The atmosphere in the boxing parlour is taut as a whip, fit to crack. Alexander stands in the ring, fists poised, knuckles bruised and bloody. His chest heaves, bare of shirt and spattered with blood from his opponent’s flattened nose. He rubs his forehead across his forearm, never removing his gaze from his adversary; who dances from foot to foot, emanating not the quiet grace and coiled power of pugilistic sparring, but uncontrolled, ill-mannered rage.
Reginald Daxbough the third challenged him to friendly sparring not long after he arrived to belt out some of his anxiety on a punching bag. He’d been too distracted to see the hard gleam of distaste in Reggie’s eye, but he’d known from the first wild swing that Reggie was not fighting as friend, that he aimed to teach Alexander a lesson, to put him in his place. His desire eloquently expressed in the full power drive of bare knuckles against flesh.
What could he do, then, but defend himself?
Now he stands, dripping another man’s blood, surrounded by a pack of well-heeled hyenas baying for Reggie to cripple him, to savage him, to bring him down like so much wounded cattle. He’s trapped. Either he stands down and allows this fool to best him, or he beats him and is forced to take on the entire watching crowd.
Alexander fights the urge to close his eyes, to give in. He’s too tired for battle here, too tired to deal with their irrational distaste for his shunning of their rarefied world.
How can these pampered milksops understand the call of the battlefield? He’s beyond the need or the desire to explain himself; wants only a return to familiar ground. The only impetus that drives is the yearning for what was lost; the petty concerns of these self-appointed gods of society are of no concern to him.
Reggie spits on the floor, there’s blood in it from loosened teeth. Alexander waits, balanced on the balls of his feet, muscles aching to act, as the battered Lordling runs his tongue over those teeth. He looks for a moment as if he’ll fight on, regardless of the fact he’s overmatched. But there’s fear in the backs of his eyes, swirling into the anger like mud through water, ugly and dull, and he straightens instead, tries to adopt a controlled demeanour, despite the physical evidence of his lack. A look of complete contempt sweeps across that broken face.
‘Name your seconds,’ Reggie demands coldly, voice blurred by the ruin of his nose.
Alexander lowers his own fists. ‘You expect me to duel now?’ He shakes his head in absolute disbelief. ‘I’m a soldier, Reggie. Do you really imagine I will be any less able with blade or pistol than I am with my fists?’
Reggie’s lip curls. ‘Are you a coward then?’ He leans forward, says with vicious precision, ‘Perhaps the rumours are true. You’re clearly not man enough to be a Lord. Perhaps we should indeed send you back to wallow in the mud of battle like the cowering swine you are.’
The rage comes so quickly it boils away the desire for any manner of reason. Alexander struggles to contain it, but it’s a force beyond his comprehension, let alone his control. All he wishes to do is reduce the puling, preening, arrogant poltroon before him to the snivelling wreck that lurks beneath that superior veneer.
‘Oh dear, parasols at dawn is it, ladies?’ The voice cuts through the room, a knife through silk, and rather like a maid whose décolletage has been sliced to immodesty by the cut of such a blade, the room freezes.
Having arrived late to the boxing parlour for his regular Friday evening spar with Gregory Peeves, the boxing master, Lucian’s unprepared for the extraordinary sight that awaits his incredulous eyes. Reggie Daxbough the third stood bleeding and frankly rather resoundingly pasted in the ring before quite the most glorious vision Lucian’s much-dissipated peepers have been fortunate to behold. It’s a ebony haired god, no less, possessed of the lean sculpturing of muscle only men such as himself, men of hard, brutally won physical competence, can boast.
Periwinkle blue eyes, purely molten with rage, lance across the ring at Reggie. They have only death in them and Reggie, being no fool beneath all his posturing and pomposity, blanches pale as vellum. Amusing as it might be to allow this little scene to play out, Lucian feels driven to protect the unfamiliar, yet astonishingly beautiful, man who’s about to earn himself a swing from the rope should he indulge the impulse he so clearly harbours.
‘Oh dear, parasols at dawn is it, ladies?’ he calls out, making sure to use his most cutting tone. He strides to the ring and gracefully ducks under the ropes. Ignoring Reggie for the moment, he addresses the beauty, ‘What appears to be the problem here, old boy? Has my young friend caused you offence?’
He catches his breath as those eyes turn to regard him. Beneath the rage there is despair, desperation, soul-deep exhaustion. Gad, those eyes are nothing but trouble with a capital Oh Shit. He swallows, raises a brow and, delving deep for self-control, drawls softly, ‘I don’t think Reggie meant offence, did you old chap?’
Reggie clears his throat. ‘No. No indeed. All a misunderstanding.’
Lucian continues to ignore him. The beauty blinks. Rage drains away and all those hiding emotions shutter behind a blank wall of defence. A soldier’s emotionless stare. And Lucian realises who this is, the man who is the sole topic of Salon gossip between both ladies and gentlemen of the Ton alike.
‘Alexander Du Pois, I do believe.’
The man nods. He still doesn’t speak.
‘I’m Lucian. Lucian Carmichael. Might I buy you a drink?’ He pauses a moment, and says with more gentleness than perhaps he intended, ‘You look as though you could use a friend.’
Something broken flickers across that extraordinary blue gaze and Lucian is again forced to fight an overwhelming surge of empathy, the underlying swell of deep attraction. It’s not as if these men would dare deride him for his predilections, nor would they have courage to pass judgement, it’s the beauty who would not cope. He sees it in his eyes. Alexander is a man on the verge of fracturing to shards. So Lucian stifles his errant desires, allows a gentle, slightly supercilious smile.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers, dear boy. I’d cultivate me if I were you, it’ll keep these savages from daring to put you on the spot at the very least.’
Alexander’s jaw tightens. Good. Resentment is better than fragility. The beauty finally speaks. ‘If you insist,’ he grits out.
Lucian has to restrain his hand from unmanfully flapping at his face. The voice matches the man, quite delicious, quite dangerously delicious. He hooks an arm through Alexander’s, knowing his popinjay’s attire will excuse such a frivolous act, and tugs him toward the ropes. ‘I always insist. I’m quite afraid it’s the most hideous flaw in my character, but I do assure you,’ he declares with an airy wave of his hand that produces, if he’s not much mistaken, the slightest ghost of a smile on the beauty’s face, ‘it’s the only one I possess.’
Murky light of dawn. Fires still smoulder between sleeping caravans. All is quiet. The perfect time for solitary creatures. Sat on one stoop, stroking a sleek, black cat, Saleth watches the sun’s slow ascent. Fingers of misty yellow, of dull, angry red, form a hand pushing back the relentless pitch of night. But she is not comforted.
‘Red sky in the morning,’ she mutters to the cat. ‘This bodes ill.’
The cat rubs against her thigh. Old wives’ tales? Really? What next, Saleth, the casting of bones? The reading of entrails?
Saleth hisses at the creature. ‘Silence, cat. Have you so divorced from your senses that you no longer feel the truth of things?’
The cat pauses to wash a paw, nonchalant, dismissive. I am not so jumpy that I react to shadows and childish fears manifesting from nought but ill-educated folklore. You are the one at leave of your senses. This place is getting to you, Saleth of Mosq.
Saleth sighs. ‘Perhaps you are right. But you cannot deny, cat, that the balance of things is disrupted. Disorder grows and the universe struggles to right itself. No good can come of this.’
And what can a red sky, even one so passing strange, do to hurry that along?
Saleth looks to the horizon. The red fingers of dawn-light grow to jagged talons as they reach across the sky, and she sees what it was that so disturbed her. The pushing away of night was but an illusion, the hand instead seems to hold the darkness, seek to pull it back across the sky and blot out the rising sun. She shudders. ‘Do you not see it? It is an omen.’
The cat sits on its haunches and gazes at the sky, whiskers twitching. It is not a pleasant sky, I’ll grant you, it says. But let us not panic until there is due cause.
‘I believe,’ Saleth says, her eyes fixed to the horizon, ‘that the moment in which we might have panicked is long since past. All we can do now is pray we survive the coming darkness.’
Pray to whom?
‘There’s the rub, cat,’ she says, idly fondling his ears. ‘This world is hollow, an ill-formed shell seeking to make itself whole by hook or by crook. There are no gods to pray to here.’
© Ren Warom 2012