I REMEMBER first setting eyes on Toby as clearly as though it were yesterday. I was attending a ball thrown by the then-Prince George, to celebrate his ascension to prince regent. Of course, as he threw balls for everything, I hardly realized that this was the cause. The lavish decorations bored me, since I had become so used to seeing them. Nor did the men and women in attendance, on the whole, offer any great interest, as I’d seen them all before, in different costume at different events. All the women in lavish gowns held no interest for me, and those men who clung to Foppery drew only a moment’s pity and barely a moment’s notice. The members of the Dandy club in attendance looked like they always did: copying me instead of taking on the style and adding something of their own to it. They were painfully boring, and I was, as a result, painfully bored.
What I did take notice of, though, was a young man in a military uniform who looked like he was trying to blend in with the aspidistras and doing a damned poor job of it at that, in his bright red fusilier’s coat and shaggy blond hair that stuck out against the gilt and cream of the rest of the room.
“Who is that lovely young man with the golden hair, George?” I leaned over to ask our new Regent, in the possibly vain hope that he might know why there was a slightly grubby sergeant hanging around at his party.
“Oh, you must mean Toby!” George enthused after a moment’s consideration. “He’s our precious little war hero. Poor boy seems a bit overwhelmed by all this.”
“Overwhelmed” seemed rather like an understatement, given the rate at which he was swallowing down champagne.
“A war hero?” I asked as disinterestedly as I could. George, I knew, was prone to jealousy. There were times when I was barely allowed to speak to Alvanley for fear of drawing Prinny’s scorn, and I suspected that the outwardly obvious admiration of a beautiful young man might upset him.
“Oh yes. He’s been over in Spain, giving the French hell! He brought me back a French Eagle, you know. Touched by the hand of Bonaparte himself.” George crowed with more pleasure than was decent, even at the death of a French standard-bearer.
Now, I’d been a captain before I resigned my commission, but I’d never been one for war. Soldiers, however, I’d developed quite a fondness for. Something about the uniform, I suppose.
“Very generous of him, I’m sure,” I replied at length. I didn’t think for a moment that the young man had gone after an Eagle to present to the prince, but I knew better than to say so. As long as you remembered that Prinny dear was the center of the universe, it was easy to get on with him.
“He’s wonderfully entertaining, too,” George continued as though he’d never stopped talking. “Lovely thick accent. Welsh, I think. Good coincidence, that. Him Welsh and me the Prince of Wales, I mean. Don’t you think so, George?”
“I thought you’d decided to call me Beau, George. To save confusion,” I prompted. I’d always preferred the nickname, and getting him to agree to it in the first place had been like drawing blood from a stone. Beau Brummell, I thought, flowed better, and was certainly more pleasing to the eye on a calling card.
“Yes, I think I did, didn’t I?” he agreed, much to my relief. “How come you never brought me back an Eagle, Beau?”
“I retired from the service before the war with Napoleon broke out, George. Never killed a Frenchman in my life,” I explained. I suspected he was goading me to prove myself as his friend, but like everything else with George, it was better to let him believe that favors were to be earned rather than ordered. It was a little like training a dog.
“Oh, well, I suppose you’re excused, then,” George allowed cheerfully. “Damned bad business, war, you know.”
“I do know. The people are starting to hate the war more than they fear Napoleon. Costing too much money, and the army’s broke. The Jewish quarter will own it, soon enough,” I suggested. A plan was beginning to form in my mind regarding Toby, and this was the first step in it.
“You’re not wrong, you know,” the prince agreed, now sounding a little deflated. “Still, this’ll perk them up.”
“You know what would perk them up a little more, George?”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me?”
“Him.” I nodded to Toby. “Not as he is now; as you say, the poor boy does look overwhelmed. But hand him to me for a while, and let me tidy him up; then you’ll have the perfect thing to show off to the crowds. A genuine war hero to impress and amuse. Get the country back on our side.”
For a moment, I could see that Prinny might just have pegged what I was really up to. The briefest flash of suspicion passed over his pudgy features, and I thought I was done for. But then, the most curious thing happened.
“Is that truly within the scope of sartorial adviser?”
“I should say it is, George. If not me, then who? Who else could you trust to produce a delicate study of proper manners and grace out of the very rawest and most basic materials in… one month?”
“Call it a fortnight, and you’ve got yourself a deal. I’ll square it with his colonel for you.”
He’d agreed. I fought to contain my pleasure at this response, but I felt rather like a cat with a bellyful of milk and a sunny spot to rest in. As tempted as I was to abandon my patron and head for my prize, the flash of suspicion still haunted me, so I hung back to smooth things over. It never hurt to make one’s bread and butter feel wanted.
“Anyone I know?” I asked lazily, knowing that I could pick through the spoils of battle later.
“Shouldn’t think so. Irishman. Forgotten the fellow’s name, but he’s one of Wellington’s favorites. Makes sense, their sort sticking together. Good lot, the Irish. Very warlike.”
“So I’ve heard,” I agreed for lack of anything more worthwhile to say. I drained my glass and set it down on the sideboard I was leaning against. “I think I should go meet my new protégé, don’t you?”
“Right you are.” Prinny nodded distractedly. “I think it’s time for me to do the rounds, my boy. Don’t suppose you’d like to swap?”
“I’m afraid people might yet tell us apart. Until next time, George.” I bowed with a flourish and turned to head for my little golden soldier with barely a glance at the bloated, boring prince regent.
Toby was still trying to hide in a corner, and was amassing a collection of empty glasses beside him. To be safe, I grabbed another pair of full glasses from a passing tray and moved toward him as inconspicuously as I could. Pretty blue-gray eyes looked up at me from under shaggy, dirty blond hair that had obviously been hastily washed, but had no further care taken with it.
“I hear you’re a war hero, Toby.” I smiled, a little excited at the chance to speak to such a gorgeous specimen of humanity. “I suppose you’re sick of people congratulating you, so I shan’t do it myself.”
He took my offering of champagne eagerly, swallowing the contents of the glass in one long draught. I offered him my own glass as well, distracted by the display of a porcelain throat as he tipped his head back to swallow that one in short order.
“You’re going to regret that tomorrow,” I pointed out, then cursed myself for not having something more witty to say.
Toby simply shrugged and seemed not to notice that my comment had been entirely trite and distinctly unworthy of him. Where I might before have been contented to admire him from afar, like a Greek marble, now I was beginning to like him as a person, as well. All because he’d already shown himself to be vastly less pretentious than my usual company.
“I apologize for my rudeness in not introducing myself. George Brummell, but please, call me Beau so as not to confuse our gracious prince.” I offered my hand and waited. After a moment, it was taken in an expectedly firm grip, bony fingers and rough skin making a delicious contrast with the well-kept skin of my own palms.
“Toby Sparks,” the other man mumbled. “You might as well just call me Toby. Everyone else keeps doing it.”
“We tend to be very familiar. Is it upsetting you?”
Much to my own surprise, I wished to see this man happy. I justified it as simply a case of knowing that he’d be a lot more fun if he was happy, but I think I knew I was lying to myself, even then.
Toby shrugged and sipped at his new glass of champagne. “Not much else you could call me. Just used to being called Sergeant, is all.”
“I’ll let you call me Captain, if you like.” I winked, hoping to form something of a friendship between us. “You’re not Welsh, are you?”
“No, sir.” Toby frowned, obviously confused by the question. “I’m from Newcastle. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, someone told me you were Welsh. We’re not in the middle of the brightest crowd at the moment.”
“No, sir, we’re not,” Toby agreed.
We both laughed after a moment, and with the ice firmly broken, began to converse idly. I told him of my time as a soldier myself, and he updated me on the state of things in Spain, where he’d taken the Eagle. His description of the battles that had been besieging Cádiz for some months were honest and matter-of-fact, and all the more gruesome for it. I knew that the newspapers said we’d absolutely thrashed Marshal Victor, though going by Toby’s account, it was something of a narrow victory when one took Spanish casualties into account.
“You know,” I interrupted as Toby finished his tale of taking the Eagle from the Frenchman carrying it, hoping the capture would cause French morale to take a hit. “I heard it was the Irish fusiliers who took the Eagle. Were the reports wrong?”
“No, sir.” Toby shook his head. “I was moved from the 5th Northumberland regiment into the 87th by Colonel Flynn. S’pose he took a shine to me when he saw what a good shot I were. Promoted me to sergeant and treats me like his lieutenant an’ all.”
By this time, Toby was having trouble keeping up the clearer pronunciation he’d been trying for earlier. His natural accent suited his voice much better, and I was determined to keep him talking as long as I could.
“Here,” Toby spoke up again after a while. “What’s a sar—umm. Sartorial adviser, anyway?” he asked, tripping over the pronunciation of “sartorial” so badly that I could see his tongue working in his mouth while he tried to figure it out. It was… well, I suppose I should say charming, though that wasn’t the first thought that came to mind.
“It means I tell the prince how to dress. You should have seen him before he met me. Honestly, it was disgusting. He was covered in powder and bathed about once a year, and only then if it was strictly necessary. You could smell him before you saw him. Not at all dignified for a man who could afford to bathe every day.”
“I’d like to live by a lake or a river or something, if I ever get to retire. Wash the sweat off at the end of the day,” Toby agreed. If I hadn’t been taken with him before, I think that might have done it. His simple outlook was a breath of fresh air in a room full of people who stank of perfume to cover up the smell of sweat and dirt.
“A man who understands the joy of being clean! I think you and I are going to get along famously.”
“Actually, I was thinking about an early night,” Toby began nervously. It was obvious enough that he wasn’t quite sure how to deal with me, since the rest of the crowd had undoubtedly treated him like some kind of curiosity in a circus, rather than an actual human being.
“Then you’re in luck. Because you are coming home with me.” I grinned, pleased with myself for revealing this information with sufficient theatrical flair.
“You what?” came the slightly disappointing response.
“The prince’s plan is to make you something of a figurehead for the war effort. Tidy you up and show the people a tangible hero. It is to be my job to tidy you up.”
“I’m afraid I’m not,” I sympathized as sincerely as I could. “But I can promise you a mattress filled with feathers, silk sheets, and a warm bath in the morning. If you come with me.”
At the look of serious consideration Toby took up, I had to bite my lip to avoid laughing. While I understood his reluctance, I could also see that refusing such luxury wasn’t really something he was equipped to do. I knew then that I would really be able to make something out of him, since he was clearly a man who enjoyed his comforts, when they were available. I had every intention of making every possible comfort available to him.
After a few more moments of consideration, he nodded once, decisively, and looked straight at me. “After you, then.”