A Rational Arrangement: On Sale Now!

A Rational Arrangement is now for sale! At URLs conveniently accessible to your browser!

About the book

“But these are vital aspects of marriage. If one cannot discuss them, what’s the use in meeting at all? It’s like trying to decide what you’ll have for dinner without mentioning food.”

Wisteria Vasilver does wish to marry. Truly. But though she lives in Paradise, arranging a match is full of traps and pitfalls for the unwary … or perhaps just for her.

Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, expects he’ll wed — someday. But not now, and never to a rich icicle of a woman like Miss Vasilver. No matter how much his parents might want the match, or his house might need her dowry. Besides, he has his own problems — most of them people who need his help as a mind-healer.

Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey, would be more than happy to help Striker with his financial troubles, and not just to ensure that Miss Vasilver’s dowry doesn’t tempt Striker into marriage. If only he could find some way to make his proud, stubborn friend accept the money!

Can three people of such different temperaments ever find their way to a more perfect Paradise?

Special New Release Price!

In honor of the release, it’s on sale for a week at $4.99! Buy it now, because on July 6, I’m raising the price to $6.99.

When the serial is finished in 2016, I will make the regular price $4.99, and will likely run occasional sales lower still. (Probably bottoming out at $2.99). I figure it makes sense to discount the price once the whole book is available for free on the web, albeit in less-convenient form. So you can wait a year or so and get it Even Cheaper, but the disadvantage there is: you have to wait.

Publishing Details

Special thanks to Alinsa, who lovingly typeset the book for me. This edition does not contain the illustrated headers I am doing for the serial, because (a) I’m not done drawing those yet and (b) the book is long enough without illustrations. (636 pages in trade paperback!) It does have elegant typeset chapter headers — check out the interior! Even if you’re not going to buy it. It’s gorgeous.

If we do opt later to make an edition of the e-book that includes the illustrated headers, it’ll be as an update to this edition, so anyone who buys it now will be able to re-download it with illustrations.

The book will eventually be available from iBooks; it turns out that Apple (a) has extra-special requirements for book formatting that no other store cares about, and (b) they are extra-slow about accepting and/or rejecting a book. (Seriously, every other store made the book available within 12 hours of upload. Apple took 3 days to tell me that the embedded cover had “too many pixels”. The embedded cover was, I note, smaller than the iPad retina display.) These issues should all be resolved now, and I expect Apple to meander its way to posting it around July 2nd or so.

A Rational Arrangement will also be available in print form in the next week or two. I am waiting for CreateSpace to ship me the proof copy; once I’ve checked it and approved it, it’ll be distributed via CreateSpace and Amazon, with a cover price of $19.95.

Other Ways to Support the Author

If you do not wish to buy, or cannot afford it, that’s fine. If you like the story, please spread the word! Recommendations to friends, retweets and reblogs of the story installments, reviews on your own blog, etc., are all much appreciated.

For those who’ve read the entire book: reviews on Amazon are especially helpful! Not only do they increase the book’s visibility on Amazon, but when the book accumulates enough of them, various book review sites will let me submit it for Yet More Reviews. (It’s a virtuous cycle!)

Regardless, I will continue to serialize A Rational Arrangement for free, so everyone can read along in bite-sizes pieces. (Today’s installment is beneath this post, by the way! I did not skip it in favor of shilling the e-book, I promise.) Thank you for reading, and enjoy the story!

Undiagnosable (22/141)

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The interview with the second refuser, the hopeless man, went much better. His name was Mr. Court, and his relations had brought him because he’d twice tried to kill himself. Mr. Court was afraid that treatment would change his character; Nik freely admitted that it would. “You’re not demon-ridden. Your impulse to self-harm and the accompanying misery comes, in your case, from the stunting of certain of your emotions. Your ability to care, to find contentment, and to perceive joy, are all damaged. Remedying that will change who you are and how you behave, sometimes in unpredictable ways. For example, making it easier to feel joy can make a person stop striving for perfection in his activities, because he can now find satisfaction in a mediocre achievement. The interactions here are not ones even I understand well. It is your decision, of course. But I might note that anything we do here today will have a considerably less dramatic impact on your mind and those who care about you than killing yourself will .”

Mr. Court, a gaunt and stooped man of middle years, stared at his hands. “Could it make me worse? Make me an imbecile, or mad?”

“No. The Savior would not allow that. Your faculties will remain intact. You will be a different man, and some of those changes may not be ones you would prefer. But nothing that could be construed as an impairment.”

In truth, after Miss Whittaker it was a profound relief just to have this be a coherent conversation, but Nik was even gladder when Mr. Court agreed to let the Savior help.

It was a little victory to sustain him against twenty-two reevaluations. Those began on a particularly sour note, with the sleep-walking woman. Her son named her as Marie Brogan and himself Ian. When Nikola could find nothing to remedy on a second examination, Ian Brogan was violently distraught. “Are you implying she’s faking it?” Mr. Brogan yelled.

“Of course not,” Nik snapped. “It’s a reflection of my limitations, not her condition. If a healer tells a man with a missing arm ‘I cannot re-grow the limb’, do people say ‘the hand must be there after all’?”

“Then why won’t you heal her? What do you want?” Brogan threw himself at Nik’s feet, begging. “I can pay! I have a ship, money, just name your price!”

“If I could, I would do it for an eighth,” Nikola said coldly. “It is not a question of price. The Savior cannot fix what I cannot diagnose. I regret it extremely.”

“But you must! You’re the best! You have to!” Brogan surged to his feet, looking ready to hit something. Or someone.

Nik took a step back and raised his voice. “Anthser!” Brogan closed the distance with fists clenched and half-raised, as Nik’s warcat pawed open the door. “Please show Mr. Brogan and his mother out,” Nik said, taking another pace back.

“You insufferable arrogant—” Brogan drew back his fist. Anthser crossed the room in one leap and grabbed the collar of Brogan’s jacket in his teeth.

The warcat raised his head to lift the curly-haired figure from the ground and hauled him back a couple of strides before depositing him back on his feet. “Should I teach him manners too, Lord Nikola?”

Brogan, realizing the ill-advised nature of his threatening posture and insults, dropped his hands and lowered his eyes.

“No. Just escort him off the estate.”

Anthser bobbed his head and nudged Brogan towards his mother, who had sat unmoving and indifferent on the couch through the entire confrontation. The warcat followed them out and Shelby showed the next reevaluation in.

Refusal (21/141)

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The petitioner’s hall had an adjoining suite, most of which was shut up, but Nikola was using its front room as an office to treat petitioners in private. The tradition of the hall was fine for the demon-ridden he could diagnose and cure with a moment’s touch, but the ostentatious public display added too much difficulty to anything more complex. His petitioners didn’t need a roomful of gawkers while he asked them about their problems, and he didn’t need extra people staring as he spent twenty minutes entranced and mumbling while he and the Savior worked.

The room was lit by south-facing windows and furnished like a parlor, with a loveseat, a couch-bed of the sort the greatcats prefered and to which Nik himself was quietly partial, and a pair of upholstered wingback chairs. The floor was a hardwood inlay; the walls were hung with some of Nikola’s favorite paintings and drawings from among those gifted to him by previous petitioners. Some were skillful, others amateurish, or the work of children. The largest piece was a mural of smiling figures in a park, done with no great skill but considerable enthusiasm by the former inmates of a madhouse in North Mansay he’d been to once. The image was so crowded that some of the figures were flying about in the sky. Nik sat in one of the chairs and regarded it with a fleeting smile.

Sharone Whittaker was carried in by the heavyset man and followed by a hollow-eyed woman. Anthser brought up the rear of the procession. “Mr. and Mrs. Bartholomew Whittaker and their daughter Sharone,” the warcat announced, almost like a footman. “Do you wish to see Miss Whittaker alone, m’lord?” Nik usually saw refusals alone, but he usually didn’t have six year-old violent refusals, either. Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker looked alarmed by the idea.

“Let me talk to her parents first. Please wait outside, Anthser.” Once the greatcat guarded the door from without, Nikola said to the human parents, “Unbind her, please.”

Mrs. Whittaker wrung her hands. “M’ lord, she ess na – na normal. A’ all. You mus’ understand – we can na control her.” The woman spoke with a pronounced Kinder accent.

“We try, but we jus’…can na.” Mr. Whittaker added, in the same accent.

“Do you keep her bound all the time?”

Mr. Whittaker shook his head. “Na—”

“We could na—”

“Only when we mus’ travel. Else she migh’ hurt another.”

“Or herself. At home ess…na so difficul’. Everything arranged so’s to be safer.”

Nik looked at the little girl. She glared back at him with dark brown eyes, face screwed up in a snarl around the gag. “Understand that I cannot help anyone who doesn’t wish it. Would you like me to help you, Miss Whittaker?” She shook her head emphatically, over and over again, squirming against her bonds.

“She ess na always thus, m’lord,” Mrs. Whittaker said, looking at him as if by hope alone she could change the way Blessings worked. “Ess the travel tha’ makes her worse. But she has moments. She can be sweet. But it never lasts. Ess as if she has her own world.”

“Like her soul ess trapped in the Abandoned World, most of the time,” Mr. Whittaker said. “She does na know this ess Paradise. Please, lord. We’ve seen everyone. They all say you are the best.”

“If you can na help Sharone…” Mrs. Whittaker trailed off.

Nik looked from the girl to her parents. Both instincts and his mindsense told him they were neither part nor cause of the child’s problems. And yet… “I’ll need to speak with her alone. Please seat her on the couch, remove the gag, and wait outside.”

The parents exchanged despairing looks, but did as he asked. Sharone howled like a wild dog, a wordless yowl of impotent fury. Nik controlled his wince, motioning for them to continue. Mrs. Whittaker tried, uselessly, to calm the girl while her husband set her on the couch. The child’s frantic struggling increased, writhing and bucking. “She’ll hur’ herself, m’lord!” Mrs. Whittaker shouted to make her voice audible over the girl’s shrieking. Nik nodded and approached to put his hands on the girl’s shoulders to hold her against the couch, positioning himself to avoid her thrashing hobbled legs. He motioned for the parents to go. Reluctant and fearful, they did.

The child’s wailing worsened after they left. Her energy and volume was uncanny. I need to check the parents to make sure they are sane. Much of this would suffice to drive any man mad. “Miss Whittaker, what do you want?”

Somewhat to his surprise, her shriek changed to something like words: “Le’maygoLe’maygoLe’maygo!”

“If you’ll sit on the couch for a few minutes, I will,” Nikola said. He didn’t raise his voice, which meant he could not make out his own words over her continued yelling. He repeated himself at the same conversational volume, several times, while the girl thrashed and writhed with no sign of understanding him or complying. What she screamed was poorly articulated but clearly speech, marked by the same Kinder accent as her parents; he could make out ‘help me’ something like ‘Mrs. Square’ (Mrs. Square?), ‘do not’, something he couldn’t make sense of, and ‘let me go’. Nik tried removing his hands for a moment, but almost at once put them back, as it was obvious that she would knock herself to the floor and risk injury if not forced to remain in one place. He was surprised by how much she could manage to move even bound as she was. He listened to her for a little while, trying to tease out what meaning there was behind her speech, but she soon deteriorated back to wordless screams.

“All I wish is to speak with you for a moment,” Nik tried again. It was always easier to be patient with his petitioners – these people he didn’t know, who needed the Savior’s help – than with friends or family who irritated him. I expect more of the latter, I suppose. Even so, he felt Miss Whittaker’s lung capacity and energy exceeded both the time and patience he had for this task.

Nik talked to her anyway, speaking slowly as he struggled to organize his thoughts in the face of her incoherent shrieks. He kept his own voice low, letting the words be drowned out by her cries. “Miss Whittaker, there is a demon in your mind. I don’t know exactly what it says to you, but I can tell that it is warping your perception of reality. It makes you see things that don’t exist, respond to threats that are not present, ignore dangers that are real, and hear phantasms. I don’t know if it would let you hear my words even if you weren’t drowning them out. I can only try. This demon is the cause of your insanity. The Savior can banish it, if you will allow his power to do so. Right now, you are refusing him. Your mind is holding onto the demon; perhaps it has lied to you and told you that you need it, or that it is a part of you, or that you deserve to be crazy, or that something terrible will happen if you allow it to be banished. None of these things are true. You do not have to live like this, physically restrained, a danger to yourself and those around you, unable to control yourself. Please. Let me help you.”

For a few moments while he spoke, her yelling slackened to a hoarse whimpering – Saints but her throat must be raw – and Nik thought she might be listening. But before he finished she was yelling again. “NONONONOSTOPPI’ MISSUSSQUAREDONAMIS’ER BROWNLEMAYGOLEMAYGONONO!” Despite the ‘let me go’, the child did not seem to be aware of him, face contorted in fear, eyes tracking on spots beyond him, as if watching the movements of some other figure in the room. Nik followed her gaze, but there was nothing there.

Nik listened for a little longer. “Who’s Mrs. Square?” he asked. The girl didn’t respond directly to the question, but her subsequent monologue suggested that the girl was afraid of whomever she was, and that Mrs. Square was in the room with them. He couldn’t figure out what Mr. Brown’s role was. After a few minutes, her words tapered off into violent, inconsolable sobbing. Her struggle to escape ceased, as least. Nikola moved his hands from her, slowly in case the movement provoked her to violence. He touched her cheek again, just long enough to brush her with the Savior’s power and feel that awful rebuffing again. This poor creature doesn’t need someone to throw her a life preserver; she needs a diving team. He strode to the door and motioned to the Whittakers to re-enter. They hurried to the girl’s side, where Mrs. Whittaker perched on the couch beside her and hugged her gently with one arm. Neither of them asked if he’d done something to provoke her.

“Ess there anything…?” Mr. Whittaker asked, in the tones of a doomed man.

No. Saints, no. Please take her away so I can get back to the twenty-odd people the Savior can help. Nik swallowed. “You said sometimes Miss Whittaker is better than others. Is she ever lucid?”

The man shrugged helplessly. “She usually knows us, and ess at leas’ a li’l aware of what ess happening in this world and na jus’ her nightmare one. You can talk to her and she’ll understand, at times, and respond. Other times she ess…jus’ lost. Like this.”

“She ess better at home,” Mrs. Whittaker said quietly. “This trip hass been very hard on her.”

“Where is your home?”

“Ambersdell, m’lord. In the Vastings of Kinder.”

The Vastings of Kinder were over nine hundred miles away, across the Silver Sea, on the continent of Savorift. That journey would be hard on anyone. “Where are you staying now?”

“We had a room at a hostel on 135th,” Mr. Whittaker said.


He looked at the floor. “They turned us ou’ this morn.”

Nikola could not blame them. He rubbed his face with one hand. “I’ll have you shown to one of the suites here. Whenever she seems lucid and likely to cooperate, send for me and I’ll try talking to her then. Whenever. Day or night, whatever I may be doing, do you understand? I’ll let the staff know.” He tried not to think about how his parents were going to react.

The Whittakers stared at him, almost as uncomprehending as their mad daughter. They were still stammering their thanks and appreciation as Nikola opened the door and beckoned Mrs. Linden over to ask her to make the arrangements. Mrs. Linden was aghast and nearly mutinous, which bode ill for his parents’ response. She did comply, however, and took the Whittakers and their sobbing girl away.

More Every Day (20/141)

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Mrs. Linden began the proceeding, voice booming out to fill the hall: “Visitors and people of Gracehaven! Lord Nikola will now move amongst the petitioners! Remain still, do not speak, and be patient. After he makes a determination, do as he directs you.”

Nik drew off his right glove and stepped to the start of the line, fingers touching the top of a bowed gray head. An instant’s contact was enough to see the spiky shell of a demon growing where the thick web of memories joined the rest of the mind. Savior. The god’s sunlit grace flowed through Nik and into the willing mind beside him: the hard demon shell melted away like snow in a thaw, vanishing from Nik’s perception in a moment. The petitioner’s head jerked up. “Oh! Oh.” Clear brown eyes looked up at him. “Is that all there is to it, my lord?”

Nikola smiled. “That’s all. You’ll be fine now; you may leave.” He moved on to the next petitioner, giving an absent nod in response to the profuse thanks of the elderly man and the relations with him. Bill Coxsleigh, one of Nikola’s own footmen who was helping to manage the crowd, gently but firmly herded them away. The next was an old woman with the right side of her body slack, a woman next to her helping to keep her steady in position. A touch, and the demon in her mind was gone. She lifted her right arm and laughed out loud, her face breaking into a smile.

The next was an unresponsive Haventure woman of middle years, with a man of about Nik’s age attending her. A frown creased Nik’s brow as he touched her: her mindshapes were all unremarkable, well within normal variation, no sign of a demon. “Please move to the end on the left,” he told her. She did not stir. He tilted her unresisting head back. Her eyes were brown, open but unfocused in a waxy, lined face: it was like looking at a doll.

The man behind her – her son, given the similar curly brown hair, narrow nose, and pointed chin – said, “She can’t hear you, m’lord. She doesn’t react to anything any more. Won’t you help her?”

“I will if I am able.” Which I almost certainly am not. Still, that was only ‘almost’, and he wanted to give her another chance after he finished the initial pass. “Please take her to the end on the left.” Nik stepped to the next petitioner.

“Please, my lord, I’ll do anything,” the curly-haired Haventure man said, grabbing Nik’s left arm. At the far end of the hall, Anthser snapped to his feet, and the footman by the door moved towards them.

Mrs. Linden disengaged the man’s hand. “His lordship will do whatever he can,” she said, firm. “Go to the end of the hall and wait on the left.”

The man shook her off and looked on the verge of seizing Nik bodily again, but as Anthser bore down on them he recovered his senses and bowed low instead. “Come, Mum,” he said in a quiet voice, taking her beneath the arms and lifting her. The woman did not resist, and her feet dropped into a standing position when he held her high enough. She shuffled like a sleepwalker as he steered her to the back corner. Nik was already engrossed by the next mind.

More petitioners arrived while he worked his way down the line. Nik continued in the usual pattern: curing the demon-ridden if they did not resist, and sorting the rest into groups. Most of the latter fell into two categories: those with a problem he could identify and cure given more time – the greatkittens went to that group – and those whose problems he could not determine, which today was about one in four.

When Nik reached the restrained little girl, she glared at him with pure hatred: had she not been gagged, he thought she might have bitten him. Nik paused before her, and went to one knee to meet her infuriated eyes. “Good morning,” he said to her, then looked up at the heavyset man who loomed over her, holding her shoulders. “What’s her name?”

“Sharone Whittaker, m’lord.” The man had a weathered, careworn face, bags under his eyes. Nik wondered if he was as old as he looked.

Nik nodded. He wanted to ask for her to be unbound and the gag removed – such a small child, she could hardly be a threat – but at the same time was hesitant to override the measures her caretakers deemed necessary. Particularly in a public setting, with so many watching. “I’ll not harm you, Miss Whittaker. I am only going to touch you for a moment.” The girl made an animal growl deep in her throat as Nik raised his hand. She flinched back from his touch, writhing violently in the arms of the man behind her despite her bonds. Gritting his teeth, Nik grazed his fingertips against her cheek.

She was not so much demon-ridden as infested, mindshapes riddled by hard black thorns, thousands of tiny spikes that jabbed into her everywhere. Nik invoked the Savior, but it was as useless as he’d expected. Her mind clung as fast to the demon as the demon did to her, repelling the Savior’s power as if it were an invading enemy. The deep, profound sorrow of the Savior at this failure washed through Nik as he let his hand fall away. He could imagine too well what that demon was doing to her mind: warping her perception of reality, whispering to her in a dozen different voices, even controlling her body at times. Sharone gave a plaintive whimper, squirming. The man holding her wore a painful look of desperate hope. “Can you help her, m’ lord?”

No. “I don’t know.” Nik rose, rubbing his face with one hand. “I will need to discuss her situation with you and her further, but I’d prefer to do so in private. Please wait there—” he pointed to an empty corner of the hall “—and I’ll return to you soon.”

The little girl wasn’t the sole case that morning who refused treatment. A man whose very posture spoke of hopelessness, only there because his wife and son had dragged him in, also rejected the Savior’s help. Nikola directed them to wait in the same section as the child. More people came in as he finished those who’d been waiting from the start. When Nik had finally looked at everyone once, he consulted with Mrs. Linden: “How are we doing?”

She consulted her list. “It’s half-past ten, m’lord. Thirty-two cures, twenty-two awaiting reevaluation, twenty-nine requiring extended treatment, two refusals.”

“And you have eleven appointments this afternoon already, m’lord,” Shelby reminded him.

“Right.” If he averaged five minutes for each reevaluation and fifteen for each extended treatment… Well, there’s probably enough hours in the day. Especially If I skip eating and sleeping. “Is it me or do we have more petitioners each day than we did the previous?” He had appointments left over from yesterday because he’d cleared the afternoon for the call on Miss Vasilver, but even so – three hours had always sufficed for petition hours in Fireholt. In distant, rural Fireholt.

“Each day has more petitioners than the last,” Mrs. Linden confirmed. “Word that you’re in town is spreading. I could send the reevaluations away if you wish, Lord Nikola?” Unspoken was the fact that the reevaluations were nearly always futile. Nik reevaluated scores of petitioners in vain for each one on whom he found a treatable anomaly upon second look. Hours of my time.

But it’s their entire life at stake. “No, they don’t take long. Let’s see if I can get through them all before the appointments start. First is at noon?”

“Yes, my lord,” Shelby answered.

Nik nodded. “Do I have any other engagements for today?”

“Your lady mother is having company for dinner and requests your presence at three o’clock.”

“And that will last until five or so…” Nik considered how his father would react if he saw petitioners by appointment in the evening. And then about telling twenty-nine humans and greatcats to come back tomorrow to see if his schedule looked any better. More every day. “Take appointments from five-thirty to nine tonight, Shelby, and those who wish to wait may in case I’ve extra time. For now, I’ll see the refusals first, and then do the reevaluations until noon.” Nik nodded to his staff, ignoring Mrs. Linden’s purse-lipped frown, and turned to the office.

Why It’s Called the Petitioner’s Hall (19/141)

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Nik awoke when Shelby brought breakfast to his room. The valet had already laid out clothing: a sober navy morning jacket, cream-colored breeches matched to the neckcloth, a light blue shirt with plain cuffs. Shelby was a pale white-haired old man who had been a footman in his great-grandmother’s service. Nikola had promoted him to personal valet, a position Shelby took far more seriously than Nik did. Shelby had a demeanor so exactly proper to his position that Nik often thought Shelby would have played the part of lord much better than Nik did. The valet was discreet and deferential, never breathing a word against his master.

In token of Nik’s unfitness for his position, he generally prefered the unawed if not outright insubordinate attitude of his greatcat employees.

But it was good to eat in peace, with someone who didn’t try to make conversation or question the marks on his neck or appear, in any way, to judge him. Nik finished an omelet and sipped at a glass of orange juice. “How does my morning look?”

“Full, my lord. There were over thirty people waiting at the gates when I came up.”

Nik glanced at the clock. “It’s not even half-past eight.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Nik rumpled his hair with one hand. “Please have them shown into the petitioner’s hall, Shelby. No point making them stand outside.”

“As you wish, my lord.”

Nik had finished his juice and was mostly dressed when Shelby returned. Nik stood still while the valet adjusted his attire and tied back his hair with quick professional movements. “Thank you, Shelby. How many appointments do I have for the afternoon?”

Shelby consulted the appointment book, following in Nikola’s wake as he headed for the petitioner’s hall. “Eleven, m’lord.”

Busy indeed. “Any marked as complex?”


At the top of the main staircase, Lord Striker intercepted them. “Nikola. Must you have so much riff-raff let into the petitioner’s hall? Think how it reflects on us.”

“I thought petitioners were what it was for. Isn’t that why it’s called the petitioner’s hall? Shall I show them to the ballroom instead, Father?” Nikola stepped around his father’s looming form and started down the steps.

“That is not what I meant and you know it, Nikola.” Lord Striker spun to follow his son.

“Do I? I am sure you wouldn’t ask me to violate the Code by refusing to see petitioners, Father.”

“No one is saying you should refuse them, but the Code does not demand you do so every day, and having this house overrun by the lowest sort of people is a great trial on the staff and on your mother.”

And on your sensibilities. “I’ll be sure to tell the demons you would appreciate it if they left the poor alone and only infested the nobility, Father. Perhaps you should ask your friends to volunteer as victims.” Nikola nodded to Robert, the Anverlee footman standing by the hall doors.

Lord Striker set his jaw. “We’ll speak of this later,” he growled, and stalked off as the footman opened the doors.

The petitioner’s hall was a great granite-floored chamber lit by tall windows along the south facing. It had not been fitted with gaslight fixtures, so its three crystal chandeliers were designed for candles, unlit given the daylight hour. A sharp eye would note that many of the candle holders stood empty; Nik couldn’t remember the last time the chandeliers had been lit. The runner down the center of the room was in Anverlee blue with a simple silver trim, and threadbare. They owned a good one but Lady Striker declined to set it out for petitioners, for which Nik did not fault her. They came to be cured, not impressed. The passage of time had been kinder to the cartouches carved into the walls – one of Nikola’s distant ancestors had in fact possessed a Blessing for stone – and the ornate moldings around the windows. Paintings of previous Lords and Ladies of Anverlee hung between the cartouches. The hall had little in the way of furniture, in deference to tradition. Just as well. We’d have sold the furniture if there had been any, and then Father would be even more offended that I use the place for its intended purpose.

At present, the hall was full of life; Nikola guessed something like seventy humans and thirty greatcats. Not enough to make the chamber crowded, but enough to line both sides. Of those, forty or fifty were petitioners. Nikola’s staff had arranged the petitioners in accordance with tradition, kneeling close together at the edge of the carpet. The healthy people who had accompanied them were ranged against the wall behind the petitioners with a few exceptions. Petitioners of both species varied in age, from a greatkitten a year or two older than Belle to a frail wrinkled man who looked older than Lady Dalsterly. The majority were elderly humans, however. Race and skin color also varied: most were the golden-brown Newlanture or pale-peach Haventure hues common in Newlant, but there were several humans in shades of brown and near-black that were rare in this country. Judging by their dress, most of those gathered were poor but prepared as if for temple, faces and hands freshly scrubbed, clothing neat and formal.

Robert, the Anverlee footman who’d opened the door, announced him: “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, Blessed by the Savior, Healer of Minds.” The assembly looked to him; his head-of-staff broke off her conversation to hurry over, leaving Anthser beside the petitioners near the far end of the line. Most of the people in the hall bowed their heads respectfully, though some of the petitioners continued to stare. Nik was untroubled by this; some dementia sufferers were no more capable of following protocol than a legless man was capable of standing.

Mrs. Linden, his chief-of-staff, greeted him with a curtsey. She was a tall heavy-set round-faced woman with golden-brown skin and grey-streaked dark hair pinned to the crown of her head. “My lord.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Linden. Any problems I should be aware of?”

She pursed her lips. “It’s mostly the usual cases today, senility and the like. But there are two feral greatkittens; one’s nearly four already.” She shook her head, and Nik winced. “And there’s…this girl.” She glanced down the line.

Nikola followed her gaze to a little girl, at the end. Anthser lay on his stomach near her. She wasn’t kneeling: she was bound as if she were a dangerous criminal, arms together behind her back, feet hobbled, mouth gagged, eyes darting like a wild animal. A broad-shouldered man stood directly behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. Saints help us. “What – she can’t be more than six. Is she so dangerous?”

“Her parents say so.” Mrs. Linden shrugged helplessly.

Nik averted his eyes to keep from staring. “There’s no way she’ll consent, not if they need to restrain her like that.”

“I know.” Mrs. Linden bit her lip. “Do you want her removed, my lord?”

“No.” Nik inhaled. “Maybe we’ll get a miracle. Let’s get started.”

Risks Taken (18/141)

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The master bath had a great clawfooted porcelain tub on a fanciful carved marble pedestal of twining dragons, scales detailed and anatomy realistic in the Markavian style. Nik filled it with a few inches of hot water from the gleaming brass tap and bathed quickly. He avoided getting his hair wet – it would look peculiar to arrive home on a dry night with soaked hair – but scrubbed hard at the rest of him. The greatcats would smell Justin on him otherwise, and while he trusted Anthser and the Anverlee greatcats, there was no reason to take risks.

And at the moment, he wanted Justin’s scent off of him anyway.

He felt cheap and dirty and angry, and not even sure Justin had meant any of it. ‘Debt repaid’. Is that why you think I’m here, prostituting myself in return for your largess? I didn’t come to lose money at some cursed game, I came for you. For this. Do you even care, old man?

How could an event so joyful in the moment become so humiliating in recollection?

Nik’s skin was pink and raw by the time he was done, and he still didn’t feel clean. Bruises ringed his neck where Justin had sucked and nibbled, not painful but already livid. His neckcloth would hide them. Justin was clothed when Nik emerged, and helped him dress – considerate given the complexity of a lord’s attire, but Nik almost wished he hadn’t. They barely spoke; Justin buttoned Nik’s cuffs and Nik arranged the folds of Justin’s neckcloth in silence. While Nik put on his shoes, Justin stepped out to pull the felishome bellrope to summon Anthser to the door. He returned and lounged in the doorway, watching Nik buckle his shoes. Justin looked every inch the lord, respectable and immaculate in gold-trimmed scarlet jacket and black breeches. Nik put on his gloves last, as he was walking to the door. Justin caught Nik’s bare right hand before he pulled its glove on, and kissed Nik’s palm. He cupped Nik’s hand to his face, then pulled Nik into his embrace. For a moment, Nik remained stiff and awkward, then he relented, relaxing to hug Justin close in return. He wanted to say…something. Do you truly think I care about your money? But he was afraid to ask. Not of a simple ‘yes’, but of another evasive, witty non-answer, like the response to Nik’s question about matchmaking. I wish I knew if I mattered to you.

Justin took a deep breath before pulling back. He tucked the lace of Nik’s jabot beneath the lapel of his jacket. “How do I look?” Nik asked.

“Edible.” Justin half-smiled. “Best make your escape before I devour you. My lord.” He made a sweeping half-bow to the door, sardonic yet graceful.

With his best regal nod, Nik proceeded to the hall.


Anthser lay draped over the front steps of Comfrey Manor. He looked unexpectedly content, especially for someone who’d been roused after three in the morning to cart his ne’er-do-well master to bed. Justin leaned against the doorjamb as Nik mounted. “Thanks for joining us, Striker. It’s always a pleasure to have your company.”

“And thank you for the invitation, my lord,” Nikola replied in the same easy manner, performing for their audience of one. As if Anthser cares one whit.

“You know you’re always welcome. Give my regards to the Count your father and your lady mother. Safe travels to you.”

Anthser laid back his ears at that last sentence. Nikola took his leave, and Anthser bore him away. Nik’s mind was cluttered and weary. Shelby would notice the bruising on his neck, of course – he could not hide it from his valet. Nik often covered for his indiscretions with Justin by engaging in less dangerous indiscretions with women. Extramarital relations between a man and a woman were technically illegal, but such laws were rarely enforced, and for the man it barely qualified as a social failing. Such behavior irritated his parents – his mother feigned ignorance and his father scolded him – but no one else cared as long as he wasn’t despoiling virgins or their own wives. Sexual congress between two men, however, was another matter: those laws were enforced with exorbitant fines, pillorying, and probable exile. Even if one escaped the legal consequences, the social costs of discovery were ruinous. The scandal would destroy Comfrey and Fireholt, and Nik’s father would likely disinherit him to preserve the shreds of Anverlee’s dignity.

All of which should have been sufficient motivation for Nik to conceal his crimes further. Madame Julietta and her girls would make him welcome at any hour, but he’d lost his taste for paid companionship years ago. The erstwhile widow Mrs. Pierce was Mrs. Hampton now, after remarrying last year, and while she’d intimated that this need put no constraints on their relationship, Nik had little interest in cuckolding any man.

Lost in these thoughts, he almost missed Anthser’s question: “Did you tell him?”

For a wild moment, he thought Tell Mr. Hampton? Are you mad? before he realized Ansther could not possibly know his train of thought. “Tell who?”

“Lord Comfrey.”

Surely this can’t be about what I think it’s about. Nik decided to feign ignorance. “I’m sorry, what are we talking about?”

“You know. The incident.” Anthser scuffed at the pavement. “With that rooftop.”

Nik laughed, half-amused and half-relieved. “No, of course not.”

Anthser relaxed, his sides vibrating with a contented purr. “Are you going back to see Lord Comfrey soon?”

“I don’t know. He’ll be at the Ascension Ball, of course, so I’ll see him then if not sooner.”

“But not at Comfrey Manor?” Anthser sounded disappointed.

Nik glanced askance at his warcat. “Is there some reason you’re in a hurry to get back there? What happened to ‘only catnip can make the company bearable’?”

Anthser ducked his big black head, scuffing the pavement again. “Well. He hired a new riding cat.”


“For bowracing. She’s beautiful. We spent the last three hours talking. And she groomed my ears.” Anthser sighed dreamily. “Champion racer, too. Wall full of medals. Hey, you should invite Lord Comfrey bowracing.” The greatcat’s ears pricked up in interest.

Nik laughed again. “I’ll think about it. In the meantime, you know you don’t need my permission to call at Comfrey’s felishome.”

Anthser canted his ears to the side, embarrassed. “I know. It’s just…a good excuse, you know?”

“I suppose I do.” Nik reflected on all the excuses he and Justin had contrived to obtain time alone together. Surely he must care. This is far too much risk and trouble otherwise. Isn’t it? “Don’t worry, Anthser, I’m sure we’ll be back.”


Repaid (17/141)

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Afterwards, as Nikola lay spent and half-dozing in Justin’s broad bed, Justin extricated himself from the tangled sheets and withdrew to the washroom to clean up. He returned a few minutes later, wrapped in a long silk dressing gown, and tossed Nikola a soapy washcloth and a dry towel, balancing a half-full basin on the bed. Nikola cleaned himself off. “Tidy as always.” He held out his arms in a silent plea.

Justin left the washcloth floating in the bowl and slid back into Nikola’s waiting arms. He was silently gratified by Nikola’s craving for contact even after physical desire was slaked. Dark hair spilled across the pillows as Justin sat propped against them, sliding an arm around Nikola to snuggle his tall slender frame to his side. His friend curled an arm over Justin’s chest and one leg over his. Justin felt deliciously comfortable with him there, and an unwanted pang of regret that they could not stay like this forever. “One must be discreet. Though my guests use the same linens, so the laundress might blame any peculiarities on one of the married couples who’ve stayed lately. Or perhaps think I seduced poor Miss Dalsterly.”

“Poor Miss Dalsterly indeed. She’s thoroughly fixated on you, you know.”

Justin gave a dry chuckle. “I noticed, although I hadn’t realized the extent until this evening.”

“I suppose her reputation is safe at least, with Lady Dalsterly having escorted her off when the servants were about to bear witness.” Nikola nuzzled his cheek against Justin’s silk-clad shoulder. After a moment, he asked, “Are you courting her?”

“Saints, no. That child? Please.”

“She’s a year older than I was when you and I first met.”

Justin suppressed a shudder, tapping a finger against Nikola’s nose. “Yes, and one child in my life is sufficient, boy.”

Nikola chuckled. “Did you do nothing to encourage her?”

“Hardly anything. I stood up with her once or twice at Society balls, and made some meaningless chitchat a few times.”

“And invited her tonight.”

Justin sighed. “And invited her tonight. You’ll note I didn’t seat her by me.”

Nikola was silent for a long moment. “You’re not matchmaking for me too, are you?”

Justin tightened his arm around Nikola. How could you imagine I’d willingly help some addle-brained girl take you from me, Nikola? “Well,” he drawled, “I know how fond you are of Lady Dalsterly…”

His efforts were rewarded with a laugh. “I swear, if I thought she’d have me, I’d be tempted to ask. I was threatening my parents with her this morning. You should have seen my mother’s expression.”

“Savior’s blessings, did you in truth? Ha!”

“She’s quick-witted, wealthy, titled, kind, and laughs at my jokes. What more could a man ask for?”

“Youth? Beauty? Fertility? A body that doesn’t resemble driftwood?”

Nikola dismissed these objections with an airy wave. “She has great-grandchildren! Her fertility is surely proven by that. Besides—” he reached up to snag a lock of Justin’s dark hair and plucked a single silver strand out of it “—we both know I prefer mature lovers. Old man.” He pulled the gray hair to dangle before Justin’s eyes.

Justin batted it away, seizing Nikola’s wrist. “Ha! Not so old and feeble that I cannot teach an impudent scamp a lesson or three,” Justin growled in mock anger. He shifted to the side and flipped Nikola onto his stomach, twisting the young man’s arm behind his back to pin him face down against the mattress, muffling Nikola’s laughter. “Laugh at me, will you?” He swatted Nikola’s backside with his free hand, and received a muted yelp for his attentions. He slapped the firm flesh again, before his fingers curved to grope instead. Still holding Nikola’s arm to keep him from squirming, Justin moved to spread Nik’s legs with one knee, then knelt behind him, pushing the dressing gown open. “Quiet, you,” he growled, stroking his once-more erect cock between Nik’s buttcheeks. “I’ll teach you to backtalk your elders.” Nikola squirmed but fell obediently silent, arching his ass into Justin’s cock. Justin dug his fingers into Nik’s flesh, unconsciously pushing Nik’s pinned arm higher. At the blond man’s wince and stiffening body, Justin released Nikola’s wrist and reached for the oil on the nightstand. He poured a liberal amount over his hand and rubbed it against the other to warm the oil, rocking his hips against Nik. He rested one slick hand against Nik’s fair-skinned back for balance as he leaned forward, other hand cupping the rear. Fingers groped over the curve of flesh, slipping lower to slide one digit into the anus. Nik whimpered, pushing to drive Justin’s finger deep inside. Justin’s cock hardened further at the reaction, and he gave a low satisfied growl, working another finger in beside the first. He watched Nik’s profile, the young man’s lips half-parted in pleasure with his head sideways and pushed against the mattress. Justin pulled his fingers out to push the tip of his cock inside. He paused as Nikola stiffened again, spine arched. Justin bit the inside of his cheek to keep from thrusting deeper – Abandoned World but he feels good – and put his hands on Nikola’s shouders, massaging. After a moment, Nik moved again, pushing Justin deeper into him, then stopping. Justin closed his eyes against the intense wave of pleasure that followed, wanting nothing more than to bury himself inside. He swallowed, waiting until Nikola moved again, letting him set the pace for the first few thrusts, until Justin could feel Nik relax and his gasps turn to small pleased noises. At that, Justin stopped holding himself back, pumping hard until he reached a joyous release.

After climax, Justin collapsed against his lover. He pressed little kisses against Nikola’s cheek, ear, nape, shoulders, hugging him hard as Nikola snuggled in, content. Justin rolled onto his side, pulling Nikola close, and ran one hand down his chest. Nikola caught Justin’s hand before he reached between his legs, wrapping Justin’s arm over his chest in a clear signal that he’d had sufficient attention already. Justin pressed his cheek against Nikola’s shoulder, closing his eyes and breathing. I love you. Don’t leave me.

He wished Nikola would accept his invitation and stay at Comfrey Manor instead of insisting on going back to his parents. But he won’t stay. He will never stay, old man. Accept it. He is not yours and never can be. To cover the unpleasant emotions this reflection brought out, Justin rose and washed off again.

As he returned, Nikola watched him, those round Haventure eyes hooded. “I suppose I ought to be leaving.”

Condemn it. Already? “You could sleep in one of the guest suites if you like. No one would remark on it. I often have overnight guests who’ve succumbed to drink or weariness the night before.”

But Nikola shook his head. “No, I’d have to fly home in the morning in any case. Petitioners.” He threw his legs over the side of the bed to sit upright, and wrapped his arms about Justin’s waist to pull him close.

Justin exhaled, stroking blond hairs away from Nikola’s face. “Suit yourself.”

They lingered so for a moment, before Nikola released him and stood. “But I’m obliged to you for the offer, Justin. Thank you.” He gave a slight courteous bow, dignified despite his nude state.

Justin smirked. “Hmph. As for obligations—” he swatted Nikola’s rear “—I daresay you can consider your debt to me amply repaid.”

Nikola stiffened, and retreated to the washroom.

Speechless (16/141)

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In the sitting room of Justin’s private suite, they divested one another of clothing. Justin draped Nikola’s over the antique furniture with a modicum of care, so that it would not be unduly wrinkled when the young man had to put it back on to leave. The fate of his own he did not note, his attention focused on Nikola, mouth and hands mapping anew the planes and lines of his body, so familiar and yet treasured all the more for the long absence. Fully undressed but only halfway through the room, an impatient Justin hoisted his lover’s nude body and carried him to the bedroom, turning up the gaslit chandelier as they entered.

He threw back the maroon velvet blankets with one awkward arm before laying a laughing Nikola upon the sheets. Justin meant to take a moment to admire the image, but Nikola seized him and pulled Justin down on top. The pale-skinned man twined a leg over Justin’s, wrapping both arms around the other man as if hungry for the touch of skin against skin. Justin wondered what it must be like for Nikola, to have a touch that felt so much more than an ordinary man’s, and for that very reason to have society deny him that contact except by necessity. Drink your fill now, my love, when none will judge you, Justin thought, propping himself on his elbows and arching his back into Nikola’s hands. Saints, but it was good to be alone with him in the night, no guests or servants to perform for, no fear of condemnation. Justin ached with desire, but at the same time he wanted to savor this stolen hour, not rush to a hurried conclusion.

Nikola unraveled the braid in Justin’s hair, running his fingers unimpeded through silky black strands. Justin tossed his head to drape it over one side, then shifted to sweep the waterfall of hair in a caress over Nikola’s chest, before bending to make him moan by nibbling at one ear. He slid down Nikola’s body, trailing kisses along the side of his head, throat, collarbone. One hand gripped Nikola’s rear, and Justin curled his hips between his lover’s legs, pressing the tip of his erection teasingly against Nikola’s ass. The lithe man pushed back, teasing him in return. Justin squirmed, dipping his head to suckle at Nikola’s neck hard enough to break capillaries, like an animal marking his territory. Mine. Still, he would not have done it except for the delectable sounds Nikola made, whimpering and writhing, erection hard against Justin’s stomach.

Justin kissed his way lower, flicking his tongue over collarbone, pausing to caress that pale chest, mouth cupping one nipple, hand stroking and teasing the opposite one. Nikola dug his fingers through Justin’s hair, pushing the dark head harder against his body. The blond man pulsed his hips, cock stroking against the well-defined muscles of Justin’s abdomen. You’re as desperate for this as I am, aren’t you? Justin continued down, licking the lines of Nikola’s stomach, letting hair trail behind him, nosing along the shadow where thigh met pelvis, pressing kisses into the curly hair beside his erection. Justin’s head was so close his breath was warm against Nikola’s cock, but he didn’t – quite – touch. He moved over it to kiss the other side, while Nikola squirmed, and was moving back again when Nikola seized Justin’s head with both hands and steered his mouth to Nikola’s penis. Smiling, Justin licked his way down the shaft, locking lips along the side as he slid back up to engulf the shaft. Nikola gasped and thrust deeper into Justin’s mouth, hands firm on either side of Justin’s head. “Ahhh Justin,” he whispered.

Justin sucked hard, going as deep as he could from this angle, enjoying the sense of urgency conveyed by Nikola’s insistent hands, the hoarse passion in his voice. After a few moments, he shifted position, keeping his mouth on the cock but moving his legs to kneel beside Nikola’s head so that he could get a better angle to go down on the man. Mouth aligned with neck, he slid deeper now, gag reflex suppressed as Nikola pushed into the back of his throat. Nikola released Justin’s head to stroke his body, fingers caressing Justin’s own erection, fondling at his balls. Justin had to draw his head back to breathe for a few moments, tan fingers gripping Nikola’s erection instead, gliding up and down the saliva-slick length. Justin rubbed his cheek against it then kissed the tip again, sucking. He liked the feel of Nikola’s hands on him but even more than that Justin wanted to hear Nikola cry out in pleasure, to make him lost in passion. Justin licked at a fingertip to moisten it further, then slipped a hand between Nikola’s thighs as Justin’s mouth suckled down Nikola’s cock. The finger probed against Nikola’s anus, sliding around the tight sphincter before slipping inside. Nik whimpered with desire, arching away and then down to push the finger in deeper, his cock seeming to harden further in Justin’s mouth. That’s my boy. You like that, don’t you? As Justin suckled deeper, Nikola stiffened, fighting for control. Long fingers gripped Justin’s shoulders and laced through his black hair, trying to pull the stronger man away. Justin resisted for a few moments, not relenting until Nikola went completely still.

Then Justin let his lover drag him up face-to-face for another hungry kiss. Nikola rolled Justin onto his back, kneeling between his legs. Justin grinned, extending a hand to stroke the fine golden stubble on Nikola’s cheek. Nikola caught the hand to press a kiss against the palm, round blue eyes full of desire. He leaned forward to seize one of the extra pillows and propped it beneath Justin’s hips, then retrieved the oil from the nightstand. Well-lubricated, Nikola slid his shaft between Justin’s nether cheeks, his other hand stroking Justin’s own erection. Justin squirmed to adjust the angle, pressing back against Nikola until the tip of Nikola’s cock penetrated. After so long an absence, it hurt, the pain mixing with fierce desire and an exquisite pleasure unlike any other. Nikola held himself back but Justin wanted him now. Justin grabbed Nikola’s hips and pulled him in deeper, harder, yes, until his lover lost all restraint and thrust with a wild abandon, hand sliding reflexively over the slippery length of Justin’s erection, almost unaware as he cried out in ecstasy. At the pulsing sensation of Nikola climaxing inside him, Justin orgasmed as well, white liquid spurting between Nikola’s fingers and onto Justin’s abdomen. The younger man collapsed atop him a moment later, gasping and spent, arms wrapping around Justin in a loving embrace.

No More Games (15/141)

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It was after one when a yawning Mr. Lavert admitted to weariness and retired with his wife. Nikola and Justin escorted them to their carriage. “And you, Lord Nikola?” Justin asked on the stoop, as the Laverts’ carriage rolled into the night. “The night is young.”

“And I am finally safe from both politics and business.”

Justin steered him back into the main house. “I could give you more pointers on billiards.”

Nik made a face. “I daresay I’ve had my fill of billiards too.”

The black-haired lord raised one dark eyebrow at him. “Is that so?” He opened the door to the house and followed Nik inside. “And here I thought you liked games.”

You curst well know that’s not why I come whenever you crook your finger and beckon, Nik wanted to say, but he couldn’t make the words come out. Articulating it would just make it…even more real, and it was already too real, and Justin didn’t need the words to know anyway. Instead, he leaned against the door after Justin closed it, watching him.

A slow half-smile formed on Justin’s face as he met Nik’s blue eyes. He reached up to cup Nik’s pale cheek with tan fingers; at the contact, the contours of Justin’s mind filled Nik’s senses. “All right,” Justin said, voice low, moving so close that the folds of their neckcloths brushed, faces less than an inch apart. “No more games.” He curled his fingers beneath blond hair to cradle Nik’s head, his other hand on the opposite shoulder, pinning Nik against the door at the same time that he pulled the taller man’s head down enough to kiss. Nik bent willingly, returning the kiss with interest, glorying in the closeness, the power and strength in Justin’s body. Justin shifted his weight to Nik’s right side, hand working down Nik’s chest to unfasten the buttons of his jacket. Nik laced his own fingers through Justin’s thick black hair as they kissed, other arm trying to encircle Justin and pull him closer still. Justin resisted the pull until he’d unfastened enough buttons on the shirt beneath the jacket to slide his hand under the cloth, caressing the muscles of Nik’s upper abdomen before circling over his ribcage to his side. Then Justin pressed against him hard enough that Nik could scarcely breathe, mouth lowering to nibble at the line of Nik’s jaw.

Nik whimpered with pleasure and desire, sagging against the door, uncaring as its inlay dug into his back, tilting back his head to let Justin nuzzle at his throat. Thwarted by the folds of Nik’s jabot, Justin muttered an imprecation and brought both hands to bear in unfastening both it and Nik’s collar. He pushed the cloth roughly aside to expose a fit, fair-skinned chest sprinkled with curly blond hairs. Justin’s darker hands stroked the curve of Nik’s shoulders, still pinning him with his body. He raked his teeth lightly against the sensitive skin of Nik’s throat, and was rewarded with a gasp that melted into another eager moan as Justin bit down, suckling. Enflamed, Justin gave an animal growl and dug his fingers into Nik’s shoulders, biting harder. Gasping for breath, Nik buried his face in Justin’s hair, rumpling the other man’s jacket as his hands gripped Justin’s back.

After a few moments, Justin relented, shifting his weight enough that Nik was no longer trapped against the door, leaning back to watch Nik’s face, a small satisfied smile on his own. Nik dipped forward to brush his lips against Justin’s again. “My lord,” Nik whispered against his mouth, “how I’ve missed you.”

Justin laughed, letting his hands slide down Nik’s bare chest in an intimate caress, then grinned and turned away to start up the stairs. Partway up, he glanced back over his shoulder, then crooked a finger to Nik, beckoning.

As helpless as one enspelled, Nik followed.

How the Game Is Played (14/141)

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Nik was an indifferent billiards player at best. He’d had some practice at carom billiards, but in the pocket billiards variant that Justin played, Nik couldn’t even remember which maneuvers scored how many points without a refresher. Justin, Secretary Haskill, and both Laverts were keen to play. “To two hundred points, my lord?” Mrs. Lavert asked, selecting a cue stick.

“Certainly. Ten marks a point as usual?” Justin said, blandly.

The Laverts and Secretary Haskill agreed without hesitation. Nik did his best not to look appalled.

“We’ll just watch,” Lady Dalsterly said firmly, leading her great-granddaughter to seats along the wall. A disappointed Miss Dalsterly whispered something to her elder relation.

“We can play in teams,” Justin offered.

“That’s quite all right, my lord.” Lady Dalsterly answered, polite, firm, and unmoved by her descendant’s pleading look. Mrs. Haskill likewise declined.

“Would you like to alternate games?” Secretary Haskill asked Nik.

“Oh no.” Nik gave an easy smile that belied his relief. “Keeping three lovely ladies company while watching others do all the hard work is far more my style.”

Justin chuckled. “Suit yourself.” The four players divided among Justin’s two billiards tables, winners to play winners and losers to play losers after the first game. Nik amused himself bantering and flirting with the three women, although he reserved his most outrageous lines for the elderly Lady Dalsterly, who took them as seriously as he offered them.

Miss Dalsterly watched the game – or more accurately, Lord Comfrey – with transparent longing. Everyone politely pretended not to notice. Nik wasn’t sure whether he wanted to wish her luck, offer his condolences, or warn her off. It was certainly no hardship to watch Justin move gracefully about the billiard table, extending his tall, powerful frame to full length for the occasional shot. As with everything he put his mind to, Justin played well. Between turns, he would laugh and tease his guests, but his attitude when making a shot was concentrated and intent. He won his first two games, at which point Lady Dalsterly took the opportunity of the hour and the timing to excuse herself and her great-granddaughter, leaving only Nik and Mrs. Haskill remaining on the sidelines.

Mrs. Haskill, a stout fortyish woman with handsome Newlanture features and a pleasantly rounded figure, had consumed enough wine to shed her veneer of stuffy reserve. She proved an attentive companion when she had Nik to herself, full of interested inquiries about how his Blessing worked, as well as cheerfully returning his banter. After a couple more games, her husband begged off from further play to take his wife home.

“But it’s not even eleven-thirty yet,” Mr. Lavert protested. “Surely you can stay for another game?”

“We can’t leave now, while Lord Comfrey still has our marks,” Mrs. Lavert added.

They’re not your marks any more, Nikola thought. They’re his. That’s how it works.

“I don’t mind watching, Brennan,” Mrs. Haskill said diffidently. But Secretary Haskill resisted all entreaties and took his wife’s arm to depart.

You’re not leaving, are you, Lord Nikola?” Justin asked, with a small smile.

Nik could see where this was leading. He could leave, or he could get roped into playing a game he had little skill for at stakes he could not afford. With the other bystanders and their fourth player gone, his excuse for sitting on the sidelines had evaporated. He tried anyway. “I’ll stay for the company, but I don’t care to play.”

“Oh, come now, Lord Nikola,” Mrs. Lavert wheedled. “It’s easy. You don’t want to make one of us sit out while only two can play, do you?”

Yes, I do. “I’m afraid I’ve not the funds on me to match your stakes. If you’d care to play without the wager…?”

“Then how would we recoup our losses?” Mr. Lavert said with a grin.

“It’s no fun if there’s nothing at stake,” Mrs. Lavert added.

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself over that, Lord Nikola,” Justin said airily. “I’ll cover your wagers.”

The Laverts looked pleased by this solution. “Very generous of you, Lord Comfrey,” the husband said.

Nikola gritted his teeth. I don’t need your charity, Justin. But there was no graceful way to escape it after that, so he acquiesced with as much good humor as he could muster.

The following games went much as he’d expected. Nikola tried not to keep track of how much of Justin’s money he was losing, although he had the keen sense that it was more than enough to offset Justin’s own winnings, since they paid by the point instead of the game. Now and again, he would catch Justin watching him as he made a shot. At one point, Justin laid a hand on Nik’s shoulder as he was eyeing his cue ball down the length of the stick. “You’re too tense, Lord Nikola,” he murmured. “Relax.” He loosened the tight grip of Nik’s right hand on the cue stick, and leaned close to reposition Nik’s left hand lightly on the table, before settling the cue’s tip between Nik’s knuckles again, then stepped back. “Breathe.”

Nik closed his eyes and inhaled, the tense line of his mouth relaxing, breathing in the faint musk of Justin’s cologne, feeling the lingering warmth where their bodies had touched. Justin gave his shoulder a reassuring pat. Nik opened his eyes and took the shot. His cue ball struck the red object ball, ricocheted it into a corner pocket at the opposite side, then continued on to glance against Lavert’s cue ball. Lavert’s rolled into the side pocket, while Nikola’s rolled slowly to the far corner. It poised on the brink for a moment, and toppled in. All three balls struck in the correct order and pocketed, for the maximum score on a single shot. “Oh, well done,” Lavert said in appreciation.

“See?” Justin gave Nik a smile as he straightened. “Not so hard.”

“Anyone can get lucky,” Nikola retorted. But he felt better nonetheless.

At midnight, Justin had the servants refill the decanter of wine and bring up a plate of bite-sized pastries for snacks, before dismissing them to their beds: “I’ll show my guests out when they depart.”