One Could Scarcely Do Anything Else (62/141)

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Fel Hughbrant, one of his snow-white draycats for the evening, stepped out of the harness to open the carriage door with one paw and a deep bow. Miss Vasilver paused before Nik handed her in. “What is this made of, may I ask, my lord?”

Nik laughed, having wholly forgotten the ridiculous vehicle he’d arrived in. “Do you know, I’m not sure?” He looked to the draycat by the carriage door. “Fel Hughbrant?”

“Steelglass. A new composite created by Blessed, m’lord, m’lady,” the greatcat answered. “It’s very sturdy. Scratch-proof, too.” He raked a casual paw over one of the clear plates, claws leaving the surface unmarked. “The frame’s gold-plated steel.”

“Remarkable.” Miss Vasilver touched one of the smooth panes. “I did not know even the Blessed could make steel transparent.”

“It’s not made with actual steel,” the other greatcat with Hughbrant said, watching them from her place in the traces. “Or glass, for that matter. The manufacturers just thought ‘steelglass’ had a good sound to it. It’s a tailored resin cured by a particular process.”

“Fel Hughbrant, Felis Northholt – Miss Vasilver is my companion this evening. If she needs your assistance with anything when I am not about, please oblige her,” Nik added, as Miss Vasilver nodded to the greatcat’s explanation. “Let me take your wrap, miss – it’s warm inside the box.”

As he followed her into the carriage, Nik tossed his outer coat and her fur-lined cloak onto the seat opposite before settling on the comfortable padded velvet seat beside Miss Vasilver. The edges of the carriage door were padded and sealed snugly when closed; while the day outside was cold and windy, it was almost too warm inside the glass coach. He smiled down at her, still giddy. “It’s not mine, you know,” he felt compelled to confess.

“My lord?”

“This…” He gestured to the gold and crystal surrounding them, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. “…contraption.”

“I am afraid my brother will be disappointed to hear that. He was terribly impressed when he saw it.” Miss Vasilver did not sound impressed herself. “You are borrowing it from a friend, then?”

“From a petitioner, actually. There’s rather a story behind it, if you’re curious.”

“I am, my lord. I’ve never seen anything like it. A transparent carriage?” She tapped one foot against a translucent floor panel, making a faint clinking with the sole of her jeweled slipper. “It seems so impractical.” The underside, which had been almost spotless when it arrived for Nik, was already dusty from the road.

“It does,” Nik agreed. “But for the story – a bit over two years ago now, I treated a greatkitten for developmental issues. Her grandfather, Fel Carthian, owned a carriage service, and he wanted to provide me transportation for life as gift in return. Which of course I couldn’t accept—”

“Why not, my lord?”

“The Code prohibits daily or frequent services,” Nik explained. Miss Vasilver still had her head tilted at him, so he added, “It’s akin to slavery, to accept an ongoing and constant service like that. I know, it’s not the same when he’s paying others to render the service for him, but the Code nonetheless prohibits such a gift. In any case, he amended the offer to ‘occasional services’ and begged me to call on him for removes or events. I decided to ask him that year for a carriage to the Ascension Ball. Which absolutely everyone thought was a terrible idea – even Lord Comfrey made sport of me over it: ‘You’ll attend the grandest event in Newlant in a common delivery coach?’ – but I was in a snit with my parents over some triviality and refused to go with them.”

Wisteria glanced about at the crystal carriage surrounding them. “But I gather you did not travel in a common delivery coach, either?”    

“Not at all! Though it was not this contraption. These greatcats, however. Dyed black that year – they’re bleached white this year, Felis Northholt told me. That year was an elegant and cozy two-seater, in black and silver. Fel Carthian told me later that he’d thought to extend his service from delivery and passenger coaches to rentals for special events. My father thought no one would be interested in such thing, because only an undignified fool like me would do something so gauche as to attend Ascension in a rental. So of course I had to do it again the next year.”

“Of course,” Miss Vasilver agreed, deadpan. “One could scarcely do anything else.”

“And Fel Carthian had decided the elegant two-seater was too understated, and sent Felis Northholt and Fel Hughbrant to pull this extraordinarily grand carriage of sky blue, adorned in silver-leaf scrollwork, with concealed wheels so that it appeared to float on a white cloud.”

“Oh, I recall seeing a carriage like that about town. I did not know to whom it belonged.”

Nik inclined his head. “Just so. I understand Fel Carthian’s new division has been doing well since then. And of course this year brought…” He waved one hand and smiled, self-deprecating. “My life is a bizarre mix of absurd extravagances and humbling retrenchments, I’m afraid. I think I am the only person who arrives at Ascension in the same suit but a new carriage every year.”

“That does sound unique.” Miss Vasilver tilted her head at him. “Do you exercise any control over the gifts you receive? You cannot be the only Blessed with this issue.”

“By no means. My staff does nudge petitioners to contribute cash, and many of the gifts that are not, we sell. But.” Nikola watched Gracehaven roll by through the thick glittering panes. “I know many petitioners want to do something unique and special in answer to a healing, in a way that marks cannot be. Sometimes I want to accept a gift for what it is, instead of what I think I need most that day. Does that make sense?”

Miss Vasilver considered for a moment before she replied in her usual grave way, “I believe it does, my lord. Marks don’t remind you of that little greatkitten you helped two years ago, but this carriage ride does, doesn’t it? Of why it’s work worth doing.”

Nikola turned to her again, smiling. “Yes! Exactly so.” His eye was caught anew by the sparkle of jewels in her dark twists of hair, the quiet calm of her face. He laughed suddenly.

Miss Vasilver tilted her head at him. “My lord?”

“I just realized we’ll be spending the better part of an hour in this carriage, given the crush of traffic that’ll be around the palace. Alone, with no mothers or fathers or servants to listen in. We could talk about anything!”

“Oh, we could, couldn’t we?” She fluttered her hands, silk and jewels trailing from her wrists. “There’s no one to check me but you.”

He grinned. “And I have no interest whatsoever in checking you. What would you like to speak of? We should pick the most awful forbidden unsuitable topic imaginable.”

After a moment’s thought, she shook her head. “Perhaps we should save that for the return, my lord. I shouldn’t like to alienate you while we’ve the whole of the evening left to spend together.”

“I cannot imagine anything you could say that would alienate me,” Nik protested.

She turned to regard him with light brown eyes. “Perhaps I have a better imagination than you do.”

Nikola abruptly envisioned her asking the exact nature of his relationship with Justin, and swallowed. “One or two things that might alienate you from me, perhaps,” he admitted reluctantly. “Still, surely you wouldn’t waste this opportunity on mere small talk, Miss Vasilver?”

“My lord, there is no chance of that. My parents assure me that my idea of ordinary conversation is peppered with the outrageous, and that is when I am trying to be normal. If you are authorizing me to be unsuitable—”

“My dear Miss Vasilver, I all but insist upon it,” Nik told her, grinning.

“—then perhaps I may use something lower on my list of forbidden topics than number one.”

“You have a list?”

“An outline. With subheadings and clarifying points. It’s still not comprehensive. Will you promise me that If I broach some topic you do not care for, you will tell me so plainly and we may move on to another?”

“I give you my word on it.” Nik sobered his expression in the face of her solemnity. “What is, oh, the fourth item on your list?”

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Spectacle (61/141)

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At Vasilver Manor on Saturday afternoon, Helen was arranging Wisteria’s hair for Ascension when Byron’s voice yelled through the door to her suite, “Teeri! Thought you said your lordling was broke?!”

Wisteria raised her voice to call in return, “Certainly, you may come in, Byron.” Whatever he wanted to talk about, she wasn’t going to holler it through closed doors.

Her brother stepped through the suite door and then into her dressing room, saying, “Told me…he…was…”

Wisteria stood fully dressed before the mirror stand as Helen tucked jewel-tipped hair pins into the elaborate coif she’d crafted. Wisteria couldn’t move without disturbing the work of her lady’s maid, but she did glance to the mirror to catch her brother’s reflection. His jaw hung open, as if he planned to say more, but no sound emerged. Wisteria took the silence for her cue. “First, if I may presume we are speaking of Lord Nikola: he is neither mine, nor a lordling. Second, I never said Lord Nikola was broke; I described his assets as largely illiquid. That you choose to interpret this statement imprecisely is not a factor within my control. Whatever is the matter, Byron?”

Byron closed his mouth at last, then opened it again, and closed it again. Wisteria had no idea what to make of this performance: Byron was rarely at a loss for words. Helen made a clucking noise Wisteria had learned to interpret as disapproval, and stepped back to make final adjustments to the gown. At length, her brother said, “That’s a beautiful dress.”

“Thank you, Byron, that’s very kind.” Wisteria was surprised; Byron seldom paid any attention to what she wore.

A chambermaid came into the room and stopped behind Byron with a quick curtsey. “Oh miss, sir, oh, you must see the carriage come for you, miss!”

“Of course I will. Lord Nikola is arrived, then?”

“Yes,” said the maid.

At the same time, Byron said, “No. I mean, yes, he’s here, but you have to see this carriage. Now.”


“Just…have a look, will you?”

Helen clucked again, but the older woman had stood back and no longer fussed at her attire, so Wisteria let her brother lead her to a window seat that overlooked the drive. “Oh my.”

“You said he was poor,” Byron repeated.

“Is that made of glass? Whatever keeps it from breaking?” Wisteria asked.

“Abandon me if I know.”

The carriage in Vasilver’s semi-circular drive sparkled in the winter sunlight, a gilt framework holding hundreds of large, faceted, clear panes in place to form the body. The interior appeared to have gilt seats padded in velvet, though the view was distorted by multi-colored refractions from the carriage walls. Even the axles and suspension were picked out in gold leaf. The whole was drawn by two pure white greatcats matched in height, length, and powerful builds. They looked regal and dignified in their gilt harness. Wisteria wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anything more ostentatious outside of a royal wedding, which was quite the statement given the gown she wore. The vehicle was wholly unlike Lord Nikola.

“Can’t tell me that’s a family heirloom. Or part of an entailment,” Byron said, leaning over her to study it with her.

“I don’t believe any of my sources mentioned it, no.” Wisteria rose from the window seat. “Excuse me, brother, but Lord Nikola is waiting on me.”


The first time he went to the Ascension Ball, six years ago now, Nik had been excited. Even the second and third times had held a certain magic. This was his seventh, and by now he was accustomed to the simple truth that the most prestigious gathering of the year was, underneath all the ceremony and pageantry, still only a party. A party for nearly two thousand people, titled or accompanied by an individual with a title: the Ascension Ball was one of the few remaining bastions of rank and every titled individual in Newlant, from royal family down to the poorest Blessed with a courtesy title, was invited. Most of them, Nikola barely knew. As a rule, the best thing about it was that Justin was always there, and the worst thing was that Justin was mobbed by admirers and friends.

Today, Nik was if anything relieved by that last fact, as he still hadn’t figured out how to deal with Justin. “Do whatever he asks of me and hate myself” is not a long-term strategy, he thought wryly, and wondered at what point he would need the Savior to fix the addled mess of his head. Experimentally, he reached for the Savior’s aid. Golden warmth cascaded through him, with a sense of his god’s love, tinged by both sorrow and hope, as if to say Sorry I can’t do this for you, but I’m sure you can handle it on your own, beloved one. It did make him feel better, as long as he didn’t dwell on his angst.

No, the main thing he looked forward to tonight was speaking with Miss Vasilver. It had been over a week and Nik keenly anticipated seeing her again, so much so that he was impatient with the wait in Vasilver’s too-ornate parlor. Instead of sitting in one of the brocade chairs, he paced. He examined the room’s paintings and the curios in the display cabinets, the antemarkavian marble sculptures of elegant stylized figures, without attending to any of them. At least he was spared her parents’ company – the entire household would be readying for Ascension events of their own. When he recognized Miss Vasilver’s footsteps down the hall, he turned in relief to the parlor entranceway. “Good evening, Miss Vasilver,” was on his lips as she appeared, and he managed to get that much out before the rest of his greeting was wiped from his mind.

As Newlant’s foremost annual social event, Ascension Ball attire was an order of magnitude more elaborate than anything one wore in the ordinary course of life. Many of the poorer lords and ladies, those with courtesy titles or impoverished estates, declined the invitation because they could not afford the required standard of dress. Nik’s parents ordered new outfits for this occasion every year, despite the extravagant cost. Nik himself was wearing the same Ascension suit he had worn for the last four balls, because that was the last year he had let his parents bully him into buying a new one. It was in Fireholt’s colors of orange and black, which Nik seldom wore because if he was going to use holding colors he prefered Anverlee’s blue and silver. But in the ornate style of Ascension the former served well, with embroidered orange flames leaping and dancing against a midnight-velvet backdrop on the jacket, the flames accented by dozens of glittering faceted orange garnets. The jacket was cut high in front, revealing an orange waistcoat, but long in back, flaring down to mid-calf, with heavy epaulets dangling gold chains and studded by semi-precious stones. The gold chain of his Blessing, with its onyx pendant that marked him as a healer of minds, draped over one shoulder and across his chest – he never wore it unless required, but at this event it was. Black breeches laced up the sides with gold chain. Even the shoes were ostentatious, gleaming black leather with gold buckles and gemstone studs.

Dress at this event was spectacle, which Nikola knew well. He’d expected Miss Vasilver to be part of it – her taste in clothing had always been appropriate – but he was not prepared for the vision she presented.

Her gown fitted snugly from high collar to just above the knees, where it blossomed in a wide ruffled skirt. The body was white, with a ruffle of translucent orange-red that twined like a flame about the skirt and torso, then fell from one shoulder to trail behind her in a flowing cape. The shoulders were sheer at first, blending into solid sleeves that fell in a long graceful drape from elbow to wrist. The whole sparkled with hundreds if not thousands of tiny jewels, sending pinpricks of light dancing around the room as she moved. Her dark hair had been piled atop her head and pinned with fiery rubies, like sparks caught in her net. The effect was so magnificent it ought to have dwarfed the woman within, overwhelmed her. But Miss Vasilver did not recede: she wore this artwork as if it were any ordinary garment: an accessory serving a worthy purpose, nothing more. The white gown with its fiery accents complimented her pale brown complexion, long snug lines making the most of her tall slender build.

“My lord?” Miss Vasilver said, and Nik realized he’d been staring at her for half a minute, that she’d said something and he had no idea what, that she was ravishingly beautiful, that he was in imminent danger of embarrassing himself further.

He swept her a low bow. “Miss Vasilver. You are – beyond magnificent. Words fail me.” She accepted the compliment with a gracious thanks, betraying neither humility nor vanity. He kissed her hand and offered his arm. They paused to retrieve her wrap and his frock coat before he escorted her to the waiting carriage with a stupefied grin on his face.

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You Don’t Show It (60/141)

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“Couldn’t you be just a little excited?” Mrs. Vasilver asked her daughter. “It’s the Ascension Ball. No Vasilver has ever attended an Ascension Ball before.”

“I am excited, Mother.” They were at Lamille’s, her mother’s favorite dressmaker. The shop was so busy at this time of year that not only was the price for her last-minute order exorbitant, but Wisteria also had to come to the dressmaker for a final fitting instead of the seamstresses coming to her. The private fitting room was lined with mirrors, with a raised dais at the center. Wisteria stood upon the dais with her arms outstretched while a squadron of assistants and seamstresses fluttered about her, pinning and adjusting and snipping and stitching. The gown was an Ascension Ball confection, unlike anything else Wisteria owned because such things were not worn at any other event. It had so many crystals hand-stitched into the fabric that it was heavy. It made use of some of the very latest materials: fibers from a patented hybrid plant created by one of the Blessed were woven into a fabric called silk opulence, which combined the smoothness and drape of ivysilk with the breathability of cotton, and added flexibility to prevent it from wrinkling and to allow it to move easily with the wearer. The chiffon-like trim was uncrushable, springing back to its original shape even if compressed for hours. Wisteria planned to practice walking around in the gown this evening at home, to get used to the feel of it and where the various parts of it would end up as she moved. The dress was a lovely piece of art; Wisteria hoped she wouldn’t spoil its effect by inhabiting it.

“You don’t show it,” her mother complained.

“It’s refreshing,” Mrs. Lamille murmured, checking the drape of the cape attached to one shoulder.

“What was that?” Mrs. Vasilver furrowed her lined face at the dressmaker.

The short, slender dressmaker cleared her throat, glancing to Mrs. Vasilver and then back to the daughter. “Meaning no disrespect, ma’am, but Miss Vasilver’s poise, calm, and patience make it a pleasure to work with her. Very…professional.”

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Lamille,” Wisteria said, touched. The older woman bobbed a curtsy, then stepped back to appraise her handiwork from different angles.

Mrs. Vasilver folded her arms over her chest. “All right, it’s very well for you to be collected at the fitting, but I wish you’d not be so cold to his lordship.”

“I don’t mean to be cold, Mother.”

“It’s just – an invitation to the Ascension Ball, for my little girl! I am sure Lord Nikola is fond of you, Wisteria. If you’d show him a little encouragement…”

Encourage him how? I already gave him a thirty-page document outlining my thoughts on our prospective marriage. How could I be plainer about my desires? “I don’t think Lord Nikola is looking for a wife at this time, Mother.”

Mrs. Vasilver waved a hand. “Oh, all men will give you that idea, Wisteria. They don’t know what they want themselves.”

“If they don’t know, how could I possibly?” Wisteria was used to hearing nonsensical statements treated as obvious fact, but they still bewildered her.

“You have to lead them to it,” her mother said. “Once you show one the advantages of the match – in a subtle way, mind you, you can’t just tell him, he needs to think it’s his own idea – he’ll come around to it.”

Wisteria thought again of that long document on the advantages of the match. “It may have escaped your notice, Mother, but subtlety is not my strength.”

The shorter, older woman heaved a sigh. One of the attendants re-positioned Wisteria’s arms at her sides instead of straight out, which was a relief as they’d started to ache from holding the heavy fabric up. “But you’re such a clever girl,” Mrs. Vasilver said. “I don’t see why this is so difficult for you.” I don’t even see how it’s possible for anyone else, Wisteria thought. “You unbent enough to flirt a little with Lord Nikola the other day, it seems you—”

“Wait, how is that? When did I flirt with him?”

“Why, when he called, of course. The day he invited you to the Ball – Thursday last, was it?”

“I was flirting?” Wisteria’s understanding of the word ‘flirt’ was purely intellectual. It was one of those things that other humans did with each other involving looks and gestures that she could not hope to interpret.

“A little. You might have been warmer – if you could only smile a bit, Wisteria—”

“What was I doing that was flirting?”

“Oh, you know.” Her mother waved a hand vaguely. “You needn’t be defensive, dear, there’s nothing wrong with—”

“I don’t know, Mother, or I wouldn’t ask.” Wisteria fluttered her fingers, excited, and clasped them together before her mother could comment. “Please, do you remember what, exactly?”

“Gracious, child, just the sorts of things young people say. Like when he said – what was it – that he was better for seeing you? And then you quoted it back to him when he asked how you were. And the two of you bantered about something or other inconsequential. The weather. You know. Flirting.”

“Oh my. Is that what flirting is? I was only trying to be pleasant and show an interest, and perhaps amuse,” Wisteria said. Next to her, Mrs. Lamille coughed politely and tugged at an ornate sleeve. Wisteria dropped her hands to her sides again so they could finish fussing at the dress.

“Dear, what would you think flirting is other than those things?”

Wisteria considered this. “It always sounded more arcane when people talk about it.”

Mrs. Vasilver laughed, and even the seamstresses suppressed smiles. “What strange notions you have, Wisteria.”

“And he was flirting with me?” Wisteria was still marvelling over the whole idea that she could actually do this strange thing and never notice. On the one hand, usually her obliviousness didn’t extend to her own actions, so this was something of a new low. On the other, perhaps flirtation wasn’t as impossible as she thought, if one could engage in it with just words and not significant looks and meaningful gestures. Whatever those were.

“Well, yes. Not that I would ascribe too much to it – some men are terrible flirts and from everything I hear Lord Nikola is one such – but , you know, I do think there’s some potential for you there if you’d just make an effort.”

For the first time, it struck Wisteria that Lord Nikola’s statement of ‘I am not interested in marriage at this time’ did not necessarily mean that, whenever he became interested, it would not be in her. Granted, that was the most likely outcome – at twenty-six, Wisteria was already old for a bride, and why trouble himself to tell her if he did not mean to discourage her? And yet… “I will, Mother,” Wisteria said, surprising a smile out of her parent. Probably not the way you’d want me to. But I’ll try.

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At Your Service (59/141)

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It was a cold, crisp winter’s day, clear and still at the Markavian’s hunting preserve. The hunting preserve was mostly wooded hills surrounding a lake. In summertime, the ground around the lake turned marshy, but Newlant winters were dry and the earth was hard-packed now. The club stocked the preserve with a variety of game, much of it small: rabbits, pheasants, grouse, turkeys, stoats, waterfowl and wild pigs. But there were some large animals too: deer, elk, wild boar, plus some brown bears for the most adventurous – or foolhardy. Some members hired greatcats to ‘help’ with the hunting; Justin, like many others, felt this defeated the whole purpose of hunting as a sport. “You might as well call riding a sport. It is a skill, but it’s not as though you do anything but hinder a greatcat by clinging to his back while he’s racing or hunting.”

So, Justin and Nikola stalked their prey unmounted through the preserve, though Justin had brought a pair of hunting dogs to track, flush, and fetch for them. Nik had been surprised to find no one else was joining their party when they met at the main lodge. “What, no business associates? No assemblymen or chancellors or ministers?” Nik asked, teasing. Not even servants, in fact, which meant Justin didn’t plan to hunt large game today.

“Just us, Striker,” Justin said, walking boots crunching on dry leaves as they walked the trail through the preserve side-by-side, dogs obediently at his heels. “If you feel deprived, though, I’ll talk business anyways. I met your Miss Vasilver the other day at an association meeting, did I tell you?”

“She’s not my Miss Vasilver,” Nik said, the denial reflexive by now. “What did you think of her?”

“I don’t know.” Justin gave a mournful look skyward. “She is just as clever as you said, and therefore just as unimpressed with me as I said she’d be.”

Nik laughed. “Were you trying to impress her?”

“Of course! How do you think I interact with people, Striker? I have to get them in awe of me from the outset, so they’re too intimidated to look beyond my veneer of apparent well-bred, well-educated success.”


“Why? Why?” Justin gave him a look of mock amazement. “Because they’ll never be impressed with me if they look closely.”

“But why do you need them to be impressed, Comfrey?”

“How else am I going to get them to fawn and fuss over me?”

“…and you like being fawned and fussed over?”

“Of course! Who doesn’t? Other than you, I mean. Truly, Striker, you can’t expect the rest of us to live up to your standards of humility and quiet dignity. Be reasonable. How else will I maintain my over-inflated pride and arrogant attitude if I am not surrounded at all times by sycophants who tell me how important and amazing I am?”

Nik shook his head, smiling, and gave up on getting Justin to be serious. He’d seen the mindshapes of men whose self-worth was artificially inflated: narcissists unable to think of anyone but themselves. Justin, in Nik’s professional opinion, evaluated himself fairly at heart, notwithstanding all his exaggerations for comic effect. “So Miss Vasilver would not fawn and fuss over you?” Nik tried to imagine her doing so over anyone and almost laughed at the idea.

“Not even a little. Despite her mother’s noble efforts to show her the proper methods and induce her to follow suit, too. I ask you, what kind of Paradise is it where young single women do not trip over themselves to simper at a rich bachelor like myself? It’s almost enough to make one dare to engage one in conversation without fearing it will lead to engagement in marriage.”

After due consideration, Nik offered, “A more-perfect Paradise?”    

Justin chuckled. “All right, perhaps, but such a foreign and terrifyingly strange one. I might need your aid to let my poor brain adapt. If it ever came to pass. I may be able to handle just one woman unsettling my entire worldview. I’ll let you know.”

Nik gave a slight bow. “I am at your service, should you need me for anything, my lord.” It was an automatic quip, the kind of thing Nik had said many times before, but before he finished speaking this time he felt bitterness triggered by the sentiment now. After all, you paid enough for me, didn’t you?

“Always good to hear.” Justin’s eyes roved over Nik possessively, narrow mouth half-smiling.

Nikola forced an answering smile before he turned away and pretended to scan the woods about them. Justin had not asked about the account, nor had Nik mentioned it. Nor thanked him. Nik ought to thank him – propriety demanded at least thanks – but resentment and black misery stirred at the idea. The only way he could manage to behave somewhat normally was to put it out of his mind as much as possible. Fortunately, there was a natural lull in the conversation as they closed on a likely thicket. The two men stopped to nock arrows and draw bows by silent agreement before Justin signaled the dogs to flush out grouse.

A small unpredictable moving target was far more of a challenge to shoot with an arrow than a stationary target, even when one was not moving oneself, and hunting was seldom very rewarding. After a few hours and countless shots taken, they’d brought down three birds between the two of them and counted themselves fortunate to do so well. Justin had seen a deer, but passed on the shot: “I hate grazing the creatures when I can’t be sure of the kill. And then there’s dealing with the carcass – never mind.”

By the time they’d bagged the third bird, Nik’s fingers were numb despite ivywool gloves. Justin’s expensive angoraflax outerwear did a better job of keeping him warm, but even so his cheeks and nose were pink with the cold. “Let’s get inside for a bit to defrost,” Comfrey suggested, taking a path to one of the summer cottages isolated in the heart of the preserve. The cottages were primarily used during the warmer months, by members escaping the heat and noise of Gracehaven when business precluded going out to the country proper. During the winter they were shut up, but Justin produced a key and unlocked the side door to this one. The two men kenneled the dogs and shed frockcoats, hats, gloves, boots and scarves in the mud room. They left the bird carcasses hung over the utility sink, then proceeded to the front room. Nik didn’t see any servants about, but Justin must have told the staff to ready this cottage because a fire was lit in the front room’s hearth. The place was comfortably furnished, with a sofa and a loveseat bracketing the fireplace and a thick fleece rug over the hardwood floor between them. Other touches besides the fire bespoke recent attention: the air was clean with a faint scent of sandalwood instead of musty from being closed up, and fresh-cut flowers stood in the room’s vases. Nik went to the fire to chafe warmth into his fingers. Justin bolted the front door shut and drew the curtains, then joined Nik as the younger man pulled on his habitual thin dress gloves.

Justin caught Nik’s right hand while its glove was still held in his left. “You know you don’t need to wear those on my account, Nikola.” Warm tan fingers wrapped around Nik’s long pale ones, still cool from the hunt. Nik closed his eyes, lost in the familiar shapes of Justin’s mind, the weight and solidity of the viscount’s self-confidence and assurance, his educated and rational thought processes, the lively humor twining through all. It matched his body: handsome, powerful, well-developed. Justin brought Nik’s hand to his mouth, warming pale fingers with his breath before he kissed the knuckles, tongue flicking intimately along the line where digits met.

Nik could not stop his body from responding with a hunger only Justin could satisfy. At the same time, the level of the calculation involved struck him. It was not by chance that they’d hunted alone and unattended today, or that this cottage had been readied but no servant left to wait upon them. Justin had orchestrated this moment of privacy with considerable care. Not that this was the first time.

Not that this wasn’t every time. How much of his friendship is genuine, and how much is only a mask to cover for this? When does one of his invitations ever end in any way but this? ‘Never’ was uncomfortably close to the truth. Justin released his hand to draw Nik into his arms; Nik felt stiff and unsettled, pressing his face against Justin’s hair instead of yielding to the offered kiss. Undeterred, Justin nuzzled at the corner of his jawline, one hand untucking his shirt to slide beneath it and vest to stroke Nik’s bare back, the other cupping his rear and pulling him hard against Justin’s hips. Nik could feel the hard bulge of the dark-haired lord’s arousal. Part of Nik wanted to pull away, to refuse the intimacy, to make it stop. You don’t own me.      

Doesn’t he? Didn’t he pay enough? What right do you have to refuse the Viscount of Comfrey anything he wishes?

Even white teeth raked down the skin beneath Nik’s ear, nipped at the side of his neck. Nik moaned involuntarily, trembling with an aching need that fed his self-loathing but overpowered it just the same. “Justin,” he whispered, and surrendered his pride, yielding to the insistent demands of golden-brown hands and his own body.


Sensing the unease in his lover, Justin was atypically tender this afternoon, caresses gentle if persistent, the touch of mouth and teeth light and lingering, leaving no livid marks on pale skin. He led Nikola to take him on the sofa and cried out in unrestrained ecstasy when he felt Nikola climax deep inside him.

Afterwards, with the mess tidied and disposed of, they lay intertwined on the couch. Justin curled half-atop Nikola, fingers toying with the fine blond hairs of his lover’s chest. The taller man wrapped an arm around Justin’s shoulders, nose and mouth pressed against dark hair. Justin felt gloriously alive and satisfied, deeply content with the company, the hunt, and the lovemaking. The one flaw in the afternoon was Nikola’s subdued mood. Justin knew he’d received the reward because Anthser had sent a thank-you note for his, but Nikola had said nothing at all.

Which was – what Justin had expected. They did not need to talk about it. He didn’t want Nikola’s thanks or gratitude or anything else that reeked of obligation. All Justin wanted was for his closest friend to have one less thing in his life to worry about.

And one less reason to rush to the marriage bed to settle his parents’ debts. No, Justin did not imagine it a wholly disinterested gesture on his part. And he did save my life. It is surely fair that I express my appreciation for that.

Even so, if he was honest, he knew he was a little disappointed. Not that Justin wanted Nikola to be grateful, but he wanted him to be glad. Pleased. Relieved. Something positive, not this flicker of melancholy hiding within indigo eyes. He needs time to grow accustomed to it, is all. And I no doubt handled it badly, because I always do. But all will be well in time. Nikola can’t be truly offended, or he’d have growled and snapped. Or thrown the bank ledger in my face and ordered me never to speak to him again before stomping off. Shivering in unpleasant recollection, Justin straightened and raised his head to claim a kiss. Nikola wrapped his other arm around Justin’s bare back and snuggled him close, curling a leg over his. “Cold?”

Justin shook his head and nuzzled Nikola’s cheek. “Not any more.”    

They remained comfortably ensconced together for some minutes more. Justin was trailing his fingers along Nikola’s abdomen and wondering if he could interest his friend in further bodyplay when the blond man stirred to glance at the mantle clock. “We should be getting to dinner.”

“Should we?” Justin kissed Nikola’s collarbone, tasting the salt of his skin. “I don’t have anywhere else to be until half-past eight.”

“I have an appointment—” Nikola swallowed as Justin licked a path down his sternum “—at six, Justin.”

“Mmm. With whom?” Justin curled his fingers to rake down Nikola’s side, making him arch his spine and press against Justin’s mouth as he explored the pale chest.

“With – ah! – a petitioner.” Nikola’s breathing quickened as Justin circled his tongue around a stiffening nipple.

Justin took a moment to respond, spending it alternating between suckling and licking while his lover squirmed delightfully under his touch. “I thought your petitioning hours were nine to twelve?”

“Those are – Justin—” Robbed of speech while tan fingers stroked over his newly-erect penis, Nikola inhaled in sharp uneven gasps. “—open hours…for the quick cures…ahhh, saints, please—”

Justin was kissing a trail down Nikola’s belly, one strong arm wrapped under the base of his slender back to pull him closer as Justin lapped teasingly at the tip of his lover’s erection. Nikola buried the fingers of both hands in thick dark hair to push Justin’s head down and thrust into his mouth. With an inward smile, Justin abandoned the conversation to oblige. I wish it were as easy to tell what your mind desires, my love.

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An Acquisition (58/141)

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Late on Thursday morning, Anthser interrupted Nik between reevaluations. The black greatcat stepped into Nik’s office as the young lord showed out the latest petitioner. Instead of bringing the next, Anthser had an adolescent greatcat courier beside him. “…message for you, m’lord.”

Nikola frowned at Anthser; the big feline had a glazed, stupefied expression. “Is something amiss, Anthser?” One man kept bringing back his unresponsive and sadly untreatable mother – the staff now turned him away before he got inside, but it still caused a scene. Nik hoped it wasn’t something like that again.

“I…uh…you tell me.” Anthser nudged the liveried courier forward.

The messenger pawed open a pouch and produced a packet and a courier’s receipt. “There’s a document inside for you to sign, if you would, m’lord. I’m to wait for it.”

Still frowning, Nik turned the packet over. It bore the seal of Michaelson’s Bank and Trust – not an institution Nik utilized. He broke the seal and opened the packet. Inside was a bank ledger in an embossed leather case with Fireholt’s seal on the front, a contractual document and its duplicate, awaiting signature and seal, and a sealed envelope marked “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt”, in Justin’s casual, bold hand. With the weight of dread in his stomach, Nik sat in one of the office’s comfortable chairs. The contract was boilerplate, granting him possession of an account held in trust at the bank, his signature and seal meant to identify him for future transactions. It described the safeguards on the funds with a level of detail he couldn’t process; he got a vague sense that the trust was secured by several different institutions but accessed only through Michaelson. Nik opened the bank ledger. It had a detailed breakdown of the account in neat figures, which totaled an obscenely large sum. A sum large enough to pay the expenses of Nikola’s entire household for the next hundred years. It was more money than he’d seen in one place, ever. He knew that Justin was wealthy, but this – this – what kind of Paradise did they live in, where one man could have so much that he could give it away like this?

Over six years ago, due to a series of misunderstandings almost comic in retrospect, Justin had sent Nik a gift of cash – a humiliating gift that Nik had returned in fury at the presumption behind it, the idea that he had been bought. Justin had called it a ‘token’ then, and Nik had been shocked that anyone could refer to five thousand marks – more than Shelby’s salary for a year – as if it were a trifle. Looking at this ledger now, Nikola finally understood just how insignificant five thousand marks was to the Viscount of Comfrey.

Anthser had laid down at Nikola’s feet, great black head against his forepaws. The young courier-cat was sitting on her haunches, waiting politely. Nik drew an unsteady breath and closed the ledger. He moved to the desk to sign the receipt and then the account, setting his seal at the bottom before sealing the whole closed. He returned the document to the courier and let her leave before he opened Justin’s note.

[listvskip=true,leftmargin=0.40in,rightmargin=0.20in,indentfirst=false] Striker,

My life is worth a great deal more to me than this, you know; I feel quite the miser for offering so little. I trust you will forgive me.

Michaelson’s is famed for their confidentiality. Only two people there know the origin of the funds for your account or Anthser’s; news will not spread from that quarter, nor from me. Whatever you would have known, or not known, I leave entirely to your discretion, my most excellent friend.

Thank you again for saving me. And for allowing me to repay you in some fashion for that priceless gift.

Your devoted servant,


Nik touched his fingers to the paper, an impossible mixture of emotions flooding him. Anthser’s name caught his eye, and he looked down to the greatcat sprawled on the floor.

Anthser had raised his head to look back at him. “So,” Anthser said, then stopped. He tilted his head to one side and tried again. “I think I just got a mountain of money from Lord Comfrey.”

Nik blinked at the greatcat. “…did you?”

“Unless it’s a joke. Or I’m dreaming. Either kinda seems more likely. When I think about it.” Anthser opened a harness pouch with one paw and pulled out a bank ledger with Anthser of Fireholt, Warcat embossed on it. “Is this real?”

Nikola took the ledger and opened it. It was identical to the one Nikola had just received, down to the same obscene total. Nik stared at it for a while, even more shocked than before. Justin – you – you – Justin. There were no words. Despite himself and all his inner turmoil, Nik realized he was smiling. You truly are making it about that rescue, aren’t you? He returned the ledger to Anthser and sat in the chair again. “It’s real.”

The greatcat pinned it to the floor before him. “Whoa. That is…whoa. I mean. Whoa. What do you do with that kind of money?”

“Whatever you want, I suppose.”

Anthser turned it upside down, as if the figure would make more sense that way. Perhaps it did. “Could I buy my own bowracing course?”

“I imagine you could, if you wished.”

“Huh. That…that’s a lot of marks.” Anthser looked up from the ledger at last. “Lord Comfrey sent a note with it. Said I should talk to you about, um, discretion. And money management.”

“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Nik advised, gently.

“Does this mean I have a big vault full of bills I could go roll around in?”

“I’m…not sure.”

“Because I want to, maybe? It’d be more real. Heh. I could hire Southing to race for me! She wouldn’t need to find another sponsor.” Anthser’s whiskers spread with pleasure.

Nikola marvelled at the greatcat’s uncomplicated delight at the funds: it did not occur to Anthser to wonder at the motives of the giver, to find obligation inherent in the gift. If he does not see it, curst if I’ll be the one to teach him. “Do I need to find myself another riding cat?” he asked, smiling.

Anthser started, and kneaded his claws against air, muzzle crinkled in thought. “Uh. I don’t know. I like being your warcat.” He sunk his chin against forelegs. “The riding part’s fun. And harassing you. I’d miss you if I didn’t have an excuse to hang about. And it’s not like anyone who doesn’t work with you gets a chance to see you for more than fifteen minutes. I could do without fending off petitioners and parents and stuff, though. Could you hire another greatcat to do all the crappy parts of my job and I’ll keep the good stuff?” His ears perked. “I mean, Lord Comfrey gave you a mountain of money just the same’s mine, right?”

“Exactly the same,” Nikola said. “And I could, if that’s what you’d like.”

Anthser opened his mouth in a feline grin. “That’d be great, Lord Nik.” The greatcat sat up and leaned forward to butt Nik’s chest with the top of his head and then slurp his face, making Nik laugh.

“Enough, enough, you great oaf.” Nik gave lie to his own words by wrapping his arms around the greatcat’s shoulders and burying his face against the thick furred neck. “On the matter of discretion…I should prefer not to be a nine-day wonder on account of Lord Comfrey’s absurd generosity. But I don’t want to ruin your joy of your new wealth, Anthser.” One of us ought to take joy in it.

“Eh, I don’t need to brag.” Anthser shrugged, then flicked an ear back. “I guess people’ll talk if I buy a bowracing course, though.”

“Don’t let that stop you. You can ask Mrs. Linden for advice on how to handle it with a minimum of gossip – but there will be gossip. It’s all right, Anthser. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary.” Nik sat back to offer the greatcat an encouraging smile. Why is it that I can believe that when I say it to Anthser, yet not of myself?

The big feline scuffed the floor with one black paw. “Heh. Guess we did, didn’t we?”

Nikola ruffled his fur. “Though what I cannot do is hire someone to do these reevaluations for me. Unfortunately. Will you see the day out with me? I’ll speak with Mrs. Linden about hiring additional staff.” Spending Justin’s money. He was ashamed of himself for thinking about it, not just replacing Anthser but enlarging his entire support crew, enough people to manage the crowds, to work shifts, to keep the paperwork straight, to ease the burden on everyone. When he’d been sixteen and Justin had sent that humiliating gift, Nik had refused to touch the money, whatever the need, until he’d finally had opportunity to return it. Part of him wanted to do the same now, but it seemed such a petulant, selfish gesture. He’d agreed to take the money; what was the sense in refusing to make use of it? All that would accomplish was to hurt those around him, with no benefit to anything but his wounded pride.

Anthser was snorting in response to his question. “’Course I will.” He nuzzled the top of Nik’s head and padded to the door, to show the next petitioner in.

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You Cannot Reason With Them (57/141)

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Since Monday, Nikola had thrown himself into addressing the needs of his petitioners. He started appointments at seven in the morning and continued with them until midnight, and would have taken them later still if Shelby had not flatly refused to schedule them. He no longer attended the family dinners; he took meals alone and largely because his staff brought food and Anthser threatened to sit on him until he ate it. The whole was less out of a sense of mission than because there was nothing he wanted to do. Channeling the Savior’s power for every waking hour was not quite as numbing as spending them falling-down-drunk, but the former was more socially acceptable and at least helped some people. Also, no hangover.

He would have refused Justin’s invitation for Thursday, too, had his conscience not compelled him to accept. You are already spending the man’s money. You have no business rejecting him for anything. The thought sickened him. The entire interior of his head was a repugnant, unpleasant place, which perhaps explained why he spent as much time as possible absorbed in those of other people.

The crush of petitioners peaked on Monday at over four hundred during the course of the ‘official’ open hours from nine to noon. Tuesday and Wednesday saw fewer new people, although despite all the extra time as he’d devoted to appointments, the backlog of the treatable-but-not-yet-treated was larger than he cared to think about.    

Since Shelby wouldn’t let him take petitioners after midnight – all his staff had the ridiculous notion that Nik ought to get more sleep, despite all the years they’d known him – Nik would check on the Whittakers then. Sharone’s erratic behavior extended to her sleep schedule, and as a result the Whittakers kept odd hours. Every time Nik checked on them, a different greatcat was in their quarters: Anthser, Gunther, Jill. On Monday night Sharone was awake and raving in a low, steady monotone, making an elaborate abstract pattern in charcoal on the flagstones around the fireplace. Mr. Whittaker was watching her, and apologized to Nikola for all the trouble, as the Whittakers did whenever they saw him. “I don’t think she’s up to treatment but if you want to try…” Mr. Whittaker began.

Nikola waved it off. “I thought I’d just stop by and…be in her general vicinity without being scary for a bit.” He took a seat in an ancient battered armchair fetched out of the attic to furnish the shabby suite, and made desultory conversation with Mr. Whittaker. The man was a cobbler, or had been, until managing his daughter had become a full-time job for two people. His business was in the care of a brother; Nik got the impression that Mr. Whittaker had not worked regular hours for some time even before the nine-hundred mile pilgrimage to Newlant. After an hour or so, Nik was not sure he’d made any impression on Sharone, but at least her father was more at ease. Progress enough.

Tuesday night, Sharone was asleep, sprawled atop a curled-up dozing Gunther.

Wednesday night found Sharone, Jill and Mrs. Whittaker playing with blocks, dolls, and toy animals. The dolls (animated by Jill) and toy animals (by Mrs. Whittaker) were at war while the blocks (under Sharone’s direction) tried to negotiate a peace. Nikola watched them for three-quarters of an hour, waving Mrs. Whittaker to continue and not let him interrupt. Sharone directed the game, instructing her adult playmates in how their forces were to respond to overtures for peace and when to commit acts of war. It was the most normal thing he’d seen Sharone do. The child took little notice of him until Jill gave an ostentatious greatcat yawn and told Sharone, “’m tired. Howabout Lord Nik takes over the dolls for me? You too old to play with dolls, Lord Nik?”

“I think I have always been too old to play with dolls. I will have to pretend they are soldiers instead,” Nik said, mock-somber.

Sharone shook her head. “Nuh uh. Y’ play blocks, Lor’ Nik. I take dolls.”

When Jill scooted back, Nik lay down on the floor before her and leaned against the greatcat just as he had when he’d been a boy. The dolls were a vicious, backstabbing people under Sharone’s hands, much as they’d been with Jill. Sharone had a curiously sophisticated sense of the toys as individuals separate from herself: she would pause during play to apologize for the things the dolls did. “They don’t know any better,” she told Nik. “Ess why y’ have to teach them.”

“But you do know better?”

Sharone shrugged and turned back to the toys. Without her inner demon in evidence, the little girl was adorable: cloud of tight black curls held back by a headband that framed her dark brown face, round eyes animated and intent on the game. The blocks’ diplomatic efforts made little impact on the dolls’ actions. After a savage assault by the dolls on a toy animal found too near disputed territory, Sharone sat back. “Y’ can na reason wi’ them.”

“What do you think we should do, then?”

The little girl was quiet for a long moment. “Don’ know.”

“Perhaps we should banish them,” Nik said, gently.

Her eyes flicked to his, away. “Banch?”

“Put them where they can’t hurt anyone.” He sat up on the flagstone floor to open his after-supper jacket and show its inner breast pocket. “If you’ll give the dolls to me, I’ll put them in here and take them away. Then the animals can be safe from them.”

Sharone hovered her small hand over the toys, then drew back. “Can’t.”

“Yes, you can.” Nik offered his gloved hand, palm up. “I need your help, Miss Whittaker. I can’t do this without you.”

Her fingers closed on one of the dolls in a tight fist. Shaking, she brought it over Nik’s palm, and dropped it into his hand. Slowly, he drew his hand away and tucked the doll with care into his pocket. He extended his hand again, and waited. Sharone stared at his pocket, then gave a little shriek and scooped all the dolls into her arms. She paused, looking at Nik’s hand, then shook her head vehemently and ran behind her mother, dolls clutched to her chest. “can’tcan’tcan’tcan’t” she repeated over and over, huddled in a low crouch.

Mrs. Whittaker put her arms around the girl. “It’s all right,” she said, powerless. She tried to take one of the dolls away, but Sharone shrieked as if in agony.

Nik shook his head at the mother’s look. “I understand you can’t right now,” he said to the child. “Perhaps later?”

At first he wasn’t sure she’d heard or understood – he wasn’t sure he understood the girl’s metaphor properly – but then Sharone turned to look at him, falling silent. Little dolls peeped over her slender arms, chin tucked to her chest and shoulders hunched. She gave him a solemn nod.

Nik flashed her a quick smile. “Well enough, then. Sleep now, perhaps.” He rose and took his leave, not wanting to outstay his welcome further. As he walked back to his room, he took the one little wooden toy Sharone had given him from his pocket and turned it over between his fingers, thoughtfully.

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Exact Thoughts (56/141)

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“What an unnatural creature,” Millson said as they stepped into the carriage.

“Mm.” Justin was irritated by the man’s tone, but he didn’t trouble himself to contest the point. She was an odd woman; as bright and perceptive on business matters as Nikola had said, but impenetrable as a person. He touched the back of his hand, where her fingers had caressed, wondering at the contrast between that intimate gesture and her expressionless features. Are you indeed too honest, Miss Vasilver? In business matters, perhaps. But it seems one of those personal cues is intended to deceive. Which one, I wonder? If she’d been a man, he would have thought her expression meant to fool any watching eyes while the touch communicated with him alone. But a woman flirting with a man – in private, at that – would have no need to worry about observers. Unless she wanted to signal an interest in a clandestine affair rather than a marital alliance. A curious notion; married women had flirted with him thus, on occasion, but an eligible single gentlewoman? All of them prized marriage above all else. Would this one be different? Justin smiled to himself. Why wouldn’t she? She’s unusual in every other way.

And she was a remarkably handsome woman, for all her peculiar ways. Justin found himself curious what she would find out about the companies he’d left her to evaluate, and whether his initial impression of her abilities would be borne out. If she was as clever as she appeared – hmm. Justin had never seriously considered or desired marriage. The miserable sham of his parents’ marriage was not something he ever wanted to inflict on children of his own. Beyond that, the well-born and eligible girls he’d met over the years were, at best, amusing company for an evening. They aroused little sexual interest in him and while fawning attitudes were entertaining at a ball, such were unlikely to survive a wedding and would grate after continual exposure in any case. They had not all fawned or simpered, but none had engaged his interest in any but the most superficial way.

Miss Vasilver was entirely different. The idea of marrying her was not immediately repugnant. Intriguing, even. Justin roused himself from his reverie. Let’s not get ahead of myself. First impressions can often mislead. For that matter, perhaps she prefers her affairs without attachment. He briefly imagined Miss Vasilver as irritated by the presumption of one-time-lovers as he was. It didn’t seem likely, but it was an entertaining notion.

On the opposite side of the carriage, Millson was still sulking. “Are you sure it’s wise to have business dealings with such a strange individual?”

Justin favored him with a dry look. “No doubt those are her thoughts exactly, but the poor unfortunate girl is committed now.”   

Flustered, Millson stammered out an unnecessary apology and explanation – “I meant she was strange, my lord!” Justin ignored him to gaze out the window, wondering what Miss Vasilver’s exact thoughts truly were.


If she closed her eyes, Wisteria could almost feel the weight of his hand on her shoulder, the smoothness of his skin beneath her fingertips, his body near enough to warm her with his heat.

Wisteria leaned back in her desk chair, eyes closed.

If she was honest with herself – and she was not in the habit of self-deception – she had to admit she’d liked it. A great deal. Not just as a companionable gesture – much the way Byron might look over an account with her – but as the touch of an extraordinarily handsome and definitely not-related man.

Who was unlikely to regard her in any way as an eligible match.    

On the other hand, it’s not his estate or his title that I’m craving. She thought again of Lord Comfrey’s golden-brown face framed by that perfect fall of long black hair, and wondered what it would be like to kiss those narrow lips. If only I were a man, no one would care in the slightest if I gave my virginity away.

Of course, if I were a man, other men wouldn’t want me anyway.    

Not that they want me now, as far as I can tell. Wisteria opened her eyes and pulled the Ellesex binder closer. She’d been told all her life that young men were akin to rutting beasts, interested in women for only one thing and always eager to get it. Young women, on the other hand, were supposed to be chaste, pure beings, untouched by desire. As far as she could tell from personal experience, the exact opposite was the case. Not that I’d notice if it weren’t. Also, if I have to obsess over men, couldn’t I do it one man at a time? She conjured up mental images of Lord Comfrey and Lord Nikola, trying to decide which was more attractive, Lord Nikola’s tall fair-haired lean grace or Lord Comfrey’s powerful dark frame. It was like deciding which was more intoxicating, red wine or white. I would gladly become drunk on either. Though I suppose at least Lord Comfrey hasn’t said to my face he’s not interested in marrying me.


If it came to a choice between the ineligible, Wisteria preferred Lord Nikola, who was easier to make sense of. More straightforward. She did not know what to make of Lord Comfrey. “You take me too seriously”. Wisteria wasn’t sure she knew how to take people lightly. Maybe she ought to practice sometime. Dismissing the whole chain of thought as unproductive, Wisteria opened her notebook on one hand and the Ellesex binder on the other, and set to work.

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Inappropriately Flirting (55/141)

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They stayed another quarter-hour, going over a few details from the binders and answering questions about their organizational system and notation. After a few minutes, Justin and Miss Vasilver sent Millson to the other room to sort out with her secretary the details of the additional documents she would require. When they were alone, Justin asked, “Do you truly suspect Colbury of fraud?”

“Fraud? No, not on the basis of that. If his accountants intended to deceive, they’d not have categorized the funds as a loan at all. But – mismanagement, perhaps.” Miss Vasilver showed no self-consciousness at being alone with a man. She was intent upon the older financials from the Colbury binder. “It does look like they used funds from the line to pad dividends for some time. Which is not criminal, but far from good practice either.”

“Show me?” Justin circled around her desk to stand beside her as Miss Vasilver flipped between old quarterly statements to show the changes over time, before the line had been maxed twenty months ago.

“See? There’s a rough correlation between these draws and the quarterly dividend payments – those are not supported by the net income, as shown here. Dividends didn’t drop much after the line was fully funded, however, and net income is up. Assuming it’s not padded from something else. No, my main concern is that the business doesn’t appear to generate enough profit to service that debt if the bank charged a market rate on it. Never mind repayment, were it called upon. Are you a guarantor on the debt, my lord?”

“No, Colbury and his father are.” Justin leaned over her shoulder to study the figures. “As I recall, the additional profits recently are from manufacturing-process improvements – the lowered levels a couple of years ago were attributed to the cost of implementing those.” He scanned the columns of labels and numbers. “Ah, here – see, cost of goods were up and total sales likewise rose, but labor costs stayed the same.” Justin rested one hand on Miss Vasilver’s shoulder as he pointed to the figures in question with the other, flipping between years to illustrate the difference.

“Oh, I see – was it an equipment purchase or training?” Miss Vasilver asked, shifting his hand from the binder so she could turn back further to search for the initial expenditure.

“Equipment, I believe, and a team of engineers to manage the installation. There.” Justin stopped her on a balance sheet from two years ago and flipped forward to the next quarter. “The total value of equipment rose in this quarter.”

“That makes sense,” Miss Vasilver said, turning forward again.

“I do sit on the board. I wouldn’t have you think I’ve paid no attention at all,” Justin told her with a wry smile.

The young woman half-turned and looked up at him with calm brown eyes as she placed one hand over his on the desk beside her. “Oh, my lord, I did not mean to imply you’d been remiss in your oversight.”    

“But I have been, haven’t I?” Justin was more amused than anything else by the situation. If she’d lectured him on the immorality of letting his partner take advantage of his connections at the bank, he’d have thought her insufferably naive. But the way her concerns were founded on business reasons was – perhaps a bit paranoid of her, but she had a point. And it was not the only oddity, now that he considered it. “If it’s a capital improvement, Colbury shouldn’t have used funds from an operating line to pay for it.”

“No – but you’re a director for them, not an accountant. And acquiring a loan with no interest charge is not the sort of thing most people would regard as a potential problem.”

“True. I should not expect myself to have the same perceptiveness you do,” Justin said, teasing.

Instead of flustering her, Miss Vasilver answered the remark with, “Isn’t that why you wanted to retain my services?”

Justin grinned, squeezing her shoulder. “True enough.” He became aware of how close he was, of her bare hand over his atop the desk, her face tilted to him as she sat at the desk and he loomed over her. I ought to step back, he thought, and didn’t. Miss Vasilver showed no sign of discomfort with his nearness; he wasn’t sure she’d noticed, which was stranger yet. And a little maddening: I am inappropriately flirting with you here, you could at least do the courtesy of objecting if you are not going to respond in kind.

“I don’t mean to be…arrogant, my lord. Or patronizing,” she was saying, expression solemn. “I am…much better with numbers than people.”

Justin shook his head at her earnestness. “My dear Miss Vasilver, you take me far too seriously.”

She tilted her head to one side. “How should I take you, Lord Comfrey?”

In bed is the most comfortable, Justin thought. He had the sudden urge to dip his head down and kiss her, to see if she’d notice that. I really ought to step back. Her fingers caressed the back of his hand for a moment – oh, she did notice – and then moved away to the desk. But no awareness was reflected in her expression: neither a coy downward glance nor a bold look of invitation. Also, I ought to say something. “In small doses,” he answered her. “I daresay one needs to build up a tolerance to me first.”

“Truly, my lord? You seem quite tolerable to me,” she said, deadpan. Her fingers shifted to stroke his hand again, pale brown eyes unreadable.

“Then you must be a tolerant woman indeed, Miss Vasilver.” Justin heard the scrape of chairs from the adjoining room. He drew away at last to sweep a self-mocking bow to her, then took her hand to kiss it as he rose. Millson re-entered the room and cleared his throat. “But I will not try your patience with prolonged exposure; I imagine you have other business to attend to, and we have your requirements in hand.”

Miss Vasilver stood, her head still cocked to the side as she regarded him. “As you say. Thank you for your time, my lord. I’ll get back to you next week about Ellesex; I’m afraid Colbury will have to wait until some time after the Ascension season before I may complete it.”

Justin waved one hand in dismissal. “No hurry.” He pressed her fingers gently between his before releasing her to take his leave.

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All Business (54/141)

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The week before Ascension was crowded with a hundred little things that all had to be finished now, before the Season made all business impossible. Justin carved out time for a Thursday invitation to Nik anyway – hunting at the Markavian’s preserve and dinner afterwards – because it had already been too long since he’d seen his friend. Wednesday morning, one of his negotiations succeeded with unexpected speed, and Justin found an hour to call on Miss Vasilver. He’d already selected a handful of holdings that were good candidates for sale and had files prepared on two. Justin brought his secretary, Henry Millson, along as a resource for additional information.

At the front door of Vasilver’s house, Justin identified himself and the nature of his call: “Business with Miss Vasilver,” in the hopes that this, combined with his professional rather than social attire, would let him avoid a social reception. Vain hope: he was received in a parlor at least as stiff as his own formal one, where Mrs. Vasilver entertained him for a handful of minutes while her daughter did whatever it was women did before they would see callers. The older woman looked like a squishy version of her daughter, with none of the girl’s spine or cool reserve in her manner. She was obviously overawed by having Lord Comfrey in her parlor, falling over herself to make him welcome. He bore it with tolerant amusement. There were far worse fates than being fawned over.

When Miss Vasilver joined them, she wore not a morning-call dress but a professional suit: a slim straight skirt of sea blue pinstriped with pale blue and a tailored jacket that looked masculine on her tall, boyish frame. A lace scarf bloused between the jacket’s lapels, secured by a cameo pin. Matching lace cuffs draped over her wrists from beneath the jacket’s sleeves, unlike the plain cuffs under Justin’s business jacket. It was appropriate attire for an appointment with a colleague, suited to an office and not a parlor. Justin smiled in appreciation of that gesture as he rose to offer his hand – palm up correctly this time. He found himself amused that it took conscious thought to do so, as if the subconscious part of him had decided she was a man, or at least ought to be treated like a man. She certainly cut an appealing figure in that suit. “Miss Vasilver. Thank you for seeing me; allow me to present my secretary, Mr. Millson. We brought a couple of files for your perusal.” Millson, a dignified man of medium build some years older and inches shorter than Justin, inclined his balding head in acknowledgement, one hand motioning to the case.

“My pleasure, gentlemen.” Miss Vasilver’s manner was as reserved as before; she flicked her gaze over him impersonally before glancing away. “If you would care to discuss this business in my study?” She made a slight gesture to the door.

Justin inclined his head and took his leave of Mrs. Vasilver. The latter looked offput. “But, Wisteria, surely the parlor is more comfortable—”

“—for a social call, Mother, which this is not. We’ll need the space. Gentlemen.” Miss Vasilver led the way to an office suite on the first floor, beside the library.

A slim, puppyish clerk was working at a desk in the suite’s front room. He raised his head from his ledger to give Miss Vasilver a worshipful look. She returned a cordial nod and a “Carry on, Mr. Thackeray” that held no more cognizance of the clerk as a man than her reaction to Justin. She unlocked the office door and stood aside for her visitors to enter.

Miss Vasilver’s study was a long room, with a graceful sofa beneath the window along one side and a fireplace bracketed by bookcases of carved dark wood opposite. The walls were painted a warm light yellow with a runner of flowery trim along the floor. At the far end was a gigantic U-shaped mahogany desk, with shelves and little drawers atop the two sides facing the wall. Beneath were both large filing drawers and smaller drawers for other items. The free-standing side was more akin to a table, with three chairs ranged about it, and a fourth at the center of the U. Justin, who had a beautiful antique rolltop desk in his own office, found himself envious of this capacious monstrosity. The surface held no loose papers, but a few stacks of closed files and binders. The whole of the room was brightly lit by gaslight fixtures and heated by a central furnace: the flagstones of the fireplace were scrubbed clean, with no indication that the grate within had seen a fire in years.

The gentlewoman circled behind the desk with a whisper of cloth from the kick pleat of her ankle-length skirt and took her seat with a wave to the other chairs. Justin sat as well; beside him, Millson followed suit, but the older man bristled at taking direction from a woman in a professional setting. Miss Vasilver folded her hands in her lap. “How may I be of service, my lord?”

Justin ignored his secretary’s discomfort, gesturing to the man to produce the case. “These are a couple of privately-held businesses I hold an interest in: Colbury Textile and Ellesex Manufactory. Does Vasilver Trading have any interests in them?”

Miss Vasilver’s eyes unfocused for a moment. “No, we do not. Please, proceed.”

Millson removed two thick brown binders from the case and set them on the desk as Justin said, “I’m considering selling either or both of my stakes. Nothing against them, but I need the capital for another venture. I’ve a buy-out offer from Mr. Colbury for my share of Colbury Textile, but I’m skeptical of his valuation. The other partners in Ellesex do not wish to increase their stakes, so that one will need to be shopped around if I sell.”

The young woman nodded her dark-coiffed head, pulling the Ellesex file to her. She opened the binder, skimmed the table of contents, and flipped to the financials. “What part do you have in control of these businesses, my lord?”

“I am one of the directors for both so I am familiar with their performance and overall strategy, but I’ve no hand in the day-to-day management.”

Another nod as she took the binder on Colbury and glanced through it. “These were prepared internally by each business?”

Justin glanced to Millson. The secretary cleared his throat and said primly, “The quarterly financials are from internal accounting. We audit my lord’s larger holdings on a rotating basis; the last audit on Colbury was two years ago and Ellesex, fifteen months. The overviews in each were prepared by Comfrey’s accounting department.”

“Mm. No irregularities on either uncovered during audits?”

“Nothing extraordinary, ma’am. Exact findings from them are detailed in the appendices.”

She flicked to the back of the Colbury binder, scanned through a few pages, then flipped back to the financials, going back and forth a few times. “Colbury Textile has a two million mark loan on which they do not make payments?”

“An operating line, ma’am,” Millson said, as if he didn’t expect her to know what one was.

“It’s shown as fully drawn on the last quarterly balance statement.” She flipped through several pages. “And on the…five statements before that. Why aren’t they making payments on it?” She turned to the tab on contract details and scanned down. “There’s no interest charge on the loan?”

This had seemed vaguely familiar to Justin, and now he remembered why. “Ah, yes. The loan is from Indigo & Weston Bank. Mr. Colbury’s father-in-law is president and authorized a no-interest line for the business.”

Miss Vasilver turned from the binder to look at Justin. “I do not need to tell you, my lord, how irregular that is?”

Justin allowed himself a smile. “Nice deal if you can get it.”

“I would not describe a loan that has been fully funded for eighteen months as an ‘operating line’. With no interest, it sounds like a gift. I am troubled by the label of ‘loan’, however. It matures in the spring of next year.”

“Indigo & Weston renew it every year. It’s routine,” Millson said, patronizing.

“And if they did not?”

“Mrs. Colbury would go to daddy and bat her eyelashes at him until they did, I imagine,” Justin said.

“And when her father is no longer president of the bank? Or when Indigo & Weston folds and its assets are taken by its creditors?”

Justin raised his eyebrows. “Do you have reason to think the bank troubled, Miss Vasilver?”

“Its president is making large loans without interest charge to an institution with no apparent plan for repayment? Whatever short term advantage this loan may have for Colbury Textile, it is clearly not to the benefit of the bank.”

“So now would be a good time to sell, don’t you think?” Justin quirked one corner of his mouth up in a half-smile.

“Now is a good time never to have been involved. I’d take whatever Mr. Colbury offered and be glad to get out without having to explain or illuminate this situation to an uninvolved party.” Miss Vasilver betrayed no trace of humor. “Would you like me to investigate it still, my lord? I will need additional documentation if so – I’d want to see all their original contracts to see what other surprises might lurk in the terms and conditions.”

Next to Justin, Millson winced at the boxes of paperwork implied by that request. The viscount was about to say ‘no’ when he reconsidered, curious what else Miss Vasilver might uncover. If Colbury did have other skeletons to hide, threatening to shed a light on them might induce him to sweeten his offer. “I believe I would, Miss Vasilver, if you’ve the time for it. Do you have an estimate for your fee?”

“Around eleven hundred marks, my lord. Sixty marks an hour for my time and fifteen for my assistants,” Miss Vasilver said. “Colbury will be at least thirty hours, two-thirds delegated. Nothing jumps out at me on Ellesex, though that may change with a closer review; I could produce an estimate of value based on this documentation in three.”

Justin smiled again, admiring the speed of her calculation and her decision: a fair valuation of her highly-skilled time – if anything, it was on the low side of what he’d expect – given without hesitation or apology. Ignoring Millson’s ruffled attitude, he said, “Agreed.”

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The Unfolding Disaster (53/141)

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Nikola awoke the next morning as Lord Striker swept into his bedroom in a long dark dressing gown, blue eyes fixed on his son. Nik scrubbed his hands over his face as his father said, “So. I gather you are aware of the destruction your madgirl caused in my house last night.”

“I’ll cover the damages.” There was little else to be said.

Lord Striker raised bushy white eyebrows. “Will you, now? With whose money?”

Justin’s. Nik almost said it, but the effort of the admission was too much. “Gifts from petitioners.” That was almost true, anyway.

Lord Striker looked unconvinced but did not challenge the point. He stood straight-backed at the foot of Nik’s bed, dignified even in a dressing gown. “Did you know the staff was up all night putting what they could to rights? One of the chambermaids gave notice and two other servants have threatened to leave.”

Good. You can’t afford the salaries for all these people anyway. Nik thought about the bruise on Elisa’s face and wondered if she was the one who gave notice. He said nothing; even he could hardly see driving away retainers as a net positive.

When it was obvious Nik would make no reply, his father sighed. “Look. I am not so heartless that I will turn out these people in the week before Ascension. But I will not have Anverlee Manor turned into a madhouse with permanent inmates. I want them gone by Wednesday next, do you hear me? And in the meantime, there are to be no more incidents like this one.”

It was, Nik had to admit, a fair request. More than fair, even. No interpretation of the Code required a Blessed to provide care to those who refused, and Sharone Whittaker had had more than a week to consent. Without treatment, she stood no chance against the demon that plagued her. What will become of her if I cannot help? Of her parents? Where will they go? Is there an asylum that would hold her? He did not imagine there was one that could heal her; asylums were little more than prisons where the incurably insane were kept, often for the rest of their lives. In Sharone’s case, that seemed the best she could hope for. But what else can I do? Take her to Fireholt, I suppose. Well, the Ascension Ball would be over by then and cutting his visit short at that point would not be that remarkable. Is it worth it, so much trouble for the child of strangers? He realized his father still awaited an answer. “Yes, my lord.”

Lord Striker nodded in reluctant satisfaction. “Dinner is at three. Good day.”


Dinner Sunday afternoon continued the unfolding disaster that comprised Nik’s life. His mother touched off a new incident during the main course when she asked who he would escort to the Ascension ball. Thus he announced to his entire family plus six invited guests at once that he was taking Miss Vasilver. The one advantage to this setting was that his parents had to restrain their outrage to a degree, rather than create a scene in front of company.

This did not stop Lord Striker from cornering Nik after the meal. His father took his arm and stood aside so Nik would be forced to linger with him as the crowd dispersed to parlor or drawing room.

Nik reined in his impatience and the desire to shake off his father’s vice-like grip. The rest of the party paid them no special attention, and soon the dining room was clear apart from the two of them.

Lord Striker glowered at his son. “I don’t know what sort of game you’re playing now, boy, but let me tell you this now: don’t imagine you can make Vasilver’s daughter into one of your whores. However much of a slattern she may be, she’s of a good family and I will not have you insult her father by taking advantage of her loose morals.”    

Nikola stared, astonished by his father’s absurd fantasy. Beneath his surprise, cold rage grew. He moved to stand face-to-face with his father, prying Lord Striker’s fingers from his arm. “Insult me as you please, my lord, but I will not tolerate such blatant and outrageous lies about a gentlewoman of my acquaintance. You will retract that at once.”

Lord Striker gave a bark of dry laughter. “Adding hypocrisy to your string of vices, are you? I don’t suppose one more will make a difference. Don’t think I can’t tell what your real interest in this girl is, Nikola. It’s certainly not because you’ll consider wedding her, whatever your mother may fear.”

“My interest, as you put it, is in having one acquaintance for whom my beliefs and wishes are not inconvenient obstacles to be conquered, ignored, or swept aside. One person who can be bothered to listen to and perhaps extend some credit to what I have to say. One person, even, who does not consider such a thing wholly unreasonable.” Nik towered over his father, infuriated. “I will not hear her honor impugned, sir. You will retract your accusation against her, or I have nothing further to say to you.”

What accusation? She wrote it in her own hand and gave it to you herself!”

Nik spun on his heel and strode for the door.

“Don’t you dare turn your back on me, boy!” His father seized his shoulder. “I’m not done with you yet.” Wordless, Nikola shoved the hand back and continued into the hall. Lord Striker followed, heaving an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, do you expect me to believe after viewing that document of hers that you think her a modest and virtuous creature?”

Yes.” Nik stopped in the grand arched hall outside the dining room, hands clenching into fists. He forced his fingers to relax at the twinge of pain from the not-quite healed bite marks on the right, and glared over his shoulder at his father. “Because she told me as much, and a woman who would be so forthright in writing would hardly lie to me now.”

To his surprise, this argument brought his father up short. The older man folded his arms across his chest, white eyebrows furrowed, and harumphed. Nik waited, jaw tensed. Lord Striker sighed again. “Very well. I retract my statement about the girl.”

Nikola exhaled and turned to face his father again.

“Are you serious about Miss Vasilver, then?”

“Serious about valuing her friendship? Yes. About respecting her person? Yes.”

Lord Striker twisted his mouth. “You know what I mean, Nikola.”

“I am sure I do not.”

“Are you considering marriage to this woman?”

Nik hesitated a little too long before replying. “I am not looking for a wife, Father,” he said, though he was far less convicted on this point than he had been a week ago. “Nor a mistress, before your mind leaps back to the gutter. I enjoy her conversation. Why is this so hard to accept?”

“Because men do not befriend women, my boy. In particular, an unmarried gentleman does not merely befriend an unmarried gentlewoman. You cannot call on Miss Vasilver and invite her to the Ascension Ball, of all things, without exciting certain hopes.”

“Miss Vasilver understands my intentions – or lack thereof, I should say. And is perfectly content with that state of affairs.”

“Even stipulating that she does—” and his father’s tone made it clear that he was dubious on this point “—there is still the matter of her parents, friends, relations. Not to mention yours. Do you want to be the subject of rumor, Nikola?”

Do I have a choice? “I will not live my life based on the fear of ‘what will people say?’”

“No. I don’t suppose you will.” Lord Striker’s stern, square-jawed face looked weary. “Why must you learn everything the hard way?” There was no answer for that so Nik didn’t bother to offer one. “Yet you must be serious about your reputation and duties someday. This house cannot afford – literally cannot afford – your continued shenanigans. You cannot rely upon the continued beneficence of petitioners, especially with the low quality of the people you entertain.” Entertainment? Is that what you’re calling it today? Nikola held his tongue as his father continued, “You must marry a woman of means and quality, and treat this house and its people with dignity, or it will surely come to ruin.”

“I hear you, my lord.” Agree, no. “Shall we walk on? I daresay your guests are waiting for you.”

By the narrowing of his eyes, Nik could tell Lord Striker caught the distinction, but his father only gave another sigh. “Very well.”

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