Chapter Two: Dawn and Dusk

"Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet 't is early morn:

Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn.

'T is the place, and all around it, as of old, the curlews call,

Dreary gleams about the moorland flying over Locksley Hall"


Dawn was breaking. The heavenly Aurora was quietly stirring from her soft bed to rise and herald the morn, and the holy Sun was mounting his chariot to begin that slow celestial journey across the sky. Sephiroth stood on one of the many balconies that adorned Blenheim Palace, dressed only in his shirtsleeves despite the cold that night had brought. He must have looked the picture of romance, with the early morning breeze tousling his hair, and the Sun's first rays falling on his face whilst he gripped the balustrade and thought back to earlier days: of walking along the quay at Gibraltar with his brothers ambling behind him; of his mother smiling as the light that reflected off the water played in her hair; of reclining on a white couch and sipping champagne while Kadaj played piano in the next room. But Sephiroth was given over neither to nostalgia, nor to sentimentality, and so he soon turned away from these memories, and went back into his room in time to hear a tentative knock on his door.

"Come in."

"I trust your grace has slept well?" Essai asked nervously. The duke could be rather ill-tempered when he first woke up.

"Adequately. Get on and run me a bath," Sephiroth curtly returned.

"Right away, your grace," Essai said, walking into the bathroom rather lopsidedly due to the large bucket of steaming water he was carrying. The duke went to his full-length mirror, running his hand through his long, windswept silver hair and looking at himself appraisingly.

"Tell me, Essai," Sephiroth called through to the next room without taking his eyes off himself, "What was your impression of Lord Genesis?"

Sephiroth knew he had made his servant pause, as the thunderous sound of the water hitting the bathtub briefly stopped. He wondered if Essai was being cautious in his reply, or simply contemplative.

"I couldn't possibly comment, your grace."

"Now, don't give me that," Sephiroth said, smirking to himself, "Tell me what you really think."

"I didn't have much time to observe Lord Genesis-" Sephiroth gave a disappointed tsk and Essai quickly carried on, "-but from what I saw I believed him to be a little proud, a little impatient too, maybe, but cultured and refined."

Sephiroth barked a laugh and walked through to the bathroom, nonchalantly pulling off his shirt and discarding it carelessly on the floor. He swiftly climbed into the bath and was soon submerged luxuriously in the hot water.

"I'm sure Lord Genesis would not object to being called cultured or refined, the two things he perhaps strives hardest to appear. As to his being proud, that he is and it impairs his judgement: he reacts with blind anger to any perceived slight, however small, and sabotages himself by being sure of his victory before he has won, as he did in our chess match last night. The impatience you noticed was yet another symptom of his pride: he thinks himself entitled to everything and so becomes angry when not immediately gratified. Still, he's certainly easy to look at." As he spoke, Sephiroth was soaping his chest, making a painfully sensual sight for his poor valet. "Why do you not speak, Essai? Did you not find him attractive?"

Essai inwardly grimaced. He was used to Sephiroth's games, and there were times when he rather enjoyed them, though as this one was at his own expense now was not one of those times.

"Indeed, your grace, very attractive," he reluctantly answered. Sephiroth smiled widely, showing his teeth like a shark. Like a shark, Sephiroth seemed to have an inane ability to sense his prey from miles away, and once on the scent he wouldn't give up until he had caught his victim.

"Why don't you describe him to me, Essai?" Sephiroth asked, closing his eyes and leaning back with a slight smile on his face to bask in the water.

"Uh, um…" Essai cast around for a bit, and then decided he might as well just go for it, "He has lovely red hair."

"Hmm… Describe it. Do mine as well while you do."

Essai walked around to the dressing table and picked up a wide-toothed comb. He came to the back of the tub, and crouched down a little in order to run the comb through his grace's long silvery tresses. As he did, he spoke softly into Sephiroth's ear.

"He has hair as red as the setting sun, when the clouds have gathered round it and the light of the rosy dusk fills the sky," Sephiroth hummed gently, tilting his head back in a response to Essai's leisurely combing, "The strands are as soft as the finest silk, woven by hand high in the cloud-topped mountains at the eastern corner of the world. His eyes, the deepest cerulean, are like the Mediterranean Sea at the height of the day when it is at its bluest and clearest, and the breeze causes the waters to swirl to reveal a fleeting glimpse of the hidden depths below."

"Hmm… You could be a poet, Essai," Sephiroth murmured peacefully, "Go on: his lips."

"His lips bear the slightest pout, like a rosebud on the point of bloom; open just enough to tempt, yet still closed enough to conceal the promises that lie behind those soft, peony lips."

Essai was now practically draped over his master, who previously had been too relaxed to notice, though now as he did he looked with amusement into his servant's eyes.

"You really are a slut, Essai," Sephiroth said, leaning in so that their faces were closer still, "Now tell me about his cock."

Essai drew back a little in surprise, but being long used to the lewd manner in which his grace often spoke in private, he quickly managed to compose himself.

"If you would like, your grace, I suppose I could imagine-"

"Don't be revolting, Essai! Now get out of here," the servant was already scurrying out of the room when Sephiroth called after him, "and fetch my clothes while you do!"

Sephiroth lay back in the tub with a satisfied smirk. Genesis was pretty, and an interesting diversion, but he would always have his valet to torment.

In a room along the southern wall of the palace, Genesis was sleeping serenely, his lips curved gently upward as he lingered at the entrance to the gate of dreams. This quiet repose was shattered by the sound of something bumping heavily against the door, and as the marquis woke he heard water sloshing on the floor outside.


"Good god, man! Whatever are you doing out there?" Genesis shouted, angered at having his sleep broken by his idiot servant.

"Err, un moment, mon seigneur!" Luxiere called in a rather panicked, rather pained voice. Genesis rolled his eyes and got out of bed. Upon opening the door, he was met with the sight of his servant who stood utterly soaked, a comically strained expression upon his face.

"Is only a small problem, I zink."

Genesis could not help but laugh at the man's gross understatement, much to Luxiere's obvious distress.

"In that case I am sure you need no assistance. I'm going back to bed; wake me when my bath is ready."

"Très bien, mon seigneur, très bien" Luxiere muttered before traipsing off, bucket in hand, dripping as he went. Genesis sighed and went back to his bed, sitting down upon it though not climbing under the covers. From this position he could see himself reflected in the mirror over the mantel. He gave a dignified toss of his hair, which he began fastidiously to neaten. As he did, he thought over the previous night. He found he did not like Sephiroth much: the man was wilfully ignorant, a bigot, and had made him look a fool. Genesis would not be made to look a fool – a second time, that is. Genesis knew he was proud, but considered Sephiroth's pride to be much greater and considerably less deserved than his own, even if he was a duke. He could only hope for the speedy arrival of Zackary Fair and the Strife boy that afternoon; with a larger party at Blenheim he could more easily avoid the duke, if he wished it.

A sodden Luxiere made his way down the grand, carpeted hallway, seeking the cleverly disguised wall panel that concealed the servants' staircase. He was critically appraising the paintings of the previous Dukes and Duchesses of Marlborough (of which, he disdainfully noted, there had only been three), and as he glanced away he noticed another figure – also wielding a bucket – coming towards him.

"'Morning," the man said curtly. Luxiere knew at once this man was a servant too, though he lacked the style and dignity Luxiere believed himself to possess, albeit recently mortified.

"Bonjour, monsieur! I regret to say ze morning is not going so well for me, as monsieur can probably see," Luxiere did a showman-like gesture towards his soaked form, but his companion looked unimpressed.

"I say, you're not French, are you?" the man asked, his eyes narrowing in something like suspicion. Luxiere inhaled sharply and drew himself up proudly, hand on hip.

"Oui, zat I am."

"But you're not one of those revolutionaries, are you?"

Luxiere graced the man with a look of profound condescension.

"Non, monsieur: I am a valet. You might be unaware of ze fact, but ze révolution ended over ten years ago."

"Ah," the servant said with a nervous laugh, "I see. Well we are in the same profession then. My name is Essai, and I am valet to his grace. Pray what is your name, Mr…?"

"Luxiere," Luxiere answered coolly, looking at the hand Essai offered before coldly accepting it and quickly letting go. Essai smiled weakly and gestured toward the hidden door, through which Luxiere went with Essai following.

"Forgive me," Essai said, as they descended to the servants' quarters, "but you can't blame a man for being cautious. The papers still warn us of spies, even if we no longer have to deal with Mr Burke's ravings about us all being trodden downby the 'swinish multitude'. People still fear there may be a similar revolution in Britain."

"I do not know zis Mr Burke, only zat 'e is an imbecile."

"Quite so," said Essai, sensing that the other was not quite placated, "Just as well he's dead then." They carried on in an awkward silence, until they reached the currently deserted servant's hall, from which they went through to the kitchen, where the cook and the two kitchen maids were busy preparing breakfast for upstairs. Essai dropped his empty bucket by the door to the scullery, and with a quick nod to Luxiere, departed. Luxiere went through to the scullery, where he asked the maid there for more hot water. Going back through to the kitchen – his bucket heavy and steaming once more – he observed the bustlings going on down there.

Tuesti was nowhere in sight, and Cissnei was presumably overseeing the maids as they prepared the rooms for the day. Tuesti's cat, Cait Sith, was winding herself between the legs of the scrubbed wooden table, and watched Luxiere rather intently, presumably hoping for some attention. He had been informed yesterday that the cat was in fact Cait Sith the Second, though Reeve did not like to talk about the passing of the first. Luxiere petted the cat for a moment, before being ushered out of the room by the large and rather fearsome cook.

"Go on, off with you! Get the marquess' bath done before he throttles you!" she cried, waving a floury rolling pin at him.

"Not without a kiss from you, chérie!" Luxiere said, pouting his lips.

"Enough of your nonsense! Get out, or I'll throttle you myself!" she shrieked, advancing towards him with the rolling pin and a threatening gleam in her eye. With a laugh that held as much fear as mirth, Luxiere hurried off, being sure to be very careful with the water this time around.

Having at last bathed, dressed, and dismissed his valet to change into some fresh clothes, Genesis descended the stairs and swept into the dining room, where he found Sephiroth and Angeal already at breakfast.

"I take it you did not hear the bell, Lord Genesis? When it rings in the morning, you see, we go down for breakfast," Sephiroth said impassively, barely glancing at Genesis as he buttered a slice of toast. Angeal smiled anxiously at his friend as if begging him not to lose his temper. But Genesis did not, and first took a seat in the chair offered to him by a footman before he made his reply.

"My apologies: my man saw fit to take a bath in the hallway before preparing my own this morning. Mind you, he made such a hilariously sorry sight that I didn't much mind," Genesis said calmly, quickly flashing Sephiroth his sweetest smile that hardly looked forced at all, and waving over a servant to pour him some tea.

"Ah, well, nothing like that ever happens here. I for one take care to employ staff that are able to do their job properly, without embarrassing me by making fools of themselves," Sephiroth said equally blithely, and Genesis couldn't tell whether his grace spoke out of cruelty or in jest. Angeal frowned; this was the exact opposite to how he'd hoped the day would start off. Perhaps his musings that after a good night's sleep his two friends would get on better together had been too optimistic.

"I'll have you know my valet was trained in Paris and came to me very highly recommended. What's more he amuses me, and I do not find him the least bit embarrassing," Genesis said, his smile now more of a grimace. Angeal closed his eyes, wishing he could go back to bed.

"I suppose that's perfectly fine if you prefer amusement over efficiency, a preference which I've often found to be a mark of a weak character."

Genesis decided he would not be able to answer without shouting something rather impolite – and certainly ungentlemanly – into the duke's face, and so he merely smiled and made a strange noise that was a cross between a laugh and a choking sound. Content in his victory, Sephiroth bit into his toast, while Genesis took a sip of his tea and avoided eye contact with Angeal, who was trying to give him a look that congratulated him for being so grown-up. Genesis' eyes flicked to the ornately carved ivory clock on the mantelpiece. While the arrival of Fair would mean less attention to himself from Angeal, he was anxious for the pair's arrival nonetheless. Both were easy on the eyes, though Zack was a little too cheerful and obliging for Genesis' taste, and while he enjoyed the company of the rather debonair blonde, his form was a touch too feminine for his liking.

Absently, Genesis twirled a sugar spoon and wondered how the duke would like his guests. The five of them had not been much together during the season: Genesis had been introduced to Sephiroth by Angeal at one of his father's balls at Devonshire House, though at that time he'd barely met Zackary and had scarcely heard a whisper of Cloud Strife. Genesis' brow furrowed as he fought to remember the introduction. The Duke of M— had been civil, certainly, charming even, so why was he now so hostile? Was it purely because of their disagreement – or multiple disagreements – last night? Genesis knew that he did not like to have his own opinions challenged, and if the duke felt the same then his hostility was prompted by bitterness. Then again, perhaps Sephiroth had assumed Genesis would be ready to continue the previous night's quarrels, and so had adopted the offensive as the best defence. Genesis blinked and shook his head. It was too early for him to think on these things without his thoughts getting tangled.

Sephiroth put some cold ham onto his next slice of toast, watching Genesis as he did. The man seemed deep in thought, and Sephiroth could not help but wonder with some satisfaction whether he himself was the object of the other's musings. Just then, the clock chimed the half-hour, and Sephiroth couldn't help but wonder what he did with himself all those long months he was home; he couldn't help but wonder what he was doing with his life at all. He had no profession; he was a gentleman of leisure now. His father, the third duke, had dabbled in cotton, but the trade was new, and his clients' interest and his own had gradually waned to nothing. Sephiroth himself did not dabble, and had more than enough income from his estate to be uninterested in any sort of enterprise. All that tutorage, all those years of learning – at Eton, in Oxford – had all been for nothing then, but to school him for conversation.

It had been of little use during his time in the navy. He had started off his naval career when he during the French revolutionary wars. He quickly moved up the ranks, partly by his own merit, though he suspected his station had played a part in his advancement. During the Napoleonic Wars he had been promoted to admiral, yet after the victory at Trafalgar he had returned to Gibraltar, having received from Yazoo the news of his mother's death. His brothers had been disconsolate for months, and Sephiroth still remembered with a pang of guilt the weeks the three of them had spent alone in that lofty Mediterranean house while waiting for him to return. He had missed the funeral, which had pained him far more than he had let his brothers know. He was greatly torn to leave his mother – Lucrecia, the Dowager Duchess – to lie so far from her homeland, but as he could not bear to live any longer in that house he soon returned alone to England. Since that time, he had scarcely seen his brothers at all. They remained in the house in Gibraltar with their tutor and servants to look after them. All three were… delicate, and despite loving them as he did Sephiroth found he lacked the will to care for them, not without the same fond patience that his mother had shown them. Sephiroth had now the strangest sensation of being pulled back through the years to the present, and like a sleeping child roused from his dreams he became slowly aware that Angeal was speaking to him.

"I'm sorry?" he asked, shaking off his daze as he did. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Genesis raise an eyebrow.

"I said it looks sure to rain, don't you think?" Angeal said, his lips twitching a little as though he were suppressing a laugh. Sephiroth glanced out the window and noted the ominous, heavy-looking clouds overhead.

"Yes. Yes I dare say it does."

"Are you honestly expecting me to walk out in that?" Cloud looked disbelievingly at his friend. Despite being sopping wet, Zack was smiling earnestly at him from beneath the waterlogged brim of his hat, and was now attempting to persuade Cloud to leave the safety of the dry carriage so that he might end up in a similar state.

"Really, Cloud, it isn't very far to the inn, and it will take at least an hour for the men to fix the coach," Zack said in a voice that was irritatingly rational.

"If it is not so very far, then why are you so wet?" Cloud asked, not yet willing to give up his hopes of staying where it was relatively warm.

"Because I've been standing out here trying to reason with you! Now come on out, we're going!"

With that, Zack began to pull his friend from the carriage, to the blonde's thorough dissatisfaction.

"No, Zacky, you mustn't! My new coat! Oh, very well!" Cloud cried, only assenting once he was actually outside and standing in the rain. He looked heavenward at the offending sky and muttered, "What a glorious day this is turning out to be…"

"The inn is down this way. We'd better make haste if you don't want to be soaked through," Zack said. Cloud glanced at the men who were working on reattaching the wheel. Biggs stood watching, hugging himself for warmth, while Rude seemed to be directing the operation. Cloud nodded and followed his friend, hoping to escape his jailor for a while before he noticed he was gone.

"Have you any idea where we are?" Cloud asked as they walked, his voice not revealing any particular enthusiasm.

"A small town of some sort. I've made enquiries with the innkeeper, who assures me we are not at all far from Oxford, and so we cannot be too far from Blenheim either. This county is very green, is it not?" he said, gesturing at the trees, "It must be lovely when the weather's fine."

"Charming, I'm sure," was the sardonic reply. Cloud had no idea how his friend could keep up such light conversation while they were practically being drowned just walking along the roadside; his own spirits were pretty dampened by it.

"Well I'm glad to see you're not put out," Zack said with a sly grin, for he was perfectly aware that his cheer was beginning to grate on his friend.

"Oh, indeed," replied Cloud, "One might consider it a marvel seeing as how we've been travelling for hours, being thrown about in a rickety old carriage, on rough country roads, accompanied by a terminally incompetent moron, and a man with all the emotional response of a sedated murderer at a children's birthday party. But no, despite all of this, I feel myself to have retained that classically sunny disposition, for which I am renowned."

At length they reached the inn, and upon entering it Cloud felt compelled to remark, "By God… What a bleak part of the world we've entered." For which he received a rather hard nudge in the ribs from Zack. They were seated by a typically beefy and good-natured landlord, though his hospitality was insufficient to move Cloud from his opinion of the place.

As is always the case with inns along cross-country roads, there was a fair mix of travellers, as well as a number of locals. Zack could discern there were a couple of other gentlemen too among the farmhands and some rather dodgy characters. Zack also noted that many of the pub's occupants were staring at them, though this was unsurprising; two attractive young men travelling alone was bound to arouse interest. However, Zack could not help but notice that they seemed to have become a subject for discussion among the regulars, and that more than one querying look was being directed at Cloud. Zack glanced at his friend, but saw that Cloud was discerning nothing of the room, and was instead busying himself by moodily picking at the scrubbed wood of the table, and trying to pretend he was elsewhere.

The innkeeper soon returned with the ale Zack had ordered (for seeing as how they were in a country inn, he thought he might as well get into the spirit of the thing), and plonked it down on the table in a manner that made Cloud visibly wince.

"Is there anything more I can do for you, sir?" the innkeeper asked, directing his question at Zack, "Or your… uh… wife, perhaps?" he added, smiling toothily at Cloud.

"I beg your pardon?" Cloud said, utterly stricken.

"Freely granted, sweetheart," the man said, and walked off with a wink to the distressed blonde. To further Cloud's aggravation, Zack was beside himself as he shook with silent laughter.

"He thought I was a woman!" Cloud said incredulously.

"What's more, he thought you were my wife!" Zack said with gleeful delight.

"I do not, in any way, resemble a woman," Cloud said, pouting and crossing his arms, which only caused his friend to laugh harder, "What?"

"Oh nothing, sweetheart," Zack said, recovering yet still with a broad grin.

"I can't believe he mistook me for a woman."

"If it makes you feel any better, Cloudy, I think they all do," Zack said, nodding towards the group of men by the bar. When Cloud looked over, a couple raised their beer mugs and another made a kiss.

"Oh perfect," Cloud said, turning back and looking a little traumatised, "I'm sure a rape would really brighten this day up." He now noticed the drinking glasses on the table before them. "Oh really, Zackary! Who drinks at this time in the afternoon?"

Zack raised an eyebrow at his companion whilst taking a long draught of ale, before saying, "Coming from you, that's rather rich. Now don't be a little girl, dear, and drink up."

Lady Scarlet and her particular friend Tifa Lockhart were in the morning room when the post arrived. The servant bringing it was followed into the room by Lazard Deusericus, who, like Miss Lockhart, was staying in the great house by invitation of Earl Heidegger, who had since been called into town. Deusericus' desire for news had pulled him from the library, for despite the pleasing wealth – company – of his friends, he found day-to-day life in the country rather dull.

"Your post, my lady. And you, madam, and sir."

The footman handed them the letters with ridiculous ceremony, and departed with three unnecessarily low bows.

"Oh!" Lady Scarlet exclaimed after a moment's reading, "Mrs — says that Marlborough has returned to Blenheim, and he has brought four gentlemen with him! Two are there already, and are remarkably handsome, from the account that the duke's housekeeper gave to Mrs —'s. Oh, I do hope we hear from the duke soon! Or perhaps we ought to pay our respects first, and be sure of meeting the new gentlemen. Surely they must call soon, for we are the only people within a mile that are fit to receive a duke."

"Indeed, my lady, I am sure we may depend upon it," Lazard agreed, though he had never met the duke, and had no idea what company he kept, "Pray, what sort of person is the Duke of Marlborough?"

"Well," began the lady, taking a deep breath to begin her speech, while her eyes flicked shrewdly to the letter Tifa had speedily read and now stowed in a pocket, "I knew him for some years in my childhood, but before he or I were of age his whole family moved to Gibraltar for the sake of his mother's health. This was shortly after the death of his father: Sephiroth inherited the dukedom at a very young age. It was many years later that I ever met him again, for he joined the navy for a time and gained much distinction. He served under Nelson during the wars with the French, even! But his career was cut short when his mother died, and he was obliged to return to Gibraltar for a time. Since, he has only lived in England these past two years, and so it is unsurprising that you have not heard much of him. As to his character, I know not what to tell you. People say he is proud, and I agree, but I see no fault in it. At least he is not vain: he cares very little what others think, though his own opinion of himself might be thought uncommonly high. Apart from that, the duke is well-mannered (when he cares to be, that is), highly intelligent, cultured, but inclined to be rather standoffish. Of course, after meeting him you may form your own opinion, and then we can compare."

"I look forward to it, madam."

Lady Scarlet gave a practiced smile and slight incline of her head, and turned to her friend. The one item of correspondence Miss Lockhart had received she had now hidden, and Scarlet was burning with curiosity to know what it was. Seeing that art was likely to fail her, Scarlet settled for demanding to know of the letter's contents.

"My dear Tifa, won't you share the contents of that note of yours? You read it so quickly, and were so preoccupied that you must have been utterly perplexed by our conversation! Whatever it was, it must have been very interesting."

Miss Lockhart coloured a little, fidgeted, and replied, "Not to you, madam, I am sure."

"Nonsense! Come now, Tifa, we are all friends here; share it with us."

Lady Scarlet watched her poor friend's face intently, keeping a falsely sweet smile fixed on her own. Deusericus sighed discreetly. He had very little interest in whatever Miss Lockhart's secret correspondence was, but acknowledging that there was no better entertainment to be found, remained.

"Well, I suppose if you insist…" Tifa said, giving in.

"I do, to be sure," Lady Scarlet said, leaning in eagerly as Tifa retrieved and unfolded the letter.

"It is from a childhood friend of mine, Mr Cloud Strife. In our more… prosperous days my family used to dine with Mr Strife's adoptive family – the Baron Fair's – in Grosvenor Street. He heard in town of my coming here, and expresses a desire for us to meet, provided our respective hosts will allow it. It appears he is one of the gentlemen you spoke of, for he is to stay at Blenheim, and is due to arrive here soon – today, I should think, for the letter is dated the 6th."

Lady Scarlet clapped her hands and said, "Oh, this is simply sublime! Now the gentlemen shall have to call, given that we know two in our collective acquaintance! Tell me, who is this Mr Strife?"

"I hardly know now, but in our childhood he was always very genteel, if a little cynical. I am cautious of calling him amiable, for though he possesses good manners and is perfectly capable of being cordial, his temper is very much subject to his whims. As a child he had a vast understanding, which I expect can have only improved from maturity, though I have heard he has a reputation for recklessness."

"Recklessness?" Scarlet interjected, "Why, what young man is not a little prone to rashness? I'm sure Mr Deusericus knows my meaning!" Scarlet laughed girlishly, and Lazard forced a feeble chuckle, "It is settled then," Scarlet continued, "one way or another, we shall meet these Blenheim gentlemen!"

Lazard bowed and left the room. Tifa returned to her embroidery, and attempted to ignore Lady Scarlet's attempts to continue the earlier conversation. Returning to the library, Lazard reflected on the news. He knew not whether to be relieved or irritated by the revelation that the duke and a party of young men would be returning to the palace. On the one hand, it would provide him with a greater mix of society than he had previously had in the Oxfordshire countryside, but on the other, it would create competition for the hand of Lady Scarlet, on which Lazard had been depending. As a younger son – an illegitimate son, even – he would not inherit a penny of the Shinra fortune, much less the title of Marquis of Huntly. The only way he could secure his future was by marrying well, and his friendship with Earl Heidegger had been his means of acquiring Scarlet, the Earl's niece and heiress, as a wife. Lazard walked about the room, holding a book though not reading it, as he dwelt on the situation. Scarlet's curiosity concerning the young men was hardly encouraging, though Lazard had the impression it was the duke he ought to be wary of; the Duke of Marlborough would make for a far more advantageous match than the bastard son of Huntly. Lazard resolved to watch the lady and gentleman when they met, and assess the danger from there. After all, he wouldn't give up the lady before he had been beaten.

The sun had almost finished setting when the carriage pulled into Blenheim Palace. Sephiroth heard the hooves of the horses in the drive and sensed Genesis did too, for he looked up from his book. Shortly, there was the sound of the bell being rung, followed by the patter of footsteps on marble as Tuesti went to answer the door. Upon hearing the bell, Angeal looked up with such a look of relief on his face that Sephiroth felt he ought to have been offended. Genesis glanced at the clock, and remarked, "They're not particularly bothered about being punctual, are they?"

Sephiroth thought back to the events of the morning, but decided to spare Angeal by making no reply. Much as he enjoyed making Genesis squirm, he felt that his friend's nerves couldn't take much more of their sniping. His latest guests were soon shown into the drawing room. The first, Zackary Fair, he had met two or three times in town, but Sephiroth could not remember having any particular partiality to his company; he recalled now – as the young man entered with a grin spread across his features – that he smiled too readily for his liking, though he made tolerable society. After him, came his friend, Cloud Strife. Strife had been only pointed out to him once in a ballroom, and Sephiroth had rather admired his beauty, though he'd been amused by his girlishness. Now the boy looked a little like a sulking girl, for he obviously resented the distance he'd had to travel that day. Before the door was closed, Sephiroth saw Strife look rather nervously behind him, and then caught sight of a tall man with darkly-tinted glasses walking past and ascending the stairs. He frowned, but assumed the man must be a servant, although Strife's behaviour towards him was strange. Before he could be lost in thought, however, Sephiroth stood and offered his hand to each of his guests in turn.

"Good evening, Mr Fair, Mr Strife. Do be assured of your being welcome at Blenheim, however late the hour," Sephiroth could not help there being a little bit of iciness in his voice, and vaguely hoped that neither the arrivals, nor Angeal, had heard it.

After being greeted by the other two, Fair related the story of how a wheel of the carriage had come off, and mortified his friend by providing details of how difficult Strife had been in the situation. However, as it was late, it was not long after this (when they had all had some drinks and idle chat) that the five men parted for their separate rooms. Sephiroth rather imagined that Strife looked strangely unhappy about this, which only piqued his curiosity further. Sephiroth gladly went to bed, shooing Essai away so that he might have some solitude, contemplating the coming weeks, and hoping that the party might provide some entertainment. As he fell asleep, he felt sure that Lord Genesis would, at the least.

A/N: This took far longer than I'd thought – I've been away for weeks (in Florida and Athens) and it seems that riots have followed me back to London. Hopefully the next few chapters will be up faster, but knowing me I wouldn't make any promises. Thank you very much to all who have read and reviewed, I hope chapter two is as well received (and that it makes sense, given that much was written while I was jetlagged).