Chapter One: Vice and Virtue
"Give a man a match, he shall be warm for a moment. Light a man on fire and he shall be warm for the rest of his life." - ENGLISH PROVERB
Blenheim Palace was now, finally, to be reopened. The servants had their work cut out for them; Sephiroth, the Duke of Marlborough, was returning from London after a long season, and with him was his close friend Lord Hewley. Angeal was, in turn, accompanied by his childhood friend Lord Genesis Rhapsodos, who as the only son and heir apparent of the Duke of Devonshire held the honorary title of Marquess of Hartington. The marquess and duke had only recently met in London, and held one another in mutual distain. If it weren't for their mutual friend Angeal Hewley, the thought of their living together for any length of time would have been inconceivable. In addition to their party were the honourable Zachary ("Zack") Fair and his lifelong friend Cloud Strife, the orphan ward of Zack's father, Lord Fair. These last two were to arrive at Blenheim a day after the rest of the party, as Zack had a duty to call on the family of his fiancée, Lady Aerith Gainsborough, before leaving town.
Reeve Tuesti, Sephiroth's butler, was busying himself shouting at the footmen who were hastily assembling themselves by the palace's main entrance, waiting to receive the duke. Cissnei, the housekeeper, was directing the maids, who were putting the finishing touches to their dusting and polishing of the long shut up house. Cissnei and Reeve each simultaneously froze as they heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on gravel and turned to stare at one another a moment before bellowing at the servants still inside to join the already assembled staff that flagged the grand entrance. As the duke's carriage pulled up, Reeve motioned frantically for Kunsel, one of the more junior footmen, to get the door. First out of the carriage was Sephiroth, the Duke of Marlborough, who loftily observed the palace's façade without deigning to acknowledge his staff. The next to alight was Lord Hewley, who came to stand next to his friend, looking rather more admiringly at Blenheim and the grand array of staff. Last was Lord Genesis, who rolled his eyes as he took in the sight of the palace. It was even larger than Chatsworth, the country house where Genesis' father had his seat. Reeve hurried forward to welcome the duke and his guests.
"Welcome home, your grace. I trust the journey was not too arduous?" Reeve asked anxiously.
"It must have been tolerable, or else we would not have survived it," Sephiroth replied coldly, removing his gloves without looking at his butler. Reeve laughed nervously.
"Right you are, your grace. If your grace and his guests would like to come in…?"
Reeve gestured helplessly towards the great entryway, which Sephiroth now strode towards without a single look at his staff. Angeal followed suit, smiling warmly at the butler whom he could tell was rather uneasy in the duke's presence. Genesis walked alongside his friend, looking about himself haughtily while trying to conceal his admiration of the place.
Sephiroth quickly summoned Essai, his valet, and retired to his apartment to dress after the journey, and the two other gentlemen were each shown to their rooms so that they might do likewise. Luxiere, Genesis' own French valet, appeared in Genesis' room shortly after his arrival, carrying the last of his luggage.
"You're late. I needed you," Genesis said moodily, watching Luxiere in the mirror from where he sat at the dressing table.
"My apologies, mon seigneur; I 'ave been 'ere four times already wiz ze luggage. You told me not to trust ze footmen wiz it and so I 'aven't, and I brought it all myself from ze carriage."
Genesis mentally calculated the hundreds of yards Luxiere must have walked to have got here and back five times whilst carrying various bags and figured congratulations must be in order. He didn't give them anyway.
"Indeed. Very well. Well come here, will you? I need you to do my hair. I can't get my fringe to do that thing."
"What zing, mon seigneur?"
"The thing you always get it to do!" Genesis snapped impatiently.
An hour later found the three men in the parlour. Sephiroth was in his favourite chair, reading a novel. Tilting his head, Genesis saw he was reading an aged copy of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, and tried – though ineffectively – to hide his smirk at the raunchiness of Sephiroth's reading material, as well as his surprise that the man read fiction at all, austere as he seemed. Genesis and Angeal were playing chess, and Genesis' pieces were dominating the board. He had managed to drive Angeal's king and two surviving pawns into a corner with his queen and remaining rook, and had his bishop poised to checkmate once his friend slipped up. Genesis was already relishing his imminent victory: he loved to be on the winning side. He had, once or twice, tried to draw the duke into conversation, and he was unsure whether it was Sephiroth's natural reserve or his own audacity that had caused the duke to be so silent; it wasn't Genesis' fault that the only thing he could think to remark on was how out-dated the furnishings were, though perhaps his digression on the Italian wallpaper in the parlour at Devonshire House was a little excessive.
There! Angeal had moved his king. Genesis sighed languorously and smiled wickedly at his friend before moving his bishop.
Angeal scoffed, but responded gracefully all the same.
"Thank you very much."
Genesis reached for his wineglass so that he might toast his victory. Angeal looked over to Sephiroth, and saw that the duke was eyeing the chessboard.
"I don't suppose your grace is interested in playing the victor?" Lord Hewley said with mock deference; Angeal and Sephiroth were too close friends to usually bother with kinds of those formalities.
"Certainly, if our friend here is still lucid enough for another game," Sephiroth replied snidely. Genesis suppressed his wince. He must have offended the duke after all.
"I've had only this glass and not even that," he replied impetuously. There was something about the way the duke had phrased his insult that reminded him awfully of his father, "Why must people always remark on my habits?"
Sephiroth actually smiled at this. It was the first time Genesis recalled seeing him smile, or seeing him smile at him anyway. It was a shame the expression resembled that of a shark: all malice and no kindness whatever.
"Forgive me, my dear marquess. Would you afford me the honour of a game?" Sephiroth said, his insincerity tangible. Commanding forgiveness was not the same as an apology, and Genesis acknowledged the difference.
"If you wish."
Angeal gave the duke a meaningful look as he gave up his seat to his friend. Angeal walked to the other side of the room, and gestured at the shelves there.
"May I?" he enquired.
"Of course. There are plenty more books in the library if you don't find any here which suit your fancy. I can have a footman show you the way," Sephiroth said, organising the black chess pieces on his side of the board while Genesis arranged the white.
"I'm sure these will do me just fine," Angeal said, selecting a translated copy of Homer's Iliad. He had always felt an inexplicable kinship with those fallen Trojan warriors. Sephiroth grunted in response.
"Now," the duke said, turning his attention to Genesis, "I normally always play whites by preference. However, seeing as how you are my guest I shall allow you the honour."
"That is most gracious of your grace," Genesis said sweetly. Privately, Angeal rolled his eyes. The two would get on like a house on fire; though it was likely Genesis would be the more badly burnt.
As he was playing white, Genesis was first to move. As was his usual strategy, he moved the king's pawn forward two spaces, and smiled up at the duke. His smile was met with a smirk, and Sephiroth's hand fell on the black queen-side knight.
The game was not going at all to Genesis' liking. He was used to being on the offensive, and while his bold moves usually startled and threw off his opponents, the strategy had not worked on Sephiroth in the least. It was Genesis' king who, with weakened defences, was forced into a corner, Genesis having castled his king in order to avoid a near check. The marquess frowned, confused as to how he had come to be a victim of the duke's conquest, and went to move his rook, more out of a necessity to take his turn than for any strategic reason.
"Now, now, don't give up," Sephiroth said with a smile that was infuriatingly condescending. Genesis flashed him a glare, which only made his opponent chuckle darkly. Like a mother surveying her children, Angeal looked up over the top of his book, wary of an impending argument. But Genesis, to his credit, managed to remain calm.
"A Rhapsodos does not give up. Fortune favours the bold, as they say."
"True, though normally it is said by those who are about to lose."
Genesis felt his eyebrow twitch in a physiological response to his irritation. Sephiroth was wearing that smirk again. Genesis swiftly moved his rook. He would play as he liked regardless of the duke's taunts. Immediately, Sephiroth moved his queen almost the entire length of the board.
Genesis impatiently moved his king out of harm's way, sighing as though Sephiroth's attempts to win were a botheration rather than the object of the game.
"I suppose in the end everything we do is an act of war," Genesis said offhandedly.
Angeal, who had stopped paying attention to the epic but was now watching the exchange between his friends, cut in: "Surely not, do you really think so?"
"No, I agree," Sephiroth said, his jade-coloured eyes locked intensely on Genesis' cerulean, "and in the end all war comes down to is sex."
Genesis, who had been taking a sip of wine, nearly choked at this.
"I'm sorry?" he said, "Whatever does war have to do with sex?"
"Well, take the Iliad for example," Sephiroth said, nodding towards the copy that lay discarded beside Angeal on the green velvet sofa, "The entire war is started by two men's desires for the same woman, and is practically instigated by the goddess of sexual love."
"Really, Sephiroth, I-" Angeal began to say, but Sephiroth waved him off.
"But I'm not talking literally here, I mean metaphorically. Like a maid protecting chastity, the city of Troy staves off her attackers for ten years, resisting capture almost solely by the strength of her walls: for no one can argue that she had more than two warriors of any notable merit. Yet, though she has fought to maintain her integrity for so long, the city is at last breached, and all who strived in vain to uphold her honour are slaughtered by the Greeks, who – by guile and by force – are her conquerors."
After a brief pause, Genesis found it within himself to make a reply.
"And that is why you like Pamela, is it?"
Sephiroth gave him a leisurely smile, this one far warmer than the others. The duke lifted his hand and moved his rook with deliberate slowness, knocking over Genesis' king.
"No, Lord Genesis. That is why I like Pamela."
Angeal was very glad when at last he could retire to his room. Genesis' defeat had put him in ill humour, and he and the duke had been sniping at one another throughout dinner, and their bickering had continued after they went through to the drawing room. It seemed the two had nothing in common but their mutual opposition to one another, possibly excepting their taste in reading material, though their understandings were strikingly different.
"All I'm saying is that your interpretation of the novel seems to be the reverse of what the author intended," Angeal could remember Genesis saying in a barbed voice.
"How so?" Sephiroth had replied, a hint of danger about his words. Angeal knew from experience that the Duke of Marlborough was not used to being challenged.
"Well from the inflection in your words earlier I gathered that you believed the outcome of Pamela to be a triumph for Mr. B."
"Of course: despite Pamela's initial resistance to him she eventually submits and consents to be his wife, and thus the author depicts a struggle between virtue and passion in which passion is the victor."
"But you are overlooking the fact that the alternative name for the novel is Virtue Rewarded, not Vice Triumphant. The story of Pamela is intended to be moralistic; it is not Mr B's depravity that succeeds, but Pamela's virtue. For upholding her integrity the lowly housemaid is rewarded by a proposal of marriage from a man far above her station."
"I'm sure a naïve reading of the novel would prompt such an understanding. It is my opinion that the alternative name of Virtue Rewarded is intended to be ironic, and so satirises the credulous attitudes towards marriage that are held by the general population."
"But being a bachelor surely your grace cannot know the true nature of marriage?" Genesis had then said, entirely ignorant of his being lured into a trap.
"It is true that I know nothing of what it is like to be under the written contract, though I cannot admit to being ignorant of the practices."
With this and a look of infuriating superiority the duke had excused himself, and once Sephiroth was out of sight Genesis – who seemed a little stunned – did likewise. Before heading upstairs himself, Lord Hewley called over a footman for some more cognac, and asked that he summon his valet Sebastian to help him retire. Once up in his room, Angeal was grateful for the nightcap. There would be many long weeks ahead to endure the marquess and duke's hostilities, though at least once Zack and Cloud arrived he would not have to bear them alone.
Cloud Strife stood in the library of the house in Grosvenor Street, listening resignedly to Lord Fair – Zackary Sr. – bellowing at his son in a room upstairs. The argument had begun over breakfast, when Lord Fair had enquired as to how dinner at the Gainsboroughs' had gone, and then claimed to have detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm in Zack's response. Zack had then admitted that enthusiasm was not a feeling he usually experienced while contemplating his coming marriage, after which the room had gone deadly silent for a few tense seconds before the shouting had begun. Cloud had wisely chosen to stay out of it, and had discreetly called for some wine before attempting to get as drunk as possible in the hope that it would make the morning easier to tolerate. He had caught various words and phrases which streamed from his lordship's mouth such as "an utter disgrace", "complete lack of concern for the family honour" and even "ungrateful little tart" which had rather amused him. As much as Cloud loved his friend, he couldn't help but relish in the times that it was Zack having his eardrums split open and not he. Of course, being the future baron the expectations put on Zack were far higher than those put on Cloud. Cloud was one of those peculiar people skirting the border between the middle- and upper-classes; he had been taken in by a baron, schooled at Eton and Cambridge, and mixed with the very highest society: yet the fact was he had no family, no land or money, and as such could not easily marry well though he could not be expected to marry poorly.
By now, Cloud was beginning to tire of the shouting match upstairs. He wanted very much to depart for Oxfordshire, but unfortunately it was to this very subject that the argument had now turned. Cloud looked up at the ceiling, deciding to tune in to what was being said.
"I will not hear of it! I sanctioned your going to Blenheim, yes, but there was absolutely no mention of Cloud going too!"
Cloud closed his eyes, a pained expression on his face, and muttered, "Oh god, please no." The thought of being left alone with Lord Fair for weeks on end was inconceivable, what with Lady Fair being in Venice and… all.
"But, father, he will be perfectly safe. I will be with him–" Cloud heard Lord Fair snort at this, "–and Lord Hewley be there too. You liked Lord Hewley, don't you remember?"
"I approved of him, certainly. However a penniless, pretty young man such as Cloud cannot be safe among these older gentlemen, and that's without considering his own poor judgement. If Cloud runs off with – I don't know – some chambermaid or something then I will be the one having to pay reparations."
Cloud frowned at this. Run off with a chambermaid, why on earth would he do that? Run on with an heiress, perhaps, but certainly not a servant! He bristled at being called pretty; he hated that Lord Fair always treated him more like a delicate little lady than a young gentleman. Zack was taking a while to respond. Cloud figured he was probably baffled by his father's allusion to the dangers of "older gentlemen". Though unbeknownst to his friend, Cloud was hardly safe from these dangers at home.
"Father," Zack tried again carefully, "these are sensible, amiable people. The duke himself is–"
"Well, yes, but he has pride befitting of his station."
"Ah ha, I see! So you and my Cloud are to go and grovel to his grace, a being elevated so far above us mere mortals. His station may be higher than mine, but do not forget that you are of an old and noble family, as good as that of Marlborough!"
"Yes, I know, father," Zack said placatingly.
Cloud, who had been rolling his eyes at his lordship's words, began to fret. It seemed to him that his friend was on the verge of losing the debate, and so Lord Fair's next words came very much as a surprise to him.
"You know what? Fine; I relent. But," Cloud suspected that the "but" was in response to Zack's inevitable smile, "if anything happens to Cloud, regardless of circumstances, I am holding you responsible."
"By god, you mean it? Oh, yes, father you can be assured I will not allow any harm to come to our dear Cloud!"
Our dear Cloud? Cloud himself frowned a little. He would have to make sure his friend was not taking up his father's tiresome, habitual condescension to him.
"See that you don't."
Now Lord Fair would be giving Zack a meaningful look before turning away and walking to his desk. Zack, after a giddy, somewhat nervous, smile would back out of the room and – that was the sound of him on the stairs: running, as Cloud had been about to anticipate. Cloud turned to the door in time to see his friend burst through it.
"Good news, Cloudy!" Zack said, beaming.
"Is it?" Cloud asked with feigned curiosity.
"Father has allowed our going – well, your going: he didn't seem to give a damn about if I went – and so we must be off with all speed before he can change his mind."
Without waiting for a reply from Cloud, Zack marched out of the room with an expression of eagerness and determination. Cloud sighed and followed his friend, though he was really glad to be going. Once in the hall, Cloud was alarmed to see his friend lifting a trunk that was by the door and waiting to be loaded into the carriage.
"Really, Zack! Let the servants take care of these things. A gentleman and future baron ought not to carry his own luggage but leave it to the footmen."
"You're quite right, of course," Zack said, though he had begun to walk out the door with the trunk regardless, "But it is less inconvenient for me to help load than to wait any longer than necessary to depart."
"…Right," Cloud said, dubiously. He glanced at another, smaller trunk that stood next to him and briefly debated whether to follow his friend's example. The debate was short, however, as he strode out of the door leaving the case behind him. He watched as a footman hurried forth to take the trunk from Zack, who utterly refused his help and practically elbowed him out of the way in order to place it on the back of the carriage himself. Cloud stood by the carriage door and looked pointedly at the rather flustered-looking footman, before giving up and opening the door himself. Once Cloud was seated, the footman in question (at this moment Cloud rather wished he had the power to fire him) came rushing over.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, do forgive my negligence, Cloud!"
"Mr Strife," Cloud coldly corrected him. For some reason people – even servants – tended to call him by his first name. He supposed it was something to do with his slight stature and irritatingly adorable face. He might look cute, but Cloud didn't think this gave people leave his assume he actually was.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," he said quickly. The man was even bowing.
"Where is Biggs? Call him, and bring him here. We are leaving directly."
"Just so, sir. Right away."
The man hurried off. Cloud threw himself back moodily against the cushions. He knew he had been harsh, but there was something about that man – Palmer, was it? – that really riled him. Perhaps it was his general incompetence and pathetic, apologetic nature.
Zack soon clambered into the carriage and onto the cushioned seat beside him. Cloud did not berate him for opening the door himself, feeling that in this instance it would be hypocritical.
"It looks like we're ready to go, and just as well too," Zack announced, his good-natured smile still plastered over his face.
"We should wait for our valet to arrive first."
"My valet, Cloudy."
"Well, since my valet was deported, I think we can share," Cloud answered sharply, though Zack knew he wasn't really mad at him. Lord Fair had arranged for Cloud's manservant to be deported to South Africa a few weeks previously, and Cloud was still – understandably – touchy about it. The man had clearly done nothing wrong, and Zack was bewildered as to why his father would arrange such a thing. Cloud, on the other hand, was not so clueless. He knew Lord Fair to have been acting out of jealousy, for who is closer to oneself than one's own manservant? Still, there seemed no point in replacing the man (not that his lordship would let him) as any replacement might end up with a similar or worse fate.
Impatiently, Cloud glance out of the window. He was surprised and gratified to see a figure looming beside the carriage, and then the door was flung open. A tall, well-built man with spectacles tinted an ominous black stood there.
"Um… Biggs?" Cloud asked, and then mentally berated himself for being so stupid.
"No: Rude. I'm your new valet," the man replied stoically. As his glasses were so dark, Cloud was unsure whether the man was staring at him, and he found the sensation rather unnerving. His new valet? Cloud was suddenly struck by a horrible vision of the two of them standing alone in a room, and he being frozen with fear while this man towered over him as he undressed him.
"Ah. Yes, quite so," Cloud said in a weak voice. The man, Rude, got into the carriage and sat on the bench opposite them. Cloud unconsciously shrank back into the cushions behind him.
"Well, good morning to you, Mr… Rude. Pray, is that your first or second name?" Zack asked cheerfully, completely unfazed by the man's strong presence and cold aura.
"…I see," Zack answered, his smile wavering as he, too, began to become uncomfortable. "Um, when exactly did my father hire you?"
"I have been employed by his lordship on numerous occasions. In this instance I was called for this morning," Rude reluctantly answered, as though it took an immense effort for him to speak.
"And on what business did he employ you on these numerous occasions?" Cloud enquired a little suspiciously. Rude turned his head to face him and presumably look at him.
"That is none of your concern."
Cloud held Rude's gaze for a moment (which he managed by staring at the man's spectacles) and then edged infinitesimally closer to Zack. Thankfully, the awkward and, on one side, fearful atmosphere was broken by the arrival of Biggs.
"Good morning, young masters. Please forgive my lateness; I was delayed by his lordship, who wanted me to give this to Cloud," Biggs explained whilst clambering into the carriage. He settled himself by Rude, not at all fazed by the man's steely presence, nor the deathly glares he was getting from Cloud for calling him by his first name. Whilst Cloud was busy muttering "It's Mr Strife," Biggs put his hand into his waistcoat and produced a small piece of paper, neatly folded, which Cloud ill-naturedly accepted. As Cloud opened the letter, Zack leant towards him to read it over his shoulder, but withdrew at the look Cloud gave him.
"By now I am sure you have met with your new valet, and doubtlessly find him less than satisfactory. I would remind you that the servants fall under my jurisdiction, and so any manservant I allow you to have you should be grateful for. By this you should also note that any aforementioned servant acts primarily according to my wishes, and only secondarily upon yours. Rude has long been an acquaintance and sometime employee of mine, and so you can be assured his unswerving loyalty lies with me, no matter what ingratiating tricks you play on him. Moreover on that subject, if I should here of any misconduct on your part (and believe me I will hear of it) you can be certain of receiving appropriate and speedy retribution.
"I would now warn you to be on your guard against any inappropriate advances from any of these gentlemen you are to stay with, for men of wealth and high station often believe they have a right to anything that takes their fancy – though you already know this. Furthermore, as you might have already supposed, these warnings are made superfluous seeing as how I have supplied you with a more than adequate protector, and we both know I do not mean Zackary. I would have you know that your protection is my primary object in employing Rude, though knowing you as I do I am certain that you with your suspicious mind do not see it that way. Being so familiar with your character, I have also anticipated your inevitable surprise at my allowing you to travel at all. I am not a cruel man; I can appreciate that young people often long for a little independence which I am now allowing you, with reasonable limitations. You need have no concerns that you might be away too long, for of course you know I would never allow that.
"Wishing you a happy respite, Lord Fair."
Cloud quickly folded the note and stowed it in his jacket, his eyes flicking a little nervously to Rude. He couldn't help but feel a little sick, but endeavoured, as he always did, not to let it show. Zack had very little idea of his father's true nature, and it was a continual source of amazement to Cloud that the son of such a deceptive, underhand, evil man could have a son that was so unlike him, so innocent and kind.
Cloud went over the letter again in his mind as Zack gave a shout to the driver and the carriage began to pull away. So it was as he had feared: Lord Fair had not given him a new valet, but a warden. Even away from the baron himself, Cloud would remain, however indirectly, under his surveillance. He thought with some complex emotion that he could not entirely comprehend of the last paragraph, of Lord Fair's allusions to independence with "reasonable limitations" – a cruel, qualifying phrase that he had doubtlessly added to torment Cloud. Then there was his lordship's spiteful use of the word "respite", a malicious reminder of Cloud's captivity, a vindictive promise of this being the last glimpse of the freedom that he would never have.
Cloud turned around to see a final view of the retreating townhouse in the back window of the carriage. As he turned back he gave Zack a smile that had the slightest edge to it, though his friend missed this and returned a smile that was utterly free of all the world's cares. Cloud leant back against the cushions, an odd contentment stirring within him. So, Lord Fair would deny him his freedom, would he? That was the worse for him: for he would have it anyway.
A/N: So, this is my first fanfic in a long time. Putting FF7 characters into a 18th/19th C. setting might seem a bit random, but it seems it can be done. Sorry about all the posh language: apparently I can't help writing in the style of the era I've set things! Also, the main pairing is meant to be SephxGen, but there are a few main characters and I always seem to get a little caught up with Cloud (who, as you'll see later, has a more intricate backstory than anyone). I haven't actually played chess in years, so I had to wiki some stuff and was rather impressed with myself.
Just if you're interested: all the landed titles (e.g. Duke of Marlborough) are genuine, as are the stately homes (e.g. Chatsworth House). So, good idea? Bad? Did you understand any of it? Reviews are welcome but don't feel pressured. Arrivederci, miei amanti!