Look, it's original slash about pretend-Regency England wherein they play rugby, inspired by this one time I ODed on Trollope. And if you think that sounds like a recipe for distaster ... you're right.
Thanks to backinblack for attempting to salvage anything worthwhile from this. You, sir, rock.
Rugby is a good occasion for keeping thirty bullies far from the center of the city ~ Oscar Wilde
"Ali, you've got to wake up!"
The sweet voice sounded so much like his mother's, which he now only half-remembered. Alistair smiled. The hand gently shaking his shoulder abruptly ceased. There came a fading patter of footsteps, followed by two loud voices, each striving to drown out the other.
"Damn, that's a pretty maid," said one, while the other laughed and said, "Not for much longer, if I have anything to do with it."
"Shut up - I saw her first."
"No, you shut up. I'll have her if I want her. You can take what's left."
"Just because you're three minutes older -"
By this time Alistair was fully awake, and wishing he wasn't.
"Look what we have here," said Dommie, who was three minutes younger and three inches shorter than his brother, and spent most of his life trying to make up the deficit. "It's Sir Soot-face."
"What do you think you're about, grubbing up my father's books like this? Don't you have some shoes to clean?" Seb sauntered around the leather-bound desk and flicked Alistair in the forehead. He flinched. "What's wrong? Scared?"
"If you like," said Alistair. "Does Sir Paul call for me?"
"If he does, I can't imagine why." Seb bestowed upon Alistair a look of utter scorn, lingering on his tired mouth, dirty hair and shabby shirt cuffs. "What on earth would he need your assistance for - cleaning the chimney?"
"Only when the chimneysweep wants to be paid a fair wage," said Alistair. Seb and Dommie looked at each other, then at Alistair, who schooled his face into blankness. Unable to tell if Alistair was in jest, and whether his comment was more offensive thus, Seb settled for pinching Alistair's neck hard enough to bruise. Alistair winced, but not enough for Seb's liking.
It was at that moment that Sir Paul strode through the door. His brocaded waistcoat strained across his ample midriff and sported not a few wine stains, but he exuded such an air of ferocious arrogance that no one would have dared to comment. Alistair did not like his step-father's looks, which put him too much in mind of a fat, white slug oozing out of a good suit, but he knew that in terms of cleanliness he had no basis on which to reproach Sir Paul.
"There you two are!" he exclaimed, in tones of high admonition. "Did not I remind that blasted housemaid to alert me to your arrival?"
"No," mouthed Alistair to himself. Sir Paul had drunk himself into a wine-sotted sleep before four o'clock, and it was now half-past eight.
"Never mind, I'll dock her wages. That'll sharpen the chit's memory. Well, Sebastian, well, Dominic. How goes it?"
"Seb's about to get rusticated," said Dommie gleefully. "We came away just before the don called for him."
"Humph. I don't see that there's much benefit in a university education anyhow. I'd say the rugby blues will be sad to lose him."
"They still have me," said Dommie.
Sir Paul cast a jaundiced eye over his younger son. "Prop forwards should be big, strong lads. I'll order in steak. You look to need building up."
Dommie pouted. Seb smoothed down his coarse forelock and smirked. Alistair hid his face in the encyclopaedia and indulged in a covert roll of his eyes.
"What do you intend to do with yourself now - aside from make a great nuisance of yourself?" But this was said affectionately.
"I have plans, governor." Seb puffed himself up, his fashionably pale calfskin breeches rolling with the effort of holding in his ham-sized thighs. "The Crown Prince is scouting for players to make a team against His Seraphic Highness Prince Joachim. Just last week Baron Idlewilde was granted a small country estate for his part in the victory against Emperor Xang's team. There's a fortune to be made at court."
"So you intend to put yourself forward?" said Sir Paul. "I could put in a good word. That Baron Ildewilde is nothing but a jumped-up commoner, but he acknowledges his debt to me yet."
"You may if you fancy it," said Seb negligently, "but I can't see how I'll need it. I was the number one player in my college, and far better than any frail little courtier. The Crown Prince will be begging me to be his hooker."
"You weren't the number one player, I was," argued Dommie.
"Well, you certainly are now." Seb hitched up his breeches, resplendent in being both the first rusticated and the first rugby player in the family.
Alistair was just pondering a quiet removal when Sir Paul's gaze fell on him. Alistair met the small, pink eyes squarely, knowing he was in for a scolding no matter what he did. If he hadn't been there, Sir Paul would have berated him for negligence. If he'd kept his eyes demurely trained on his book, Sir Paul would have demanded to know if he was raising a man or a lady mouse. It was a win-lose situation that was eternally in Sir Paul's favour.
"And why are You here, pray?" demanded Sir Paul. He hadn't called Alistair by his Christian name since his mother died, but everyone knew who he meant when he said 'You' like that.
"I was polishing the furniture, sir."
Sir Paul snorted. "Much good you've done. Hie you back to the kitchen, where you belong."
"Yes sir." Alistair bowed slightly. Seb cuffed him on the way out, and Dommie called, "Perhaps we shall pay you a call later, Sir Soot-face."
Alistair forbore to reply. He had already made a decision to run errands for cook all night - anything not to be in the same house as a bored Dommie and a vindictive Seb.
Betty was waiting for him at the foot of the servant's stairs. "Oh, Ali, I tried so hard to wake you before they arrived. Were they very cruel?"
"Only when they couldn't find an opportunity of being stupid," said Alistair. "You need to stay out of their way. Maids are of no consequence to them, and no one would think it objectionable if you were thrown out on the street."
"I will, but you should be careful too." Betty smiled winsomely, but Alistair was too tired for it to wreak the intended effect.
"I'm always careful," he said with a yawn. "Is cook about? I think I'll contrive that she needs more flour urgently."
"I can hide the bag if you like," Betty offered. Alistair blinked in surprise.
"You don't need to do that."
"I know." She smiled again and this time, Alistair took notice before she bustled off.
He wasn't sure if Betty's interest in him were a good or a bad thing. For her, it was uniformly bad - not only was she associating with the most disgraced member of the household, she laid herself open to even more indignities at the hands of the twins than the usual housemaid's lot. For himself, the prospect of having an ally in the house was almost incomprehensible.
Alistair had lived the greater part of his life accustomed to putting things out of his head, otherwise he would not have been able to bear the turn his life had taken. Setting aside Betty's behaviour was no trouble at all - especially when he had an 'errand' to grant him partial freedom for an hour or two.
There was only one place Alistair had to go, and he went.
The roar of his teammates' voices was as irrelevant as the wind that burned his skin. Alistair - his hair plastered to his skull, his thin shirt glued to his chest - flew. The ball in his arms was as close as his beating heart. Boots nipped at his ankles, fingers plucked his sleeves. He felt nothing, only the sure copper taste of victory. At the last minute a lucky foot tripped him, but he tumbled over the line with the ball yet in his possession. A second later he was the bottom of a heap of bodies.
"Gerrof him, gerrof him!" The shrill cry pierced the grunts of the dogpile, which gradated to agonised moans depending on depth. "Bunker, you great loon, it's over. Stop trying to get the ball."
Bunker sprang up to defend his honour. Alastair immediately felt a considerable reduction in the force that was attempting to crush him through the ground. A few seconds more, with the help of further shrill cries and negative epithets about the players' ancestry, and Alastair was able to roll free. He dropped the ball carelessly, knowing a dozen vengeful eyes watched and brooded.
"Good one, good one," said the owner of both the shrill voice and a ridiculous three-foot tall top hat, which could not be removed under any persuasion. His name was Jimmy. If Jimmy wasn't so quick to refute the fact himself, or to clean his teeth with a pick carved from the little finger bone of his enemies, Alastair might have called him a friend. As it was, they were acquaintances and occasional teammates, and Alastair let the definition go at that.
"Another game?" asked Bunker. He'd snatched up the ball as soon as Alastair released it and was now cradling it, the look on his face that of a maternal mastiff.
Alastair shook his head. "Duty calls."
"Lily-liver," said Bunker.
"Apt, mate, apt," said Jimmy. "You cried when someone trod on your foot the last game, am I not correct? Am I not correct?"
Bunker suddenly became extremely interested in coercing the other apprentices into a rematch. Alastair doubted he'd be very successful. Jimmy was thumbing through a little black notebook, meaning he intended to return to work, which put two of the best players out of the running. Most of the young men only participated because Jack Straw, who owned the scrap of land on which they played, was a fan of the game. He was also, by lucky coincidence, a bookie. Quite a few of the Blue Cul-de-Sac inhabitants were willing to put money on the scrambled-together teams. The profit Jack turned easily enabled him to distribute a free beaker of ale to all participants.
"You not thirsty?" Jimmy asked Alistair quietly. Alistair shook his head. He'd once been foolish enough to return to Sir Paul's house with hops on his breath. He didn't intend to repeat the experience that followed.
"Pity, pity," said Jimmy, slightly louder. "Word's out on royal scouts."
"Word's always out on royal scouts," said Alistair. "If they ever watched any game but those in the colleges, I - well. I'd eat your hat."
"Probably not to be recommended," said a voice from behind him. "Next time we declare war, we won't need troops. We'll just send in that young man's hat and everyone will die of plague inside a week."
"I take offence to that, I take offence to that," said Jimmy. "Cholera, I'll give you, but plague?"
Alastair turned around slowly. The man lounging against the wall was younger than his voice suggested. This voice was roughened, the veneer of civility sheer against the tumult of darkness beneath. His appearance was quite at odds with it, being foppish to the point of dandyism. He was even wearing lace gloves. The lace was black and edged with something that, if Alastair didn't know better regarding the fashionable world's distain for heavy metals, might have been steel. And yet - they were still lace gloves.
"Excuse me a moment," said the man. He ducked sideways, under the brim of his huge and feather-tortured hat, and released a small squeak. When he re-emerged, the little pointed moustache and beard were gone, leaving bubbly red skin in their place. "So my disguise really was impenetrable?" he said when Alastair and Jimmy just stared at him in silence.
"No, yer honner," said Jimmy. "You look like a tool either way."
"Didn't we have the conversation about politeness?" said Alistair.
"We did, we did," said Jimmy. "Came in right handy when we had to put Sharkey John out of business. He asked me to please not cut his head off, and I remembered what you said about saying please, so I didn't."
"Oh, really?" said Alistair. In Jimmy's world it was eat or be eaten, so Alistair sometimes tried to advise him on the third, non-edible option. He had sincere doubts that Jimmy actually listened, however.
"Yes," said Jimmy. "I cut his bollocks off instead."
"What a charming tale," said the man. "And your name is?"
"Jimmy Blackteeth," said Jimmy. "Pleasedtomeetcha, yer honner." He winked at Alistair, as if to make sure he'd noticed the 'pleased'.
"Your teeth are ... not black," said the man. Jimmy flashed him another golden grin.
"Well, I've come up in the world, I have, I have," he said. "But names tend to stick."
"Don't I know it," muttered the man.
"Have you two met before?" asked Alistair. It was not outside the bounds of possibility. Jimmy was quite the savvy businessman, although not one regularly received at the tradesmen's entrance. An unlocked ground floor window, perhaps.
"I know the Baron here by reputation, you could say," said Jimmy. Alistair's eyes widened.
"Baron Idlewilde?" he said. "The royal rugby scout?"
"Well, not the," the Baron corrected him, but Alistair could tell he was pleased. "There are several of us. There need to be. Emperor Xang has a population of two million slaves to choose from; word is he's still smarting from our thrashing. He won't underestimate us again, which means we need to keep raking up new talent if we're to win the Five Courts Cup."
"There's plenty of it about," said Alistair, thinking of Seb's hopes and dreams.
"I like to think so," said the Baron. "Gentlemen, may I buy you a drink?"
"You may buy me three," said Jimmy.
Alistair had a moment of crushing regret, but it was the same moment that the rooftops became drenched in moonlight. He didn't own a watch, but he didn't have to; he was late.
"I'm very sorry, but I have to go," he said. Before the Baron could speak, Alistair was off. His speed did him great service as he scooped up his jacket and hat, not spilling the bag of flour tucked in the bowl, and sprinted off into the night.
Every single vertebrae in Alistair's spine clamoured to lodge a formal complaint of misuse against his brain. Cleaning fifteen pairs of rugby boots would do that to a person. If Alistair hadn't been able to fit his arm to the elbow inside one of Seb's boots, he would have considered misplacing a pair for his own use. Seb and Dommie were exceedingly careless when it came to their possessions, and the force of Seb's kick shredded more boots than he could ever miss. Unfortunately, Alistair's feet were tiny by comparison. As well to strap on a pair of buckets and attempt to play in those.
A snatch of soft song broke into Alistair's musings. Betty meandered down the back stairs, swinging a basket of linens with gay abandon. Her face broke into a smile when she saw Alistair, which for some reason brought heat to his face. A buttery curl escaped from the confines of her snowy mobcap as she heaved the linens into the large copper cauldron established for the purpose.
"My word, that's a lot of shoes," said Betty. "Who could possibly need that many?"
"Who do you think?" asked Alistair.
"Are you nearly done?" asked Betty. "Only, I have to go to market to fetch more carrots. I could do with a strong back to help me."
Alistair slit his eyes to the heavy bed sheets currently smouldering in boiling water, but he nodded. "Just let me finish the last two pairs, and I'll be at your service."
To his surprise, Betty didn't leave to fulfil another duty in the meantime. Instead, she hacked off a slice of bread with more savagery than finesse and buttered it. She ate perched on a chair, with the tips of her greying boots peeking out from under the serviceable navy stuff of her gown.
"You have very long fingers," she said, which to Alistair didn't appear to be at all to the purpose.
"I, well - yes. They used to be shorter," he added, "but they grew."
Betty giggled. Alistair couldn't understand why. "You weren't born a servant, were you?"
"No one is born a servant," said Alistair. "It's something one becomes, through desire or necessity."
"Who desires to be a servant?" Betty brushed crumbs off her skirt with a rather dismissive movement.
"There are worse things," said Alistair quietly. To forestall further questioning, he gave a final swipe to the last boot and set it down beside its partner. "All done."
"I'll get my cape." Betty jumped from her chair. As she passed Alistair she pressed something into his hands. "I'll be two minutes."
Alistair looked down. She'd cut him a ragged slice of bread. The butter was smeared oddly: two large dabs and one long stripe. It took him a while before he recognised the smiling face.
Sir Paul ran a sloppy household. So long as there was port enough to sot his thirst and good meat and pies at his table, he cared little if the floors were sparkling or all the fires lit. The only person in the household he kept close tabs on was Alistair, something Alistair realised with force when Betty extended a five-minute errand into an hour-long browsing spree.
In a way it was pleasant, for Betty clung to his arm and the warmth of a rare human touch thrilled him, in the same way it did when he played rugby. Yet there was a constant undercurrent of anxiety, especially as the minutes trickled on. Alistair supposed he was a coward, but he preferred to think of himself as cautious. Sir Paul would find a reason to punish him regardless of his punctuality or lack thereof; Alistair simply didn't believe in handing him ammunition.
"Ooh, look, the flower market!" Betty closed her eyes and sniffed ecstatically. Alistair couldn't suppress a smile at her delighted expression. "Shall we go in?"
"Sir Paul doesn't require flowers, I am sure."
"Hang Sir Paul," retorted Betty. "Is he here now?"
She wrenched her arm out of his and marched beneath the bowered entrance. Alistair followed reluctantly. He was carrying the basket of groceries and the bills. Neither of them had any money, but Betty was a far more likely target for a pickpocket - or worse.
At first he couldn't see her, and his heart pinched in fright. Then the sound of a familiar giggle drifted through a bank of roses. Alistair wriggled past two vendors conducting a duel with potted ferns and saw Betty, a crown of Brazilian roses and blue Gerber daises replacing her mobcap. She looked young and silly, her smile too bright.
Alistair strode over and hissed in her ear, "You know we can't pay for those."
Betty pouted, but the sight of a familiar, dirt-shiny hat interrupted their burgeoning tiff. "All in hand, all in hand," said Jimmy. "I think she looks quite fetching."
"I agree," said Betty, examining her reflection in a gilded mirror apparently set there for the purpose.
"What's in it for you?" Alistair asked Jimmy.
"I can't buy pretty flowers for a pretty lady?" Alistair just stared. "All right, all right. I can't buy pretty flowers for a pretty lady."
"It's fine." Betty patted Alistair's arm. Her hands were quite smooth for a housemaid's. "Jimmy and I are old friends. He asked me to bring you here as a favour. And also for money."
"I bought you flowers!" protested Jimmy.
"No one made you." Betty adjusted her crown with a smirk. "That'll be five shillings, thank you."
Curling his lip and exposing the full glory that was his nine carat plate, Jimmy deposited a handful of soiled coins in Betty's outstretched palm.
"Five shillings? I would have come for free," said Alistair.
"That's because you have the business sense of a goat," Betty told him. "I'll just be over here, examining the lilies Jimmy's going to buy me and not hearing a word."
"She's a fine woman," said Jimmy with admiration.
"The last time you said that, you ended up down an ear," said Alistair. "Are you going to let me in on the mystery? Especially when you could have seen me tomorrow night without the scented backdrop?"
"Too many ears, too many ears," said Jimmy, tapping what was left of his with a conspiratorial air. "I've been instructed to pass this on to you." He handed over a letter, sealed with a blob of gold wax. Alistair squinted, but the alignment was too poor to make out the details of the crest.
"Did you open this already?" he asked.
"Didn't have to. I already know what it says."
Alistair carefully broke the seal. It split reluctantly, verifying Jimmy's claim although not necessarily Alistair's lack of trust. Dear Sir, the letter ran, in the careful hand of a trained scribe, We, the Undersigned Royal Scouts, are Delighted to Invite you to a Royal Trial on Wednesday the Fifth of August at Four of the Clock. Those Lucky enough to win a Place on the Team will go on to Win Glory and Honour beyond their Wildest Imaginings. Yours, Duke Marsh-on-Wye, Baron Ildewilde, Sir Mallett and Lord Scropie.
"Did you forge this?" demanded Alistair.
"No!" Jimmy sounded affronted. "That is, I could have. But I didn't. Not this time. Although my rates are extremely reasonable -"
"Sir Paul would never send me such a letter," said Alistair.
"True, true," said Jimmy. "He didn't. It was Baron Ildewilde. He may dress like he's blind but he's clearly not. He wants you for the wing. These have been going out all over the kingdom. I daresay Sir Paul Mallett-head doesn't know who the other scouts picked. And why should that stop you?"
"He'll be there." Alistair mechanically refolded the letter. "At the trial. If he sees me..."
Jimmy just looked at him for a while. "There's plenty of openings," he said. "In the meat and dog trade with me. Even another household - no one can keep good kitchen staff for long. Why do you stay with him?"
Alistair sighed. "Because if I don't, he'll kill -"
"You're a big lad," said Jimmy, "and fast. Fast. I could teach you skills that'd make the best assassin wish he'd become a chartered accountant instead."
"You don't understand," said Alistair. "If I leave, he won't kill me. He'll kill the only person I'd stay to save."
"Your ma's dead, though. Unless..." Jimmy glanced over to Betty, who was gathering a monstrous bouquet by dint of asking each vendor for their most expensive blooms.
"No, not her." Alistair sighed. "My grandfather."
Betty's sulks ended the moment they entered the backdoor of the kitchen. She'd alternately pleaded and begged all the way home and, when such tactics failed, evidently felt opting for a cold shoulder was the next-best logistical manoeuvre.
Seb was lounging by the meagre fire. Alistair could see at once that he would have to re-clean each and everyone of the fifteen pairs of boots. Dommie would have gone outside and dropped them in the coal bin first, but Seb went to no such trouble. He merely smirked around a toothpick and let Alistair infer the rest.
"Excuse me, sir," said Betty. Her voice and air were quieter and more demure than Alistair had thought her capable of, and he credited her with more wisdom than he had previously. She stowed away the basket of turnips and flowers and left the room, not with any noticeable haste, but speedily nonetheless.
"She's a fine armful, I'd warrant," said Seb. He appeared to require an answer, so Alistair said politely:
"I wouldn't know, sir."
"I imagine not. You're a bit slow, really. Ain't you?"
"Yes. Sir." Alistair slid a pause between the two words, which Seb didn't notice but which gave him slight satisfaction.
"You'll be needing to clean my boots," said Seb. "I can't think why you left the house without doing so first. You're a lazy, worthless cad. I suppose that explains it." He tapped snuff into the hollow of his thumb and sniffed it, making a noise akin to that of a famished pig. "I'll need them properly clean and serviceable for Wednesday."
"Yes, Wednesday," mimicked Seb. "Before Thursday and after Monday."
"What?" said Seb, disconcerted.
"It's the day that comes before Wednesday," said Alistair, "sir."
"That's what I said, fool." Seb snuffled up a little more snuff, then tried to disguise his sneezing fit as laughter. "You are looking at the next hooker on His Royal Highness' Five Courts team."
"Congratulations on a successful trial, sir." Alistair sat down on a stool and began buffing the already spotless heel of one boot. His angle provided him with the unique opportunity to observe how Seb's capacious stomach rolled over the top of his close-fitting breeches.
"Yes, it will be a successful trial," said Seb. "I'm a shoo-in. I'd advise you to bet on me, only of course you've not a brass razoo to call your own."
"Sir." Alistair inclined his head.
"You're quite the little wind-up monkey," complained Seb. "I'd get better conversation from a door."
"Indeed, sir? Sorry, sir."
"Well, see that you finish those promptly. I'll want you to supervise the cleaning of my lucky kit personally. I like knowing who to blame." Seb lumbered upright.
"How many places are being offered in the trials?" asked Alistair, adding belatedly, "Sir."
"One," said Seb. "Well, two, but I'm guaranteed to get a slot."
"Undoubtedly, sir," said Alistair. "Will that be all?"
"Unless you'd care to tell me which room that pretty maid sleeps in." Seb leered. Alistair wondered if he thought that was attractive, as opposed to unanimously hideous.
"I would not, sir," said Alistair, with such greasy unctuousness that Seb nodded with an expression as close to geniality as he ever ventured. It would undoubtedly take him several hours to spot the discrepancy - plenty of time for Betty to invest in a five-shilling lock.
Wednesday rolled around with much clamour in the Mallett household. Dommie had not come in for any nepotistic benefits and consequently was in a rage. Alistair genuinely believed that Sir Paul had done this for reasons of sense and not favouritism - 'You're going back to university next week; are you going to let your college team down, sir?' Dommie did not quite see it that way; either that or he did not have the same standards of sportsmanship and honour as his father. Alistair had watched this scene play out a hundred times during his residence with the twins. Whatever Seb got Dommie wanted, even if he already possessed an exact replica.
Seb, for his part, was all swagger. He ate three enormous sirloin steaks at every meal, disgusting the cook by his insistence that they be cooked extremely rare. He was forever sending down for raw eggs beaten with whiskey in a tall glass. He certainly expanded in width and consequence due to his new regime, but the fact that it took him a quarter of an hour to mount the stairs, with stops to catch his breath, seemed to him to be of little note.
Since their visit to the market, Betty had not mentioned Alistair's invitation to the trial. Alistair was grateful for her silence. He had enough regrets of his own without her adding to the burden.
His gratefulness vanished in an instant on Wednesday morning, when Betty appeared in the kitchen where Alistair was seasoning yet another lump of meat with onion sauce. The cook had retired to her bed in despair at the proletarian downturn. Betty was dressed in a bonnet and cloak, so Alistair presumed she'd come in to fetch a shopping basket. As it turned out, she'd come to fetch him.
"I can't possibly leave," protested Alistair. Betty tugged on his arm. She had a surprisingly strong grip for such a tiny girl. "Seb expects to eat at least five times before four o'clock, and there's his kit to prepare -"
"The cook will look after the food," said Betty. "It's rather the point of having a cook. And as for his kit, I have it in hand. I've just come from upstairs - they're all so preoccupied they'll never notice you've left."
"I wish I shared your confidence," said Alistair. Betty's fingernails jabbed him, minute pricks of pain.
"Your wish is granted," said Betty, and pulled him out the door.
"Where are we going?" Alistair took loping strides to reduce the need to break into a run. Betty's grip was cutting off the circulation to his lower arm. The scenery whizzed past, but Alistair could tell they were in a shabby-genteel area, with houses of the sort rented by parson's daughters and their maiden aunts on the lookout for a sufficiently rich and stupid husband.
"Here," said Betty. She stopped outside the last house on the street, which turned off into an avenue of slightly grander establishments. Jimmy materialised out of the shadows, some of which seemed to cling to his hat.
"I might have known," said Alistair.
"You're late, you're late," accused Jimmy. "We've barely an hour between us and the kick-off. What were you thinking, chit?"
"It's my fault that he's stubborn as a mule? I thought I'd have to drag him out by his bootstraps."
"It might have been a quicker." Jimmy chivvied them up the steps and thumped the knocker. It was in the shape of a grumpy lion's head. Alistair wondered where he'd seen it before.
The butler who opened the door was of the best sort, one trained not to bat an eyelid when forced to entertain gentlemen with corpses or live tigers. Two grubby servants and a street arab were hardly worth his concern.
He showed them to a drawing room decked out in green and blue stripes. It gave Alistair the impression of being underwater. The upholstery on the sofas was both expensive and worn, and there were holes in the carpet under the writing desk, as if someone were in the habit of kicking at it when lost in thought.
From overhead came a series of discombobulating thumps and what might have been a raised voice, abruptly cut off. The stairs screamed in protest as someone thundered down them. The butler opened the door and bubbled, "His honour the Baron Idlewilde," just before the Baron tumbled into the room.
It was clear that the Baron had just been bathing. His hair fell in sticky waves across his forehead and down his neck, and the ruffles on his shirt were unequal to the task of soaking up the water that rendered most of the garment translucent. Alistair thought it would be impolite to glance down and see if in his haste the Baron's plackets were undone; besides, Jimmy was sniggering, so ten-to-one they were.
The Baron opened his mouth, spotted the clock held captive between prancing bronze lions on the mantle, and clapped a hand to his face. The amethyst on his fourth finger and the aquamarine on his littlest did nothing to disguise the fact that his hands were large and broad, the fingers too roughened to be precisely genteel. Alistair noticed the rims of black under his own fingernails and hastily clasped his hands behind his back.
"Damnation, is that the time?" said the Baron. "I've been running to catch up with myself all day." He turned to Betty, evincing no surprise that a housemaid was making herself comfortable in his second-best armchair. "Go hunt down Beckett, he knows where Alistair's kit is. Which is more than I do."
"You shouldn't let your servants run your household," chided Betty. "Or rather, you should, but you shouldn't make it so obvious."
The Baron shrugged irritably. Alistair was distracted by the thoughtful way Jimmy caressed a mother-of-pearl cigar box. They had a brief but poignant conversation in eyebrow Morse code before Jimmy gave an exaggerated sigh and set the box down on an occasional table.
"My apologies," said the Baron. Alistair jumped; he hadn't realised the Baron was right at his shoulder. "I meant to leave you enough time for a quick training session - I have a magnificent garden behind the house, although you wouldn't think it - and a bath." Alistair shivered at that; perhaps because one of the Baron's cold, damp ruffles brushed the back of his neck. "As it is, we'll just get to the Palace pitch in time. I trust you don't object to travelling in a phaeton?"
"No, indeed," said Alistair, after a minute in which he searched desperately for his voice. It came back rustier than it left. "Sir, I hope you will not think me ungrateful, but - why are you doing this for me?"
The Baron looked up from twisting his rings. His frown cleared. "Please, call me Rupert. The reason is simple: I want His Royal Highness to have the best team possible. I conjecture you would make a splendid wing. Jimmy here intimated that you have some difficulties with your current position that may prevent you playing. I empathise. Call it ... paying back a good turn."
"Oh," said Alistair. The Baron's eyes were the colour of warm treacle. He clapped Alistair on the shoulder and moved away, exclaiming, "Ah, Beckett. The kit is ready?"
"But of course," said Beckett, sounding bored. "If the young gentleman would follow me?"
"Do you need any help?" asked Betty, sounding rather more keen than she did when cook asked her to chip in with peeling vegetables. Alistair couldn't think why.
"Beckett is fine," said the Baron, a note of warning in his voice. "Aren't you, Beckett?"
"Indubitably," said Beckett. "If you'll come this way?"
Alistair followed the stiff-backed butler up the stairs and into a messy bedroom. The yellow satin bedclothes were in a rumple at the foot of the four-poster. Alistair tripped on a pile of boots with no shoelaces and had to steady himself on a dressing table loaded down with newspapers, quill pens, silver-backed brushes and a small goldfish in a bowl.
"If you care to remove your garments behind the screen," said Beckett.
Alistair waded across the detritus on the floor to said screen, which was gaudily decorated in turquoise peacocks embroidered on to gold silk. He slipped off his brown breeches and ragged shirt, tossing them over the top of the screen with his stockings and cravat. He wondered what on earth was in store. As Beckett handed him item after item, each time ascertaining with some surprise that Alistair was able to put it on unaided, all became clear.
Alistair had seen the royal team on parade before matches and, once, had sneaked into a building overlooking the pitch with Jimmy to watch a match. The white breeches and stockings, the loose white shirt with the red waistcoat and cravat, were just like those worn by His Royal Highness' team. The boots were gold-tooled leather; they fit like they were made for him.
The Baron came into the room just as Alistair was wrestling with his cravat, although he didn't realise it till the Baron called, "Nearly done? I do hate to rush you, old chap, but time is pressing on."
Alistair emerged, flushed and with both ends of the cravat clenched in his fists. The Baron laughed.
"I see the difficulty," he said. "Not to fear - we don't have any of Brummell's nonsense here. Most of the chaps pull them off before half-time. The thing is merely to look presentable." He eased the cloth out of Alistair's grip and, with a few deft movements, knotted it around his neck. He bent forward to whisper in Alistair's ear, under the pretext of straightening a fold, "Is Beckett twitching?"
Alistair looked over the Baron's broad shoulder. Beckett did indeed look discomposed, and was occupying his hands by sprinkling into the fishbowl more crumbs than would satisfy a shark. Alistair nodded.
"He hates that I can tie my own cravat," continued the Baron, still whispering. "He says it's ungentlemanly."
"Is it?" asked Alistair, also quietly.
"I'm not sure that's the point." The Baron's grin was wicked and brief. "All done," he said in his normal voice, smoothing Alistair's shirt. "And now for the piece de resistance."
He produced a gilt box, which he opened to reveal several scraps of felt in various colours. "Hmm," said the Baron. He held one such scrap up against Alistair's cheek. "That's about the right shade. Where's the glue?"
"Here, sir," said Beckett.
"Sit down." The Baron turned it into an order by pushing on Alistair's shoulder. Alistair bounced a little; the bed was springy. "I'd offer you the chair, but it's otherwise occupied." The occupant was a snoozing pug. He didn't look vicious, but nor did he look inclined to move for anything bar an earthquake.
The Baron applied a line of glue to the felt he'd chosen, which tingled on Alistair's skin. With his lip between his teeth and his eyes fixed disconcertingly on Alistair's face, the Baron added more and more felt. When he was satisfied, he held up a mirror for Alistair's benefit.
"I look like a bear died on my face," said Alistair. "Was that the intended effect?"
"You have a beard," the Baron corrected him, with a tinge of annoyance. "It's a disguise."
"Oh." Alistair touched the felt moustache with his fingertips. "I'm not sure it will fool anyone who's actually met me."
"Well, I'm not finished yet," said the Baron. Definitely nettled. Alistair caught Beckett's eye, hoping for evidence of sympathy or even just humanity, but Beckett turned an empty stare back on him.
"More glue!" snapped the Baron. He bent down - the shirt still sticking to the wet spots on his back - and pulled a box from under the bed.
It contained a wig.
Alistair stared at the wig. He stared at the Baron. It was clear Alistair and the wig were to become one. He'd been hoping for a pair of spectacles, or perhaps a distractingly large beauty spot.
He sighed and bent his head.