Title: Fine, But Not Dandy
Characters: Arthur, Merlin, OC
Word Count: 2.3k (or, too many as usual)
Summary: Regency AU. Arthur Pendragon, Earl of Shrewsbury, is spending what he would consider an ordinary Saturday afternoon at the Albion Club... That is, until he meets someone extraordinary.
Prompt: #108 ~ Exquisite
Author's Note: Okay, so me being me, I had to find a unique way to use the prompt. And then I found this:
Exquisite (noun): archaic A person, esp. a man, who takes excessive care in his manner of dress; a dandy.
And, yep... That had my plot bunnies up and running. I ended up with this first installment of a serial Regency AU. Many thanks to ekishou for a second set of Regency eyes on this. I really hope you like this! (And if there are any posting issues, it's because I don't have working Internet at home and I am posting this from my phone!)
As he did most Saturday afternoons when he was in Town, Arthur Pendragon, Earl of Shrewsbury, found himself in the main sitting room at the Albion Club. The Club was considered one of the it places to frequent, mostly by those who were not members. What went on at the Albion was shrouded in mystery and it seemed that no one who was actually a member was willing to talk about it, which naturally only heightened the club’s appeal.
Members of the Ton believed that money and power could eventually procure entrance to these hallowed halls, but they could not have been more wrong. Albion was highly exclusive for a very specific reason: It catered to certain proclivities that the Crown deemed illegal, immoral, and deviant.
Arthur languidly let his eyes wander about the room as he slowly swirled the brandy in his snifter, pausing just long enough to raise the glass to his lips and sip before resting his hand back against the armrest. He was aware that several pair of eyes in the room had come to rest on him, but he pointedly did not acknowledge any of them.
Not only was Albion a place for men who were attracted to men to meet safely, it was also a place where those specific needs were met. While Albion kept staff on hand to accommodate such needs, it was also a place to attract one’s peers for indulging in anything from a quick fuck to a long-term affair.
To that end, there was quite a large faction of Albion members that found it particularly freeing to dress in a way that was either on the edge of acceptability for the peerage, or else downright improper for polite company. Dandies and exquisites draped themselves invitingly across chaises or paraded about the room like peacocks, every hair in place and every article of clothing matched down to the smallest detail. There were even a few that preferred to add certain articles of ladies unmentionables to their wardrobe.
That was all well and good—to each their own—but Arthur had never been attracted by Beau Brummell types, and he certainly wasn’t interested in their ridiculous posturing.
He was well aware that, as heir to one of the oldest Earldoms in Britain, he was much sought after as a partner; to the point where trickery and blackmail was not out of the question. Seeing that the ladies of the Ton stalked him with the same dogged tenacity, he was sick to death of being hunted like a prized stag. This was why Arthur was perched in his customary chair at the table in the corner with his back to the wall and a stony face ready for anyone not of his acquaintance that might be foolhardy enough to approach him.
Arthur took another mouthful of brandy as he pondered his own predicament. At 28, pressure was mounting for him to marry and sire an heir, yet with each passing year, he’d found the idea less and less palatable. Perhaps if his father had lived longer, he might have been able to force Arthur into such an action for the good of the title. But Uther had died and made Arthur an Earl at the age of 23 and now Arthur had been on his own too long to be swayed by duty for duty’s sake. Better that the title pass to his nephew Mordred than to yoke himself with a wife he could neither please nor desire. No, he was much better off focusing on the attentions of men.
The kind of man Arthur preferred was more classic and traditional in his form of dress and address, much like Arthur himself. He was well-spoken and educated, and exuded a confidence that the exquisites seemed to lack. Certainly, there were fine young men present at Albion that met that description. He’d spoken to several, befriended a few, and bedded an even smaller number. If anything, Arthur was incredibly careful when he chose his liaisons.
Yet, all of them had been lacking something, a certain indefinable quality that Arthur had yet to name but knew he would recognize when he saw it. His friend Gwaine, the Earl of Essex, teased him and called him a hopeless romantic, but Arthur did not believe it had anything to do with romance. It was about compatibility. After all, what kind of realistic romance could be had between two men in a country that forbid such things upon pain of death?
Arthur’s musings were disturbed by the hiss of a low voice nearby.
“I did not give you such liberty to touch my person, my Lord.” The voice was firm, albeit a bit shaken, but no less melodious for it. Arthur’s eyes followed the sound, only to discover the smarmy Lord Wakefield trying to proposition yet another of Albion’s serving boys. And, based on the way the young man was trying to flinch away from the meaty hand clutching his arse, his overture was not being well received.
“Now, now,” Lord Wakefield was saying as his other hand snaked around to clench the serving boy’s other buttock, “No need to play coy with me. I know well that all you urchins are only here to find yourselves a ‘wealthy benefactor’.” Lord Wakefield looked the slender lad up and down lasciviously. “Trust me when I say that I am a man of large fortune in any aspect you might require…”
“Sir, what I require is for you to desist…”
Incensed, Arthur rose to his feet and walked the few feet to Wakefield’s table. “Is there a problem here?” Arthur was careful to keep his eyes on Wakefield and not on the man that was unfortunately sandwiched between the Viscount’s ham hock thighs.
Wakefield turned a gimlet eye on Arthur. “I do not believe this concerns you, Shrewsbury.”
“I should think it does,” Arthur demurred with a pretentiously raised eyebrow, “when your attentions prevent him from fetching my next drink.” Arthur curled his fingers around the serving boy’s bicep and slowly extracted him from Wakefield’s clutches. Barely looking at him beyond the downturned dark mop of unruly hair, Arthur said, “Two fingers of the finest brandy in the house to the corner table, if you please.” He nodded his head in the direction of his table.
“Yes, m’Lord,” the young man said, his voice quiet and subdued, before heading back toward the bar from whence he’d come.
Arthur’s gaze hardened until the porcine man visibly shrank under its power. “Such dalliances should be kept to off-duty hours in future, Wakefield, and only if the boy is willing. I would hate to have to speak to Lord Ashton about your tendency to molest his help.”
Arthur turned his back and walked away before Wakefield could even begin to stammer a reply. Arthur believed that a gentleman should act with honor and respect at all times regardless of the circumstances, and this was no different.
Not long after Arthur had settled himself back at his table, the young server came with his drink. “Your brandy, m’Lord,” he said, setting it on the table in front of Arthur with almost too much care.
Arthur didn’t miss the tremor in the boy’s hands as he released the glass. Without a hesitation, he slid the glass of amber liquid across the table and indicated the chair in front of him. “I ordered it for you. Please, sit.”
The server’s head shot up and they made eye contact for the very first time. Now that Arthur could see his face clearly, it was obvious that he’d been incorrect in his assessment. The person standing before him was clearly not a youth. While he was tall and whipcord thin, he had a broadness of shoulder and shadow of stubble that belied his true age.
But more than that, the man was uncommonly attractive, beautiful in an unearthly sort of way: soft, wavy ebony hair, alabaster skin, cerulean eyes that rivalled the sky its colour, a strong, straight nose, strikingly sharp cheekbones, a full, lush mouth, and fey, almost elfin ears. He was a jumble of discordant features that, when composed in just this way, created a masterpiece.
After a long moment, the man startled, as if he’d suddenly realized he’d been staring open mouthed at Arthur. A hint of pink flared on his cheeks as he turned his eyes back to the floor. “Oh, um…I do not believe that I am allowed to fraternize.”
“You have nothing to fear from me, I promise,” Arthur vowed. “But after your unfortunate run-in with Lord Wakefield, I imagined that you might be in need of a stiff drink. For medicinal purposes.”
Straight white teeth caught at his plump lower lip with indecision. Wistfully, he looked at Arthur and then over his shoulder toward the bar.
“If Lord Ashton questions you, inform him that I insisted on the company,” Arthur explained. “He would not wish to displease me; I am one of Albion Club’s largest benefactors.”
Finally convinced, the young man pulled out the chair and sat down, aiming a grateful smile at Arthur. “My thanks to you, Lord Shrewsbury. This is quite kind.”
Arthur waved his hand through the air as if it could dissipate the use of his extraneous title. “None of that. You may call me Pendragon, or simply Arthur, if you prefer,” he said as he thrust his hand toward his tablemate. “I hope you don’t find it poor in manners to ask for your name directly but, considering the circumstances, I did not think it prudent to ask Lord Wakefield for an introduction.”
The man barely suppressed a shiver of revulsion. “No,” he said vehemently, “Certainly not. Merlin Emrys,” he responded, slipping his fingers into Arthur’s for a handshake. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir.”
A tingle of awareness shot up Arthur’s arm the moment their palms touched. “Likewise,” Arthur murmured, his fingers curling around Merlin’s in a subconscious attempt at feeling them against his skin for just that much longer.
Their eyes met and held over their clasped hands. After a long moment, Arthur caught himself staring and lowered his eyes to the bulbous glass cradled in Merlin’s other long-fingered hand. He nudged his chin toward it and said, “Go on, have a sip. I dare say it would do you well.”
Merlin extracted his hand from Arthur’s with a soft smile and lifted the snifter to his lips. Arthur was mesmerized by the contour of Merlin’s mouth as it pressed against the glass and a mouthful of brandy flowed between the plush raspberry-coloured lips. Suddenly breathless, Arthur’s eyes lowered to watch the movement of Merlin’s Adam’s apple as he swallowed.
“Ahh,” Merlin sighed, sinking back against the chair a little. “Heavenly.”
My thoughts exactly, Arthur mused, his eyes lingering on the long, pale expanse of Merlin’s neck.
Merlin savoured another sip of alcohol and then set the snifter back on the table. Leaning forward, he raised his eyes to Arthur’s, a somber expression overtaking his features. “I must thank you again, Pendragon, for your assistance. I am not yet accustomed to the more forward nature of some of Albion’s patrons.”
Arthur’s eyebrows drew together with alarm. “Have such attacks have been perpetrated against you before, Emrys?”
Merlin shook his head in the negative. “Not in the manner of Lord Wakefield, but there have been many pointed remarks.”
Arthur knew that Lord Ashton normally employed help that leaned toward the same proclivities as the patrons, but due to the secretive nature of their ‘interests’, it was not always possible. Perhaps Emrys was one of those? “Is it discomforting, then, the attention you receive?”
Merlin’s face turned pensive as he raised his glass for another fortifying mouthful. Watching the controlled sloshing of the brandy as he twirled the stem of the glass between his fingers, he sighed. “It is not the attentions themselves that discomfort me, but rather the more brazen manner in which they are conducted,” Merlin admitted softly.
“Ah yes,” Arthur nodded, “that would take some getting used to.” Arthur wondered whether Merlin was one of those employees that also worked “in the back”, but was too much of a gentleman to ask. But he needn’t have worried, for Merlin went on to answer the unspoken query of his own accord.
“When I was hired on, it was explained to me that during the course of my normal duties I might encounter such things, but in truth, I believed it an exaggeration. I was only here to serve food and drink, and therefore assumed I would be below anyone’s notice. How very wrong I was!”
And it was no wonder. Merlin was certainly comely enough to catch anyone's eye.
"Have you long been in Lord Ashton's employ?" Arthur inquired, for he felt certain that he would have noticed Merlin before were it so.
"Not very; a little more than a month, " Merlin owned. "Still earning my sea legs a bit, " he continued with a rueful smile.
"Ah, I did not think I had seen you here before."
In the silence that followed, Merlin drank another two swallows of his brandy.
Something about Emrys seemed different from the norm, Arthur mused. He appeared more cultured and well-bred than most of Lord Ashton's other help. Arthur thought back to their handshake, at Merlin's soft, uncalloused hands, and wondered aloud, "So, what misfortune has brought you to Albion, Emrys?"
Merlin appeared startled by the question. "P... Pardon?" he stuttered, his eyes looking anywhere but Arthur's face.
"Your hands are not those of a man accustomed to menial tasks."
Merlin's mouth twisted into a grimace for a moment, but then, as if he'd caught himself revealing more than he should, his features smoothed into a more detached expression. "Until recently, I was at University in Scotland."
"What was your field of study?"
"Stewardship," Merlin replied. "My benefactor always said I had a head quite made for sums. He looked forward to having me succeed his steward when my schooling was complete."
"Then why are you not...?" Arthur began, but Merlin spoke over him, answering the question before it could be asked.
"He passed unexpectedly." A shadow passed over Merlin's features. "The heir had no such need for a steward, having brought one from his own estate."
"How long had you left in your tutelage?"
"A year, perhaps a bit more."
"If you are as good with figures as you say, then certainly a new benefactor might have been found for you," Arthur reasoned.
A quick flash fire of anger sparked in Merlin's eyes as he grit out, "My mother was also cast out during the change in regime. It is my duty to care for her, and I could not do so from Scotland."
While Arthur was surprised by the outburst of emotion, he did not believe that the ill feelings were directed at him, but rather the mysterious benefactor's heir.
Then, it was as if shutters had closed up over Merlin's face. He lifted the glass to his lips and drained the remaining brandy in one before pushing himself to a stand.
"I thank you for your hospitality, Lord Shrewsbury, but I fear that I must return to my duties. If you would please excuse me."
Merlin sketched a slight bow to Arthur and then took his leave, taking the empty glass with him.
Long after Merlin had gone, Arthur stared after him with a thoughtful expression. He wondered just how much more there was to the story of Merlin Emrys.
More, Arthur thought to himself with a certainty he could not explain. Something tells me there's a lot more.