Gloucestershire, May, 1818
As Rose Hall looms into view through the carriage window, Duke Aegir feels the old twinge in his knee return. Three years on, he’s learned to trust it as a portent of rain, ill tidings, or quite often, both. Much as he’s eager to see his old friend, the Count of Gloucester, he can’t help but suspect this visit can only end in disaster.
“What’s that heavy sigh for, Aegir?” Countess Varley asks from beside him, giving him a gentle nudge at the side of his green brocaded waistcoat. “It’s far too early in the day for gloomy ruminations.”
“I’m not gloomy,” Ferdinand protests. “Or ruminating.”
Countess Varley and her companion, the esteemed opera singer Dorothea Arnault, exchange a knowing look.
“Fine. But I assure you, I am not ruminating on anything in particular.” He glances out the carriage window. “General ruminations are permitted on a lengthy carriage ride.”
Bernadetta smiles at that. Her bright hair is set in violet ringlets that frame her face, and he is heartened to see what a lovely young woman she has become in the past few years, even as her confidence grew. As all their confidence grew, really, once the gloomy spectre of scandal had passed them by. “Fair enough,” she says. “But I hope you’ll cheer up once we arrive. It should be a lively crowd gathered tonight—Count Gloucester has excellent taste in friends.”
“I hear he’s invited an Ottoman prince,” Dorothea says.
Bernadetta fans herself with a delicate white lace fan. “And that Hanover princess—the one everyone was making a fuss over last season? When her betrothed quite abruptly passed away.”
Ferdinand whistles, low. “Ah, yes, I recall that scandal. I shall have to watch my wine glass carefully.”
Bernadetta and Dorothea both giggle at that. “They say,” Bernadetta continues, “that she is member of a secret society, in league with other Hanovers, French, and more. One set against the crown. But I am sure it is just more gossip.”
Ferdinand frowns. “That would be very dangerous gossip, if true.” As Bernadetta well should know.
“Well, she may prove a useful ally to our little circle, all the same.”
They descend into uneasy silence, and Ferdinand stretches his right leg out and works his thumb against the knotted muscle just north of his knee. Three years, and he’s gotten no better at easing the tension in it. Not the way he used to, steady gloved hands somehow melting the pain away as that cold gaze turned impossibly soft. Impossible to resist. As if the duke’s officer’s tent had been its own little world, far away from blood and strife and prying eyes, and so long as they were together, nothing else could intrude.
But reality had intruded, and all too soon. By the time Ferdinand’s cavalry unit was preparing to advance on Waterloo, the dark-haired spymaster had evaporated, like the shadow he was, and Ferdinand had been left with nothing but the reminder of the world they really inhabited.
A world he and his companions are devoted to changing, but progress is excruciatingly slow.
“Ferdie?” Bernadetta asks softly, thankfully interrupting his thoughts as the carriage comes to a stop. “Would you like help getting down?”
It’s humiliating, he thinks, his late father’s voice intrusive and sour. A true lord, a decorated war hero no less, should never need rely on anyone else—and certainly not a woman. But as Ferdinand’s nerves fire in agony as he bends his leg back into place, he takes respite in the knowledge his traitorous father is gone—and with him, the old way of things.
She smiles, and climbs out the other side with Dorothea, then circles round to help steady Ferdinand as he steps out of the cab and steadies himself on his walking cane. The spring day is bright and merry around them as he takes in the grounds of Rose Hall—nary a cloud in sight. Surely his leg must be mistaken.
No servants file out to greet them, but that’s no surprise. Like Ferdinand himself, Count Gloucester did away with much of his household staff upon his father’s death, retaining only those he could pay a living wage and, crucially, could trust for their discretion. Since the wicked crimes of their forebears were exposed, they have all of them been stumbling their way toward self-sufficiency even as they do their best to bring about a new order in the House of Lords. For all their idiosyncrasies, Ferdinand is grateful to have found allies like Bernadetta and Lorenz.
It's quite a full life they have made for themselves, all things considered. And if the sting of loneliness finds its way into Ferdinand’s heart in the chill of night, then perhaps it’s only a small price to pay.
They enter Rose Hall, a bright, open country estate, at least compared to many of its peers, and make their way toward the parlor, where Lorenz’s guests are assembled across numerous seating clusters. A pale-haired woman Ferdinand doesn’t recognize plays a progression of watery chords on the fortepiano, while Lorenz lounges on the divan, his arm slung dangerously close to his conversation partner, a dark-haired, olive-skinned man in an opulent suit of rough silk. At their entrance, though, Lorenz bounds to his feet and clasps his hands together.
“Oh, splendid!” he exclaims, in his usual curlicue tone. “We are all assembled at last. Your journey was comfortable, I trust?”
“Pleasant enough,” Dorothea says, and drops into a curtsey before him. “Dorothea Arnault. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Count Gloucester.”
“Charmed, my lady. I am so glad you could join us for this more intimate evening, in advance of tomorrow night’s ball.” With a polite bow, he turns toward Ferdinand, and his smile breaks wide. “Ferdie. My dearest friend.”
Before Ferdinand can protest, Lorenz has wrapped him in a hearty embrace, and Ferdinand’s knee buckles in protest; his cane is knocked aside. “Lorenz—” he cries, and makes an undignified claw for his friend’s waistcoat to keep himself upright.
Lorenz steps back, but keeps a firm grip on Ferdinand’s forearms to hold him upright. “Oh, Ferdie. I’m so terribly sorry—I didn’t think—”
In a blur, Lorenz and Bernadetta both are ushering Ferdinand to a chaise longue, and stretching his bad leg out quite against his fervent protests. “Better?” Bernadetta asks, and Ferdinand nods—mostly to get them to leave him alone. But instead they insist on staying crowded around them, pecking like mother hens.
“Now, you just sit, and I’ll introduce you to everyone,” Lorenz is saying, as Ferdinand grits his teeth against the pain. “This is Prince Claude, on an extended sabbatical from Ottoman—and you know Countess Ordelia—this is the Hanover Princess Edelgard von Hresvelg, we are quite delighted to make her infamous acquaintance at last—and, oh, blast, where did he go—”
“He needs space to breathe,” a cool voice says, prying through the chaos around Ferdinand like an oyster knife. “Salve. Ice from the icebox, if you have one.”
Ferdinand’s head clears, and a singular, throbbing pain drowns out all the rest as he looks up toward the speaker. Pale skin pearlescent against a dark waistcoat and jacket; raven hair cascading over one side of his face so that only one vicious, peridot eye is exposed. The smile perched on elegant lips trembles with barely suppressed contempt.
But it’s a face Ferdinand knows too well. For in the depths of their drive toward Waterloo, he spent countless nights memorizing it: with his eyes, with his fingertips, with his mouth. More than he cares to admit—with his heart. Until he vanished completely without so much as a farewell.
“Ah, yes, there you are. The Princess von Hresvelg’s guest. Marquis Vestra, is it not?” Lorenz asks.
And the intelligence officer Ferdinand knew only as Hubert cuts his eyes away with a huff before offering a curt bow.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Vestra says.
Belgium, June, 1815
Ferdinand looks from the urgent missive he’d received by military courier from the Duke of Wellington that morning to the letter of introduction the mystery man has just handed him. Grudgingly, he must concede they are a match. “’An officer conducting matters of the utmost urgency on behalf of the Crown,’” he quotes, then stares at the dour-faced man standing before him. “That is quite a lot of words to convey very little information.”
The man takes the letter of introduction back from Ferdinand, and his glove-clad hand vanishes it into an unseen pocket. “Yes, General, that would rather be the idea.”
Around them, General Aegir’s cavalry unit slogs through the rain and mud, struggling to erect tents and makeshift stables in the rapidly deteriorating Belgian field. He should be out there with his men, and not cowering in his tent, but if he doesn’t let his knee heal up, he won’t be of any use to them where it matters. He laces his hands before himself and regards the man coolly. He is handsome, Ferdinand must admit, but with sharp edges of smugness that he suspects would make him quite a challenge to handle. Not that Ferdinand’s ever backed down from a challenge before.
—S’blood, if that isn’t the last thing he needs to be considering right now. “Well, I trust that whatever shadowy business you must attend to, you can do so without distracting my troops.”
“And what of you, General?” the man asks, his tone silky yet venomous. “I would hate to distract you, but you do not appear to be occupied at present.” He glances over his shoulder. “Unlike the rest of your men.”
Ferdinand’s fist tightens on the desk before him. “I am recovering from an injury sustained in our skirmish outside Ligny. I assure you, no one is more frustrated by my indolence than I am.”
The man’s shoulders ease somewhat at that, but that suspicious look remains. “My condolences.” He folds his hands behind his back. “Very well. If my paperwork is in order, then I shall leave you to your—ah, recuperating—”
“Join me for supper,” Ferdinand blurts, before he himself is aware of what he is doing. Yet the look of genuine shock on the man’s face is reward in itself—he’s managed to catch him off-guard after all. “I . . . I like to take the measure of the men in my unit. Even if this is only a temporary embed.”
“And the idleness really is going to your head, I imagine,” he says, smirking. “Very well, General, if that is your wish.”
He starts to turn, then spins back. One black leather-gloved palm presses onto the desk, dangerously close to Ferdinand’s own, and he leans forward, harsh eyes all but glowing in the poor light. “Or do you prefer Duke, now?”
Ferdinand swallows, but refuses to lean away.
“Ferdinand Aegir. Eldest of the late duke, one of the seven lords found guilty of high treason and conspiracy against the crown, executed at the Tower just last month. How fortunate for you, considering there had been some discussion between you and your father of late as to whether or not he would allow you to inherit his duke’s coronet.”
“That is not—”
“He was quite disdainful of your habit of rejecting his attempts to arrange your marriage to any number of suitable young ladies, I understand. And yet here you are. The duke. Unwed. Commanding your own cavalry unit. And none questioning your loyalty to the crown, or the traditions it upholds.”
Ferdinand is breathless, as if he’s just run several miles; he knows there is some manner of threat in the man’s words, but he can’t yet find the goal behind it. The matter of his father’s treason is well-known, but it has never been a secret that their relationship was fraught. As for the matter of his bachelorhood—it is less unusual given the ongoing campaigns for many years to stem Napoleon’s tide. It is only after the war, God willing that there is such a time, that he will have to find a more permanent excuse. But if this is the man’s way of letting Ferdinand know that he sees him for who and what he is—
“Some of us,” Ferdinand says, “would rather effect change through cooperation rather than opposition. In any case—I fail to see how any of that is your concern.”
The man’s smile widens, calling to mind a Tower raven stretching its wings. He pushes off of the desk and straightens back up. “You wished to take my measure, did you not?” he asks. “I thought it only fair to let you know that I have taken yours.”
Ferdinand’s pulse is a wardrum in his ears. “And what did you find?” he asks.
The man pauses, already at the mouth of Ferdinand’s tent; his gloved hand caresses the tied-up flap. Finally, he looks back over his shoulder.
“That I should like to join you for supper.”
“And how is it,” Count Gloucester asks, waving a fork skewered with steak, “that a Hanover princess came to be allied with the Marquis Vestra? You’ll forgive me, Marquis, but I scarcely remember hearing a word out of Vestra lands. Your family is curiously absent from so much of the Ton.”
“We have always concerned ourselves with more serious matters,” Vestra says, diagonal from Ferdinand at the dining table. As he clutches a glass of wine without sipping it, his gaze finds Ferdinand, but Ferdinand quickly looks away. “Our fathers were close associates before the late marquis’s untimely demise.”
The Ottoman prince barks with laughter. “Are any of you Brits’ fathers alive? Honestly, now.”
An uneasy silence settles across the table as they all exchange looks, which only seems to add to Claude’s amusement. Finally, Bernadetta sits up straight.
“Our fathers,” she says with a slight quaver, “and a few others, were known as the Traitorous Seven. They conspired with Napoleon’s forces to cut off the prince regent’s access to the crown. And were executed for it.”
Claude whistles under his breath. “This sounds like one of your Shakespeare’s plays.”
“We have a long history of treachery in the empire,” Vestra says wryly.
Ferdinand frowns, however. “We know the names of the Seven—and the late Vestra was not one of them.”
“Indeed. The Vestras have always operated in the background, serving the crown, or so we are told.” He sips his wine at last. “We do whatever is required of us to protect our sworn interests, else we pay the price. As my father learned.”
He’d known on meeting him that Hubert had to have been some kind of intelligence officer; there was no other reason for the extreme secrecy around his attachment to Ferdinand’s regiment, or his own refusal to speak about himself. But to imagine it as a lifelong service, forever placing such a duty before his own wants—
Well. It changed nothing. He extricated himself from Ferdinand’s life like an arrowhead, wrenched free without a thought for the damage he wrought in his wake. There was no honor or virtue in a man like that, no matter his reasons.
So Ferdinand averts his gaze, and has nothing more to say.
“Well! I think that’s enough dire talk for one night!” Miss Arnault exclaims. “Princess Edelgard. I understand you’re quite accomplished as a pianist.”
“Please. Just Edelgard will do.” Edelgard, the white-haired Hanover princess, smiles at Dorothea. “And you’re a singer?”
“Oh, of a sort.”
“Do not let her modesty fool you. Dorothea is an accomplished opera soprano.” Ferdinand is on far more comfortable terrain speaking boastfully about his friends. “She performed in the chorus at the London premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.”
Edelgard’s cheeks turn rosy. “Then would you perhaps indulge a hobbyist like me?”
Dorothea clasps Edelgard’s arm in hers. “It would be a pleasure.”
In the parlor, they are family at last—not one borne of blood and titles, but closeness, common ground. The way Dorothea looks at Edelgard as they try out a Haydn duet; the lattice of Bernadetta and Lysithea’s fingers as they flip through the Gloucesters’ collection of tomes. The quick laughter between Lorenz and Claude as Lorenz teaches him Whist, and Claude teaches him something called 400. Tomorrow, they will open Rose Hall to the county, and slip back into their roles, but tonight—they are free.
It should be enough for Ferdinand, as he sips his sherry and flips through a poetry book without really reading it. It should be enough to know that he survived his father’s treachery, that he fought for this, that he might have a hand in shaping a new Britain. That his friends have found their own kind of love, and that they’ve all found each other, and that he is in control of his destiny and his title and his lands, and need never fear the condemnation of his father again.
He should not want for more—certainly not in the form of a grim-faced marquis who will always choose his duty over Ferdinand himself. And even that, he supposes, could have only been a convenient excuse.
Ferdinand closes the poetry book with a sigh. Said marquis is nowhere to be found now, anyway; he had been lurking in the corner like a cobweb, writing in some infernal journal, but he must have slipped away without bidding them all goodnight. Ferdinand makes his rounds, offering a quiet kiss on the crown of the head to Bernadetta and Lysithea and a sturdy pat of the shoulder to Lorenz, before excusing himself on account of his wound.
As he makes his way down the dark corridor toward the guest rooms, the bank of windows along one side revealing the craggy lowlands around them, he sees a black silhouette set against the moonlight, more void than form.
“Duke Aegir,” Hubert—Marquis Vestra, Ferdinand scolds himself—says quietly.
Moonlight sets him in silver as he turns from the window, his expression as serious as ever. He is thick with shadow. Yet it is still not enough to stop the needy tug in Ferdinand’s gut.
“Vestra.” Ferdinand stops only long enough to nod to him in acknowledgment. “I bid you good night.”
Ferdinand stops a few steps past him and stares at the ceiling to stop the rush of tears toward his eyes. He waits; exhales and inhales slowly; then turns back to Vestra.
“I . . . wanted to thank you, earlier,” Vestra says at last. “For not exposing the details of my work.”
Is that all he wants? Ferdinand wants to kick himself. And maybe Vestra too. “I would have to actually know what your work is to expose it.”
Vestra’s shoulders draw up at that. “You’re an intelligent man. I am certain you have your guesses.”
Assassination, espionage, subterfuge and sabotage—Ferdinand can imagine it all, and has. In darker moments, he’s told himself that Hubert abandoning him without a word was what paved the way for their victory at Waterloo. In very dark moments, he wished he hadn’t even then.
“And . . .” Vestra bows his head now. “I also wished to apologize.”
Ferdinand’s throat constricts. Against his will, his feet move him forward; close enough he can see Vestra’s strong nose and jaw in the moonlight now, and the gleam of it against that flop of dark hair that all but covers one eye.
“For?” Ferdinand asks carefully.
“That I . . . had to leave your regiment without a word.” Vestra’s gaze gleams in the darkness as he looks up at Ferdinand. His waistcoat puffs as he draws a deep breath—“That I had to leave you.”
Ferdinand transfers his walking cane to his left hand, and reaches out with his right. White cotton gloved fingertips brush at Vestra’s cheek, and Vestra tilts his head into them, eyes lidding. He makes a sound, then, barely perceptible, that nonetheless threatens to split Ferdinand in two: the soft sigh of someone who’s known no physical contact in three long years, and is afraid to allow themselves to enjoy it now.
Ferdinand knows, because he feels it, too.
“Do you regret doing it?” Ferdinand asks.
Vestra’s lips part, his mouth a dark well. “I regret any hurt it may have caused you.”
Ferdinand’s hand quivers, ready to fall. “That is not the same.”
Vestra’s breath curls around Ferdinand’s bare wrist above the cuff of his glove as he exhales. He takes a step closer—they are nearly chest to chest now, and Ferdinand is buzzing from the nearness, so foreign and familiar at once. “What would you have had me do?”
“You might have trusted me.” Ferdinand shakes his head.
“I barely knew you,” Vestra says. With a bitter laugh, he shakes his head. “My work was too vital to entrust—”
Ferdinand’s hand slides back to cup his skull, thumb at his cheek, heart pounding. It would take nothing at all to tilt up onto the balls of his feet and meet Vestra’s lips with his own.
But that was a battle line they never crossed—and one he never will.
“If you do not know how fiercely I protect those I love, and their interests,” Ferdinand says, forcing himself to step back—to remove his hand from that lovely dark hair—“then you do not know me at all.”
Returning his cane to the proper hand, he makes his way to his rooms, and ignores the sharp twinge in his chest that matches the one in his thigh.
The roasted pheasant and potatoes have long since been decimated, and they’ve just opened the second bottle of port, Ferdinand regaling the strange man—Hubert, he insists on being called—with a tale of rescuing his lieutenant from a brothel he mistakenly entered when the pain hits. “I—forgive me,” Ferdinand says, face flushed from more than just the port. “It is still fresh, and I—must stretch it out.”
“Do you require assistance?” Hubert asks, setting aside his glass.
Ferdinand’s instinct is to wave him off—A proper man must always be self-sufficient, his father’s toxic voice chides—but there is true concern in the furrow of Hubert’s brow. How nice it might be, Ferdinand thinks selfishly, to be fussed over for once. Especially by this unknowable man whose wry smiles and cutting remarks nonetheless hint at much darker and deeper waters, a wellspring of emotion that Ferdinand finds himself wishing to tap.
But that is likely the port talking, and talking entirely too much at that. “Just enough to help me over to my cot.”
Hubert is under his arm in an instant, steadying him; dressed down to his waistcoat, he is impossibly slender and lithe, but there is surprising strength in him as he bolsters Ferdinand’s bulkier cavalier form. Once Ferdinand is seated, settled against a wall of pillows to keep him upright, Hubert then slides Ferdinand’s right leg over the edge of the mattress and straightens it out with just enough firmness to do the job without too much pain.
Ferdinand watches his black gloved hands do so, and wonders, for the thousandth time that evening, just what sort of man this “Hubert” really is, to have so much darkness and tenderness all tangled up in one wiry form.
“I apologize for cutting our evening short,” Ferdinand says with a sigh. “I was quite enjoying your company.”
Hubert arches one thin eyebrow. “You were sitting in a chair, and now you are sitting on your bed. I hardly see the difference.” He is perched on the lip of the cot, hand mere inches from Ferdinand’s leg he’d just touched. “If you wish to rest, however . . .”
Ferdinand swallows; looks him in the eye. “Stay.” Hastily, he adds—“If it pleases you.”
Hubert’s lips coil into something that sparks terribly wicked thoughts in Ferdinand like a match striking. “I hope it is not excessive flattery to tell you that your company is indeed preferable to that of my sleeping sack and the mud.”
Ferdinand laughs shyly at that. In his youth and at school, he was often accused of being too loud, too much, too boastful and too kind all at once. But the war and his father’s treachery have stripped away much of his softness, he fears. It was all just padding around brittle, vulnerable bones, and now they are far too exposed.
“We’ll see if you still feel that way after I’ve polished off this bottle.”
Hubert regards him with that singular visible eye, yet its intensity is more than enough. Rather than piercing him, however, as it did earlier, Ferdinand feels simply—beheld. As if Hubert might see all of him, and not only one of the faces his dons as general, duke, or son.
“Your wound.” Hubert’s attention abruptly turns to Ferdinand’s right knee and thigh, and his fingers ghost over the thick padding of wound dressing beneath Ferdinand’s breeches. “Tell me about it.”
“I had turned in the saddle to reach behind me to thrust my lance at an assailant,” Ferdinand says. His tone softens. “In doing so, it exposed the inside of my right thigh, and it was enough for a spearman’s jab to rake across the inside of my knee and up my thigh just so.” He tightens a fist at his side. “My horse—Persephone—she saved my life. Hauled me immediately away from the melee without being commanded. I should have scolded her for that, but . . . I am grateful, I suppose, to have survived.”
“There is no shame in living to fight another day,” Hubert says. His thumb runs the line of the wound dressing over Ferdinand’s breeches, stopping halfway up his thigh. “An inch higher, though—”
“Yes, the surgeon said as much. I’d have bled out long before reaching his tent.” Ferdinand’s thigh muscle twitches. “The sutures are healing up nicely, though, and there is no sign of infection, thank God—”
“It isn’t the wound itself that pains you, though.” His thumb runs back down the line of Ferdinand’s quadricep at the inside of his thigh. “It’s the nerve damage. Something I’m sure our field surgeons lack the patience or finesse to treat.”
Ferdinand realizes he has been holding his breath; he lets it out with a slow nod. “It is not constant. It would almost be better if it were. But no, I cannot seem to predict when I will feel that shooting pain, or for how long—”
Hubert’s thumb pushes into the meat of his muscle, and Ferdinand forgets what more he was going to say, and quite probably his own name. “May I?” Hubert asks.
Ferdinand can do nothing but nod. “—Please.”
He begins to knead Ferdinand’s thigh, scooting closer so that he is seated on the mattress between the outstretched right leg and Ferdinand’s left, which is partially dangling off the cot’s edge. Brow furrowed in concentration, it feels as though he is splitting apart the very fibers of Ferdinand’s muscle, picking free an old knot. There is a sharp crackle of nerve pain—and then an unexpected wave of bliss.
“Oh,” Ferdinand breathes. “That is—much better.”
They fall into a comfortable silence as Hubert’s hands continue their work, Hubert glancing up at him periodically as if for approval, which Ferdinand offers in spades with a peaceful smile. Gradually, however, that wry, sinful twist returns to Hubert’s lips, and he laughs to himself.
“What is it?” Ferdinand asks.
“I, ah.” Scarlet rises on Hubert’s cheeks. “I had not been properly forewarned as to how very striking the cavalry general would be, is all.”
In other circumstances, Ferdinand might have been instantly suspicious. Given this man and his miasma of secrecy, he should be suspicious still. But something about him makes Ferdinand want to be bold.
He makes Ferdinand want things for himself.
He regards Hubert for a moment as the movement of his hands slows. Finding a new rhythm. He can’t put a name to the look that passes between them; only the way it makes him feel molten inside. “Are you disappointed?”
Hubert ducks his head. “No, General, that is not the word I would use.”
Another long pause. Hubert had insinuated before he knew the truth about Ferdinand and where his interests lay. And the long stretches in their earlier conversation—the gentle bickering, flowing as easily as the wine. But he cannot trust that for certain.
“You seem to carry a certain impression of me,” Ferdinand says finally. Hopes Hubert catches his meaning.
“Perhaps it’s wishful thinking.” Hubert’s dark expression settles on him again. “Or perhaps it’s that terribly enticing cockstand of yours.”
Ferdinand winces; he’d rather hoped he wouldn’t notice. “Anyone would, when you are working that black magic with your hands as you are.”
Hubert lowers his head; his mouth rounds on the top of Ferdinand’s thigh, just by his hand. “Wouldn’t you like to know what magic I can work with my mouth?”
It takes every bit of Ferdinand’s willpower not to grab him by his collar and wrench that saucy mouth right up to his own.
“That sounds dangerously as though you are trying to entrap me,” Ferdinand says, voice husky. “If you have been sent to—suss me out, or—”
“If I wished to do that, I’d be trying to persuade you to suck my cock instead.” Hubert’s gloved hand runs further up Ferdinand’s thigh. “But given that look of bliss you donned when all I did was soothe your wound . . . I’m far more interested in seeing just what face you’ll make when I close my throat around what looks to be a most enticing cock.”
Ferdinand pauses. Taking in the dark sparkle to those celadon eyes. The pink sweep of that elegant lower lip. And the empty pocket of yearning inside him that has widened, cavernous, since the moment this arrogant, alluring man walked into his camp.
He reaches out; threads bare fingers through the dark flop of bangs that conceal one side of Hubert’s face and slowly tightens them in his grip. The noise it pulls out of Hubert—somehow both feral and pleading—goes straight into his blood.
“Such pretty words from that mouth,” Ferdinand says. “Almost a shame to silence it.”
“Almost?” Hubert asks, inching closer.
Ferdinand nods; swallows. “But not quite.”
And then this near-stranger is unbuttoning his placket; easing Ferdinand’s cock free. Rubbing his cheek against it, reverential, caressing. He is lips and tongue and a steady grip, slow and methodical, so slow Ferdinand has to bite down on his own forearm to quiet his tortured cries.
And that sound Hubert makes when Ferdinand pulls at his hair is even better with his mouth closed around Ferdinand’s cock, rumbling through him, tearing him apart. The way he finally picks up speed only when Ferdinand can bear it no more, when his body is twisted too tight and his toes curl inside his boots and his thighs squeeze at that raven-haired head—
Ferdinand cries out into his forearm, teeth digging in, fingers yanking Hubert’s hair. But Hubert is looking up at him, unblinking, as he swallows him down. Even as a dribble of cum leaks from the side of his lips, he never stops, making certain Ferdinand can see the very deliberate bob of his long throat.
“Fuck,” Ferdinand breathes.
Hubert laughs to himself; slowly slides his mouth off of Ferdinand’s softening cock and laps up what he spilled. His lips are scarlet now, and glistening, and despite Ferdinand’s dizzying haze, he wants very badly to taste those lips; he reaches for Hubert’s arm to pull him up toward him—
But Hubert resists; sits back on the far end of the cot. “Even more delectable than I’d hoped.”
Ferdinand leans forward, fingers brushing the insides of Hubert’s thigh, straining for the obvious bulge in his own breeches. “Please,” Ferdinand murmurs, “allow me—”
But Hubert’s hand closes over his and guides it back to Ferdinand’s own thigh. “Not tonight, I think. Regrettably, I still have work to do.”
And Ferdinand hates the pleading in his voice when he asks—“You won’t stay?”
Hubert closes his eyes with an exhale, then looks to the other end of the tent. “There’s always tomorrow night, General.”
And, God, how Ferdinand hates how badly he wants to kiss him, even if it’s meaningless, just to know how he tastes. But Hubert stands, far enough away that all he can do is trail his fingers on Ferdinand’s thigh. “Besides. I think you’d better rest that leg.”
And then he slips away, just a shadow in the night.
When Ferdinand comes downstairs for breakfast the next morning, the majority of their house party is busy in the parlor making preparations for the ball, surrounded by freshly cut flowers and ribbons and bunting. When he reaches the kitchens, however, he finds Marquis Vestra seated at the servants’ table, calmly eating a hermetic plate of cooked eggs, even as he is surrounded by the outrageous bounty of food waiting to be prepared.
“That is really all that you are eating?” Ferdinand asks.
Vestra makes a face at him. “It is downright wasteful, all of this. We're still recovering from protracted wars on several fronts, and you all intend to gorge yourselves and dance and behave as though nothing is wrong? As if nothing needs to change?”
Ferdinand shakes his head and begins to help himself to the array of cheeses and cured meats on display. “We might as well enjoy ourselves while we can.”
“Yes.” Vestra glares at him.” While we can. Before we must return to the shackles of our imperfect empire, and all the strangling roles in his that we must play.”
“No one is forcing you to play a role but yourself,” Ferdinand retorts. He leans against the counter, long legs crossed, and chews angrily on a slice of Gouda cheese. “We have the power to change these things now. Even you do.”
“You sound awfully seditious for someone so devoted to the crown,” Ferdinand says.
“I am devoted to those I serve,” Vestra says, “and I will bear any such role I must play for their success.”
“Yes, well, I will leave you to your roles and you may leave me to mine.” Ferdinand huffs. “But you hardly have room to judge me for my choices.”
He eats in bitter silence for a moment, while Vestra’s fork scrapes against his plate.
“And in the war?” Ferdinand asks, because he cannot help himself. “I suppose that was just a role, too.”
Vestra regards him for a lengthy minute, gaze darkening. “No,” he finally says, “that was a mistake.”
Ferdinand all but slams his plate, half-eaten, down onto the counter and storms from the kitchen. His lungs are on fire. Every muscle in his body cries out for him to run. Away from this selfish, unbearable man and his own inscrutable code. He laughs at himself as his feet carry him toward the stables—he cannot believe he has spent the past three years pining over some foolish tryst on the battlefield.
Well. Maybe at least now, he can snuff out, if not forget it.
“Duke Aegir, wait,” Vestra calls, chasing after him across the grounds.
Ferdinand moves past a startled stablehand and flings the saddle onto his horse’s back. “Please leave me be.”
“Is it even safe for you to ride in your condition” Vestra starts, but Ferdinand is too accustomed to saddling his mount for battle; he is already climbing into the saddle.
“What does it matter to you?” he says, and heels his mount away.
Ferdinand guides the horse out across the grassy lawn of Rose Hall and aims for the craggy lowland moors beyond. Anything to get away from that baleful marquis and his absurd, twisted sense of honor. Almost immediately, his leg starts throbbing, however, and as he glances skyward, he realizes his mistake. Heavy thunderclouds are billowing in from the west, and the sweat cools off of his skin almost as soon as he’s shed it. If he doesn’t get back, he’s bound to be caught in the downpour.
But he can’t face Vestra. Not after making such a scene. Not after chiding him—rightly so—and having to listen to all his nonsense about duty even as he spoke of upending the social order. What was so wrong with the way Ferdinand and Lorenz and Bernadetta had committed to changing things?
And so he charges onward toward the northern range, anger keeping his back straight even as the pain spreads shadowy tendrils up his thigh. Even as the mare beneath him begins to whicker and neigh at the first fat drops of dark rain—
And then the sky is tearing open in a torrential blow. Even this he could bear, were it not for the pain encasing his right leg in steel. He curses to himself as his horse balks at the downpour. Curses his own stubborn pride.
“Duke,” someone is shouting at him. “You have quite made your point—”
But as the rain pelts him, each slash hissing in agony against his thigh, blackness starts to edge his vision and it’s too much to fight through. It’s like the onslaught of Napoleon’s brigade storming his way, cannons thudding and musket smoke burning his nostrils and the screams of the dying choking him.
And then it is nothing but black, swaying blackness as sturdy arms seize hold—
Ferdinand is moaning into his pillow as Hubert’s tongue plunges into him, teeth scraping at the firm muscle of his hole with a predator’s determination. Hubert snarls, a sound Ferdinand has come to equate with vicious pleasure, and the mere sound is enough to push him to the brink.
“Fuck,” Ferdinand says into a mouthful of cotton, as his fingers excavate the sheets. “God. You should kiss me with that filthy mouth.”
Hubert’s ravaging pauses, and Ferdinand curses himself internally. Of course he’s said the wrong damned thing. The man has been more than eager to do anything but kiss him, in two weeks of wild abandon. And every time Ferdinand tries, he deflects, knowing damn well all he needs to get what he wants is a hard suck at Ferdinand’s throat, a fierce grasp of his balls, a lewd hand on Ferdinand’s own, guiding the general’s fingers to his own willing hole.
Hubert gives another quick lick to the cleft of Ferdinand’s ass before straightening. “Delicious as you are, I doubt you want to taste yourself,” he says. “And I have other things in mind.”
But I want to taste you, Ferdinand thinks—tries not to pout as he feels the warm press of oiled fingers into his hole. I want you, all of you. All the things that you won’t give.
He’s become—he’s embarrassed to admit it—obsessed with the mystery man. He speaks so adamantly of loyalty and honor, and yet his ideals seem to fall so far from the crown’s. In line with Ferdinand’s own, if he’s being honest, which sadly—as one of the Seven’s children—he can’t. And yes, it’s been half a month, in which he’s thoroughly enjoyed every inch of Hubert’s body. But the tantalizing glimpses of his heart, his soul, his mind—those are the worst kind of tease.
“Are you ready, beautiful?” Hubert asks, and the way he asks so shyly, hands cupping Ferdinand’s rump like something precious—how could he decline?
Ferdinand rocks his hips back with a wordless plea.
“So eager.” Hubert laughs darkly. Then softer, like a confessional—“Me, too.”
Ferdinand bites his lower lip. It’s those moments of unexpected tenderness that soothe and sting him most of all.
But then Hubert is easing inside of him for the first time, reversing their usual roles (as if this frantic affair is something usual, something lasting)—and Ferdinand doesn’t have much space to think about anything except the delirious burn, the fierce weight of him. One hand yanking at Ferdinand’s unbound hair from the base, even as he shoves his face further into the pillow. The other cradling his cock far more lightly than Ferdinand wants, even if the hint of it is divine.
And then Ferdinand doesn’t think at all.
In the blur that follows his climax, he knows Hubert will slip from his tent, silent and intangible as always, but as he feels the man shift out of the cot beside him, he can almost imagine that fleeting brush between his shoulderblades is a farewell kiss, and if it cannot touch his lips, at least he can feel this—
But the next morning, there is no signs of the intelligence officer anywhere within camp. His tent his empty; his duffel is gone.
And their orders have come down from Wellington at last: it is time to move on Waterloo.
Ferdinand wakes up to the sight of cherubs staring down at him, their painted mural peeling and faded, candlelight picking out what little flecks of gold-leaf paint remain.
He rolls out his neck—he’d apparently been staring up at the curved ceiling of some kind of chapel—and finds Marquis Vestra huddled beside him, fussing with a stubborn fire set into an old brazier that hisses and sparks at him as he tries to stoke it more fully to life.
Though the tiny chapel they are in is fairly intact, a quick glance around them proves much of the rest of whatever abbey they’re in to be little other than a burned-out husk. Rain hammers the smashed slate tiles of the main sanctuary. Somewhere nearby, Ferdinand hears the impatient stamping of hooves.
“The horses,” Ferdinand says, voice thick. “I think I fell, I do not know what happened—”
“Shh. You need rest.” Vestra pushes him back down to where he’d been propped up against the side chapel wall. “Your knee, I think. You fell unconscious.”
Ferdinand is only then aware that there is an oilskin coat draped over him—and that beneath him, his chest is completely bare.
“I stripped you out of your shirt and waistcoat,” Hubert says. “They were already soaked through. At least you wore sensible riding breeches, or I’d have been forced to strip those, too.”
And damn him for that wry smile on his face, as if he would have loved to have done just that.
“You followed me,” Ferdinand says instead, because it’s far easier to be resentful than to read anything into Vestra’s care.
“It was about to begin storming, and you were clearly already in some discomfort.” Vestra shrugs, not looking at him. “My instincts were correct.”
Ferdinand sighs. Flexes his legs—the pain still present in his thigh, but not so piercing. Nestles into the coat, which smells dark and spicy, and altogether too familiar in a way he doesn’t want to place. “Well. I thank you, in that case.”
Vestra looks up at him, smile morphed into something much sadder. “You are welcome.” Then, looking away—“And the horses are fine. They’re in the side chapel beside this one.”
And somehow that touches Ferdinand even more than him caring for Ferdinand himself. Ferdinand sighs; slumps his head back and stares up at those damned cherubs as if for guidance. “In that case . . . thank you. I am sorry that I required rescuing.”
Vestra is quiet for a moment as the flames crackle. “Your anger was warranted.”
Ferdinand watches him. Though he is without his oilskin riding jacket (the one currently draped over Ferdinand), he is still the picture of civility in his brown breeches, burgundy waistcoat, and white shirt and simple cravat tied in a mailcoach style. His dark hair is charmingly tousled, made curlier by the rain. He’d always looked far too bitter and severe for his age, but now, he looks as Ferdinand feels—a lost man in his twenties, in desperate search of a path.
“It has been years. I have no right to be as cross with you as I am,” Ferdinand finally says.
Vestra looks up; a dark tendril of hair drips rainwater onto his cheek. “But you are.”
Ferdinand winces, trying to shift to look at him better, but it sets off a fresh twinge in his leg. “I only wish you would have told me it was farewell.”
The rain picks up with a distant howl of wind across the moors, and the flames shiver, shadows dancing over Vestra’s face. “Was I supposed to have kissed you like we were courting, promised to make you my bride? We both knew what we were doing.”
“Even one kiss might have been nice,” Ferdinand snaps.
Vestra glares at him. “You are unbearable.”
“You’re one to talk!”
Vestra lurches toward him, upright on his knees, and plants a fist agains the wall above Ferdinand’s head as he looms. A droplet of rain falls from his hair onto Ferdinand’s lips as he glowers down. “Is it not enough that you entranced me with your lovely words of reshaping Britain? With your bloody intolerable, beautiful heart that couldn’t have been more different from your father’s if you tried? Can’t you be content to know that every minute I spent with you, worshipping you, cherishing every inch of you, has been a splinter in my heart for three long years, impossible to extract? Must I have kissed you, too, and let you see for yourself just how thoroughly you’d captured me?”
Ferdinand feels breathless—weightless with bewilderment. Every sharp word, reckless sentiment between them—every moment he felt the venom under Hubert’s skin the moment he became too close—if it had been only a defensive posture, an entrenchment Hubert was desperate not to let him cross . . .
“My work is far too dangerous to allow myself to become distracted,” Hubert says. “I cannot afford to be—compromised.”
“You speak as if I’m some enemy combatant.” Ferdinand shakes his head. “I am on your side, Vestra.”
“You don’t understand. I abhor weakness, Duke Aegir.” Hubert’s hand falters where it props him against the wall. “And you are mine.”
Ferdinand reaches up and wraps his hand in Hubert’s cravat; yanks his face down. “Then stop bearing all this alone, and let me be your strength instead.”
Hubert stares at him, expression torn open. “Fuck, but you make me want to.”
Hubert’s hands cup around his face, and then his damp lips are on Ferdinand’s, cool with rain and yet splendidly warm. Ferdinand holds firm on his cravat, reeling him in, holding him close, snaring him the way he’s dreamed. As their mouths meld, he tastes just bitter enough to be real, dark enough to be Hubert, that enigma from his tent that he never could quite grasp—but now he’s falling into Ferdinand’s lap, slender thighs sliding around sturdy hips.
And when Ferdinand’s teeth find his lower lip, when he cries out in surrender, when his hips roll forward against Ferdinand’s own—then maybe it was worth the agonizing wait.
Ferdinand runs his hands down the lean line of Hubert’s velvet waistcoat and steadies those hips to his own. Their kisses are wild now, missing their mark, but that in itself is its own delight—a luxury of not needing Hubert’s lips with the same urgency now, of knowing they are there when he wants to claim them. He can flick his tongue to a tender earlobe, sink his teeth into taut tendons along his throat. He can work his hands at the buttons of Hubert’s placket without fear of him slipping away.
Ferdinand kisses him again just before letting his breeches fall open; pauses, his forehead to the bridge of Hubert’s nose. “Is this all right?” he whispers, barely able to hear himself over the frantic racing of his heart.
Hubert nods, gasping for air himself. “Please, God.”
He coaxes Hubert’s erection from his smallclothes and slides his hand deeper to fondle his balls; make his back arch the way he remembers, but there’s no need to silence his cries this time. The rain is a veil around them, and they are face to face at last, and every time Hubert curves upward, he can kiss that pale throat as he thumbs the sticky slit of his cock.
“I want you,” Ferdinand murmurs against his skin. “Hubert. Vestra. Marquis. Spy. Whoever you are—I want it all.”
Hubert buries his face in Ferdinand’s bare neck and nips at it, as if his lust has no other release. “Ferdinand, please—”
“Oh, this I like. Do keep begging.” He loops his hand lazily around Hubert’s shaft as he brings the other to the buttons of his own breeches. “I think I’ve earned that much from you.”
“Fuck me, you insufferable duke.” Hubert’s fingers twist in Ferdinand’s damp locks. “Fuck me as if you missed me, even a bit.”
“Would that my knee were better, I could show you just how much.” With a groan, he eases his own cock free. “But this will do for now.”
Hubert kisses him hungrily as Ferdinand presses their cocks together, and shudders at the velvet press of flesh on flesh. “God,” he purrs into Hubert’s mouth, earning him a shiver that runs through Hubert straight to their flush hips. He kisses the corner of Hubert’s mouth, his chin. “Give me your hand.”
Bright green eyes intent on Ferdinand’s, Hubert disentangles one hand from Ferdinand’s hair and holds it out. With his free hand, Ferdinand grabs his wrist, then lavishes his palm with a wet swirl of mouth and tongue. Guides it down to wrap them around them both.
“Fuck.” Hubert hisses through his teeth as Ferdinand’s hand works his up and down their cocks. “Fuck, I missed you. Every part of you.”
His hips grind down onto Ferdinand as they stroke themselves together; his face contorts with dark delight. Ferdinand wants to swallow down every last expression of his, as if it might be gone far too soon.
And maybe it will—maybe this, too, can’t last—but he has to believe it might. As Hubert kisses him frantically, sucks at tender skin, cries out in a stutter as his cock thickens in their joined hands, as they breathe in each other burn against each other’s friction and blasphemous prayers—
Hubert sobs, arcing forward to bury his face in Ferdinand’s hair, and Ferdinand lets go. Lets go of three years of resentment and hate. He lets himself come with Hubert, hot spend spilling over hands laced together, the pleasure an unbearable fire he never could snuff out.
And even as his muscles unclench and his body unravels and the weight of Hubert bears down on him, he can’t stop himself from kissing him—again and again—in their rain-drenched haven outside of time.
“That was quite the lengthy ride you two went on,” Lysithea notes, when they make their way back to Rose Hall.
“The storm caught us,” Ferdinand says, as Hubert says, “His leg was giving him fits.”
“Well, we could use some assistance finalizing preparations for the ball.” Bernadetta loops her arm in Ferdinand’s and steers him toward the kitchens. “You move quickly, don’t you, Duke Aegir?”
Ferdinand can only laugh nervously. “You’ve no idea.”
It changes nothing, Ferdinand tells himself, as he bathes and readies for the ball. He ties a red velvet ribbon in his hair to hold it back from his face and dons an emerald waistcoat and red cravat. One tryst in the ruins of an abbey does not a courtship make.
And is that not what he wants, in the end? The same comfort his found family shares? They can court and be courted; love and be loved. Bernadetta and Lysithea are even planning to merge their households, soon, and speaking of pledging themselves to each other before those they trust. Ferdinand wants that life—wants not to feel so alone in his thoughts, his passions, his dreams. There was a brief stretch of time when the things he whispered into a Belgian night were echoed; when a stranger named Hubert made him think they weren’t foolish to want.
But it changes nothing to have Hubert close by again. Hubert has to want something more, too.
The ball is a bright point of light, though, and even though they are all back to playing their roles, there’s no disguising the joy on his friends’ faces. No one bats an eye when the Hresvelg princess steals a merry waltz with the opera singer, or Claude and Duke Gloucester tend more closely to their conversation than their respective dance cards. Ferdinand dances with whoever asks—the youngest daughter of the vicar, the elderly baker’s wife, a handful of eligible ladies of the Ton. Lysithea and Edelgard and all the rest. They need not know how much he’s thinking of cold, pale eyes and dark hair and a knowing smile that leaves him quite disarmed.
When the swelter of bodies in the ballroom becomes too great, though, and his knee starts to give way, he excuses himself to the gardens to cool himself in silence with his thoughts. Hubert—Vestra, he scolds himself again—was nothing but a dark-haired vision out of the corner of his eye all evening, as if nothing had even transpired between them. And maybe, in the end, it hadn’t at all.
“Duke Aegir?” a voice murmurs, darkly silky, from the garden bench. “I would have thought such a dashing bachelor’s dance card would be quite full.”
Ferdinand stifles down the flutter in his chest as he turns to find the marquis alone, moonlight and the ballroom’s distant glow sketching his lines. “I saved some room for the partner I wanted most.”
Vestra’s smile fades; he stands with a nervous bite to his lower lip. “Would that I could, Ferdinand.”
More of that self-abasement, that ridiculous code for himself. And to what end? “No one is stopping you but you.”
His chest rises, falls. Hawkish eyes watch Ferdinand as he works out what to say. The gentle strands of the waltz spill around them from afar—and then he takes another step toward Ferdinand.
“Then may I have this dance?”
Ferdinand doesn’t trust himself to answer, so he merely nods, and leans his walking cane against the bench.
Hubert takes him by the waist as his other hand links in Ferdinand’s. So close, and yet not so close as earlier—that sliver of distance between them crackling with untapped energy. One step. A second. Ferdinand finds himself moving backwards from what he’s accustomed to, but quickly picking up the beat. And all the while, Hubert’s breath is warm against his throat—the collar he cinched extra-high, thanks to Hubert’s mouth—and his gaze is unrelenting and his touch, even through cotton gloves, is enough to make Ferdinand’s knees buckle all over again.
Then he is leaning closer; Ferdinand tilts his head up in offering. Their lips brush gently, tenderly this time, not breaking the rhythm of the dance. Their mouths open in a careful rondeau, they take their time finding their footing, they savor each step and brush and twist—
“I—I can’t.” Hubert breaks away, head shaking, hands flexing as he releases Ferdinand. “I can’t pretend. Not with you.”
Hubert drags a gloved hand down his cheek. “I can’t keep you at a distance like before. And the alternative is—is nothing safe.”
“What do you not understand? Don’t you see?” Ferdinand asks. “Count Gloucester and his prince. Your princess and Miss Arnault. Lady Varley and Lady Ordelia. We find each other, and together, we survive. Far better than our traitorous forebears ever did.” He steps toward him, though stops himself short of reaching for Hubert. “I am not asking you to stop your work. Far from it. I am merely trying to show you that we need not be a weakness. Whatever you are working toward—let me help.”
Hubert lets out a shaky breath before bringing a gloved hand to Ferdinand’s cheek. “But you deserve to be courted, Ferdinand. You deserve someone who can love you openly, in the full light of day. Someone whose life isn’t built out of secrets and shadows.”
“But I don’t want someone like that. I never have.” He tips his head until his lips find a gloved palm. “I only want you.”
Hubert’s laugh is quiet, something Ferdinand feels more than hears. But if that must be the way of them, their own shared language—he will cling gladly to that. “You cannot mean that.”
Ferdinand closes his hand over Hubert’s on his cheek, and gently takes it into his own. His thumb grazes the underside of Hubert’s wrist before carefully rolling up his glove. Once it is halfway off, he brings that wrist to his mouth, and kisses it tenderly. Licks at a slender thumb, a callused palm. At Hubert’s pleased hum, he strips the glove the rest of the way off, and kisses down the length of one finger.
“If I wanted anything but this,” Ferdinand says, tugging Hubert nearer, “I would be in there instead of here. But if we must forge our own ideas of courtship—then it would be a pleasure to do so with you.”
“Good word, you are divine. Do you know that?” Hubert smiles, silver in the starlight. “I thought in three years my memories had made you into something you were not. But it seems quite the opposite is true.”
“Trust in me as we remake this world together.” Ferdinand steps closer, forehead to forehead. “And we shall make it through.”
And while the ache in his knee lingers, while the lights are far away, he knows he needs only this: the bolster of his friends’ presence, the promise of their dreams, and this shadow of a man. A man who will find him in darkness, but warms him all the same.
His desires, like everything else he’s fought for, persevered for, loved for, need not be so far away.