No Talent for Plain Speaking (101/141)

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After speaking of Colbury Textiles for a little while, the conversation wandered from that to business in general. Lord Comfrey wanted to know more about her methods of analyzing records and what sorts of flags she looked for in deciding what warranted a closer look and what was innocuous. Wisteria found Lord Comfrey very easy to talk to. Not in the way that Lord Nikola was, always encouraging her to speak of whatever she chose no matter how inappropriate; instead, Lord Comfrey had an inexhaustible supply of appropriate conversational topics at his disposal. They spoke for above an hour in an ordinary way that did not involve Lord Comfrey touching her even once. The interruption came not from Lord Comfrey excusing himself, but from a servant announcing it was dinner time, and extending Mrs. Vasilver’s invitation to Lord Comfrey to stay for the meal.

Rather to Wisteria’s surprise, Lord Comfrey accepted instead of offering a polite demurral. During the meal, he was every inch the gentleman. Wisteria was hopeless at reading moods in general, but she had learned to gauge those of her immediate family to a degree. Her mother was overawed by Lord Comfrey, her father flattered, and Mitchell and David eager to speak with him of hunting. Byron was out, dining with friends. They had a few other dinner guests, acquaintances of her parents, but the gathering was small and informal: no concern about speaking only with one’s neighbors or keeping an exact ratio of men and women. Lord Comfrey was as easy a conversationalist at dinner as he had been in private. The only topic he did not speak of readily was the abduction and rescue. Today’s guests were just as eager to hear the details as everyone else, but Lord Comfrey steered conversation away from the topic.

The sheer normalcy of it all added to Wisteria’s sense of unreality. It ought to make a difference, that this man had saved her life, seen her half-naked, been kissing her passionately not two hours ago. How could the weight of all these strange experiences go unacknowledged, unobserved, in favor of the banalities of everyday life? All right, the abduction did not go unremarked, but she felt it might as well have done. She wished now she had not retreated to safe topics during that private interview in her office, that she’d dared to speak of all those inappropriate things.

But she had been, hadn’t she? Talking about the part of the abduction she could not forget. And that’s what Lord Comfrey had distracted her from. Maybe he’s like everyone else and doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to hear. It’s a miracle that you found one man interested in such things; just because Lord Comfrey is his friend does not mean he would share that peculiarity.

After dinner, her mother suggested a walk about the manor’s garden to improve digestion. When Lord Comfrey agreed, Wisteria did as well. Once outside, he offered Wisteria his arm and set a brisk pace: not too quick for Wisteria, but fast enough to put some distance between them and the others. “I am not going monopolize you all day, my dear,” he told her quietly, when they were out of earshot. “But I do wish to thank you for seeing me today. This is the first time I have felt myself since Sunday. I cannot tell you how profound a relief it is. I may even be able to face my evening engagement with a semblance of equilibrium.”

“What are your plans for the evening, my lord?”

He waved a hand. “Nothing of consequence. A dance hosted by the earl of Elsbury, if I recall aright.” He brought his hand down again to cover hers where it lay in the crook of his other elbow. “I am afraid I have given you the wrong impression of myself, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘the right impression, but not as flattering a one as I would prefer you to have.’”

Wisteria looked at his handsome golden-brown face, remembering his tangled attempt at plain speaking when they were returning from the ball. Maybe he just needs a little encouragement. “What do you mean, my lord?”

Lord Comfrey looked away from her, leading her along the path as it curved beneath a trellis arch decorated by yellow-brown vines gone dormant for the winter. “I mean…you are a courageous, intelligent, resourceful young woman, perhaps the finest of my acquaintance.” He fell silent.

“That is very kind of you to say, my lord,” Wisteria said, flattered but confused. If anyone here is brave, it’s him and not me. “I do not know that I’ve thanked you properly for saving me; I do not know if it’s even possible to offer sufficient thanks, my obligation to you is so great. But if there is anything I might—”

“Please don’t.” Lord Comfrey cut her off as he turned to face her beneath the arch and took both her hands in his. “I did not think it was possible for me to receive too much undeserved praise but it turns out it is. I am surfeited and more than surfeited. You owe me nothing, Miss Vasilver. If anything, I am in your debt for your assistance – your invaluable assistance – in locating Lord Nikola.”

“But were it not for you—”

“No. I do not want your obligation, Miss Vasilver. The only reward I sought in what part I played was your safety and that of Lord Nikola. I am more than repaid in receiving that much. Do not think you owe me anything at all.” He was quite intent upon her, thin mouth unsmiling, narrow dark eyes focused on her face.

“As you like, Lord Comfrey. But why does it trouble you?”

He released one of her hands and touched his knuckles to her cheek: such a simple gesture to make her long for more. “Oh, you’ve seen the state of my professional accounting, my dear. I have enough trouble managing it, without needing to track the balances positive and negative in my private life. Much easier to keep everything even.”

She tilted her head at him; he was smiling now. She could not make her face answer him so she did her best to make her words respond in kind. “I have never thought of keeping a ledger-book for favors before.”

Lord Comfrey shuddered. “And may you never again. Bad enough keeping them for numbers.”

“I like numbers, my lord.”

“They’re well enough for ledgers, I’m sure.” He dropped his hand; by now they had stood still long enough for the voices of her parents to be audible again as they caught up. Lord Comfrey turned about to face the way they’d come, offering his arm. “I should be going now. Thank you again for your company, Miss Vasilver.”

“You know you are very welcome. Am I allowed to thank you for yours?”

He laughed. “Only if it truly pleases you.”

“The thanking or the company? Nevermind: it is yes to both. Thank you for calling, my lord: I had been longing to know how you were.”    

“Quite well,” he answered, walking back with her to rejoin the party.

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Distraction (100/141)

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On Wednesday morning, Wisteria shut herself in her office with the Colbury files – boxes and boxes of them – to work on her analysis. Perhaps if she made some headway on that project, she could contact Lord Comfrey on the pretext of offering a preliminary report. She worked alone; her secretary and most of Vasilver Trading’s staff had the week after Ascension off for holiday.

Wisteria heard the knocker against the front door but paid it no heed; she almost never had callers during the Ascension season. So she was surprised when Mary came to her office to say Lord Comfrey had called and awaited her in the parlor. “Oh, it must be business,” Wisteria said, making a snap decision. “Please show him to my office.”

Mary hesitated. “He’s dressed for calling, ma’am.”

“Of course. He’ll have a dinner engagement after this and not time to change beforehand. Bring him here.” Wisteria very much doubted Lord Comfrey was here on business, but her parents and siblings would come to greet company in the parlor, while her office would be safer from interruption. Mary bobbed acquiescence and departed. Wisteria left her files to stand near the door and wait for his arrival, too impatient to let even a moment of his visit be wasted.

Lord Comfrey was dressed for a social call indeed, magnificent in a double-breasted jacket of deep green with gold knotwork buttons and matched trim, high-collared white shirt reaching almost to his chin, elegant neckcloth flaring from the jacket opening. He was even more attractive than she remembered; the irregular lines of nose and cheek gave a roguish cast to his dark-eyed smile. When he took her hand to kiss, Wisteria caressed his palm as she felt the warmth of his breath against her skin. It took a moment for her to remember herself enough to dismiss the maid. “My lord, thank you so much for calling. I’ve been reviewing the Colbury files,” she said as Mary closed the door behind her.

He chuckled. “I didn’t mean to keep you at work through the season, Miss Vasilver. Especially not after all that’s happened. How have you been?”

“Worried, impatient, and curious.” Wisteria gestured to the sofa. “Please, make yourself comfortable. How are you? Have you seen Lord Nikola?”

Lord Comfrey’s smile faded at her questions. He moved stiffly, and waited for her to sit – she chose the center because she wanted to be near him – before he lowered himself beside her with an awkwardness unusual in him. “I’m fine. Lord Nikola is not up to receiving visitors.”

“Was there some injury the Blessed missed?” Wisteria asked, concerned by his stiffness. “You don’t look well.”

“Mmm? Oh.” He chuckled again, shaking his head. “No. That’s just from me being an idiot yesterday. Think nothing of it; I am in perfect health.”

“Yesterday? What happened yesterday?”

“Nothing of consequence, my dear. Tell me, are you quite recovered?” Lord Comfrey leaned forward to brush his fingers against her cheek. “You seem well, but you always do.”

She put her hand over his. “Nothing happened to me, truly. I doubt I would be bruised today even if I’d not petitioned a healer.” Wisteria pressed his hand closer to her cheek. She spoke softly; they were close enough that he would hear even a whisper. “But I keep thinking about his hands.” She didn’t need to say whose hands. “I couldn’t tell what Brogan had done to his hands. I still don’t know. I’m not even sure what I saw, exactly. Blood. Raw flesh where the fingernails should have been.” The words poured out; this surely belonged on the list of Things Not To Discuss but she couldn’t stop herself. “Something that wasn’t blood, oozing. I should have done something more for him, after we were free, but I didn’t know what—”

Lord Comfrey reached out to enfold her in his arms. She leaned into him, feeling clumsy and awkward, craving contact and not knowing how to get it. But Lord Comfrey did: he tugged her unresisting into his lap, positioned her so one of her hands slid about his waist, and let her crumple his immaculate neckcloth beneath her cheek. He nestled his chin against her hair, whispering, “Shhh. Shhh. It’s not your fault.”

“But I could have checked, and I didn’t. I could have sent a messenger to Anverlee Manor. If we’d known Saturday night—”

His arms tightened around her, uncomfortably so. She curled closer, glad for the sense of steel and strength in him. “There’s no reason you should have. You did the right thing,” he said into her hair. “Many right things. You went into the den of those beasts, them thinking you a captive, and all the while you were in control. You were magnificent, my dear. Brogan is fortunate I arrived when I did; I doubt he would have lasted another few minutes against the two of you.”      

Wisteria curled her fingers around his lapel as she burrowed closer for comfort. “After he’d surrendered, when you kicked him in the face, I thought: Good. I wanted to kill him. I think if I’d found a knife instead of rope, I would have. There were pliers in that pot. The one with the coals, that Lord Nikola threw. I remember seeing the pliers and thinking, ‘that’s odd. Why would you put pliers in a pot full of coals?’”

“Don’t.” Lord Comfrey murmured.

She barely heard him as she went on, “‘Why would you have a pot full of coals anyway?’ And I didn’t realize then but I’d noticed rust on the hammer I used, rust on the head and shaft. But it couldn’t have been rust because the shaft was wood. It was blood—”

“Don’t.” He stroked her hair along the curve of the twist, other arm encircling her waist. “You shouldn’t think about things like this. You shouldn’t have to think about things like this.”

“But I can’t, I can’t stop thinking about it, it doesn’t matter that I don’t want to know the answer, my mind just keeps going back to it, turning over the things that didn’t make sense and trying—” Wisteria stopped as Lord Comfrey tilted her head up and kissed her. He was tender this time, still assured but with a different kind of need. She closed her eyes and wriggled higher against his body to return the kiss.

After a long moment, he broke off to whisper against her mouth. “There, did that take your mind off of it?”

Wisteria blinked and nodded. “But I’m not sure what I’m thinking about now is any more appropriate.”

“I disagree,” he said, and kissed her again. She slipped her hand beneath his jacket, caressing smooth linen to feel the warmth of the flesh beneath. Her fingers clenched around the fabric to give herself purchase, willing her mind to stop thinking and just feel. Lord Comfrey cupped the base of her head with one hand and let the other wander down her back. He did not try to undress her this time; she wasn’t sure if she was sorry or relieved. Her own hand dropped to unfasten the buttons of his jacket without Wisteria thinking about it until she pushed it open.

Then she found herself thinking of the carriage, and of kissing Lord Nikola, and of what kind of woman she must be to behave so. Wisteria pulled away; Lord Comfrey released her at the first indication of resistance, and she fell back in a graceless heap to the center of the couch. “I’m sorry,” she said, automatically.

“I will forgive you under the sole condition that you never again apologize when the fault is mine,” Lord Comfrey said. He took her hand gently, as if afraid any stronger grip might startle her to flight. “I am sorry, my dear. I am usually better than this at pretending to be a gentleman.”

“Pretending, my lord?” She wanted to tell him she wasn’t apologizing for starting but for stopping, but that begged the question of why she had stopped and she did not know how to articulate that answer.

“Indeed. There are no true gentlemen in this world, Miss Vasilver. Only men who are more or less good at feigning it.” One corner of his mouth turned up as she glanced sidelong at him. “But Lord Nikola once told me that you can tell a true villain by his opinion of his fellows. A good man sees good everywhere, while a ruffian thinks everyone as corrupt as himself.”

Wisteria thought of Brogan, convinced that Lord Nikola was withholding his Blessing out of spite or greed. “I cannot allow you to offer such a slur against yourself, my lord. I must insist you retract it at once.”

That made him laugh. “And if I do not? I have it on good authority that you cannot pout.”

“I shall fetch my mother’s lavender perfume and cry at you, then.”   

“Ah, not that. I retract my ill-considered words.” Lord Comfrey lifted her hand and kissed her fingers. “Shall we speak of some less provocative subject? You could tell me what you’ve found on Colbury. I promise not to defend his honor against you.”

Wisteria accepted the diversion with some relief, fleeing the couch for the safety of her desk. “I’ve found a few more oddities, my lord. Nothing criminal or fraudulent, but well short of best practices…”

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You Must Have Given It Some Thought (99/141)

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After the drama and terror of Sunday, the next few days were so ordinary they did not seem real to Wisteria.

On Sunday evening her father scolded her for half an hour on everything from taking stupid risks to the merits of leaving a job to a paid professional (“you of all people should know better!”) to the inexcusable crudeness of using a greatcat’s superior strength to make sure she got her way. Her mother sat at his side and listened along with her through the entire diatribe, until at the thirty-minute mark she said, “I think that’s enough, dear, Wisteria needs some rest after her ordeal.”

Her father grumbled to himself but departed. Her mother lingered, taking Wisteria’s hand and squeezing.

“I’m fine, mother. I don’t need any extra rest.”

“I know, dear.” Her mother watched her then. Wisteria wished she understood how to read her expression. “I don’t know where you got the courage to do all that, Wisteria.”

“I didn’t do very much, Mother. I let a bunch of criminals abduct me and then waited for Lord Comfrey to rescue me.”

“You let,” her mother said, and then stopped, as if that were enough by itself. “I don’t know where you got the courage,” she repeated, “but I’m very proud of you.” She leaned over and hugged Wisteria tightly, then withdrew from the room.

In the days following, family members kept asking if she was well, as if at any moment she might produce a broken limb or gaping wound that the healer who’d treated her had overlooked. Only her youngest brother David was close to his usual self.

On Monday, an investigator from the Watch called on Wisteria to get some additional details. While he was there, Wisteria questioned him in return to see what else had been uncovered. Captain Brogan’s sloop, Gentle Marie, was registered as a merchant vessel, but he had long been suspected as a smuggler. His crew was a motley assemblage of men from various ports and shady backgrounds: most of those who’d been on leave for Ascension had vanished like rats after Sunday’s events. There was no reason to believe the absent ones were involved in the kidnapping plot. Wisteria suspected even those involved in the actual abduction were not aware of the extent of Brogan’s evil. Only Crit had obviously known his captain was trying to force the impossible out of Lord Nikola. In all likelihood, the others had thought it was a straightforward abduction-and-ransom plan. Which was still a capital crime, but some of the more cooperative men might escape hanging and be put into servitude in exile instead.

The Watch had enlisted Lady Beatrice to confirm that Brogan was possessed. Lady Beatrice did not believe possession was exculpatory in his case, however: she said that Brogan’s demon forced him to believe Lord Nikola capable of curing his mother against all sense and reason, but it did not cause him to believe that abduction, violence, or torture were right or virtuous actions. Or, as the investigator put it, “It’s only exculpatory if you think it’s all right to torture a Blessed for refusing to treat a petitioner. And it most certainly is not.”

But the investigator could not tell Wisteria what she most wished to know: how Lord Nikola and Lord Comfrey were faring.

For reasons Wisteria could not begin to understand, the rules of etiquette forbade an unmarried gentlewoman to call upon or even write to an unrelated gentleman. Business reasons, such as contracting with an attorney or an accountant or such like, might provide an exception for this – although her mother felt that even then a woman ought to have some male relation do it for her. The whole nonsense struck Wisteria as every bit as ridiculous as Vandese concerns over the dangers posed by foreign men. Irritatingly, no one else appeared to see the similarity or the absurdity.

But it meant she couldn’t call on Lord Nikola – even though he was an invalid and could not possibly be expected to call on her. Or send him a note asking after his welfare. Nor could she call on Lord Comfrey. She could call on Lady Striker, and arguably doing so was good manners since technically Lady Striker had called on her, on Sunday. But Sunday’s circumstances had been so tangled and unusual that Wisteria could not tell herself that had been a social call. Perhaps Lady Striker had forgotten her earlier animosity now, and perhaps she hadn’t; who knew? Wisteria did not want to presume she’d be welcome at Anverlee Manor.

By Tuesday, Wisteria was contemplating such avenues as calling on Lysandra Warwick, Lord Nikola’s sister, who had sent a delightful note a couple of days before Ascension. Or badgering Byron into calling on Lord Comfrey, although Byron’s acquaintance with Lord Comfrey was trifling. When she submitted these notions to her mother at the dinner table, her mother answered, “Wisteria, love, it’s been not even two whole days. Just be patient. When they’ve time and if they wish to see you, they’ll call. They know it’s their responsibility. They are not expecting you to act first. It is unseemly for you to show too much interest.”

Wisteria submitted to this restraint with some resentment but without argument. However inane she thought it was to expect men to take the initiative regardless of the circumstances (and words could not easily encompass this level of inanity), it had only been two days.

The Vasilvers were hosting a supper party on Tuesday evening, a small affair that was mostly family plus a few acquaintances of Byron’s and her parents’. To her pleasure, Wisteria discovered that the subject of being abducted and rescued could substitute for small talk. Indeed, she could scarcely have spoken of anything else. All the questions and comments directed to her were on the topic. She avoided certain parts of the story. Even she did not need her parents to tell her not to speak of torture in polite company, and it wasn’t her place to describe what had been done to Lord Nikola in any case. Divulging anything about his state when they’d found him would be an additional violation to a man who had already suffered far too much.

In the drawing room after the meal, her Aunt Clara cornered her by the bookshelves to say, “How awfully romantic, Teeri!” She lowered her voice and added, “You must be very enamored of Lord Nikola, to have risked everything for him. But that Lord Comfrey, now he’s quite the hero, isn’t he? Leaping all alone into the midst of a shipful of armed criminals for you!”

“He wasn’t alone; Fel Fireholt, a trained warcat, was with him. And the sloop was comparatively deserted,” Wisteria clarified for what felt like the hundredth time. “He said afterwards there were four men on deck. You know, it doesn’t need exaggeration; it was extraordinarily brave of them both. For me, it was more like naivete. I didn’t think the possibilities through and had little choice in the matter by the time the situation was plain.”

Aunt Clara waved her words aside. “You knew how dangerous it might be, or you’d not have had the foresight to bring that whistle.” She lowered her voice again; Wisteria had to strain to hear her. “What I should really like to know, Teeri, is which of them is it going to be?”    

Wisteria was sure she was missing some context here. “Which of who is going to be what?”

“You know,” her aunt murmured, glancing about them.

“If I knew I wouldn’t be asking?” Wisteria was quite fond of Aunt Clara, who had been kind enough to accompany Byron and Kilroy on multiple visits to Wisteria in Southern Vandu. Still, she and Aunt Clara never seemed to be speaking quite the same language.

“You know,” Aunt Clara repeated. “There’s talk of you betrothing to that Lord Nikola, but with Lord Comfrey going to such lengths to save you, I thought, well…”

Wisteria tried to imagine what possible connection there could be between abduction, torture, and marriage. “…what?”

“You must have given it some thought!”

Well, that was true. “Neither of them wants to marry me, Aunt Clara.” Granted, Lord Comfrey didn’t explicitly say he was uninterested in marriage. But he was undressing me in his carriage and I understand that if marriage was on his mind that was a good time to say so. If the girls I went to school with are to be believed, it’s the time men would be lying about it. The night of the Ascension ball was unreal to Wisteria now, something that had happened a lifetime ago to a different person. It stood in such opposition to Sunday’s ordeal that it seemed impossible the same people were involved in both.

Her aunt was making some sort of noise about Wisteria being ridiculous and of course the gentlemen could not be indifferent to her. No, I don’t believe they’re indifferent to me, I just think they don’t want to marry me, Wisteria wanted to tell her. Because Lord Nikola already told me he didn’t, and Lord Comfrey has title and wealth enough to make a far better match than I can offer. And I am not a woman of virtue and modesty and they both know it even if they don’t know that it extends to being on the brink of giving myself up to two different men on the same night. At this point, Wisteria had serious doubts about her own fitness for marriage even if anyone had wanted to marry her. She’d been aware, intellectually, that she might not be suited to the ideal of fidelity, but her behavior on Ascension night was nonetheless a shock even to her. Her prior thought had been “might not be romantically compatible with whomever I can arrange a match” and not “might be unable to keep my hands off whomever gives me the slightest encouragement”. Oh look, a new way that I don’t fit in my society. How delightful.

But while Wisteria knew of no good candidate with whom to discuss this, she did know that Aunt Clara was definitely a bad one. So Wisteria confined her response to repeating her affirmation that, to the best of her knowledge, neither man intended betrothal, and the rescue plans were motivated by common decency and not romantic attachment. “Lord Comfrey was there to rescue Lord Nikola at least as much as for my benefit,” Wisteria added, when her aunt would not let the topic go. “Are you going to conclude they must be in love as well?”

Aunt Clara frowned. “Why, men of Newlant would never – how absurd you are, Teeri! Such a thing to say! Perhaps your mother was right about you spending too much time abroad,” she finished, before withdrawing to find someone else to gossip at.

Wisteria had chosen that example precisely because it was ridiculous, but now that it had crossed her mind, she found the idea entrancing. The mental image of those two magnificent, handsome men locked in an amorous embrace was – well – improbable, of course, insulting even, but not at all comical. It was…erotic. She found herself imagining Lord Comfrey and Lord Nikola undressing each other in Comfrey’s curtained carriage. And two men would never have to worry about dodging chaperones and avoiding suspicion; no one in Newlant ever even thinks of men as desiring one another. Doubtless because they don’t in this country. She felt guilty even thinking about it, remembering how offended Lord Comfrey had been when she’d implied a slight against herself. How infuriated would he be if he knew what she was picturing himself and his friend doing? With an effort, she cleared her head of the notion and drifted over to talk to Byron and one of his friends.

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Maudlin (98/141)

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Justin called on the infirmary on Monday, the day after Nikola’s rescue. The attendant on duty delivered the welcome news that Lord Walther had succeeded in healing Nikola during the first night. “Healing him physically,” he qualified.

What other kind would he need? He’s the best healer of minds in the nation. If there’s something wrong with his head why would he not fix it himself? Justin didn’t ask. Nikola was still at the infirmary despite being healed. Justin did not ask why. Nikola was not receiving visitors.

Justin did not ask why about that, either. His head was full of questions that propriety and decency demanded he not ask. He left the infirmary with the comforting thought that Nikola was no longer in pain, and the disquieting one that Nikola did not wish to see him. He doesn’t want to see anyone. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with me. Perhaps he’s avoiding his parents and would be delighted to see me, but felt it would be more politic to exclude everyone.

Maybe the real reason he didn’t ask was that he was afraid the truth would be less gentle than the stories he invented for himself.    

His social calendar was crowded with events for the Ascension season. His valet had already sent his excuses for the engagements Justin had missed on Sunday. He had never felt less like entertaining or being entertained, but with an alternative of ‘stay home and brood’, he forced himself to attend Monday’s supper and dinner engagements.    

Everyone he saw wanted to speak of Nikola’s rescue: to congratulate him on his success, or admire his bravery, or ask him “what was it like? How did you do it?”

When Justin had been an athlete in school, and in the years afterward before his father died and Justin dropped out of formal sporting competitions to focus on his inheritance, he’d received questions like these all the time. People wanted the story of this victory or that loss, to know how a championship match went or how he felt in a quarterfinal when he was losing one touch to four but managed to come back and win. He was good at telling such stories. He actually had more fun with some of the disasters, such as when Nikola had rescued him after the fall, than the victories. In retrospect the catastrophes made for more amusing tales. But victories too could be dressed in absurd details and paraded for the amusement of listeners.

But this—

Every time someone asked him about it, he thought of Nikola, filthy and beaten with his fingers hideously mangled, tied to that chair. Of Anthser collapsing on the deck of the ship, licking poison from his own wound. Justin could not make light of it, could barely speak of any part of the rescue. He gave terse replies and waited for the other party to abandon the subject, then had to deal with it all again with some newcomer. Everyone expected him to be glad to tell the tale – he told so many others with ease – so his reticence was mistaken for politeness, taken as a sign that he only wanted more encouragement.    

On Tuesday, he called at Anverlee Manor and endured more thanks from Lady Striker. Nikola was still at the infirmary, she said, and not receiving visitors. She didn’t know when he’d be home. Tomorrow maybe. Justin called at the infirmary anyway, so he could be refused in person. When he went home, he cancelled his engagements for the day and spent the next several hours in grueling exercise, pushing himself harder than he had twelve years ago during his competition years, not stopping even when his body rebelled and he retched from overexertion. Eventually, he collapsed in stupefied exhaustion.

Wednesday morning he awoke early, with every muscle aching in protest of the previous day’s treatment. Justin lay in bed for a while before he could motivate himself to rise, limp through an abbreviated routine, and eat breakfast. Enough. No more idiotic behavior or binges of self-pity. I am a man: I can curst well act like it.

He called at Anverlee Manor again, his mind steeled for another rebuff, certain it would be futile but unable to do otherwise. His carriage rolled past a mob of petitioners outside Anverlee’s walls. No, not petitioners; they were not queued and awaiting permission to enter. It was more akin to a vigil, or visitors at a shrine: they stood in contemplative, quiet groups, many leaving tokens near the gates: flowers, notes, candles, wreaths, other artifacts. The manor gates were closed for the first time he could remember; two footmen unlocked and opened them when Justin identified himself. He wondered if the mob had been a problem, but the gathered people only watched, making no effort to slip inside while the gates were open.

Lady Striker welcomed him graciously to her home’s worn parlor, without any overt expressions of gratitude. Nikola was home now, but not receiving visitors, she said. And then volunteered, in a trembling rush, that he wasn’t seeing anyone. “Not even me, or Daffy or Lys. Not even his own valet. The greatcats bring him meals. He’ll see them. The only reason he came home at all is that I told Anthser Nikki could stay in the unused gamekeeper’s cottage and promised no one would pester him. I think he’d return to Fireholt were it not for the length of the journey.”

Justin wasn’t sure whether to thank her or discourage her from sharing such information; he was sure Nikola would not want it disseminated. Perhaps not even to me. Not that anything could keep Nikola from being a topic of gossip now. Justin settled for gently discouraging her by changing the topic. After a polite interval, he took his leave. His body was so stiff that he moved like the old man Nikola always teased him about being. Used to tease me.

Enough of this maudlin nonsense. I’ll call on Wisteria. Perhaps she’ll be glad to see me.

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Actually Less Intimidating (97/141)

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Nik was alone in a small private room in the infirmary, his fingers bandaged, ribs taped, clean and dry, on a comfortable bed with soft sheets. He’d been fed a good meal and had enough to drink. All of which he was grateful for, but most of all he was glad to be alone so that no one could see him shake and weep. Being cared for had been hard to endure; he felt an inexplicable terror whenever anyone came close, as if his body was convinced that even the short, dumpy male attendant might assault him at any moment. He hated himself for being so unmanly and foolish, but it took all his power not to recoil every time someone tried to help him. And the Blessed—

—that was the worst.

He couldn’t tell them no don’t heal me. He wanted to be healed, for the fire in his hands to finally stop burning.

But the Savior would not heal him. Not after what he’d done.

Nik couldn’t feel the Savior when they touched him, when they tried to heal him. The Blessed told him “you’re refusing”, and at least part of him believed them. He knew he didn’t want to open to the Savior’s presence, didn’t want to feel ever again his god’s awful rage, could not bear his disappointment, could not tolerate that terrible storm of divine emotion. I wanted to hurt the Savior and I succeeded. How can I ever ask anything of him again? He did not deserve to be whole, not now.

Which was ridiculous: the Savior was his god. The Savior wasn’t going to hate Nik forever no matter how bad his behavior had been. If anyone had ever loved him, it was the Savior. Nik knew that, intellectually, on much the same level that he knew that there was no reason to fear the little sponge-wielding man who’d helped him bathe. Nik could see in his own mind the structures which had warped, the exact way that damage was provoking these irrational fears, the knots of trauma that were behind the injury. If the trauma had not been too fresh for mind-healing, he even knew how to treat them. Except, of course, that he’d need to ask the Savior to do so. If I could just get over my irrational fear of the Savior I could have him cure my irrational fear of him, Nik thought wryly. It was almost funny.

Someone tapped at his door, and Nik tensed. An unfamiliar voice with the rumbling inflection of a greatcat said, “Lord Nikola?”

Nik rolled over to turn away from the door and scrubbed his tear-streaked face against the pillow. Savior, what now? “Yes?”

The door creaked open. Through the reflection in the glass window opposite him, he saw an orange-and-black feline head poke through the door. “All right if I come in?” Nik nodded. He didn’t want some strange greatcat looking at him – or anyone looking at him, ever again, in truth – but at least the greatcat didn’t trigger any fresh panic in him.

The greatcat padded into the small room, spotted orange bulk filling the space beside the bed, and closed the door with a hindpaw. “Hi. I’m Lord Walther.” He sat on his hindquarters, careful not to crowd the bed. “Heard you’ve had a bad day.”

One corner of Nik’s mouth twitched up. “I’ve had better.” He rubbed his face against the pillow again and rolled onto his back to look at the greatcat. “How was the Ascension Ball? I missed most of it.”

The feline shrugged. “Food was good, but the catnip was a little dry.” He paused, then added apologetically, “Far better than your night, though.”

Nik managed a half-smile. “If it was even half as bad, you ought to complain to their majesties.” Lord Walther shrugged again and shook his head, whiskers spread. He lay down on the floor, which placed his head below the level of Nik’s bed. Nik watched him. “Did you come to heal me?” He’d never met Lord Walther before, but the greatcat had to be Blessed for physical healing – there weren’t any greatcats in Newlant with hereditary titles, nor were there any mind-healers among them.

“Do you want to be healed?” Lord Walther asked, chin against his forepaws, green eyes turned up to regard him.

Nik looked at his fingers, burned skin throbbing under bandages. “I don’t think it’ll work.”

“Mmm.” The greatcat did not ask why, for which Nik was grateful. “The other Blessed asked me to see you because they thought I’d be less intimidating. No one has ever said that to me before. Is it actually true?”

That provoked a real laugh from Nik. “It is. Actually,” he admitted. “We’ve always had greatcats around and, well, all the greatcats I’ve ever met have been peaceable and respectful.”

Lord Walther’s eyebrow whiskers perked. “‘Respectful’? Really?”

Nik made a face. “It’s not a question of manners. I mean…some humans I know don’t care what others want; they’ll try to get their way no matter what. If it’s a problem for you then they’ll do whatever they can to work around you, or bully you, or coerce you out of your stance. If you disagree with them they assume you’re either ignorant, stupid or evil. There’s no respect. I’m sure there must be greatcats who are like that too, but I haven’t met them.”

The greatcat Blessed nodded his orange and black head, rubbing chin against forepaws with the motion. “I suspect your experience is due more to you specifically than any virtue in us, Lord Nikola. It’s a great honor to meet you. I wish it were under better circumstances.” Something in Nik’s expression must have conveyed his dubiousness, because the greatcat spread his whiskers in a feline smile. “Every greatcat knows how much you’ve done personally for our kittens. You’ve saved hundreds if not thousands of little ones from being no better than wildcats. You’re a hero to us. To a lot of humans too, even if they don’t show it.” Nik didn’t know what to say to that. Lord Walther crept closer to the bed, rising just enough to rest his chin on the edge. “I can’t change what those men did to you, much as I wish I could. But I would really like to undo as much of the damage as the Savior may. If you don’t mind me trying.”

Nik closed his eyes, the bone-deep exhaustion that permeated his body almost enough that he could sleep despite the pain. “I don’t mind you trying,” he said, even though he tensed at the idea, even though his heart rate soared when he spoke the words.

Lord Walther nudged Nik’s arm with his nose, and Nik lifted it obediently to let his arm drape over the greatcat’s neck, bare palm against orange and black fur. Lord Walther’s mind was a pleasing array of healthy well-connected structures; it was good to look at a balanced mind instead of his own damaged one. The greatcat rested his nose against Nik’s stomach. Nik tried to relax but couldn’t. He couldn’t feel the Savior. He didn’t want to feel the Savior. The Blessed greatcat whuffled against his abdomen. “Not working?” Nik asked.

“Haven’t tried yet,” Lord Walther said. A purr rumbled deep in his throat. “I am entirely taking advantage of the excuse to collect human cuddling.”

Nik chuckled. “Because you have nothing better to do, I’m sure.” But he stroked the greatcat anyway; bandaged, the motion didn’t make his fingers hurt any more than they already did, and the action was calming.

“If there’s something better to do than get your ears rubbed, I don’t know what it is.” The greatcat purred louder as Nik shifted his hand to rub his palm against the base of Lord Walther’s ears.

“Is this your approach to scared young children?” Nik asked, eyes still closed.

“Maybe. If I get your mother in here to hold you and show she trusts me, do you think it would help?”

Nik laughed. “No. Sorry.”

“Pity.” Walther tilted his head to rub his nose against Nik’s chest. “You mind?”

He shook his head. “It’s fine.” Even knowing the motive behind the greatcat’s behavior, that he was using the same tactics to put Nik at ease that Nik used on his own petitioners, did not make it ineffectual. In a way, it made it more comforting. He yawned. “Mph. Excuse me.”    

Nik felt the greatcat’s whiskers splay in amusement. “Don’t let me keep you awake. You need the sleep. Believe me.” Lord Walther paused, then added, “If you can sleep while I’m here and don’t mind, I’ll stay. I really don’t have anything better to do.”

Nik was too tired to object. His heart had stopped hammering in his chest, and with a greatcat next to him even his body recognized no one was going to abduct him by force. The burning pain in his fingers had subsided to a duller ache. Maybe he could rest at last.


It was dark when Nik woke, disoriented, a warm weight against his chest emitting a gentle snore. He bolted upright, and the weight lifted with a jolt.

“Uh wha stay back!” That was Anthser; the greatcat whipped his head about and turned a tight circle to scan the tiny infirmary room for intruders.

Nik’s hands didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt, not his throat or face or chest. Nik splayed his hands in the darkness and touched the bare fingertips gingerly. He winced against expected pain, but there was no soreness in them. Each was whole, with its own fingernail, new and soft as an infant’s. Nik laughed. I guess it’s not my unconscious mind that’s worried about the Savior. He felt much better, not just physically but emotionally, with this tangible proof of the Savior’s abiding good will. He wanted to reach for the Savior, to thank him—

—but terror and adrenaline spiked through him at the thought: he was on the ship, tied to the chair as Brogan pushed burning needles under his fingernails and he was drowning in the Savior’s grief and anger—

“Lord Nik? You all right?” Anthser nosed at his shoulder. Nik wrapped an arm over Anthser’s neck and clung to him, fighting to breathe, to calm his pounding heart. The greatcat rubbed his head against Nik’s chest, nuzzling close and purring. “It’s all right,” he rumbled, voice low. “You’re safe now.”

Safe now. It was some minutes before the reality penetrated, before he could dislodge himself from the awful memory and return to the present, panting and shaking. So, not all better yet. When he unlocked his arm from about the back of Anthser’s neck, the greatcat raised his head to peer at him, worried. “Uhh…should I get anyone for you, Lord Nik?”

Nik dropped his arm, realized anew that his hand didn’t hurt, and petted Anthser instead. He shook his head in response to the question. “Nothing they can do.” Just phantoms in my head, and they couldn’t be cured yet even if I could let the Savior in to do so. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Umm.” Anthser butted against Nik’s hand. “Making sure you’re safe. Lord Walther said you were all right to see greatcats, just not humans. Umm. Are you all right to see me?”

Nik smiled, scratching behind one furry black ear. “I am. Any idea what time it is?”

“Not really. Two or three in the morning?”

“Back up. I’m going to find a water closet, or at least a bedpan, and then I’m going back to sleep.” Nik threw back the covers, still amazed by the way nothing hurt, and padded to the door.

“I’ll go with you.” Anthser slunk after him.

“I think I can manage on my own, Anthser,” Nik said dryly. The greatcat followed anyway, nosing at one arm until Nik draped it over his shoulders and stroked his neck. Nik studied the familiar contours of Anthser’s mind until he spotted the new little knot of raw unprocessed trauma embedded in it. I am not the only one affected here, Nik reminded himself, and let Anthser walk with him.

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Unwanted Refusal (96/141)

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Justin was frustrated and angry – not at Nikola, none of this was Nikola’s fault – but at the situation Brogan had left them in. Something was badly wrong with Nikola, but how much was physical pain and exhaustion and how much was from trauma, Justin could not tell. It was not possible to ask now, and he’d pried too much when they’d been alone as it was. The last thing Nikola needed was to deal with his selfish curiosity. But Justin wished he knew anyway; even more, that he could do something to help.

At least Wisteria seemed recovered, with the lavender perfume washed off and her reddened eyes no longer watering. Of course, she would seem all right, wouldn’t she?

Partway back to the dock they were hailed by a larger vessel: finally the Watch had made an appearance. They had brought a Blessed with a gift of healing bodies with them, who jumped down into their craft and touched Anthser. Nikola jerked back as Anthser raised his head and yawned. “Graah.” The greatcat shook down his length, tailtip twitching. “Thank you. Now for the love of the Savior treat Lord Nik!”

But Nikola declined; he said he’d not risk the boat maneuvering to get himself and the healer to the same side, and then refused to be lifted into the larger vessel either. “It’s fine,” he said, in the most blatant lie Justin had ever heard from him. “I’ll wait until we dock.” The healer cured Wisteria and Justin, who had taken a cut to the leg and had some bruises on his foot and ribs that he’d not even registered.

After they docked, Nikola was slow to disembark. The healer was waiting for him; Justin was certain Nikola didn’t want to be touched by her either, but Nikola closed his eyes and submitted. The healer frowned. Nikola’s injuries did not melt away under her touch. “May we take you to the infirmary, my lord?”

What’s wrong with you can’t you see he’s in pain heal him you useless worthless wretched – Justin’s thoughts were full of the same useless rage that had haunted him since he learned of Nikola’s abduction. He did not give them voice. Nikola agreed to go; Anthser carried him. Justin and Wisteria accompanied them in unspoken accord.

At the infirmary, a modern edifice of stone and wood with plentiful glass windows and a bright, airy interior, they met the Strikers and the Vasilvers. The antechamber was awash in a sea of parents and siblings and in-laws, plus a handful of greatcats who did not choose to wait in the felishome and whom no one tried to evict. The healers whisked Nikola from the crowd before too many relations could pester him with idiotic questions like “are you all right?” and “what happened to you?”

Justin unchivalrously let Wisteria field the mind-numbing inquiries as he brooded in a black silence that even Lady Striker dared not brave. Wisteria’s account made him sound heroic – made Nikola sound heroic, for that matter, and more deservedly. Justin suspected that getting one hand free to throw that pot of coals had cost Nikola more than all Justin’s efforts. Wisteria – well, she did not sound grateful, she sounded factual as always, but her words expressed a great deal of gratitude. Justin stirred himself once or twice to ensure Anthser received due credit before lapsing back into silence. He did not want Wisteria’s gratitude, or Nikola’s: he wanted them to be well. Safe, healthy, content. Wisteria appeared recovered from the ordeal, but Nikola…

…why isn’t he healed?

The Watch came to the infirmary to investigate and ask questions, and Justin unbent enough to answer, generally factually. He did not mention beating Brogan after the man surrendered. They did not ask. Nor did they ask him to come to the peacehouse for further questioning, or imply that perhaps he ought to leave criminal investigation to the Watch, and ought not be shooting people dead even if they were armed criminals resisting the rescue of their captives. Rank had its privileges.

At length, one of the Blessed, a Lord Jonathan, returned to the antechamber and announced, “Lord Nikola is as comfortable as we can make him and will be staying here for a time so we may treat him.”   

“‘Treat him’? What in Paradise do you mean by that?” Lord Striker demanded, above the murmur of other relatives and well-wishers. “‘As comfortable as you can make him’? Does not one of you know how to heal his injuries?”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Now, I assure you that none of his injuries are life-threatening and even under purely mundane treatment, he—”

“What do you mean, ‘purely mundane’? You’re Blessed! Heal him!”

Lord Jonathan winced. “I don’t believe it’s appropriate to discuss his situation—”

“Abandoned World, man, I’m his father! He’s heir to my county! You can curst well tell me.” Lord Striker towered over the healer, the older man’s lean frame quivering with outrage and pale eyes bright.   

The Blessed sighed. “Please come with me, my lord.”

Lady Striker took her husband’s arm and the two followed Lord Jonathan out of the antechamber. Without asking, Justin went with them. Neither of the Strikers objected, or seemed to notice. “Are we going to see my son?” Lord Striker asked.

“No, he’s not up to visitors.” Lord Jonathan was a small, youngish man of foreign origin, with close-cropped curly black hair and dark skin, dressed in an ill-fitting suit of sober brown and a linen cravat.

“In your judgement?” Lord Striker asked, unconvinced.

“By his request. He does not wish to be disturbed. I advise you to respect his wishes, Lord Striker; he has endured an extraordinarily grueling experience.” Lord Jonathan led them into a small office. Justin was nauseated by a sudden fear that Nikola’s hands were not the worst of his injuries, that Brogan had come up with some torture even crueler but less visible. The Blessed frowned at him. “Who are you? I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“Let him stay.” Lady Striker surprised him by interceding. “This is Lord Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey. He’s my son’s closest friend. Whatever you have to say to us, he may hear.” She gave a little laugh, strained by tension. “I expect Nikki would rather Lord Comfrey heard it than us, for that matter.” She seated her plump form on the narrow sofa along one wall. Her husband joined her while the Blessed turned his chair from the desk against the other wall to face them and sat. There were no other seats, but Justin did not want to sit anyway. He stood with his back against the door.

Lord Jonathan folded his hands together. “Lord Nikola is…unable to consent to healing.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Lord Striker glared at the foreign man as if all this was his fault.

“I mean that he gives verbal consent, and wishes to be healed, but some mental factor – emotional or unconscious – renders him unable to accept the Savior’s aid.”

“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! Nikola has a Blessing for minds! There is nothing wrong with his mind,” Lord Striker sputtered.

Lady Striker asked, “Is there anything you can do for him?” Her soft, respectful tone made an odd contrast with her husband’s.

“We’ve dressed the injuries by mundane means. His fingernails won’t grow back without divine intervention, but they’ll callus and in time we expect him to recover normal use of his hands. His cracked ribs and assorted contusions should heal without complications. In time.” He paused. Lady Striker had a handkerchief over her mouth. Lord Jonathan added, gently, “None of his injuries are life-threatening or dangerous, I assure you. He will not be crippled. He is, however, in a great deal of pain, and it will be several days if not weeks before that changes.”

“This is absurd,” Lord Striker repeated. “I don’t see how Nik can be ‘unable to consent’ or whatever that nonsense you said was.”

This nightmare never ends. “Why?” Justin asked.

Lord Jonathan shrugged his slight shoulders. “It’s rare but not unknown. I…would not want to guess Lord Nikola’s specific reason. I doubt he knows himself: as I said, it is not a conscious or rational choice, but an instinctive response. Perhaps for some reason he feels that he deserves to suffer, or that he cannot trust the Savior to help him.”

Lord Striker gave a derisive snort at these suggestions. Justin ignored him and asked, “Is Lord Walther here?”

Lord Jonathan raised his eyebrows. “No…”

“Send for him.”

“I appreciate your concern for your friend, but Lord Walther has no special exp—”

Justin cut him off. “He’s a greatcat. Lord Nikola was tortured by humans. He might be comfortable with a greatcat Blessed instead.”

“Tortured?” Lady Striker said faintly.

“Ahh.” Lord Jonathan bowed his head. “I’ll have him sent for. Thank you, Lord Comfrey.”

“Why would anyone do this to my Nikki, Lord Comfrey?” Lady Striker asked, plaintive.

Justin had no answer for that, no answer for any of this.

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Safe Now (95/141)

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Nik felt a moment of panic when they reached the main deck and found several free men aboard, but Justin reassured him: “It’s all right, they’re with us. They rowed me over.” The sailors had secured the survivors of Justin and Anthser’s initial assault, including finding another couple of men hiding in the lower decks. Nik could not believe Anthser and Justin had attempted the rescue alone.

When Crit had first brought Miss Vasilver bound and weeping into the cabin, Nik had been angrier than he’d ever felt before. It wasn’t worse than being tortured, but it was more infuriating. As if now that his mind was less busy processing agony and physical terror there was more room for anger, or perhaps that the injustice of hurting her was even worse. Not that he thought he deserved to be tortured by any means, but Miss Vasilver was even more innocent. It had been a spur to his resolve, giving him strength to take what few actions remained available to him. To pull himself together for a little while.

Hearing Justin’s voice had been like waking from nightmare: the sudden welcome certainty that Justin is here and everything will be all right now. As the sense of urgency and concern faded, so did his ability to cope. Seeing Anthser with open eyes staring, collapsed and unmoving on the deck, nearly undid him. Nik made it to Anthser’s side before falling to his knees beside the great black-furred form, choking back tears. He put a hand against Anthser’s side even though it hurt, because he had to do something. He squeezed his eyes shut when he saw Anthser’s mind still present, not dissolved into death.    

“He’s in a bad way, mate,” a sailor said to Nik, not unkindly. “Which we gotta get im back to shore an’ a healer.”

Nik leaned forward to whisper in Anthser’s ear: “Don’t you die on me. Don’t you dare die on me.” The greatcat blinked, but did not otherwise respond.

Not even their prisoners knew how to treat catsbane poisoning, or if it was fatal or would wear off. At Justin’s direction, the sailors he’d brought with him worked to fashion a sling for Anthser. Miss Vasilver scavenged shoes and clothes for Nik from the ship and brought him water while the others worked. He had her leave the clothes in an empty cabin for him so he could change.


Justin struggled to keep his temper. The sailors were working as fast as they could; cursing them would not help Anthser, Nikola, or anyone else. Brogan was bound and gagged on the deck; Justin did not look his way, lest he be tempted to vent his rage on a deserving target.

He started when Wisteria touched his shoulder, too preoccupied with his thoughts to have registered her approach. Her eyes were red, but her face was otherwise a mask of unshakable calm. “My lord? Do you think you might be spared to help Lord Nikola dress? He said he could manage himself, but…”

Because Nikola could not let her help him dress, of course. Of course. Never mind that his fingernails have been ripped out by the roots and that he can’t touch anything without excruciating pain. The important thing is appearances. A wave of fury at the insanity and idiocy of his world crashed over Justin. His hand clenched about the pommel of his sheathed sword. But there’s no one left for me to fight. He nodded to Wisteria instead, and crossed the deck to the door to the upper cabin.

He rapped at the closed door. “It’s me.” Justin strained to hear Nikola’s answer, tempted to enter without one. Instead, he rested his forehead against the door and said to the wood, “Please let me help.”

Nikola’s answer was almost inaudible. “Come in.”

Justin closed his eyes, allowing himself a moment of relief, then squared his shoulders to step inside. The cabin interior was dim compared to the sunlit deck; it was furnished with a large table, a couple of chairs, and shelves for navigational charts. Nikola stood with his back to the door, naked, the filthy overcoat he’d been wearing kicked into a corner, scavenged clothes folded on the table next to him. His long hair hung in loose salt-crusted clumps; dirt and sweat streaked his skin while a livid bruise ripened on his right side; otherwise he looked unhurt from this angle. Nikola didn’t turn to face him. “Is Anthser ready to go?”

“Not yet. The sailors are still rigging a sling to lower him into the boat. I’m useless for it.” Justin stepped towards his friend, then stopped as Nikola tensed. The viscount willed away the anger that even the deaths of two abductors had failed to sate. Kill them all. That wasn’t what his lover needed now. He composed himself to say, softly, “May I be of service, Nikola?”

Nikola made an abortive motion with one arm towards the clothing, and winced. His fingers were wrapped in handkerchiefs, the white cloth already stained red. Nikola gritted his teeth, breathing in sharp gasps. “Please.”

Justin went at once to his side and took the drawstring trousers off the table before kneeling at Nikola’s feet to hold them for him. Under other circumstances, he might have suggested a bath to Nikola, or at least sponged him off, but right now he didn’t want to say anything that would add to Nikola’s embarrassment or draw out the time that he had to spend on this curst ship. Better to get him and Anthser to a healer as soon as possible. Nikola stepped into the trousers and Justin pulled them briskly up pale legs before knotting the drawstrings about his waist.

“I hate having you see me like this,” Nikola whispered, voice still hoarse, as Justin retrieved the shirt.

Tan fingers shook at the words; Justin clenched them about the cloth to stop it, struggling to master a roaring ocean of conflicting emotions. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, knowing he’d’ve felt the same in Nikola’s position; what man would want anyone to witness him in such a state? And yet he was glad no one else could be spared to help Nikola. That he could do this little thing for him. He unclenched his fingers, still trembling, and bunched one sleeve together so he could keep the fabric from touching Nikola’s injured hand when he slid it on. He repeated the process for the opposite arm, then straightened the sleeves gently and buttoned up the shirt. He needed to say something more, something to alleviate Nikola’s discomfort, or at least lighten the mood. But everything he could think of was wrong, liable to make a bad situation worse. Instead, he straightened Nikola’s collar with unsteady fingers, then enfolded the tall, slender man in his embrace. “I don’t—” Justin pressed his cheek against Nikola’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut. He forced himself to find words, however clumsy. “I could not – I would never think less of you, Nikola. Not for what that bastard did to you.” His breath hitched as he spoke, and he clung tighter to Nikola.

The Haventure man didn’t move his arms to return the embrace – of course he could not – but he did lean into Justin. “I am such an idiot. I walked right into their ambush—”

“Savior, Nikola, don’t.” Justin’s eyes burned from the effort of holding back tears. I would drag you back to the Abandoned World myself if I could, Brogan. There are not torments enough in Paradise for you. “It is not your fault. It’s Brogan’s, or that demon that’s possessing him, and those beasts he sent to do his dirty work. Not yours. Blood and death, it is their obligation not to be villains, not yours to stop them.”

“He was going to torture Miss Vasilver too—” Nikola whispered, as if he hadn’t heard. Justin shuddered and tightened his embrace, then made himself relax before he aggravated Nikola’s injuries. “He thought I could treat his mother, that I was just being obstinate, but I wasn’t, I couldn’t—”

Saints. Justin could hardly credit what he was hearing. “The man is mad.”

“—he is, I tried to cure him but he wouldn’t let me—”

Bastard. “Look, hang on a moment,” Justin said, voice artificially light. “I’m just going to pop out and kill him a bit, all right?” Nikola gave a slight shake of his head, and the viscount added, “Oh, come on. Just a little. Not even if I leave some of him for you and Miss Vasilver to kill too?”

That won him a worn chuckle from Nikola. The taller man hooked his chin over Justin’s shoulder to keep him in place. “Don’t.”

“As you wish.” Justin ran a hand over Nikola’s hair as it hung in tangled clumps, and wondered what else that criminal had done to his friend. He closed his eyes against the red haze over his vision, willing himself to be calm for Nikola’s sake. “I wish I’d been here sooner. That monster.”

“It’s not your fault either.”

“I know.” Justin turned his head and kissed Nikola’s cheek, careful not to touch the bruises. Nikola stifled a whimper anyway, and Justin flinched. “Did I—”

The battered man shook his head slightly. “It’s not you. Everything hurts,” he said through gritted teeth. Justin started to pull away, but stopped as Nikola put his arms about Justin’s waist.

“You – your hands—”

“They’re going to hurt anyway.” Nikola relaxed his jaw and hugged Justin carefully. “Justin. Thank you. More than I can ever say. Thank you. I owe you everything.”

“You owe me nothing.” The words came out harsher than Justin intended, his voice choked. “You would’ve done the same for me. Did, in fact.”

Nikola shook his head again. “Not the same thing,” he whispered.

On the point of contradicting him, Justin paused and quirked an eyebrow. “No, I suppose not. You saved me from my own stupidity, whereas I helped you from a predicament you had no hand whatsoever in creating.”

Nikola half-smiled, but turned his head away. “I – the Savior – you don’t know what I’ve done—”

Justin kissed Nikola’s neck. “Nothing to deserve any of this,” he whispered. “It’s all right now, Nikola. It’s over.”

Before Nikola could reply, a knock at the door interrupted them. From the other side of the closed door, Wisteria said, “My lords – I hate to disturb you, but the sailors have the sling rigged. Lord Comfrey’s assistance in lowering Fel Fireholt to the longboat would be appreciated, if you’re free.”

With a wince, Nikola dropped his arms and nodded to Justin. “Go ahead.”

Justin swallowed, nodding in return. “Let’s get you and that warcat to a healer. You’ll be good as new soon.” He drew back and patted Nikola’s shoulder; his friend tried to smile in answer. The expression looked ghastly on his battered face. “It’ll be all right now,” Justin said again, and wished he could convince himself.


Their hired boat was crowded and slow, with three passengers plus a greatcat and only six oars. Nik put himself deliberately on the far side of Anthser, with Justin and Miss Vasilver on the other. Intellectually, even viscerally, he was grateful for their rescue, but a vortex of other emotions churned inside him as well. Not just humiliation at the state they’d found him in or for that matter was still in, but a sourceless persistent terror. He told himself he was safe, but he could not feel safe. The few minutes alone with Justin had helped in some ways, but it also pushed him even closer to disintegrating; if Justin or Miss Vasilver touched him again he feared he would break down entirely. He didn’t want them, or anyone, looking at him like this. He hated himself for his weakness but he was too worn and exhausted to fight it. So he huddled against Anthser’s side – the paralyzed greatcat did not frighten him, at least – and murmured in the greatcat’s ear from time to time. He mixed thanks for the greatcat’s part in the rescue with rebukes for his foolhardiness and stern admonitions: “Don’t you dare die.”

To distract himself from everything he couldn’t change, Nik asked Miss Vasilver and Justin how they’d found him. He was at once shocked and touched by the lengths to which they’d gone, amazed to learn that Miss Vasilver’s capture was not bad luck but planned, something she’d allowed just so they would lead her to them. He was a little surprised that Justin had allowed her to take such a risk. Nik thought he ought to be upset about that but could not feel it, not when the alternative was to still be at Brogan’s mercy.

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I’ll Consider Rescuing You From Her (94/141)

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In the dining cabin after Crit left, the captain was still cursing as he moved to lift the prone woman. Wisteria decided this was as distracted as the man would get. Assuming the yelling and commotion from above was caused by her rescuers, she expected the captain would use herself and Lord Nikola as leverage against them as soon as he finished with the woman. So Wisteria seized the hammer and rushed him. She made a clumsy strike for the back of his head with the hammer: maneuvering her bound hands worked badly.

The captain sensed her approach and twisted, catching the hammer as she swung. “You wretched cow!” He wrenched the hammer from her hands and grabbed for her with the other hand, hammer raised menacingly. Wisteria evaded his first grasp and dashed for the door. He snatched a hank of her hair, drawing her up short. “I’ll beat some yaaAAARGH!” A crash and a clatter accompanied his scream, and she whirled about as his grip on her hair slackened. Ash and hot coals were falling from the captain’s smoldering coat, more scattered across the floor along with a handful of needles, a pair of pliers, and the pot that had been on the table. Lord Nikola was twisted in the chair he was tied to, bloody right hand free, face screwed up against pain. “Vile treacherous backstabbing worm—” the captain cursed as he beat off the embers, turning his wrath on Lord Nikola and forgetting Wisteria for the moment. He advanced on Lord Nikola, who lifted his free arm in a vain motion of warding.

Wisteria charged for their tormentor’s turned back. He twisted again, moving one arm to intercept, but this time he wasn’t fast enough. She threw her linked arms about his neck and pulled, using the leverage to haul herself onto his back, legs wrapping around his waist as she bit at one of his ears. He scrabbled at her arms and grabbed a fistful of her hair. She could not choke him very well with the way her hands were tied, but she was certainly inconveniencing him. The captain leaned forward and shook like a dog, hauling on her hair and cursing as he tried to pry her off. Then he froze.

“If you release that young lady’s hair and stop struggling, sirrah, I will consider rescuing you from her. Alternatively, I can run you through now. Take your time! But in three seconds I’m going with ‘you die’. One, two—”

“I yield,” the captain growled, releasing her hair. Wisteria looked about her, dropping her legs as the captain straightened. Lord Comfrey was holding the point of a sword to the man’s side, a knife in his other hand. Profound relief filled her at the sight of him. She unhooked her hands from the captain’s neck as the man unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall at Lord Comfrey’s direction.

Lord Comfrey kicked the sword across the room and ordered the man to lie down, sheathing his own sword and cutting the cords about Wisteria’s wrists with his knife. “Are you injured, Miss Vasilver?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine, but Lord Nikola—”

He was moving from her to Lord Nikola almost before she got the words out. “We need to hurry, there’s at least two men still unaccounted for.” Wisteria wanted to go to Lord Nikola as well, but she didn’t think she’d be able to unknot the cords still binding him. She searched the desk for a knife, found a coil of cord first, and settled for trussing the captain instead. She’d learned about knots in her shipboard time, too. She was surprised that he didn’t resist; surprised that he’d yielded at all. Abduction and torture: he must know that he will hang for this. With a length of cord left in her hands after she secured his hands and feet, she was sorely tempted to strangle him now and save the hangman the trouble. Wisteria leaned down and looped the cord around his neck. “It is lucky for you that I did not find a knife first,” she whispered in his bloody ear. Releasing the cord, she stood.


The sight of Wisteria clinging to her abductor’s back, half-throttling him, had jolted Justin partly out of his bloody single-minded rage. So absurd, so courageous, so resourceful. It was an honor to know her.    

He’d not registered Nikola when he entered: distracted as he was by Wisteria’s battle, his mind had only categorized the man seated with his back to the door and the prone woman lying on the floor as “non-threatening”. It wasn’t until Wisteria said Nikola’s name that he truly looked, and then he could think of nothing else. “Saints and angels,” he breathed out, kneeling as he slid his knife beneath the cord of the gag. Justin used his other hand to hold the cord back as he cut it. “What did they do to you?” Nikola’s face looked awful, filthy and streaked, bruises swelling across one cheek and blackening his right eye. The room reeked of blood, human waste and vomit, and to his horror Justin realized most of the stench was focused on Nikola. My angel, my beautiful angel, what have these animals done to you?

Nikola coughed as he spit out the loosed gag. “Good to see you, too,” he croaked, voice raw and low.

Justin chuckled so he wouldn’t cry, wanting to touch Nikola, kiss him, hold him, not daring to do any of it less because of Wisteria’s presence than for fear of hurting him. “Sorry I’m late,” he managed to say, tearing his eyes from Nikola’s face to free his hands.

“Me too.” Nikola looked over his shoulder. “Miss Vasilver – are you – did they hurt you badly?”

“No,” she answered. “Not at all, my lord.”

“…as you say.” Nikola sounded worried rather than convinced, but he relaxed fractionally. “I must apologize for not making it back to the ball last night. I truly wish I had, believe me. Comfrey, are you injured? You’re covered in blood.”

Justin was barely aware of the question, unable to look away from the horror of what had happened – been done – to Nikola’s hands. “It’s not mine,” he said at length, forcing himself to act, to cut free Nikola’s still-bound and mutilated hand. “Who did this to you?” he growled, rage resurfacing from beneath concern and relief at finding Nikola alive. But not unharmed.

Nikola did not mistake his question. “Brogan.”

Mechanically, Justin sawed through the cord tying his left ankle to the chair leg. “Which one is Brogan?”

His love motioned with his head to the man Wisteria had been grappling when Justin entered. “Him.”

Justin cut the cord binding Nikola’s right leg and rose. Wisteria watched dispassionately as Justin approached Brogan and kicked the man hard in the ribs, feeling a furious satisfaction as the man groaned and curled on his side as best he could with hands and feet tied. “Look at me,” Justin commanded, then kicked the man’s head when he didn’t move fast enough. “Look at me!” He unleashed a torrent of the worst insults and profanities he knew, indifferent to Wisteria’s presence. He was dimly aware of Nikola rising behind him, aware that they were not safe, but the need to punish this vicious monster who’d tortured his lover overpowered all else.

“Comfrey…” The rawness in Nikola’s voice only whetted the keen edge of Justin’s fury.

Justin kicked Brogan in the stomach. “I’m glad I didn’t kill you, you black-hearted motherless worm, because you don’t deserve a quick death!” He stomped on the man’s bound hands.


“He deserved it,” Brogan bit out.

Justin kicked him in the teeth. “What was that? What did you say? You bastard son of an impotent pig, I’ll cut your lying tongue out for that!” He stooped to make good on his threat.

Justin!” Nikola shouted hoarsely. Justin felt the touch of Nikola’s wrist against his shoulder and paused, half turning his head, swallowing at the sight of Nikola’s mangled fingers. “Enough. He’s possessed.”   

I don’t care. Nikola’s arm was trembling and he withdrew abruptly, looking unsteady. Wisteria tried to help him, but he shuddered and pulled away from her too. Justin realized that his own actions were not helping; were, in fact, adding to the considerable load of Nikola’s miseries. With an effort, he wrenched his mind away from vengeance. “As you say.” He worked at sounding normal, civilized. “Are you all right to walk?” Justin ached to help him, but Nikola’s demeanor made it plain such assistance would be unwelcome if not outright harmful. Nikola nodded, picking his way along one wall to avoid walking barefoot on the smoldering coals and ash scattered across the center. Justin drew his sword again and glanced to the strange woman lying near the door. “Who’s she? A collaborator or another captive?”

Nikola grimaced. “Neither. She’s catatonic. Brogan wanted me to heal her, but I can’t.”

Justin’s knuckles whitened around the hilt of the sword, but he confined himself to an acknowledging nod and strode to the door. As he entered the hall without, two sailors were advancing down it with swords bared. Justin gave them a death’s head grin. “Please don’t surrender. I would dearly love to kill someone just now.”

The men looked at his heavily-muscled and gore-splattered form and dropped their swords, raising their hands. Justin sighed and motioned with his sword for them to lead the way out.

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Boarding Party (93/141)

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Hiring a boat and men to man it the day after Ascension had taken far too long. It was expedited by the copious funds Justin kept on his person: the sight of a hundred-mark note was enough to motivate any man on the docks to any legal activity within his power. Still, it took time to track down a boatswain willing to let his boat be used for the purpose. Justin’s mounting impatience was allayed, slightly, by assurances from the first group he spoke with that they knew the Little Lassie belonged to the Gentle Marie, that said ship was visible moored out in the bay, that the Little Lassie was rowing for her, and – most importantly – that the Gentle Marie could not sail until after nightfall due to the tide. “Nor then neither if’n the wind don’t change, which it ain’t goin’ to today or I’m a greatcat,” the man had explained.

“Most of er crew’s on leave too,” another dockman had added.

Still, that Wisteria’s abductors – and Nikola’s as well, one hoped – could not escape did not preclude the possibility of other horrors being visited upon their captives. Justin sent boys to take messages to the Watch, the Vasilvers, and Anverlee Manor. Irritatingly, there was no sign of the other three greatcats and their riders who were supposed to be following.

The sensible thing to do would have been to wait on the dock for support from the Watch or at least his own household.

Justin was not feeling in any part sensible. “Murderous” was more accurate. Anthser was of similar mind, so Justin had bribed and bullied their way onto a largish rowboat sort of thing, with a boatswain who was responsible for it and a crew of six men recruited at random from those present on the wharf. Their boat was pulling for the Gentle Marie, while Fel Fireholt lay at the center with his forepaws on a bench, keeping still to avoid rocking the boat or disturbing the oarsmen. Only his tail moved, lashing against the boat’s wooden floor.

Justin was exercising tremendous control just to keep his mouth closed, not to shout curse you lazy ignorant brutes are you men or girl-children row faster! at the men helping him. If he’d had a whip he would have been tempted to flog them. Every time he did speak, his mounting fury was evident despite his best efforts to avoid unleashing it on those around him. He kept reminding himself of his diatribe against Southing, of telling Nikola that he’d think more before lashing out the next time he was angry during a dangerous situation. I have a right to be angry, but these men are not the proper targets for this wrath.

He occupied himself by scanning the horizon, as if he were a tourist or naturalist on a hired boat heading for one of the harbor’s small islands. They were not the sole boat in the harbor: a few other vessels were moored out in the bay, and a handful of smaller boats were moving between ships and shore, people whose leisure or business requirements did not permit them rest on this day. Justin had no idea if the crew of Gentle Marie were the paranoid sorts, or if they’d assume the worst when it became obvious his craft was pulling for theirs. Granted, one greatcat and seven men did not look like much of an invading force, pitted against a ship.

But his informants had been right about the Gentle Marie being almost deserted. While he was looking around through the spyglass, Justin saw Wisteria escorted aboard by four men. In other sweeps, he counted only three more different men. And however many below. The Gentle Marie was armed with several ballistae, giant crossbows mounted along the deck, but they did not have anything like the manpower to crew them all.

As they drew nearer, Justin strung his bow. It had the heaviest draw of any in his collection, designed to have the stopping power to drop a charging boar in addition to the greatest range. It was also slower to fire than his fowl-hunting or racing bows, because even with his strength it took him longer to draw. But he wasn’t going to stop a human with a target bow.

Anthser’s ears flatted. “Two whistles.”

Justin swore. “Is this as fast as you—” he bit back on the oath that tried to escape “—men can row?”

The men glowered at him but did appear to put a little more back into it. Justin was tempted to kick the smallest man from his oar and take over himself, but he’d little experience with rowing and didn’t want to risk throwing the rhythm of the boat off. Another scan of the ship when they were no more than a few hundred yards away showed that, to Justin’s surprise, no one aboard was paying any attention to them. They’d not been hailed, and the few men visible on deck looked distracted, as if listening to something.

“Do you want to hail them?” the boatswain asked.

Justin looked at him as if he’d gone mad. “No,” he snarled, managing to contain the insults that leapt to mind.

Slowly they drew nearer, rowers fighting against both tide and wind. Justin waited for the inevitable hail, watching the ship, sure they’d be noticed soon. But still nothing.

Anthser rose to all fours, ears flat again, boat rocking with his shifted weight. “Two whistles. Get on, Lord Comfrey.” Justin eyed the distance remaining between them and the ship, the greater height of the Gentle Marie in the water. Could even Anthser make that jump? “Get on or I go alone,” the greatcat growled, rocking the boat again as he moved to a jumping crouch. Justin scrambled into the seat, bow slung across his shoulder, dueling sword against his hip. The oarsmen looked worried but not enough to protest. Anthser gave the boat a moment to settle in the water, then leaped.

It is like flying, Justin thought as they soared together across the blue waters, the greatcat’s paws outstretched as he reached higher. They reached the summit of their arc a yard or so above the level of the vessel’s deck and a couple of yards short. Anthser’s foreclaws sank into the rail as the rest of him dropped parallel to the ship’s side. Two tons of warcat attaching to it made even a vessel its size rock at the impact. Justin’s mind flashed back to the cliffside, to Southing bucking him off as she scrambled over the edge—

—Anthser did not kick off with his hindlegs, but pulled himself up the side roaring. “Surrender yourselves and produce your captives unharmed or die!”

Justin kept his seat, unshipping his bow as Anthser landed flat on the deck. There were four men in sight: one was yelling an alarm and running away, one was ordering the men to station with sword drawn, running himself to the nearest ballista. Two other men were following him with less alacrity. Justin nocked his first arrow (kill them all) and loosed it into the leader, taking him through the neck (higher than intended). Blood spurted from the wound, the man staggering with a hideous bubbling gasp, clawing at his throat before toppling. Justin was already nocking the next arrow when Anthser pounced for the second man. The warcat landed with claws in the man’s leg, knocking him down, leg making a grisly snapping sound as the greatcat’s full weight fell upon it. The third man dropped his weapon, screaming “I surrender! Mercy, have mercy!” as Justin drew on him.

It would be so easy to kill him anyway. “On the deck!” Anthser roared. “Down, now! Weapons over the side!” The man went prone, tossing his sword over the rail. The sailor with the broken leg under Anthser was also crying mercy.

A twang off to Justin’s left, followed by a meaty thunk nearby. He whipped about and loosed an arrow as a man with a crossbow ducked behind the wall of a raised cabin. Anthser snarled, but instead of leaping for the cabin he loped. His gait was wrong. They were almost to the cabin before Justin’s anger-fogged mind grasped why: the greatcat had been hit and was limping, albeit still faster than a man could walk. They were only a few yards away when the crossbow wielder poked his head back out; Justin took him in the eye with an arrow. Justin looped his bow over his shoulder and slid off to check Anthser’s injury. The quarrel was stuck in the greatcat’s left shoulder. Anthser took a deep breath. “Crap. Can you get it out?”

Justin grimaced, putting a hand on Anthser’s shoulder at the base of the injury. The fur mixed with blood felt hot under his fingers. “It might be better to leave it,” he warned, wrapping his fingers around the wooden shaft.

“Pull it!” Anthser ordered. Justin didn’t argue further, jerking his hand back as fast and evenly as he could, trying to pull it out along the path it had taken in. Anthser gritted his teeth, snarling in pain. The bleeding worsened: Justin put his hand against the wound in a vain effort to staunch it, and Anthser growled, stepping back. “No! Let it bleed.”

“What?” Justin’s mind felt slow and stupid. He forced his gaze from Anthser to scan the deck for more hostiles.

“’S poisoned, I can smell it.” He lapped at the wound, took a few halting steps, spat. “Catsbane.”

“What? What is that?” Justin took his bow in hand again, but before he’d taken more than a step he saw a hatch in the deck open. He shot into it, missed whoever it was, drew another arrow, and moved towards the uninjured surrendered man.

“Paralytic.” Anthser was moving sluggishly now, and Justin had the awful sense it was not caution slowing him. “Go. Find Lor’ Nik.”

Nikola will kill me if I get his warcat killed. “I can’t leave—”

“GO!” Anthser roared, ears and whiskers flat, enormous mouth baring jagged teeth. The greatcat sank to the deck, licking at his wound. “You can’t help me here GO!”

Curse it all. Justin pulled his quiver from Anthser’s seat and slung it over his shoulder as his gaze swept the deck again. He put another arrow into the hatch as deterrent and reached the surrendered sailor. After seizing him by the collar, Justin hauled the man to his feet. “Where are the hostages? Show me.”

“Cap’n’s dining cabin,” the sailor said, pointing to the hatch that Justin had been shooting at. “That way.”

“There’s another way.” Justin had no idea if there was or not, but assumed so. He shoved the man. “Show me.”

“Yes – yessir.”

“And you—” Justin glowered at the one with a broken leg, who was lying on the deck moaning. “If you ‘forget’ that you surrendered you’ll wish I’d killed you.” He followed the other sailor into the upper cabin. Anthser had crawled over to the hatch to lie on top of it, which ought to stop anyone else from coming that way.

The cabin had a ladder leading to a lower deck: Justin sent his prisoner down first. He only climbed down a couple of rungs himself, jumping the rest of the way to avoid sheathing his sword. He landed in a crouch, straightened, and pushed his prisoner ahead. “Show me.” Partway there, they ran into another two sailors with weapons drawn. Justin shoved his prisoner into one and thrust at the other. The other man had no concept of dueling, attempting to close so he could batter Justin with swings using the edge of his sword. Justin kept him at bay with the tip of his own; the sailor did manage to parry a few thrusts, but Justin ran him through before the man’s comrade had managed to disentangle himself from the prisoner. The second man surrendered after taking a stab to the hip. Justin’s reluctant guide pointed to the door where the captives were held. He tied the two men to the ladder and pressed on alone, not wanting to try to control both.

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The Monster-in-Chief (92/141)

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The jolly boat did take her to a vessel moored in the harbor: a sloop, to be exact, a two-masted vessel that would be swift in proper trim, and was at present nearly abandoned. Wisteria guessed most of its crew had shore leave for Ascension. She wondered if the sloop’s captain was involved in this plot, or if it was some ploy of the officer left in command. A couple of men were doing maintenance tasks and an officer was on watch, but unless they had at least a score of men hidden below decks, the sloop did not have enough manpower to weigh anchor, never mind sail.

They used a bosun’s chair, a kind of rope sling, to maneuver Wisteria up from the jolly boat and into the sloop, which rankled her. She wanted to tell them that she was perfectly capable of climbing the ladder up the side herself, even if the bay waters were a trifle choppy. Not with her hands tied, granted. She kept quiet; better that they underestimate her.

One man had joined the first three when they’d first gotten into the jolly boat. Two of her escort broke off now that they were on the sloop, leaving only Red and Crit to take her belowdecks. Crit handed her down the hatch like a sack of potatoes; Red was apologetic about receiving her. The smell of the ship was worse than usual belowdecks, not just the stench of unwashed men that she associated with seagoing voyages but almost a charnel or sewage smell. She held her handkerchief to her nose to cover it.

Then Red opened a cabin door and the stench doubled. “Whoof,” Red said, wrinkling his own nose. It was the captain’s dining cabin, furnished with several carved wooden chairs, a matching table, a built-in folding desk, a sea chest, and a heating stove. It reeked of human waste, vomit, smoke, and burned flesh. A single man was in the cabin, legs and feet bare, in an ill-fitting overcoat. He was slumped and bound to a chair facing away from them. Gagged, too, judging by the cord knotted at the back of his head. His hair hung in long bedraggled damp clumps.

Wisteria took an involuntary step towards him, half-hoping and half-afraid. “Lord Nikola?” The figure jerked at the sound of her voice, head turning to look over his shoulder. Even in profile, she could hardly recognize him: the elegant lines of his face spoiled by purpling bruises, streaked by dirt, salt, sweat, corners of his mouth raw from the gag. She ran to him, retaining just enough presence of mind to blow twice on the whistle under her handkerchief. I found him, you can rescue us any moment now. “Saints, what did they do to you?” She raised her bound hands to the back of his head, trying to unknot the gag with hands made clumsier by the need to keep a grip on whistle and handkerchief. Lord Nikola shook his head, jerking to indicate the door, giving her a look she wished desperately she knew how to read. The grunt he made around the gag was unintelligible.

“None of that.” Crit grabbed her by one shoulder and yanked her away from him.

“Why is he gagged? Who are you afraid will hear him in the middle of Gracehaven Harbor?” Wisteria demanded, her eyes scanning over the rest of Lord Nikola. “Why are his feet – Abandoned World, his hands, what have you done to his hands?” She couldn’t process what she was seeing: fingers oozing, red and raw and hideously wrong. “What did you do to him?” She tore her eyes away from Lord Nikola to stare at his abductors.

“Savior,” Red said.

“Nothin’ he didn’t deserve, m sure.” Crit yanked her back stumbling a few paces. Lord Nikola gave an incoherent growl around the gag.

“Wha’d he torture im for?” Red asked.

“Shut it.”

“You’re monsters.” Wisteria straightened despite her captor’s grip. “You’re not men, you’re beasts wearing human flesh. I thought you were just greedy – greed I can understand – but this isn’t greed, it’s pure evil. What could Lord Nikola possibly have done to deserve this?” Crit interrupted her by grabbing her face, but she was too angry to be frightened any more and finished with, “What could any man?”

“Pride.” A new man was standing in the doorway. “Good work, men. Dismissed, Red. Crit.” He beckoned.

Red acknowledged with a “Cap’n” and hurried out. Crit stared at Wisteria for a moment and then let her go to move to his captain.

“So you’re the monster-in-chief here.” Wisteria gave the new figure a good look: a man of above average height and average build, wide-brimmed hat and a scarf to hide his face. His hair was short, curly, brown. He ought to have horns, or a black aura, or something. Maybe the cruelty is in his expression and I just can’t see it. “What does ‘pride’ have to do with anything? What do you want from us?”

The captain said something low to Crit that Wisteria didn’t catch. Crit glanced at her. “Which I should gag her too? She’s gotten chatty.”    

The monster-in-chief regarded her. “No. I want him to hear her scream.” Another snarl from Lord Nikola, a thump as he rocked in the chair he was tied to, and then a muffled whimper. Crit nodded and left the room, closing the door.

I will not be frightened of this bullying beast. “Was torturing a bound man too difficult for you?” Wisteria asked. “Did you ask your men to find you someone smaller and more helpless to abuse? Are you going to graduate to infants next?”

The captain hung his hat and scarf on coat hooks. He had an ordinary face, long with a pointed chin, neither handsome nor ugly. He strode to her side and struck her across the face with the back of his hand. Wisteria should not have been surprised; the monster had made his intentions clear enough. But she was anyway, staggering at the impact. Having her hands tied made it harder to keep her balance, and she stumbled to one knee. Lord Nikola grunted, his chair thumping and creaking as he shifted in it. Wisteria thought she heard something crack. Did he injure himself? Break the chair? The captain glanced to his male prisoner, a smile on his face.

Wisteria realized she had never hated anyone before. Some teachers she’d disliked and one fellow student she could not abide, but no one she had hated, not like she hated this nameless villain, this demon-enfleshed man who could torture a man and smile. I need a weapon so I can kill you. She sniffled, lifting her handkerchief and blowing into it and the whistle again, twice. Then she wiped at her streaming eyes, regretting now that this horrid monster might think she was weeping because of him, and said, “Are you impressed with yourself, sirrah?” He returned his attention to her, frowning now. He seized her arm and tried to pull her up; she went limp, refusing to help. “Such a big strong man. Look at what you can do once someone else captures and ties a woman up for you.” She raised her voice. “Did you make sure my hands were tied first because you feared I might beat you otherwise? Do your men know what you’re doing here?”

“Get up,” he told her.

She remained limp on the floor, her arm stretching uncomfortably and tugging at her bound wrists as he pulled on it, legs sprawling as he dragged her higher with a grunt. Wisteria raised her voice again to say, “Do your men know you intend to kill us? Do they know you have no intention of collecting a ransom or paying them?”

“Don’t be stupid, woman.” He dragged her limp body towards the table.

She sneezed, then took a deep breath and boomed out, “You let us see your face.” It never occurred to Wisteria to shout to make a point, but when she’d been living shipboard she’d learned from her brothers how to project, how to make her voice loud enough to be heard from stem to stern. She was projecting now: she wanted the whole sloop to hear this. “Your men were careful never to let me identify them, but you do not care. You plan to throw a fortune away to sate your petty taste for cruelty.”

“It’s not petty! Do you think I want to do this? This is all his fault!” The captain dropped her limp body in one of the chairs, pointing at Lord Nikola although his attention was on Wisteria. “He could end it any time he wanted! If he’d just cured my mother when I petitioned none of this would have happened!”

Wisteria glanced to Lord Nikola. He was watching them, one arm shifting rhythmically while they were shouting. The joint where the arm of the chair met the frame had been pulled loose, and he was working his wrist forward to get the ropes through the gap. What is he trying to do? Is he in any shape to try anything? She looked back to their captor, and answered as loudly, “You’re insane. If Lord Nikola could cure your mother, he would have. No Blessing can—”

He struck her across the face again. “Don’t talk about my mother!”

Ow. She heard another cracking, creaking noise from Lord Nikola’s direction, and did not look to him. “No Blessing can cure every illness,” she finished anyway. “You know that, don’t you?”

“He can! He’s the best! He just—” A noise by the door stopped the captain, and he broke off to go to it. Wisteria glanced at Lord Nikola. He was looking over his shoulder to watch their captor as he pushed his arm forward to force the rope through the break in the chair between frame and arm, his features contorted with pain. Wisteria had no idea what he might accomplish with one hand free: she felt useless with her hands just tied to each other and both legs free. Wisteria blew her nose and the whistle again, even though by now she was sure no one could hear, no one was coming. I should have brought a knife. Oh, they would have taken it when they searched me anyway. There was an array of tools on the table: no knife, but a small rusty hammer. She turned her profile to the door to take it, then shifted away from chair and table towards the desk, holding the hammer awkwardly at the side away from the captain and the door. She could try to hit him before he turned, but sneaking up on her brothers had not worked when she was a child and she doubted she was much better at it now. Perhaps when he’s more distracted… Her goal at the moment was just to make it harder for him to watch her and Lord Nikola at once.

Crit was steering a woman through the door the captain had opened. The new woman was middle-aged and looked drugged or sleepwalking. Crit asked, “Which that ain’t true is it, cap’n? But why ain’t you wearin’ no scarf?”

“Don’t question me. Dismissed.” The captain took the sleepwalking woman by the arms to direct her, much more gently than he’d manhandled Wisteria. Crit took a step backwards through the door but did not turn around.

Wisteria put the hammer on the desk behind her. “He’s throwing away a fortune, Crit,” she called out at the top of her lungs. “Your fortune. Is that what you want, to have risked life and liberty for no gain?”

“Be silent!” the captain roared at her. “I know what I’m about and this is my vessel!” He could yell even louder than she; it was almost a physical blow.

At that moment, the sloop rocked abruptly, as if it had struck something or been hit by a steep wave. The sleepwalking woman lost her balance and fell to the floor. Wisteria leaned against the desk to maintain her own footing. A voice from the deck above cried, “Boarders!”

The captain cursed. “Go! Repel them!” he yelled at Crit. The man gave a seaman’s salute and obeyed.

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