Alchemy Chapter One 1/8

By Calista Echo

England

Christmas

 

The day was drear, with gray clouds so pregnant with snow that they almost seemed to touch the roofs of the buildings that lined the village streets. The wind had picked up during the night and the cold penetrated their thin-soled shoes. The woman hurried her son along. It was important they not be late.

She looked at Blair, his short legs pumping to keep up with her longer strides. He had fallen silent after a telling her about a man named Darwin and his bizarre and astonishing theories. That her young son would have read about such a thing and found it of interest did not surprise her.

 Blair seemed to absorb information through his pores and there always some new bit that caught his imagination and had to be shared. Sometimes she feared her head would explode with all the information he sought to impart to her.

She was taking him to live in a castle. He would be warm and dry and fed. Lord knew, she couldn't give him these things. Blair deserved all that and much more. He'd learned to read before he wad five, and ferreted out every scrap of paper with printing on it that he could find. For a while she had worked at a lending library and Blair had been rarely seen or heard as he made his way through the stacks. 

Born in a different way, he would have gone to Cambridge and been a scholar.

But Naomi had made a mistake that both of them would pay for the rest of their lives. She caressed the top of his head, her hands finding comfort in his thick curls. She had lost a great deal when she made her impulsive decision to marry Aidan O'Malley.

 A decision made, but never realized. Aidan had disappeared, leaving Naomi pregnant. Her impulsiveness had cost her everything. Fine clothes, glittering balls, a beautiful home, her family. Of all the things that she had lost in that foolish gamble, Blair's future was the one she regretted the most.

The people she was taking to him thought him five; she hoped that bit of flim-flam would hold. He looked cold, but then, once August passed, he always looked cold. His huge blue eyes looked up at her with such trust she almost turned back. But no. Blair might not see it this way but it was for the best, and she would see it through. It was the day before Christmas. This was the very best present she could hope to give him.

The best she could hope for Blair was a kindly master and enough food to eat. He was so thin that the gauntness of his face magnified his eyes, until they looked like two huge sapphires. If he'd been born female, his beauty and birth status would have condemned him to a brothel. As it was, the sooner he was off the streets the better.

They soon left the confines of the village and began the long walk through the countryside to Saybrooke Castle. Blair was unusually quiet, as if he understood the day would change his life. Normally she couldn't hear herself think for all his chatter. She wished right now that he would tell one of his stories about the Incas and the gold that paved their streets. He'd read a book at the library on them last week and it was all he talked about, until they had begun this journey. 

His enthusiasm for sharing all that he read sometimes caused problems. Like the time he felt compelled to educate her on the mating rituals of hedgehogs. In the middle of Covent Gardens. Remembering the glares of the matrons still made Naomi's cheek burn.

His stories always made the time go faster, and would give her something to think about on the long way back. At that thought, she almost broke down and cried. No longer would she have Blair as her companion. She held it all in, the journey home was time enough for tears. It wouldn't do to let Blair see her weepy. He needed to remember her happy.

At last Saybrooke came into view. It was an impressive estate, regal in bearing, with a graceful symmetry often lacking in old homes. They passed through ornate gates and entered into the formal park that led to the house. About half a mile in, the lane curved and the house dropped out of view. Naomi knelt down. Blair looked at her with solemn eyes and simply waited to hear what she had to say.

"Blair, sweetie, you know I love you. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I've found a position, but they won't let me bring you with me. So I found you a place here, at this lovely house we're going  to. You'll be a big help here. And you'll be warm and fed and I'll write you every week."

"You're leaving me here?" Blair's eyes filled with tears.

"Yes, sweet, but just for a little while. I'm sure the fine people at Wentworth Manor will let me bring you there once they see I'm a good worker. So just for a short time, Blair baby."

"Don't call me baby. I'm not a baby."

Naomi smiled at the scowl on Blair's cherubic face.

"No, Blair, you're not a baby, but you'll always be *my* baby."

"I hate that." He stuck his bottom lip out in a mock pout.

"Yes, I know," Naomi said, absent-mindedly. This made her remember something else she needed to tell Blair.

"The people here think you are only five. They wanted someone that young to train. Think you can pretend you're five?"

"I'm not going to act like a baby."

"No, no, I'm not asking you to, just don't tell them you're eight. All right? It's our secret."

Blair regarded his mother with gravity. He loved her with all the passion and affection in his young soul. The last few years had gotten harder and harder, and in some ways Blair was glad she was going to be safe in a, what? Position.

Blair had had a devil of a time keeping his beautiful mother safe from the men who would prey upon a vulnerable woman alone in the world. He'd used every trick in the book. Making good use of his ability to read, he'd learned just what herbs would make someone sick, and which insects were the most venomous.

When that didn't work he followed the men sniffing around his mother. He never failed to find something to threaten them with if they didn't leave his mother alone. His anonymous letters always managed to fend them off. He wished he were bigger. Not bigger, really big. So big he would be able to pummel the leering faces into a bloody pulp. His small stature was a real drawback sometimes.

Now they were parting with Naomi's assurances that it wouldn't be for long. 

Blair drew in a long breath and centered himself, the way the book on India had taught him to. He would be a big boy and brave and kiss his mother on the cheek and say good bye. And not cry. He wouldn't cry.

"All right, mama, our secret."

She smiled at him and as always, he marveled at what a wondrous mother he had. No matter how dark or cold the day, her smile made everything bright and fun. He would miss her terribly. 

Be brave, be brave, be brave, he chanted to himself.

She left him at the back door with Mrs. Martin, the housekeeper. He would have liked to watch her walk away, but Mrs. Martin hurried to close the door on the blustery day. She looked down at him, her hands on her generous hips.

"You're not going to start pumping water now, are ya? I don't take to cryin'. Can't abide it."

Blair bit his lip. Truth be told, he had wanted to cry, even though he'd told himself not to. 

He shook his head no and only one lone tear ran down his face.

"That's a good lad. Would you like a bit of cake before I hand you over to Perkins?"

Blair looked up at Mrs. Martin. She was nothing like his delicate, lovely mother. She loomed tall and wide. Her hands rested on her ample hips. Blair found that he liked her, he liked the way she looked as if no man could pinch *her* bottom and get a way with it. And she was offering him a piece of cake, an almost unheard of treat.

"Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Martin beamed at him. She had a soft spot for curly headed boys. And straight- haired boys. And redheaded ones and devilishly dark ones. And grown up ones, too.

Perkins shepherded his young charge past the room with the huge 12-foot tree in it. Blair had stopped to stare, his mouth open. He'd never seen anything like it. The room smelled of pine and he could almost feel the cold dark places of the tree. It was bedecked with carved figures, and strands of beads that caught the light.. Oranges dotted the tree and little presents, gaily wrapped, were tucked into the boughs. Larger presents were piled around the base of the tree. 

Blair's eyes roamed over the pile speculating on the contents. He felt no envy until he spotted the parcels that could only be books. He wondered whom they were for and what they held. Fairy tales? Histories? Shakespeare? Or his favorite, books with maps and tales of some far off land?

His contemplation came to an end when Perkins returned, realizing the new boy had ceased to follow him. Perkins grabbed him by the ear. Blair knew better than to protest.

"We do not gawk in this house. You are to do the tasks assigned to you and keep your head down. Do you understand me, O'Malley?"

Blair's eyes were watering in pain. He feared his ear was being twisted all out of shape. He tried to nod, but couldn't.

"Ye-yes, sir, I-I understand. So sorry."

Perkins released his ear. "Good. You're quite young and new here but you won't be here for long if you fail you obey me and fail to do your chores in a timely and competent fashion. Is that understood?"

Blair looked up at the tallest man he'd ever seen. "Yes, sir."

"Good, come along."

 

 

Blair settled into the routine of the house, finding the repetitive nature of his tasks more difficult than the work itself. As long as he got his work done, he seemed to be invisible. At night Mrs. Martin seemed to make a point of seeing how he was, but for the most part, no one bothered to talk to the small boy in their midst.

After he had been at Saybrooke a week, Ambrose surprised him by taking him by the hand and leading him to one of the far bedrooms, seldom used.

The room had white material spread over all the furniture and floor. "O'Malley, you have the very important task of keeping the chimneys cleaned. I'm going to teach you how to do it. "

Ambrose fitted a leather harness around Blair's small body, cinching it tight. Then he handed Blair a stiff brush attached to a long pole.

"It's very easy. You just scrub at the soot on the walls with this brush. I'll pull you to the top and then you'll make your way down by releasing this buckle." Ambrose pointed out the pulley system and demonstrated how to work it.

Blair studied it and saw immediately the effectiveness of the pulley and the catch and release mechanism. He nodded his understanding and Ambrose gave him a little smile.

"That's fine. I'll go to the top and throw down a rope. You pull it through this ring and this one and then loop it through the one in front. "

Perkins came in and knelt beside Blair. "I'll check that he does it right and show him the knots. You go on up, Ambrose." 

Nodding, Ambrose rose and left Blair with Perkins.

"Now O'Malley, this is a very important job. A dirty chimney can catch on fire, so you have to be very thorough in the cleaning. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good."

There was the sound of a rope falling and as it landed on the hearth, a cloud of sooty dust drifted into the room. Perkins waited until the dirt settled and then he pulled the rope out, handing it to Blair.

"Remember what Ambrose told you?"

Blair nodded and quickly moved the rope through each ring. Perkins took up the end.

"Watch carefully, this is something you need to get right or you could fall." His serious tone scared Blair a little and made Blair pay close attention.

Perkins demonstrated how to knot the rope and how to undo it, handing it to Blair to try.

Blair's small fingers fumbled as he tried to make the thick rope form the knot he'd been shown. It took some time but Blair managed to make himself secure in his harness.

Perkins stepped in close to the opening, positioning Blair inside, and yelled up, "Ready! Give it a pull."

Blair found himself being slowly drawn upwards. It was an odd sensation and once Blair got used to it, rather fun. The trip to the top took a long time and novelty of being moved like this wore off long before he saw the faint light increase, indicating he was nearing the end of the journey. He had clutched the pole to his chest, afraid of dropping it and being made to go back down and retrieve it. There was a jerk and then the upward movement stopped. Blair looked up and saw Ambrose, framed by a rectangle of light.

"You doing okay, kid?"

"Ye-yes, sir."

"Good. Now you take your brush and scrub away on each side, then lower yourself the way I showed you and do the next bit. Think you can do that?"

"Yes, sir." Blair's voice was stronger. He could do this.

"Get started and I'll check up on you in a little while."

"Yes, sir."

Blair commenced to clean the walls of the chimney, gratified to see the creosote and soot come off with his efforts. All the particles in the small space caused Blair to cough and he had to pause more than once to try and clear his lungs. When he was done with the top, he hooked the brush to his belt and unlatched the buckle, holding the rope at the angle Perkins had shown him. The line gave out faster than he expected and he tried to halt his descent. By the time he'd managed that, he was a good six feet further down than he should have been.

"Sir?" Blair yelled, hoping that Ambrose would hear him. Silence. He unhooked the brush and started in on the area he was in. It was darker here and harder to tell how much dirt he was actually loosening. The coughing fits seemed to confirm he was getting a great deal of the sooty matter off the chimney and into the air. Each time he finished an area and moved down, it got darker. Soon Blair couldn't make out the outline of his hand and did everything by touch. It was hard to tell how much time had passed, though the pain in his stomach seemed to tell him it was after lunchtime.

"O'Malley!" Ambrose was calling from below.

"Yes, sir!" Blair hoped he would be allowed out now.

"You've got about eight more feet to go. At that point I can take over. Hurry up and then you can have your supper."

"Yes, sir!"

Blair tackled the rest of the chimney with vigor, knowing he was soon to be out in the light and the air. He couldn't quite tell when he'd come to the end but Ambrose must have been watching because he called up,

"That's it for this one, unlatch yourself all the way."

Blair did as he was told and landed at Ambrose's feet in the filthy heap of soot and creosote he had created. Ambrose bent down and helped him stand.

"You're a sight, young O'Malley."

Blair looked down and saw that he was covered in black, oily residue.

Ambrose picked up a clean cloth and wrapped it around Blair, carrying him outside. The bright sunshine hurt his eyes and he squinted up at Ambrose. He was a scrawny man with a wild thatch of red hair making him look a bit like a rooster.

It was a beautiful day and Blair looked around with new appreciation. The sky was filled with gentle clouds, a slight breeze stirred the air, birds sang to one another and Blair's heart expanded with delight at being outside. Ambrose had a bucket and a sponge. Squeezing out the water, he said.

"Close your eyes, little chum. You can't very well eat with all that dirt on your face and hands."

Blair did as he was told and Ambrose carefully wiped his face. The water in the bucket was black by the time Ambrose seemed satisfied. He sat Blair down on a rock and handed him a chicken drumstick.

"That was fine work for your first chimney. At this rate, we'll be done in a month."

Blair didn't understand.

"I have to do more?"

Ambrose laughed. "We've only just begun. There are forty-seven fireplaces in this castle and once a year they all get cleaned. Didn't anyone tell you this, boy? That's why you were given a place here."

Ambrose looked down at Blair with a knowing eye.

"Eleven months o' the year, you'll 'ave other tasks, but for one month, you're mine. You'll sleep wit me in the stable. Hard to get clean nough to sleep indoors, pointless, too. You'll get used to it. I did."

"You did this when you were a boy?"

"Aye. And I did it all year long, too. So you see, you have it good here, it's a good place."

The chicken in Blair's mouth didn't taste so good any more and he set it down.

" 'Er now, you need to eat. Don't get all mopey on me because you have a bit of work to do." Ambrose picked up the chicken leg and handed it back.

Sighing, Blair took it, finishing his meal. All too soon, Ambrose wrapped him in the cloth and carried him to a different room. Perkins came in and helped with the harness and once again Blair ascended to the top of the chimney and set to work.

That night, instead of dinner in the kitchen by the fire with Mrs. Martin, Blair ate with Ambrose in the tack room. They didn't bother to wash more than their hands and face and slept on the straw in an uninhabited stall. The sounds were all new to Blair. The horses quiet movements and their occasional snorts, the men gambling before they called it a night, the mournful howl of a dog, far in the distance.

Blair tried to breathe like the book he'd read had taught him. He took slow, deliberate breaths, and released them slowly. He chanted the words and he breathed and he prayed and finally, he slept.

The month seemed to last a year. Each day Blair got dirtier. The soot crept into every crease of his skin, under his fingernails, between his toes. No matter how hard he tried to clean his mouth out, food tasted like soot and Blair, who had been small to begin with, got smaller. The other members of the staff avoided the chimney sweeps, giving them a wide berth and Blair missed the casual camaraderie he'd known and the moments of tenderness Mrs. Martin had shown him.

Ambrose wasn't without sympathy, even going so far as to tell the child stories before bed. He tried to make it as easy as possible but there wasn't much he could do to change the nature of the job.

Each day Blair practiced what the book had called meditating. It was all that kept the demons at bay when he was in the dark and there was no end to the dark.

Finally, the last chimney was cleaned. Ambrose and Blair were sent to the servant's bathing room and there they scrubbed for hours. It took three tubs of water and still dirt lingered, intractable to the fierce brushing and harsh soap.

"Stop, before you start to bleed, O'Malley. It won't all come off but believe me, you're clean enough."

Blair felt clean, and it was heaven to be able to scratch his head and not have soot fall to the ground; heaven to have clean clothes on and clean hair. He was welcomed back into the kitchen and he sat on his usual chair, watching the bustling routine with a happiness he never thought to feel again. The stew tasted like stew and Mrs. Martin let him have seconds to celebrate the end of his time as a climbing boy. That night, he slept on his cot with all the other young boys and he didn't need to do the special breathing to fall asleep.

One year passed. Ambrose stood in the kitchen with the harness in his hands and Blair bolted. He didn't stop to think, he didn't plan where to go. There was nowhere for him to hide and yet he couldn't stop himself from running. The other men joined in the chase, yelling to each other as they ran after the terrified boy. It didn't take them long to corral Blair and haul him back to Ambrose.

"No, no, I can't do it. Please don't make me do it." Blair pleaded but Ambrose merely began to strap the harness on him, ignoring the tears and the small fists hitting his shoulder.

"There you go, O'Malley. I thought you were better than this. You should be ashamed. You 'ave a job to do and by God, you'll do it. You'll do it or you'll feel my hand on your backside. You understand, boy?" Blair bit his lip and nodded, trying to be brave, trying not to let any more tears fall.

When he felt his body being pulled to the top, he shut his eyes and clamped down on the dread, making his mind a blank. He cleaned the chimney and came down into the light of day to see himself once more transformed into a black thing. He ate his lunch, but when Ambrose approached him, he once again could not stop himself from running. This time Ambrose caught him, as no one wanted to get dirty catching a climbing boy.

Ambrose held him by the arm. He was breathing hard and his face was nearly as red as the hair that stuck straight up on his head.

"Goddammit, boy, I ain't got time for these games of yours. Now let's get the job done."

That night Ambrose took one of Blair's wrists and tied a length of leather to it, attaching the other end to a post next to Blair. There was no story that night.

In the morning, Blair ate his porridge under Ambrose's baleful gaze. When Ambrose moved to put Blair in the cloth, Blair pulled away. He only made it to the door before Ambrose's hand latched on to his hair and he was yanked back.

"I really don wanna be doing this to you, O'Malley. I know how hard it is to go up in the chimney, believe me, I do. But you'll do the job expected of ya. And you won't be making my life any harder."

With that, Ambrose one handedly removed his belt and swung Blair around and began hitting him. He aimed for the back but at the first bite of the leather, Blair began twisting and the blows fell randomly. One smacked him across the face, another on the back of his legs, a third across his small, heaving chest.

When Ambrose finished, he released Blair's arm. Standing there, one eye already swelling shut, his shirt torn, Blair maintained his defiance for a beat and then crumpled to the ground.

Waking to the dark, Blair looked around. It came to him slowly that it was not night and he was not in the stable, but back in the harness.

"You awake?' Blair looked up to see Ambrose at the top, looking down. When the sweep saw that Blair had come to, he said, "Now I hope that's the last of that bit 'o nonsense. Get to work or you'll stay there all night."

That threat galvanized Blair and his hand sought the brush. He didn't want to be stuck in this place for one more minute and the idea that he might spend the night here made him pant in panic. Ambrose wouldn't leave him here all night, would he?

It wasn't exactly fear that Blair felt. He'd spent enough hours inside chimneys to know there was no danger. It was something else, something he didn't understand. It was heavy and dull and it made his chest feel like it might be crushed. It was the whisper you couldn't make sense of, the voice that droned in your ear, the hands that held you down.

The feeling made his throat close so tight he feared no air could pass between his nose and lungs. His breathing was coming in ragged gasps now and he fought to slow it down, he needed to calm down. Breathing, chanting, breathing, Blair tried to push the feeling away. Slowly it ebbed, slowly his breathing became normal. He tilted his head back and hung limply, adjusting in mind, body and soul to what he needed to do. And then he did it, holding on to the tiny center inside that kept him safe and sane.

The next year he was prepared when Ambrose entered the kitchen. He put down the silver he'd been polishing and followed the man to the first room, standing quietly as Ambrose cinched him in.

He'd held on to some hope that it was all his imagination and now that he was older, he could handle it. It didn't take much time being in the chimney for Blair to realize it was his imagination and he might just die of it. Once again his couldn't get breathe into his lungs, and his heart was beating so hard it felt like it was bruising the inside of his chest. He pressed his hands against the rough stone and chanted, forcing himself to control his breathing and after awhile he was able to unhook the brush and get to work.

When Ambrose released him, he took one look at Blair and grabbed him by his neck.

"Now don't go starting anything this year. I'm getting older and I've no desire to chase you 'round the countryside."

Ambrose pulled out the leather tie and lashed it around Blair's hand, then attached it to his belt. For the next two weeks, every waking moment that wasn't spent in the chimneys was spent at Ambrose's side or tied to the post in the stable. Blair shuffled through each day, a silent and dark little shadow at Ambrose's heels. Mrs. Martin protested his treatment but no one paid her any mind, everyone glad not to have to expend energy chasing the runt, nor suffer through watching him be beaten again.

Then one afternoon Blair's world changed once again. Ambrose had released him from one confinement and put him in the other. He was halfway up the chimney when the ever present creaking sound of leather under stress grew louder. Blair had just a moment's awareness of something giving way and then he was plunging to the ground below.

His leg was on fire and they were trying to pull it off so it wouldn't set the stable aflame and kill the horses. It hurt but he wanted it off too, he didn't want the horses to die. "Take it off," he screamed, but it didn't happen. The pain stayed, the leg stayed and he was surrounded by the heat of the fire. He sobbed in frustration. "Please don't let the horses die." Hands held him down and he was given something cool to drink. More cooling on his body, water, maybe it was raining and maybe the fire was going away because of the water, maybe it would be all right....fire back again and he yelled, yelled, tried to tell them but all they did was make him drink bad water and then it was dark.

He came to in the kitchen and couldn't understand how he had come to there. His leg hurt and felt hot and heavy and everyone seemed to float.

Mrs. Martin noticed he was awake and hurried to his side.

"Blair, darlin', how do you feel?" Her face had more lines than he remembered and her hair was all messy. Her hair was never messy.

"Leg hurts. Thirsty." Speaking took all the energy he had to give.

Mrs. Martin turned away but was back in a moment with a mug of water and Blair drank it all down, grimacing at the odd taste.

Noticing the face he made, she explained. "That's the laudanum, dear. I made that doctor leave some with us, though that dratted man seemed to think you shouldn't have any."

"Wha' 'appened?"

"You fell from the almost the top of the chimney a week ago. It's a wonder you didn't smash both legs. As it is, the one is broken in two places and you'll be hopping around for quite awhile."

"How're the horses?" Blair had to know, though already he could feel himself falling asleep.

"Horses? Oh, your dream. No fire, Blair, no horses. Everyone but you is fine."

"Good." Blair drawled and slept.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Nathaniel Manning fumed. He had tuned into the guttersnipeís machinations just a little too late. By the time heíd realized that the boy lingered to listen in and not out of conscientiousness for the fire, Master James had already taken a shine to the fire-boy. It seemed to amuse James to have the small, dirty thing underfoot, the boy pretending he had the capacity to understand and learn. Manning knew Ellison did it as a deliberate insult to him.

Manning had been both young mastersí tutor from the beginning. Stephen had been a model pupil; attentive, polite, respectful and quiet. James had joined the schoolroom when he was six and from the very beginning heíd asked the most inane questions. "Why do bees always fly crooked?" " How deep is the ocean?" ",,ÖÖÖHis only real interests seemed to be the historical accounts of war and chess. He had no ear for language, no grasp of science, no flair for art or music.

He was what Manning despised the most. A well-bred dolt. Impossible to educate except in the most fundamental way. A boy who reveled in physicality, often coming to the schoolroom reeking of horse and worse. Thank goodness Lord Saybrooke believed in education, believed in his boys becoming men of gentility and refinement. With Lord William Saybrookeís authority backing him, heíd delivered many a thrashing to James.

Now, at thirteen, the boy lounged in his chair, doodled on his paper, stared out the window. Heíd gotten a tad too large to discipline, much to Manning's regret. In three years, Ellison would go to University. Manning both anticipated and dreaded that. He would be leaving a very comfortable room and a prestigious family. Still, Master Jamesís maturity was a bit intimidating. There was something unnerving about the natural grace and power he exuded, the way he seemed to assess everything with a cynicism oddly out of keeping with his youth.

Manning watched Ellison as Ellison watched the boy taking in his lecture on the Americas. A small smile quirked in the corner of his mouth. He had never given Manning that kind of attentive interest and that realization fueled the anger that had been building for years.

"Master James, if you please," Manning rapped out in senatorial tones. James lazily took his eyes away from the boy by the fire and looked at Manning.

"Yes...sir?"

"Repeat the name of the ships that carried Columbus to America."

James knitted his eyebrows together. "Why? What possible importance does that have to anything?" He swept his hair back in a familiar gesture that irritated manning to no end.

"You are in no position to judge the importance of historical facts, young man. Since you donít seem to have any memory of this part of my lecture, you will write a thousand word essay on the ships that Columbus sailed upon."

James grimaced at the assignment but made no protest. While Manning had not lifted a finger against him in the last six months, he remembered well the beatings he had received from Manning through the years. What hurt more than the blows was the knowledge that his father approved and even encouraged this form of education. They both seemed to share a low opinion of James as well as high regard for Stephen. James had been an exuberant boy, boundless in energy and curiosity.

His father had not been blessed with much of a physique. He hid that easily with the fine tailoring he could afford. He had not been given much stamina. With the abundance of help surrounding him, that lack was rarely apparent. He had no real natural grace and took pains to avoid dancing and other physical displays. Lacking in these qualities, he had come to believe that they revealed a regressive nature and so despised them. Seeing these qualities in his second born son, he had inwardly shuddered and reassured himself that they could be eradicated with the right kind of training. He had chosen Manning knowing the man believed religiously in corporal punishment. Lord Saybrooke had been deeply disappointed when Manning's approach was unable to quash his son's proclivity towards such base endeavors as riding, swordplay and boxing.

James sighed. He knew he'd be up late tonight trying to stretch his meager knowledge of Columbus into a thousand words. He looked back to the fire, but the boy had completed his meticulous re-building and had left.

He had become aware of this young servant a few months ago when he realized it was always damnably hot in the schoolroom. The boy in charge of the fire seemed to take the job much too seriously, bringing in wood faithfully. He was painstakingly slow in the way he placed each log.

One day, utterly bored with his tutorís rambling lecture on the origin of the Nile, he paid closer attention to the boy and realized he was much more interested in what Nathaniel Manning had to say than James was. He watched as the boy lingered over each stick, his effort to concentrate on all Mr. Manning was saying transparent.

This was a novelty, a servant interested in geography. As the winter months wore on and he watched the boy, he realized that the servant was interested in geography, history, French, mathematics, Latin, and literature. In fact, there wasnít one thing Mr. Manning taught that the boy didn't seem fascinated by.

James started to take a greater interest in his studies as a result. At Christmas he made sure O'Malley received The History of the Dark Continent. James had watched from the backstairs as Blair discovered the wrapped package with his name on it. O'Malley's eyes had done the impossible and had gotten even bigger as he turned the present over and over in his hands.

"Whoís it from, love?" Mrs. Martin stood behind him, peering with wonder at the unexpected gift.

"I donít know, itís not mamaís hand on the card. Who could it be from? How did they know I was here?" Blair continued to fondle the package, making no move to open it.

"Do you think it could be a mistake?" Blair asked anxiously.

"And how many Blairs do you think there be around these parts? Thereís your name on it, bold as the nose on Mannings' face. No mistake."

In spite of Mrs. Martin reassurances, Blair didnít open the present.

"Youíll wear the paper off that thing, the way youíre handling it. Open it, lad."

Blair looked at her, anticipation making his eyes shine, and began to unwrap the precious bundle. He carefully unfolded the plain brown paper, making sure not to cause a tear. At last it lay before him; revealed. Blair could only stare. It was a history and it was about a far off land. His heart nearly burst with joy.

It was his very own book. He was rich. He slowly opened the cover and ran his hand down the fine print that was pressed into the white pages. He barely breathed as he read the chapter titles. Soon he forgot his awe, as he became absorbed in the fantastic tales he was reading.

James sat on the backstairs all morning, watching. Heíd expected Blair to be surprised. Heíd also expected Blair to ask someone to tell him the title and explain what the book was about. Instead he had been amazed that a boy like Blair could read at all, let alone have little trouble with the kinds of words found in this academic tome.

Each Christmas James bought another book for Blair. It was by far his favorite ritual and one he took great pleasure in. Each year he watched from the stairs and Blair never failed to make that, the best Christmas moment of the season.

Christmas Eve

1872

Blair straightened up from building the last fire. He groaned, his back still raw from the whipping Warbeck had given him yesterday. He smiled; not even the pain of his back could spoil the delight of this day. Master James was coming back home. James had been away at University but would be home this very afternoon for Christmas.

The months Blair had anticipated being away from his mother had turned into years. The weekly letters had always been sporadic, and now only a few a year made it into his hands

In his tenth year, heíd fallen from the top of the chimney and had spent most of that winter on crutches, his leg broken in two places. Despite the pain, it had been a wonderful winter. Because he could no longer stand, he was put to work in the kitchen. He peeled potatoes and mixed cakes, scrubbed pots and mended socks. Once Mrs. Martin had discovered he was literate, he spent a great deal of time reading the newspapers out loud. At night, he was brought into the cozy little room that served as a parlor for the upper house servants. There he spent the evenings reading all manner of books and articles. Even after his leg healed, Perkins had insisted he spend his evenings reading to them.

Blair gave a little prayer for Perkinsí soul. Since his passing and Warbeckís tenure as butler had begun, Blair had not been allowed back into the snug haven. Now he spent his evenings in the room he shared with eight other lowly servants. The candle was snuffed as soon as they all undressed. There were no books, no fireplace, no discreet glasses of sherry, no crumbcakes passed around in there.

The other men regarded Blair as the worst kind of servant there was. Accepted by the upstairs servants in a free and easy manner, able to read and figure, he was not one of them.

They felt he had pretensions of being a better and they knew he had started out as a climbing boy; you didn't get any lower than that.

In fact, it was because of their hostility that he had met James.

Blair had been thirteen and had given up pretending to be three years younger that summer, when his voice broke. He was working in the stables, mucking out the stalls because Freddy was down with the measles, when Ted had come in. Ted had worked in the stables for two years and had his eye on becoming head stable lad. The appearance of Blair, the House pet, worried him. He didn't want any challenges to his ambitions.

"Er there, yer doin' it all wrong, there." Ted wrenched the fork away from Blair. As he did that he elbowed Blair in the ribs with enough force to knock the wind out of him. Blair bent over, trying to get air back into his body when Ted plowed the handle of the fork into Blair's face. Blair dropped to the ground, stunned by both the hostility and the aggression. Blood poured from his nose and he could feel that his front teeth had been loosened. He was on his hands and knees when Ted kicked him again and again in the ribs, sending him crashing into the wall of the stalls. Ted followed, intent on inflicting more pain.

A fist in Tedís hair stopped his attack. A cultured voice asked, "What's going on here?"

Ted looked into the enraged face of Master James Ellison. He was a well-built youth, broad of shoulder and at sixteen, almost fully-grown. Ted was stupefied into silence.

"I asked you what is the meaning of this?"

Blair pulled himself up and stood swaying in front of the young master. "It was a misunderstanding."

"Misunderstanding?" The look on James Ellison's face expressed his disbelief.

Blair started to nod his head when the world tilted and went black.

*******************

 

 

Blair opened his eyes and tried to bring the room into focus. When it came into focus, he tried to make sense of it. Instead of being in his narrow bed at the top of the house, he was in a spacious, sunlit room. The dark, heavy wood declared it to be a man's room, the fine workmanship and opulence proclaimed it one of the family's. This made no sense. Blair threw the covers off and began to get out of bed. Groaning at the pain that lanced through his side, he wondered how he'd ended up here, but being found here could not be good. He was naked except for the white bandages that circled his ribs.

Before he got very far from the bed, he knew it was folly. He grabbed on to the wing chair and steadied himself. As he stood there, his eyes searched for his clothes. The only possible hiding place for them was the massive wardrobe that stood at the other end of the room. Blair knew that if he were in trouble for being in this room, he'd be in ten times the trouble if he were found going through the master's closet. Blair was torn. His naked state bothered him but he didn't want to risk the master's ire by invading his privacy, Blair shuffled back to the bed, resigned to someone coming in and offering him information and clothing. He laid his head back, the pain in it almost obliterating his fears.

He heard the door open and he turned his head. It was Master James, looking impeccable in his snowy white shirt and cravat.

"How are you feeling, boy?"

"I'm fine, sir. ExceptÖ"

"Yes? "

"I don't seem to have any clothes, m'lord."

"Oh, yes, your clothes. Your misunderstanding wreaked havoc on your clothing. Mrs. Martin has been busy all afternoon affecting the repairs. I'm afraid you're stuck in bed for a little while longer."

Master James looked at the young boy lying in his bed. His face was pale, accentuating the bruises around his eyes. Eyes that were blue like his own but darker, containing intelligence, and if James were correct, mischief. His hair was dark and unruly against the pristine, starched white pillow. All in all, he looked like a fallen angel, kicked out of heaven for brawling.

Right now the young angel looked decidedly chastised. Though he said not a word, pain was evident in the tightness around his eyes and the pinched look of his swollen mouth. He took the news of his confinement well and stared frankly at James.

"May I ask a question, sir?"

"Yes."

"Why did you bring me here and not to my own bed?"

James had not been expecting that question and he found he didnít want to examine the answer to that too closely. "Haul you up four flights of stairs? I think not."

"But, sir, you could have left me in the stable. Itís not right that I should take up your bed."

"You looked deuced uncomfortable lying in the straw." James didnít know how to explain the way heíd felt when he saw the boy, beaten and bloody, stand and try to smooth over the fracas, only to keel over in a faint.

Now Blair was in his bed, unknowing of the bond that lay between them. James would have liked to ask him about the books and which was his favorite, but he didnít want to let on it was he who was Blairís benefactor. He didnít want to lose his precious Christmas moments and have them replaced with a formal bestowing of Christmas largesse. So he kept mum.

In any case, he had another surprise for Blair. He wasnít having Blairís clothes mended but remade. Blair must have hit a growth spurt, for his pants were two inches short and the shirt was threadbare and patched. James didnít understand that. His father insisted the servants be dressed well in keeping with their being in the employ of a lord.

Already as James watched, Blairís eyes had closed and he slept. James approached the bed and arranged the blankets. He had a brother, Stephen. He was six years older than James and they had never been close. James could remember begging his mother for a brother. She had pointed out he might end up with a baby sister. It was an ugly thought but he was willing to risk it if it might bring him a baby brother.

James thought that perhaps Blair could use a big brother. He would keep Blair here for a few days, get to know him a little.

Blair had stayed a week, transferring to a cot in James room. At the end of the week, James found the idea of Blair leaving to perform his usual duties caused him to delay the announcement of his recovery. He delayed until finally Blair became Jamesí unofficial valet.

For two years the boys spent most of their waking hours in each otherís company. James taught Blair to ride a horse and fence; Blair finally made Latin decipherable for James.

At age eighteen it was time for James to attend Cambridge. He would miss Blair, but Miss Sally Danton had caught his attention that summer and he was distracted from the pain of leaving Blair by the anticipation of the social whirl that was opening to him.

Blair took his absence philosophically, grateful for the time he had had with James. The first year James was away wasnít so bad, Perkins still was with them and he enjoyed the company of all his old friends. The next summer Perkins passed and Warbeck came into power.

Warbeck didnít like Irishmen. He especially didnít like Irishmen who took an Englishmenís rightful position. One of his first acts was to banish Blair to the lowliest, dirtiest and hardest jobs. He accomplished this by the expediency of accusing Blair of stealing food. Warbeck seemed to have felt personally affronted by Blairís easy rapport with the upper staff and his cultured speech. He made it his mission to teach Blair his rightful place.

Finding Blair reading when he should have been working had precipitated the beating Blair had endured yesterday. There was no excuse, Blair knew, for his neglecting the polishing. A whipping was an excessive punishment for such an infraction but this last year had been full of an excess of punishment for Blair. And in truth, he preferred the beating to other punishments Warbeck delighted in.

None of that mattered a whit, as Blair finished the work in Jamesí room. He was too excited to see the young master again and hear all about the wondrous things James was learning.

Blair exited the room and immediately heard the commotion that heralded the Masterís return. He started to race down the backstairs and then brought himself to a halt, preceding at a slower rate that Warbeck insisted everyone adhere to at all times. When he got to the kitchen, it was empty, all having spilled out to greet the returning young gentleman. Blair moved to join them when he was stopped by a hand on his chest. He looked up to see Warbeck glaring at him.

"Just where do you think you are going, OíMalley?"

"To welcome Master James back, sir."

"In those clothes?" Warbeck shook his head and made a tsking noise. " I hardly think so."

Blair looked down at his clothes, smudged with ash and dirt. He hadnít given his appearance a thought, but now he realized he looked like a lout, and a filthy lout at that. He couldnít greet James looking like this after so many months apart.

"Iíll go clean up, sir."

"No you wonít, your workís not half done."

"But sir, Iím Master Ellisonís valet at home."

"Not anymore youíre not. Heís of age now and requires a suitable manservant. Andrews will be filling that position. And remember, youíre on half portions for the week."

Blair was stunned. He should have anticipated this, but he had thought that just maybe James would insist he stay on. That was a foolish hope, and one doomed from the start. Blairís internal chastisements ended when Warbeck slapped him on the back. Blair couldnít contain the yelp of pain.

"Still smarting from your last lesson? Keep it in mind, OíMalley. Know your place." With that Warbeck stalked off.

Blair watched Warbeck's retreating back, blinking away the tears of disappointment that freely mixed with tears of pain.

*******************************

 

Christmas day dawned and everyone donned their finest apparel. Blair wore a new suit. He was seventeen now and free to leave the Manor and seek work elsewhere. In spite of Warbeckís oppression, Blair had no intention of leaving the only home heíd ever known. He still held memories of his motherís dear face, but in the last eight years, he had only seen her three times. Mrs. Martin had filled her role and then some with her maternal fussing.

The servants lined up to receive their Christmas gifts, each position in line an indication of their place in the household. Blair was nearly at the end of the line. Lord Ellison started the Procession. William was followed by his second wife, Georgiana, his sons, first born Stephen, the second, James. They greeted each servant and bestowed a token of their appreciation. When James stood in front of Blair, he smiled and brought out the cherished book. Blair received it with a look of shocked dismay.

"Youíre wearing colors; youíve joined a regiment."

James looked down at his uniform. "Very perceptive, young scholar," James teased.

Blair searched for something to say and settled for a weak, "Master James, thatís wondrous news."

"I leave for India on Boxing Day."

"So soon? What about University?"

"Iíve lost interest in my studies without you there to make it interesting. Fighting is in my blood and I canít tell you how I anticipate this next year." James' look of rapture made it clear this was the right decision.

"Will you need a man, sir?" Blair knew that even if James needed a valet, he would not be the one chosen, as it was not his status, but he asked anyway.

"Iím afraid Iím too junior an officer to be allowed those kinds of privileges." Jamesí happiness was so apparent that Blair felt like a dog for wishing it away.

Blair looked down at the package in his hands and realized belatedly that he had not given proper thanks. "Thank you, Master James. ĎTis a most thoughtful gift."

"You are most exceedingly welcome, Blair, Perhaps tomorrow there will be time for me to tell you about my last semester as a student." James laid a friendly hand on Blairís shoulder, never noticing the grimace of pain that passed across Blairís face. And then he was gone, into the sitting parlor, with its beautiful tree, and itís dark, cold branches, to spend Christmas with his family.

 

James was as good as his word. The next day he sought Blair out, finally finding him in the cellar, stocking and cataloging the wines. He worked in his shirtsleeves and the repetitious motion of stacking the boxes had sorely aggravated his back. He looked up in surprise as James came down the stairs.

"Master Ellison, er, Lieutenant Ellison." Blair was discomfited by Jamesí new uniform and all the change it symbolized.

"Itís still James when weíre alone." James looked Blair over. Heíd grown this past year, though still of a smaller stature than James. James frowned at Blairís ragged appearance. His hair needed cutting and once again his clothes were too snug. James made a note to check in with Mrs. Martin and have new clothes made for Blair. Although the cellar was cool, Blair was sweating.

"I know youíre disappointed in my decision to join the Regiment but you know it was always you who were the scholar. I merely turned the pages."

"Thatís not true!" Blair was fierce in his protest. "You have a fine mind." Blair looked at the smile that played on Jamesís face. "When you take an interest," he amended.

"And this is what interests me. I canít tell you how Iíve longed for this. You know as second born, there is little for me here. I will make my own way and as soon I have the clout, Iíll send for you." He paused in his headlong recitation. "That is, if youíll come."

"If Iíll come? Of course Iíll come!" Blairís delight at the suggestion warmed James' heart.

He clapped Blair on the back and was shocked when Blair gasped and fell forward.

"What is it, Blair? Are you all right?" James straightened Blair up and looked at him more closely. Pain filled eyes looked back at him. James quickly turned Blair around and swore at the faint, red lines that had seeped through the fabric of his shirt.

"What happened? Who did this?" James' tone of outrage eased some of Blairís pain. His careful breathing helped him to regain enough composure to answer.

"íTwas my own fault."

"Your fault? Have you joined the Catholics then and begun to whip yourself?"

Blair actually smiled at the jest. "No, mílord. I simply meant, I know better than to read when there are chores to be done."

"For neglecting your chores you received a beating?" Like most of those of his class, James had little understanding of the power wielded in their name.

"It was a second offense."

"Perkins would never have done this, not for a second, nor for a tenth."

Blair smiled at the memory of the first time Perkins found him behind the curtains in the library reading a book. Perkins had removed the book from Blairís hands and studied the title. "An Enumeration of the Virtues of Falconry." He had looked sternly down his nose at the quaking nine-year-old and harrumphed.

"I believe your time would be better spent in the kitchen, Blair." And with that he had whisked Blair back into the warm enclave of Mrs. Martin and her staff.

"True, Perkins never did punish me for that infraction, but perhaps he should have."

"Nonsense. Readingís not a sin."

"It is to Warbeck, James, at least when done in place of work."

Blair shook his head. If James protested his punishment, the next one would be worse. He had to make James understand.

"I win no favors, nor friends by my stubborn habit. 'Tis time I learned, James. And you know what a fast learner I am when I put me mind to it. And believe me, Iíve put me mind to it now."

James frowned at those words, and Blair realized heíd slipped into the speech of the lower servants. Blair blushed. It seemed no matter where he was or who he was with, he couldnít quite fit in.

"Please leave it lay, mílord. Itís not so bad."

Lieutenant Ellison knew an obfuscation when he heard one. "Remove your shirt."

"Sir, this is not necessary, really, Iím fine."

"Indulge me, Iím only just learning to issue orders."

Blair glared at him; how could he refuse that? It had been humiliating to be whipped, it was doubly humiliating to have to show his back to James.

"Very well, mílord." Blair took his shirt off, surprised when it stuck in places to his back. James studied it, the raw welts oozed a mixture of blood and pus. The flesh around the welts was red with infection and blue with bruising.

"Have you put anything on this? Cleaned it at least?"

"No sir, canít really do much, since I canít reach."

"Damn fool pride, you know Mrs. Martin wouldíve taken care of this for you."

"She and Warbeck already circle each other like two pack dogs. I didnít want to make it worse."

James uncorked a bottle of his fatherís finest Chardonnay. "This is going to sting like the dickens but it will disinfect your back. Iím sorry to cause you more pain, Blair."

"It needs doing. Go ahead."

James gently poured the wine down Blair's back but even so, Blair cried out and fell to his knees. James followed him down and held his shoulders as Blair shuddered as his body protested the brutal disinfection. After a long few minutes, Blairís breathing came back under control and he lifted his head. James was stunned by the gratitude he saw in Blairís eyes.

"Thank you." Blair said., simply.

"For being the cause of even more pain?"

Blair shook his head. "For staying with me through the pain."

James looked away, wondering for the first time what Blairís life had really been like this past year. James was afraid he had not been blessed with an imagination. He knew and understood what he saw and experienced. For perhaps the first time in his life, he forced himself to go beyond the limits of his experience and contemplate Blairís.

When he had first reached out to Blair, it had been a whim. Then the whim became something stronger and more compelling. The day he pulled the covers up on Blairís sleeping form, was the day he had taken Blair as his brother. Yet he had no real understanding of the responsibilities in that bond. Certainly his relationship with Stephen had done little to acquaint James with the complexities of the role.

As the time came for James to depart for University, he dwelled in the calm complacence of an ordered life, never foreseeing how Blairís life would change with him gone. Looking at Blair and seeing a common laborer instead of the man of letters he had envisioned, he recognized how he had failed his brother.

James considered the possibilities. It should have been obvious with Blairís skills that he be put to work in the counting house or perhaps trained to clerk. Only Warbeck could have thwarted that natural promotion and then only by impugning Blairís reputation in some way. His step-mother had been the one to hire Warbeck, on the reference of her sister, and seemed inordinately taken with him. And his father was inordinately taken with Georgiana. Warbeckís position was secure. James didnít know much about the inner workings among the servants but he knew enough to understand that if he protested Blairís treatment, it would go badly for Blair.

"Very well. Iíll keep mum, but Iím going to recommend you to my father that you be promoted to clerk. I should have done that when I went away to University." James felt a little better knowing Blair would be doing what he loved while James was gone.

Smiling and nodding his approval of the plan, Blair breathed a sigh of relief. He had no illusions that Jamesí recommendation would secure him the position. He could not imagine Warbeck allowing that to come to pass. But he was happy that James had relinquished his plan to confront Warbeck. He needed only to hold on until James moved up in rank and then he would be allowed to join his lord.

***************************

 

The next year was the hardest of Blairís life, harder even than the years as climbing boy. The clerking position did not come to pass. Warbeckís hatred had grown and he seemed to get satisfaction in finding inventive ways to make Blairís days a misery. Blair was sure Warbeck would have had him turned out, except for the favor he held in Master Jamesís eyes.

Christmas time of that year brought a missive in place of James. A missive declaring Captain James Ellison missing in action, presumed dead. The household wept in their collective grief, for James Ellison had been a fine lad who had grown into a true gentleman.

All wept except Blair, who felt the tears frozen inside him, so deep was his pain. That night Blair placed his few belongings in a small cloth sack and left Saybrooke. Leaving behind his small treasure of books given him by James and a note for Mrs. Martin telling her he loved her and was grateful for all the care she had given him. He walked into the night, away from the house full of sleeping people that had made up the only life he could remember. Putting his face into the cold winter wind, he welcomed the numbing qualities of it.

He planned to see his mother and then, from there, he would make a decision.

**********

 

Captain James Ellison held his hands to ears, willing the godawful noise to stop. For five months he had endured the erratic magnification of his senses.

James had been back on his feet for a year, trying to get his life in to order. Sally had found herself a first-born son and married the next Earl of Bellingham. Her defection had been a blow, but surprisingly easy to overcome. It was O'Malleyís desertion that still hurt, and woke him in the middle of the night.

When he was in an honest frame of a mind he acknowledged that Blair had thought him dead and so had little reason to stay on at Saybrooke.

James had spent a small fortune with the Peelers in an effort to locate Blair, with no tangible results. One man without means could be anywhere. Or nowhere. James ruthlessly shoved that ugly thought away.

Taking another swig of the opium, James wondered if Doctor Lawry was right and only surgery would alleviate the agony of noise. If he submitted to the knife, he would be deaf, but at times like these that seemed a small price to pay. If noise had been his only complaint he might have done it already, but he was plagued with such a sensitivity to texture that he could hardly bear to have a sheet upon his body and spent an inordinate amount of time in his locked room, naked. Food also challenged him, the blandest foods so sharp in taste that they burned his tongue.

Between that and his time in alone in the mountains, he had dropped more than a stone and it was clear to all that beheld him that something was seriously amiss. And his sightÖthat was where his true madness lay. He could watch a flea hatch eggs, make out individual snowflakes, spot a deer a mile away. It was hallucinations, he knew. He didnít know how much longer he had until complete madness claimed him. His only goal now was to find Blair and make sure he was safe. Perhaps arrange for him to go to school. Blair would make a most excellent teacher. Once he had accomplished that, he would surrender to the madness and kill himself. Until that time, James hung on by sheer will and discipline, each day bringing a new level of torture.

*******************

Blair straightened his cravat in the mirror. He had a deep distrust of valets and saw to his own ablutions. He found the idea that he might need help dressing ludicrous. He ran a comb through his dark curls and studied his reflection. Yes, the effect he was striving for had been achieved. He looked the very picture of a debauched, spoiled gentleman, with too many groats and not enough sense. When he entered Whiteís tonight as Bemintonís guest, he hoped his luck and his skills stayed steady. He was close to his goal now, and didnít want any set-backs.

Blair walked, delighting as always in the way the dark made the ugly mysterious. He cherished the night; with its deep-pocketed shadows, its dangers, its well-kept secrets. He smiled ruefully to himself. He loved how the night made it so easy to lighten the heavy purses of the Lords who strolled about, snug in their ideas of superiority.

Blair had left Saybrooke Castle with ideals, holding faith with the system that had denied him everything on the lack of a marriage contract. When he had found his mother, the mortar of all his beliefs were washed away.

Naomi had lived at Wentworth House for these last twelve years. In the first year, due to some clever paperwork that made her the widow of Aidan OíMalley, she had served as governess to the three small Wentworth children. Lady Ebury was young and fragile, rarely seen. In the second year, she had assumed a more intimate position, that of mistress to Lord Ebury. When Blair realized this was why he had never been allowed to join his mother, his heart fluttered and froze.

Naomi pleaded for his understanding, his forgiveness. Nothing she said penetrated the numbness of Blairís being. He looked at her and could no longer see the young, gay mother who had read to him at bedtime. That woman, though attired in plain, serviceable dresses made of drab, brown homespun, had been beautiful. The woman before him, dressed in blue silk, hair swept up, jewels at her ears and neck, was a stranger. He turned his back on her and fled the ashes of his shattered ideals.

**********

Now he made his way through the glorified districts of London that were filled with elegance on foot and in carriage. No one glanced his way and smirked, no one looked him up and down with a cold look of contempt, no one shouted at him to leave. He carried himself with the assurance and arrogance of the wealthy. All around him there was laughter, snatches of song, womenís voices purring. The dark concealed Blairís boredom with it all, his deep weariness at the pretension and vapidity of the upper class. When he entered Whiteís, his mask would move smoothly into place and none would guess at the loathing he felt in their presence.

Entering White's, Blair surveyed the place. It was a genteel haven for men. The air was thick with smoke and the murmur of low voices making bets, sealing deals and exchanging gossip. Blair searched for Beminton among the crowded tables. He moved through the rooms, watching the play, assessing the players. Men risked their fortunes on the intangibles of luck.. Blair shook his head at the whimsy inherent in that religion. Blair never depended on luck. That was a fool's game. He simply kept track of everyone's cards and calculated the possibilities. He bet carefully but aggressively, and on the not so rare occasion when he knew with certainty he had the winning hand, he bet all he had. Soon he would quit the gaming table for good. That day couldn't come too soon.

Blair had been shocked to hear what the aristocracy talked about. A enormous amount of time seemed to be spent discussing tailors and fashion. An entire night was often spent comparing the merits one tailor's technique over another's. When they tired of fashion, they switched the talk to their cattle. Blair had waited in vain for a mention of parliament or land management.

Blair left White's early the next day, his pockets heavy with coin. A few more nights like this and he would be ready. Blair yawned. As hard as he tried, he couldn't seem to make his body adjust to the life of a gentleman. These late nights had taken their toll. Even before he took up the life of the idle wealthy he had not been able to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. Now that he arrived home as the sun rose, he found it more difficult to put a lifetime of industry aside and sleep while there was light available.

Although the tidy house on the square that Blair rented looked the very picture of propriety, it was in truth, a most eccentric household. Blair had collected a small motley crew of two to attend him and convey an aura of respectability.

Only Daniel and Alice lived in the house. Daniel providing a look of Episcopalian aestheticism as he answered the door, belying his rather nasty past as a footpad.

Alice ruled in the kitchen, disguised by a dusting of a flour and an apron snug around her tiny waist. There was no hint of the doxyís life she had led and had only quit when she encountered Blair. Each had come into contact with Blair believing he was an easy mark.

Daniel had been desperate. He had had an appalling run of bad luck and was now close to starvation. He assaulted the first likely looking cove that came by his hidey-hole and had been dismayed when the gentleman had turned out to be as dirty a street fighter as he was. He had ended up being hauled back to Gramercy Park and allowed to recuperate in the dingy room that made up Blairís home at that time.

Alice had managed to run away from the brothel that she had lived in since her mum had sold her at age twelve. She was barely sixteen and while her knowledge of men and their appetites was immense, her understanding of London and its backstreet rules and systems was a complete mystery to her. As a result she had simply left one life of prostitution for another and in the new version of her old life, she was far colder and hungrier.

When she saw Blair, alone, walking home in the deep, dark hours of early morning, she had decided she needed whatever lined his pockets more than he. She had done her most popular role, young waif in dire need and had her hand in his pockets before her lips left his. She had been stunned when the gentleman had grabbed her wrist in an iron hold and stopped her plans for a warm meal. Even more amazing to her was the rest of the night, the dinner he bought and the room he rented for her.

So had begun their collaboration in the fleecing of the almighty Ladies and Gents.

Daniel and Alice had both been surprised at how easily they settled into domestic service. Of course Blair was exceedingly easy to work for, as he spent most of his hours reading. The house was full of books and journals. Papers were piled high, filled with Blairís neat penmanship. There was little furniture on the main floor; a desk and chair, several bookcases and a sideboard that had been there when Blair moved in. Upstairs one would not be able to pick out the masterís bedroom from the servants. They were all furnished with simple beds and wardrobes.

Blair had a goal and to its end he pledged all his resources. In truth, he saw no value in a big bed, nor a sofa to lounge on. He realized that this was one aspect of his impersonation of a man of leisure that he failed at. He was also quite poor at flirtation and everyday conversation. He made a point of studying the components of casual conversation and went so far as to practice with Daniel, who was as mystified as Blair by what seemed to interest the gentry. He had tried to practice flirting with Alice but they quickly realized she had no better understanding of the art of seduction than Blair did. In her world, she had been a sure thing, with no need to elicit a flowery phrase.

Still, society seemed to accept that Blair was simply a little odd and in a world where wealth made odd attractive, he managed just fine. He had come to London in a daze, reeling from the knowledge of his motherís desertion. He felt haunted by loss and dreamed nightly of James dying. Each nightmare was worse than the last as Blairís fertile brain filled in the details he didnít know of Jamesí last moments.

Coming to London, he had to find work as a clerk but soon found his lack of credentials made that an impossibility. He came close to starving before he pulled himself out of his cocoon of grief and despair.

When he did, he took a good look at the world around him; the people who had declared he had no value, nothing to offer that they wanted. By accident of birth he had been consigned to a life of labor. Once he had borne that as being the way of things, but now a dark anger pushed aside that acceptance. He took a hard look at the all that had held power over him and felt rage building.

He would always hold Perkins and Mrs. Martin dear to his heart. James dwelt there as well, but James had infiltrated more than his heart. At times Blair felt like his very soul had been drained by Jamesí death. His heart and his soul. The hole that had been left was filled with bitterness and a restless need to find a place for himself.

With the small comfort of having known and loved good people, Blair searched for a purpose. In the end the only meaning he could find was in what had always filled his head; discovering the mysterious ways that knitted the world together and the underlying reasons that kept people apart.

His quest for a reason to go on had taken him to Cambridge, where James had gone and should have stayed. There he found that his lack of legitimacy was a far greater obstacle than his lack of funds. The old Blair would have taken that as his due, and shifted his sights. This Blair refused to let go, and left Cambridge determined to find a way in.

Money was his first need. Money would buy him the identity and position necessary to be admitted. Blair pursued money the way he pursued knowledge, methodically, using research and observation to determine the fastest and safest way to his goal.

The first thing he discovered was the need to let go of safety as a priority. There was no way to earn the kind of money he needed. Not legally. Blair watched the streets for two days until he saw just the right person.

Quick, silent, nearly invisible, the man worked the Mayfair crowd with verve and industry. Blair saw him divest six large gentlemen of their money without inspiring a second glance. Blair followed him, his own disreputable attire and gaunt face easily blending him into the street scene. Once he had the man cornered, he set about finding the price for this particular education. For the payment of writing four love letters, he was taught the fine art of pickpocketing. It wasnít long before Willie declared him a right cove at it. Blair put his new skill to work immediately, filching enough money to buy a lovely meat pie. After that, Blair systematically worked the crowds, never staying too long in any one place.

Morally he felt nothing, knowing no one was suffering much from their loss. His first impulse had been to buy himself some warm, decent clothes and find a room where he could have access to a bath. Living in a perpetual state of filth was nearly unbearable to Blair. He held that impulse off and instead used his blunt to bankroll a chocolatier.

It was only after he had acquired his first five pounds that he allowed himself the luxury of sleeping indoors. He stayed in the small dingy room he first rented until Daniel convinced him to expand his money making schemes.

 

Daniel taught Blair everything he needed to know about whist. Unlike casual conversation and flirtation, Blair found he had a true knack for it. There was a mathematical rightness to the game that Blair grasped instinctively. To play the game required the right crowd, which required the right clothes and then the right address. He was indifferent to his change in status but found he liked being warm and clean. He also found he was far more comfortable lightening the money clips of the wealthy in a game they entered into voluntarily. His indifference to the act of stealing seemed to have shifted as his circumstances improved. Blair discovered that what he was willing to do to survive was not what he was willing to do when there was an alternative.

He would be glad enough to put the gaming behind him as well. Although he had no love for these men, with their vanities, their inane chatter, their wantonness with money, he still felt a stab of guilt when he used their stupidity against them.

Tonight he had been invited to LaSalle's. It was a new club, in a slightly disreputable part of town. As usual, Blair walked the four miles to his night's work. He hated being confined in dark spaces and avoided carriages at all costs. His mind, as usual, wandered far and wide, as he made his way through the better neighborhoods. The large houses on neat squares gradually gave way to narrow byways, clustered shops, shuttered businesses.

He was surprised he'd been issued an invitation. His winning ways had started to make him less and less welcomed at the tables. It was only the aristocracy's arrogance that kept him in business, each one sure they could beat the young whelp.

The night unfolded with predictability but it was still quite early when Blair started to feel ill. He fought it until he could no longer hold the cards steady, and then folded, making his excuses.

He hoped the night air would steady him and ease the pounding in his head but it was no help at all. Blair set off for home, hoping he wouldn't actually be sick along the way. He had just reached Threadneedle Street, when he heard the rush of bodies coming at him.

 

**********************************

 

James waited impatiently for Cordelia to finish her conversation with her cousin, Richard. His impatience was not with a desire to have her company once more but with a longing to leave this drawing room. He needed the sanctuary of his own house. Heíd been persuaded to leave his rooms for this soiree on the promise that Cousin Richard might hold the answer to his problem. Richard had listened and then begun to ask the kind of questions that James had come to recognize. The questions were based upon an assumption of insanity, and James could just imagine what Richard was saying to Cordelia. "Run from this madman, and never look back. Considering marriage? But my darling girl, consider your children."

James was not considering marriage but he was well aware that Cordelia had it on her mind. If Cousin Richard succeeded in turning Cordeliaís ambitions away from him, heíd be grateful. The headache that ever lurked was edging out of its box, threatening his head with the kind of pain polite society abhorred. He needed to leave and leave fast. James watched as Cordelia detached from Richardís grip and came his way.

Before she could say anything, James stood and launched into his apologies. "Cordelia, Iím so sorry, but I must take my leave."

"Another one of your headaches, James?" Cordelia asked this in her sweetly, sympathetic voice that held pity now and added another shard of pain to his head.

"Yes. I really must go. Will Richard be able to accompany you home?"

Richard came up just then, placing a proprietary hand under Cordelia's elbow and answered, "Of course. Don't concern yourself with Cordelia, James. She's in good hands."

Richard looked down at Cordelia with something quite beyond fondness and James sighed in relief.

"Thank you, and goodnight."

James stumbled down the steps, hoping no one was looking out the window. He quickly set off for home. The quiet of the streets soothed his head and after a few blocks he was able to open his eyes more than a slit. Voices and sounds came to him in waves, and the smells of the city nearly made him lose what little supper he'd managed to eat. The darkness of the night was one small blessing and James held it close to him.

All of his energy went towards suppressing sound and so he was surprised when he turned a corner and saw men brawling. As he sorted through the scene, he soon realized they weren't brawling. Two large men were attacking a third, smaller man.

The one being attacked had managed to cause a considerable amount of damage, but it was clear that he didn't have much left with which to put up a fight. As James watched, the man being attacked swayed and the two moved in. One grabbed the fellow from behind by the arms, while the other started to pound away.

With a shouted curse, James ran to join the fight. The attackers looked up in alarm and fled, dropping the beaten man to the ground with a sickening thud.

James hurried to his side, looking around for anyone who might go for help. The street was deserted. James rolled the man over and gasped.

Damn.

What a time for his hallucinations to kick in. The man lying bleeding on the filthy street was the very picture of O'Malley and yet he was clearly a gentleman. It had to be his mind, playing tricks on him once again, this time in the cruelest way imaginable. James pushed aside his concerns with his sanity and looked the man over. His face was scraped and bruised, his lip split and bleeding. His ribs had taken quite a pounding and James listened for the telltale wheezing that would indicate a punctured lung. He breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't hear it. James looked around again and spotted an urchin lurking in the shadows.

"You there! Come here!" The boy would have bolted, but the voice of command made him think better of it.

"Y-yess, me lord?"

"Go fetch a cab from Mercer Street. Give the driver this." James gave the boy a half crown.

"Tell him to hurry. And they'll be one of these for you, if you're quick about it."

"Yes sir!" The boy took off at high speed and James turned his attention back to the man in front of him. He had expected the man's features to have changed into someone else's, perhaps Stephen's, but the man still looked like O'Malley.

James pulled him onto his lap, worried about the chill of the ground. He moaned and his eyes opened. James' heart constricted as he looked into the very eyes of Blair, their dark blue unmistakable. The phantom looked up at James with love that quickly turned to bewilderment.

"James?"

Oh God, it was O'Malley. It was Blair's voice, his eyes, and his hand reaching for James. James caught it with a sob.

"Blair? Is it really you?"

"Me? Of course it's me. Is it you? You're the one who is dead. Am I speaking to your ghost now? Or am I dead, too?"

"No." James pulled Blair closer to him. "You're very much alive, as am I. It was a mistake. I was in prison. I've searched everywhere for you, I'd just about given upÖ"

The rattle of the hansom interrupted the reunion. James carefully stood, pulling Blair up with him, trying to avoid inflicting more pain. Blair stood, supported by James and tried to stem the blood flowing from his mouth. When he saw the cab, he tried to back away, but James held him fast.

"No, no, I'll walk." Blair pleaded and tried to step away from James' embrace. He only managed to get one foot in front of the other when both knees buckled and he crumpled. James had waited, knowing Blair was in no shape to walk and was there to pick him up as he went down. He swung his unconscious friend into the dark interior and gave his address.

**********************************

 

The doctor had come and gone. James sat at Blair's bedside, idly rubbing his thumb across the square hand he held in his own, larger one. Blair had endured a painful bout of retching that had left him limp, sweat-drenched and nearly speechless with pain. All James could offer was his hand on Blair's back and his words that it would soon be over.

It had not been the right time to exchange stories and James wondered how O'Malley had come to have over twenty pounds in his pocket. His curly hair was still long but carefully cut in the current style. The clothes were elegantly tailored, though now sullied, and cut to enhance his the lines of his body. His shoes were made of fine, soft leather. Blair's hands were clean and well manicured, not the hands of a laborer. All in all, Blair presented the picture of wealth and position.

James was relieved to see that Blair had flourished in his absence, though a small, petty part of him regretted that he would not be the one to give Blair a better life. Blair clearly already had found his own better life.

Another part of him acknowledged that Blair having a good life already meant his own life was shortened. He wouldn't be needed to see Blair ensconced at school or outfitted to become a teacher. His reasons for living and enduring the pain and madness were evaporating and soon it would be time to put an end to it.

He leaned back and rubbed his temples. The headache, his constant companion for the last year, had eased up. It looked as if Blair would be sleeping for the rest of the night, but James found himself curiously reluctant to find his own bed. He'd sit a little while longer.

He must have dozed because he awoke to Blair's ragged breathing. James leaned over and smoothed the sweat-dampened hair off Blair's forehead. A fever had begun and that made no sense. The doctor had assured James there were no internal injuries. Blair moved restlessly under James' hand as if needing the touch and James obliged. He stroked Blair's hair and murmured words of comfort. The heat increased, as did James' alarm.

He hurried through the darkened hallways and entered the kitchen. Gathering up a basin, water, and soft rags, he made his way back to his room. On the stairway he could hear Blair moaning and he ran the rest of the way. Blair had tossed the blanket off and was curled on his side, making a feeble attempt to vomit again. James got behind Blair and supported his shoulders, putting the basin on Blair's lap. Blair's stomach was cramping, James felt the muscles rippling in his abdomen, but nothing was coming out.

Blair groaned, "Make it stop." James wanted nothing more than to ease the pain ravaging his friend.

Putting his hands on Blair's stomach, he hoped the warmth and pressure would be of comfort. He could feel the heat of surface bruising but nothing more. Blair must have been poisoned. If that were the case, the attack had not been random. What deep game had Blair gotten himself into?

James rang for a servant, and sent his man flying to fetch the doctor back. Then he took his shoes off and climbed onto the bed, pulling Blair into his arms. The feel of James' arms around him seemed to calm Blair, and he leaned his head back.

"Better?"

"Yes." The familiar voice was raspy from the toll of ridding his body of the toxin.

"I believe you were poisoned."

"Me? Poisoned?" Blair's surprise was unfeigned. He seemed unaware of any nefarious forces lined against him. James' year in the military, and most especially his time in India, had perhaps made him see plots where there were only coincidence. On the other hand, James had a bad feeling about this, a feeling that wasn't being banished with logic.

Blair had fallen back asleep and James settled down to wait. He had learned the art of patience in the last few years.

The doctor returned, muttering about young men and the debaucheries that caused hard working physicians to be forced from their warm beds. The Ellison family was not one to be refused, no matter how warm the bed and the woman in it.

Doctor Phillips re-examined his patient. In the few hours he's been away, the bruises had begun their spectacular emergence and it was easy to mark the path of fists on the man's torso. Bruised, but not broken, and he had not missed any internal injuries.

"Poison, you say?"

James nodded. "Why else would he be vomiting?"

"Let's see, there's the fact he'd been drinking, and no doubt, quite drunk."

"No, Blair may have been drinking but he was not drunk."

"Well then, he may have eaten tainted food."

"Possibly," James acknowledged reluctantly.

"Or he may simply have been coming down with something before the beating. Lord knows London is a hotbed of infections."

"That would account for the fever." James placed his hand on Blair's forehead, noting the rise in temp.

"Yes, that would be the most likely explanation. He looks a undernourished. Odd, in a man of his class. Has he been ill before? He's certainly had his share of misfortune in this lifetime."

"Not that I know of." James wondered, again, what Blair's life had been like since he'd left for the Regiment. He had been appalled at the signs of abuse he'd seen on Blair's body. The scars were faded, but James' sensitive hands had traced each one, sickened by the violence inflicted on his friend.

"Well, I have no doubt he'll recover from thisÖbeating and whatever else he's contracted. He looks frail, but he has a strong body. He'll be fine."

"Thank you, doctor. I'll call you if there's any change."

"Yes, I'm sure you will." The doctor gathered his things and let himself out, anxious to capture some of the night for his own use.

Blair moved restlessly in his sleep and James pulled his chair up and took Blair's hand in his. It seemed to give Blair what he needed, his body stilled.

James woke as the first light of the morning crept into the room. His first thought was to reassure himself that he did, indeed, have Blair with him. Catching sight of Blair, he smiled. The man was fast asleep, one arm flung towards James. James frowned. The madness was telling him the fever had eased. There was no way he could know that without touch. He placed his hand on Blair's forehead and had his first impression confirmed. The fever was down.

Blair's eyes slowly opened. They were filled with a mixture of pain, confusion and hope. He looked up at James, searching his face, seeming to reassure himself that last night had not been a dream.

"It really is you."

"Yes. I'm sorry you believed me dead. Another letter was sent informing the family that I was alive, but Mrs. Martin said you'd left already."

Blair blinked at James, taking that all in. "You've been ill."

James nodded, knowing there was no hiding the ravages of the madness. "Yes."

"But you're better now." Blair asked, not as a question, seeking reassurance.

"We'll speak of that later, first, what of you? You've done well for yourself and I want to hear the story."

Blair looked away. He didn't know how he could tell JamesÖhe would never have left Saybrooke if he'd known James were alive. Now he had to confess what he had become.

"I thought you were dead." Blair stopped, holding back a reaction he knew would only embarrass James. "You were dead and IÖIÖ" Blair stopped. There was no way James would understand the things he had done. In the face of James alive, there was no way he understood the things he had done.

"Go on," James prodded.

Blair pushed the covers off and started to sit up. He needed to get dressed. He'd be leaving here soon and it would be better if he were clothed.

"What do you think you are doing?" James put his hand on Blair's chest, unaccountably feeling the pounding of Blair's heart. It was racing. James snatched his hand away, frightened by his awareness.

Blair took the removal of his and as permission to continue getting out of bed. He stood, welcoming the physical pain. He understood that pain and deserved it.

"My clothes?"

James looked startled and surprised to see Blair standing.

"What in damnation do you think you are doing? You're in no shape to get out of bed."

"M' lord, please. I need to get dressed." Blair's agitation seemed to get conveyed to James and he walked over to the wardrobe and retrieved Blair's ruined clothing.

Blair took them from his hands and slowly got dressed, biting his lip to keep from making any sound. James watched, dazed by the pounding he could still hear in his head and baffled by Blair's need to be clothed.

Blair sighed in relief as he got his shirt buttoned. The clothes were beyond repair but would serve. He looked up at James, who had stood patiently, waiting for Blair to finish. To finish getting dressed, to finish telling his story.

"I came to London." Blair stopped again. He didn't think he could do this.

"Yes, I see that. How did you do it? Mrs. Martin said you took no money. Did your mother help you?"

Blair looked at James sharply. He would not tell of Naomi's shame or his abandonment.

"No," was all he said and then continued. "I walked. I thought to use my reading and writing to gain employment, but with no references and looking the way I didÖ"

These had been James' very fears.

"So, what did you do?"

Blair's misery at telling the tale filled the room. "IóI'm sorry James. I'm not who I was. I'm not who you think I am. I'm a thief and a gambler and a liar."

James stood stock still at those words. Blair a thief? A liar? His shocked silence spoke volumes and Blair stood a little straighter.

"I'll leave your house, now. Thank you for coming to my rescue and seeing to my care. Please send the bill here." Blair took a card out from his vest pocket and placed it on the table.

James stood there, saying nothing. The look on his face said it all to Blair.

Blair brushed by James and stiffly made his way down the stairs and out of the house, never looking back.

He was only a mile or so from home but he wanted nothing more than to lie down. That wasn't an option and neither was summoning a cab and so Blair began to walk. If he lived another twenty years, he'd never forget the look of blank shock on James' face. He had known that life was cruel and capricious but he had not known the depth of that cruelty until today.

Before yesterday it hadn't mattered what he was or what he did. But that was yesterday. Today, James was alive and it mattered, but it was too late to go back and change the choices he had made.

Blair trudged home, his progress slow. He walked in a haze of fever, shivering, but making no attempt to close his coat or find warmth. There was no warmth to be found, he understood that.

When he finally stumbled up his front steps, he leaned against the door, unsure he wanted to go in, to see what his thievery had gotten him. As he hesitated, the door swung open and he fell inside. Daniel was quick to catch him.

"Blair! My God, wha' 'appened 'ere? Alice! Come quick!" Blair heard all the noise and commotion on his behalf and struggled to free himself of the help. He managed to stand and push away from Daniel.

"Just let me be, Dan. I'm fine." He held up his hand as Daniel shook his head in disagreement.

"No, I am, I just need to lie down." Blair took a step in the direction of his room and collapsed back into Daniel's waiting arms.

**************

Awareness returned abruptly as James heard pots crashing to the floor in the kitchen. He instinctively covered his ears, cursing the madness that caused these alarming fugue states. He looked around, bewildered. Where was Blair? He noted the light and realized close to an hour had passed. The last thing he remembered was listening to the sound of Blair's heart beating at triple speed.

And then the nothingness that came. What had Blair thought when he saw him incapacitated in such a bizarre way? He was injured and sick and he had fled, that certainly told James what he thought. James sat down on the side of the bed that had so recently held Blair. He could still sense Blair's warmth, and the tang of his scent. Had anyone ever encountered such a cunning and creative madness?

James noted that his headache, which had been absent in the excitement of finding Blair, was now back with a vengeance. He rubbed at his temples but knew there was no relief to be found. When the pain was this bad, it was hard to think, sometimes, even hard to breathe. Perhaps it was time to end it. He'd found Blair, he was obviously well off and in no need of James' assistance.

He'd find his revolver. He'd find some peace.

******************

 

 

Blair awoke to another dim room, this time to the night. The light came from the dying embers in the fireplace. He remembered getting home and Daniel and Alice fussing with him, getting him undressed and into bed, making him eat soup and tell them what had happened. Blair kept it simple and said nothing about James. Finally they had left him alone with admonishments to call if he needed anything.

The bed he was in was considerably less comfortable than the one he'd left. His ribs ached and his throat was dry and sore. A glass of water had been placed on the table next to the bed and Blair painstakingly worked himself to a sitting position so he could drink it. He managed that and set it back down, putting his head back and closing his eyes.

He'd told James what he was and James had listened and never said a word, never asked a question. He had found James, only to lose him again, and there would be no more miracles.

It was hot in the room, and Blair shoved the covers off. Still too warm, he got out of bed, making a shaky way to the window and opening it. The brisk, cold air felt wonderful against his overheated skin and Blair unbuttoned the nightshirt he wore. Better. He stood there for as long as he legs could hold him, letting the cold seep into his bones, and then he sank to the floor.

**************************

 

"M'lord? Sir? Are you all right?" James startled and looked up into the worried eyes of his housekeeper. Damn, he'd done it again, it was getting worse. He sat at his desk, the revolver half loaded. He'd spent the afternoon getting his papers in order and remaking his will. His study was dark, with only the banked fire and Mrs. Duncan's candle giving off illumination.

"Yes, Mrs. Duncan? You wanted something?"

Mrs. Duncan handed him a card. "Sir, one of the maids found this in your room when she was cleaning. She thought it might be important, so I brought it to you."

James studied the card. It was Blair's and now he understood why no one had discovered the whereabouts of Blair O'Malley. The card read: Blair James, with an address only a mile away. Blair had left his card! It must mean he would be willing to see him.

James got up and came around the desk, capturing a surprised Mrs. Duncan in a hug.

"It is indeed important! Thank you, Mrs. Duncan, for bringing this to my attention. What time is it?"

"Why it's nine o'clock, Mr. Ellison." The staff was used to the master's strange hours and even stranger ways. They felt protective of him and did their best to look out for him and keep the world at bay. The appearance of the master with that young hooligan had worried them. No telling what kind of trouble he meant.

"Nine O'clock. That's not too late. I'm going out, Mrs. Duncan. Don't wait up."

The master almost never went out at night and now here it was two nights in a row. Oh, something was afoot all right. Mrs. Duncan silently pledged to keep her eyes open.

James strode up to the quietly elegant home on Belgrave Square. He admired the lines of the house and the way it nestled in among the shrubbery and trees. A good place for Blair to live. The late autumn night was chilly but the walk had left James feeling warm and alive and grateful that he would have another chance.

He rapped on the door and waited. And waited. The house was dark, but surely there were servants about. In fact he could hear them, chattering and laughing in the back. After knocking several more times, he walked to the back entrance and knocked there. Immediately the talk and laughter stopped. Moments passed and James was considering breaking the door down, when a pale, thin man answered the door. His shirt was grey with grime.

"Yes? May I help you?"

"I'm a friend of Blair O'MalóJames and I'd like to see him."

The servant assessed him and frowned, making him look a little too much like his old tutor, Manning.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible. Mr. James is indisposed."

"Look here, my good man, tell your master that James is here."

"No."

Now the puny fellow looked worried and that in turn worried James. What was going on? Why was he blocking the way and trying to keep the room from sight? James' anxiety rose and he decided he needed to see Blair and he needed to see him right now. He stepped into the kitchen, pushing the butler aside. A woman stood by the stove, looking frightened and a bit tipsy. Her hair was a wild tangle and she had smudges of dirt on her face.

"'Ere now, whatcha think yer doin' bargin' into me kitchen like that?" James strode by him, wondering what had happened to the proper manservant who had answered the door.

"Is he up here?" James inquired as he maintained his momentum. He passed rooms decorated in a decidedly odd fashion, but took no time to investigate. The need to see Blair consumed him. The upstairs was cold and James stalked down the hall, glancing into each room. Most were empty, but at the end of the hall he opened a room to see that a fire had been burning recently and the bed unmade. The window was open, making the room frigid and under the window James saw Blair. He was unconscious, huddled in a ball and shivering violently. James threw a contemptuous look at the little man who had followed him.

"Blair!" James rushed to his side, quickly lifting Blair into his arms and putting him back into bed. Piling the blankets back on, he turned to the man and barked, "Warm some bricks and make tea. Are there any more blankets you can fetch? What's your name?"

"Yes, m'lord, and the name's Daniel."

He hurried off to collect the supplies and put Alice to work on the tea.

James rubbed Blair's body through the blankets, trying to generate heat.

"I never should have let you go. What kind of a household is this, anyway?" Blair, in his unconsciousness, had no answer and refused to debate.

Blair looked wild, his shirt undone, his hair a mass of curls, his face, dark with bruises, fatigue and beard. James was struck by how different Blair was from the boy he had been. The last few years had brutalized each of them. Changed them. Were they still friends? Could they still be friends?

The woman came in, carrying a battered teapot and two mugs. There was cream and sugar and a slab of bread. All in all, a very poor showing for a house such as this. James scowled at the meager spread and the woman blushed. She executed a clumsy curtsy.

"Me-my name is Alice, sir, m'lordóer, Your Highness. We wasn't expecting no-I mean, any, company tonight. BlairóI mean, Master Jamesówell, he's not one wot likes too much at night."

"I see." James didn't see, but it would have to wait.

"Is he very sick? He won't be buying the farm now, will he?" Alice asked, peering over James' shoulder to check on Blair.

"No, I believe he will put off making any purchases for now. Do you have anything warm? Soup?" He wasn't hopeful.

"Nooo, but I could make some up, quicker than you can say Bob's your uncle."

James frowned at the unexpected chatter and waved at her to go.

"Uh, I'll just be off and take care of the soup, Sir m'lord."

James swung his attention back to Blair. There wasn't much a doctor could do for a fever but James had seen too many of his fellow soldiers convulse and die when the fever reached too high a peak and James wasn't about to let that happen to Blair.

*********************

James lifted Blair's arm and ran the alcohol soaked cloth up and down with a methodical intent and then moved back to wiping Blair's chest. The fever was giving off enough heat to warm the rag almost immediately and James re-soaked it and started on the other arm. He'd been doing this for hours and been able to bring Blair's fever down a few degrees.

As James held Blair's wrist, Blair bolted upright, his eyes dazed, crying out, "Noooo, please, pleeeaase, no more."

James immediately released his wrist and murmured, "It's all right. I'll stop."

The reassurances didn't seem to penetrate as Blair continued to make inarticulate sounds of pain, attempting to get out of bed. James tried to keep Blair from hurting himself but all his efforts seemed to make Blair's panic even worse.

"I-IÖdidn't mean toÖplease, oh, don't make meÖdon't make meÖ" Blair was pushed up against the headboard.

"Come on, Blair, it's me, it's James." He took Blair's hand and tugged him back to the center of bed.

"Perkins? You came back?"

James decided to go with what worked. "Yes, it's me, now settle down." He tried to imitate Perkins' authoritative tone.

Blair obliged James and warily scooted back into bed. Pulling the covers back up, James watched as Blair closed his eyes, quieting at last. The night was the longest of Jim's life, and he had had some damn long nights in the last few years. One moment Blair was thrashing about, completely out of his mind. The next, so pale and limp and still that Jim thought he must be dying. Towards dawn, he fell into an exhausted sleep, his hand on Blair's wrist, assuring him that Blair still lived.

***********************

 

Blair awoke feeling pummeled. His throat felt dry and raw and he lifted a hand to his face. He had a full beard. How long had he been sick? He tried to call out, but only a croak emerged. Nevertheless, that was enough of a sound to bring someone to the door. It swung open, and James stood there. When he saw that Blair was awake, his haggard face was lit by a smile.

"You're awake!" James looked back into the hallway and yelled, "Dan! Alice! Mrs. Duncan! Blair's awake!"

James brought his attention back to the man in the bed. "I expect you're thirsty, hungry, too."

Blair watched as James poured water into a glass and brought it to him. He reached with a trembling hand, desperate to get the water. James kept hold of the glass and said, "Here you go, you need to take it slow," and helped Blair sit up and drink.

When he was done, James looked at him critically. "How are you feeling?"

"Rotten."

"Yes, well, that's to be expected."

"How long?" Blair croaked.

"Six days you've been out."

"Six days! When did you come?"

"I've been here from the first night. What a nightmare that was. "

"You came, even though you knew?"

"Knew what?"

"I told youóI told you what I had done, what I was." Blair wondered how James could have forgotten.

"You did? What were you? I don't recall."

James seemed truly baffled and Blair flirted with the idea of lying and not telling any of it. He didn't think he had the courage to tell James again, to see the look of blank shock on his friend's face again. But of course he had to. There simply was no way to explain his life otherwise.

"I told you. I was a pickpocket, a common thief. And now I gamble, lying to the world about who I am."

"Oh. Yes, well, we'll talk about that when you're feeling better."

How could James take this so casually? What had brought him to Blair's house? What had made him stay? Blair's head hurt with all the unanswered questions.

An older woman appeared in the doorway with a food laden tray. There was savory soup and fresh baked bread, making Blair's mouth water.

"How's the boy this morning?" Mrs. Duncan asked, completely ignoring the glaring evidence that the boy was a man.

"Much better, Mrs. Duncan." James took the tray from her hands and set it in the dresser. She wiped her hands on her crisp, starched, white apron.

"Yes, he looks alive at least. I'll call for a bath and a barber."

"Whoówho was that? And where is Alice and Daniel?" Blair was alarmed. He worried that somehow Alice might have been replaced and he hated the idea of her out on the street.

At the mention of their names, Alice and Daniel poked their heads in the door. Blair stared at them in shock. Alice was wearing a demure blue dress and her hair had been styled into a tidy bun. She looked the very picture of respectability. Daniel wore a suit worthy of a butler. He straightened his tie.

"Wotcha think, Bla-Master Blair? Don't we look the very picture of domestic elegance?"

Blair nodded, words failing him. He looked to James, who was staring at his two servants with affection and pride. If James had been here six days, he'd certainly tumbled to the fact that neither Alice nor Daniel knew what they were doing. And yet he was gazing upon them benignly.

That was it, the final straw, the concluding evidence. He'd died and this was some sort of strange and heathen afterlife, filled with all the people he loved and a few extras, all getting along happily. Real life was never like that; ergo, he was dead. He sighed and closed his eyes, resigned to this surreal dream world.

"Here now, Blair, you can't fall back asleep, you need to eat something. We've had a devil of a time getting food and water into you this past week." James brought the bowl of soup to the bed and arranged a towel on Blair's lap.

Blair reached for the spoon and dipped it into the soup. The path from the bowl to his lips was a shaky one. James took the spoon away after close to nothing reached Blair's mouth. Much to Blair's embarrassment, he fed Blair, spoonful after spoonful, until the bowl was empty. Since it was just a dream, Blair made no protest. He was very hungry after all and this way he got fed.

When it was all gone, James took the bowl away and pulled the covers up. "You rest a bit. Soon we'll get you in a bath and clean those whiskers off your chin."

Blair obliged, liking this dream very much. Soon he slept.

*******************************

James padded through the now silent house. He checked the first floor windows, locked the front door and made his way back up the stairs to Blair's room. He'd been here a week and it had been a week of hell. Long nights and days filled with worry and hope, little sleep and gnawing fear. But tonight Blair was coherent, clean, and in a peaceful slumber.

In this quiet moment before he sought his own bed, James became aware of something strange and wondrous. His madness had receded. He had spent a week in this haphazard house with little sleep and yet not once had he heard or seen one of his hallucinations. True, the food the first two days had been close to inedible, but that had changed when Mrs. Duncan had tracked him down. Once she saw the lay of the land, she had sent for Nancy and George. They had soon put the house to right.

James climbed the stairs. He passed the room that Mrs. Duncan had had scrubbed and polished and declared fit for him to inhabit and instead went to Blair's room.

Blair was sleeping, his breathing quiet and even. James pulled up the chair he'd lived in the past week and studied his friend. So Blair was a pickpocket. A gambler. Two years ago, James would have had a very different reaction to those words. Now he simply regretted the need that had forced Blair to make those choices. He had never understood need before. His time in the Bastille had educated him, his madness had humbled him.

Blair's eyes opened, and James rejoiced to see clarity and intelligence where for a week had been only pain and fear.

"Evening, Blair. Thirsty?" James didn't wait for a reply, moving to the dresser and pouring Blair a glass of water.

He handed the water to Blair, who took it with a small smile. Both vanished in a thrice and Blair handed the glass back to James.

"James," Blair started and stopped, clearing his throat. "Now that you knowÖwhat I've doneówhat I've become, you must realize that I am not the person you thought me and I understand, I mean, I will understand, after all, our friendship was unlikely from the first and now, well now there is noó" Blair was cut off from his rambling speech by James' hand on his mouth.

"Shall I call the doctor back? Are you delirious again? What nonsense are you babbling?" James worked hard to keep from laughing, knowing Blair was in no shape to understand that response.

"James, be serious. I will always cherish our friendship and be enormously grateful for the care you've given me, but I am altogether an unsuitable companion now." Blair looked the picture of misery.

"Now that's where you and I disagree, Professor. I think you've created a perfect companion for me."

James did laugh now, Blair's expression of shocked outrage was really too good.

"James, listen here. You are the son of a lord, you come from a good and honorable family, and a man who is a thief and gambler is not suitable!"

Blair had gone pale and now a sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead. He was getting worked up and would make himself sick again, James feared.

"Shhh, we'll explore the suitability of our friendship at length once you're feeling better. For now, just get it through that thick Irish head of yours that I found you and I'm not about to lose you."

Blair sighed and sank back against the pillows, his meager strength spent. This wasn't an argument he wanted to win, but when he felt better, he'd make James understand.

"Are you going home now?" Blair asked, as he felt sleep overtaking him.

"I'll be here when you wake up."

"If you don't mind me saying, you need your rest James, you look positively hagged. You've been ill, haven't you?"

"Daniel has prepared a room for me and believe me, I plan to sleep, perhaps for days. And I feel just fine, better than I have in over a year."

Blair yawned, his eyes closing and James pulled the covers up, once again tucking his friend in. Blair forced his eyes opened and said, "Tha's good. Y' go an sleepÖ" his mumblings trailed off into a tiny snore.

James found his own bed and fell asleep anticipating, rather than dreading, the day to come. Miracles could happen.