Hello, and welcome to the mini blog tour for There Will Be Phlogiston (released: 8th December), a free novella set in the Prosperityverse. Many thanks to Mark at Sinfully Sexy Book Reviews for hosting me today!
Guest Post by Alexis Hall
Thinking Too Much: Violence, Masculinity, Queerness, History & Shame
There’s always that scene: the one that’s just plain hard to write.
Sometimes it’s simply a technical complication (omg, why did I decide to have an extended conversation between five people with the same pronoun?)—but the suckiest sucker punch tends to come when it’s emotional.
While I definitely don’t believe all writing has to be frantically and directly personal to be effective, for me it’s an odd synthesis of experience and imagination. It’s a little bit of things I’ve read, a little bit of things I’ve thought, a little bit of things I’ve seen, and a little bit of things I’ve done, all spun through a genre lens, re-contextualised and fictionalised. It works for me, I think, as a way of telling stories, but very occasionally, I end up staring at some memory I’m not thrilled to be staring at, or cutting a little too close to my heart, and then there’s blood on the keyboard, and I feel awkward.
There’s a scene in Glitterland, for example, where it became narratively necessary for the hero to cry. I had such a ridiculously difficult time writing that. Rationally, of course, I recognised that it wasn’t me, it was an imaginary person in a book; nobody would be judging me, my father would never know, and everything I was taught about men who cry was bullshit anyway. But, yeah, such is the strange intimacy of texts, that it might as well have been me. I was alone, staring at my computer screen, writing about a man I’d made up but, at that moment, his shame and the vulnerability felt very real. They felt like mine.
There Will Be Phlogiston is basically a Victorian sex-fantasy romp about love and freedom and carnivorous mechanical horses, so I wasn’t exactly braced for self-induced trauma. Unfortunately – and this may be a spoiler, if that bothers you – it also contains a scene of quite explicit homophobic violence. And, God, I did not like writing it. I did not like writing it at all. Not that I was expecting to, of course, but I honestly didn’t realise how much it was going to shake me up.
As a rule, even in contemporaries, while I do occasionally write about homophobia, I tend not to write homophobic violence. The thing is, there’s an awful lot of it in m/m which, to me, is unbalancing. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t know many queers who haven’t had the crap kicked out of them at some point in their life, but this is not a thing that is destined—or, worse, supposed—to happen to us. No matter how common or likely it may be, I am troubled by the extent to which prevalence can be normalising. To reach for the big guns: it would be the equivalent of an overwhelmingly large proportion of het romances featuring the sexual abuse of the heroine. Yes, far too many women suffer some form of sexual abuse at some point in their lives, yes, far too many queer people suffer physical abuse, yes, both of these are legitimate and important narratives but these are not our default stories. When I read a love story about someone like me, the idea that it should also as a matter of course contain random acts of homophobically-motivated violence in order to be plausible is … pretty upsetting, really.
Which isn’t to say I demand that every single story be set in a utopia of complete sexual and gender equality. Homophobia is a thing we live: it can be useful to remember that, and reflect it in our stories. But bigotry is more complicated and more insidious than gangs of feral homophobes roving the streets and beating up queers. Putting aside my childhood and adolescence, I can count actual physical attacks on one hand.
But small cruelties? Dismissals? Minor oppressions? Failures of empathy? Incalculable. Daily.
Which doesn’t mean my life is rubbish and full of hurt, but my truest understanding of what social oppression and institutionalised homophobia is like comes down most simply to this: an accrual of banal disregard. And the problem is that this isn’t the sort of thing that often gets represented in fiction. Understandable, really—because how do you write about something so diffuse and so subtle? But what it means in practice is that much of the way we present bigotry suggests it is solely the province of bad people who are bad, and that homophobia only “counts” as real if it involves a broken bottle to the face.
But, despite these concerns, I still got one of my characters beaten up in Phlogiston. So why did I do that?
Well, there were a couple of things I wanted to address, one to do with historical queerness, and one to do with masculinity and the romance genre more generally. Without too many spoilers, the character in question is lightly inspired by the Marquis de Custine, a 19th century French writer, who lived quite openly with his male English lover. The history of queerness is extremely complicated, not least because queer-is-identity is a relatively modern idea, but while we shouldn’t go around co-opting people into the gay canon, there are nevertheless stories here: of intimacy, and love, and even occasionally of happiness between same-sex partners.
I’m not a historian—so this might be bollocks—but I also feel the way we understand these semi-constructed queer historical narratives is heavily shaped by Victorian ideas about morality. Obviously, people have been buggering each other since Sodom and Gomorrah, but that era was kind of the first time ideas about queerness-as-identity-or-malady emerged in a way that made them public, accessible, and—in a way—discussable. As a consequence, we’re all now really familiar with the Queer Narrative of Shame and Ruin, but I’m genuinely uncertain how much it reflects what actually happened. and how much it simply offers us a Victorian morality tale of vice and punishment and the triumph of social order.
Take Oscar Wilde: the broken genius who – after his prison-sentence - lived out the rest of his life in exile and shame.
Or did he? I’m not pretending that two years of hard labour wasn’t unspeakable (clearly, it nearly killed him) but he did ... you know ... take up again with the man he called his husband, not long after his release. And they did live together for a while on the continent. And, when they parted ways, he did kind of cut a swath through European rentboys until he ran out of money and succumbed to syphilis. Yes, it's true he didn’t write much, but ... part of me wonders if he was just too busy shagging.
Basically, while there is definitely some core of truth in the accepted narrative of Wilde (of punishment and suffering), I’m having a hard time squaring ... ruin of a life with ... lived happily with his husband, sharing adolescent Greek fishermen.
Simeon Solomon would be another example: caught seeking a good deep dicking in a public facility, he wandered Europe, homeless and apparently ruined, trading his art for drink and sex. Again, I ask myself: how wrecked was he, really? For the first time in his life, he was free.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make a virtue of social ruin. But the whole idea of Queerness Punished serves a fundamentally Victorian worldview of vice and virtue, and reinforces the power of the establishment. And while I don’t think shitty things should happen to gay people, I also think we should consider the loci of power in the stories we tell about ourselves. We should ask who these stories are really for, and what interests they serve. Narratives of punishment only work if we believe the punishment (whether deserved or undeserved) has been effective: the version of the Oscar Wilde story, where he settles happily in Greece with his husband, does not exactly work as a morality tale about queerness.
In fact, the message one might take away from it is ... homos gonna homo.
Although he’s early rather than late 18th century, and French rather than English, the life of the Marquis de Custine serves as a really fascinating counterpoint. The son of a powerful family, raised by his mother who was herself quite a powerful character, Astolphe was clever, gentle, charming, beloved – and kind of fucked. He spent his early life trying to please his mother and having nervous breakdowns, shying away from what would have been a very excellent marriage for undisclosed reasons (an incident that inspired about four novels, including one by Stendal, and one of which he wrote himself). He did eventually marry a very rich woman, and produce an heir ... but about two years into said marriage he became, cough, intimate friends with an Englishman called Edward Saint-Barbe. From all accounts, the little triad seemed perfectly functional, and even happy – but Astolphe’s wife died young. However, the most notorious incident of the Marquis’s life took place in October of 1824.
His half-naked, unconscious body was found on the road to Paris. Reluctantly, he was obliged to take the matter to the police: his story had something to do with sending his carriage home, despite the pouring rain, and then wanting to see the interior of a church ... yeah, okay, fooling nobody there. Especially not when a group of soldiers came forward to testify that they were responsible for the attack, and they’d done it in order to uphold the honour of their regiment after the Marquis had instigated a homosexual liaison with one of their friends. They were exonerated, and everybody knew the Marquis was a big poof.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. Most accounts of this I’ve read have then gone on to emphasise the shame and the social exile the Marquis suffered as a consequence. This is Wikipedia, which – while it’s obviously Wikipedia and thus not exactly a reliable source of information – nevertheless serves a useful barometer for how things are generally perceived:
“…news of the incident quickly spread around France — "From this time on to the end of his life Custine would figure, in the cruel gossip of the day, primarily as France's most distinguished and notorious homosexual." Even though the literary salons, as opposed to the society salons, remained open to Custine, many people who were friendly with him sneered at him behind his back. His diplomatic career was also cut short by this incident.”
Except but no.
Custine was not remotely ruined. Yes, he was a Marquis, which obviously helps with this kind of thing, but his family and friends did not abandon him. Some people might have sneered and bitched, certainly, but for an apparent social outcast he certainly attended a hell of a lot of parties. Moreover, it seems to me (with my no-historian qualifications) that a lot of his emotional distress was due to being essentially closeted: crushed by expectations he couldn’t meet from the people he loved and wanted to please. But now everyone knew who he was. He was irrevocably out, and it made him ... happy. His family and friends stayed by him, he remained resolutely untouched by any sense of ‘shame’, he went to Russia, he published some amazing travel writings… The only thing he stopped doing, as far as I can tell, was solicit soldier boys in dark alleys.
And, instead, lived happily ever after with his devoted boyfriend.
Not – I hasten to add – that what every queer really needs is the application of homophobic violence. But we are so used to the queer narrative being inherently tragic, and the idea that discovery will inevitably lead humiliation, exile, and shame, that there’s something quite satisfying to me in Custine’s refusal to live that story. I’m not trying to say being attacked is a good or a positive thing, or that coming through it in a particular way is any sort of indicator of strength and courage, but I think it’s worth remembering that shame is something we have to choose to accept. It is not integral to who we are or what happens to us.
This idea of shame brings me onto the second reason I both decided to subject my character to violence, and why I struggled to do so. Being a man, we are taught, is about power and control. Anything that strips those things from us – violence, emotion, vulnerability, love – makes us less of a man. This is such crap I can’t even, but these things go so deep and, in all honesty, a lot of romance novels – either consciously or unconsciously – reflect them. It’s complex of course: romance novels are for women, not for men (and that’s one hundred meeeeeellion percent okay), so looking for heroes to be more than a fantasy figure – to be a person – is to miss the point. Not in the sense that heroes can’t also be people, but in the sense that making the one genre about the womenz also about the menz is... a dick move. And, let’s be fair here: there are plenty of romances that do have heroes who are characters in their own right, but this doesn’t represent a more “legitimate” choice, it’s just a different way of writing the genre.
But even with more low-key and realistic heroes, there seem to be very specific (and to a degree limited) ways in which heroes are permitted to be vulnerable before it crosses the line into what is considered unattractive and unmanly. So you can be emotional but only with the heroine and probably only at the end of the book. You can cry but only in extremities of loss. Not, like, over Finding Nemo. Cough. You can be sexually abused but only as a child, and only if you feel angry about it (rather than, you know, complicit, shamed, guilty, wounded, weak or any of the other gazillion ways a person might feel had they suffered sexual abuse). You can get into fights but only if you don’t start them—and only if you win. You can maaaaaybe be a virgin or a submissive if you’re manly as hell in other ways.
(I should also note that engagement with male vulnerable is slightly different in m/m but that’s a can of worms too vast and wriggly to be opened in an already vast and wriggly article).
I will probably be bothered until the day I die about a review I saw for Shelley Ann Clark’s Have Mercy, in which the reviewer noted: “I lost all respect for the hero when he crawled.” Uh. Seriously? I can understand not being into that (and what we’re into is what we’re into – and I’m making no judgements about that), but actually losing respect for a character? God, why? I would lose respect for myself if I felt my masculinity was that fucking fragile. Sex is a feedback loop, he says, taking all the fun out of it.
But, yeah, there’s nothing inherently powerful and sexy about sticking your fingers up someone’s orifice and wiggling them around – but, my goodness, watching a lover bliss-out on it? That’s ... extraordinary. There are few feelings in the world more powerful or sexy than from sharing pleasure. The format it takes, to me at least, is immaterial: I can’t really see why sticking my dick in a hole is powerful and masculine and worthy of respect, while crawling to someone’s feet is none of those things. Admittedly, for my own sake, I’d get more out of the former, and I wouldn’t be massively into the latter but ... if what’s important is the feedback loop, then in that context they become essentially interchangeable actions. I wanna do the thing that makes you wet and hard and hot and shuddery and seduced and helpless and powerful and needy and wild.
But when you’re writing a character you want to be perceived as attractive – as a hero – then you kind of end up having to worry about this sort of thing: what are the limits of vulnerability, how far is too far, when will the reader lose respect for someone who has shown too much of the wrong kinds of weakness. There are few things that feel quite as humiliating, quite as emasculating, as physical violence, not least because we are expected – as men – to be able to protect ourselves from it. I’d even go so far as to say that there’s a sense that if you can’t, then you deserve whatever happens. It’s especially true if you throw queerness into the mix, because there’s already an extent to which queerness is perceived as antithetical to masculinity.
But, y’know—here’s the simple truth: if some people decide to beat you up, and there are more of them than there are of you, and you can’t get away, and you’re not actively a ninja, then ... you’re going to get beaten up. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, how powerful, how in control, what kind of man you are: there’s going to a time in your life when you lie on the ground, curled into a ball, probably crying. Because getting kicked in the face kind of hurts.
I didn’t like writing Ash crying in Glitterland because it felt humiliating and I was afraid the reader would think less of him for it. I didn’t like writing this scene of powerlessness and brutality in Phlogiston because it also felt humiliating – and once again – I wasn’t sure the character could still be attractive, be sympathetic, be a hero, at the conclusion of his story. That some reader might be sitting there thinking, “I lost all respect for him when he let some ruffians beat the crap out of him.” And, obviously, I can’t control what readers think. I can barely control what I think. But, honestly, it troubles me that this was a thing I was a genuinely afraid of … something I hesitated to write: that showing a male character being physically vulnerable, being hurt—in a non-glamorous, non-romantic way—would cross some invisible line of acceptable masculinity or desirability.
So ultimately, that’s why I wrote that scene.
Because, like the character in question, I too am tired of being ashamed.
There Will Be Phlogiston by Alexis Hall
Title: There Will Be Phlogiston
Author: Alexis Hall
Release: 8th December 2014
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
An instructive story in which vice receives its just reward.
Inspired by true and scandalous tales of the Gaslight aristocracy, we present the most moral and improving tale of Lady Rosamond Wolfram.
Weep, reader, for the plight of our heroine as she descends into piteous ruin in the clutches of the notorious Phlogiston Baron, Anstruther Jones. Witness the horrors of feminine rebellion when this headstrong young lady defies her father, breaks an advantageous engagement, and slips into depravity with a social inferior. Before the last page is turned, you will have seen our heroine molested by carnival folk, snubbed at a dance, and drawn into a sinful ménage a trois by an unrepentant sodomite, the wicked and licentious Lord Mercury.
Reader, take heed. No aspect of our unfortunate heroine’s life, adventures, or conduct is at all admirable, desirable, exciting, thrilling, glamorous, or filled with heady passion and gay romance.
Excerpt: Chapter One
“That one,” said the Phlogiston Baron. “I want her.”
Lord Mercury gently lowered the man’s arm. “It’s rude to point.”
“In your neck of the woods, it’s rude to breathe.”
“Well, yes, if you do it loudly and offensively, and in a way that could be considered frightening to ladies.”
“And I suppose I do?” Anstruther Jones stuffed his hands in his pockets, ruining the line of his otherwise exquisitely tailored evening wear.
Lord Mercury compressed his lips on a smile. “On occasions, but perhaps I find such occasions rather invigorating.”
“You mean—” Jones leaned in “—when I’m fucking you.”
The blunt words travelled all the way along Lord Mercury’s spine like the caress of a rough hand. Heat swept upwards and, more worryingly, downwards. He did not dare turn his head. The man’s eyes would be too full of knowledge, too full of purpose, and Lord Mercury would be able to think of nothing but how it felt to be the object of such a gaze. “Please don’t. Not—”
He didn’t know how to finish, or if he even meant what he was saying, but it didn’t matter because Jones pulled back immediately, his attention returning to the woman who had initially caught it. “Tell me about her.”
There was absolutely no reason for Lord Mercury to feel . . . what? Disappointed? Was that what it was? These thorns in his heart? He had been the one to curtail whatever it was Jones had been trying to do. Taunt him. Flirt with him. Unravel him in the middle of a ball, a notion at once terrifying and strangely enticing, all his filthy secrets spattering to the pristine floor. The last scion of Gaslight’s oldest family: nothing but a catamite and a whore. And even his ruin was incidental, for Anstruther Jones needed only one thing from him. Anything else was mere diversion.
Lord Mercury swallowed his pride—what little he had left of it—and gave the Phlogiston Baron what he wanted. As he had from the beginning, little knowing where his compromises and his capitulations would lead. “That’s Lady Rosamond, Lord Wolfram’s daughter.” His voice echoed in his ears as though it belonged to a stranger’s. “She’s insipid. A china doll. I don’t know what you can possibly see in her.”
“Something I like,” was the Phlogiston Baron’s only answer.
“Acquaintance will likely cure you of that.”
Jones laughed—an ungentlemanly burst of mirth that made people stare at them. It should have made Lord Mercury uncomfortable. It did make him uncomfortable. Immoderate laughter was uncouth, as he had explained on several occasions, but Anstruther Jones would not be curbed. On any matter.
He laughed when he felt like laughing.
And there was something frighteningly pleasing in that.
He set off towards Lady Rosamond, trusting Jones would follow. She was standing demurely at her mother’s side—a diminutive creature, golden haired, rose-cheeked, decked out in a three-flounced, pink silk ball gown with skirts so wide it seemed a light breeze might sweep her into the sky as if she were made of nothing but light and air.
She had only recently made her debut, so Lord Mercury knew little about her. Like all young ladies, she was said to be charming, amiable, and lovely to behold. Her family was good, her portion was good. She was greatly admired by gentlemen, but not—he thought—by the other debutantes.
He knew well enough that there had only been pique in his dismissal. Her beauty was striking. It would have been, even if delicacy had not been the current mode. Picture-perfect womanhood: soft, yielding, fragile, rosebud pink lips formed in the shape of a kiss to be taken.
He bowed to her. “Lady Wolfram, Lady Rosamond, will you allow me to introduce to you my—” the word caught a little in this throat, a lie in so many ways “—friend, Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones, Lady Wolfram, Lady Rosamond.”
“Of course you may.” Lady Rosamond’s voice was a sweet, ladylike trill. “Introduce him, that is.”
Jones performed something that was probably a bow (if you happened to have your eyes closed while he did it) and then recited, “It gives me great pleasure to form your acquaintance, Lady Rosamond.”
Her eyes, which were blue—not like Jones’s eyes were blue, but bright and hard-glazed like the willow pattern on porcelain—slid past them. “I’m sure.”
Her tone had not wavered, but it was not the response Lord Mercury had told Jones to expect Nevertheless the Phlogiston Baron only shrugged.
Shrugged. In a ballroom. In front of a lady.
“Do you want to dance?”
“No,” returned Lady Rosamond.
It was all Lord Mercury could do not to put his head in his hands.
Jones glanced his way. “Is she allowed to say that?”
This was rapidly becoming unsalvageable. He appealed in silent desperation to Lady Wolfram, but the woman only laughed the strangest laugh, and murmured, “Charming, how very charming.”
“Perhaps,” he tried, “perhaps Lady Rosamond does not feel like dancing tonight?”
Lady Rosamond tossed her head like a wilful horse. “I do not feel like dancing with Mr. Jones.”
“Then—” he sketched another bow “—we should take our—”
“Why not?” asked Anstruther Jones.
“Because I am too good for you. Good night, Mr. Jones.”
And, for the second time that evening, the Phlogiston Baron laughed.
Lord Mercury had not initially been receptive when Anstruther Jones turned up on his doorstep, sans invitation, introduction, or even calling card, wanting to “cut a deal.” But he had a way of getting what he wanted, and Lord Mercury was, frankly, running out of things to lose. For all he could trace his line back at least a century—high royalty for Gaslight nobility—the only thing it meant in real terms was a hundred years of gambling, drinking, and ill-advised investments. Jones’s offer had been simple, if galling: he would repair Lord Mercury’s fortunes in return for his assistance in entering society.
“I want a house,” Jones explained, “like this house. For my children to call theirs and give to their children. And family. I want to have a family.”
Lord Mercury could still remember the arrogant way the man had sprawled across his Chippendale sofa. The tatty brown duster that reeked of tar and phlogiston. His weathered face, his harsh mouth, and his eyes, grey-blue, restless and protean like the sky.
“You don’t need social acceptance for that.”
“No, but I’ll damn well have it.” Of course what he said was ’ave it—those broad Gaslight As. “If not for me, for them as follow.”
“You can’t buy Gaslight.” Lord Mercury mustered all the hauteur of his name. “And you certainly cannot buy me.”
Anstruther Jones said nothing, his silence somehow no less forceful than his words, and reached deep into the pockets of that dreadful coat. He began to pull out paper after paper after paper. Debts, all of them: vowels, bills, promissory notes.
Mortified, Lord Mercury turned his head away. It was one thing for a matter to be generally understood but never admitted to or spoken of. Quite another for an ill-mannered commoner with ideas above his station to scatter the undeniable truth all over Lord Mercury’s last Axminster.
“What do you want?” he asked, hating how weak he sounded.
“I told you.” Jones ticked his ambitions off on his fingers. “Home, position, family. Your help.”
“You can’t afford me.”
The man’s mouth curled into an unexpected smile—a little bit wicked, a little bit sweet. “Try me.”
Lord Mercury named a sum so outrageous it embarrassed him to utter it aloud.
“I . . . I beg your pardon?”
“Done.” Jones spat into his palm, and held it out.
Lord Mercury stared at the other man’s hand blankly and bleated, “Oh, what are you doing?”
“Sealing the deal.”
“Well, consider this a . . . a . . . preliminary lesson, but in polite society we do not spit on ourselves, or each other. Or at all, as it happens.”
“So what do you do with cherry stones?”
“We transfer them politely from our mouths to the spoon and then—” It belatedly occurred to Lord Mercury that he was being laughed at.
Jones’s eyes were full of light as he wiped his hand on his trousers and extended it again.
It was surely a devil’s bargain.
But Lord Mercury had a household to manage, factories to run, appearances to maintain, and debts to pay, so many debts. He had been intending to marry money—a devil’s bargain of a different kind.
He stared at the hand, then at Jones.
The man’s gaze did not waver.
The truth was, Lord Mercury could no longer afford the luxury of pride.
They shook. The rub of the calluses on Jones’s palm sent sparks all through Lord Mercury’s skin. Made him feel tender in comparison.
It was faintly humiliating, but also . . . not.
The next few months were difficult. It was not that Jones was stupid, or that he did not take well to instruction, but he questioned everything. It was not enough for him to simply know a thing was, he had to know why it was. And Lord Mercury was increasingly conscious that his answers amounted to little more than “Because that is the way of it.”
Nevertheless he tried.
He instructed Jones on etiquette, taught him how to bow, how to choose wine (though not to enjoy it), traced for him the lineage of all the major families, talked him through their fortunes, their histories, their scandals. He did his best to smooth the Gaslight from his voice, but the raihn in Spaihn stubbornly rehned on the plehn, and attempts to educate the man’s taste were similarly unsuccessful.
It was not, Lord Mercury had to admit, that Jones had bad taste. Merely that he made no distinction between, say, the music hall and the opera, and formed his opinions without giving consideration to what others might think of them. Opinions, as far as Lord Mercury was concerned, were derived from social context. They were like a well-chosen hat: framing one’s elegance of taste, and proving that one both knew, and could afford, the right sort of hatter. But, for Jones, they were a round of drinks at a common tavern: selected purely for personal gratification and shared liberally with all and sundry.
Effort to convince Jones to engage a valet also failed. He said he had no interest in hiring a grown man to ponce round him with a clothes brush. Lord Mercury would have tried to explain the vital importance of proper attire but, as it happened, Jones dressed well. Or rather, he dressed badly, in clothes more suited to an airship than a drawing room, but he wore them with ease and conviction. And, once Lord Mercury had introduced him to a proper tailor, he looked . . . oh, he looked . . .
A well-cut frock coat and some made-to-measure trousers didn’t precisely transform him miraculously into a gentleman. If anything, they just framed more completely who he was. No rough diamond, Anstruther Jones. He was coal, through and through, coarse and strong, possessed of private lustre.
But everything had only truly started unravelling when he tried to teach Jones to dance. He had feared the potential for gossip if he hired a master, so instead he had purchased a copy of Strauss’s Liebesständchen on wax cylinder and set up his mother’s phonograph in the ballroom. As he pulled the curtains back from the windows, grey light sloshed over the unpolished floors and the tarnished mirrors, making the dust motes gleam like broken stars.
It had been a long time.
His mother had glittered here, more brightly than the gilt, more brightly than the jewels she wore. He remembered the scent of her perfume, the sound of her laughing. He saw her every time he looked in the mirror: he had her eyes, her hair, her skin. He had learned later that she was profligate, degenerate, a reckless gambler, a shameless sybarite, but she had been his world. She had taken him to Paris at the age of six, to Vienna at eight. He had tasted his first champagne at nine and developed a taste for it by eleven. He had shared her box at the opera, dined with poets and revolutionaries, waited for her in artists’ studios while she reclined upon tiger skins and was painted.
Everyone said it was no way to raise a child, but he had never been a child. He’d been her acolyte, her companion, her confidant. And, a little after his fourteenth birthday, she had fled to Italy with one of her lovers, leaving him with a broken heart, a crumbling house, a name he could not afford, and a note that said, Sorry darling.
“Are you all right?” asked Jones.
He flinched. How had he not heard the man approaching? Jones was hardly the quiet sort. “Yes. Of course.”
To his horror, Jones reached out and swept something from his eyelashes. It glinted on the tip of his finger, a tear, already disappearing into Jones’s skin, becoming nothing. “What were you thinking about?”
“The past, I suppose. It’s not important.”
Jones shoved his hands into his pockets, and Lord Mercury bit back an urge to tell him not to. It would be futile, anyway—it was almost as though he had magnets in them. “This place could do with a bit of work.” He nodded towards the green stains marbling the plasterwork. “I think you’ve got some rising damp.”
“I will have it seen to.” Even though he now had the resources, Lord Mercury found himself oddly reluctant to plan the work the townhouse required. Perhaps he had grown too accustomed to living this way. Or perhaps he had simply grown tired of laying increasingly elaborate façades over broken things.
Jones turned, too bold, too vivid, for that time-washed place. Smiled his crooked smile. “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale. You just need some briars growing round your cursed castle.”
“Well,” returned Lord Mercury sharply, “I am in no need of a handsome prince. I am waiting to teach you the waltz.”
“All right.” Jones shrugged. “What do I do?”
Lord Mercury set the needle against the wax cylinder he had already placed in the phonograph. There was a crackle, and the opening notes of Strauss’s waltz slipped quietly into the ballroom. The delicate pizzicato seemed to echo the anxious quivering of his nerves. Old grief, he thought, and irritation at Jones. Who was still standing with his—
“One does not waltz with one’s hands in one’s damn pockets.”
“One offers one’s most sincere apologies.”
There was a comedically well-timed orchestral boom from the phonograph, as if Strauss had deliberately written the piece to make Lord Mercury look silly in front of Anstruther Jones. “Position,” he said, “is very important. Under no circumstances should the dancing couple stand vulgarly close. That is for Europeans. You should clasp the lady’s hand, and place your own hand at her waist thus.” He demonstrated on himself. “Neither any higher nor any lower, certainly not embracing her, and you must only touch her lightly. You are not, under any circumstances, to press your hand upon her.”
“Why?” asked Jones. “Will she break?”
“No, but she would probably find you pawing at her with barbaric enthusiasm deeply unpleasant.”
Jones tilted his head, the mischief still in his eyes. “Are you friends with many women?”
“I have many female acquaintances. Now, please attend me as I demonstrate the basic steps.” Lord Mercury’s heels clicked far too loudly as he made his way to the centre of the dance floor. Knowing Jones was watching him made him aware of himself in peculiar ways: the flow of his coat over his hips, the cling of his trousers to his thighs. “The gentleman begins like this: on the beat, left foot, as so, then the right, and another step with the left, like this. And no galloping, Jones. Remember you are dancing with a lady, not a racehorse. And, after that, you simply continue, left-right-left—are you attending?—for the next six beats.”
It was . . . It was . . . beyond strange, dancing with an imaginary partner in an empty ballroom for Anstruther Jones. Lord Mercury knew he was a good dancer—he was renowned for it, in fact—and, as a general rule, he enjoyed it. But now he wasn’t sure what was wrong with him. Light-headed and hot and absurdly exposed.
“And then the . . . then the . . .” He had no reason to be out of breath, but nevertheless he was. His heart was beating hard enough to choke him. “Then the gentleman reverses his steps, like this, in order that the couple may continue about the room.”
“I think I can manage that.”
“Good.” Relief rolled through him. It was only dancing. It shouldn’t have felt as though he knelt naked at the man’s feet. “Now to put it into practice. Take your posi—” And that was when Lord Mercury realised precisely what this lesson entailed. For some reason—perhaps self-protection—his mind had slid away from the reality of it. Or perhaps it hadn’t. Perhaps the part of him that was weak and fleshly and traitorous had wanted this all along.
“Do you want to lead?” The gentleness in Jones’s voice was mortifying. Magnified, somehow, too, by the silence as the cylinder reached its end.
“No. You need to learn. I will . . . I will take the part of the lady. On this occasion.”
“It’s just a dance, Arcadius.”
“I am well aware of that.”
Lord Mercury went to restart the music. Came back slowly, almost reluctantly, fearful of what it might have meant had he been otherwise.
Jones stepped close to him. Vulgarly close. It had to be vulgarly close because why else would Lord Mercury be so . . . so conscious of him? The shape of his body, the heat. Except, when he opened his eyes (oh, when, why, had he closed them?), he realised Jones was standing entirely properly and upright as directed. “I’ll try not to barbarically paw at you,” he promised.
A dreadful breathy sound issued from between Lord Mercury’s lips.
And then Jones tried to take his hand, and Lord Mercury jumped away like a startled rabbit. “We . . . You . . . would most properly be wearing gloves. I should fetch some.”
Jones gave him a look, exasperated but softened by affection. “I washed my face and hands before I came. I don’t have the skypox.”
The man was right. He was being a fool, and his foolishness was more revealing than indifference could ever have been. He grabbed for Jones’s hand—ignoring the rough kisses of all those calluses against his tender palms—and yanked him back into position. Then he realised he was going to have to put his other hand somewhere. Tentatively he rested it on Jones’s shoulder. He didn’t want to be so physically dependent on him, but at the same time it felt so vulnerable to be led, and it was all he could do not to cling.
“You look good when you’re dancing.” Lord Mercury’s head jerked up at that, and God, Jones was far too close. He could see the patterns of lines in his lips, the radials in his irises . . . “Happy.”
“Start on the left foot,” he said.
“I remember.” Jones stepped, and Lord Mercury stood on his foot. “Ow.”
He felt the blush burning on his cheeks. “I’m sorry, I’m not accustomed to doing it this way.”
Jones grinned. “Starting on the left . . . one, two, three . . . step.”
They managed six beats, not entirely disastrously, but then Lord Mercury forgot he was meant to be transitioning into travelling step rather than pivot step, and they collided. For a moment they were flush, carnally interlocked, thigh-to-thigh, chest-to-chest, and Lord Mercury startled so violently that he tripped over Jones’s leg. Thus the most graceful man in Gaslight ended up on his arse on the ballroom floor, Jones staring down at him with astonishment, and incipient hilarity.
Lord Mercury put his head in his hands. “Don’t laugh at me. Please don’t laugh.”
“Never.” A pause. Perhaps Jones was willing himself to sobriety. “Are you hurt, pet?”
“Just my pride,” he mumbled, too stricken even to chafe against what was surely an inappropriate endearment.
“Only one cure for that.”
“I didn’t think there were any.”
“Stand up, head up, try again. Besides, I think I was just starting to get the hang of it.”
Lord Mercury had rather been hoping for spontaneous demise, but Jones was right. He peeled himself off the floor, reset the cylinder, and stepped once again into the man’s arms.
Just a dance. Just a dance. Just a dance.
The light brush of fingers under his chin made him look up.
“I’m not expert,” said Jones. “But I think it might be easier if you stopped trying to lead.”
Lord Mercury could not quite repress his shiver of response. It felt so strange to be touched in that fashion, romantic in bewildering, impossible ways. Gentling him. “It . . . It . . . It’s difficult when you . . . can’t see where you’re going.”
“I realise I’m new at this, but I’m not going to walk you into a wall.”
“I know but—”
“Can you trust me?”
“Yes.” Oh God. Was there anything more terrifying than the truth, uttered without thought?
Jones smiled. Such a smile, his eyes all sky. “One, two, three, and . . .”
And they danced.
For about thirty seconds, Lord Mercury let another man hold him. Protect him. Whirl him round the room where his mother had once danced and dazzled.
Jones’s arms were strong, his steps certain. He smelled of the cold morning, fresh and clean. And Lord Mercury—
Pulled away, just managing to avoid another humiliating stumble. Tried to steady his breath, his heart, his voice. Ignore the hollow ache that rose up like some unspeakable leviathan from deep inside and . . . and . . . wanted. “I think you have mastered at least the basics. If you need more practice, I suggest you engage a dancing master. Good day.”
He turned on his heel and left the ballroom. He considered it to his credit that he did not run.
He did not see Jones again for the best part of a week. Business had called him to London, and Lord Mercury had time to half-convince himself that his responses had been exaggerated, his feelings imagined. A fevered moment born of simple physical proximity.
But then Jones came back, and Lord Mercury knew he had only been lying to himself.
Tucked under Jones’s arm was a neatly wrapped parcel from Henry Poole & Co of Number Fifteen Savile Row, London, the tailor to whom Lord Mercury had introduced him. “For you,” he said. “They already had your measurements.”
“I . . . What is it?”
Jones stuffed his hands into his pockets. “You’ll see if you open it.”
It was a waistcoat. Lilac silk, so fine that holding it made his hands feel rough. The most opulently beautiful thing Lord Mercury thought he had ever seen. Also the most inappropriate.
Perhaps in London. For the pre-Raphaelite set.
But in Gaslight? For him?
How did Jones know? Could one tell? Had he heard something?
God, that dockhand . . . but how did he know? How did he know Lord Mercury was Lord Mercury? He had offered the man nothing more than coins and his body, all other traces of identity carefully removed before he left his house, fittingly enough by the back passage. Unlike others of his acquaintance, Lord Mercury was discreet, so very discreet, and he rarely surrendered to his inclinations. Only when the hollowness of his flesh and spirit became too much to bear.
“Is this a jest?” he asked, with what he thought was admirable calm.
Jones shrugged. “It’s a present.”
“I’m not . . .” That sentence was absolutely impossible to finish. “Not your mistress.”
There was a look on Jones’s face that Lord Mercury couldn’t read. “Just thought I’d like to thank you.”
“I am not what you think I am.”
Lord Mercury turned away in what he thought was obvious dismissal. But while he was fairly sure Jones could recognise a hint, he had never been able to persuade him to actually take one.
Jones’s arms came round him from behind, pulling him against that tall body, all heat and strength and work-made muscle. The man’s breath was hot against his ear. “What are we, Arcadius?”
“Using my given name without permission again.” It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be an exchange, a necessity, an imposition, a sacrifice for his family name.
“I came to you because I needed you. I stayed because I liked you.” Soft words from a hard man. Lord Mercury had prepared no defence against such things. A blunt-fingered hand pressed against his erection. Nearly made him groan with the longing to be touched. For the terrifying vulnerability of skin. “Say no, and I’ll stop.”
Lord Mercury twisted helplessly like a heretic on the rack. Unable to utter the word that would end his torment. No, and he would be a gentleman again, and Anstruther Jones would be nothing but an upstart. His unshapeable Galatea. A sordid fantasy for endless solitary nights.
Jones gripped him. Even through fabric, he could feel the warmth of the man’s hand, and it was beautiful, horrifying, blissful. Then he stilled. “Say yes, and I’ll continue.”
He shook his head frantically. He couldn’t say that either. One thing to have this happen, in darkness and in shame, an act perpetrated between unaccountable strangers. Another entirely to ask for it. Be part of it.
“I don’t bed the unwilling.”
Lord Mercury couldn’t quite restrain the pleading tilt of his hips. He wasn’t unwilling. He wished he was.
“Or people who don’t know what they want.”
Jones was going to let him go. Let him go and walk away. Leave him like this.
And it didn’t matter . . . It didn’t matter . . . because he would go out tonight. Find a Jack tar or a soldier or airman. Acts, they were nothing but acts, the things he craved. It would be the same.
It wouldn’t be the same.
He wouldn’t be held like this. Or touched like this. It wouldn’t be Jones. With his grey-sky eyes and his smile-hiding mouth, his certainties and convictions, his heedless kindness.
Jones’s other hand came round him, brushed the edge of his jaw. Found the piece of skin above his collar. Stroked him there.
Where it shouldn’t have meant anything.
“Tell me,” he whispered. Not command, not demand, not plea.
And Lord Mercury was undone. “Yes. If you must know. Yes.”
To his bewilderment and his quick-flaring horror, Jones let him go. It had been a trick, nothing but a trick, some further mortification, blackmail perhaps, or—
“Where’s your bedroom?”
“That’s . . . that’s not necessary.”
Jones laughed. Leaned down and—of all things—pressed their brows together. “I’ve spent most of my life on airships, making do. You can be damn sure it’s necessary.”
Lord Mercury was never quite sure why he allowed it.
But, somehow . . .
In his own bed. With Anstruther Jones.
It was not like it had ever been before.
He thought of pleasure as something to be snatched from whatever was done to him, but Jones lavished him with it. Made him wanton.
And, afterwards, Lord Mercury hid his face in the crook of his elbow and cried with shame.
“You’ve done that before? I didn’t hurt you?” Jones’s fingertips skated lightly down his sweat-slick spine, the sweetness of his touch spreading a kind of sickness in their wake.
Lord Mercury shook his head.
The bed shifted as Jones settled on the coverlet. “That good, eh?”
“No . . . I mean . . . It’s just now I am truly your whore.”
There was a long silence. Even muffled by his arm, Lord Mercury could hear his own breaths, too loud and ragged. “Well,” said Jones, “this is awkward because I don’t remember agreeing to pay you.”
Lord Mercury sat up, feeling more naked than his nakedness warranted, and tugged a pillow over himself. “You already bought me.”
“I didn’t buy this. You asked me for it.”
Heat gathered horribly under his skin—it burned in his cheeks, spilling down his throat, over his chest, a spreading scarlet brand. “I . . . I know.”
“And I didn’t buy you either.” Jones stretched out, unabashed and magnificently naked, sweat glinting on the dark hair that curled across his chest and thighs. “Trade is trade. I don’t see the rush to make it something filthy.”
“But I’m a gentleman.”
“And my mothers were whores. I don’t think any less of either of you.” He reached out and pulled the pillow away from Lord Mercury’s body.
He thought about resisting, but it would have been undignified. Covered himself with his hands instead.
Jones grinned at him. “You’d think you’d never been naked with a man before.”
It was hard to manage hauteur when he could smell sex on his own skin, but he tried. “As it happens, I am not in the habit.”
“You’d better make the most of it, then.” Jones held out his arms, and Lord Mercury, without entirely realising what he was doing, tumbled into them.
The shock of intimacy hit him like cold water, and made him gasp. After the sins they had just committed, a simple embrace should have been nothing. He stared helplessly at Jones’s still-smiling mouth, so close to his own that he could almost taste his breath.
If he . . .
If Jones . . .
He jerked his head away, and Jones’s lips grazed his cheek. When he turned back, any trace of softness in the man’s expression was gone.
Lord Mercury had intended his coupling with Jones to be a one-time aberration—a moment of weakness they could both pretend had never happened—but his will proved unequal to the task. Unlike his furtive, back-alley encounters, Jones could not be boxed away and ignored. He was there, present and inescapable, his clothed body a constant reminder of his naked one, even the most innocent movement of those big hands sufficient to reduce Lord Mercury to a quivering ruin of lust and need.
He always had to instigate.
Every single time, he told himself it would be the last.
But he came to pleasure like an opium addict to his pipe, and Jones broke him with ecstasy. Made him sob and scream and beg, utter the most unthinkable obscenities, disport himself with unspeakable wantonness. But he never held him again. Or tried to kiss him.
And it was never quite the same as that first afternoon.
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Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret. He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way. Oh, and you?
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