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This chapter is running long, so I'll post it in two parts.


CHAPTER 12



It was Robert's custom after being subjected to tea with Grandfather to spend an evening of dissipation at a gentleman’s club. Grandfather's perpetual disappointment, the endless catalog of Robert's faults – all would be forgotten in a haze of wine and sex. The next morning, of course, Robert would wake with his head aching, his purse missing, and Grandfather's remarks from the previous night ringing even louder in his ears. Still, the relief offered by the gentleman's clubs, however temporary, was potent enough to keep Robert coming back.


That night, however, Robert did not direct the driver to drop him off in the Lower District and make his way to the Arcade. He did not cruise the shady stretch between Bartleby Street and the Athol Baths, where men stood with their breeches unlaced, and where holes in the crumbling wall were put to thoroughly indecent purpose. When the carriage passed by the infamous Rosette Club, Robert pulled the curtain across his window and directed his mind to chaste thoughts.


Robert went straight home, boiled a pot of coffee, and wrote a scathing indictment of Erminian law. Then he staggered up the stairs, leaving a trail of discarded clothing as he went, and collapsed into bed.


The next morning he was awakened by Hugo thumping through the flat, bellowing the chorus from a popular musical. Hugo was always abominably cheerful before noon.


“Wake up, duckies!” Hugo crowed. “It's another beautiful day in the city, and we have class in twenty minutes!”


A spate of muffled swearing arose from Val's room. Next door, Barnabas groaned.


Robert was the last to shamble downstairs, bleary-eyed and nursing several nicks on the chin from his haphazard shave. He found the clothes he'd abandoned last night neatly folded over the banister.


“Good morning, Robert!” Hugo's grin was entirely too merry. “What a pretty picture you make. Did you get into an argument with your razor again?”


“Coffee,” Robert said plaintively.


Barnabas gestured with the piece of toasted sweetbread to the full pot over the hearth. Robert gulped down two cups of hot, gritty black coffee without tasting them. Once he was feeling slightly more human, he poured a third cup, lit a cigarette, and interspersed sips of the former with drags on the latter.


Hugo had spread several overdue homework assignments over the kitchen table and was switching between them, scribbling esoteric shorthand on his astronomy essay before dashing off a few paragraphs on his literature midterm. Val ran around the flat, combing his hair with his fingers and babbling that they were going to be late. Barnabas buttered another slice of sweetbread, oblivious to the chaos around him.


Despite Val's hysterical predictions, they all arrived at their respective classes on time. Robert slid onto the top bench, extinguishing his cigarette on the underside of the desk, just as Professor Farley began his lecture. The top bench was tacitly reserved for high nobility, an injustice that Robert took shameless advantage of. Its height allowed for a clear view of the board, while the lighting was such that, from the professor's view, the top bench was in shadow, allowing its occupants to nap, smoke, clip their toenails, and duck in and out of class unnoticed.


Thus obscured, Robert pulled out a sheet of parchment and filled his pen. He thought for a minute. Then, at the top of the page, he wrote: Ways and Means. A suitably vague title, should the list fall into the wrong hands.


No allowance for the rest of the month. Twelve crown and an assortment of lint in his pocket. How was he going to buy Luca? Never mind buying him – at the Harlequin's rates, how was Robert even going to pay for another appointment after today?


Rob a bank, Robert wrote. He made a sketch of a man with a long nose brandishing a pistol at a bank teller. After consideration, he added a constable about to hit the long-nosed man with a truncheon. No, crime was not the answer. With his luck, he would cock it up and find himself in Hastey Gaol with all the other common thugs. Then Grandfather would have to put on his hat, get in his carriage, and drive all the way to Charter Square to bail him out. The thought of what Grandfather would have to say on that occasion made Robert feel ill. He'd rather hang.


So robbing a bank was out. Robert chewed his pen and pondered. Then he wrote: Sell Regalia. The pendant was pure gold, after all, and set with rubies that would make even the most discriminating High Street jeweler weep. Of course, if he actually took the damn thing to a High Street jeweler none of them would buy it. You'd have to be mad to fence the D'Argent regalia. Whatever you'd get for the gold and rubies wasn't worth having your eyes and tongue removed, the penalty for tampering with the crest of a noble House. And you could be sure Grandfather would see it enforced.


Robert put an X through Sell Regalia.


He thought for a moment and wrote: Borrow.


But from whom?


Val was at College on scholarship. He rarely talked about his family, but what little he let slip gave Robert a clear picture of too many children and not enough money. Val's father had visited once, a stooped and haggard man with the most exhausted eyes Robert had ever seen. Val made what little coin he had tutoring the Proctor's sons, and most of that he sent home. If it wasn't for the free (if foul) meals provided by the College, Robert suspected that Val would have starved.


Hugo, on the other hand, came from a newly moneyed family with a sprawling palazzo in the Commerce District. He was almost as rich as Adrian, though not as well-born. Hugo and his father were locked in an epic, ongoing battle involving threats of mutual disinheritance, rows that had to be broken up by Hugo's husky sisters, the exchange of inflammatory letters, and, on one memorable occasion, a duel. Hugo was constantly complaining that his allowance had been suspended after the latest eruption of filial animus.


As for Barnabas, he was of a clan of cheerfully provincial bumpkins who had somehow stumbled into a minor noble title. He always spent most of his allowance at the Buttery, and the rest was lavished on round after round of drinks for his friends (Robert, admittedly, among them) at the student tavern.


Adrian — No.


Robert drummed his pen against the desk. Who else? Well, Francis, obviously. Any attempt by Uncle Bernard to reign in his son's profligate spending was undermined by his wife, Grandfather's sister Cecile. Aunt Cecile was a formidable shrew, and Francis was the apple of her eye. He came away from every family visit with a heavy purse and a smirk of satisfaction.


Of course, the idea of being in debt to Francis was only slightly preferable to ritual castration. He would definitely be the very last of last resorts.


From the fact that Professor Farley had stopped talking and the students began to rustle to their feet, Robert perceived that class was over. He folded the paper and shoved it into his jacket pocket, then winced, realizing that the ink was still wet. Oh well. Another challenge for the College laundresses.



The corridors of Auffrye Hall wound like a snails' shell around the Auffrye Library, a five-story repository of every major text on law and legal ethics ever published in Lyonesse. The librarians had cleverly arranged things so that the most popular books were mustered on the ground floor, with content becoming increasingly esoteric as one climbed higher. This no doubt saved a lot of trips up and down the stairs to re-shelve displaced volumes; the residents of the fifth floor rarely left their bookcases. The entire level was all but deserted, save for a few intrepid souls, like Robert, whose research took them beyond the scope of the first floor.


Through a dusty, unpopulated reading room and up five rickety stairs was the door to Professor Gregory's office, propped ajar by an umbrella stand. Steady muttering could be heard from within. Robert lifted the heavy brass knocker and let it fall.


“Enter!” Professor Gregory shouted.


Robert entered.


The room was in an even worse state of disarray than usual. Books stood in precarious stacks as high as Robert's waist, and stray pages fluttered in the draft like moths. The floor was scattered with greasy newspaper, the detritus of a months' worth of fish and chip dinners. The shabby wallpaper was peeling in strips, and the air was thick with the smell of moldering pages and the professor's lavender-eucalyptus cough drops.


“Ah,” said Professor Gregory, looking up from his pile of essays in order to glower at Robert over the rims of his spectacles. “Young Lord D'Argent, come to visit the poor old tutor in his dusty tomb. And how may I be of use to you this morning?”


Robert flourished the sheaf of parchment he'd completed last night. “Dearest of dons,” he said, “your pages.”


Professor Gregory snatched the parchment between two long fingers. He flicked his spectacles to the tip of his nose and squinted at Robert's smudged, spidery handwriting.


“I see your penmanship is as execrable as ever, Robert. What does this say here? The Quorum ought to reconsider its reliance on Erminian legal elephants? Oh, legal precedents. Yes, I doubt even the most eccentric members of the Quorum would put their faith in juridical pachyderms. Hm. Well, it's an audacious notion, though perhaps rather over the heads of our usual readers.” Professor Gregory sniffed. “Well, it will do. Late as it is.”


“I live to serve,” replied Robert without thinking. Luca's practiced words rang in his ears: How may this slave serve your pleasure? Robert ran a shaky hand over his forehead, trying to banish the image of Luca kneeling, robe open, eyes empty, waiting to be raped again. I can be whoever my lord wishes me to be...


Professor Gregory was staring at him. Robert realized that the man had spoken and was awaiting a response.


“Come again?”


“I asked,” said Professor Gregory, with exaggerated patience, “whether you have the afternoon free? There are matters that bear discussing, and I have certain associates who are eager to make your acquaintance.”


Ah, more intrigue. Robert had even less interest in the old man's machinations than he usually did.


“Afraid not. I have an appointment.” Robert checked his wristwatch. “In an hour, in fact. I must cut our meeting short. So sorry. Deepest regrets. A fond farewell.”


“But—”


Before Professor Gregory could object, Robert backed out the door and let it close with a dusty thud behind him. He lingered a moment, listening for the muffled expletive. When it came he chuckled to himself, then turned and hurried downstairs before the old man could muster up the initiative to come after him.


Outside, the day proved as sunny as Robert's mood. He paused for a moment in front of the Statue of the Founder (still, he noted, missing the nose that he and Hugo had broken off) and turned his face up to the clear blue sky. When Luca was his—and here he allowed himself a moment of giddy delight at the idea—when Luca was his they would picnic in weather like this on the old stone baluster overlooking the harbor. Luca would rest his head on Robert's lap, and Robert would stroke his hair, and they would talk until the sun came down over the water and the ships were silhouettes against the rose-gold sky.


“I say! D'Argent!”


Robert's reverie was broken by the sight of a jolly-faced giant striding towards him. Lord Grosvenor, last seen passed out in front of a brothel the morning after Bacchanal, was one of the few men at Court or College who was taller than Robert. The man was built along the same broad lines as a carthorse.


“I've been on the hunt for you, old boy!” Grossie thundered, clapping Robert's arm with enough force to make him stagger. “Hero of the bloody age, eh? I dread to think what would have become of this sad chap without your good works. No doubt I would have frozen blind! Or worse, had to walk back to College with my head bowed in shame.”


“Gods forbid,” said Robert. “That's no fate for a man of your stature, Grossie.”


The pun was bad, but Grossie roared with laughter nonetheless. He dealt Robert another brotherly knock to the shoulder.


“The famous D'Argent wit, eh?” Grossie tapped his nose. “Well, it would appear that I'm in your debt, old boy! One good turn deserves another and all that. Should you ever need a favor, just give a shout and I'll be at your side quick as a whippet. How does that sound?”


“Oh, you needn't—” Robert began. Then he stopped. “Actually, Grossie,” he said slowly, “as it happens I seem to have gotten myself into a bit of a tight corner. Financially, you know. The thing of it is, my allowance has been cut and, well, I can't exactly ask Grandfather for a loan, if you see what I mean.”


“Ah, say no more, Robert, say no more!” Grossie crowed. “You've been gambling, have you? Spades, Duece, Rumble, Top-Me-Off, Peaknuckle, Scrimgribbler! Eh?”


“Yes,” said Robert, who had no idea what Scrimgribbler was. “Gambling. That's right. I just can't stop myself.”


This time Robert had the foresight to brace himself for Grossie's affable whack to the arm. “No need to explain, old boy! I've been tumbled bum over tit by Lady Luck once or twice. Oh, I've been stung, licked, dusted off, blowed, blanked, bottomed out, clocked, jumped and drifted! I've been odds-down on a duck's martingale! And it doesn't bear counting the number of times I've found myself stripped to breeches and strapped for chip in a corner. Eh?”


“Exactly,” said Robert. He tried not to imagine Grossie being blowed and stripped to breeches.


“Well, I'd be more than glad to help out a fellow plunger,” said Grossie. “How much do you need?”


Robert quickly calculated how much another appointment with Luca would cost, then, to be safe, tripled it. He named the sum.


Grossie's eyes widened. “Good gods, man! You're really an ear down, aren't you?”


“Like you wouldn't believe,” Robert said.


“Normally I'd tell you to go whistle,” said Grossie, “but you did save the old Grosvenor dignity the other morning. All right, D'Argent. Debts must be discharged and all that!”


Grossie gave Robert a final wallop to the arm. This time Robert was not prepared. He was knocked flat, landing on back with his cloak around his ears. Grossie's face loomed over him, wide with concern.


“Are you all right, old boy?”


“I've never felt better,” said Robert, and it was true.

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