The Message (88/141)

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Justin and Wisteria were in her office with her father and one of her brothers. Lady Striker and her greatcat had gone in person to impress the seriousness of the situation on the Watch. Justin had no intention of leaving the matter to whatever staff the authorities decided they could spare, in which respect he and Wisteria were in perfect accord. They were bringing Wisteria’s relations up to speed and going over maps of Gracehaven to organize the search. They intended to decamp to Anverlee after allowing a decent interval for Lady Striker to arrive ahead of them, in the event that Lord Striker was still being an ass.    

Wisteria was focused, intelligent, and efficient on the task of using their joint available resources, which Justin appreciated as he found himself checking his own temper at every foolish question or delay from some third party. Marshalling dozens of other people for the search was far more constructive than pacing the streets in person and demanding passerbys tell him where Nikola was, but Justin would far rather have been doing the latter.

As they finalized their search pattern and priority list, Anthser entered the study, brushing aside the footman who tried to present him. “I found his cufflink. I think,” the black greatcat said without preamble. The fel’s ears were canted backwards and whiskers against his cheeks, fur bristled. He lifted a paw to drop a gold cufflink on the table. “In an alley off Third, two blocks east and one north of Anverlee Manor. Too many other scents around, couldn’t trail him. No blood, no signs of fighting. Not positive he was there last night, but I think he was. Would guess he got into a cab or was otherwise carried away from the spot. Do you have anything?”

“Not yet,” Wisteria said. “We’re organizing the search now and will meet Lady Striker back at Anverlee Manor soon; she’s filing a report with the Watch.” Justin picked up the cufflink. He did not pay close attention to fashion in general, but Nikola only had two pairs of good cufflinks, and Justin had undressed him enough times to know both. This was one of his, gold with ruby chips on the face and a pivoting rod that served to clasp it.

Fel Fireholt gave a brusque nod and was about to go when Justin asked, “Did you find it like this?” He pointed to the rod, pulled straight.

The greatcat twisted to look at him, nodding again. “Why?”

“There’s a trick to straightening these, a push-then-pull. It doesn’t happen by accident.”

“So he dropped it on purpose?” Wisteria asked.

“Or someone took it from him and then dropped it?” This from her brother.

“I’d expect a thief to rip it off, not carefully unclasp it.” Justin stared at the cufflink, as if it could give the whereabouts of its owner.

A nervous young maid appeared in Wisteria’s office door with a folded note on a tray. “Begging your pardon, miss, but there’s a message just arrived, from Lord Nikola.”

All eyes went to the girl. Anthser, nearest the door, dropped his head to the paper and sniffed. “Who brought this?” he demanded.

“A street boy, fel—” she stammered.

“Is he still here?”

“I don’t—”

The greatcat didn’t wait for her to finish: he pushed her aside and bolted for the servant’s entrance. Wisteria, with perfect calm, had approached the door. She took the note and thanked the girl as she opened it. She read aloud, “‘Miss Wisteria Vasilver: We have your betrothed.’” Justin blinked. Betrothed? “‘If you wish to see him again, you will be at the corner of 8th and Valence, alone, at half-past two. If you value Lord Nikola’s life, you will tell no one of this. Come alone and without being followed or he dies. Notify the authorities and he dies.’” She paused. “It has the Fireholt seal.”

There was a brief, stunned silence. Well. Now we know what happened to him.

“Of course you can’t go,” her father was saying.

“The Watch already knows he’s missing.” From her brother. “We ought to give this to them.”

Wisteria glanced at a clock. “It will take twenty-five minutes on foot to get there from here. That leaves me fifteen minutes to prepare. Gentlemen, I am going. I would appreciate your help in this.”

Anthser reappeared, carrying a squirming ragged boy by the collar. The boy was trying to worm his way out of his clothes to escape. “I din’t do nuffin’ let me go!”

The greatcat deposited him on the office floor just inside the door. “This is the messenger. What did it say?”

The boy tried to dart past Anthser, saying, “I din’t bring no message!”

The black greatcat pinned him to the doorframe with a casual paw. “Your scent was on it.” He was looking at Wisteria. She repeated the contents back to him verbatim. His paw on the boy didn’t waver; there was something uncanny, shocking about the greatcat’s implacable use of force. Greatcats by nature did not use violence or even force against humans: warcats underwent extensive training that made them capable of violence in the execution of their duties, but even so Justin had never seen Anthser manhandle anyone before. The greatcat swung his head to regard the boy when Wisteria finished. “Who gave it to you?”

“Dunno – ow!”

“Describe the person.” Anthser didn’t appear to have moved. It struck Justin just how easy it would be for the greatcat to kill a man.    

“Dunno – grown-up, big guy. Like him.” The boy pointed to Justin: Anthser had his paw against the boy’s chest with his back pressed against the doorframe, so the urchin’s limbs were still free. “But not posh. Wharf guy. Wearin’ a scarf n hood. Din’t see no face.”

“Did he tell you to return with any message, or to let him know it had been delivered?” Wisteria asked. The urchin shook his head.

“How long ago?” Anthser asked.

“Dunno. Couple hours?”


“By the harbor, near dock three.”

“Thank you.” Wisteria retrieved a moneyclip from her desk and walked to the door to give the boy a mark. His eyes widened as his fist closed around the bill, jamming it into a pocket even as she said, “I’ll give you two more if you will accompany Mary here to the kitchen and stay there for the remainder of today. Agreed?” He nodded, and Wisteria continued, “Please let him go, Fel Fireholt. Unless you’ve more questions for him?”

The greatcat lifted his enormous black paw away from the boy, and Mary sidled out with the urchin and instructions from Wisteria to feed him.

“If he didn’t have instructions to say the note was delivered, they can’t know we got it,” Mr. Vasilver said. “Surely they wouldn’t kill Lord Nikola when you might not even be aware of their demand!”

“Perhaps they had someone watch the boy deliver it. It does not matter, Father: I am leaving here in twelve minutes. I suggest we focus on what precautions we might reasonably take.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Wisteria. I’m not letting you be taken as well!”

“Please stop posturing, Father. I am going.”

“You are not, not if I have to lock you in your room to stop you!”

“Fel Fireholt.” Wisteria was going through the drawers of her desk again. “This man is threatening to prevent me from helping you locate your master. Would you be so good as to assist me if he attempts to make good on this threat?”

Gladly,” Anthser growled.

Mr. Vasilver looked outraged, but intelligent enough to realize that Anthser was the trump card in this situation. His own greatcat servants wouldn’t obey an order to restrain anyone, and human ones stood no chance against a determined greatcat. “I – you can’t do this! Wisteria, please see reason. Byron, tell her not to be ridiculous.”

Byron Vasilver jammed his hands in his pockets, looking like the sort of man who knew better than to try to talk his sister out of anything. Justin had held his peace through all of this, in part because Wisteria and Anthser had done without prompting everything useful he could think of, and in part because his mind was paralyzed by shock, churning out useless noise like find them and kill them all. He had reservations about Wisteria meeting Nikola’s abductors as well, but not sufficient to stake Nikola’s life on the chance their threat was empty. He found his voice to say, “We’ve already violated their command that you tell no one. I assume you do not intend to abide strictly by the other orders?” His own ability to sound calm astonished him.

“I intend to keep any that they might reasonably notice if I violated. Such as not appearing, or having someone beside me. Being followed by someone suitably distant and inconspicuous seems appropriate. Ah.” She produced a whistle from a lumpy envelope in her desk drawer. “This produces a sound inaudible to human ears.” She blew on it.

Nothing happened except that Anthser’s ears flatted back. A moment later, they flicked up again and the greatcat’s whiskers relaxed into a more natural posture for the first time since he’d arrived. “Really? You can’t hear that?” At the blank looks from the humans, he shook his dark head. “It’s piercing. I bet I could hear it from five blocks off. At least.”

“Good. I may need you to. I’ll bring this with me if I need to signal you.”

Byron Vasilver cleared his throat. “Teeri, audible or not, a hardened criminal won’t let you blow on a whistle!”

“I’ll put it in a handkerchief and pretend to be blowing my nose or somesuch.”

You’re going to fake a reaction?”

Wisteria paused, considering this. “I’ll wear Mother’s lavender perfume. That always makes me sneeze and I want to have a scent that will be easy to track anyway.” She rang for a servant.

“Wisteria, what can you hope to accomplish from this?” her father asked. “Are you trying to get yourself abducted as well?”

“That’s one possibility,” she said, matter-of-fact. “I think it’s more probable that they intend to tell me their ransom demand, negotiate the terms of his release, and impress upon me their seriousness by frightening and threatening me.” A new servant appeared, and Wisteria continued without pause, “Oh, Richard, would you bring me a phial of Mrs. Vasilver’s lavender perfume? At once, this is urgent. Thank you.” As he departed, she returned without break to her earlier train of thought. “But if they do attempt to abduct me, I want Fel Fireholt and any other available greatcats to follow us at a discreet distance. Assuming they don’t take me, I’ll try to mark them with a scent so that the greatcats can follow them. Trailing the kidnappers is our best chance of finding Lord Nikola.”

“Teeri, why’d the note call him your betrothed?” Byron Vasilver asked. “Uh…you’re not betrothed, are you?”

“Of course we aren’t, and why they think we are – in fact, why they’re contacting me at all and not the Strikers about a ransom – is an interesting question. It suggests information a few weeks out of date, that they know the Strikers can’t afford a ransom, that we can, that marriage was considered but not that it was rejected. I am not sure what source would provide such an angle. Be sure to tell the Watch about it.” She walked to the door as a breathless lady’s maid returned with a bottle. “I should be going now. Here’s a sample of the scent.” She dropped a dollop on a spare handkerchief and dropped it on the table. “Do arrange for the greatcats – oh, hello, Sally,” she said as a grey-and-black-striped greatcat appeared in the doorway. “I’m sorry about the whistle. The gentlemen will explain. It’s very important. In any case, the address is on the note if you need it for reference. I wish to have support out of sight and via an indirect route. Be careful about leaving the house so that it doesn’t appear you’re following, in case someone’s watching for that. I’ll try to whistle once if my position changes but I believe I am safe and do not want intervention, twice if I believe I’m in danger and desire intervention. Good day.” She walked out with her father still sputtering objections.

Anthser stared after her. “She is my new favorite human ever.”

Mine too. Justin leapt to his feet after her. “A moment, Miss Vasilver.”

She did not turn, striding through her antechamber and into the hall. “My mind is set on this point, Lord Comfrey.”

“I do not wish to alter it.” He touched her arm, turning her to look at him. “Thank you,” Justin said, forcing the impotent rage at Nikola’s abductors aside. More than I can ever say, thank you. “And – if it comes to a question of money, I will pay any price. Any price. So long as his safety is assured. And yours.” He wanted to add more, to kiss her again while he still could. I love you went through his mind, sentimental foolishness that could not be true, brought on by the stress of the moment. He confined himself to a nod in response to hers and released her arm. He returned to the office and the task of determining how many of Vasilver’s greatcat employees could help.

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Missed (87/141)

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Justin woke too early the next day, or “later that morning”, to be accurate. He felt refreshed despite having slept little, and basked in the remnants of an impossible but delightful dream involving a nude Nikola and Wisteria disporting with him in an enclosed coach that was somehow also a sizable canopy bed. He spent some minutes daydreaming a continuation of the theme before conceding that neither sleep nor the actual dream was going to return. He hauled himself from bed and went downstairs to perform his usual morning routine of calisthenics and weightlifting. Justin lacked his usual focus, distracted by the memory of Wisteria half-naked beneath him in the carriage. Mmm. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fantasized about a woman.

Justin was still thinking of her after washing off and breakfasting. As he dawdled at the dining room table with a disregarded newspaper at his side, he knew he wanted to see her again. Today. Now was good. This was a terrible idea. For one, they’d parted just seven hours ago. For another, dancing half the night with one woman and then calling on her the next day was sure to excite hopes and gossip.

…Do I care if I excite hopes and gossip, here? Some gossip that he was serious about a girl would do his reputation good, at this stage of his life. He’d so studiously avoided anything that would appear to oblige him to a girl that his reluctance itself was a topic of gossip. That would make a break in the pattern juicy to gossipmongers, but even so it would be more normal than his current habits. Not a bad thing, for a man with secrets such as his. As for hopes—

well, if undressing her in my carriage did not excite any hopes in Wisteria, I can’t imagine what would. Unless she’s one of those who believe that men despise any sign of sexual interest in a prospective bride, and so assumes that her complaisance puts her outside the bounds of such a possibility. Which, given her remarks last night, she might well think.

That Wisteria might regard herself as unfit for marriage was an oddly unpalatable thought. Justin rose and rang for his valet. Screw this. I’d rather she think I am courting her than that I find her unsuitable for such, and no one else’s opinion matters.

When Justin arrived at the Vasilver residence, he wasn’t surprised to see the Anverlee gig there. Nikola must be here to apologize for his inability to return last night.

He was surprised, however, when Anverlee’s greatcat stepped out of harness to call out to him. “Lord Comfrey!”

Justin blinked; the individual was vaguely familiar – a very large specimen, with blue-gray fur turning white about the muzzle – but he could not place the gender, much less name. “Yes?” He glanced over his shoulder but continued up the steps to knock at Vasilver’s door.    

“Begging your pardon, Lord Comfrey, but did Lord Nik stay at Comfrey Manor last night?” The impertinent draycat followed him, head raised almost to his level as the greatcat stood with forepaws on the lower step.

What? “No, he did not. Did he never come home?”

The greatcat shook his head.

“That’s odd. He left the ball early for some sort of medical emergency; perhaps it’s still keeping him?” Justin hazarded. Twelve hours later?

But the greatcat was shaking his head again. “No. The emergency was at Anverlee and he finished with it not long after midnight. He went back to the ball.”

A chill stole over Justin. “No, he didn’t.” Vasilver’s footman opened the door and Justin entered mechanically, waving the Anverlee greatcat to follow and nevermind propriety.

“You’re sure of that?” the draycat asked.


He could hear Lady Striker in the Vasilver parlor, and caught the end of her question: “—did you last see him?”

“Shortly before midnight, my lady,” Wisteria answered in her calm way. “I stayed until around five. He did not return. I’d assumed the emergency took longer than he anticipated.”

“It’s not – did you by chance quarrel or anything, any reason that he might not have wanted to see you?” Lady Striker asked. Justin entered the parlor without waiting for the footman to present him. Lady Striker stood before Wisteria, stout and round beside Wisteria’s graceful slim height. Lady Striker looked older and grayer than Justin had ever seen her, the lines in her face engraved by worry. Wisteria didn’t answer her question at once, and Lady Striker placed one hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean that you would have, it’s only—”

“I did not see Lord Nikola after midnight, either,” Justin interrupted. “He would not have been avoiding both of us.”

“Oh! Lord Comfrey!” Lady Striker turned to him, arms extended in a beseeching motion. “He did not stay with you last night either? I know he was avoiding us at the ball, but he would be, yet I was sure he’d be home by now. Rukert says he was probably dodging – everything, because with the Blessing over he could, and that he was out all night doing – well – and I am a silly old woman for expecting my grown son to answer to me. But I…” She ran out of words, blinking, then added, “Am I a silly old woman?” As if hoping she was.

Justin looked to Wisteria. “Lord Nikola told you he’d be back last night? If he could.”

“Yes, my lord, if he wasn’t kept too long. But perhaps he was only being polite?”

“No.” I might excuse myself thus, but Nikola never would. “Something must have prevented him from returning. Which greatcat was taking him back?” Justin asked Lady Striker.

“I don’t know.” Lady Striker wrung her hands.

From the parlor entrance behind him, the greatcat answered, “He told the night footman he’d get a cab. There were no greatcats at Anverlee last night.”

Justin turned to stare incredulously at the greatcat. “He went to get his own cab?”

“He always does that sort of thing,” Lady Striker said. “Too impatient to wait.”

Wisteria asked the greatcat, “Then the last anyone saw him was when he left Anverlee Manor at half-past midnight? Have you sent runners to check the Gracehaven infirmaries?”

“Gunther, Meredith, and Kevin are checking the infirmaries. Anthser is trying to track him by scent, but none of us expect that to work,” the greatcat answered. “His scent’s all over Anverlee anyway, and once you get to the street there’s been too much other traffic to cover it.”    

“Have you reported his disappearance to the authorities?” Wisteria asked.

“Not yet,” Lady Striker said, at the same time as the greatcat said, “I sent Kathy to tell the Watch, but without the Strikers making it official they won’t do much of anything, unless he ended in lockup somehow.”    

Lady Striker stared at her greatcat. “Jill! I gave no such order.”

“You sure didn’t, m’lady.” The greatcat sat on her haunches, green eyes unblinking. “Kathy doesn’t work for you, neither.”

“Well, I – he’s my son! How dare you! Think of our reputation if this turns out to be nothing!”

“With all due respect—” and her insubordinate tone made it clear Jill did not consider much respect due at the moment “—I am thinking of Lord Nik’s well-being, and whatever happened to him is definitely something.” She snarled the last word, and glanced back to Wisteria. “Meredith’s gone to my son’s place with a message asking him to get the neighbor greatcats together. They’ll start searching the streets.”

Justin was not in the habit of involving himself in other people’s disputes with their servants and had little tolerance for backtalking himself, but in this case his sympathies lay with Jill. He ignored the squabble, thinking about what they might be overlooking. What were the possibilities? An accident was most likely, which would leave Nikola at an infirmary if he were lucky, or on the street somewhere between Anverlee and Dawnfell if he were not. “That’s something. I’ll send one of my draycats to mobilize my own people,” Justin found himself saying. Mechanically, he stepped outside to give the instructions. Lady Striker made some confused noises combining appreciation and objection, which he ignored. If Nikola hadn’t been in an accident, then he’d been assaulted. If he’d been murdered—

Don’t think that. You don’t need to think of that. If he’s dead nothing matters. Therefore, he cannot be dead.

Wisteria cleared her throat. “I am sure we have some people who could be spared, as well. It would be best if we coordinated our efforts. Preferably from Anverlee Manor, as that’s closest both to where he was last seen and where he was last headed.”

Justin nodded agreement; that was sensible. If Nikola’d been injured or knocked unconscious (not killed he can’t be dead) during a robbery, he might have been left in some out-of-the-way place by the robbers. It’d be worth broadening the search from the most probable routes between Anverlee and Dawnfell. Focus on the sketchiest neighborhoods? There were only a couple of miles between the two, and the area as a whole had historically been the best in the city, but some of those old entailed estates were in the hands of other impoverished nobles like the Strikers. Those ill-tended grounds could make for good hiding places. Searching private property was best done by the law – “Lady Striker. You are his next of kin. You must give the Watch official notice that Lord Nikola is missing and ask them to assist in the search.”    

“But…Rukert thought…” Lady Striker quavered under Justin’s stare. “…do you think it best, Lord Comfrey?”

“I do.”

“Very well,” Lady Striker agreed meekly. From the doorway, Jill gave an un-servant-like snort.

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Going Under (86/141)

CONTENT NOTE: Entry depicts torture and suicidal thoughts.

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When Nik was thirteen, he had attempted suicide.

He’d tied a stone about his ankle and jumped from the footbridge into the river that cut through his father’s estate in Anverlee. At the time, he’d thought it would be quick and painless, but it hurt, as if his lungs were on fire and then he was choking on water and that hurt more. He’d panicked and was making a futile attempt to untie the rock when Jill fished him, rock and all, from the river. She had seen him take the plunge from a hilltop and been racing to his rescue. He’d begged her not to tell his parents, and she’d agreed on the condition that he swear, first, never to attempt suicide again, and second, to seek his great-grandmother’s help immediately. Nik had always been grateful for her intervention.

Until now, when he would have given anything for death, for release from this nightmare.

The pain from his hands was driving him to madness: he could see the knots of trauma growing in his own mind, in flashes as he tried desperately to distract himself from the inescapable agony.

The process had become horrifyingly familiar: Brogan would hammer one burning hot needle after another under one of Nik’s fingernails. Eventually, Brogan would pry the fingernail itself off with heated pliers and move on to the next finger. He’d completed the cycle on three fingers of the left hand and then switched to the right. It did not seem possible that such a small part of the body could cause so much pain. The worst of it was that it wouldn’t kill him, that it was unbearable yet he had no choice but to bear it. Nik would have done anything to make it stop, would have begged, pleaded, sold himself, denounced the Savior, confessed to any crime, if only it would end. But even if Mrs. Brogan’s disorder had been in his power to diagnose, Nik could not have discovered it under these conditions. He was unable to focus on anything beyond the agony, the horror of what Brogan was doing to him. His face was streaked with tears, he had soiled himself, vomited at the smell of his own burning flesh. Brogan had stopped for that last, briefly, to remove the gag while Nik had been in danger of choking to death, then stuffed it back in as soon as Nik finished retching. Nik had stopped trying to suppress his nausea after that, hoping for another respite or, even better, death. It had worked a couple more times, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough left to choke on any more and dry heaves barely made Brogan pause. The torturer only muttered to himself about Nik’s ‘cursed stubborn pride’, or an occasional lunatic outburst like, “Do you think I want to do this? This is your own fault! You could stop this any time you want!”

Nik prayed through the tears, pain, humiliation: for release, healing, death, he hardly knew what. He could feel the Savior’s presence only dimly, the love of a god as powerless as he was. If you loved me, you would end this, he thought bitterly. Why do you need me to see there’s a problem with her? Why can’t you just heal her? Just this once, this one time, find it for me, please, please, I beg you, heal her! He opened himself to Mrs. Brogan – none of this is her fault – and let the Savior flow through him, feeling again the keen edge of the Savior’s grief. Hah! Your grief! What about us? He held the channel open despite the additional discomfort of his god’s sorrow, as if forcing the Savior to look. Look at her! Look at me! You’re our god do something! The undirected power swirled through them, the sense of grief swelling with it, and something under it that the Savior was shielding him from. Nik was past caring, hurt and lashing out at the only thing left to him. Does it bother you? Then I’m glad! You deserve this! If it wasn’t for you, for this fucking curse-of-a-Blessing, I wouldn’t be here! Look at us!

Power washed over them like a growing storm, and then there was an awful sense of a dam breaking, a terrible flood of emotions not his own, an overwhelming, unfathomable mixture: horror rage love desire determination hope need pain GRIEF

—it was too much, unbearable, a tidal wave covering his mind, and Nik was drowning.


Nik regained consciousness still tied to the chair, raw fingers oozing. His mind felt strange. He could not feel the Savior’s presence and he shied away at even the thought of the god, terrified by the memory of that last encounter. Brogan was at the table, looking at a sheaf of wet papers. Nik didn’t want to move but an involuntary whimper escaped anyway, and Brogan looked up. Nik flinched and avoided his gaze.

“You just don’t care how much I hurt you, do you?” Brogan said. “Too proud to stoop to help a poor old woman. I’m almost impressed, you bastard. I’ve seen better men than you break sooner.”

I am broken, you lunatic. Nik would not have spoken even if he could have. Nothing he’d said so far had done anything but provoke the madman. Fresh tears leaked from reddened eyes: even without new torture his hands felt as if they were on fire.

“Well,” Brogan said, “we’ll see how it is when it’s someone you care about who’s suffering.”

Nik stared at him. No. No, you can’t have – no one else would have walked into the arms of your bully boys like I did—

The torturer gave him a black grin, and slapped the wet pages against the table. “Oh yes. We’ll see how long you last when it’s your pretty little betrothed begging for mercy.”

Her contract. It was in the pocket of my coat…Nik closed his eyes as Brogan rose and strode from the room.

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Motivation (85/141)

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The captain’s mind clung to the demon, resisting treatment. He jerked his knife backwards and cut the gag free at the same time that he yanked his other hand out of contact. “None of your tricks now!” He pointed the tip of the knife at Nik’s face.

I am dealing with a madman who does not want to be cured. Nik shivered violently. “What tricks? What do you want of me?” he asked, voice hoarse and shaken.

Another grim smile. “Same thing I’ve wanted all along, m’lord.” The door opened, and the demon-ridden man turned to it. “Thank you, Crit.” He took a woman’s arm and guided her into the room. She was middle-aged, with similar features to the captain. Her eyes were vacant, gait a clumsy shuffle. “I want you to heal my mother.”

Nik’s stomach sank as recalled them both now. They’d come to petition a few weeks ago: the woman was unresponsive but was not demon-ridden and had no deformities in her mind that Nik could detect. Her son had threatened him then too, but Anthser had intervened before it came to blows. “Sir, the reason I did not heal your mother is that I cannot.” What was their surname? Brock? So many petitioners since then.

“I don’t think you understand your position here, m’lord.” The captain’s thin brows drew down. “You will heal my mother. No warcat is going to turn us out now, and I don’t care how much time it takes or what you expect to be paid. You will cure her.”

“It is not a question of time or money, sir. I cannot diagnose her. I cannot heal her.

The curly-haired man released his mother’s arm and stepped forward to strike Nik with the back of his hand. “You lie!” he snarled. “You are the best! I know you can do it and you will!” Even as Nik reeled, whimpering, he tried to cast out the demon again at the contact, and felt the Savior’s sorrow at being refused. The captain shook his hand as if it stung. “What are you trying to do to me?”

Nik hunched his shoulders against another assault. “Mr. Brock, you are not in your right mind. You’re possessed by a demon. You must allow the Savior to cast it out.”

“Brogan.” The captain took a step back, reaching into his pockets for thick gloves. “My name is Brogan, and I am not the one who needs healing. Look at my mother!” He grabbed Nik by the hair with one gloved hand, hauling his head about to force him to look at the woman. “Look at her! Are you trying to convince me she doesn’t need help? Do you think I’m stupid?”

Tears stung at Nik’s eyes and he hated the whimper that escaped as he tilted his head further to ease the tug on his hair. “I am not saying she doesn’t, but I can’t—”

“Shut up! Shut up!” He moved to hit Nik again and this time Nik raised his bound hands in time to deflect the blow.

“Don’t hit me!” Nik yelled back, wishing he sounded angry and not pitiful, begging, trembling with fear. “I’ll try, all right? Let me try again with her. Please don’t hit me.”

Brogan grunted and released his hair. Nik swallowed, still shaking. I can’t. I know I can’t. What is he going to do to me when she’s not healed? Brogan led his sleepwalking mother closer. Nik licked dry lips. “I need to touch her face to mine. I can see her mind best that way.” His captor pulled another chair adjacent to Nik’s and sat her in it. Awkwardly, Nik leaned over to rest his forehead against hers. Her mind was much as he remembered it: he’d spent several minutes studying it the last time. It’s not that I didn’t try. I tried. Looking again isn’t going to change what I see, and everything is…fine.

Minds were astonishingly complex and varied, and it was all but impossible to learn what was wrong with a defective mind without guidance of some kind. Most of what he’d learned about non-demonic problems had been from either his great-grandmother, who had shown him what to do on her petitioners, or from her grandfather’s papers. The rest had been from observation of healthy minds: studying all the ways a particular mindshape might look when functioning properly helped in recognizing when it wasn’t. On rare occasions, re-examination of those he could not quickly diagnose let him see a problem he had missed, but it had never, not once, taught him to identify a new cause of dysfunction.

Maybe this time would be different. Or maybe it was something he’d missed.

Nikola subjected her mind to the kind of scrutiny he reserved for study, the kind he’d given to his great-grandmother when she was teaching him to identify various mental structures and how they interacted. He’d examined perhaps a dozen volunteers – greatcats, family members, Fireholt subjects – this closely. He mapped the shapes of Mrs. Brogan’s mind now, outlining each part, the borders of different emotions, types of memories, connective webs, the texture, color, shape, feel of each piece. The last time, he’d focused on motor control and the centers that controlled sleep and dream states. He intensified that search, looking for any granule that might be an irritant, any hint of wrinkling that might indicate dysfunction, anything at all.


He invoked the Savior anyway, to wash over the seemingly undamaged mindshapes, and felt his god’s too-familiar sorrow, unable to help. Nik moved to the other parts of the mind, though he could imagine no way a defect in hatred or love or compassion could cause her condition. He examined slowly and thoroughly, aware that he was stalling, aware there was nothing he could do but stall.

About halfway through this examination, Brogan hit Nik, knocking him out of the trance. “What are you doing?” Brogan snarled. “Why haven’t you cured her yet?”

“I am looking for the problem, you imbecile!” Nikola yelled back, and received another blow for it.

“I don’t believe you.” Brogan glared at him, eyes narrowed.

“Demons and angels! What possible reason would I have to lie?”    

Brogan flexed his fingers. “Reputation. You don’t want anyone to find out you’ve been turning away petitioners you could cure out of greed. I won’t tell a soul, I swear. I just want my mother back.”

Nikola stared at him. “Sir, you are not in your right mind. There’s a demon—”

“SHUT UP!” Brogan punched him again and Nik cringed, whimpering. “Stop lying! Stop wasting my time! I know what your problem is – you’re just not motivated yet.”

Nik swallowed against mounting terror. He’s insane and I can’t cure him because he doesn’t trust me and I can’t make him trust me because he’s insane and oh Savior he’s going to kill me because I can’t   

Brogan turned away, moving out of sight behind him. Nik twisted as much as he could while secured to the chair, trying to project calm, willing it to be contagious. “It’s not a matter of motivation, Mr. Brogan. I am doing everything in my power—” which is nothing there’s nothing I can do Savior help me “—please let me—”

From behind, Brogan struck the back of Nik’s head with something hard. “Don’t lie to me! If you were doing ‘everything in your power’ she’d be cured now!”

Dazed, Nik said thickly, “I need time—”

“Shut UP!” Brogan forced another gag into Nik’s mouth. “I don’t need to hear your excuses! I don’t need anything from you except for you to cure my mother, and you needn’t talk for that.” He knotted the ends of the gag behind Nik’s head then circled around to his front. He dropped a leather roll onto the tabletop nearby – something inside it clinked – and grabbed Nik’s bound hands to tie his left wrist to the arm of the chair. Panicking, Nik struggled. He nearly toppled the chair he was secured to but Brogan just backhanded him until Nik was too dizzy to resist. Then his captor finished tying down his left arm, cut apart the rope holding his wrists to each other, and tied down his right. His feet remained bound to the legs of the chair. Brogan removed Nik’s gloves next, then tilted Nik so that the side of the lord’s head touched the cheek of the unresponsive woman in the chair beside him. “This stops,” he told Nik, “when she’s better. Not before.

Nik tried to focus on the woman’s mind again, but his heart was hammering, eyes tracking Brogan as the man unrolled the leather wrap he’d set on the table. It was a toolholder, little pockets holding an array of metal implements, from long thin needles to slim metal picks, pliers, tongs. Brogan fetched a pot and filled it with glowing coals from the stove. He pulled several needles and a pair of pliers from the toolkit, and dropped them into the pot.

Brogan positioned a chair before Nik and sat, splaying Nik’s shaking fingers and eyeing them with a clinical detachment. “Cure her, Blessed,” he growled.

Nik choked around the gag, struggling to breathe. If he could have willed himself to faint, he would have. Savior oh Savior please – eyes squeezed shut, Nik scanned desperately over Mrs. Brogan’s mind – how can he do this in front of her, Savior, unresponsive is not the same as unaware – praying for some new insight, invoking his god anyway, feeling the Savior’s grief mingle with his own despair.

Brogan used the toolkit’s small tongs to pluck a needle from the brazier. Nik could feel heat radiating from it, Brogan’s hand forcing his fingers straight when he tried to fist them, the shocking, excruciating pain as the searing needletip bit into his finger just under the nail.    

The only thing that stopped him from screaming was the gag.

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A Man Possessed (84/141)

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Nik lost track of time as well as distance while the cart rolled along. His captors spoke little aside from directions like “Stop” or “Wait” or “Left here” from Knife-man. Uncomfortable and frightened, Nik alternated between uselessly rehashing every mistake that had led to him to this predicament – not waking Meredith to take him back, letting Anthser have the night off, not telling the footman to find a coach-for-hire for him, not taking the glass coach back to Anverlee Manor – and speculating just as uselessly about where he was going and what these men wanted of him. Whenever he heard the sounds of a carriage or other voices, he considered making a commotion to draw attention to his plight. The sting of the cut on his cheek and Knife-man’s threat deterred him. Miserable coward.

After an unknown interval, he heard the susurration of waves in the near distance. We’re by the harbor? The clatter of cart wheels over stone changed to the quieter but less even rhythm of crossing wooden planking. They’re taking me out of Newlant? Savior, what if they’re not planning to ransom me at all? Maybe they mean to sell me to some foreign king as his pet mind-healer. Saints, no, I can’t let them take me out of the country. I have to get away. The sack over his head wasn’t tied in place; by pressing his cheek against the bottom of the cart and wriggling, he worked free of it. He shifted position, trying to minimize the noise as he got into a posture where he’d be able to rise quickly. His mind recited a litany of terror: This won’t work, I’ll get myself killed, I can’t stand fast enough, they outnumber me, these curst dress shoes are not meant for running, how far can I get with my hands tied, oh Savior I don’t want to die.

But above all was a mortal certainty that if his captors took him from Newlant, he’d never see anyone he loved again. I have to try.    

The cart rolled to a stop. He heard one of his captors call out a hallo. A new voice answered from some distance. “Any trouble with the job?”

“Nope, all clear.” Footsteps moved away from the cart.

Now. Nikola surged upwards, staggering as he threw off the tarp. Even without the sack, he might as well have been blind: no light on the dock save the directed beam of a shuttered lantern, which swung towards him as the holder yelped. “Hey!”

Nikola jumped the side of the cart, landed awkwardly, and ran in what he hoped was the direction they’d come and not, say, off the pier and into the water. The sound of feet behind him spurred him to greater speed despite his bound hands. One captor cursed as he made a lunge for Nik and missed, but Nik’s triumph was short-lived as another man tackled him to the dock. He struck the wooden planking face-first with a cry muffled by the gag, unable to use his hands to break his fall. Knife-man yanked Nik’s head back by his ponytail, bodyweight pinning him to the dock. “Bad move, yer highness. Shame. Been doing so well. C’mon.” Knife-man stood and hauled Nik upward by his hair; Nik scrambled to get his feet under him, teeth gritted around the gag and whimpering.

Nik complied as Knife-man steered him to the boat, but made another attempt to escape as they lowered him into it, kicking and writhing in their arms as a man in the boat grabbed his legs. Taken off guard, his captors dropped him into the water. The weight of his Ascension finery dragged him down; Nik kicked frantically for the surface. He was almost grateful when strong hands from the boat seized his collar and shoulders and hauled him into it. Saltwater stung his cut cheek.

“Feisty, is he?” the newcomer remarked.

“Must be you, Brick. Was sweet as a lamb til e heard your voice.” Knife-man kicked Nik into a prone position on the floor of the rowboat. “Just row, will ya?”

Three of his captors manned oars on the boat and rowed. Knife-man watched Nik for the first few strokes, then aimed an impersonal kick at the small of his back. “Jus’ makin’ it harder on yerself, yer highness. Gonna stay put this time?” Nik nodded, face screwed up against the pain, half-drowned and hopeless.

Knife-man manned an oar then. In the dark still night, they rowed for the distant pinpricks of lantern-light from a ship moored out in the bay.

Before they were a quarter of the way there, Nik was shivering violently and blue with cold, only the gag keeping his teeth from chattering. His captors had a brief argument over his state, which Knife-man ended with: “Need im alive. Which there ain’t no point to havin’ taken im if e up and dies of exposure. Get im out of those clothes and give im your coat, Red.”

“Why my coat?” a thickset man whined.

“On account of I said so. Shut yer yap or e gets yer trousers too.” Knife-man cut Nik’s bonds. “Ya hop outta this boat, yer majesty, and I’m gonna let ya drown this time, got it?” Nik nodded. He knew how to swim, but suspected the cold would kill him before he could make it to shore and shelter, even if his captors didn’t grab him again. He needed no encouragement to strip out of his icy soaked clothing and hunker inside Red’s coat. Knife-man re-tied his hands, in front this time, and put the sack over his head again.

When they reached the ship, they used a sling of canvas and rope to raise Nik into it. Brick said, “As I’ll tell the captain”, and two sets of footsteps departed. The remaining three led a shivering Nik across the deck and handed him below through a hatch. After a dozen paces and a turning, Knife-man pushed Nik into a cushioned wooden chair and tied his feet to the chair legs.

Nik hadn’t heard the sounds of anyone else aboard so far. Shouldn’t there be more? Could the rest be asleep? He knew little of ships, but had a vague idea that a vessel large enough to have multiple decks required a sizable crew, with sailors up at all hours. Perhaps not when moored? Perhaps they were on holiday for Ascension, like so much of Newlant.

“Can I’s have my coat back?” Red asked.

“No. Set a fire.” Knife-man said.

Nik’s mouth was dry and his throat ached from choking on seawater earlier. He tried to moisten his tongue, wishing they’d take off the cursed gag even more than he wanted to drink. He tried to muster some outrage to combat the sick sense of fear that made him tremble almost as much as the cold. He was still wet under the coat, his long ponytail dripping cold saltwater down his back. Though warmer than the frigid winter night outside, the cabin was still chilly. Nik turned his head and started to lift his bound hands.

Knife-man snapped, “And what do ya think yer doin’, yer majesty?”    

Nik rolled his eyes beneath the hood. Ungag me and I’ll tell you, cretin. Moving slowly to show he planned no surprises, Nik brought his tied hands to the back of his neck.

“Hoy! Don’t ya be tryin’ ta get that hood off, boy. What’re ya thinkin’? Answer me!” Knife-man’s voice moved closer. Nik cringed, spreading his fingers in the most placating gesture he could manage.    

“’E’s gagged, Crit. E can’t answer,” Red commented, mercifully.

“…I knew that. D’ya think I’m stupid? What’s the matter with ya? Get that fire goin’!”

With the man no longer yelling at him, Nik clawed the ribbon from his hair with numb fingers, leaving the hood in place but separating strands of hair so it’d eventually dry and be less cold.

Red finished lighting the stove. Footsteps sounded outside the cabin door and Nik’s captors rose. At the opening of the door, the bully-boys murmured, “Cap’n” in respectful tones.

“This is him?” a new voice asked, dubious.

“Which as it is, sir. As there was a mishap what ended with him sopping, we shifted im outta is fancy clothes. But got im coming out of that big fancy house o’ his. Caught im all alone, sir, so’s we didn’t need the catsbane neither.”

Catsbane? Nik hadn’t heard of that before.

“Mph. Good enough. Dismissed.” Feet shuffled out the door, but the captain must have signaled for Knife-man-Crit to lag behind, because a moment later he muttered, “Bring her up, Crit.” Crit assented and left.

The new man pulled the hood off of Nik. A single lantern and the faint glow from the stove illuminated a cabin furnished as combination dining room and study. The captain was better-dressed than his men, clothing unpatched and a warm ivywool frockcoat left open in the growing warmth of the cabin. He had curly brown hair and a narrow face with a pointed chin, looking young to be in charge of a ship. The man’s mouth twisted in a grimace of a smile. “Hello again, Lord Nikola. Want that gag off?”

Again? Nikola nodded, trying to place the man’s face.

“All right. I didn’t want to do it this way, you know. Tried doing it your way, but you wouldn’t oblige.” The man slid the blade of a knife under the gag to cut it off, and Nik winced involuntarily. His captor steadied Nik’s head with a hand on his hair. Savior! Nik reflexively reached for his god as he saw the man’s mind:


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Not Even Wrong At All (83/141)

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Justin had not meant to do more than kiss Wisteria; certainly not to undress her less than twenty minutes from her home. But she had been so much more encouraging than he’d anticipated that he had let impulse get the better of him.

He had been hyperalert, concerned that her neutral expression and few nonverbal cues would make it difficult to take the proper measure of her interest. In the event, it had been obvious: she was no passive fainting creature, merely allowing him his way, but an active participant who stripped him with a flattering eagerness, as ready to caress and kiss as to be touched. Her enthusiasm had been unmistakable.

As unmistakable as the moment when it ended. As those flat words: “I hate this.” Which proved as effective an antiaphrodiasic as any icy plunge, unpleasant in the moment and surprisingly painful in recollection. Had he misjudged her earlier interest? What else could have been signified by her eager touch, her passionate embrace? What had he done to make her hate the experience? Was it specific to him or something about the act itself?

Let it go. You pushed beyond what she would accept, you stopped, done. Forget it.

But despite his success in smoothing over the awkwardness with her, his mind continued to pursue the question. Why had she said she was sorry? What could she have been sorry about? Why not demand an apology of him? He was the man, the instigator. Why wasn’t she angry? Was she angry? He studied her sidelong in a vain effort to gauge her mood. Her expression was exactly the same as on the dance floor, or at the poker table, or even while he cupped her bare breasts. A total cipher. You are not going to read the answer in her eyes or manner. If you want to know, now or ever, you will have to ask.

Everything in him rebelled against asking. To speak of such actions was a greater breach of etiquette than to commit them, especially after such an unequivocal rebuff.

“I hate this.”

Curse it all. “Forgive my impertinence, Miss Vasilver, but I must ask – when you said you hate this—”

Wisteria interrupted him before he could finish, though her gaze remained fixed on the carriage seat opposite. “Oh, my lord, I did not mean you, or what we were doing,” she answered at once. “I was thinking of the greater society, of the unwritten rules that dictate something so wonderful and desirable is also forbidden. That I am wrong for wanting your attentions and worse for permitting them. I hate that I am a whore if I do not object and I hate that I objected, if that makes any sense. I wish I could just be normal, or failing that, embrace my abnormality and be indifferent to all expectation. I am so very sorry to have led you on as I did.”

The intensity of Justin’s relief surprised him, heart gladdened by the assurance that she did want him. It took him a moment to marshal his thoughts and reply. He took her hand politely, like the gentleman he so often pretended to be. “Miss Vasilver, I will allow no one of my acquaintance to employ such an epithet as that against you, and that includes you yourself. I must insist you retract the slur at once.”

Wisteria still wasn’t looking at him, but she tilted her head to cant her ear to his voice. “Or what? Will you pout at me again?”

“Were you a man, I would be forced to challenge you to a duel for your honor. As you are not, I must consider what options are available to me. I hope you will not force me on this.”

“I must note that, technically, I did not ascribe it to myself but merely noted that there were possible conditions that would make it truth.”

“Weasel words; the insinuation remains unacceptable and moreover—” Justin lifted one hand to her chin and turned her face gently to meet his gaze “—untrue. There are no possible conditions, no actions you might take or refrain from taking, which would make you anything less than a gentlewoman in my eyes. My dear, I ask you again: withdraw the remark.”

She regarded him with pale brown eyes, beautiful, unreadable, the skin under his fingers smooth and soft, unwrinkled by expression. “I rescind it. I intended no offence to you, my lord.”

“Thank you, my dear.” Justin dropped his hand before his thumb could wander to trace her lower lip. The urge to kiss her again nearly overwhelmed him. Just one little kiss – no. Down, boy. “And, indeed, the problem is that you intended no offense to me. Had you insulted me I could have laughed it off, a matter of no consequence. But an insult to my friend Miss Wisteria Vasilver: that I cannot overlook. I hope you appreciate the distinction.”

Her eyelids drooped, lending her features a sensual cast. Knowing her, an unintended one. “I do appreciate it, my lord. Very much indeed.”

Justin caressed her knuckles; holding her hand had seemed harmless at the time he took it, but now he was less certain. Down, boy “Newlant is stuffed full of narrow-minded busybodies, Miss Vasilver, a fact beyond your power or mine to change. But I do not care for anyone who would demean my friends or soil their reputations with foul accusations, particularly about something so harmless as one’s very private and personal desires. I imagine that unfortunate souls blessed with fewer privileges than myself, without title or wealth or the right to issue a challenge, may find they must tolerate such gross wrongs. But happily, I need not.”

“But what if the accusations are true?”

He gave her a significant look. “A true accusation? That is even more intolerable. I would never sit by while my friends were dragged through the muck by the truth.”

“Not even if the truth was, let us say, that he had defrauded your company through a series of corrupt loans funding nonexistent capital improvements?”

Justin raised an eyebrow. “A man such as that I need not consider my friend. Now, my dear, I apologize: it is too late an hour for me to attempt this fencing with words. Let me try speaking plainly instead, and forgive my lack of polish at it: I so rarely do. I do not think you are ‘all wrong’ or even wrong at all. Normal people are a myth: I have never met one, only a great many of us gifted at pretending we are. I am glad you are not one, for it would mean you did not exist and I should be very sorry if that were the case. Furthermore—” Justin crossed his eyes, trying to recall what other points he had wanted to make and failing. Ten years ago he would have thought ‘screw this, let’s screw’ and tried to overcome her objections. But he could get a lay anywhere, and people he truly liked – not just ‘was entertained by’ or ‘found amusing’ or ‘had a use for’, but those who held his attention with their ideas and conversation – well, those were far fewer. “…furthermore, I have had a delightful evening, so thank you. And I must remember to thank Lord Nikola for abandoning you as soon as I get the chance. And do not fret for my discretion, not least because nothing happened but also because if I said anything to impugn your honor I would be forced to challenge myself to defend it and where would we be then?”

Wisteria tilted her head at him, the red jewels still studding her black hair glittering in the lantern light. “You truly do not have much practice at speaking plainly, do you?”

“None at all. Terribly sorry.”

“I forgive you. Would it be very awful of me to want another kiss? Just a kiss and nothing more?”

“It would not be awful of you at all,” Justin said, and kissed her.    

He was still holding her – chastely, and proud of himself for that fact – when the carriage slowed as they neared Vasilver’s drive. The lead greatcat announced their approach, and Justin reluctantly released her. He checked them both over to make sure all was in order: becoming tendrils of hair had escaped from her elaborate style, but that had begun when she was doing no more than dancing and should not excite comment at this hour. The sophisticated fabric of her gown had resisted wrinkling despite the treatment it had received. Her calm expression betrayed nothing, and he trusted his own would do the same. He escorted her to the door and left her in the capable hands of Vasilver’s night footman.

As his carriage bore him to his own home, it struck Justin that all those improper things he’d wished to do with Wisteria would be legal – well, with certain exceptions and no one cared about those laws – had they been married. It was a thought he’d rarely had, first because he’d long ago stopped caring about a certain subset of laws and second because marriage had never been an option before. But it is here. Isn’t that interesting?

I wonder if it would be so bad?

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No Regrets (82/141)

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Wisteria shouldn’t have been surprised when he kissed her, but she was anyway. Oh. That’s how you do it without asking first. It did feel natural, as if the logical consequence of bantering was of course kissing. What a splendid result. It was different than with Lord Nikola: Lord Comfrey was more assured, firmer, and tasted of wine instead of champagne. Of course they would both taste intoxicating. She closed her eyes and drank him in, lightheaded, eager; her hand slid of its own accord from his cheek to cradle the back of his neck. His arms enfolded her, one around her shoulder and the other her lower back, kissing hungrily, nibbling at her lower lip, kissing the corner of her mouth. She was dizzy with desire as his lips pressed against her jawline. He shifted, moving her as if she weighed no more than a doll, laying her back against the seat with himself on top, one leg braced to support some of his weight. One of his hands was at the nape of her neck, deftly undoing the tiny buttons. This struck her as a fine idea, as she was suddenly much too warm. He must be too warm, too: she ought to help him with that jacket. This was difficult, since she had her head tilted up so he could kiss the underside of her chin. But he paused when she tried to worm her hands between them, then he lifted away enough that she could start unfastening the buttons. Lord Comfrey’s expression turned from sober to smiling, chuckling as he drew the jacket off and tossed it to the bench opposite them.

“Let me help you with that, my dear,” he murmured, rolling her over to unfasten the buttons down her back. For each loosed button, he pressed a kiss in its place, pushing aside the cloth to caress the soft exposed skin of her back.

She arched into his touch, not sure if she wanted him to hurry or stop or continue at exactly this pace. Her behavior was immoral, she knew, but her mind was much too incoherent to marshal the willpower to stop him as he unlaced her underclothes. His caress felt better than silk against her shoulders, hands easing the sleeves from her arms. She turned over to help him, then a shred of modesty made her catch up the cloth and hold it to her exposed chest. “It’s not fair.” Holding the front of her gown to her chest with one hand, she sat up, reaching for him with the other.

Lord Comfrey had dropped his hands when she held her gown up, and he perched sideways next to her as her legs were stretched out on the seat. “What isn’t, my dear?”

“You’re still all dressed.” Wisteria fumbled one-handed at his waistcoat.

He laughed again and helped her with the buttons, opening shirt and waistcoat for her. She’d seen bare-chested men before, sailors on her brother’s ship, but Lord Comfrey was different, as muscular as the largest of them but with unmarred skin, smooth and rich golden-brown by the light of the carriage’s lantern, dusted in dark curly hairs. “Better?” he asked.

“Some.” Wisteria tried to push the shirt and waistcoat off one-handed, and he helped her again by removing the garments and sending them to join his jacket on the opposite bench. She let the top of her gown pool around her waist as she ran both hands over his chest. It was nothing like she’d imagined, muscles firm but not unyielding, skin velvety, warm, inviting. She curled a few of the chest hairs around a finger: not so soft as his hair but not as wiry as beard hairs either. “You feel wonderful.”

He ran his hands down her bare sides, then back up to cup her breasts. “As do you, my dear.” His thumbs brushed over her nipples and she gasped with the intensity of the sensation, aching with need. At her sound, he shifted to kiss her, pulling her hard against his chest and then laying her back against the seat again. She writhed under him for the pleasure of feeling his bare skin against her, hands stroking his back. His hips rubbed against hers and she arched into him instinctively, wanting so much to feel more. He shifted lower, kissing her throat, her collarbone, mouth engulfing one breast. She whimpered again, and he covered her mouth with his hand to muffle the sound. “Shhhh,” he said, breath cool against her damp skin. He shifted some of his weight from her and tugged her gown down her hips.

Abruptly, the situation became more real. A refrain of I shouldn’t be doing this whispered in her mind, alongside whore and slattern and other designations she was no longer sure she wanted to accept as the price for her choices. Is this what I want? Well, yes, but ought I want it? Her hands fell away from Lord Comfrey’s back, fear spiking through her. You already invited this, you cannot stop him now. It was almost a relief, not to be responsible any more.

But he did stop, a few moments later, with her clothes still half-on. He scooted high enough to look into her eyes, brushing a few wisps of hair from her face. “Is something amiss, my dear?”

Everything. She could hardly breathe, never mind explain. “I hate this – I’m sorry, I shouldn’t – I – I am all wrong, please, I—” Wisteria tried to pull up her clothing, to put herself back into the same stupid safe facade she’d worn for so many years.

“Shhh.” He kissed her lips, lightly, and then her forehead. “It’s all right.” For a moment she was half-afraid and half-hoping that he wouldn’t let her withdraw, that he would continue anyway. But then Lord Comfrey shifted his weight from her to perch at the edge of the seat once more. She sat up, wriggling back into her clothing, putting her arms through the sleeves. “Let me help you.” He stood so she could put her feet down, then turned her back to him. With a gentleness at odds with his earlier passion, he laced her underbodice back together, smoothed the straps, and buttoned the gown over it. Then he put his own clothes back on with smooth professional care, as if he dressed in carriages without the aid of a valet every day. “Better?” he asked, shrugging into his jacket and pulling his long hair free from the collar.

Wisteria nodded, ashamed of herself. “I’m sorry, my lord. I did not mean to—”

Lord Comfrey laid a finger across her lips, as Lord Nikola had, and she felt worse. “This was not at all my intention when I offered you a ride, but I have no regrets, my dear. I forbid you to have any either.”    

“You forbid me?”

“Indeed. This carriage, I will have you know, acts an extension of Comfrey’s demesne; I am therefore lord here. As viscount of Comfrey, I thereby insist that you regret nothing.”

She tilted her head at him. “Is it in truth?”

“No, but I am going to make this irrational and baseless demand anyway. I hope you will be so good as to humor me.”

“…and if I do not?”

“You leave me no choice. I will be forced to pout at you.”

“Pouting does not work on me, my lord.”

“Does it not?” Lord Comfrey gave the most exaggerated, comical pout she’d ever seen: outthrust lower lip, dipped chin, wide puppy eyes peering at her from beneath arched eyebrows. Even she could tell his pout was insincere. She would have wagered it was less convincing than her own smiles.

“…I yield, my lord. I will not regret, I promise.”

“Splendid.” His expression cleared, smile returning to narrow lips. Wisteria suspected her promise would be easier spoken than kept, but in the moment, with Lord Comfrey beside her and his manner so ordinary and kind, her heart was at ease.

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Perhaps You Are Right (81/141)

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By half-past four, Wisteria was certain Lord Nikola would not be back at the party, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. On the negative side of the ledger, it meant no opportunity to steal back to that study and continue their earlier…activity? Conversation? Either. Both. On the positive side, it meant no opportunity to disgrace herself further.

Or rather, no opportunity to disgrace herself with Lord Nikola.   

She found Lord Comfrey’s company dangerously enjoyable. She rather suspected she’d been flirting with him. And he seemed to understand, to believe her when she’d explained why she didn’t smile. Which was on her list of Things Not to Talk About, not only because her parents had cautioned her against it but also because in the past such explanation had made communication more awkward yet. But Lord Comfrey had adapted by asking her direct questions about what she wanted instead of trying to guess. Which was exactly how she wished to be treated. It was marvelous. The whole evening had been filled with marvels. Wisteria usually retired by midnight and as such was flagging at this hour, but for all its imperfections she did not want this night to end.

She was seated at one of the chairs beside the ballroom floor; Lord Comfrey had left her there while he hunted down refreshments for them. Wisteria had her eyes closed, indulging in a confused daydream wherein she was alternately embracing either Lord Nikola or Lord Comfrey. Part of her felt irritated by herself over this: she had just been engaging in highly inappropriate behavior with Lord Nikola, and she felt that she owed, or at least ought to owe, some fidelity to him over that. Even a mistress was faithful to the man who kept her, if Wisteria understood correctly. Only a prostitute would go from one lover to the next as if the act was no more meaningful than a game of cards. Is that what I am, a whore? A number of conversations on the subject had given her to understand that decent, virtuous women not only did not engage in carnal activities, but indeed did not even have the desire for such. Wisteria had always been a failure at the latter, but until tonight she’d done tolerably well at avoiding the former. For all the good it’s done me. Whether I’m virtuous or not, no man’s going to marry me anyway. I might as well satisfy my lust. With – whomever.

Experimentally, she tried substituting other men into her daydreams. Invoking Lord Dunsang spoilt the fantasy entirely. Her affable clerk was less absurd – she’d always been fond of him – but not appealing. Byron’s valet was a handsome man with a strong jawline, trim build, and a pleasing professionalism, but imagining kissing him was nonetheless dull. I guess any man won’t do.

She was just imagining how Lord Comfrey’s shoulders would feel under her hands when a voice broke into her reverie. “Should I have brought back tea instead of wine, Miss Vasilver?” She opened her eyes to find Lord Comfrey standing by her chair, holding two wineglasses. He offered her one, continuing, “The champagne is undrinkable by this hour, I’m afraid. But you do not look in need of a soporific, my dear. Should I have called for your carriage instead?”

Wisteria thought about riding home alone in that glittering glass coach, and the prospect of the spectacle was far less attractive than when she thought she’d be with Lord Nikola. Will it look odd, me being all alone? If I wait longer to leave, will it be more likely to go unnoticed? She took the glass and shook her head. “No, thank you, my lord. I am—” she rose as she spoke, forgetting the weight of her beaded gown, and tripped over the train. Lord Comfrey caught her about the shoulders with one arm, cradled her to his chest, and steadied her glass with his free hand so she did not spill it. “—fine?”

“You’re quite sure of that, my dear?” He smiled down at her. She could feel the curve of his glass against her opposite shoulder. He had not spilled a drop.

Mmmm. For the first time, Wisteria understood why women did ridiculous things like ask for help on problems they knew the answer to, or drop items so men would retrieve them, or behave as if they could not cross a street unassisted. It would never have occurred to her to stumble just so Lord Comfrey could catch her, but she was aware she was in no great hurry to regain her feet. “Oh. Well.” She was more tired than she’d realized, to be tripping over her own feet. Not to mention to be taking advantage of the chance to rest in Lord Comfrey’s arms. Usually she had more self-control than this. Not as much more as her family might wish, but nonetheless. If he minded either her delay or her clumsiness, it didn’t show: he felt strong, capable, and alert, which was comforting when she felt none of those things. But I hardly know him: ought I be trusting him? Mustering all her available willpower, she withdrew from his arms. “Perhaps I am a trifle weary.”

“A trifle?”

“I may understate.” Dancing was not a good idea if she was falling over just standing. She tried to think what else she might do that would be fun without requiring her to be fully conscious. Other than falling back into Lord Comfrey’s arms. That sounded like a lovely idea. “…perhaps you are right about the carriage after all.”

Lord Comfrey offered his arm. “Seldom do I so regret being correct.”


Justin sent for his coach at the same time as Wisteria’s. Had Nikola been there he’d have stayed for hours longer, but tonight no one remaining could command his attention. Miss Vasilver had made an impression on more than just him, Justin had noticed. Not only the married Lord Dunsang, but a handful of bachelors who’d been observing her or dancing with her over the course of the evening. She had not noticed their regard, and Justin suspected his own looming presence had kept anyone from daring to be forward. The poor girl was struggling even to make small talk at this stage, so he waited in companionable silence with her in one of the studies. When a servant let them know her coach was without, he accompanied her down the broad palace steps. She seemed in actual need of the support, leaning into him and almost resting her cheek against his shoulder. False dawn lightened the eastern sky to a paler blue. One of the coaches before the steps was the gaudiest Justin had ever laid eyes upon, an absurd assembly of gilt wire and clear crystal plates. He chuckled at the spectacle. “I wonder what lord brought that contraption?” he said in an aside to Miss Vasilver.

One of the coach’s pure white greatcats stood by the door and opened it when he saw Miss Vasilver coming as the two of them descended the steps. Justin halted, realizing his tactical error. “Lord Nikola?”

“It’s a gift from a petitioner. Well, a gift in the form of lending it for the night,” the beautiful woman replied.

“Ah. Of…course. No wonder you didn’t wish to go home, alone in that thing.” With the eyes of every gossipy bystander wondering why Lord Nikola wasn’t with her, no doubt. “You know, my offer to take you in my carriage stands.”

She shook her head. “There’s no need to put you out of your way.”    

“My dear.” He turned to her on the palace steps and took her chin gently to tilt her face to his. “It would be an honor and a privilege.”    

“Oh.” She blinked at him a few times. “…then I accept. Thank you, my lord.”

Justin patted her hand and told the greatcats they could leave – Nikola was surely not returning, and there was no sense making them stay all night for nothing. The greatcats looked disappointed as they departed. Justin had to admit it wasn’t how he wanted the night to end himself, although escorting Miss Vasilver home was no small consolation.

After handing her into his own far more traditional carriage, he noted that she had chosen the far side of the forward-facing seat, leaving plenty of room for him to sit beside her. He accepted the tacit invitation, although he did not crowd her. They could not sit in silence for the entire length of the drive, so he selected an unchallenging topic. “Now that you have seen Newlant’s most famous ball, my dear, what do you make of it?”

“It’s very large,” she said, her eyes looking at the Ascension lights lining the drive as the greatcats trotted down it.

Justin chuckled. “Were you expecting a modest gathering? I am afraid the Crown always disappoints on that count.”

“Not modest, exactly. But intimate. Everyone speaks of the royal Ascension Ball as terribly exclusive, so I did not expect so many attendees.”

“Ah, of course. The other royal events of the season are far more exclusive, in that regard. But none of them are as grand.”

“It certainly is that. It made me wonder at the logistics involved. Do they normally have furniture in those vast halls?” she asked, and he nodded in answer. “Where do they put it?”

He blinked at her. “Do you know, I’ve never thought about that? In the attics, perhaps.”

“The palace has an attic?”

“Several. One of them is stuffed full of old family portraits. They keep past kings and queens on display but there’s not room on the walls for all the princes and princesses and their children and third wives and what not.”

“Oh, I thought that was why they needed such a large palace. Enough wall space for forty generations of grandchildren portraits.”

“And thus the current fashion in miniatures, inspired by Dawnfell Palace running short on blank walls?”

“I knew there had to be some excuse for those tiny pictures.”

They spoke for some time about the ball. Justin found her perspective both refreshing and intriguing. Everyone noticed the costumes, the elaborate displays, the exquisite food, the awe of the Blessing. Miss Vasilver, by contrast, was curious how they managed to park all the carriages and what system they used to retrieve them. Or how they managed staffing – “they cannot have all those servants on retainer; some must be on loan, but what do they do the rest of the year?” Whether there was a discreet second-hand market for Ascension garb, catering to all those courtesy-titled lords and ladies with Blessings but no fortune.

As Miss Vasilver discussed the potential in the latter – “I know the average peer would be horrified to see her castoffs make an appearance at the ball, but they could be modified—” she interrupted herself. “I am dreadfully sorry, my lord. I know I oughtn’t speak of business on such an occasion.”

He grinned at her. “I cannot say I mind at all, Miss Vasilver.” Justin leaned closer and murmured, as if fearing to be overheard even though they were alone in a moving carriage, “I am far more accustomed to having to check my own impulses in this regard. Lord Nikola would flay me alive if he heard me criticise another over it.”

“Would he? I thought him a very even-tempered man.”

“Did I say he was not? I promise that he would be quite cool and calm as he set about removing my hide one strip at a time.”

“With the razor-sharp edge of his tongue, my lord?” By now, they were more than halfway to Miss Vasilver’s home. The gaslit streets outside the carriage no longer commanded her attention: she was leaning into him, eyes on his face.

“Indeed. I trust you have not experienced it.” Justin touched his fingertips to the smooth skin of her cheek, which was of course Entirely Inappropriate and he fully expected her to respond by blushing or retreating. His caress was featherlight, experimental. “I cannot imagine he would risk damaging a work of art such as yourself.”

Instead of withdrawing, she mirrored his gesture, her fingertips against his own cheek. “Then why would he risk damaging one such as you?”

Justin smiled. “I am a big strong man, my dear. I can take it.” Slowly, so she’d have ample time to draw back, he dipped his head to kiss her.

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What Could Possibly Happen? (80/141)

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The ranks of dancers had thinned from earlier in the evening, and the four of them naturally stood up in the same set. Now that Justin knew Miss Vasilver’s neutral expression was the product of neither deliberate concealment nor actual indifference, dancing with her took on a different cast. It was peculiar to rely on words alone in an effort to gauge her mood, but her light-hearted banter indicated contentment. He did notice one giveaway in her body language, however: she often glanced to the entrances, doubtless to see if Nikola had returned.

By three in the morning, Meg’s unbounded enthusiasm for dance was losing the battle with her need for sleep: she and her husband did not keep Gracehaven hours. Lord Dunsang was reclaimed by his wife. Meg suggested she go home and Justin stay. “I can send the carriage back for you, and I know you don’t want to leave this early. Stand up with Miss Vasilver, Justin, I’m sure Nik would want you to keep her company.”Justin acquiesced, amused by the coincidence of social duties with what he wished to do anyway. He might have suspected Meg of matchmaking had they not had a history free of such machinations.

Miss Vasilver also agreed, lightfooted and grave as the music began. “It is curiously difficult, not reading feeling into your expression. Are you enjoying yourself, Miss Vasilver?” he asked as they took the first turn together.

“Oh yes, my lord. Far more than I expected to, in fact. The whole event has been most delightful and entertaining.”

“Were you not anticipating delight and entertainment, my dear, at the social event of the year?”

“I do not have very high expectations of social events, my lord. We cannot all have your problem.”

“My problem?”

“Of being too well-liked.”

“It is not the most onerous of curses,” Justin conceded. “But I do not see why you should not share it.”

Miss Vasilver tilted her head at him as they circled in the dance. “Do you not, my lord?”

On the point of a glib reply, he hesitated, contemplating her composed unsmiling face, her cool tones and peculiar expectations, her exquisite long-limbed elegant form wrapped in glittering cream and crimson. Justin discarded his half-formed whimsical untruth and said instead, “It is a fool’s Paradise we live in, where one such as you is not valued as she should be.” The dance took them apart before Miss Vasilver had to compose a response.

When the orchestra took a break, Justin led Wisteria to one of the palace’s drawing rooms to sit for a bit. Guests still filled the palace, even at close on four in the morning, but he found them a quiet corner in a chamber with walls covered in cream-colored damask velvet. “How long does this event continue, m’lord?” Miss Vasilver asked, taking the offered seat on an antique sofa.

“Oh, most guests leave by dawn. Their Majesties don’t throw us out until noon, as I recall.” Justin sat beside her and stretched his legs before him. He flexed his toes inside his gold-inlaid dress leather boots, wishing he could take the curst things off.

“Noon? Noon tomorrow? People stay that long for an evening party?” Her voice was uninflected as always, but Justin fancied he read disbelief in her tone just the same.

“Well, I did. Twice. When I was a young man and it seemed a good idea. Their Majesties retired before dawn but Prince Edgar was awake to show the last guests to the door. Or to their chambers. Some of them are staying at the Palace – the Queen invites a hundred or so houseguests for Ascension, many the poorer Blessed who would not be able to make the trip for the Blessing of Newlant elsewise. If one stays until seven or eight in the morning one may even speak with the prince for more than three consecutive minutes.”

“But…don’t they have services on Sunday afternoon?”

“Sunday evening. It’s not until six. His Highness told me one year that he takes a nap after the ball, goes to service, and then goes straight back to bed.” Justin did not think Miss Vasilver would last until dawn, much less noon. Her face was relaxed and unlined, eyes alert enough, but her movements were slower and clumsier than earlier in the evening.

“Oh. Do you think Lord Nikola might yet return?”

The question spurred a sudden irrational surge of anger at Nikola, for bringing this poor lovely girl and then abandoning her. She did not sound wistful or heartbroken, merely factual, but then she would, wouldn’t she? Justin wondered if Nikola’s certainty that the girl was not attached was correct, or if Nikola had been misled by the indifference in her expression. Fool of a boy. How could she not love you? He hesitated, considering his reply. “It’s not outside the realm of possibility…but I believe in most prior years he’s left by this time of the night.”

“Oh.” Her face was turned to the drawing room door, calm, untroubled.

“Are you stranded, Miss Vasilver? I would be happy to take you home if you choose.”

She shook her head. “No, not at all. Lord Nikola left his carriage; the greatcats will take me back to Vasilver Manor whenever I ask. I…I am a little surprised he’s sent no message.”

Justin suspected the Strikers didn’t have the staff to send a message in the wee hours of Ascension night, but he did not like to say so. “He goes into a sort of trance when he’s working. I doubt he’s even aware of how much time has passed.”

“I suppose not.” Miss Vasilver considered this. “You don’t think something might have happened to him, do you?”

“Happened to him?” Justin tried to imagine mischance befalling his friend. Nikola had no enemies, no known wealth, and would have his warcat to protect him; no common footpad would risk an altercation with a greatcat. “What could possibly happen to him?”

“I don’t know. An accident?”

Justin smiled. “I promise you, Lord Nikola is the finest rider in Newlant. No one is less likely to have taken a fall. I am sure the emergency took longer than he’d expected, or attending to it was more tiring.”

She nodded. “Of course.”

He put his hand over hers, where it lay on the cushion between them. Did she fear Nikola had abandoned her deliberately? Was it advisable to reassure her on that count? While Nikola would not be so rude as to desert the girl on mere whim, Justin knew how little hope she had of attaching the man. Is it kind to assure her of his courtesy and friendship, when I know that’s the sum of it? “However unfortunate it may be for him or you, I cannot say I regret Lord Nikola’s absence.”

Miss Vasilver tilted her head. “Whyever would you not? I thought you and he were friends, Lord Comfrey?”

“Certainly we are. But we see one another often, whereas I have never before had a chance to speak with you outside of business. My motives are selfish: I could not have kept you all to myself for so long had Lord Nikola been in attendance.”

Her light brown eyes looked to his face for a long moment, and then away as if she feared staring. “My lord is very kind.”

Justin laughed. “I am many things, my dear, but ‘kind’ is not one of them. Never that. As I said: entirely selfish.” He rose and offered his hand. “I believe I hear the orchestra resuming, if you would care to dance again, Miss Vasilver?”

She placed her hand in his, pale brown fingers caressing his palm. “I would be delighted to join you, my lord.”

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Unaware (79/141)

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Dawnfell Palace had a series of rooms devoted to every kind of indoor game, plus a few not usually played indoors. Justin brought Miss Vasilver to a chamber that was cosy by comparison with the vaulted ceilings and grand vistas of the ballroom or petitioner’s hall. This room was built on a more human scale, ceiling a mere nine feet high. It had ample space for a parquet-topped table with knotwork legs and matched chairs – chosen by Prince Edgar, a man with a passion for parlor games, and so they were comfortably padded with cushioned arms. Servants in royal livery patrolled the tapestry-carpeted floor, bearing trays of refreshments. Four men and three women were at the table when they arrived. Justin introduced Miss Vasilver after the current round – he knew each player already – and they took seats to join in. Justin covered Miss Vasilver’s stake as a matter of course, without comment, and it was gratifying to have her accept it likewise with a simple “thank you, my lord”: no profusion of gratitude or demur of need. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of those fights with Nikola already. I don’t need any more, he thought, and smiled to himself at the recollection that the question with Nikola had been permanently settled.

Justin prefered more active games than cards; he spent plenty of time sitting still for business purposes and liked to be moving when at leisure. Even so, competition invigorated him as he rose to the challenge. Luck wasn’t with him but his play was good for what he had to work with, and he had a magnificent time observing his fellow players. Especially Miss Vasilver.

Miss Vasilver was as impenetrable at the poker table as Justin had suspected, and no fool either: not a woman who would chase a busted flush or draw to an inside straight, Justin concluded after an hour or so of play. Her success relied on a combination of skillful management of the odds and that no one could discern when she bluffed; she had limited skill in detecting a bluff by others.

Having spent some time with her now, Justin could appreciate why Nikola liked the girl. She was neither a gay nor lively companion to be sure, but her quiet composure in the face of all things made for a beguiling picture in contrast to, say, Lady Olivia’s pouting at her losses or unseemly triumph in her successes. Neither Mr. Burgess’s posturing nor the Duke of Junmont’s title could intimidate Miss Vasilver, and her dry wit charmed Justin. Justin suspected her apparent coolness was what had made Nikola remark her unsuitable for wife or lover, and indeed it was hard to imagine Miss Vasilver in the throes of passion. But the contrast between her cool expression and her bold touch when they’d been alone in her office made sense now. Does it matter if one cannot read desire in her face, as long as she feels it? Assuming she does feel it. Would it make any difference in the dark? Would she moan and tremble with pleasure, or would her impassivity extend to unresponsiveness in that as well?

This distracting if delightful train of thought contributed nothing to Justin’s play. That it was ungentlemanly did not trouble him; part of his mind was often occupied with such fancies regardless of his primary activity. That the current object was female still surprised him, however. He was unsure if or how to act upon it. Most of his experiences with women had been of the paid variety, with a couple of flings when he was still in school with forthright married women who would not take ‘no’ for answer. An affair with a single gentlewoman involved various potential complications that he’d never had to worry about before. Do I want that? Does she? There was one particular study in Dawnfell Palace whose interior door was locked during the ball, but the door from it to the balcony was left unlatched because certain of the staff used it to sneak in and out. Justin had discovered it some years ago and at one memorable ball he and Nikola had stolen away to make use of it. He was strongly tempted to show Miss Vasilver to the room and…see what resulted. You’d think by my age I’d’ve learnt more caution than that. He had no intention of acting on the impulse – if nothing else, it seemed rude to hide away with Nikola’s guest when Nikola was expected back soon.

And where is Nikola, in any case? The servants at the cloakroom had been instructed to tell Nikola when he arrived that Miss Vasilver was in the game room, so he oughtn’t have had any difficulty finding them. Surely he ought to be back by now, if he’s going to be back at all. What sort of emergency could it be, that he’d need to leave the Ascension Ball for it, much less take this long to resolve? And he wouldn’t avoid the game room just because he doesn’t wish to wager. He’s usually willing enough to kibbitz, if nothing else.

Meg tracked them down around half-past one. She was kinder to Miss Vasilver now, after learning that Nikola had been called away for an emergency. “You can’t expect anything else of him, dear. His blessing is the only thing he takes seriously,” Meg told the girl with a pat on her hand and a meaningful look which Justin suspected was wasted. Meg even surprised him by sitting to play instead of imploring him to return to dancing.

They spent another amiable half-hour at cards, until Lord Dunsang lost the remainder of his stake to a gloating Lady Olivia and implored Miss Vasilver to rescue him from buying in again by agreeing to dance. Miss Vasilver hesitated at first, but Lord Dunsang pressed her on it and she agreed in her usual calm manner.

There was no reason whatsoever to think Miss Vasilver might need rescuing herself or that Lord Dunsang, a stout round-faced married man of middle years, posed a threat of any sort. But Justin took advantage of the pause in play to invite Meg to dance anyway, and they returned with the other couple to the ballroom.

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