The Baron and Alistair were racing at breakneck speed towards the palace when Alistair recalled his clothes. They were a welcome distraction from the threat of imminent death. Alistair yelled into the Baron's ear, the wind tearing away his words.
"What about them?"
"They're still hanging on your screen!"
The Baron glanced sideways and nearly drove them into a lamp-post. "Are you sure?"
"No, my other ones!"
"Oh, those." The phaeton careered around a corner and jolted to a halt. There was a jam of traffic blocking their way, the sound of nervous whinnies - not to mention horses - all around them. "Don't worry, I'll get them back to you. What did you think of that screen, by the way?"
"Oh, um." Alistair tried for diplomatic and came up with nothing.
"Hideous, is it not? My sister made it. I fear her talents lay outside the field of needlework."
"I think, perhaps - yes," conceded Alistair. His hands were shaking, so he balled them up. He didn't think the Baron, busy snapping a whip over his horses' flanks, noticed, at least until he said softly:
"No need to be nervous. I'm probably the only scout who chooses candidates on pure talent alone, so you have that in your favour."
"What, mindless egoism?" But the thought made Alistair smile.
"Are commoners allowed to watch the trials?" asked Alistair, as the phaeton bumped through the crush of carriages.
"I don't see why not, if they get there early enough. Why?"
"Oh, Betty was saying she'd like to go." Alistair leaned in to avoid a potential collision with the oversized lamps of a passing barouche. The bony edge of the Baron's shoulder was slightly the better option.
"Betty's quite a girl, don't you think?"
Alistair snatched a glance sideways. The Baron had the reins twisted around his wrists and was guiding the horses with no inconsiderable skill. His voice was less importuning than Jimmy's had been, but it was in the same spectrum.
"She's certainly determined," said Alistair. A second later they cleared the jam and the Baron crouched forward, urging on the horses like a tiger. Alistair forgot everything - his nerves, his concern over Sir Paul - in favour of clinging on for dear life.
Life changed for Alistair when he played. Everything inside his head slowed, pinpointed on three things, and three things only: his two feet and the ball. Other players were incidental. Even the touchline was incidental, except as a distant aim. The end of a match was like coming to. The cuts and bruises began to sting, his breath began to burn, and his muscles began to cramp, saving it up for when he had time to care about them.
On the hair-raising drive to the palace, his hair had been quite a lot on his mind. He worried that the addition of felt and wigs and half a horse's worth of glue would distract him, slow him down. In fact they were nothing more than a minor inconvenience, at least until the game ended.
"That was wonderful. Quite sincerely wonderful," said the Baron. He greeted Alistair at the sideline, grabbing a silver beaker of water from a passing servant's tray.
"I think my head may explode," said Alistair faintly.
"Drink this and try to avoid detonation," advised the Baron. "That would truly ruin the disguise."
Alistair's legs felt wobbly. He wasn't used to playing at such length, nor to testing his strength against players who were as good as he and many who were better. He'd been able to avoid Seb, who was on his team and thus unlikely to tackle him. One of the opposing players had already been carried off on a stretcher secondary to Seb's barbaric game play.
Alistair barely noticed the Baron's hand on his back, guiding him to a wrought iron bench. There were several dotted around the pitch, reserved for ladies of quality. Even they had retreated in favour of letting the players rest, and nearly all the benches were colonised. One weedy young nobleman was stretched out on the nearest, bemoaning his hamstrings, but all it took to effect a miraculous cure was Jimmy casting a thoughtful eye over his watch chain.
Alistair sat down slowly. The Prince had had them run around the pitch five times when the match was ended, something for which Alistair was more grateful now than at the time. He sipped the icy water and leaned his head back in abject relief.
"You were brilliant!" Betty's skirts monopolised the rest of the bench and most of Alistair's lap. "How do you feel?"
"Like an elephant sat on me," said Alistair. He flexed his leg muscles and winced. "We really should be going. What if Sir Paul sees us?"
"I'll hide behind your beard," said Betty. "Besides, don't you want to find out if you made the team?"
Alistair stared at his glass. He'd played the best game he'd ever played. He didn't think it would be enough.
"Chin up," said the Baron. He nodded towards the weedy nobleman. "At least you didn't stop every five minutes to powder your nose."
It hadn't escaped Alistair's notice that the Prince, who refereed the game, was attired sensibly with a conspicuous lack of paint and powder. He was a tall and slender young man, with wide shoulders unenhanced by subtle padding. His stern, angular face was accentuated rather than otherwise by the severe hairstyle he adopted. Alistair couldn't help smirking at the difference between him and the Baron, whose outfit relied heavily upon moss green velvet.
A trumpeted fanfare heralded the Prince's return to the pitch, followed by a footman with a scroll. The entire company rose to their feet. Alistair's besieged muscles screeched as he bent into a low bow. Beside him, Betty's skirts swished as she executed a rather flashy curtsey.
"Ladies and gentlemen, and especially players," began the Prince, "I thank you for your patience while we deliberated. It was a most difficult choice, as I see before me some of the most accomplished players in the kingdom. Unfortunately, at this time the Royal Team only has room for two of you. I hope those of you who do not gain a place will not be disheartened, but rather leave today more determined than ever. With that said, I ask players number eight and fourteen to accompany me to the Small Brown Ballroom."
"That's you, that's you," said Betty, pushing at Alistair's shoulder when he sat stock-still. He looked up to the Baron for confirmation, his expression frozen in disbelief.
"You are indeed number fourteen," said the Baron, smiling. "Congratulations. And you -" he turned to Jimmy "- owe me three pounds."
"You bet against me?"
"I play the odds, I play the odds." Jimmy spread his hands placatingly. "Ah come now, sir, a grand lord like yourself has no need of me last few pennies."
"No, just your pounds," said the Baron equably.
"He's waiting," said Betty. Number eight was already at the Prince's side - a stocky individual, one of the few not dressed in a proper kit. His small blackberry eyes were shining, bestowing on his pastry-like face a transient glow of dignity.
With a final push from Betty, Alistair got to his feet. The Prince's face lightened when he saw Alistair approach. A few curls escaped from the tight knot at the back of the Prince's head, softening the lines of his face. Alistair felt suddenly shy.
"There you are," said the Prince. "I was beginning to think you'd rebuffed my offer."
"Oh no, sir," said Alistair. "It's a great honour. I just had a little difficulty in realising it was my honour."
"Alistair Carlisle," said the Prince. "Now why does that sound familiar? Was your mother at court?"
"I don't believe so, sir," said Alistair. It was true; his mother died before Sir Paul got around to presenting her.
"It's of no matter," said the Prince. "You and Dirkhold and I have much to discuss. There are some refreshments laid on in the Ballroom. My servant will show you - I must thank your fellow players for attending."
The Prince nodded their dismissal and started towards the weedy nobleman, in whose face was nothing but the most exquisite relief at his escape. Dirkhold watched the Prince go in admiration.
"What a gennelmun!" he said, twisting his hat in his hands. "Fancy thanking everyone individual-like. He's got a real common touch, he has."
Alistair nodded his agreement. He fully shared Dirkhold's sentiments, but his focus was taken by quite another quarter. Sir Paul and his sons were in a huddle on one of the benches. As he watched, Seb looked up. His face was twisted in his most vicious scowl yet, which given the competition was quite an achievement. But what chilled Alistair to the marrow was the look on Sir Paul's face. He wasn't angry at all. He was cold as ice.
Alistair and Dirkhold were presented with house slippers to wear on entering the Palace, but Alistair was reluctant to relinquish his boots. He looped the laces around his neck and Dirkhold did the same.
"The footman didn't like that," whispered Dirkhold.
"He's a footman," said Alistair. "He's trained not to like anything."
It transpired that Dirkhold was a farmer on the Duke of Marsh-on-Wye's estate. He'd never been in a city before, much less in the presence of nobility. It took five minutes of convincing before he would so much as assent to sit down on a royal chaise. He babbled when nervous, a fact of which Alistair took full advantage. He was not inclined to openly discuss his own family situation, but by the end of an hour he was fully educated as to Dirkhold's.
When the Prince returned it was in full regalia - purple brocade frock-coat, snow-white stockings and pumps with diamond rosettes. His appearance quite stopped Dirkhold's mouth, although the Prince himself was all affability, and never called attention to the fact that Dirkhold did nothing but nod each time the Prince spoke.
"I understand the Baron discovered you," the Prince said to Alistair, when pursuing the same line of conversation with Dirkhold proved fruitless. "I shall have to see that he gets his reward."
"His reward, sir?"
"Indeed yes," said the Prince. "He's discovered more new talent than all my other scouts put together. It makes Sir Paul rather cross, which is just an added benefit."
"I see," said Alistair. For some reason a little of the joy went out of the afternoon. He picked up a dainty cake and ate the crystallised rose atop it, giving the Prince an opening to continue without him.
"I think a little healthy competition is good for all," said the Prince. "It encourages industry, which is one of my father's pet concepts. All the scouts work harder for knowing only one of them gets the turnip."
The Prince frowned. "Perhaps not a turnip. Some root vegetable, certainly. I can never recall the analogy correctly. I do believe donkeys are also involved."
"It would be interesting, sir," said Alistair, feeling an imp bite his soul, "if you gave the Baron a real turnip as a reward."
The Prince seemed much struck by the idea. "A gold-plated turnip," he mused. "Or a turnip with a jewel inside. By jove, that's a novel idea."
A soft puttering noise came from the chaise. Alistair compressed his lips, but the Prince let out a bark of laughter. "He's fallen asleep! Tuckered out, I'd say. My subjects never fail to amuse."
"I'm glad to hear it, sir." Alistair wondered if it was bad form to eat all the crystallised roses and none of the cakes. He decided it was, but since no one else was eating either cakes or roses he did it anyway.
"We'll leave him in peace," said the Prince, after a few minutes of amused observation. "Would you care to see something of the Palace? I'm of a mind to grand you a baronetcy. I like having new people about - the older courtiers can be so stuffy."
"Thank you, your Highness, but that is quite unnecessary," said Alistair.
"Let me be the judge of that." The Prince jumped to his feet. Something about his flashing smile reminded Alistair that the Prince was quite young - not much older than Alistair himself, for that matter.
Alistair let the Prince chatter on as he followed him through room after room festooned with velvet, gold plate and darkening mahogany. It was clear that some of the older pieces of furniture hadn't been moved in centuries; they gave the distinct impression that they'd bite if such impudence was attempted. At last the Prince threw open a pair of blue and gilt doors, from the Baron's sister's school of design, and led Alistair into the first room in which he could breathe freely.
"Now this is something," said Alistair, taking in the airy white furniture and periwinkle wallpaper.
"My favourite room." The Prince watched him narrowly, and broke into an answering smile when Alistair grinned at him.
There were French doors in two walls of the room, open to the breeze and a pale grey balcony. The view was marvellous, encompassing great swathes of frangipani and bougainvillaea, stripes of bright green grass and, away beyond all of it, the city itself. Gauzy drapes danced in the wind, which shuffled papers strewn across three or four desks. Above all it was a lived-in and living room, which was what separated it from the deadness in the rest of the Palace.
A low shelf near the windows caught Alistair's eye. He didn't hear himself gasp as went towards it. It was filled with the most fantastic wooden toys Alistair had ever seen. He picked up a train, three carriages long, which had doors that opened and seats filled with tiny, delicately-painted passengers whose arms really moved.
"Extraordinary, isn't it?" said the Prince. "I couldn't bear to part with any of them, although I'm at least a decade too old to have a legitimate interest in toys."
"These aren't toys, they're masterpieces," said Alistair. "My word, look at that set of cavalry soldiers."
"If you pull a string, the horses really gallop," said the Prince. "Mind you, my ... youthful enthusiasm somewhat exhausted the mechanism." At Alistair's raised eyebrows, he added, "In other words, I broke them."
"Maybe that's the point of toys," said Alistair. "They teach you not to break the things you love." He carefully set the train back on the shelf. He'd had a train just like that once - nothing like so fine, but it gave him just as much pleasure. Like most things he'd brought from his grandfather's house to Sir Paul's, it was long since gone, smashed under the heel of either Seb or Dommie.
"You look sad." The Prince put his hand on Alistair's chin, turning it up. "I don't want my newest wing to be sad."
"Just thinking of the past, your Highness," said Alistair. The Prince stroked his thumb over the dimple in Alistair's chin, just catching the underside of his lip. Alistair shivered.
"I say," said the Prince, the dreamy expression on his face solidifying somewhat, "your beard is falling off -"
At that moment a clock chimed - a low, hungry bellow. Alistair wrenched himself out of the Prince's grip.
"I'm sorry, your Highness," he gasped, "I must go."
"Don't forget the ball tomorrow night," the Prince called. "It's being held in your honour."
Alistair struggled with the doors. They finally parted, jolting Alistair backwards. One of his boots got stuck in the tiny gap; Alistair shrugged it off, feeling the other go too.
"Tomorrow, your Highness!" said Alistair. He grabbed the first footman he saw and demanded to be shown the exit. The footman was only too happy to oblige.
On the run home, Alistair attempted without success to remove his wig and beard. The depths his memory provided him with a reminder of the Baron mentioning something about soap and salt and piping hot water, but that didn't deter him. The mind-bending pain did.
Alistair retained a slim hope that his stepfather had remained on at the Palace, a hope that shrivelled and died when Sir Paul himself strode into the kitchen seconds after Alistair. This was a singular event in itself, but Sir Paul didn't seem in the mood to appreciate the marvels he had heretofore missed.
"You!" he growled, waving a shaking finger at Alistair's nose. "I might have known. After all I've done for you, you choose to betray me! Well, sir, I shall not stand for it! You stole my son's place on that team and by George I'll see you ruined first."
Alistair felt a wave of immense calm envelop him. "What do you propose to do? Lock me away until the Prince forgets my existence?"
"That'll be a jolly good start!" Spittle festooned every syllable. "You were foolish to trifle with me, boy. I'll have you on the first ship to the colonies if I have to stuff your pockets with my silver myself!"
He launched at Alistair, whipping an iron-filled fist around Alistair's arm. Not seeming to care if he broke any bones, he pulled Alistair up the stairs and towards the library. The racket brought the twins to the scene.
"Why'd you bring that dirty cheater here, Father?" growled Seb.
Dommie's eyes widened. "But that's Alistair!" he gasped. "I never knew he was so good at rugby."
"He's not!" howled Seb and Sir Paul at the same time.
"My skills," panted Alistair, "have been greatly exaggerated."
"Shut it, You." Sir Paul casually backhanded Alistair across the face. A revolting meaty tang filled his mouth. Sir Paul pushed Alistair through the library door, so hard he skidded to the ground, and slammed it behind him. There was a snick, far too small a sound for the significance due it.
"Come along," Alistair heard Sir Paul say, "we're going to Court."
"We've just come from Court," complained Dommie.
"There's room for you in the library too," said Sir Paul. "No further objections? Good. We have some explaining to do. I'm sure the Prince will be a little sad to hear of the death of his, ah, talented new wing, but Sebastian being such a fine replacement will be sure to ease his sorrow."
"I will? Oh. I will!"
"That's my boy," said Sir Paul.
Alistair crawled to the empty grate and spat out a mouthful of blood. The library had been designed by someone using monastery cells for inspiration. The only window was high in the wall and so tiny a snake would have lost a skin going through. One of the reasons the room was so seldom used - aside from Alistair's doubts that the twins could actually read - was the prohibitive cost of the candles required to light it.
Alistair tried the door. Three inches thick, solid oak, with a lock better suited to Newgate than a gentleman's residence. Short of battering it down with a dictionary, there was no way out by that route.
Alistair slid down, back against the wall. He hadn't eaten since early that morning and his head felt lighter than it should. Just when he needed his senses to be most acute, they grew fuzzier and fuzzier. Instead of searching for possible exit routes, his brain fancied itself in the past. How many times had he sat in here, dusting Sir Paul's never-read books, enduring the taunts of his illiterate sons? They thought they were cleverer than university dons, yet Seb couldn't even pass an exam. Sir Paul had had to build a new chapel for his college before they'd accept him.
"Sir Soot-face," taunted Seb's - or was it Dommie's? - voice. Alistair probably had soot on his face right now, from leaning over the grate. In the end, maybe that was his lot in life. Ignorant masters, a dirty face, and endless menial tasks. He'd been due to clean all the hearths tomorrow...
Alistair's eyes blinked open of their own accord, and swung sideways. There was the hearth. There was the grate. There was the chimney.
And beyond that ... freedom.
Alistair regretted his rash idea by the time he was half-way up the chimney. Unfortunately, by then it was even more difficult to go back down than to continue up. His every facial orifice was crammed with coal dust. He'd long since stopped bothering to wipe it away. His eyes stung with a million beats of pain, but something greater drove him on.
It was evening by the time he finally dragged himself through the chimney pot and on to the roof. It was then that another huge problem presented itself to his consciousness.
His heel kicked a slate and he slid, terrifyingly close to the precipice. "Goddamn Betty," he said. At that moment in time, she seemed the orchestrator of all his troubles. If she hadn't made him leave the house that morning, none of this would have happened.
"Did you hear that?"
Alistair stiffened. There was a lot of noise up here in the sky - thumps and bangs from inside the houses, creaks from the slates shifting, the low roar of smoke billowing out of the chimney stacks. An occasional bubble of sound from the street penetrated the rest. Alistair could have sworn that was -
"I'm sure of it. Alistair! Alistair! Can you hear me?"
"Betty?" called Alistair in disbelief. "Where are you?"
"Where are you?"
"On the roof!"
Silence reigned following this. Then -
"Can you get down?"
"Yes," said Alistair. "It's the getting down and being alive afterwards that I'm not entirely sure about."
"Alistair, can you hear me?"
A dart of surprise arrowed through Alistair's fog of panic. "Yes, your honour."
"Oh, for God's - listen to me. There's a window just under the roof. And another below that. If you can lower yourself to the ledge, you can hold on to it and drop down."
"And if I miss?"
"I suggest you do not miss."
Alistair had kicked off the Palace slippers during his ascent through the chimney. Now he dispensed with his shirt and waistcoat as well. Although the cold air scratched his bare skin, it was a sight less dangerous than wearing acres of material that might catch on things. He sent the bundle sailing out over the edge and, not leaving himself another second to deeply consider the situation, he rolled on to his stomach and wriggled over the side of the roof.
His feet banged against glass. Holding on to the gutter, his knuckles bursting into white, he lowered his body inch by inch until his toes found the ledge. It was approximately the width of a finger. Alistair nearly blacked out with terror; but given a choice between a baby-sized ledge and sudden painful death, his terror receded slightly.
The same force that propelled him through games spidered his body down the side of the house, from window to window. The wind scourged his back and turned his fingers and toes into senseless ice. And still he struggled on.
The last window was beside the door. The drop to the ground was about six feet, for the front steps and their fancy railings were designed to hide the existence of the kitchen level.
"I can't -" said Alistair.
"Swing this way," commanded the Baron. Alistair winched his head around. The Baron leaned over the railing. He didn't seem to care that the spikes tore his fine shirt to ribbons and his ribbons to threads.
"I can't," said Alistair.
"Don't be ridiculous," said the Baron, with a shrillness to his voice that Alistair didn't appreciate until later. He stretched out his arm, hand splayed. Obeying instinct, Alistair pushed the final inch and wrapped his cold fingers around the Baron's.
With Betty holding on to the back of the Baron's coat, he pulled Alistair over and across the railings. They collapsed in a heap, Alistair's face crushed into the Baron's heaving throat. Betty was the first to extricate herself.
"If anyone saw this, the scandal would be atrocious," she said. Alistair just wanted to sleep. Unfortunately, his pillow had other ideas.
The Baron struggled into a sitting position. Alistair grumbled his protest, burrowing into the crook of the Baron's neck and closing his eyes. With a sigh, the Baron patted his head.
"There goes that suit," he said. "And the scandal will be atrocious. Sir Paul is so immured in his own consequence he never saw the opportunity of having a star player in his household. When word gets out that he's been sitting on your talent for years ... well."
"Why did you come?" mumbled Alistair. "Sir Paul told the Prince I was dead."
The patting abruptly stopped. "He did what?"
"I suspected as much," said Betty. "The Palace?"
"At once!" said the Baron. "On second thoughts ..." He looked down at Alistair, who was losing the battle against sleep. "Perhaps we'd better call a hansom."
One Week Later
A soft knock preceded the Prince into Alistair's chamber. He smiled when he saw the tangled remains of five cravats, limp on the bed.
"I brought you these," said the Prince. He dangled Alistair's boots from one finger.
"My boots! In all the confusion, I forgot about them." Alistair tenderly took the boots and placed them near the fire. "It's a good thing you gave them to me, or I'd be playing the match tomorrow in my stockings."
"Do not you think we would have given you another pair?" said the Prince. "I imagine the royal coffers can extend to one paltry pair of shoes."
"These are my lucky pair," said Alistair. "In fact they're my only pair. I'm just glad to have them back."
"You look well," said the Prince. "The coat fits?"
"Perfectly," said Alistair. "Your tailor is a genius, your Highness."
"Pray don't tell him so. His head is quite fat enough already." The Prince stood up from the chaise longue and put a hand on Alistair's shoulder. His eyes, regarding Alistair's in the mirror's reflection, were serious. "Have you given any further thought to my offers? Any of them?"
"I have, your Highness." Alistair took a deep breath. "It was most kind and generous of you -"
"Oh, hang kind and generous. I made the offers for myself first."
"Which is why I'm even sorrier that I must decline." Alistair turned around, gently dislodging the Prince's hand. "I just want to play rugby, your Highness. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do."
"I could order you by Royal Decree," said the Prince, testingly.
"But you won't." Alistair went on tip-toes and brushed a kiss against the Prince's cheek. He was blushing furiously when he stepped away.
"Go on, then," said the Prince. "I shan't be along for another half-hour or so. Etiquette demands that I make an entrance."
"Thank you, sir," said Alistair.
"Yes, yes." The Prince waved him off.
Alistair burst into a wild run down the corridor, much to the disapproval of a nearby footman. He couldn't wait to attend the ball, meet his teammates, listen to Dirkhold's burbles of awe - see the Baron...
He rounded a corner and saw the Baron. He was standing with Betty - Betty who was decked out in silk and diamonds, her creamy hair swept up into a coronet. Their hands were clasped, Betty's head bent. Alistair's mind circled the scene, refusing to land. Of course, you heard of it sometimes - noblemen carried away by their passions, honourable enough to stand by their lights o' love. It never ended well.
"Alistair!" cried Betty. She dropped the Baron's hands and moved towards him. She was enchanting. Alistair hated her. "At last. We have something to tell you -"
"I'm sorry." Alistair cut her off coldly. He sketched a bow. "You must excuse me. I have a ball to attend."
Alistair slipped past them, only his dignity preventing him from running. His speed prevented him from hearing whatever it was she had to say.
The Large Brown Ballroom was packed to capacity when Alistair's name was announced. He disappeared gratefully into the throng. Dirkhold had found his tongue, which he was using to regale fascinated ladies with tales of ploughing.
The morass of people parted, revealing to Alistair in all its glory the refreshments table. The delicate punch-glasses held barely a sip, so Alistair refilled his until his hand started missing the ladle. He thought it incumbent upon him to take some fresh air. The balcony was hardly less crowded than the ballroom, but coolness burst against Alistair's flushed cheeks. His vision was somewhat less than precise, which was why he didn't recognise his stepbrother until Dommie plucked at his arm.
Dommie said something, but the words oozed in gelatinous incomprehension through Alistair's ears. "I thought you were gone," he said. "With Sir Paul."
"My father mumble mumble mumble," said Dommie. "Emperor Xang mumble. Mumble does not agree with me. Besides," and suddenly the words were too loud, thrashing against Alistair's eardrums, "I thought I'd have a crack at that maid. Only she's not a maid. Baron Ildewilde's sister. Quite a girl. She called me a festering mullet yesterday." Dommie beamed. "I think she likes me."
"What?" said Alistair stupidly.
"Ah, there she is. Lady Ildewilde! Over here!" Dommie waved an arm, decapitating a nearby plant and very nearly a waiter.
"Kindly desist," hissed Betty. Betty-in-a-diamond-crown. "You are making a hideous spectacle of yourself. Is there not a separate room for incurable oafs?"
"You look pretty," said Dommie. Betty rolled her eyes and snapped out a fan.
"Rupert's been looking for you this past hour," she said to Alistair. "We've been planning this surprise all week. You might do him the kindness of enduring it."
"Good lord, you're drunk." This seemed to amuse Betty greatly. "Oh, Dominic. Won't you do me the service of escorting your stepbrother to my brother? He's waiting somewhere by the door, unless he's lately been ensnared by a noblewoman on the make."
"Certainly, m'lady. May I also bring you some punch?"
Betty waved her fan like a cutlass. "Oh, I quite mistook what you said. My version was far more violent. Yes, I suppose you may."
Alistair felt a strong grip encase his elbow. He thought he should fight it, but there was no twisting and no pain and no suggestion that buckets of ice water would soon become involved, so he let it be.
Baron Ildewilde waited in the lobby, half in the shadow of a vast and ugly statue. Groups of sparkling women bedecked every corner, whom he regarded with slightly wild eyes. He was dressed in what appeared to be bright orange silk festooned with blue stripes. Alistair felt slightly more ill at the sight of it.
"He's drunk," said the Baron in disgust.
"It wasn't me!" protested Dommie.
"I do sincerely hope and pray," said the Baron, "that you will not become my brother-in-law. Go away now."
"I'm cold," said Alistair.
"Where's your coat?" asked the Baron. Alistair thought for a while. It was a question that required much pondering.
"I think," he said at length, "I put it on the ice-sculpture. It was melting."
"Oh, Lord." The Baron passed his hand over his eyes. His gloves were of fine gold netting sprinkled with sapphires. They were insanely hideous.
"Betty's not a maid, is she?" said Alistair, struck with sudden insight.
"No," said the Baron. "She can't sew for toffee, either. But she's a damn fine actress. I only fear that if there's not many intrigues in future she'll take to the stage."
"But why?" Alistair put his hand somewhere among the flame-coloured ruffles, searching for balance. He appeared to have lost it. He looked up into the Baron's eyes, which were narrowed in anger. Or uncertainty.
"Money. A lot of money," said the Baron. "Your grandfather's accumulated quite a pile from his custom-made toys. The Prince bought out his entire stock one year, when he was younger, and he's had Royal Patronage every since. Sir Paul is a slippery character. The only way to get around him was to be even slipperier."
"Oh," said Alistair, disappointed. "I thought it was because you liked me."
"I..." The Baron hesitated. "Do you recall when you lived in your grandfather's house?"
Alistair nodded, then wished he hadn't. The world spun in three different directions. "It was the happiest time of my life," he said simply. Before his mother remarried. Before she died. Before Sir Paul caught Alistair writing to his grandfather, and beat him so hard he didn't wake up for week.
"You used to play with me and my brothers in the tenement down the road," said the Baron. "Lord Scropie was visiting your grandfather one day when he spotted us - apparently because your grandfather suggested it. I owed him a debt, which has now been paid."
"Is that what you wanted to tell me?"
"Almost," said the Baron. "Your grandfather would like to see you. Now that Sir Paul's safely off teaching slaves to play rugby across the Eastern Oceans, would you like to see him too?"
"More than anything," said Alistair, which wasn't quite true. Apropos of nothing, he added, "I turned down the Prince's offer."
"Which one?" The Baron sounded bitter. "For his cabinet or for his bed?"
"Both," said Alistair breathlessly. "I told him I just wanted to play rugby."
The Baron's mouth twitched. Alistair put his hand up to feel the movement, rough-soft lips moving under his own.
"Call me Rupert," muttered the Baron, snatching a soul-jolting kiss from Alistair just before he passed out.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Except for Sir Paul, who caught yellow fever from one of Emperor Xang's concubines, and for Sebastian Mallett, who caught yellow fever from one of Emperor Xang's concubines. It was not so much the yellow fever, but the fact that it was the same concubine, that finished them.