.

Everyone grieved in their own way, Harry supposed.

The surgery did go on into the night. Nurses came and went from the room carrying oil lamps as they fetched more supplies, their white smocks stained with blood.

***

The night of the fire James had been especially ill. Louis sat on the edge of his bed and flipped though his stamp collection to cheer him. He offered to spend the night so his brother would not have to suffer alone. James wished he would stay but deep down knew his young brother’s heart belonged to the forest. He tousled Louis’ hair and said, “Run along little fox. I’ll see you at dawn.”

By dawn James was nothing but ash.

James did not know it then, but he saved Louis’ life, his small act of selflessness a light in the darkest of nights.

It finally occurred to Louis: only by surviving could he have his revenge. He would not win this battle by hating his family’s killer, but by living and loving Harry.

James reached out to him and Louis reached back.

Time was running out below and eternity stretched out above.

James came nearer, calling his name.

How could he bring himself to leave his brother again?

He couldn’t.

Louis fell into James’ arms, a warm and all-encompassing light.

Maybe the killer was right. Maybe what Louis truly wanted was to be at peace.

James leaned down and whispered something in his ear. Louis was expecting these to be gentle words of welcome.

They were not.

He lifted his head. His brother winked at him mischievously and Louis quickly kissed his cheek.

 

He felt his spirit being pulled toward his body and he chased after it, carrying his brother’s words in his heart: “Run along little fox.”

***

Clarence wasn’t caught.

He surrendered.

While the men were out searching the forest for him, he returned to the manor and calmly removed his gloves before giving himself up to the first club member he encountered, which happened to be a bewildered Oscar, stationed by the carriage house as a lookout.

Oscar was as confused as he was terrified.

The most frightening thing about Clarence was that he feared nothing. Not the law, not the gentry, not God, no one. His most powerful weapon was the conviction of his beliefs. In his mind, these beliefs absolved him of all sin.

Oscar ordered him to kneel until the others returned.

When the rest of the club appeared, they led Clarence inside the house to the parlor room where they waited for the parish constable to arrive. He cooperated fully, without protest.

Harry should have stayed in the rotunda but was apoplectic at the sound of Clarence’s all-too-calm voice. He burst into the room covered in his lover’s blood.

“Your cousin is dying!”

Clarence showed no remorse.

“My cousin killed his entire family.” He slipped a hand into his breast pocket and held up the medical journal and corresponding burnt pages with triumph.

In some mad way this was the happiest Harry had ever seen him. Clarence had destroyed several lives including his own, yet he was positively serene in the face of chaos.

There were whispers. The men did not know what to make of this evidence.

Harry stepped forward with his hands clasped behind his back.

Clarence’s lip curled. “Traitor. Sodomite. Tell me, how does it feel to bed a murderer?”

“I don’t know.” Harry lowered his voice. “But I’m not going to fuck you and find out.”

He sneered and nodded at the journal. “See for yourself. Look inside.”

“I have looked inside. When it was intact.”

He handed Clarence William’s suicide note. His smug face gazed upon the letter, then became waxy, a cold sweat slickening his gaunt features with horror.

“This is impossible.”

“You hunted an innocent man. Your own flesh and blood. You were not avenging your uncle’s murder, but the broken heart of a sixteen-year-old boy.”

Clarence had to be restrained by three men.

The shock of it sent him into hysterics. His certainty that Louis was a murderer, his conviction that he was serving the greater good, collapsed all around him along with his sanity.

For four years Clarence told himself a story that Louis was a monster only to become the monster himself, and the villain of his own story.

***

As Louis took his final bow and escaped death’s stage, the killer blocked his path and demanded one final performance.

He tilted his head of dark curls. “You won’t make it back in time. You are very, very ill.”

“I must try.”

“Why? Your entire family is dead, and your only living relation tried to murder you. What do you have to live for?”

Louis’ chest swelled proudly. “I have Harry.”

These words cut the killer.

“You don’t belong with him.”

“My lover would beg to differ.”

The killer tried a different tack and mimicked Harry’s soft melodic voice. “I rather look like him, don’t you think?”

Louis had always thought so and shuddered. “Yes.”

“What else might we have in common?”

“Nothing. Harry is nothing like you.”

The killer grinned. “If you go back, know this: when you make love to the Duke of Somerset, you will forever see my face. When he screams with pleasure, you will forever hear your brother’s screams as I set his body on fire and watched with pleasure as he burned.”

He stepped aside, clearing the Duke’s path, but Louis remained frozen.

***

The doctor did not know if the surgery was successful, though from the weary look on his face Harry gathered the prognosis wasn’t good.

He had sewed Louis’ wounds and incisions with dark thread. The Duke had so many stiches his flesh looked like ladies needlework. He was moved to his bedchamber where he would either survive the night or he die in peacefully in his sleep.

Harry refused to go to his own bedchamber and leave Louis with the nurse. He wanted to be by his lover’s side if he passed. He wanted his voice to be the last Louis heard on this earth. If Louis died, Harry wanted him to know that he was deeply loved.

The doctor found Harry’s presence highly unusual. Nobles did not tend to the ill and infirm. When he finished listening to the Duke’s heart with his stethoscope, he asked, “Are you a relation of his, your grace?”

“No, I’m his companion.”

The doctor deduced that they were lovers but had enough grace not to exhibit disapproval.

He showed Harry the basin and compress and demonstrated how to dab Louis’ forehead to reduce his fever. Then he showed him how to administer laudanum, and how to gently clean his wounds. Harry practiced while the surgeon watched.

“You use carbolic catgut on your suture threads,” Harry noted.

“Very good.” The surgeon smiled. “Has anyone ever told you you’d make a fine surgeon, your grace?”

“More often than not.”

When the surgeon left and they were all alone, Harry took a book from Louis’ desk. It was a leather-bound edition of Bleak House. Louis had read it to try and charm him one day in the library. It did not charm him at the time but now the memory of Louis awkwardly trying to recite a passage filled him with tenderness and sorrow.

He sat in the wingchair and read aloud, starting from the very beginning. “Chapter I, In Chancery…”

He read well into the night, stopping only to cool the Duke’s forehead and tend to his wounds. His chest rose and fell with the same precarious rhythm. Harry watched and counted, each breath a miracle.

After some time, Harry looked up from his reading and out the window. The inky black sky had brightened to a palette of pink and gold. Even his worst day with Louis was more beautiful than his best day without him.

His gaze returned to the page.

“I found every breath of air, and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade of grass and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet…”

Louis’ chest fell and did not rise.

The young Duke dropped the book and collapsed on the floor by his bedside.

He kissed Louis’ hand and held it against his cheek.

Nothing could have prepared him for the despair he felt in this moment, for he was not only saying goodbye to Louis but to everything in this world that was more beautiful because Louis was in it.

He then felt a thumb caress his cheek.

He looked up.

Louis’ eyes were open.

“I loathe Dickens,” he groaned.

“I thought you were dead!”

“Me?” he scoffed, touching his stitches, “it’s but a scratch.”

Harry sat on the bed and threw his arm overtop the Duke. Louis yelped with pain.

The young Duke kissed him all over. “You’re alive! You’re alive! You’re alive!”

“Not if you continue to maul me. Egad! You’re worse than the hounds.”

Harry paid no attention. He removed his boots and slipped beneath the blanket.

It pained Louis to move but he was able to turn his head and gaze fondly at Harry.

“Did you miss me?”

“Terribly.”

They shared a soft kiss.

It did not take long for Louis’ eyes to harden. “Where is Clarence?”

“He surrendered,” Harry said stroking his hair. “The parish constable came to the manor to arrest him when the surgeon intervened and made a diagnosis. Your cousin is mad.”

“I could have told them that years ago! What sane nobleman would choose to work for a living?”

Normally Harry would scold him for such a cynical remark, but he was so happy Louis was alive he kissed his nose.

“Instead of taking him to the jailhouse, your cousin is being detained at my behest at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. I will personally oversee his treatment. It will be… extensive. He is very, very ill.”

Louis grew quiet. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Why? If you’d prefer he be--”

“How can you associate with that place? With those treatments?”

“It’s my father’s legacy.”

“It does not have to be your legacy.”

Why were they arguing? They were reunited. Clarence would be punished. Surely that was all that mattered.

Harry got up and dipped the compress into the basin of water on the sideboard. He rang it out in his hands and dabbed Louis’ forehead. He was feverish. Talk of the sanatorium was vexing him. Unfortunately there were not many happy matters to discuss. Harry switched the subject to William, his suicide note and his dark obsession with Louis.

The Duke nodded along, distraught but unsurprised.

“You know, Louis, for a brief moment I thought Clarence might have set the fire four years ago, for the inheritance and the title.”

“My cousin is a socialist. He wants to dismantle the very system that would make him Duke.”

“Precisely. Then I thought… what if it was William? James surviving his illness would have affected your inheritance. What if he set your brother’s room on fire for you…”

“It wasn’t William.”

“If he was willing to take your life and his own for the sake of his obsession, what else might he have done?”

“It wasn’t William.”

“Listen to me. Your father’s planner has the name of the person he argued with about James days before the fire. The night of our soiree when I stumbled upon the planner in the darkened drawing room, William pushed me! Don’t you see? It all makes perfect sense!”

“Harry, William did not push you that night. I did.”

Chapter Text

Louis never lied to Harry.

He was so clever he didn’t have to. Like a fox, sly and cunning, he merely threw Harry off the scent.

The young Duke backed away from the bed.

If Louis pushed him in the drawing room that meant he moved the planner, and if he moved the planner then it was in his possession, possibly in that very room.

“Harry, don’t!”

Louis was confined to the bed and couldn’t stop him. Harry tore through the bedchamber in search of the crucial piece of evidence.

It was not in the desk, nor the chiffonier nor the linen trunk. Perhaps he had destroyed it.

Harry rummaged through the shelves, the wardrobe, the sideboard. It was nowhere to be found.

As he pulled the brass handle of the vanity, his boot met the floorboard with a hollow thump.

He dropped to his knees and rolled back the gaudy Persian rug. He was right. The floorboard was loose.

“Please, Harry, I’m begging you.”

He held up a candle and peered inside the void.

Whose name would Harry find in that book? Was Louis protecting William? Someone else? Why?

He brushed off the sawdust that coated the embossed lettering and traced the initials on the cover with his finger.

“No!” Louis cried.

Harry opened the planner and flipped to its final entries counting back five days. One, two, three, four... He held his breath. Five.

The Duke of Warwick had only one appointment that day:

The Duke of Somerset.

It was Harry’s own title that stared back at him, a title that four years ago belonged to… his father.

It was preposterous. Surely Louis realized that this was some sort of mistake. When he looked up at the Duke, he had turned his head.

“Louis, you don’t actually think my father capable of…”

Reluctantly, Louis faced him.

“I saw him with my own eyes.”

“Your eyes deceived you.” Harry could not hide the tremor in his voice.

“I did not want you to find out this way. I did not want you to find out at all. I’m so very sorry, Harry.”

He stood and stomped his boot with indignation. “There is nothing to be sorry about because my father would never do something like this! How dare you accuse him of such a crime?”

Even in his weakened state, Louis would not falter. “Your father came to the manor five days before James was to be introduced to society. He said my brother was a danger to public health.”

“Stop this! My father dedicated his life to the sick. He most likely wanted to help James, not harm him.”

“Your father was not dedicated to the sick, he was terrified of them. He wanted James locked up, if not at home then in one of his ghastly sanatoriums. My father refused to institutionalize his eldest son.”

“He is not is not who you say he is! He was a good man who did good in this world.”

Then Louis threw Harry’s own words back at him: “Every coin has two sides.”

Harry ran out the door. He could not listen to another word and thundered down the darkened hallway into his own bedchamber. James’ bedchamber.

He paced by the window and caught his reflection in the glass, his dark curls, his green eyes, his square jaw and fine patrician nose.

He truly was his father’s son.

His father, who donated thousands to medical research and hospitals across the country. His father, who not only donated to these hospitals but visited them regularly and oversaw the patients’ care.

He looked down. This was the spot where the killer used pages from the torn medical journal to ignite the curtains.

The medical journal.

Memories spun to life around him like the moving pictures of a zoetrope.

The very first thing that came to mind when he saw Vol. 8 of the Bulletin de l’Académie Imperiale de Médecine in Louis’ fox den was that he had read the journal before: In his own home.

Later, when he discovered Louis’ innocence and flipped though the journal’s intact pages, he read an article that detailed the symptoms of his brother’s disease. It ended on the subject of infectivity. Scientists could not determine whether the disease was contagious or not. The research was inconclusive.

During their visit to Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, a man with James’ disease was admitted to the sanatorium and the staff treated him as though he were contagious. Louis insisted he was not.

Had the Duke of Warwick and the Duke of Somerset come to different conclusions about James’ illness? Could his father have killed James--his family a casualty--out of fear of contagion?

Harry thought on his own childhood. He was in perfect health but his father’s fear of disease held him prisoner. The Duke could lock up his only son but could not lock up the entire world…

He walked back to Louis’ bedchamber. He did not enter. Instead, he turned to the elderly nurse who sat on a chair sleepily darning a sock while waiting to be called upon.

“Watch over him. I’m retiring for the night,” he said, though dawn was now upon them.

She jumped to her feet. “Of course, your grace. Is everything alright?”

No. He could not face Louis knowing how his father had wronged him. He did not know if he could ever face Louis again.

***

Harry’s discovery of the day planner, had it been a dream? The loose floorboard was now covered by the plush rug and the planner was nowhere in sight.

Neither was Harry.

The nurse drew back the curtains to let the sun in. Louis’ body appeared grotesque in the light of day. He didn’t recognize his own stitched flesh. He was not himself but Frankenstein’s monster.

The nurse prepared a tincture for the pain. The planner rested beside the vials on the sideboard.

So it wasn’t a dream. Harry knew.

There was a knock at the door and his heart nearly jumped out of his sewn chest.

On the other side of the door he heard the nurse try to dissuade someone from entering, saying that Louis’ condition was very precarious.

But her warnings were superseded by Louis’ order: “Come in!”

The door flew open. “Honestly!” Eleanor complained, haughtily adjusting her bodice. “I’m his betrothed for heaven’s sake!”

She was followed by Roy and then Frederick. “Move, peasant!”

The nurse desperately tried to keep them at a safe distance, but his friends stretched around him on the bed like a pride of lions.

“You look dreadful, old chap.” Frederick tucked a cigarette between Louis’ lips.

Roy lit a match. “We were worried sick.”

Eleanor placed a crystal ashtray on his chest. “London is positively wild with gossip!”

The nurse opened a window and waved her arms around trying clear the smoke to no avail.

Louis peered over Eleanor’s shoulder to see if Harry had joined them. He had not.

“Where is the Duke?” he asked.

They had last seen him bid adieu to Lord Graves in the rotunda. Roy explained that the club had begun to depart the manor. Louis craned his neck. In the distance, he spotted a long row of black carriages heading out the gates like an army of ants.

Quietly the door creaked open. It was Harry. He did not join them on the bed but sat quietly on a wingchair in the corner.

The hounds had been collected by the gamekeeper, Roy continued, but William’s body had yet to be recovered. They found Frederick’s horse at the riverbank contentedly lapping the water.

“To think,” Frederick said with a tear in his eye. “My Belvédère was out there all alone, kidnapped by a lowly footman. Oh it’s too ghastly for words!”

Roy indulged him, kissing his icy hand consolingly.

“You do realize Albertine was slaughtered, don’t you?”

The Viscount arched an eyebrow. “You’re not seriously comparing your carthorse to my thoroughbred?”

Louis was too weak to strangle him and took another drag of his cigarette.

His friends continued to entertain him. Eleanor giddily described the affair she was having with Lord Finnes’ Romanian valet. Roy divulged a lucrative business deal he’d made with Beardsley, while Frederick was eagerly anticipating the premiere of the opéra bouffe, La belle Hélène, in London.

Louis patted the bed beside him. “Join us, poppet.”

Harry shook his head. The others did not comment on his silence. They presumed the boy had been shaken by Louis’ brush with death.

When his friends got up to leave and let Louis rest, Harry quickly followed.

“Harry, wait!” A pain shot though his side. Even yelling put a tremendous strain on his wounds.

Uneasy, Harry stayed behind.

Louis dismissed the nurse so they could speak in private.

“Why will you not come to me?”

“How can you even look at me after what he’s done?”

“A son should not pay for the sins of his father.”

Harry stood half obscured by the canopy. “The magistrate declared the fire an accident. Why did you not tell him of my father’s crime?”

Louis knew he would have to answer this question sooner or later and confessed. “Because I wanted revenge. The reason I visited Somerset four years ago was to do to your father what he had done to my family.”

“You were going to…”

“Yes.”

Harry’s eyes were wide with horror. “Why didn’t you?”

“Why do you think?! How was I to know my family’s killer had fathered the most beautiful boy alive! My only love sprung from my only hate.” Louis shook his head with dismay. “When I stepped out of the carriage and you ran toward me in your white knee socks and kissed my cheek, I knew instantly my plans were ruined.”

“Was that why you were so cross during your stay?”

“Every time I thought I had mustered the will to go through with it, you would tug my sleeve and offer to show me your coin collection or else play the sweetest arrangement on the piano. It was infuriating! I realized if I took your father from you, you would feel how I did when he took my family from me. You were such a gentle little boy. I couldn’t bear the thought of you suffering as I had. But I also knew that I couldn’t be in his presence again, and he never let you out of his sight. That’s why I only wrote to you once he had passed.”

Harry kneeled by his bedside, lip quivering. “Why did you not tell me?”

“I knew it would devastate you, so I buried the truth within me.”

Louis coaxed Harry up on the bed. He took the monogramed handkerchief from his waistcoat and dried the tears on his cheek.

As Louis held his chin, Harry asked, “Do you see him when you look at my face?”

Louis took too long to answer. Harry was crestfallen.

“I knew it. I’m a source of pain to you.”

“No!” And desperate for a way to explain, he reached for a vial on the sideboard. “When bitten by a poisonous animal, do you know where they find the antidote?”

Harry sniffed. “It’s derived from the venom of the same animal.”

He smiled. “Your father poisoned my heart, but, while he took my family from this world, he also brought you into it. You are my antidote.”

Louis reached out to hold him but was struck with pain. The wound on his side shaped like a crescent moon seemed to have its own gravitational force that bound him to the bed.

“I’ll get the nurse to tend to your wounds.”

He took Harry’s hand. “I wish you would be my nurse. I like the way you tend to me.”

Harry refused to accept this compliment. “You were unconscious at the time.”

“The body never forgets.”

He stood up and rang for the nurse. It was just as Louis feared. Harry was devastated by the truth and it had created a gulf between them. Would they ever be as close as they once were?

When the nurse came Harry said: “You are dismissed for the afternoon. I will be seeing to the Duke’s needs personally.”

She curtseyed. “Very well, your grace.”

Though Harry stayed in Louis’ bedchamber he was not himself. He did not speak nor smile. Harry saw to his every need like he was atoning for his father’s sins. He took his temperature, fluffed his pillow, administered opium for the pain, laudanum for sleep, applied ointment to his wounds, and prayed slavishly by his bedside.

When he wasn’t caring for Louis, he read silently in the corner.

Guilt weighed heavily on his boyish features. It seemed like he would never forgive himself for what his father had done.

“Harry?”

“Yes.”

“May I have a sip of water?”

Harry put down his book and poured Louis a glass of water from the silver pitcher on the sideboard. Louis took a sip and handed back the glass.

“Harry?”

“Yes.”

“May I have an extra blanket?”

Dutifully, Harry fetched him a quilt from the trunk.

“Harry?”

“Yes.”

“May I have a kiss?”

The corners of the young Duke’s mouth twitched into a smile and Louis thought: there’s hope for us yet.

***

Harry examined Louis while he slept. A restless sleeper and vivid dreamer, he lay outstretched like the Pythian Apollo, the bed sheet scarcely covering his naked limbs. One would think the deep gashes would mar his beauty, but they only emphasized the golden flesh around them making him more beautiful still.

His fever had broken and it was nearly time for his bath. Harry would need a basin of water brought to the bedchamber. He rang for a maid.

A few moments later he thought he heard Charlotte’s hurried footsteps outside the door. He went to take the basin from her when bumped into the surgeon. The doctor removed his hat immediately and flattened his mop of grey hair. He was calling on Louis for his afternoon appointment to see how the stitches were healing.

“He grows stronger by the minute,” Harry reported. “I’m about to give him his bath.”

The surgeon delivered a stern look. “He may appear stronger than he is, your grace. Remember no matter how healthy he feels he needs to rest. That means no… physical activity.”

Physical activity? Whatever did he mean? Louis was bedridden.

“He won’t be playing croquet any time soon,” Harry assured him.

After a brief examination, the surgeon stepped out of the room and said that he would check on the Duke once more in the evening before returning to the village.

Harry re-entered the bedchamber with the basin of water.

He folded the sheet off of Louis’ body and rolled up his sleeves. The water, scented with lavender oil, brought back tender memories of the bath they shared the morning after Louis deflowered him. He carefully wrung the rag in his hands before bringing it to Louis’ pale cheek and neck.

“Nice and warm,” Louis remarked.

Harry turned him on his side and dragged the cloth along the golden curve of his back then set him down and washed beneath his arms. He dipped the cloth in the soapy water and examined Louis’ body, blushing when his eyes fell upon his undergarment.

He moved to the Duke’s legs, scrubbed the soles of his feet until they were pink, then meticulously scrubbed between each toe.

“I believe they’re clean.”

Harry bit his lip. He had seen Louis in the nude before. Why was he being so prudish? He slipped Louis’ undergarment off his hips and dipped a fresh rag into the basin.

Louis nosed the pillow sheepishly.

He moved the cloth from the Duke’s inner thigh to his groin and very gently as to barely touch him, Harry passed a cloth over his member, but however light his touch, it did not matter for Louis thickened at once.

“Reflex,” Louis said.

“Of course,” Harry swallowed, now understanding the surgeon’s warning about physical activity.

He slowly passed the cloth over his member again feeling it harden beneath the wet fabric. Louis held Harry’s wrist to savor his touch.

“All done,” said Harry, returning the rag to the basin.

“I don’t think you are.”

Harry licked his lips. “I’m supposed to let you rest.”

Louis’ chest rose and fell and his length lying hard against him. He was very hard. Very hard indeed. Harry looked over his shoulder at the locked door. A gentle caress couldn’t hurt, he reasoned. It might even ease his pain.

Harry took him in his bare hand and caressed him. Louis widened his thighs and sighed.

“Does this make you feel better?”

He nodded wordlessly.

He tried to approach the task like a nurse. He tried to stroke the Duke to climax efficiently, the way he would take his temperature or administer laudanum. But he could not be impartial. Louis’ pleasure was his own.

His breeches tightened.

A caress was not enough. He wanted more, much more, deliver as much pleasure as his father had delivered pain. Harry placed an open, wet kiss between his legs. The Duke’s muscles seized, tugging on his stiches. He hissed through his teeth.

Harry lifted his head.

“Don’t stop!” he begged.

Unsure, Harry nestled his head between the Duke’s thighs and delivered short furtive kisses. Louis tossed his head on the pillow.

“Stay still or you’ll hurt yourself,” he ordered.

“Your teasing will be the death of me!”

Harry was reluctant to take him in his mouth only because the act aroused him so. The sensation of Louis’ sliding down his throat made Harry yearn for him to slide deep inside another part of him. Louis must have been thinking the same thing.

The Duke gripped his curls and pulled his face up. Harry’s swollen lips slipped messily over his tip, his eyes unfocused.

“Let’s make love.”

“You are too ill to mount me.”

“Straddle my lap.”

No sooner had the words escaped Louis’ lips did Harry begin ripping off his clothes.

Louis tried as best he could to help him and they laughed breathlessly as they fumbled with the buttons on his waistcoat, his white shirt and breeches. So many buttons! Who designed these infernal garments?

When he removed every article of clothing down to his socks, Harry sat naked on the bed. Louis stared at him with wonder, and even though it made him impossibly shy Harry never wanted him to look away.

The Duke pointed to the sideboard and instructed softly, “The oil.”

“Right.”

Only, the sideboard was filled with tinctures. He had to examine each one carefully to find the right vial. It was Louis who normally handled the logistics of their lovemaking. The responsibility now fell on Harry’s shoulders. He wanted everything to be perfect.

He drizzled some on his palm and smoothed it over Louis, covering every inch of his manhood. Was this too much? Not enough? Unsure, he reached behind and rubbed some on himself for good measure.

Louis beamed at him. He had never been fonder of anyone than he was of Harry in this moment.

They kissed but Louis could not wait a minute more. He longed to breach the young Duke and Harry longed for this as well. He climbed atop Louis’ body, slim thighs loosely straddling his torso.

Louis’ hands slid down Harry’s ivory chest and rested on his narrow waist.

With their hips aligned Harry tried to sink down upon him but found he couldn’t. It was easier when Louis mounted him, pushing past his threshold. Harry could not do it himself.

Louis coaxed him with a gentle whisper, “that’s it,” and Harry opened with a gasp. The Duke caressed Harry’s thighs, “Deeper, darling, yes, take all of me.”

The tenor of his voice made Harry’s body hungry to envelop him. He took a breath and sank down, until he was sitting on his lap, the Duke so deep inside him he shuddered with pleasure.

Unwittingly Harry began to roll his hips.

Though they had made love before his desire had never been so naked.

Louis cried out.

Harry stopped at once. “Am I hurting you?”

“No, I mean yes, I mean you’re perfect, absolutely perfect.” Perhaps he was delirious from the opium but Louis was so overcome with emotion he had tears in his eyes and could not stop declaring his love: “I love you, dearest one! I love you! I love you! I lo—“

Harry moved slowly at first and then faster in tandem with Louis’ cries.

Harder and faster, he seemed to never tire but only grow stronger the more Louis unraveled beneath him.

“Slow,” Louis cautioned suddenly.

Harry remembered he was supposed to prolong his lover’s pleasure. He flexed his thighs and slowed while moving up and down in a tantalizing rhythm.

Unlike their early urgent attempts, this was the languid lovemaking of two men who were promised to each other, who had their whole lives ahead of them, bound together by the heart and spirit.

Louis reached out to stroke him and Harry playfully batted his hand away.

He sat upright again and arched his back.

Amused, Louis said, “When did you become such a strong rider?”

The answer of course was that he became a strong rider the moment he realized he had to save Louis’ life. It was Louis who made him better rider, a better lover, a better man.

As Louis drank in the sight of him, sweat pricked his brow. The Duke’s body began to weaken, from pain and pleasure both. His mouth opened and his eyes fluttered shut in the early signs of release.

Harry lifted his hips and sank down upon him over and over in long merciless thrusts until the Duke let out a choked sob and spilled inside him.

The sensation excited Harry. He carefully rose up off of Louis lap onto his knees, the Duke’s hot wetness escaping his body, deliciously mingling between them.

Harry was now aching, untouched, with Louis’ seed running down the back of his thighs.

They locked eyes.

Louis used the remainder of his strength to prop himself up on one elbow.

“Louis, you musn’t.”

He guided Harry’s hips toward him. “I want to.”

Harry should have insisted but Louis soft lips beckoned.

The Duke took him in his mouth, curious fingers tracing Harry’s oiled, tender entrance, where he defiled him.

Harry clasped the back of Louis’ damp neck careful not to thrust. He did not need to. Louis’ lips and tongue ravished him and he quickly spilled inside his lover’s mouth. Louis swallowed and drew him closer, lapping up every last drop.

Harry kissed the top of his damp head and he fell back on the bed, so dizzy and exhausted Harry was sure he killed him.

“What have I done?” He brushed the hair off the Duke’s sweaty brow. “Are you alright?”

He closed his eyes and moaned.

Harry drew a sheet over him and got dressed immediately.

The buttons on his shirt and waistcoat were askew and his curls wild but he had to fetch the doctor straight away.

He ran downstairs to find him. He was in the servant’s hall having supper.

“It’s the Duke, he’s feeling unwell!”

The surgeon took one look at Harry’s hair and clothes and dropped his fork.

“Has he participated in any physical activity?”

“What? No!”

The surgeon suspected this was a lie and when he found Louis sprawled on the bed, flushed and panting, he confirmed it.

He pressed the stethoscope to his chest and leaned in to listen. “His heart is about to burst, your grace.”

Oh my God.

“With excitement.” The doctor put away his stethoscope. “He’s fine, but for the love of all things holy, let the man rest!”

“You can count on me, doctor,” Harry said with a salute.

Charles came to the guest bedchamber that night to attend Harry, removing his clothes for laundering and dressing him for bed. Instead of sleeping in the guest bedchamber, however, Harry tiptoed over to Louis’ room and curled up beside him. He watched over the Duke by candlelight as he slept.

“Louis?”

He opened one eye. “Aren’t you supposed to let me rest?”

“Yes, but I miss you terribly when you’re sleeping.”

“I take back everything I said about you being a good nurse.”

“Louis?”

“Harry.”

“Did you mean what you said about me being the antidote to your suffering?”

“Yes.”

This pleased him. “Did you also mean it when you said I was the most beautiful boy alive?”

“Yes.”

Harry blinked up at the canopy. “Louis, do you want to make love again?”

“Naturally.”

***

Louis survived Harry’s affections, and awoke the next morning exhausted but wholly content.

They had breakfast in bed. Louis had not yet regained his appetite and ate a single strawberry with a sip of tea. Friends and acquaintances sent flowers, wishing him a speedy recovery. Harry stuck a daisy in his hair and read him the morning paper. A vast improvement on Dickens:

“A grander illustration of the truth of the proverb that ‘Union is power’ than the existence and condition of the English ruling classes, the whole world does not contain… When the working classes of England shall have acquired and practiced the capacity for combined, simultaneous, and sustained action which has always characterized their oppressors—then, but not till then, will the shame and the misery, the contempt and the weakness, of their present condition cease to exist.”

They were about to ring for Teddy to take the tray away when he burst through the door breathless.

The hunt was over, the guests were gone, what was his valet frazzled about now?

“They found William.”

Harry and Louis sat up.

“He’s alive.”

Chapter Text

Louis received dozens of flower arrangements: roses, tulips, carnations, daisies, China asters, lilies, cockscomb, peonies, bleeding hearts, freesias and dahlias, in an assortment of vases, baskets and urns. These were hothouse flowers, as carefully cultivated and pruned as the nobles who sent them.

Curiously, Louis never read the cards that accompanied these arrangements. In fact, he threw the cards away the moment Teddy set the flowers down in front of him.

“Don’t you want to know who they’re from?” Harry asked.

“No need!” he said briskly, tossing another card to the ground for Teddy to pick up. “Once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all, haven’t you?”

Harry was skeptical.

He stood and looked out the window. William would be brought to the manor later that evening. He was found south of York in the civil parish of Thorpe Willoughby. It was a day away by carriage. The footman was discovered unconscious with rope around his neck beneath the bough of a tree that had snapped. A sheep farmer found the boy and nursed him back to health.

Louis had yet to decide what to do with him. If William stood accused of attempted murder he would be hanged. If Louis chose not to press charges, he could not be certain that William wouldn’t harm him or someone else.

The doorbell chimed all morning. As the Bilsdale club left, well-wishers arrived. Harry could not picture Warwick without a parade of visitors. Louis had many friends and acquaintances. It made Harry painfully aware that he would be returning to Somerset where he had no one but his mother and the tainted memory of his father.

He was about to greet Louis’ visitors on the Duke’s behalf in the parlor room when he found Lady Silcox standing beside her luggage.

“I thought you left for Essex days ago.”

She fiddled with her bonnet. “I wanted to say goodbye to you before my departure.”

“I’m sorry.” He chastised himself. “I’ve been preoccupied with—”

“The Duke.”

They stared at each other awkwardly. She was a fine young woman and a good friend to him and he wished he could explain his circumstances but he could not.

Instead, she broke the silence.

“Harry, have I ever told you about my corgis?” She listed them on her gloved fingers. “There’s Delphine, Hubert, Myrtle, Otto and my most beloved corgi, Winston. Winston was born of two champions and my father was sure he would go on to sire dozens of little champions himself. Only, when it came time for him to mate, he could not… perform. He preferred the affections of Hubert to those of Myrtle.”

“Beth—” Harry tried to interrupt.

“My father wanted to shoot Winston, since he was not suitable for breeding, but I protected him and to this day he remains my cherished friend and confidant.”

“Beth what are you—”

“You’re like Winston, aren’t you?”

Harry’s stomach twisted. His first impulse was to deny it but he couldn’t lie to her. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

She took his hand. “I can protect you, the way Eleanor is protecting the Duke.”

“Beth, I can’t ask that of you. Don’t you want to marry for love?”

“If my father has his way, I’ll be married to a stranger twice my age.”

“The Duke is my lover,” he stated plainly.

“I don’t want to marry a lover, I want to marry a friend and I have no kinder friend than you.”

Her lady’s maid arrived with her cloak and draped it around her ladyship’s narrow shoulders.

She kissed Harry’s cheek and bid him adieu.

Harry’s valet appeared beside him. “Is everything alright, your grace?”

“Charles, I think I might have just gotten engaged.”

“To a woman? Splendid!” He clapped.

Harry headed into the parlor room to greet Louis’ well-wishers.

As he stepped through they door, guests turned from the fireplace, rose from the divan and put down their brandies. Something about these visitors gave Harry pause but it took him a moment to realize what it was: they were all young men. Beautiful young men. Then it dawned on him. These were Louis’ former lovers.

They scrutinized his appearance, his mourning attire and boyish figure, as he thanked them for coming and announced that Louis was regretfully unable to receive visitors in his condition.

“Then why are you allowed to see him?” asked a tall Spaniard.

“I—”

Another broad-shouldered nobleman approached and his eyes fell to Harry’s pin. “You went to Eton? I don’t remember you, and I never forget a face.”

Harry touched the pin. “No, the pin was… given to me.”

The men had daggers in their eyes.

“I’m going up,” the Eton man declared jealously.

“No!”

“Who are you to tell me no?”

“I’m Louis’ companion,” Harry said, chest puffed. “He wishes to see me and me alone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, it’s about time for the Duke’s bath.”

He swiveled around to the sound of bitter whispers behind him.

As he ascended the staircase he instructed Teddy to dismiss the visitors immediately, every last one of them.

Lying in bed in his bedchamber, Louis was already naked on his side waiting patiently to be bathed. He batted at the canopy’s velvet tassel and grinned. Harry was in no mood. He went to flowers resting on the chiffonier where Louis could not reach and opened the cards. He read them one by one and just as he suspected they were all from former lovers.

“I can explain!”

“No need. I met your conquests in the parlor room.”

Louis buried his face in the lace pillow and groaned. “Yes, I’ve bedded a few men before you—”

“A few? You mean half the men in England.” Then he remembered the Spaniard. “Apologies, Europe.”

“They meant nothing to me!”

“You meant quite a lot to them. They wanted to tear me to pieces!”

Louis patted the bed but Harry stubbornly refused to join him.

The Duke used all his strength to stand. Before Harry could protest he felt two arms wrap around his waist. A peace offering.

“Are you cross with me, poppet?”

“Yes.”

“They were all in my past.”

“I am retrospectively cross.”

Louis laughed and kissed the back of Harry’s neck.

He softened.

Louis may have had hundreds of lovers but he made Harry feel as though he was the only boy in the world.

The Duke let go, in an attempt to kiss his lips, lost his balance and stumbled. Harry put an arm over his shoulder and guided him back to bed.

Removing his boots he lay down beside him. Louis’ former lovers aroused jealousy in him but they had the simultaneous effect of arousing much more and Louis was conveniently naked.

He kissed the Duke’s chest, lips tracing the map of Louis’ scars.

As he kissed his golden belly, the door burst open.

Teddy stood there panting. “One of your former lovers is here to see you. He’s come upstairs. I couldn’t stop him.”

“Send him away!” Louis barked. “I don’t wish to see anyone but the Duke of Somerset.”

Teddy tugged on his hair with exasperation. “I tried, your grace. He would not take no for an answer.”

“The impropriety! What nobleman would impose in such brutish fashion?”

“He’s not a nobleman,” Teddy said, trembling. “It’s Pyotr. Pyotr Tchaikovsky.”

“DASH IT.” Louis dove under the bed sheet.

Just then the door flung open and a Russian with a fur hat and a long fur-trimmed coat stomped into the room swinging a jeweled walking stick.

“My lisichka! I came as soon as I heard!”

Harry was shocked by the intrusion but not angry. Quite the contrary. He was in awe of the composer.

The composer was decidedly not in awe of Harry. “Who is this… boy?”

Louis peeked out from beneath the sheet. “This is the Duke of Somerset.”

He looked at Harry who was sprawled out on the bed beside Louis.

“And who is the Duke of Somerset?”

“He’s my companion.”

His features sharpened. “What does this word mean, companion? How long has this lyubovnyye otnosheniya been going on?”

“It’s complicated Pyotr.”

Harry jumped up from the bed and extended his hand. “He’s loved me since I was a little boy—Hello, I’m Harry! I adore your work!”

The composer ignored him.

Louis offered the Russian a cigarette and asked how he came so quickly to York from Moscow. Pyotr explained that he was actually in London to see La belle Hélène, the same opéra bouffe Frederick was attending.

Louis awkwardly thanked him for making the journey north and explained that he was recovering quickly thanks to Harry’s rather dubious nursing skills.

Pyotr turned from one Duke to the other. He could not hide his heartbreak and handed Louis a gift, a small Fabergé egg he had planned to gift to Queen Victoria. His appointment with the Queen was an honour he had cancelled when he heard that Louis was injured.

The intricacies of the inset gemstones and gold leaf moved Louis as all ostentatious objects did and he could not send the composer away.

Instead, he asked his valet to prepare a room for him and told Pyotr he could remain at Warwick as long as he liked.

The composer scratched his short beard, unsure. Harry insisted.

Pyotr did not stoke Harry’s jealousy the way Louis’ other lovers did. He stoked his curiosity. He began to prepare a list of questions he had for the composer about music theory, his process and his current work. He also listed all of the concertos he would beg Tchaikovsky to play for him. He hoped the composer would recover from his heartbreak so they could all become the very best of friends.

***

Louis was not well enough to attend dinner but that did not stop him.

Teddy drew the Duke’s tailcoat over his aching shoulders and handed him his walking stick. Harry stood on the other side to make sure he did not fall as he descended the staircase.

In the dining room Roy and Frederick were already seated, feeding each other olives by candlelight. The Viscount licked the oil from his lover’s fingertips. The Earl was leaving for Pembroke in the morning and they spent the entire day in their bedchamber making the most of their last hours together.

Pyotr was late and took a seat unceremoniously at the end of the table. As a footman floated into the dining room with a terrine of Soup a la Reine, Harry badgered the composer with questions about the new ballet he was working on. Pyotr did not take his eyes off of Louis when he described the love between the Swan Queen and her prince.

“How does it end?” Harry asked brightly.

“Tragedy,” he answered, thick Russian accent dripping with contempt.

This dinner was not going as Harry hoped. Perhaps friendship was ambitious. He would settle for civility.

They had only just cut into their bœuf au jus, when there was a commotion in the drawing room.

Harry glanced at the clock.

William.

He excused himself, as did Louis.

In the drawing room the young footman kneeled on the floor with his hands bound before two officers. There was a purple mark around his neck where the rope bruised him. His black eyes were empty as though he were dead already.

They were so haunted by his appearance the two Dukes could do nothing but stand there silently and stare.

“Well, go on then! Charge me!” William hissed. “I want my death sentence!”

Louis gripped the golden head of his walking stick.

“What are you waiting for? I slit your precious mare’s throat. I orchestrated your murder. Send me to jail an’ put me to death!”

The Duke turned to Harry. “Both my heart and that of Albertine belong to you. I think you should decide what happens to him.”

Frederick who had been listening outside the door stormed in. Roy followed, apologising on his behalf. He’d tried to hold him back but the Viscount wriggled out of his grip like a snake poised to strike.

“Send him to the gallows or I will slaughter this animal myself!”

“Do it,” William sobbed. “I have nothing left to live for.”

Roy, the most practical of the four, read the doubt on Harry’s face and said, “I know you pity him but if you let him go, Louis will not be safe. We don’t know that he won’t try to harm Louis again, or someone else. Press charges. Have him hanged. It’s for the greater good.”

But when Harry looked upon William’s face he did not see all of the future crimes he might commit but rather a boy, a year younger than he, and all of the potential that might have been realized had he been born into better circumstances, a better family, a better class.

Harry cleared his throat. “My father was concerned about the greater good, as was Sir Clarence, but I am concerned about good, period. I will not let this boy hang.”

William had envisioned many outcomes upon his return to Warwick none of which included mercy. This enraged him. He knew how to accept a beating but not kindness. “Why would you spare me? I tried to murder your companion.”

“I forgive you.”

Frederick was livid. “Forgive him? We will not replace law and order with your Catholic guilt, Duke! Louis, did I not warn you that Catholics are mad? He’d probably take the beast’s place if he could! Don’t listen to him!”

Louis let out a heavy sigh. “They’re right, Harry. None of us are safe while William roams free. We must press charges.”

They were making perfectly logical arguments and yet they all sounded false. Like the right notes played on the wrong instrument.

Instrument.

Harry had an idea.

He ran to the dining room where Pyotr sat alone staring listlessly at his plate.

Harry picked up a carving knife and asked the composer to join them in the drawing room.

The young Duke entered with the knife and Louis stumbled. “Harry, you’re not going to…”

“Finally!” Frederick said.

Harry did not.

He cut the rope that bound William’s wrists and guided him to the piano bench. “Play.”

William snarled and spit on his boots.

Harry was determined. “Play.”

“Who is this creature?” Pyotr asked.

“The greatest pianist you’ve never heard.”

“He seems rather coarse.”

“He’s an angel,” Harry said hastily.

“A fallen angel,” Louis corrected. “Possibly the fallen angel, the devil himself. He killed my horse and then tried to kill me.”

The composer raised his eyebrows in alarm.

William touched the ivory keys. Ashamed at the dirt beneath his fingernails, he quickly wiped his hands on his trousers. He played Chopin’s somber ‘Prelude in E minor, Opus 28, No 4.’

Pyotr was moved but largely unimpressed. “Is this the pretty child you brought to Moscow, Louis? I remember him well. He’s a competent pianist, though this is a very simple piece.”

William’s nostrils flared and he switched to Liszt’s dizzying Rondeau Fantastique, with flawless jumps and double notes, under the Russian’s inscrutable gaze.

Pyotr rapped the boy’s knuckles with his walking stick. “A difficult piece. You play it well but so can everyone else at the conservatory in St. Petersburg.”

Harry dragged William off the bench and invited Pyotr to sit instead. “Play us something new. Something no one has ever heard before. Something from the ballet you’re working on perhaps.”

The composer lifted the tails of his coat and swooped onto the bench like a raven onto its perch. “This is an allegro from the third act. It accompanies a scene where the sorcerer’s daughter Odile seduces the prince.”

He played the lively piece, long fingers arched elegantly over the keys and the whole room was temporarily transported watching a genius at work. All but William who was carefully watching the composer’s hands and memorizing each note, inflection and flourish.

The room broke into applause. Pyotr rose from the bench and bowed. Harry instructed William to play the same piece, exactly as he had heard it.

The footman moved his soiled hands over the ivory keys once more, but his slumped shoulders and ragged clothes made the notes he played no less rich. He brought the arrangement to life with identical musicality and skill as the genius who composed it.

The room was silent.

William crossed his arms sullenly.

He was about to deliver himself to the officer, when Pyotr lifted the boy’s chin and gazed into his dark eyes. “My Black Swan.”

William blinked up at him. “My master.”

Harry and Louis exchanged a knowing glance.

There was a darkness in the brooding composer that met its match in William. He was a muse and a mirror.

“Would you like to come with me to Moscow?”

“Me? Your servant?”

“As a member of my orchestra, ptichka!”

He looked around him like this might all be a dream.

“Da,” the boy answered shyly in Russian.

***

In the days that followed, Pyotr had his servants scour William’s skin, trim his hair and measure him for a new wardrobe befitting his role as Tchaikovsky’s protégée. He wore knee pants with stockings, a white blouse, tunic and a velvet cap. The composer doted on the boy morning, noon and night like a doll. He had finally found a boy who accepted his love and William had finally found a master who loved him.

The day they left for Moscow, Harry saw them off on the flagstone.

William and the young Duke came face-to-face, unsure what to say to one another.

“I don’t know why you spared my life after what I did, but I won’t forget it.”

They almost embraced but thought better of it.

Harry did not want his gratitude. He wanted the boy to take this kindness that he had never been shown before and learn to be kind to himself and to others.

Tchaikovsky called to him from the carriage. “Come, ptichka! We’ll be late for the ferry!”

“Coming!” the boy sang as he hopped in the carriage and rested his head on his master’s shoulder.

Harry was only half-packed for his own long journey south. He kept surreptitiously removing things from his trunk as Charles packed to delay their trip. It drove his valet mad.

Louis was equally anxious and Harry suspected that he feigned sickness so Harry would stay longer and continue to care for him. He complained his fever had returned, that his back ached, that he had no appetite, though he was always hungry enough to eat Harry.

When they could deny their situation no longer, Louis walked Harry to the rotunda where they said their goodbyes.

The burned portrait of Louis’ family loomed above them. Harry said a silent prayer. Nothing could bring them back but Harry vowed that the fear that governed his father’s life would not govern his own. Somerset would no longer be a fortress but a home.

Harry slipped on his gloves. “It’s time.”

“Another day.”

“The carriage is packed.”

“Another hour?”

“We need to reach the Midlands by nightfall.”

“Another minute then, give me that, darling. Here, let me look at you.” He tugged the lapels of Harry’s coat and pinched his cheek.

They would see each other again in a few short months but for lovers this was a lifetime.

Tearfully, Harry said, “Will you write me?”

“Every day.”

“What if I miss your letter?”

“I’ll write you another and another after that.”

“How will I sleep without you beside me? How will I rise in the morning without your face to look forward to? How will I—”

He swept a curl from Harry’s brow. “You need only think of me and I will be there.”

Louis didn’t care if the servants were scandalized. He kissed Harry. Deeply. The young Duke collapsed against his chest and clung to the back of his shirt refusing to let go until Teddy and Charles physically pried them apart.

“Wait! I almost forgot,” Harry cried. “I have a parting gift for you.”

His hands were empty. Louis looked around. “Where is it?”

“You have to guess.”

Louis grinned. A game. He loved games. His hands skimmed the young Duke’s breeches.

Charles glared at him. “This is most unseemly, your grace!”

The Duke soon found what he was looking for. Harry’s lucky coin tucked snugly in the breast pocket of his waistcoat.

“Won’t you miss it?”

“I’ll win it back.”

“You think so?” Louis wove the coin between his fingers. “You’re very confident, Duke.”

“Fortune favours the bold.”

“Audaces fortuna iuvat!”

Louis’ spotty Latin never failed to cheer him.

As he reviewed their itinerary, Harry noted a few slight changes, which was most unlike Charles who was able to find the fastest and most efficient route almost anywhere.

“As it happens,” Charles said drily, “The Viscount Geindle is travelling in the same direction and didn’t want to ride alone.”

A crown of blonde hair appeared out the carriage door. “Get in, Surgeon, we’re going to London.”

Harry groaned. So much for a peaceful trip home. Lord only knew what Frederick had in store for them in the city.

Charles unfurled the iron footplate and Harry climbed inside the carriage. The Viscount fanned a deck of cards on the leather seat as they settled in for their journey south. Frederick swore he would make a gambler out of Harry yet.

The coachman snapped his reins and the carriage wheels began to roll, down the gravel path and through the creaking gates. Harry looked out the window as Warwick became smaller and smaller in the distance, the Baroque structure swallowed by a vast stretch of forest. He felt an ache in his chest. Then, down below, he noticed something else.

“Frederick, look!”

It was a red fox running alongside the carriage.

Even the Viscount couldn’t help but smile. “He’s taunting us. We’ll catch him next year.” He shuffled the deck and dealt Harry a hand.

“I hope we never do.”

A flush. Hearts.

They played and chatted, ate and slept, as afternoon turned to evening and evening to night. Every so often Harry would look out the window to see if the creature was still there and he was. On the road, the forest’s edge, in the fields and over bridges they remained together: the young Duke and his fox.

THE END

Chapter Text

FOUR YEARS LATER

The Duke of Somerset sat by the fire waiting for the post to arrive.

He stirred a spoonful of sugar into a blue china teacup and watched as flames licked the blackened wood that lay in the hearth.

He heard the door open. The Duchess entered the drawing room with six dogs nipping at her heels.

“Beth, has the post arrived yet?”

The Duchess handed her cloak to Harry’s valet. “Charles, can you please explain to my husband that the post arrives at precisely half past nine every morning.”

Draping the cloak over his forearm, Charles chuckled, “You know as well as I do that his grace has no concept of time when it comes to sending and receiving correspondence. No sooner does he put ink to paper than he begins awaiting a response!”

Harry hated it when his wife and valet joined forces to tease him. He sank in his leather wingchair and gloomily dipped a biscuit into his tea.

Beth relented and handed him the bundle of letters tied with string she’d hidden in her velvet purse. He sat up in the chair and took them from her, furiously flipping through the stack.

“Heavens above! At least read who they’re from!”

He didn’t need to. He was only interested in one letter. When it wasn’t in the stack he frowned.

She patted his hand. “Perhaps it will arrive tomorrow.”

“Yes, perhaps.”

Beth rose and left to meet Harry’s mother in the parlour room for their afternoon cribbage game.

The Dowager Duchess felt displaced ever since Harry married. She had no friends and without an estate to run, and a son to fret over, no purpose. Beth was determined to forge a bond with the widow. Progress was slow but steady. Before Beth’s arrival, the Dowager Duchess would not even pet a dog but now she spent her days surrounded by Beth’s corgis, sneaking them tarts beneath the breakfast table.

It was then, over the crackle of the fire, that Harry heard a low growl.

“Winston!”

The aging corgi was gnawing on a red envelope beneath the settee. Harry got down on his hands and knees and rescued the paper from the beast’s teeth. It was torn slightly but still intact. He cracked the wax seal and opened the letter. It was an invitation.

Dearest One,

The pleasure of your company is requested at the Bilsdale Fox Hunt on the sixteenth day of September, hosted by me, club president, at Warwick House in Yorkshire.

Join us for a fortnight of dinner, dancing and games, culminating in what is sure to be the liveliest hunt of the season.

Ever your affectionate companion,
Louis

Harry held the invitation against his chest and sighed before rushing upstairs to his bedchamber to add it to his collection alongside dozens of envelopes exactly like it.

***

The carriage was packed for their journey to Yorkshire.

In an emerald green tailcoat, Harry stood by the chapel on his family’s small private plot where his father was buried. There rested a man who did so much good in the world and so much evil. He recited the Prayer For the Dead and clipped a spray of roses that grew by the headstone’s weeping angel.

The puppies that were born to Myrtle in the spring were nearly grown now and rolling around in the grass. Like Harry, Beth was an accomplished hobbyist. Though the Duke had never cared much for breeding, Beth taught him the pleasures of mating and rearing animals and Harry soon found himself looking forward to the birth of each litter as much as she did, so much so that he was inspired to try his own hand at breeding...

Three crates accompanied the carriages of their party.

Beth’s bonnet was nearly taken by the wind. She held it onto it as Harry gripped her small elbow and helped her into the carriage.

At that moment, his mother ran out from the house. The folds of her black dress flapped in the wind like the flag of a fallen nation. She was still wearing his father’s lock of hair in a broach over her heart. It pained him to see it but it would pain her more to know the truth. As cold as she was, he could not bear to hurt her.

“Goodbye, mother,” he said, tipping his hat cordially.

She threw her arms around his neck. He was so surprised it took him a moment to realize what was happening. She was embracing him. His mother was embracing him.

“I will miss you,” she said.

There was no warning about disease, no protestations about the dangers of travel. Perhaps her warnings had never been warnings at all but declarations of love that she did not know how to express otherwise.

“I’ll miss you too, mummy,” he said, embracing her in return.

Inside the carriage Winston was sitting in his seat chewing his walking stick.

Beth looked up from her book. “What? He wanted to come along.”

***

As they drew close to the manor, Harry reached for the roses he’d clipped and instructed the coachman to stop at the Anglican Church in a nearby village. He stepped out of the carriage and walked onto the church grounds alone.

He stopped here every year to visit the cemetery.

The Warwick family mausoleum was a marble pillared structure as ostentatious as Warwick itself. Harry descended the stone steps.

The place was dusty, quiet and unchanged. Harry moved silently among the dead as not to disturb their slumber.

He loosened the roses in his arms and rested one on the tomb of Louis’ mother, one on the tomb of his father, then Edward, George, placing a final rose on the tomb of Louis’ favourite brother, James.

“Sleep well.”

***

While the Duke and Duchess of Somerset spent their evenings quietly reading novels, the Duke and Duchess of Warwick spent their evenings throwing the legendary parties that inspired the writers who wrote them.

It was still daylight and Harry could hear piano, laughter and glasses clinking as the carriage rolled up to the manor.

Teddy was outside tapping his foot beneath the grimace of a mossy gargoyle.

Harry stepped out of the carriage and gestured to Louis’ valet with his walking stick. “Ah, Teddy, good of you to greet us!”

“Nothing good about it,” he huffed, eyes glued to his pocket watch. “There was an accident in the kitchen and I’m two men short.”

“Oh dear, what time is dinner?”

“LATE.”

He toddled inside, carrying two heavy suitcases. Charles, and Beth’s lady’s maid handled the smaller pieces.

The Duke, Duchess and Winston followed, leaving the groom to board the horses. Once inside, they were greeted by a flushed Eleanor, holding a billiards cue in one hand and a drink in the other. Though she’d clearly had one sherry too many, the Duchess of Warwick handily won a match with Lord Beardsley.

“Elizabeth!” She took in Beth’s high pearl-buttoned neckline and tsked. “Oh, this won’t do, this won’t do at all.” She whisked her friend upstairs to find a dress that would accentuate her bosom.

Harry peered into the smoke-filled games room in search of Louis. The club was especially raucous that night. There were many new members and many non-members who found a way to wrangle an invite. Harry hardly recognized a soul.

Then out from a cloud of smoke appeared Frederick and then Roy, arguing at the top of their lungs.

“It’s worrisome enough that you can’t hold your tongue, must you taunt her too!”

Roy was married in the spring to a young woman who did not understand his nature and was haunted everywhere she went by whispers of her husband’s love affair with the Viscount. Frederick was so jealous when the two married he did everything in his power to torment the girl. That included wearing the same color at social functions to outshine her. On this night they both wore violet. The moment she saw Frederick she burst into tears.

“I can’t help that it looks better on me than it does her! This is most unfair!”

“You did this on purpose to vex her!”

Frederick spotted Harry and kissed him on both cheeks. “Thank God you’re here. Defend me. I’m being punished for being beautiful.”

Harry hated to mediate their quarrels. Roy was right, of course, but Frederick could not be reasoned with.

“It’s not your fault, Frederick. You are a vision in every color you wear.”

“Beauty is a curse,” he sighed, linking an arm through Harry’s. “You’re so lucky you’re plain.”

Harry pursed his lips at the barb. He knew Frederick well enough to know that he was at his most prickly when hurt, and seeing Roy with Mary hurt him more than anything.

Before Roy returned to the games room, he pointed at Frederick and warned, “Behave yourself.”

The Viscount lifted his chin in defiance. “Never.”

Even Roy couldn’t help but hide a smile.

Harry wandered around the manor’s smoky rooms in search of Louis.

He shouldered his way through the throng of club members and guests, who were drinking, dancing and playing a myriad of games. Louis’ appetite for entertainment was insatiable. Every year there was more wine, more gambling, more music. More, more, more.

Harry excused the pianist, who was playing a lively number from Gilbert and Sullivan, and sat down at the piano himself. His hands hovered above the keys for a moment. He played Bach.

The piece was somber and slow but his siren song drew Louis out of the sea of guests like a sailor, shipwrecked.

Much like the first time Harry saw Louis at Warwick, his cravat was undone, and he had the sheen of brandy on his lips.

He sat down beside Harry on the piano bench. “I didn’t see you arrive.”

“You’ve been preoccupied.”

Louis loved to be scolded. “Where are my manners? Shall we go upstairs so you may have me all to yourself?”

Harry smiled. “It’s nearly dinner.”

He shrugged. “I’ll ask Teddy to postpone it.”

“Don’t you dare!”

Louis’ hand rested beside Harry’s on the piano bench, unable to touch while in full view of the club.

“Come,” Harry said. “Let’s go for a walk.”

It was warm enough to be outside without their cloaks. Nature was sentimental. The scent of summer hung in the moist air and the ivy that climbed the manor walls. They walked over the knolls, boots sinking into the fresh cut grass. Once out of view, Louis held his hand. The gesture still made Harry blush, even after four years together.

Harry led him to the stables. Just beside the weathered enclosure was a wooden cross that marked the spot where Albertine was buried. Harry had one rose left in his breast pocket and placed it on the base of the modest grave beneath the carving of her name.

At the stable door, Harry unhooked the heavy iron latch and they entered. Twilight streamed in from the small grimy windows. They had precious few moments before nightfall.

Louis pinned Harry against a wooden beam and kissed him. Harry hadn’t been kissed in months, not since their trip to Rome in the spring when he snuck Louis into Vatican City. They sang hymns in the basilica and made love beneath the frescos.

His breeches tightened at the memory, betraying his desire.

“Ah, so you want me to mount you here, in the stable,” Louis murmured in his ear. “Rustic.”

Harry pushed him playfully and laughed. “That’s not why I brought you here.”

Unconvinced, Louis held his hips and nuzzled the nape of his neck as they wandered down the stable past each stall. Louis had many horses. He rode all of them but did not have an affinity for any one in particular. Yorkshire’s finest thoroughbreds in chestnut, buckskin, bay and cremello, and not one pleased him.

Down at the end of the stable, they found Beth’s gelding asleep on a bed of straw, and beside him, Achilles. Harry cooed at the stallion and he struck the ground with his hoof, harassed. Putting his pride aside, he eventually approached the stall door and allowed himself to be petted. Harry kissed his muzzle.

Louis smiled. He was happy for them and their bond, but it was clear in his glassy eyes that he missed Albertine and the bond they shared. Louis never pitied himself. He always put on a brave face even though he had lost so much in his young life.

“Come,” Harry said. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

In the stall beside Achilles, in the very back corner, stood a shy colt, small for his breed but expressive and handsome.

Louis’ lips parted.

“Achilles sired a foal the summer before last. I didn’t tell you because I wanted it to be a surprise. A gift.”

“He’s… for me?” The Duke, who possessed every thoroughbred a country gentleman could dream of, was suddenly speechless.

The colt emerged from shadows and blinked sweetly at him. Like Achilles, he was black as midnight—only, he had white mark between his eyes, as though he’d been kissed by an angel.

“He’s timid but grows more confident by the day.”

Louis ran a hand gently along his flank and the creature settled at once.

“I’ve named him Justinian.”

“Grand!”

“I knew you’d like it.”

Harry hadn’t seen Louis this tender for an animal since Albertine. It moved him.

He opened Achilles’ stall door. “Shall we go for a ride?” Harry reached for the saddle on the rusty hook. Louis opened Justinian’s stall and eagerly did the same.

They mounted their horses on the grassy knoll and gazed at the manor in the distance. Candlelit revelries glowed from within the windows’ Gothic arches.

“What about dinner?” Louis asked.

“Tomorrow we dine with the living.” Harry snapped Achilles’ reins. “Tonight, my love, we ride for the dead.”

Louis galloped after him into the forest, Justinian’s coat shining in the moonlight. “For the dead.”

Chapter Text

Roy dashed up the steps of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. He was late. He wasn't supposed to attend Don Giovanni. Opera didn't interest him in the least. His schoolmate Louis offered him box seats. The Duke had made plans to attend with his latest conquest, a Harrow boy he met at the same theatre a few months prior, but, true to form, Louis was distracted by yet another boy, a Spaniard he'd met en route to London. Louis never could resist a boy with dark curly hair.

Normally, he wouldn't ask Roy to take his place but this Harrow boy, the Viscount Greindl, had the tendency to get into trouble and he wanted the Earl to keep an eye on him.

It took a small fleet of footmen to dress Roy for the occasion. He was sixteen and growing at the rate of knots. He sprung up another three inches that year alone. Both his trousers and tailcoat had to be altered mere hours before the overture. His broad shoulders threatened to burst through the seams at any moment.

An usher guided him to his seat. The theatre, a round structure adorned in red velvet and gold mouldings was as crowded as it was ornamental and made him feel as though he was crammed inside a pill box. The sound of the orchestra tuning their instruments reminded him of all the boring nights his mother and father took him to the playhouse in Pembroke. He couldn't recall a single performance where he didn't fall asleep.

The Harrow boy was already seated in Louis' private box, pale lips moving as he carefully read the program. Roy examined him before he sat down. He was fifteen but looked about twelve, with golden hair tucked behind his ears and skin as fresh as cream. He lifted his blue eyes and met Roy's gaze.

Roy immediately removed his hat and smoothed his dark hair. "Good evening."

"Where's the Duke?" he asked, his serene expression transformed into a tiny scowl.

"He is unable to attend, I'm afraid. He asked that I escort you instead. I'm Roy—"

"—Frederick," the boy extended a limp hand with a large sapphire ring. "You're late."

Warily, Roy shook his hand and sat down beside him. That's when Frederick noticed his pin.

"Eton!" he gasped. "My reputation will never recover."

"Louis also attends Eton," Roy reminded him.

"Louis is Duke, he can attend a fucking orphanage for all I care."

What a delight this boy was.

Though this was the Duke of Warwick's private box, he often offered the seats to other nobles, dignitaries and close friends. Behind them sat imperialist Lord Dalmeny and his soon-to-be wife wearing a choker with so many strands of pearls it looked like she might asphyxiate.

They were flirting openly and rather than sit in silence, Roy thought it prudent to make conversation with Frederick.

"So, what is Don Giovanni about exactly?"

Frederick glared at him. "You mean you've never seen it?"

He shook his head. "Is it a comedy?"

Frederick looked behind them to make sure Dalmeny and his fiancée hadn't heard.

"DON'T embarrass me," he hissed.

This was going to be a long evening.

Frederick opened the program and entertained a more nuanced discussion about the production. "Luisa Cappiani is playing the role of Donna Elvira tonight. She trained with Josephine Fröhlich in Vienna. They say if you listen closely you can hear Fröhlich's bel canto in Cappiani's aria."

An usher came around with opera glasses. Roy tested them out. "Drat, I can't see a thing."

Frederick slapped his forehead. "You're holding them the wrong way."

"Oh."

Roy peered through the opera glasses and noticed people staring at them from the audience down below, the gallery above and the box seats across the auditorium. They were staring at Frederick. The petit beauty caught the eye of men and women alike. Unsurprised, the Viscount crossed his slender legs and rolled his ankle, the gold buckle on his shoe glinting in the lamplight.

The opera was not just about the performances onstage, the real performance was among the patrons who came to socialize and discuss politics. Roy spotted Louis' unpleasant cousin, Sir Clarence chatting with William Gladstone. A working-class hero and a chancellor under Lord Russell, Gladstone was tapped to become the next Prime Minister. As the orchestra started, Clarence retreated to his seat at the back of the gallery. He was too proud to ask Louis for his box seats.

The velvet curtains parted and hand-painted sets slowly rolled out from the wings like a lady opening her fan. Roy yawned. This was so dull. What he wouldn't give to be hunting that very moment. He pinched himself to stay awake.

Onstage, a woman sang of being abandoned by her lover. She was seeking revenge. "Ah, chi mi dice mai!" Don Giovanni then swept across the stage and seduced her. Suddenly the woman realized that he was the former lover who betrayed her.

Frederick was on the edge of his seat, eyes wild with excitement. This was as mystifying to Roy as it was endearing. He watched the boy mouth along to the song in Italian. He knew the entire opera by heart.

During intermission, Frederick turned to him and smiled. To win this cruel boy's smile felt like no small victory. Perhaps the night wasn't lost after all.

"Well, what did you think of Donna Elvira?" the Viscount asked eagerly.

"Who?"

Frederick's smile vanished and he disappeared into the lobby.

Naturally Roy would ruin his only chance to impress the boy. Idiot! He wanted to defend himself but what could he say? "Sorry, I don't remember Donna Elvira because I was too busy staring at you the entire time."

In the lobby, Frederick completely ignored him and flitted among the nobles like a hummingbird. Little social climber, Roy thought bitterly. What an insufferable snob!

Roy spun around and bumped into an older gentleman with dark curly hair and green eyes. The man was startled by his close proximity and covered his mouth and nose with a handkerchief before stumbling backward.

"The Duke of Somerset," Dalemeny whispered beside him.

"I don't know him."

"I should hope not. He's a Catholic. He opened a hospital here in London last week. A charitable fellow but pathological. They say he has a son."

Waiters skated by with glasses of sherry on silver trays. When no one was looking, Roy nicked a bottle from behind the bar. He tucked it inside his waistcoat and searched for a broom closet. It was dark inside, so he plucked a candle from the wall sconce.

The young Earl needed a lot more than a glass of sherry if he was going to get through this evening with Frederick.

He slid down the wall, uncorked the bottle with his teeth and took a long swig. The sweet liquor bloomed in his veins and made his head rush. Now this is more like it, he thought! He tucked a cigarette between his lips and used the candle flame to light it.

Just then the closet door opened. Frederick was standing there with a smirk. "The real party is in here, I suppose." He stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

Stupidly, Roy thought perhaps he was the party but Frederick cured him of this notion when he snatched the bottle from his hands and took a dainty sip.

"How did you find me?"

"The smoke." He plucked the cigarette from Roy's lips and took a puff. "Only an Eton boy is beastly enough to smoke in a broom closet."

"Yet here you are!"

"They won't serve me out there. They think I'm a child."

"You are a child."

"I'm only a year younger than you!" he growled. "Besides, if you're so grown up why are you hiding in here with a stolen bottle of Oloroso?"

Roy snatched the bottle back. "If you must know, I hate the theatre. My parents drag me to the playhouse in Pembroke every season. It's an awful bore."

Frederick's features were hollowed by shadow as he spoke. "I wish my parents would take me to the theatre. My father is a General. East India Company. He sent for my mother but not me. Last I heard from my parents they were riding elephants in Bombay."

"I'm sorry."

Frederick took a final sip of sherry and crushed the cigarette beneath his heel. "Don't be. I make my own adventures."

And with that, he was off again.

A bell chimed and the lamplights flickered. Intermission was nearly over. Before Roy took his seat, he saw Frederick with the Marquess of Abergavenny. He stroked the old man's cravat and whispered something in his ear. Roy heard the Marquess ask Frederick to meet him by his carriage when the curtain fell.

The Viscount teetered back to his seat as the orchestra's string section screamed to life.

"Do you even know that man?"

"I know a Marquess ranks above an Earl."

"And below a Duke. Louis would be displeased."

"Louis isn't here. The Marquess of Abergavenny is."

"More like the Marquis de Sade. He's old enough to be your grandfather. It's revolting."

"Shut. Up."

The Marquess stared at Frederick in his box across the auditorium. Roy peered at the lecher through his opera glasses. Roy understood Frederick's nature. He himself had been with many boys. But what was going on between Frederick and Abergavenny was not the harmless mucking around of schoolboys. It was something sinister.

"He's taking advantage of you."

Frederick lifted his chin. "Men don't take advantage of me, I take advantage of men."

A lamb who thinks he's a lion, Roy mused. "You're not as grown up as you think you are," he warned.

Frederick twirled the sapphire ring on his finger. No doubt a gift from one of his many older admirers.

Onstage, Don Giovanni was offered the chance to repent but adamantly refused. He was then surrounded by a chorus of demons, who carried him down to Hell as he cried out in pain.

A tear rolled down Frederick's cheek and he brushed it away quickly before anyone could see.

The opera ended and the audience jumped to their feet to applaud the performers. Frederick didn't wait for the curtain to fall. He was gone.

Roy wrestled through the audience filing into the corridors and descended the staircase. He scanned the crowd below but Frederick blended in seamlessly among the taffeta dresses and blonde chignons. Louis told him to keep an eye on the boy but he never said how difficult it would be. He was nowhere to be found.

Outside, the grey cobblestone was black and slick with rain. Roy absentmindedly stepped into a puddle calling Frederick's name over and over.

And then he saw it, a flash of sapphire like a star in the night sky. The Viscount was climbing into the old man's carriage. Roy's stomach dropped. He was too late. Frederick had made his choice, however misguided. He watched his face, framed by the carriage window, as still and inscrutable as a portrait.

Shoulders slumped, Roy headed to his own carriage where his coachman stood outside with an umbrella waiting. As he stepped onto the footplate, he noticed that the seams of his tailcoat had indeed come undone. He couldn't be fussed to hide it.

Then he heard it. Frederick's unmistakable growl.

The Marquess had invited two friends to join them and Frederick protested. He opened the carriage door but the old man held his wrist.

"Let me go!"

"Now, now settle down."

"No!" Frederick cried.

"It's too late. You've already said yes. Don't make a spectacle of yourself. Someone might see us."

For once in Roy's life being taller than everyone else wasn't a nuisance but a weapon. He loomed over the old man and grabbed his arm, the brittle bones bent within his grip.

"Release him or I'll snap your arm in half."

"How dare you!"

Roy tightened his grip.

Fearful, The Marquess tried to smooth the situation over and explained, "I say! It was a quarrel. Nothing more. He's my acquaintance. We're both guests at The Langham."

Roy twisted his arm. "He is not your acquaintance nor is he staying at a hotel. He's staying at Harrow because he's a schoolboy."

His words shamed the man and Frederick both.

Roy took Frederick's small hand in his and dragged him back to the Earl's carriage. Frederick skipped behind him on the cobblestone trying to keep up.

"I can't believe you did that! Wait, you're not seriously bringing me back to school, are you?"

"Oh, yes I am!"

In the quiet of the carriage Frederick hung his head and folded his hands in his lap sheepishly. "I would appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone about this. Please. Tell them I stayed out all night entertaining dozens of older lovers."

Roy frowned. "What's wrong with boys our age?"

"Louis rarely has time for me and there are no boys like me at school."

"At Harrow?" Roy found that hard to believe.

"Perhaps there are, but they don't care for me," he sniffed. "They're jealous. Obviously."

Again, Roy knew he wasn't getting the whole story. "What did you do?"

"Nothing! Well, if you must know, I sang a solo in the school choir last Christmas and the headmaster fell in love with me. Now I get preferential treatment and everyone loathes me. As if I chose to be born with the voice of nightingale!"

"Frederick."

"Fine, I seduced the headmaster and made him punish the boys I don't like. Now they're all cross with me. It's a mutiny. Can you believe that?"

Roy laughed in spite of himself and ruffled Frederick's hair. "You really are trouble."

"Says the boy who gets drunk in broom closets and attacks his social betters." The Viscount examined his reflection in the window, vainly smoothing his blonde locks behind his ears.

The coachman's lamplights lit their path northwest as they headed through the rain toward Harrow. He would deliver the boy back to school and then rest at an inn before travelling to Eton in the morning.

The carriage rocked back and forth. Raindrops pattered lightly on its leather top. Frederick's pale lips parted and he let out a kittenish yawn. Blonde lashes swept his cheeks, which were still flushed from the sherry. He was a vicious little thing but undeniably pretty.

Lulled to sleep by the rocking carriage, his head fell on Roy's shoulder. The gesture was innocent enough but Roy soon felt his heart begin to thud and his palms sweat. Yes, this boy was indeed trouble. Roy had to remind himself that Frederick was Louis' conquest not his.

He sat stiffly in his seat and conjured chaste thoughts: the Church of England, hunting, maths.

In order to get more comfortable, or perhaps to torment him, Frederick moved his head onto Roy's lap.

Roy's thoughts were no longer chaste.

He prayed Frederick wouldn't notice and remain asleep but his eyes fluttered opened and he rolled onto his back, drawing a slim leg up on the seat.

"Thank you for saving me from the Marquess," he said sweetly, caressing the brass buttons on Roy's waistcoat.

"It was nothing. Louis would have done the same."

"Yes, I imagine you two have much in common."

Roy was suddenly reminded of all those long sweaty nights in Louis' sleeping quarters at school, exploring every inch of his friend's body. He was the Duke's first lover and taught him everything he knew about pleasing another boy. When Louis was inside Frederick, could the Viscount feel Roy's presence the same way he heard the echo of Fröhlich in Cappiani's aria?

The thought roused him and he couldn't resist sliding his fingers through Frederick's golden locks, feel them spill over his wrist.

He waited for the Viscount to haughtily brush his hand aside and fix his hair but he simply looked up at Roy in the dimness of the carriage, daring the Earl to kiss him.

"Do you know what the saddest part of Don Giovanni is?" Frederick asked.

"Eternal damnation?"

"No. It's that he goes to hell all by himself. If I go to hell, I hope I have a companion down there."

Roy laughed. No one made him laugh the way Frederick did. "Any boy would gladly follow you into hell."

Frederick licked his lips, poised to ask the question on both of their minds: Would you follow me into hell?

But before he could pose the question, the carriage stopped. They had arrived outside Harrow's gates. He was saved by his coachman, who opened the door and held out an umbrella for the Viscount.

Roy breathed a sigh of relief, for his answer would most certainly have been yes.

Chapter Text

It was summer and Warwick was in full bloom.

Barren vines, wilted bluebells and fruitless apricot trees roused from their slumber in the spring and ripened upon Harry's arrival early June. Gone too was the raucous laughter of men. The house was instead filled with the melody of female voices. Eleanor was being fitted for her wedding gown. Though the wedding was months away the event was so lavish they had already decided on the guest list, invitations, music, menu, and commissioned a portrait, which was to be painted by England's most renowned artist, John Everett Millais. Louis spared no expense.

Harry and Louis were to go to the riverbank that afternoon but the Duke was occupied in his office with a merchant who was importing a selection of rare truffles from around the world for the occasion.

Harry's own wedding was fast approaching, though it would be a modest affair with few guests. He came from a small family with almost no acquaintances. He didn't begrudge Louis his popularity, quite the contrary. The thought of hosting such a grand event terrified him.

He wandered the sunlit halls with his hands behind his back, following the sound of female voices, and peeked through the doors of the solarium.

"Out! Out! Out!" The seamstress fussed. "No gentlemen allowed!"

"Let him in," he heard Eleanor say. "I want to hear his opinion." She was standing on a riser before a gilded mirror, with various fabrics pinned to her slip. Her younger sisters were running around with veils on their heads.

"What do you think, Harry, taffeta or lace?"

He saw that she was clutching the lace a little more tightly than the taffeta and reaffirmed her own opinion. "Lace."

She smiled. "You know, I think you're right!"

The seamstress shoved a pincushion in his hands. "If you insist on staying, make yourself useful."

Harry followed the seamstress around with the pincushion as she adjusted the bodice and hem. Eleanor's little sister, Ruth, place a veil on his head and they all temporarily forgot that he was a boy.

"I wonder what it's like to be deflowered by a Duke," Eleanor's middle sister, Mary, mused on the divan twirling her long dark tresses.

Harry froze. He and Eleanor exchanged a look in the mirror.

Her older more cynical sister, Penelope, said, "A man of his wealth and status doesn't deflower a woman he ravages her. I'm sure he's a brute."

"And I'm sure he's tender," Mary sniffed.

Ruth's lip quivered. "Oh dear, I hope he's tender, Ellie!"

"Enough!" the seamstress scolded. "Relations between a husband and wife are sacred, not parlour talk."

One of the girls peeked at the unfinished wedding portrait until the drape fell to the floor.

"Mary!"

Harry looked upon the portrait. The likeness was incredible, with vibrant colours and seamless brushwork, their complexions smooth as porcelain. Louis looked like a devoted husband and Eleanor a regal wife. It would hang in the library beside the portraits of his parents and ancestors dating back to the Battle of Bosworth.

When Louis was gone, this is how he would be remembered. This is the version of him that would survive.

Suddenly, Louis popped his head in the solarium. "Shall we, Harry?" He smirked. "Nice veil."

The girls screamed. "You're not supposed to see her! It's bad luck!"

"Get back you brute!" The little one said with her fist in the air.

They pummelled him with pillows until he retreated.

"Egad!"

He wasn't wearing a jacket, only a billowy white shirt with a satchel strapped across his chest. Harry removed his jacket as well and handed it to Charles at the door.

"We'll be back after sundown. We're going for a swim."

His testy valet shook the jacket and folded it over his arm. "I'm afraid not. I didn't pack a swimming costume, your grace."

Louis threw an arm around Harry's shoulder and winked. "He won't need one."

"I'm swimming in the nude!" Harry clarified unnecessarily.

Before Charles could protest, they tore out of the house toward the forest.

"Race you!" Louis said, and broke into a run, the leather satchel swinging heavily on his hip.

Harry chased after him but he wasn't nearly as fast and struggled to keep up as Louis intuitively weaved among trees and hopped over rocks. He knew the forest so well he could run through it blindfolded.

Raised with rowdy older brothers, Louis was as wild as the forest itself. Harry was raised alone and too prim for such games.

The river was in earshot. They ran past the spot where Albertine was slain. The mare's body was gone, and in its place sprung a patch of poppies, as though the earth absorbed her blood and her spirit bloomed in its breast.

By the time they reached the clearing Harry was so out of breath he fell to his knees panting.

Louis yanked off his boots and tore off his clothes.

The place was even more beautiful than Harry remembered. The autumn did not do it justice. The height and fullness of the trees, the variety of wildflowers, lush grass, crystal clear water—nature was more lavish and grand than any party man could devise.

Slowly, Harry began to undo the buttons on his shirt. He looked around. They were alone, yet he felt exposed.

Louis stripped down to nothing. Seeing his golden limbs naked outside the privacy of the bedchamber felt like seeing them for the very first time. He could see the crisp outline of his thighs, his torso, his manhood. He was at once more vulnerable and strong.

He walked into the river with his back to Harry, the ripple of muscles moving as assuredly as the waters in which he was now submerged.

He went under and Harry held his breath. The Duke re-emerged and slicked his hair back. Beads of water hung from his long lashes like diamonds.

"Get in!" he called. "The water's lovely."

Harry sat down on the riverbank and hugged his knees. It was moments like these he wished he was a different sort of boy. Not the coin-collecting, pincushion-holding type, but someone like Louis, who knew how to race, someone with a temperament that was wild and free.

"I'm afraid I don't have the nerve after all," he said, disappointed in himself. "I'll watch you from afar."

"Harry, I'm going underwater and I won't come up for air until you're right here next to me."

Harry refused.

"One, two, three..." Louis went under.

Bubbles rose to the surface and then stopped.

Several moments passed.

Harry hopped to his feet. Louis wasn't coming up for air. Was he crazy enough to drown himself to get Harry to take his clothes off? Probably.

Harry stripped. The ivory skin beneath his clothes had never seen the light of day and instantly warmed to a blush.

Louis lied. The water was not lovely. It was freezing. And there were rocks and plants on the riverbed that felt strange against the pads of his feet. He slowly crept over to where Louis dove under and felt around frantically with his hands. "Louis! Louis! I'm in! Come up!"

He was gone.

Though, not dead.

The Duke had swum was yards away and was watching Harry from behind a rock.

"I thought you drowned!" Harry snapped.

Louis swam over and then circled his arms around Harry's waist. Water lapped between their chests.

"I'm alive. Kiss me."

Harry couldn't stay mad at him for long and leaned in. As their lips met Louis plunged them into the icy water.

Harry came up floundering and gasping for air. Louis slicked the sopping wet hair off of his face and kissed him in earnest. Weightless in the water and not wanting his feet to touch the bottom, Harry wrapped his long legs around the Duke's torso and clasped the back of his neck. His body had slowly acclimatized to the cold but he couldn't resist the warmth of Louis' body.

"Swim with me."

Louis untangled himself from Harry's grip and glided into the current, arms slicing the water with each stroke. Harry splashed after him. He couldn't swim and looked ungraceful trying.

The Duke taught him to float, and to tread water. He slipped his hands beneath Harry's belly as he kicked his feet and practiced his free stroke. Soon they were swimming side-by-side. Harry quickly learned that the harder he splashed the slower he swam and tried to match Louis' smooth, economical stroke.

When they tired, they climbed back up on the riverbank to sun themselves. Louis let Harry get out first so he could watch him. Harry tiptoed over to his pile of clothing when he noticed the Duke stretch out face down naked on a patch of grass. He dropped his clothes and stretched out beside him.

Flecks of grass stuck to the pads of his pink feet and pale limbs. He moved his legs like he did in the water, practicing his kick. This made Louis smile.

He dug into his satchel and took out bread and cheese wrapped in parchment. His hand rustled around until he found some fruit. He offered Harry an apricot. The young Duke took a few furtive bites. Louis was famished. He devoured the fruit, apricot juice running down his chin and dripping onto his golden chest.

Harry lay back down, resting his cheek on his folded arms. "The Calder girls were talking about your wedding night. They wondered what it's like to be deflowered by a Duke."

Louis grinned and took another bite of the ripened apricot.

"One thought you would be tender, the other says you're a brute."

"And what do you think?"

Harry threaded his fingers through the grass and answered coyly, "I haven't decided yet."

Louis plucked a honeysuckle from the grass and trailed it down the length of Harry's spine. "You're white as dove," he marvelled, the sensation of the petals like Louis' lips upon his damp skin. "Let me show you how tender I can be."

Wind rustled through the trees and Harry glanced over his shoulder. "If someone stumbles upon us in the nude, we can tell them we were swimming, if they stumble upon us while we're..."

"This is my land. No one would dare trespass."

He continued caressing him with the flower, coaxing his little dove. Harry muscles eased. He could feel wetness growing between him and the grass at the mere thought of Louis' lips upon him.

Louis brought the flower to the back of Harry's thigh. "Your skin smells fresh as river water and sweet as this very honeysuckle," he breathed.

Harry parted his legs, beckoning him.

"So, am I a brute or am I tender?"

"Tender," Harry murmured into the grass.

Louis leaned over but before his lips brushed Harry's flesh he stopped and said, "You're spoiled."

"No, I'm not!" He thought he might actually cry if he did not feel Louis' lips upon him, which was probably Louis' goal all along. He really was a brute. Damn him.

Louis grinned and slid a hand down Harry's flank to his pale bottom.

Harry arched his back and purred at the Duke's touch. Then he felt it, as hot and bright as the sun itself. First Louis' breath and then his lips, still wet with apricot juice. Harry fisted the grass and spread wider as Louis kissed and lapped hungrily at his opening until it was supple and pink and ready to be taken.

Louis usually liked to mount him from behind. He liked seeing Harry submit and spread. He liked hearing the song of his muffled sobs. Harry enjoyed this roughness too. It made him feel wildly desirable. However, on this particular afternoon, Louis was feeling sentimental. He turned Harry onto his back and faced him. Perhaps it was because this was the place they first kissed, the place Louis gave Harry his pin, the place where they pledged themselves to one another.

He kissed Harry's neck, his chest, and nosed his hip as the young Duke ran his fingers lazily through his lover's wet hair. Louis really was sentimental. It was moments like these Harry knew for certain that he wasn't just any other lover. Louis, like Harry, wanted to stop time. Day by day they were getting older. One day they would lose their beauty and then their lives and instead of lying beside each other, they would lie beside their ancestors in the earth. Every moment together was as fleeting and fragile as the honeysuckles crushed beneath their weight.

Harry couldn't wait any longer and guided Louis' length toward him.

The Duke reached for the vial of oil in his satchel.

Though Harry had arrived at Warwick the day before, he was tired from his long journey north. Louis pleasured him with his mouth and let him rest but was waiting for the moment when Harry would invite him to mount.

Their hips aligned. Louis breached him ever so slowly, savouring each second of Harry opening around him.

Harry cried softly onto his shoulder.

As Louis inched into him, the young Duke clawed at his back overwhelmed at being opened and yet desperate for him to go deeper. "Deeper, deeper," he pleaded, widening his thighs.

Louis' mouth was resting against Harry's ear now, panting, like his pleasure was a secret meant only for him.

"It's been months since I last had you. I must be careful."

They rocked together on the grass, the swell of Harry's manhood pressed between them. When Harry came too close Louis would stop and wait for his excitement to subside before entering him again, deeper, faster, bringing him to the precipice and slowing again. When Louis came too close, Harry would bite his bottom lip teasingly.

Soon Harry could not discern river water from sweat on Louis' neck. He was exhausted. "Spill inside of me," Harry urged, gripping his back. "You need release."

Louis fought his own desire. He did not want this moment to end. "A little longer. You feel like heaven."

So did Louis.

Harry licked a droplet of sweat off his neck. His hands wandered down the smooth valley of Louis' back until he reached the cleft of his bottom. He gave it a squeeze. Arousing. On impulse, he slipped a finger inside. Louis drew a sharp breath and nearly spilled.

"Minx!" He pinned Harry's hands to the ground.

Now he was not so gentle. Louis thrust inside him and the young Duke cried out, his own wetness seeping deliciously onto his taut belly.

Harry's legs fell open. He lifted his head and watched the Duke inside him. The sight was so erotic all it took was one more thrust and Harry came undone. Shaking. Sobbing. Louis moved through Harry's pleasure until the young Duke stopped trembling.

When it was Louis' turn, he kissed Harry on the mouth. Harry watched his eyelashes flutter, heard the hitch in his breath, felt the familiar jolt of his body, and then euphoria as Louis filled him and collapsed with a sigh.

There was an ease and naturalness to making love outdoors that Harry had not anticipated. No basin or cloth was required, no bedding, no laundering. He was covered in sweat and seed, but could quickly jump in the river and be cleansed in an instant.

First, he let Louis proudly admire his work. Harry's damp curls stuck to his rosy cheeks. He touched the stickiness on his belly and bent his knee as Louis' seed seeped out of him onto the grass.

Louis examined the marks of their lovemaking, thoroughly pleased with himself. He could not take his eyes off the boy, and... neither could someone else. There was a rustling in the trees that was most definitely not the wind.

Louis crouched down and concealed Harry behind his back. "Who's there?"

The trees rustled again.

"Who's there? Show yourself!"

The brush parted.

Hesitantly, a young man appeared. A villager with a worn cap and patched trousers. He was holding something but Harry could not see what it was among the foliage.

"I didn't see anything," he said, voice quivering, which meant he saw everything.

Louis wasn't ashamed, he was furious. "How dare you trespass here. Do you know where you are?"

The man removed his cap and twisted it in his hands. He was petrified. "I only came to paint." the objects under his arm were an easel and brushes. "This part of the riverbank is the most scenic spot in the region, your grace. I wanted to share a piece of beauty with those who have none."

Louis was too proud to hide his nakedness or make excuses for what the man may or may not have seen. "Leave. Never speak of what you saw here today, understood?"

The man nodded vigorously and stumbled with his canvas.

"Wait!" Harry said peeking over Louis shoulder. The man stopped but kept his head down and did not look at them. He was handsome with a trimmed beard and a thatch of black hair tucked behind his ears. He was embarrassed but there was no malice in his demeanour.

"You're a painter."

"Yes, your grace."

"Perhaps..." It sounded mad in his head and even more so when he spoke the words aloud but he knew he might never have an opportunity like this again. "You could paint us?"

Louis whipped his head around. "What!"

The man's eyes widened and he lifted a hand in protest. "No, no, no! I paint landscapes!"

Harry brushed a thumb across Louis' bottom lip. "A man is not much different from a rose. Besides, it doesn't have to be perfect it just has to be... us."

Louis stared at him, incredulous. "Merely an hour ago you refused to remove your clothes to go for a swim and now you want this stranger to paint us in the nude?"

Harry drew his knees up to his chest. The painter pretended to busy himself with his palette and brushes while they discussed it.

"You will have your wedding portrait with Eleanor, I will have mine with Beth, yet you and I will have nothing but cryptic letters. A pin. A coin. Our love will be lost to history, the truth of who we are buried with our bodies."

Louis shrugged. "We'll be dead then, what will it matter."

Louis would never understand. He lived for the moment. He wasn't a collector like Harry, a steward of history.

"WE matter. I want our love to be recorded. To live on in some earthly form when we're gone."

Though Louis preferred to make love and eat apricots all afternoon than sit for a portrait, he could never refuse Harry. The young Duke was too dear to him and most definitely spoiled.

Much to the painter's surprise, Louis agreed.

The two dukes dashed into the river to rinse off their bodies while the painter anxiously set up his easel.

They stumbled out of the water laughing, wet bodies dripping on the grass, Louis shaking his hair like a dog.

Harry kneeled down by Louis' satchel and offered the painter an apricot. The man, whose name they learned was Basel, reached for it then politely declined, trying to look anywhere but directly at the young Duke's glistening body, which was now near enough to touch.

"What is the subject?" the painter asked stiffly.

"Greek," Harry and Louis said in unison. The painter blushed, well aware of the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.

"Apollo and his young lover Cyparissus," Harry added, "who, in his grief at the death of his beloved stag, is transformed into a tree."

The painter mixed together pigments on his palette. "A wise choice, your grace. You will be perfect as the beautiful youth Cyparissus," then quickly added, "If you don't mind my saying so."

Harry lay down and pretended to be grief-stricken while Louis posed as the swift-footed Apollo beside him. Basel had worked with few live models and it took time to find the right angles.

He instructed Harry to recline on one arm, "Lovely," arch his back, "Exquisite," and part his lips, "Like you did earlier."

Louis narrowed his eyes. "Exactly how long were you watching us, Basel?"

The painter shifted his attention back to the canvas.

There was a space in the landscape he had already begun for both of figures. It was as though the painting was waiting for them to enter it.

He worked carefully, the sun beating down on his heavy brow, his brushstrokes long and laboured.

Louis' body shaded Harry's ivory skin from the sun. He fed him fruit, chatted to entertain him and stole a kiss every chance he got. They sometimes forgot Basel was even there until he cleared his throat to remind them.

The painting wasn't completely finished by the time the sun went down but near enough that Basel was confident he could complete it on his own.

Harry and Louis pulled on their shirts and breeches, and peered over Basel's shoulder at the canvas. The likeness wasn't exact--Basel was no John Everett Millais--but there were flashes of brilliance in his lines and composition. Most importantly, he had captured their devotion to one another perfectly. Harry's green eyes pricked with tears. Louis was speechless and reached out to touch Harry's painted skin.

Basel stopped him. "The paint is still fresh." He did not care for allegory or portraiture but even he was impressed by his own work. "What shall I do with it? Shall I have it wrapped when it is complete and send it to you?"

Harry clasped his shoulder. "No, if we keep it, we'll have to hide it away. Find a gallery that will display it."

Swinging his satchel, Louis said, "I think it should be called 'Apollo's Conquest.'"

"That doesn't make any sense," Harry bickered. "The story is about the grief of Cyparissus."

"This is supposed to be a record of love. You're not grieving."

"I'm not a conquest either," Harry snapped, looking to Basel for an ally.

Basel wrung his paint-stained hands. "I'm sorry if I misled you, your grace, but I am a hobbyist, not a classically trained painter. I sell my work to sailors by the pier every summer. They're trinkets, nothing more. No gallery has ever bought a painting from me."

"We believe in your work, Basel," Harry said, admiring the painting, the mirror of his feeling for Louis. "Art finds a way to survive, even if we don't."

Harry daydreamed about where the painting might end up hundreds of years from now. Perhaps it would find itself in the hands of a collector just like him, someone who would stare at their faces the way Harry examined the obverse of his coins, knowing that he possessed something precious and rare.

The sun was setting over the treetops. It was time to head back to the manor for supper and entertain Eleanor's precocious sisters.

As Basel packed his palette and the last of his brushes, he turned to Louis and tipped his cap, "Congratulations on your blessed union, your grace."

The Duke thanked him. It was common knowledge throughout the village that Louis was marrying Lady Calder. Villagers were preparing their own modest festivities to celebrate.

The two Dukes walked back to the manor, Louis uncharacteristically quiet and too tired to outrun him. He kicked the dirt beneath his boots.

"That painter had eyes for you," he said finally.

Harry burst out laughing. "Me? You're mad."

"'Congratulations on your blessed union'?"

"He meant your marriage."

"He meant you."

Louis was the one with countless admirers swirling around him, not Harry. He dismissed the compliment as a simple misunderstanding.

"He was watching us. I know it," Louis went on.

"Basel meant no harm. If he saw anything, I'm sure he did the noble thing and looked away."

"Impossible. You're beautiful when you're being taken... It's the loveliest sight I've ever seen."

The young Duke felt his ears turn pink. It had never occurred to him that other men might desire him the way Louis did.

After a pause, Louis asked, "Did you find him handsome?"

"Well, he certainly is a very talented painter," Harry answered diplomatically.

"You know what I think?" he whispered, lips pressed to Harry's ear. "I think you liked being watched by the handsome painter."

Harry picked up a switch and whipped Louis on the backside. "Brute!"

They stomped headlong into the house, tracking mud on the rug and tossing the satchel on the divan in the drawing room, much to Teddy's dismay.

On Louis' bureau sat a mountain of letters. At Somerset, Harry answered all of his correspondence daily. Louis usually plucked the ones from Harry out of the pile and procrastinated when it came to reading the rest. Harry flipped through the stack. There were many invitations to parties and announcements.

One letter on the top of the stack stood out to him immediately. "This one's from Roy!"

It had arrived that morning. Louis grabbed the gold penknife from the bureau and opened the envelope with a single slice.

His blue eyes scanned the page and twinkled at the words of his old friend.

"He and Frederick are summering in Pembroke. They've invited us to join them."

Chapter Text

Pembroke was made up of rocky cliffs, wooded estuaries and wild inland hills.

When they arrived at the Earl's manor, the two Dukes were greeted by the butler who informed them that his master was spending the afternoon on the cliffs with the Viscount Greindl.

Before joining them, they oversaw the footman remove their luggage from the carriage, when Louis came face-to-face with three of Roy's hounds. Unlike Louis' dogs, his were companion animals. The Earl did not kennel them. Louis still hunted with hounds, but since the attack he feared them and preferred not to get too close.

Though it was summer, the temperature was a good deal cooler in Pembroke than Yorkshire. Louis stepped in front of Harry to shield him from the wind.

Roy was stretched out unafraid beside the steep cliff, the heel of his boot resting on a rock, while Frederick stood observing the view, his short navy cape sailing behind him.

Louis always forgot how much he missed his friends until they were reunited and then he wondered how they could ever be apart. He was about to approach and greet them but Harry ran ahead of him. The young Duke tipped his hat shyly to Roy and kissed Frederick on the cheek.

After the hunt in the fall, Frederick and Harry stopped in London for a few days, where Frederick took him to the opera, then Brook's a gentleman's club in St. James, and presented him at Court. They struck up an unlikely friendship and corresponded regularly.

Louis extended his hand to Roy. He clasped it and jumped to his feet. They embraced warmly.

"I thought you'd never arrive!"

"We stopped in Cresselly for a day. I was procuring a rare mintage—1343 Edward III florin—for Harry."

"You do indulge him," he scolded.

"I see Frederick has a new broach," Louis countered, gesturing to the jewel that fastened the Viscount's cape.

The Earl rubbed the back of his neck. "Touché."

They decided to go for a walk along the cliffs to build up an appetite before supper.

Harry and Frederick held hands as they stepped precariously over the rocky cliffs. Louis remembered that Harry never went to school. He had developed a sort of schoolboy affection for Frederick, and the Viscount who had tormented his schoolmates at Harrow was getting a second chance at a similar friendship with Harry.

Roy was discussing crop yield and livestock when he fell silent suddenly and said, "They are sweet together, aren't they?"

"Yes, they are," Louis agreed, avoiding his gaze.

At that moment the Viscount turned his blonde head and flashed them a winning smile.

♞♘♞♘

After supper, they were presented with a cornucopia of pastries for dessert and an array of heady wines. Harry found it impossible to choose.

They retired to the drawing room for a game of cards. The young Duke had a smidge of powdered sugar at the corner of his lips that Roy wiped away with his thumb.

"You enjoyed the custard. You should have tried the blancmange and the trifle."

"Custard is my favourite."

"We all have our favourites, but that doesn't make the other desserts any less sweet. Variety is the spice of life." He winked.

The walls in the Earl's manor was dark green, like the inland hills at dusk, decorated with his many hunting trophies. Candlelight flickered in the glass eyes of the mounted heads. He noted that one eye on the stag was missing. Louis chuckled and explained.

They were boys when they hunted the stag together. Each believed he had taken the shot that killed the beast but it was Roy's land and he declared himself the victor. Out of spite Louis ripped out the glass eye once it was mounted. The argument came to blows.

"I nearly killed him," Roy howled.

"It's true. He strangled me until I turned blue. I stabbed him with a pen knife."

"I still have a scar!"

Harry was horrified but Frederick slapped his knee with laughter.

Roy fanned the antique Rouen deck on the table. The back of the cards featured an intricate design of Venus, her visage duplicated into a five-point star. If he stared at long enough it felt like looking into a kaleidoscope.

Scarcely an hour later, the Duke and the Viscount stroked their towers of coins and thumbed through their banknotes. Harry had only one bank note left, ten pounds and six shillings. He won the first two hands only to be outmatched by the others once they observed and memorized his tells.

He looked at his hand and tried to mask his disappointment. One pair. Fours. He bluffed and pushed his last note and coins into the center of the table. Perhaps he could win this one hand and regain his footing.

The others quickly called his bluff and laid their cards on the table. Louis won with a pitiful pair of fives. Harry was vanquished. He grumbled and had another sip of Bordeaux. In bad temper from his headache and losses he said, "I think I'll retire early. I don't have a head for wine."

"Or poker." It was Frederick's turn to shuffle. His pale hands expertly riffled the cards, half the deck in each hand with his thumbs inward, so that they fanned together into a tidy pile.

"I have an idea," Roy said. "Perhaps you could wager something other than money."

Harry frowned, reminded of their first poker game at Warwick, where he was utterly scandalized. "I won't remove my clothes."

"Something else then," Louis suggested, not wanting his companion to retire quite so early.

"How about a kiss?" Roy said casually as he cut the deck for Frederick.

A kiss? On the lips? Absolutely not! He was spoken for. What a ludicrous idea.

However... If Harry wagered and won, a sizable pot was his and he would be back in the game. If he lost, it would likely be to Louis. The Duke had won nearly every hand that evening and he would most certainly want to win this one.

He glanced at Venus' face on the back of the deck. The Gods were shining down on him.

"Deal me in."

Frederick slid his cards across the table. Harry waited until he had all five before peeking at them. Merciful heaven! Two pair!

Frederick began the betting low. One pound.

"I fold," said Roy.

"As do I," Louis added quickly.

"You... fold?" Harry said in confusion and turned to Frederick.

"You're all-in, Duke. Show me your hand."

They turned their cards over. Frederick had three of a kind.

Dash it!

All eyes were upon him, including the one-eyed stag. Frederick tilted his head, coy but inviting. Roy and Louis were so still they might have been holding their breath.

Harry tugged on his collar at the heat trapped beneath his cravat. It was just a kiss among friends, innocent, harmless, nothing to get worked up about.

He leaned in and brushed his lips against the Viscount's pink pout. His lips were softer than Louis' and sweeter. The Duke's mouth was closed but Frederick expertly slid his tongue inside. In spite of himself, Harry did the same. He couldn't help it. The smell of his perfume was intoxicating, the heat and wetness of mouth irresistible. Instinct took over and—

Roy accidently knocked over his stack of coins and broke the spell they were under.

The room was very quiet.

Harry knew before anyone spoke that the game was over.

This time it was Louis and Roy who suggested they retire for the evening, so eager to get to their bedchambers that they bumped into each other as they exited the drawing room.

Before following Louis upstairs, Harry circled the room and glanced at his cards, which lay face down on the table. He turned them over one by one to reveal five diamonds.

"A flush!"

He held up the cards to show Frederick. "He would have won. Why did he fold?"

The Viscount sat on the edge of the table, legs swinging, and shuffled the remainder of the deck, "Why do you think?"

"I don't know, that's why I'm asking."

Frederick rolled his eyes. "Because they wanted to watch us kiss."

"Why?"

Frederick slapped his forehead in exasperation. "Because it arouses them. Isn't it obvious!"

Harry looked thoughtfully at Louis' cards. "He never mentioned such desires to me before and we tell each other everything."

"He didn't tell you about the stag."

"Are you saying I don't know my own lover?"

"No, I'm saying it's impossible to know everything about another person."

He nodded worriedly. What other desires might Louis be harbouring?

As the Viscount got up to leave he whispered in Harry's ear. "Oh and by the way, you're a much better kisser than you are a poker player."

♞♘♞♘

The manor dated back to the seventeenth century, each of the rooms named for various nobles. The Earl had assigned the Dukes their own bedchambers, Reed and Langdon, but this was merely a formality. The maid only turned down the bed in one. They chose Langdon for its magnificent view of the cliffs.

"Splendid choice," Teddy remarked to Harry. "This is the room my master liked to stay in as a boy."

Of course it was. Another fact Louis had failed to mention.

Seeing that Harry felt slighted the valet added, "William III also stayed in this room when he visited Pembroke. What a rich history!"

Teddy undressed Louis for bed and left hastily with the Duke's clothing over his arm to the servant's hall to be laundered and pressed.

Louis was waiting for him by the bed but Harry did not join him immediately. He walked with his hands behind his back to the window. "An eventful night," he mused quietly into the fold of the velvet drapes.

Louis struggled to read his expression.

"Kissing Frederick was unexpected," Harry continued.

"You... Oh yes, ha ha, I'd already forgotten." He picked up the volume of Ovid's Amores among Harry's papers on the bureau and fell into the wingchair by the marble fireplace.

"Really? You seemed quite interested in that kiss."

"Me?" he turned the page. "Debauchery doesn't interest me in the least. I now prefer quiet evenings reading Latin poetry."

"You're holding the book upside down."

Slowly he turned the book around. "I confess, it was not an unpleasant sight."

There it was, the truth. Not an unpleasant sight. Had Louis thought about this before? Did he often imagine Harry kissing other men? Did he want to see Harry do more than simply kiss Frederick? Surely not. But what if he did? And what if Louis wanted to kiss other men? Is that something Harry wanted to see? Not an unpleasant sight...

Louis rose from the chair and sauntered over to Harry. With the book in one hand he held Harry's gaze and unfurled his cravat with the other.

"And you, did you did you enjoy the kiss?" he asked, wrapping the silk around his wrist.

"The Viscount has exceptionally soft lips."

Louis grinned. "He certainly does."

Harry pushed him onto the bed and plucked the book from his hands. "Now where were we? Ah yes, Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata.."

♞♘♞♘

Frederick held an empty glass up to the wall of Roy's bedchamber. "Do you hear that? They're reading poetry. In Latin."

The Earl sighed in bed beneath the blankets.

"Can you believe this? They're not even making love."

Roy drummed his fingers on his chest impatiently. "I believe it."

"Shhhhhh!"

He listened to them for some time, whipping himself into a frenzy, until he finally collapsed half-dressed into bed beside the Earl.

It didn't make any sense. The four gentlemen had such fun together walking the cliffs, dining, playing cards only to be marooned on separate islands at night.

Frederick sulked.

Roy tried to coax him beneath the blanket. He slipped a hand under Frederick's shirt and caressed his back, when the Viscount was distracted again by the sound of Harry's voice reading.

"Imagine, two virile young men trapped in Langdon reading poetry on a sumptuous night like this."

"Louis' happy. They both are."

"What a waste!"

"What are you proposing?"

"We invite them to our bedchamber."

He chuckled and laced his fingers behind his head, a heavy thigh rolling out from beneath the bed sheet. "Harry had a conniption at the mere thought of kissing someone other than Louis and you propose to invite them here to... what exactly?"

"Don't tell me you haven't thought about it."

"Perhaps, but that doesn't change the fact that Harry wouldn't dream of it and Louis is besotted with the young Duke. He would never go against his wishes. That is a battle not even your lovely lips can win."

Frederick slipped out of his shirt and trousers, and stretched his naked limbs. This pleased the Earl but Frederick's mind was not on his lover. The wheels were turning. He was devising a plan. His lips had never lost in battle before and they weren't about to start now.

"My father is a General in the military. He taught me the most important rule in winning any war."

"What is that?"

Frederick kneeled before Roy and pushed his thighs apart. "Divide and conquer."

♞♘♞♘

The couples enjoyed breakfast in bed the next morning before meeting outside for an afternoon of archery and a picnic overlooking the cliffs.

Harry was on edge. His last attempt at archery nearly killed someone. Roy, an expert marksman assured Harry that he would help him with his form.

The clearing was a few yards away from the manor.

Harry and Louis were walking side-by-side when Frederick ran up to join them.

Suddenly, Roy called out to Harry to help him carry a quiver of arrows.

The Earl was almost a head taller than Harry with shoulders twice as broad. He carried the quiver with ease, while the sack toppled the young Duke. They ambled over the inland hills and rocky terrain, Roy taking long strides and Harry running to keep up. Frederick and Louis now looked like specks of sand in the distance.

Harry didn't know why but he always felt a bit shy around Roy and could never think of anything to say when they were alone.

The targets had been set up by the gamekeeper hours earlier. The Earl retrieved the bow off his back, while Harry kindly handed him an arrow. Practice shot. His dark eyes narrowed and he hit the bull's-eye.

"There. Now you try."

Slowly, Harry retrieved the bow from his back. Roy handed him an arrow. He tried to remember the technique he had read about but was drawing a blank. Instead of the target, the horrible accident the last time he'd attempted the sport flashed before his eyes, and instead of the bull's-eye he saw the blood on Louis' arm...

Frederick and Louis were now approaching when the Viscount cried out. Harry thought he twisted his ankle at first, but the laces on Frederick's boots had merely come undone and his valet wasn't nearby to retie them.

"DASH IT ALL TO HELL!"

Chivalrously, Louis kneeled down to tie them. The Viscount pressed the heeled boot against Louis' chest. "For a Duke, you are quick to get on your knees, aren't you?" Louis grinned and roughly pulled the laces. Frederick yelped. "Tight!"

Roy saw that Harry was distracted and said, "Don't mind them. Frederick loves to play the damsel in distress. They once went as Lancelot and Guinevere to a masquerade at Buckingham."

Rattled, Harry's attention returned to the target.

Behind him, he felt Roy's lips against his ear. "Place the shaft of the arrow on the arrowrest and hold three fingers behind the fletching feathers... That's it... Now draw back the bowstring... Good..." Roy's large hands held his hips suddenly. "Your stance should be inline with the target. Feet apart." Harry drew a breath. "Now shut one eye, aim and release..."

He released the wooden arrow and it sailed through the air onto the third ring of the target.

"I did it!"

Roy lifted him up and swung him around in a circle triumphantly. "And no one got injured!" he cheered. He put Harry down but his hands did not leave the young Duke's waist.

Behind them Frederick and Louis were sprawled out on the grass. Damsel indeed. Louis had placed his coat on the grass for Frederick to lie upon. They were having a rather animated conversation but their words were drowned out by the wind.

"They are having so much fun they forgot about us," Harry remarked.

"We're having fun too," Roy reminded him.

This was true. How did that happen? There was a strange mood in the air, one that Harry did not recognize.

He was about to offer Roy another arrow when the Earl interrupted him. "I'd really like to kiss you."

This was not like losing a bet in poker. It was something very different. And suddenly he realized why he had always been so shy around Roy: It was because he thought him handsome.

Harry did not know what to say or do, so he just stood there holding out the arrow.

"Perhaps another time." The Earl smiled and took the arrow, drawing back the bowstring and taking aim at his target.

♞♘♞♘

When the game was done, they embarked on a walk along the cliffs where the Earl's staff had prepared an elaborate picnic of Scotch eggs, cucumber sandwiches, pork pies, Battenberg cake, scones, quiche, cheese and pickles.

Harry found it somewhat terrifying to eat while staring over the cliffs at his death but the cliffs were the jewels of Pembroke. One only withstood the wind and cold to embrace the heights of nature's majesty.

He was desperate for a chance to speak to Louis privately about what Roy had asked him and find out what he was discussing with the Viscount in the grass, but before he got the chance Frederick linked an arm through his, whisking him away from their lovers dangerously close edge of the rocks.

"Don't you sometimes get the impulse to jump, just for a split second, just to see if you can fly?" Frederick said teetering on his heeled boots.

"The sight of the gorge makes me feel like I'm falling."

Frederick danced on the jagged rocks and Harry held his breath.

"Danger makes me feel alive." He swivelled again making Harry's heart stop.

"What were you and Louis talking about in the grass?"

Frederick inched backwards. "Guess."

"Get down from there," Harry ordered, unamused.

"Not until you guess."

Harry said nothing and Frederick took another step. His heel slipped and he lost his balance. Harry caught him just in the nick of time. He clasped the back of Frederick's blond head to his chest and refused to let go.

Frederick returned his embrace in thanks.

During the picnic Roy and Frederick fed each other grapes and teased the Dukes about their impromptu poetry reading the previous night. Harry was white as a sheet and couldn't eat a single bite. He kept thinking about Roy's hands on his hips and Frederick's head against his chest...

Louis seemed equally pensive, his eyes resting on Harry like he was seeing him for the very first time.

♞♘♞♘

In their bedchamber that night Harry examined the dates in his diary. They had two more nights left in Pembroke before travelling back to Warwick and Somerset respectively.

He placed the pen in the inkwell.

"What were you and Frederick talking about in the grass?"

Louis was lying on his side, propped up on one elbow. "Our past."

"And the present?" Louis didn't answer. "This place makes me feel strange. Like the past and present are the same. Like you and Frederick and Roy are the same."

He twirled a loose thread from the pillowcase around his finger. "Did you kiss Roy?"

How did he know about Roy's question? Had they discussed it?

"No. Would you have been cross if I had?"

"No," Louis answered after a pause.

Harry's stomach flipped. He did not know what this response meant or what he wanted it to mean. Neither of them dared speak their mind for fear stepping out of the bounds of the relationship they had so carefully cultivated. One misplaced word might throw it off its axis.

He touched the pin on his lapel. He had pledged himself to Louis. What he desired was forbidden, yet the very fact that it was forbidden made him desire it all the more, and if his lover desired this too might they stand on the edge of this cliff together?

In the end, it was Harry who picked up the inkwell and paper and sealed their fate.

"It might be congenial to invite the Earl and Viscount for a drink in our bedchamber our last night at Pembroke. A hearty farewell."

Louis eyed him slyly. "Yes, a farewell drink would be most congenial."

Harry sat at the desk and shakily wrote the letter, leaving the details as vague as possible in case he changed his mind, and placed it in an envelope. He dripped the red wax of the candle onto the creamy white stationary and pressed the Somerset family seal in the middle. He rang for Charles. His haughty valet pretended not to see Louis sprawled out on the bed half naked.

Harry handed him the letter. "Deliver this to the Earl's bedchamber tonight."

Casually, Charles mused about its contents. "A message that cannot wait until morning?"

"It's private," Louis snapped.

Charles did not like the sound of this, he did not like it one bit, but dutiful servant that he was, he obliged and did his master's bidding.

♞♘♞♘

Frederick was sitting on Roy's lap in the wingchair distracting the Earl as he cleaned the chambers of his rifle, when they saw the letter slip beneath the door. They stopped and scrambled to read it.

The Viscount touched the Somerset crest before ripping open the envelope and unfurling the letter inside.

Dearest Roy, Earl of Pembroke & Frederick, Viscount Greindl,

The pleasure of your company is requested at Langdon tomorrow night, July seventh, at half past eleven for drinks. We hope you will join us in this toast and hearty farewell before we must regretfully depart the following morning.

Ever your affectionate friends,

Harry, Duke of Somerset & Louis, Duke of Warwick

Roy and Frederick exchanged a perplexed look.

"What does this mean?"

"I think it means they want to bed us," Frederick said rereading the letter for hints.

"By formal invitation?"

Frederick rolled onto his belly and cackled. "Harry scheduled it. Of course he did."

Roy carried Frederick to the bed while the Viscount waved the letter in the air victoriously like a flag.

"Tomorrow night," he cheered.

"Tomorrow night!"

♞♘♞♘

The next morning Harry couldn't have been more awkward while Frederick couldn't have been more excited. The Viscount personally picked fresh flowers for the breakfast table and Roy had the cook prepare all of Louis and Harry's favourite dishes.

Harry somehow found himself seated between both the Viscount and the Earl. When he remarked how lovely everything looked he felt a hand on each thigh.

Later they played croquet in the garden. It was Harry's turn. His ball bounced and rolled in front of the wicket.

"Your ball is blocking my shot," Frederick said, bending over suggestively to swing his mallet.

Harry tripped over a clump of grass and stumbled backward. Their balls clacked and rolled through the wicket together.

After lunch they had planned to hunt pheasant. Harry refused to participate. Louis was, not unexpectedly, a terror. There was not a feather left in the sky when he was through.

Not to be outmatched Roy decided to switch rifles. "Here, hold this one for me," he said to Harry.

The young Duke curled his fingers around the warm barrel and nodded. "It's too large for pheasant."

Roy smirked. "The right size for another quarry I reckon."

Harry's cheeks burned so brightly he thought they might catch fire.

Every conversation was heavy with innuendo every look shared between them filled with longing.

When evening fell and the day's activities were done, they sipped mulled wine and pretended to be engaged in conversation while anxiously watching the clock.

Harry excused himself for a moment and hid in the wine cellar. When Louis went to find him, Harry dragged the Duke inside.

"I haven't thought this through," Harry hissed.

"Thought what through?" Louis was tipsy and eying the bottles of Bordeaux behind him.

"Tonight! I haven't thought tonight through!" Now was not the time to be coy. Too much was at stake. He had to be frank. "What will happen? Who will do what to whom? I don't know how these things work. Don't we need a plan?"

"There is no etiquette regarding this sort of activity, Harry." Louis threw an arm around his shoulder. "Simply do what you feel. Do what brings you pleasure."

Harry did not know what would bring him pleasure in this situation and he was almost afraid to find out.

At half past ten Frederick yawned theatrically. "Well, time to retire," he said dragging Roy off the divan and rushing upstairs.

One hour until the four of them were to meet at Langdon.

Harry changed his clothing four times and settled on his white shirt and breeches, no cravat, which seemed scandalous but given what he was about to embark on, also rather appropriate.

Louis was shirtless and already in an amorous mood, kissing Harry's neck as he lit the candle on the sideboard.

He didn't just have Charles bring up brandy, he also asked for hors d'oeuvres and fruit. His last attempt to keep up the ruse of a "hearty farewell" and try to control the uncontrollable.

At exactly half past eleven the mantle clock chimed. Frederick stepped through the door with hardly a second to spare. "Evening gentlemen."

Harry cleared his throat, "May I interest you in a—"

Frederick threw back the entire glass of brandy before shrugging the shirt off his shoulders and letting it fall to the floor.

They dispelled the notion of Harry's invitation at once. Things were progressing far more quickly than he'd imagined.

The Viscount was kneeling on the bed beckoning him while Louis and Roy sat in the wingchairs across the room watching with brandies in hand.

Harry climbed on the bed, only partially visible to the Duke and the Earl through the gauzy panels of the canopy.

"Hello," Harry whispered conspiratorially.

"Why, hello."

Frederick began simply enough by placing a hand on Harry's shoulder, but Harry was so nervous he froze.

"Don't fret," Frederick said, fingers skating across his collarbone to unbutton the young Duke's shirt. "This is going to be ecstasy, I promise. Do you have oils?"

He did of course but he'd never actually had to discuss this fact aloud with someone who wasn't Louis.

"I've brought some too," the Viscount answered for him.

Since he could not hear what Roy and Louis were whispering about across the room, he gathered they could not hear what he was saying to Frederick.

"I don't know what I want to happen exactly, only that I want it to happen. Does that make sense?"

"Perfect sense."

Frederick sat back and removed his breeches and undergarment before rising up to his knees again. Harry's fingertips grazed his skin. It was white as marble but soft as rose petals. They were friends of a similar size and build, with a sweetness between them that was innocent as it was erotic. Harry's chest rose and fell and, this time, it was he who bravely leaned forward and kissed Frederick's lips.

As prickly as his friend was, he was also a great beauty. Blonde hair curled behind his ears like spun gold and his sapphire blue eyes could have been plucked from very the rings on his fingers. Harry, like Roy and Louis, was not immune to his charms.

The Viscount slipped his hands down the back of Harry's breeches. "Take these off," he whispered.

Right. Harry shifted out of his breeches and undergarment. Now that he was in the nude there was no hiding it. He was roused. Frederick's kiss had roused him.

He could hear heavy breathing and see the faint outline of Roy and Louis through the canopy, touching themselves.

Their lips met again and Frederick reached down to stroke him. His hands were soft and sure, expertly falling into a rhythm that put Harry into a slavish trance, wanting more, more, more... Harry soon found himself thrusting into his palm.

Frederick may have been a lazy aristocrat, but when it came to lovemaking he was a skilled artisan and master of his craft.

This was both the same and very different from being with Louis. He couldn't figure out why until Frederick turned around to reach for the oils.

Harry wanted to mount.

"Frederick," he breathed as he gripped the Viscount's hips and urgently rubbed himself against his pale bottom.

Frederick was used to men trying to mount him at every opportunity and was able to fend Harry off a moment while he poured the oil into his palm.

But just then the canopy parted. Roy stood before them with his trousers unbuttoned and hanging off his hips. He let them drop to the floor and joined the young Duke and the Viscount, the bed dipping down beneath his weight.

Harry almost protested. He was here first! Before he could say a thing Roy guided Frederick's mouth between his legs while Harry watched, wordlessly, more excited than before.

Louis finally showed himself, slinking toward them from the other side of the bed. Frederick's lips hungrily moved from the Earl to the Duke. Louis laced his fingers through the Viscount's blonde hair and sighed blissfully.

Harry watched them all, aroused but not yet knowing his place.

It was Roy who invited him into their circle, wrapping an arm around his waist and repeating the phrase he'd uttered on the windy inland hills. "I'd like to kiss you."

Harry parted his lips.

The Earl kissed him as Frederick took the young Duke in his mouth. Louis stroked himself at the sight. Harry thought he might actually die from pleasure. No, he had thrown himself off the cliffs of Pembroke and was flying.

The time for niceties was over. "Come." Louis fisted Frederick's blonde hair and greedily drew the Viscount's mouth toward him again. "Yes, yes..."

Roy's kiss filled Harry's mouth and he placed the young Duke's hand upon him. "There, that's it... Good," he panted as Harry's fingers curled around him and gently explored his manhood. "You're so sweet," he breathed, "are you always this sweet?"

Harry nodded, his vision blurred, red with lust. All he could hear was panting and moaning, all he could feel was the weight of Roy in his hand and the Earl's tongue pressed deliciously against his own.

He blinked and Roy was on top of him, heavy and wanting. Roy's hand slipped between them. Harry was roused but Roy did not touch his member as he'd hoped. His fingers instead moved lower to Harry's opening.

He gasped.

The Earl stroked him there in a soft circular motion, coaxing him open and Harry's muscles seized with pleasure.

He reached for the oil. Harry was writhing, flushed, driven to near madness with lust. Beside him Louis was lapping at the Viscount's opening, which was now as pink and tender as his own.

With oiled fingers, Roy breached him and Harry cried softly, hips rising off the bed.

Again, he said, "So sweet."

Frederick and Louis stopped, taking a renewed interest in Harry's pleasure.

"Louis," he said, fingers deep inside the boy, "you told me how good he felt but you never mentioned how much he loves it."

Roy carefully removed his fingers and began to rub the oil onto himself.

The mood in the room shifted.

"He doesn't want to," Louis said.

"What do you mean? He's begging for it," Roy argued.

Harry spread, assuring him that he did indeed desire the Earl.

But this assurance did not put the Duke at ease. Petulantly, Louis bent Frederick over and pressed his face into the pillow as he prepared to roughly mount him from behind.

The Earl paused. "You're hurting him," he said sharply.

"No, he's not!" Frederick called, voice muffled by the pillow.

"He's never complained before."

Resentment simmered between the Earl and the Duke, a silent quarrel that Frederick and Harry were not privy to.

Roy broke away from Harry and wrestled Louis off of Frederick. Louis grabbed the Earl's throat with one hand and tried to twist his arm with the other. The two tousled wildly. Harry thought they might kill each other.

Frederick was not alarmed by this fight but rather annoyed. "Will someone just fuck me for heaven's sake!"

They continued to grapple until Roy maneuvered the Duke onto his back and pinned him to the bed.

Harry couldn't determine when it happened exactly but soon their wild flailing turned into rocking, and grunting turned into moans.

Roy was inside him.

While it was true that both Harry and Frederick first belonged to Louis, he had forgotten that Louis had first belonged to Roy.

Harry was jealous, aroused and above all confused.

"What do we do now?" he whispered to Frederick.

The Viscount quickly turned around and parted his thighs, exposing the tender flesh that Louis had licked open.

It took Harry a moment to realize he had Frederick all to himself at last. He seized the opportunity and scrambled to find the oil in the folds of the bed sheet.

"Hurry," Frederick urged, sliding a finger inside himself.

Unlike Roy and Louis who grappled like two Roman gladiators, Harry and Frederick were fine-boned and gentle as lambs. He was relieved to discover that Frederick's body responded to tenderness as well as roughness. Harry kissed his back as he pressed into his silky, pink opening.

He was right. This was ecstasy.

Breathless Harry paused and leaned forward. "Is this good? Are enjoying it?"

"Don't stop!" he hissed.

On the other side of the bed he caught the glint of Louis' eye like a North Star.

He'd never seen him being taken. The Earl was rough but not unloving. Louis had the blush of modesty on his cheeks. It moved Harry.

Deep inside Frederick now, he wrapped an arm beneath his friend and nuzzled his blonde head. For once they weren't exchanging barbs. The Viscount grew docile in his arms and was quite happy to submit.

Meanwhile, Louis and Roy's moans became more desperate like they were in their own corner of the universe where no one could reach them. Roy, big as a cliff, had the Duke pinned beneath his weighty thrusts, his skin slapping against Louis' so hard it left a lovely red mark on the Duke's bottom.

Harry and Frederick, a tangle of long pale limbs, laughed softly as they negotiated different positions. The Viscount enjoyed being on display—on his hands and knees or bouncing on Harry's lap, while Harry preferred to hold his friend while lying on their side, and taking him deeply.

It was while holding him that Frederick's breathing quickened. Harry turned him on his back so he could read his expression as he neared release. Frederick pressed his knees into Harry's shoulders. With his hips slightly elevated, the young Duke indulged and took him as deep as he could making the Viscount sob into the corner of the pillow. Frederick felt so good, and looked debauched spread open and begging for more. How did Louis last so long when he did this? Harry wanted to spill immediately!

They kissed into their open, panting mouths and turned to see Roy and Louis staring fondly. They had finished and Harry was too overcome to notice.

Louis smoothed a hand down his backside as he moved inside their friend. Ever the gentleman, Harry was focused on Frederick's pleasure not his own. Roy brushed the sweaty blonde hair out of his lover's eyes. Frederick arched his back and cried out. The jolt sent a wave of pleasure through Harry's own body and they spilled in tandem.

He fell forward, collapsing on Frederick's chest, and they kissed again and again.

Roy and Louis admired Harry as he fussed over the Viscount afterward, holding him reassuringly, then tidying him up, just as Louis had always done for him.

Frederick felt weak, so Harry drew the sheet over him and offered to rub his back.

Louis gently pulled Harry away by the shoulders. "He's content, darling."

"I'm just going to fluff his pillow."

Louis turned to Roy, "I don't see you fluffing my pillow!"

Roy threw a pillow at Louis' head before drawing the Duke down beside him. "That's because I'm not finished with you yet."

Harry furrowed his brow and placed a hand protectively over Louis' bottom. He'd had quite enough as far as the young Duke was concerned!

Conversation was awkward after two people made love, even more so when the lovemaking involved four.

Harry lit Frederick's cigarette. "I hope I was... to your liking." He was the least experienced of the group and felt his insecurity most keenly.

The Viscount took a long drag and exhaled up at the canopy before levelling his blue gaze at Harry. "I won't be able to ride tomorrow if that's what you're asking."

Harry's chest swelled with pride.

They had to squish together tightly in the bed in order to fit, their nakedness now warm and familiar instead merely arousing. After the night's activities, the men weren't sure who should lie next to whom. It led to some shy fumbling. Once settled, they chatted for an hour or so and were lulled into silence by the whistling of the wind and clapping of the shutters. The candle on the sideboard burned down to the wick and Harry closed his eyes.

It wasn't long before he stirred in his sleep. Someone's breathing hitched in the darkness. Then there was a moan, and another. A hand reached for him beneath the blanket. He didn't know whose but it didn't matter. Forbidden was just another word for desire and he desired all of them...

♞♘♞♘

At dawn Harry reached for the bell and rang Charles out of habit without thinking. His valet came up to Langdon with breakfast and the newspaper and knocked on the door.

Harry was nestled between Louis and Roy half asleep. He tried to get up but the Earl threw a heavy leg overtop him and yawned.

Frederick found all this affection cloying and slept alone like a cat at the foot of the bed. He rose, naked, and answered the door.

The silver tray rattled in the valet's hands.

The Viscount picked at the dish. "Kippers, yuck!"

Charles might have thought he had the wrong room, when he glanced up at the bed to see his master between the Earl and the Duke, naked, in the arms of both men.

"Charles, I can explain!"

He dropped the tray and backed away slowly. If anyone were to jump off the cliffs during this trip it would likely be Charles.

"You really must find new help, Harry." Frederick picked up The Times and stepped over the fallen tray.

They each took a section of the paper and spent a lazy morning in bed. The Earl put an arm around Harry while Frederick placed his head in Louis' lap.

This was bliss.

Louis' friends were not only shadowy lovers from his past, they were part of Harry's past too. The next time they met, they would have the memory of this time together in Pembroke and hopefully make new memories.

After reading aloud the letters to the editor and a few humorous bits in the classifieds, the Viscount sat up and narrowed his eyes.

"Dear God, no."

This piqued their interest and they insisted he read aloud.

"From the servant hall to the symphony. Yorkshire footman makes dashing debut in Tchaikovsky's orchestra." He shook the paper at Harry. "I hope you're satisfied, Duke. This homicidal peasant is now the toast of bloody Moscow!"

Pyotr had outdone himself. In less than a year he had transformed the surly servant into a world-renowned pianist. Remarkable.

He took the paper and examined the article more closely. "Perhaps we should go see him play?"

Louis blanched. "I'd rather appreciate his talents from afar if you don't mind."

He was right, of course. Being in the same room as William again would be no different than surrounding himself with hounds.

Still, Harry wondered what William's life, so profoundly changed, looked like. Was he finally content? And as Harry glanced at his bedfellows, he thought, could anyone on Earth possibly be as content as he was in this moment?

Chapter Text

William was a servant during his first visit to Moscow. On his second visit, he was a prodigy.

His entire life he had been taught to make himself invisible, to silently serve his master, now he was expected to be seen and most importantly heard. Gone too were the lavish palaces that he stayed in when he travelled with the Duke. Pytor Tchaikovsky lived modestly in a small but handsome flat near the Bolshoi.

William slept in the guest quarters, reserved for the composer's most promising pupils. He rose early every morning, shined his shoes, ironed his shirt, and recited the same mantra: I am a different person. I will never again be who I once was.

Pyotr rose even earlier. He was awake before dawn.

The composer was mounting his eighteenth opus, The Tempest, a symphonic fantasia in F minor, after the Shakespeare play. It consumed him.

This was very different from his life with the Duke, who didn't work and slept in past noon. Pyotr valued discipline and routine above all things.

He would not even take a carriage to the theatre. He walked. In the bitter cold. It was, again, part of his routine.

They passed St. Clement's, the church's five domes dusted with snow, and the bronze monument to Minin and Pozharsky in the Red Square. A dove perched on Minin's hand, which extended proudly towards the Moscow Kremlin.

William stood shivering, even in his new cloak and fur hat. Pyotr asked him if he would prefer to take a carriage and hailed a coachman. But when the horse drew near, it became spooked and let out a fearful neigh.

The boy spent his days training at the conservatory where Pyotr once taught, and his nights at the Bolshoi watching from the rafters as Pytor's colleague, Nikolai, conducted the orchestra. The composer paced backstage with a critical ear. He never clapped. The slightest deviation from his score drove him mad.

He took a keen interest in William's studies and kept a close eye on his progress. At the composer's request, the boy would play for him every night.

One evening, during supper, Pyotr put down his fork and knife and asked William to play a piece from The Tempest.

Out of sheer terror of disappointing him, William played the piece without any mistakes.

"You're performing with my orchestra tomorrow night."

He nearly fell of the bench. "I'm not ready!"

"The pianist from St. Petersburg that Nikolai recommended is a philistine."

"He's wonderful!"

"You're better."

He didn't say this to flatter William. He said it because he believed it was true. He only spoke the truth when it came to his work, and his work came first. Always.

***

In the box seats, princes, counts and barons peered through their opera glasses and pointed at him. Any change at the Bolshoi was fodder for the court. They were hungry for gossip and the theatre was their hunting ground.

The performance went well by his estimation. He did not deviate. He played each piece exactly as Pyotr wished. Each section of the orchestra rose to take a bow. When it was William's turn, he looked in the wings. The composer was clapping.

It was only when the lights went up in the theatre that he realized just how many eyes were upon him. He prayed that his crimes in England never surfaced.

But of course they already had.

"I hear he murdered the Viscount in a jealous rage."

"No, it was the Duke."

"I believe he shot him dead."

"You're both wrong. He chopped him into tiny pieces and fed him to the hounds."

I am ruined, he thought miserably, but in Russia it was not uncommon to murder a foe. It seemed that every other evening there was talk of one noble attempting to poison another. It only made him more intriguing. Ladies invited him to play in their parlour rooms, and men to play in their gentlemen's clubs.

Everyone wanted to hear the murderous boy from England play.

William felt shame at being marked a monster for their amusement. Pyotr must have heard the whispers but never dared mention it. Only once did he let on that he knew.

It was the night William played for the Countess Zhukovsky and her friends. Russian women were more striking than any he had ever met in England, their fashions bolder and their tongues more cunning. Perched on her settee with a sly smile she said that his playing was "positively sinful." Behind their painted fans, her friends erupted in a fit of giggles. To them his life was no more than a delicious little scandal that they nibbled on alongside their teacakes. He bowed and gathered his sheet music quickly to avoid bringing further embarrassment to the composer.

They walked home in snowy silence, laughter still ringing in his ears, when Pyotr turned to him and said. "I am proud to know you."

William's black eyes shone with tears.

***

When spring came, it was time for Pytor to retreat to his country house in Klin, a village northwest of Moscow. This little blue house was where he liked to compose. He planned to complete Swan Lake and oversee William's studies.

Despite living and working together, they had not spent much time alone in Moscow. Between the conservatory, the Bolshoi and social functions they scarcely had time to eat and sleep.

With the spring weather, the snow finally melted and wildflowers bloomed. Like the change in seasons, William's feelings for Pyotr went from admiration to deep affection.

He was touched to discover that Pyotr had prepared a room for him. In Moscow he slept in the guest quarters. In Klin, he found a fine lacquered trunk made of pine with his initials carved into the front. He placed his Russian lessons inside along with a stack of sheet music from the conservatory. There was a new bed with fresh linens, and light country clothing hanging in the wardrobe.

"This is your home now," Pytor said, disappearing before William could even thank him.

The house was small with a single maid to cook and maintain the household. Her name was Kseniya. She had a son around William's age and pecked after him like he was one of her own chicks. He couldn't quite pronounce her name and called her Ks'na.

To William's disbelief, the composer maintained his stringent routine even in the country. He rose before dawn, had tea in the solarium, which he called "the torch room," composed for an hour, then he would go for a walk in the woods, before returning to compose again until supper and head directly to bed. Unlike the habits of his previous master who lived to entertain, Pyotr's creative process demanded complete solitude. When he could not compose, he was prone to melancholy.

William practiced on the piano in the salon and later studied at the small bureau in his bedchamber. Sometimes Pytor would stand and watch him work. A smile or nod of approval filled him with pride.

One evening at supper, while spooning borscht into his mouth, William felt emboldened.

"May I accompany you on your walk tomorrow?"

The composer dropped his spoon.

"This isn't Moscow, Ptichka. There's nothing to see."

"Then why do you do it?"

"To be alone with my thoughts."

"I'd like to be with your thoughts."

He blinked. Nobody had ever said such a thing to him.

"You have your studies."

"Ks'na said I could go if I finished early."

"I said no such thing. Eat your beets." Kseniya shook her head. She thought the boy precocious.

Pyotr didn't say yes but he didn't say no either.

The next day, William followed him down the pebbled footpath through the garden. It was on these very paths that he dreamed his last three symphonies. William kept up with his brisk pace. The composer shaved his beard in the summer months and his hair had lightened in the sun. His skin too became golden, which made his eyes appear bluer.

Occasionally, the composer stopped to look at the gillyflowers or watch red berries sway in the Ash trees and their arms would brush up against each other.

"I don't speak on my walks."

"Oh, neither do I," William said, trying to be agreeable, though he had so much he wanted to say, his chest ached.

When it was time for tea, William took the tray from the maid. "I'll serve it, Ks'na."

She swatted him with the dishtowel. "Pest!"

Pytor was startled to see the boy set down the tray beside his papers. "You don't need to do that, Ptichka. You are not a servant anymore."

He put a hand on the man's shoulder. "I want to."

Flustered, the composer splashed tea on the saucer before bringing the cup to his lips.

That evening at supper William tried to guess the reason for the composer's aloofness. He preferred men. His tryst with the Duke made that quite clear. Was he still heartbroken? Did he think William ill bred? Too plain? No, the composer's eyes betrayed his fondness even if his words did not. Or perhaps he thought William too young? Pytor was over a decade older. William's youth never bothered the footmen at Warwick who passed him around like table wine, but Pytor was a good man, he might have thought it unseemly to seduce a boy.

When Kseniya left the room, he took his chance and whispered, "My birthday was last week."

"And you didn't think to tell me?"

William had never celebrated his birthday before so it hadn't occurred to him.

Pyotr dabbed the napkin on his lips. "What shall I get you?"

"I'm seventeen now. A man."

"A new cloak. You're always shivering. Though, if you put on some weight, you wouldn't be quite so cold all the time."

He placed a hand on the composer's knee. "Pyotr, I don't want a new cloak."

The composer looked at his hand and then looked up at William's face. Slowly, he rose from the table. "I don't think you should play for me tonight, Ptichka. You're tired."

Upstairs, William sobbed into his pillow, humiliated. Months ago he had nothing to look forward to but death and now he had all the happiness in the world except for the one thing that would make him happiest. To come so close to love and go without was worse than having no love at all.

He retrieved a piece of stationary from his bureau and began to compose a letter in his rudimentary Russian.

He swore to himself he would not make the same mistakes he made with the Duke, but he was hopeless.

Dearest Pyotr,

I am in agony without your affection. Every day you do not kiss me is torture of the cruellest kind. You saved my life but I would prefer death to a life without your love.

Yours eternally,

Ptichka

It may have been a touch dramatic.

He read and reread the letter, the thick ink blots from his uneven handwriting as wet as his tears.

What was he doing? This was madness. He would not debase himself the way he did with the Duke. I am a different person. I will never again be who I once was.

If Pyotr did not love him, he would find a way to be content with the many gifts he was kind enough to bestow upon him. How greedy he had been to expect more!

Don't ruin this, he said to himself, you will never know kindness like this again. He may not have had the composer's heart, but he had his respect, which was more than anyone else had ever given him.

He was lucky Pyotr could even stomach him after all of the terrible things he had done. Pyotr was a decent man. It must have secretly shamed him to hear the rumours about William at court. That's why he could never love him and why no one good ever would.

William crumpled the letter into a ball and threw it in the wastebasket. He fell asleep on his tear soaked pillow but his eyes were dry now and his heart resigned.

The next day, he was up with the rooster. He waited to hear the sound of Pyotr's slippers swishing against the floorboards before creeping down to the torch room.

Instead of serving Pyotr his tea, he decided to sit at the piano and practice.

Kseniya patted William on the head.

Later, he did not join Pyotr on his walk but dashed upstairs to his room to study until supper.

At supper, he only spoke when spoken to. He described his practice and the pieces he found difficult. When they'd exhausted the subject, Pyotr asked how he was enjoying Klin. "Do you still like living here? With me?" Once again, William deflected and said it was the perfect place to study. The solitude and fresh air were most agreeable.

This seemed to satisfy the composer. William had proven that he could fit seamlessly into his routine. He would be no bother.

Their days passed without difficulty. Until one morning when he went down to practice, and Kseniya interrupted him. She said that Pyotr wanted to see him in the torch room. He suspected this might have to do with his Capriccioso in B-flat major. A new piece he wanted William to learn.

He entered the room and saw a crumpled piece of paper smoothed out on the composter's desk.

"I found this in your room."

It was all there under his hand, William's dark heart brutally exposed.

"Did you write this letter?"

Shame burned through him. It was done. History was repeating itself. He could not overcome his past. He would forever be the lovesick monster.

"Ptichka?"

He did not answer. What could he even say?

He ran.

Out of the house, along the footpath, past the Ash trees. So fast, he thought his lungs would give out.

He ran until he broke the soles of his calfskin boots, until the sun burned his pale skin and the flies bit his ankles.

He did not know how long he was gone. Hours passed but the humiliation was still as fresh as a cut. Soon he was on the outskirts of Klin. The sun had set over the fields of cotton grass and it was getting cold. He was in his light country clothes and shivered.

In the end his physical discomfort outweighed his pride.

He came back after nightfall, when he was sure the house was asleep. He would have to pack his bag and leave for Moscow in the morning. Surely he could not survive such humiliation. He would not make a burden of himself. He'd rather beg on the street than shame Pyotr.

He found a note on his bed with just a single sentence:

I feel the same.

In all his speculating about why Pyotr did not pursue him, there was one possibility William had not considered.

The composer was shy.

He crept out of the room and softly knocked on Pyotr's door. "Come in." The composer was still dressed in his waistcoat and trousers, pacing the room. How were two shy people ever supposed to discuss their feelings much less become lovers?

He put a hand over his heart, relieved. "You came back. I was so worried."

"I read your note," William said.

"Oh, well, I—I meant it," he stammered.

If you mean it then why don't you kiss me! William screamed inside his head. Why don't you invite me into your room, into your bed! Why are we acting like strangers when we both feel the same!

He wanted to march inside that room and throw his arms around Pyotr's neck but he couldn't enter his master's room uninvited.

He went back to his own room and waited with the door open in case Pyotr found the courage to enter. If he had, William didn't hear him for he was soon fast asleep.

The next morning William wordlessly served the composer his tea as he continued work on Swan Lake. Pyotr revised the second act's allegro moderato until lunch and scribbled "Dance of the Little Swans" in the margins.

William practiced the fifth piece from the composer's nineteenth opus. Capriccioso. And again, wordlessly accompanied him on his walk. Everything was just as the composer liked it. Nothing was to deviate from his routine, for better or worse. William may have been trapped in a life of poverty and servitude but Pyotr created his own cage with the routines he established for himself. He was no more free than William had been at Warwick.

After supper, William sat at the piano and played for the composer while he observed from his leather wingchair. His eyes rested comfortably on William's youthful features as he listened to his own composition.

William had an idea.

He changed it.

Capriccioso was to be played in B-flat major and he played it in G-sharp.

Pyotr nearly dropped his pipe. "What are you doing, Ptichka?"

"Playing your Capriccioso."

"That is NOT my Capriccioso."

William's hands came down heavily on the keys and Pyotr rose from his chair. The sound of one of his compositions played in a way that wasn't precisely how he wanted was sacrilege. He rapped William's knuckles with his walking stick. It stung like the bite of a horsefly.

Defiantly, the boy sniffed and continued to play his own variation.

"Stop this!"

"Why?"

Pyotr couldn't take any more. He put his hands on William to remove him from the bench. William shrugged him off, bashing out the notes that sent the composer into a certifiable frenzy.

Pyotr pried William's fingers off the keys one by one then wrestled the boy onto the ground and straddled him, panting.

He knew it. Pyotr didn't want a well-behaved pupil. He wanted a bad one, a very, very bad one. He'd spent all this time trying to appeal to the composer's good nature, but it was darkness that bound them. William was his Black Swan.

He felt the roughness of Pyotr's stubble against his cheek.

William's heart leapt.

"Will you play it in B-flat?" the composer murmured in his ear.

"No."

He got up and sat at the piano bench, guiding William onto his knee. "Then I will play it for you. Sit."

He played his Capriccioso and William listened, his fingers mischievously wandering back to the keys. Pyor swatted his hands away and rested his chin on William's shoulder as the notes rose and fell beneath his touch.

William thought to himself, I am sitting on the lap of the most famous composer in the world while he plays me his Capriccioso. Forget the Duke, I'm a fucking prince.

He played well into the night, until the candle on top of the piano went out in a ribbon of smoke. William shut his eyes, though he insisted he wasn't tired. He wanted the composer to keep playing. Pyotr lifted the boy off the bench and carried him, like a bride, upstairs over the threshold to his room and set him down gently on the bed.

William had led a simple life with few pleasures but he was convinced that this was the most romantic thing that had happened to anyone, ever.

Pyotr unlaced the boy's shoes and rolled down his knee socks.

"This is the best night of my life," William whispered.

His eyes fell again and when they did, he felt Pyotr's lips upon his. His eyes opened and the composer looked away shyly.

"Sleep well, Ptichka."

***

The next morning, William flew downstairs to make Pyotr his tea.

He spied on the composer from the kitchen with his back against the wall and a sugar cube between his teeth.

"He hasn't yet taken a sip," he complained.

Kseniya was sitting on a stool in the corner shelling beans. "You should pay less attention to his tea and more attention to your studies."

"Yes, well, I need his guidance, don't I?" he snapped.

Without looking up, she said, "You need church."

"Has he had many pupils?"

"Yes."

"Boys?"

"Yes." Then the knowing maid bit into one of the beans. "But you're the only one he's brought to Klin."

Suddenly the composer's voice boomed from the torch room. "William!"

He strolled over to the bureau, whistling innocently. "Whatever is the matter?"

"You find this amusing do you?"

He feigned confusion.

"I take my tea with one sugar."

"Oh dear! I forgot. I take mine with five." He still had the sugar cube in his cheek. "I like it sweet."

When Kseniya had her back turned in the kitchen, Pyotr wrapped an arm around his waist and pressed him up against the bureau.

"Do make me another cup."

William wondered what he would have to do to bed him. Burn the house down?

But he underestimated Pyotr's hunger. Now that their little game had begun, the composer had overcome his shyness and began to play along.

William accompanied him on his walk that afternoon and shouted and sang at the top of his lungs.

"Hush! This is my quiet time, you devil!"

William ignored his protests and hopped on his back. Pyotr carried him laughing until he collapsed and rolled into the tall grass.

Beneath the fiery Russian sun they passed a canteen of water between them and told each other their secrets.

William plucked a blade of grass and traced it along Pyotr's bottom lip.

"Why did you not leave me at the conservatory for the summer? You've never brought any other pupil to Klin. Ks'na told me."

His dark eyes watched the composer's face redden. "You know why."

"But surely, there must have been other boys. Why me and not them?"

"There have been none like you."

He pondered this. "White swans, I suppose."

"Ducks, really."

William fell on his chest and cackled.

Pyotr grew serious again. "Please don't break my heart."

"Only if you promise not to break mine."

***

The senses are heightened when one is in love. William was sensitive to every sound: footfall on the floorboards, paper rustling on the oak bureau, wind sweeping through the trees. Berries tasted sweeter, cream richer. When he played Pyotr's compositions the notes reverberated through his body like he was being touched by the composer himself.

One afternoon he accidentally transposed a note in the concerto he was practicing. This wasn't part of their game but an honest mistake. Pyotr was listening. He placed a book back on the shelf, removed his waistcoat and rolled up the cuffs of his sleeves. "Come."

He sat on the bench and lifted William onto his lap. He played with one hand, a simple arrangement, only the melody. William had never heard anything lovelier.

With his other hand he touched William's bare thigh.

His stomach flipped.

Switching to scales, Pyotr slid his hand up William's pleated shorts. "Remember to arch your fingers when you play." His hand inched further. "If you practice scales as I instructed, your fingers will instinctively know where to go when you see parts of a scale in a piece of music."

When his hand finally reached the treasure between his legs, William sighed, his head lolling on the composer's shoulder.

"Arpeggios, in particular, are a good way to memorize basic chords."

William's hips rocked on his lap making the bench squeak.

"Shhhh," the composer warned as he caressed him.

He stilled his hips, but it felt too good and he braced himself on the piano, hands smashing the keys.

Kseniya stirred in the kitchen.

"Don't stop," he pleaded.

"Upstairs." He guided him by the hand, William anxiously tripping up the steps behind him.

They tiptoed into his bedchamber, humble in its furnishings but rich in genius, priceless compositions scattered on his desk and bound in leather on the shelves. Pages of Swan Lake lay on the bed. Act Three. Entrée and adage from the Black Swan pas de deux. Even the darkest souls could find love for one night. William could have kissed those pages and wept.

Pyotr moved in on him now like the hunter drawing back his bow. "Take off these clothes," he breathed, tugging on William's shirt collar. He did as he was told with a faint blush, then folded the fine linen clothes that Pyotr had given him and set them on top of a wooden chair in the corner, neatly placing his calfskin boots on the floor beside them.

He had no right to modesty after the life that he had led, the men that he had bedded. But like their kiss the night he played the Capriccioso, everything with Pyotr felt like the first time.

Pyotr explored William's body with his fingertips. He'd managed to put a bit of weight on his thin frame since arriving in Klin. The composer was pleased with his figure.

"You're turn." William reached out and began undo the buttons on his shirt.

"Ptichka..."

He pushed the shirt off of the composer's broad shoulders. He was handsome in the way that artists and intellectuals often don't know that they are, too busy trying to create beauty to recognize it in himself. William swept the light hair that had fallen on his brow and held his master's face in his hands.

Pyotr was not like the Duke, who enjoyed dozens of lovers. He was afraid to indulge his deepest desires. Afraid of having his heart broken. Afraid for his youthful lover's dignity. Pyotr eyed William's small frame with worry.

"I don't want to hurt you."

Physical pain didn't scare him, he was only ever afraid of his feelings being wounded.

But the composer struggled with his guilt.

William lay on the small bed naked, his heart bare. He gave of himself with such genuine affection that Pyotr couldn't refuse him even if he tried.

He removed his trousers and slid his undergarment down his legs to the floor. He was... large. This made them both nervous. After some searching he found a vial of oil in a hutch by the window. He drew the blue curtains closed.

William's heart was pounding with excitement. For the first time in his life he didn't wish he were born someone else, somewhere else. His suffering and sins had led him to this exact moment and he wouldn't trade a minute of it.

He unfurled his long legs and Pyotr lay between them.

He was heavy. William liked the feel of his weight upon him.

Pyotr's kiss was pointed now, not shy. He could no longer deny what he wanted and how badly he wanted it. He was roused, pressed against the milky white of William's thigh. The boy reached down and guided him inside.

There was some discomfort as the composer breached him but he was very careful. He did not insert himself entirely, only as much as William's body would yield to him. No one had ever been so careful. He had tears in his eyes at being treated with such kindness.

"Am I hurting you?"

He wiped the tears with the back of his hand and shook his head.

As Pyotr moved inside the boy, he whispered words of passion, some William understood, some he did not but they all sounded like poetry in his gruff voice.

With any other man, William would have made the obligatory noises, but Pyotr was above such flattery, he could read William's pleasure his pink cheeks and trembling lips, the way the boy's fingers curled at the nape of his neck, and the rise and fall of his chest, which was still, at the age of seventeen, fragile as a bird's.

Untouched, his manhood swelled between them and dripped onto his naked belly. This excited Pyotr, whose features darkened the way they did in the wings of the Bolshoi when hearing the effect of his own music. He lifted Willam's leg over his shoulder and kissed his ankle.

William's body finally yielded and he felt at once, split apart and entirely whole.

"No, it's too deep. I'm going to..."

But this was Pyotr's symphony. Thrusting inside him, he brought the boy to an earth-shaking crescendo.

Hair slickened and painted on his face, William turned and gasped into the pillow.

Pyotr wrapped William's long legs around his waist and found his own release, hidden deeper still within the boy. This was too much. Pyotr soothed him, ever the encouraging master, "That's it, good, you take it so well."

Tender and weak, William clung to his neck scarcely breathing.

When it happened, it was hot and violent as the birth of the sun, every look and unspoken word, every desire Pyotr ever harboured for anyone finally realized in this one boy, in this one moment.

Later, when they had untangled their bodies, William tried to express himself, but couldn't find the Russian words, or the English ones for that matter. He tried to hold the composer but he was too sore, his limbs falling limply by his side.

Pyotr kissed his forehead. He didn't need to say anything at all. Pyotr knew.

***

William fell into a deep afternoon sleep. He dreamt he was back at Warwick but the manor was gone. The land was simply forest and grass, untouched by man, as pristine as the day God made it. He saw a white mare with a black mark between her eyes. Albertine? She trotted toward him and bowed her snowy head. He raised his hand to pet her, when suddenly, she looked up, only now it wasn't the mare at all but the Duke of Warwick with a gash across his neck and blood flowing down the column of his white throat.

"Ptichka?"

He opened his eyes. His brow pricked with sweat. He'd slept away the afternoon in a fever dream until nightfall.

Strange how waking up to the dark could feel more comforting than waking up to the light.

"You were dreaming." Pyotr was loosely dressed in an unbuttoned shirt and trousers. He pressed a hand to William's forehead, which was warm and damp. "Here, Kseniya's asleep. I prepared it myself."

William never imagined he would have a master who prepared him a meal.

"Come now, eat. It's been hours since we lunched. You're too thin!"

He tore into the bread and dipped it into the broth. It was a regional peasant dish but he had never tasted anything better. He gobbled it up at once. They talked softly in the candlelight, their passion a low flame that once again began to flicker and rise.

"You have nightmares. I sometimes hear you scream in the night."

"I'm haunted by the things I've done." He hung his head. "I've travelled thousands of miles. Will I ever be able to outrun my past?"

The composer looked at him quizzically.

"Outrun it?" He handed William a cup of berry wine. "Your sins are your greatest gift as an artist. Use them in your work."

William shook his head and laughed. "You're so Russian."

"Well, yes," he said before realizing it was a joke. "Ptichka, that was very amusing!" He ruffled the boy's hair.

An owl perched on a tree outside the window, spread its large wings and took flight. He did not know what to do now that it was night time but Pyotr valued his routine above all things and this was not part of it. He likely did not want to be disturbed. William rose to go to his own room when the composer took his hand drew him back into bed.

"Stay."

"But what about your routine? Tea, composing, your walk and-"

"My routine is, tea, composing, my walk and Ptichka."

***

When fall came they were sad about moving back to the city but excited too. William began preparing for Pyotr's sixth symphony and back in his flat, he shared the composer's bed. The guest room remained empty.

Leaning over the keys, William arched his fingers and waited for Nikolai to conduct the orchestra. As he waved his baton the boy struck the keys. The deep notes rose like the dead beneath his hands. He conjured his darkest memories. A mare, a dagger, a Duke, blood and guilt, a guilt so heavy it was as though the weight of it pressed down on the ivory keys and not his fingers. He pounded out the final notes his curls damp and falling into his black eyes.

The entire theatre jumped to their feet with applause.

After the performance, he wandered backstage at the Bolshoi with a satchel of sheet music, shaking hands with the string section and sipping kvass. Pyotr was entertaining prominent patrons and thanking them.

Over his shoulder he heard Princess Dagmar, future Empress consort, discussing the symphony with the Countess Zhukovsky.

Behind their fans they whispered, "Splendid pianist."

"Divine."

"Have you heard the rumours about him?"

"Oh no, what's he done?"

"He's positively devilish."

"Do tell."

"They say he's Pyotr Tchaikovsky's lover."