A Terrible Idea (127/141)

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Long before Justin had set out for Fireholt, he knew this was a terrible idea.

He could not have refused Mrs. Striker’s plea, innocent of any desire beyond a wish to please her husband. Well, he could, and refusal would have been the sensible, prudent course. What did he think he was doing, agreeing to spend a week in the countryside with his former lover and the sole woman he’d ever wanted to marry, with no distractions from yearning and envy? Was a more certain recipe for disaster even imaginable?

But he missed them both too much to choose any sane course. Daily life felt empty of purpose or savor; he lived for the occasional letter from Wisteria – Mrs. Striker – or Nikola. Striker had never been a great correspondent – neither was Justin, for that matter – but his wife wrote every few days. Every letter closed with “Nikola sends his love”. Some sleepless nights, he would lie in bed reading and re-reading those innocent, expected words, and then the rest of the letter, daydreaming that he was there with them. Pretending that it would be enough just to see her, to hear his voice, that friendly companionship could suffice.

It would be better than nothing.

Thus his carriage was rolling with scarcely a bump over the newly-paved lane, carrying himself, his valet, and his secretary to Fireholt. Justin was full of apprehension at the final approach, but he exerted himself to force his features into a semblance of his usual confidence as the carriage drew to a halt before the house. Nikola had turned out his entire staff to welcome him – a staff that had doubled since his last visit. The whole of Fireholt looked better than he’d ever seen it: lawn weeded as well as clipped, the manor freshly painted, chipped flagstones replaced, no detritus in sight, not even fallen fruit or twigs. Even the signs of the pipeline construction that would bring gas to the neighborhood were unobtrusive.

Nikola waited at the foot of the steps, his wife on his arm, looking as well and happy as Justin had ever seen him, splendid in a new summerweight suit of Fireholt colors, black with orange embroidery at the trim. Mrs. Striker looked as she always had, as beautiful and detached as an ice sculpture. Her dark hair was held back from her face by jeweled combs but allowed to spill loose curls down her back. They stepped forward as Justin disembarked, Nikola grinning like a schoolboy. “Welcome to Fireholt, Comfrey. It’s good to see you.” He shook Justin’s hand, grip firm and as warm as his smile.

Justin could not have restrained an answering smile if he’d tried. “And you. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Wisteria’s idea, but you know you’re always welcome in my home.”

Justin turned to kiss Mrs. Striker’s hand, and she said to him, “Yes, thank you so much for coming, Lord Comfrey. You don’t know how comforting it is to have you here.”

No idea at all, Justin thought, though the smile was still on his face as the three of them walked into the house. ‘Comforting’ is the last thing on my mind at the moment.


Over the course of Nik’s marriage so far, he had enjoyed more regular sexual intercourse than he’d had in his entire unmarried life. He and Wisteria made love nearly every night, and often during the day as well (the hour before dinner had proven a good time to steal away to the bedroom). Her interest and eagerness to experiment surprised him, in the best possible way. Things he could not have brought himself to mention to a gentlewoman, not even his wife in private, she would offer as if such desires were only natural. Perhaps they were: Nikola saw nothing malformed in either his libido or hers. Every day brought new reasons to thank the Savior for his astonishing good fortune in marriage. If every man were blessed with a wife as wonderful as mine, Paradise would indeed be perfect.

As satisfied as his carnal appetites were, Nik felt he ought to be easy at the idea of seeing Comfrey. Oh, he still entertained the occasional ribald daydream and not a day went by that Nik did not think wistfully of his absent friend. But surely he was in no real danger; he could be subject to no powerful temptation to stray from the marital bed.

Yet, from the moment Comfrey stepped from that carriage, Nik knew his former lover’s hold over him was undiminished. He wanted at once to step into Comfrey’s arms, to hurry him into his study and there strip him naked, as he had one visit two years ago. To drink in the sight of that powerfully developed body, to run his hands over golden-brown skin, to wrap his mouth around Justin’s cock and feel strong hands holding his head as the man thrust.

Comfrey was at ease as he always was, conversation light and bantering, showing no sign that he was now or ever had been attracted to Nik. Not that he ever had except when they were alone. Nik feared to be alone with him now, not out of his prior concern over how Comfrey might behave but because Nik doubted his own resolve. Through dinner, he tried to focus on his love for Wisteria. Afterwards, he made some excuses about work he needed to do on his treatment notes and left the two of them to their own plans. While Wisteria was not trying to surprise Nik with her intentions for a house party to celebrate his naming-day, she did want some of the events to be pleasant surprises for him, so it was a reasonable excuse.

His study at Fireholt was far nicer than the makeshift one he’d had in the gamekeeper’s cottage. One of Wisteria’s first improvements to Fireholt had been hiring a master carpenter to refurbish both his study and the room he turned over for her use. Her design was unconventional but functional and efficient: his chair was at the center of a surrounding desk, with shelves on top and drawers and shelves below, in a variety of shapes and sizes for different purposes. The rest of the room was wall-to-ceiling bookcases, and the floor hardwood. The desk chair’s legs ended in smooth polished curves that could glide over the floor, to make it easy to scoot about behind the desk without standing to reach the farther parts. It seemed absurdly indolent.

Alone behind his desk, surrounded by unattended papers for his project, it occurred to Nik that perhaps he should have had some concern for Wisteria’s propriety, if Comfrey was indeed that other man she had hinted about having an attachment to. It made sense: Comfrey had cut a heroic figure, dashing into that ship to her rescue, and he had always been able to charm any woman, often without meaning to. But no: Wisteria had assured Nik nothing could come of it, so Wisteria must have recovered when she realized Comfrey uninterested. And Comfrey cannot have expressed interest; she’d have to be mad to choose the chore of rehabilitating my impoverished estate in the middle of nowhere over becoming Lady Comfrey and limitless wealth.

Unless Comfrey had made some disreputable proposition to her. That would be like him. But no, Wisteria said she did not feel ill-used by him, and she would have told me if she were pursuing an illicit relationship. We haven’t even spoken about that adultery clause since before the wedding.

To Nik’s surprise, the idea of Wisteria being infatuated with Comfrey, specifically, induced far less anxiety than thinking about her with an unknown man. Not because Comfrey was unintimidating: Nikola could imagine no rival more formidable. Perhaps it was that he could sympathize with Wisteria’s position. Pity her, even. Nik supposed he had come as near to having Comfrey as anyone ever had, and even he did not think he had ever penetrated Comfrey’s reserve, ever known his secret mind or touched his heart. It wasn’t until he’d become engaged to Wisteria that he truly appreciated the distinction. To know how Wisteria felt, all he had to do was ask. Such conversations with Comfrey were all but impossible: he avoided any approach to personal topics and deflected all questions with flippant non-answers. If Wisteria loved Comfrey – well, half of him wanted to wish her luck, and the other half to protect her from heartbreak. You can give him your heart, but he won’t want it.

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An Invitation (126/141)

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Nikola and Wisteria had been married for three months, and Wisteria had never been happier.

Life at Fireholt was not perfect. Wisteria had all sorts of plans and ideas, not only for the mining operation but for running the household and for handling Nikola’s petitioners. Especially for addressing Nikola’s petitioners. Wisteria had been shocked when she found out that Nikola did no accounting for the gifts he received. The entirety of his process consisted of sending one of his people to market any gifts he wasn’t keeping, and placing all proceeds into the household account alongside rents and any other income for that period. “It’s not as if it’s a business,” he told her when she asked. “I’m not charging them a fee for services. I’ll take a pebble from the street as soon as a diamond; it’s all the same to the Savior.”

“Yes, but how do you know how much you are taking in? How can you budget for the future if you’re not tracking your income? How do you know what the trends are?”

“What difference does it make? I’m going to do the same thing whether it’s profitable or not.”

“But, goodness, Nikola, your people could be embezzling from you and you’d have no way to know.”

“Wisteria! My people would never steal!”

Eventually, she persuaded him to humor her desire for information. She hired an accountant and set up a system where all gifts were recorded upon receipt, whether in marks or goods or services, and the sale price of any that were sold. They also tracked which petitioner presented which gift and how long Nikola had spent with the petitioner.

They hired additional retainers to help manage the petitioners, including a foreign woman with experience as an asylum nurse in Natol. Nikola’s fame had grown since the abduction, and more petitioners who had had no luck with other mind-healers were making the trek to see him. Wisteria had convinced Nikola to have the new nurse interview petitioners whom Nikola could not diagnose immediately, on the theory that perhaps knowing the problem might help in diagnosis and referral. After he’d told her that people petitioned for relief from normal, functional drives, Wisteria thought it ridiculous not to screen for that sort of thing. She wanted to interfere more; there was so much that didn’t make sense or was inefficient in the process. The gifts were so arbitrary, correlating not at all to the severity of problem nor to the time Nikola spent curing it, and only weakly to the petitioner’s own wealth. When they travelled, if word got out, Nikola would be mobbed at their destination by people who were unable to travel themselves. Mundane treatment for those he could not cure was all but nonexistent; the reason they’d hired a Natolese nurse was that asylums in Newlant were nightmarish places no better than prisons.

But Nikola was adamant in his opposition to any change that involved charging petitioners. He was more than happy to be guided by her in all other matters of business, but it was not possible to induce him to look on answering petitions as a business. Never mind that it had income like one, or expenses like one, or consumers like one, or that his time and Blessing was of irreplaceable value. It was a sacred duty. He would accept gifts because that was part of the Code, but the Code was the beginning and the end of it for him. Wisteria intended to improve the process further as a charitable endeavor, but she did want their household on solid financial footing first.

As a result, most of her efforts were put towards improvements in Fireholt and directing the mining activities. Byron was a frequent guest, as Vasilver Trading was their partner in the venture. It would be years before the mine itself returned any profits, but it was already doing good things for the local economy.

But all of this meant change – a great deal of change – and humans in particular were not enamored of change. More than a few of the locals were full of ill-will for her, as the instigator of all these alterations in their locality. They resented the new developments, the construction activity, and complained about it driving away game in the hunting preserve. While they’d made an effort to minimize the latter and 90% of the preserve was untouched, the increasing population and activity did have a negative impact on the local fauna.    

It was also widely believed that Wisteria Striker did not return her husband’s obvious regard, a complete untruth that nonetheless held sway even among many of the household staff. She did not smile, she did not laugh: it followed naturally that she could not love. The staff she’d brought with her – her lady’s maid, her secretary, and one of the greatcats who’d asked to join her, Sally – knew better, more or less, but those who’d always worked for Nikola resented her. Wisteria had no idea what to do about this, other than wait for them to figure out that reality did not match their imagined version of her. It did not help her cause that she still was not pregnant. Not for lack of trying, on her part or Nikola’s. But it’s only been three months. Much too soon to start worrying.

They had done some entertaining – of Byron, of course, and Lysandra Warwick and her family had also come for a week, and regular invitations exchanged among the neighborhood gentility. But the most unusual of her new social acquaintances were the greatcats.

Wisteria had been surprised to learn that Fel Fireholt – Anthser, as he’d asked her to call him – was one of Nikola’s friends rather than an employee, and independently wealthy. Despite the latter, Anthser stayed at Fireholt, in the newly-remodeled felishome. He shared it with Sally and another greatcat employee Wisteria had hired to pull the new carriage, and with two friends of his: Feli Southing and a second who varied from month to month.

She’d never had a greatcat friend before: all the ones she had known had been employees for Vasilver or some human acquaintance, and as such never encountered in a social setting. She was fond of both Anthser and Feli Southing as company. The greatcats did not seem to have the same inscrutable prohibitions on various topics that her own kind possessed, and were far more willing to state and accept things at face value.

Anthser was using his personal wealth to have a bowracing course constructed, and Wisteria had been inspired to ask her husband to teach her how to bowrace. Nikola had been surprised by her request – she supposed the sport was unladylike – but had been willing enough. It turned out Feli Southing also had an interest in the sport, and so the four of them would go out a couple of times a week to practice. Nikola would ride Southing while Wisteria rode Anthser, with the two experienced bowracers both providing advice to the newcomers. Wisteria was not yet up to firing a bow from a moving greatcat, and her aim from a stationary one left a great deal to be desired. Still, clinging to the back of a racing greatcat was an exhilarating experience.

Stimulating as these diversions were, they’d not yet hosted any large gatherings, nothing like a house party. Wisteria wanted to throw one for Nikola’s naming-day: invite a dozen of his friends for two weeks and have entertainments every day. Such events were quite normal among the wealthy: her parents had held any number of them, sometimes during the Ascension season itself for friends who didn’t have residences in town, more often at other times of year when entertainments and company were scarcer. Wisteria knew Nikola enjoyed such occasions: he spoke fondly of ones he’d attended in the past, especially when Lord Comfrey had hosted. But the constraints of Fireholt’s budget had kept him from hosting much in that line himself. However, Wisteria’s marriage portion and her considerable portfolio of investments meant that they had ample disposable income. Money was not a constraint.

Unfortunately, Wisteria found the prospect rather terrifying. Social gatherings were not her strength, most of the locals were indifferent to her at best, and she feared such an effort on her part would be a disaster. She was in a quandary on what to do about it: she did not want to burden Nikola with planning his own naming-day celebration or dealing with her worries, and she didn’t want to avoid doing something that he ought to like just because she was intimidated by it. She’d been maintaining a regular correspondence with Lord Comfrey since the marriage and had solicited his advice on the subject. He’d replied with a lengthy letter stuffed with useful insights, tidbits, and ideas. It was so helpful that she asked – begged, in truth – Lord Comfrey to visit them so she might call on him for further assistance in the planning. He had accepted the invitation, and thus was engaged to stay with them for a week at the end of summer.

The thrill that went through Wisteria when she read his acceptance made it hard for her to convince herself that her invitation had been motivated only by the desire for his advice. She knew that she missed his company, and knew Nikola would glad to see him, perhaps even moreso than she. But she also knew that her love for Lord Comfrey was nothing like platonic. Even though her relationship with Nikola was everything she had ever hoped for, in many ways far better than she had ever imagined marriage could be, she still had daydreams and fantasies about Lord Comfrey.

I am his closest friend’s wife now. He has quite properly lost all interest in me. All I need do is behave as a mature woman and not make any improper advances on him while he’s under my roof. This is not too much to expect of myself.

Nonetheless, she could not escape the sense that this was a terrible idea.

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The Marital Bed (125/141)

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Nik watched the greatcat go, glad but also strangely nervous to be alone with his wife. “Do you – would you like me to ring for a maid to help you change?” he started to ask, turning back to her.

Wisteria’s hands were already moving to undo his neckcloth. “No. Well, if you think it best. But…forgive my naivete, my lord, but need I change? I hope undressing is the next step.” She did not look at his face, eyes level with his neck as she pulled the last knot free and slid the cloth down one side. “But I do not wish to dress again immediately afterwards. If that is acceptable? You are my husband, I thought it would be permissible…” Her fingers undid the top button of his shirt, paused at the second.

Nik closed his eyes against a surge of desire. “If it is not, no one ever told me either.” Her fingers unfastened the next button as he shrugged out of his gold-laced jacket and tossed it on a chair. He’d already made a study of her quite beautiful wedding attire and set to unlacing its sides. She finished unbuttoning his shirt and pushed it apart to kiss his bare skin, eager fingers caressing, twining through curly chest hairs, pausing only to let him pull the overdress off over her head.

He caught her hands as she started to push his shirt off his shoulders. Nik took a deep breath, kissing her fingertips. “A moment, my lady, before I lose all capacity for rational thought. I know you want a family, but did you wish to…er…start on that immediately?”

Wisteria glanced at her hands in his. “Yes, my lord? Isn’t that why we escaped the party?”

“Yes, but – if you only want to gratify desire, there are ways to do that without, well…and I do have a preventative I could wear…”

“Oh! I see. If you do not wish to start trying at once, I am willing to wait on that, my lord. But I am very happy to start today. Now.” She leaned in to nuzzle his shirt aside and kiss his shoulder.

Nik smiled, releasing her hands and helping her remove his shirt. “As am I, my lady.”

He swept her into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Wisteria clung with her arms about his shoulders, kissing and nuzzling at his neck. He laid her down in the center of the bed, admiring the sweep of the white lace and satin underdress around her. “Now, how do I get you out of this…” He knelt over her, knees to either side of her waist, and started unfastening the tiny buttons that ran down her front. A delicious sense of wickedness filled him despite the licit nature of this assignation. His father had given him the traditional uncomfortable pre-wedding lecture on the subject of marital relations. Lord Striker knew better than to imagine his son a virgin, but he did go on at length about not “treating your wife like one of your whores”. His general theme was that a gentleborn maiden would be shy, frightened, and unencouraging, and the best course was to get it over with as quickly as possible instead of forcing further unwanted attentions upon her. Nikola had nodded his way through the interview without the slightest intention of heeding any word of it.

Wisteria caressed his arms as he worked, then reached to her head to pull out the comb and pins in it, freeing her dark curls to spill over the pillows. Her hips wriggled underneath him in the most enticing and distracting manner. Nikola spread the halves of the top of her gown apart, to reveal the bodice below. “You,” he growled, “are wearing far too much clothing.”

Wisteria was unlacing the front of his breeches. “I could not agree more – oh—” her hands stopped as Nik cupped her small breasts through the thin fabric, thumbs stroking stiffening nipples “—that feels so wonderful, my lord.” Nik smiled and shifted to lie half beside her, mouthing one nipple through the cloth while his other hand undid the front hooks of the underbodice. When it was open to the waist, he pushed it aside to kiss bare skin. Her face might be hard to read but her body’s response was unmistakable, spine arching to press soft, yielding flesh against his lips, her hand circling behind him to cradle his head closer. “Please don’t stop, I love that.” Her fingers fumbled at the barrette holding his hair back, unclasping it to let it stream around his face.

“But what about the other one? I don’t want it to be jealous,” he teased, moving to nuzzle and nip at her other breast while she squirmed under him. Nik slid his hand beneath her dress and underclothes, fingers exploring the smooth skin of her stomach, gliding lower to find the curly hairs of her vulva, some already slick in evidence of desire. He probed between the lower lips, rewarded by the tilt and arch of her hips to meet his fingers as he explored the slick nub of her clitoris with his thumb, index finger slipping gradually inside her. Her hymen would have been removed by the Blessed who inspected her prior to the wedding and who had attested to her health, fertility, and virginity. The last was a mere formality: Nik knew perfectly well that there was scarcely a Blessed in Newlant who’d embarrass a bride with a contrary announcement, not even ones actually pregnant.

She clutched at his head, fingers twining in his hair as she writhed against his hand. “Oh, Nikola, that’s amazing, why is it so much better when you do it?”

Nik blinked, lifting his head. “When I do it?”

“Than when I do it to myself. Oh, I am not supposed to talk about that. Please continue?”

He laughed quietly. “Now I want to see you do it to yourself.” He moved his fingers again, sliding in middle next to index, stroking rhythmically as she pushed instinctively into him. “May I do such inappropriate things with you, my love?”

She took a moment to answer, her breathing uneven. “I am advised to submit to my husband in all things,” she said, “and that sounds like a delightful way to start doing so.”

Nik laughed again, and licked her nipple. “Well, don’t submit to me if you don’t enjoy it. But if you’ll give things a try on those grounds, well enough.” He extracted his hand and wiped it on the bedclothes, then helped her out of the sleeves of the underdress. She sat up to help him get it off of her, squirming to escape her remaining clothing afterwards. Her nude form took his breath away, slender, with curves slight but graceful, breasts small and high, deliciously soft to touch. With her clothes out of the way, Wisteria was determined to do the same for him, which was only fair. She was as fascinated by his body as he by hers, and fearless in touching him. She caught him off-guard by stroking her fingers over his erection almost as soon as his breeches were off. He gasped in pleasure, closing his eyes.

“Is it all right if I do this?” She trailed her fingers down to cup his balls experimentally.

“It is much better than all right.” Then she wanted to know what would feel particularly nice, and they lay down together while he did his best to explain and demonstrate. It still felt bizarre to explain – no one had ever asked him before, especially not in such detail. Justin had always had a knack for reading Nik’s body language and knowing what he wanted. But during the months of the betrothal, when he and Wisteria would kiss and cuddle during the occasional time alone, she had often requested instruction upon his tastes, and he had come to have considerable appreciation for the results.

“Do lips feel good there too?” she asked. Nik had just shown her how to grasp the skin so as to stroke up and down on the shaft without sliding over it, and she was still practicing the technique, to his considerable distraction. She shifted down along his body as if intending to find out. Nikola gasped, half with pleasure and half laughing. She paused. “Is that a no?”

“That is…ahhh, Wisteria, you are the most wonderful woman alive…on the list of terribly inappropriate things I hoped to introduce you to – ah!” He arched his back as she licked her tongue over the head of his cock, gripping the sheets as he struggled for control. “I wasn’t planning on it tonight, though – ohh Paradise, no don’t stop, Wisteria—” he lost himself for a minute to sheer pleasure as she wrapped her mouth about the tip while her hand still stroked the shaft. It was less a matter of technique than that it was her doing it. After so many months of longing and fantasies, it was almost more than he could bear. He hauled her bodily up the length of his form and rolled her onto her back, kissing her.

“Too much?” she asked, when she could speak again, her hand wandering over his back.

He smiled, stroking her hair from her face. “After a fashion. I don’t want to climax just yet.”

She tilted her head. “What do you mean by ‘climax’?”

Nik blinked at her. “Er…” Then he grinned mischievously. “Let me see if I can show you.” He worked his way down her body, marveling again at the softness of her skin beneath his fingers. When he was between her legs, he slipped a finger inside her and dipped his head to stroke his tongue over her clitoris. She shivered in response, hips arching, legs curling around his shoulders, one hand reaching to burrow through his hair. He licked and suckled, slowly at first, then faster, pulsing first one and then two fingers inside her, matching the fevered instinctual rhythm of her own body, until she convulsed, lifting from the mattress with a full body shudder and then falling back limp, vagina fluttering around his fingers. He pillowed his head against her thigh as she relaxed beneath him.

A few moments later, she said, “Oh. That.”

Nik chuckled, shifting to snuggle up her side and embrace her. “Also better than when you do it yourself?”

“I was just thinking how annoying it is that I had to wait twenty-seven years to experience that. This makes a great many things much more intelligible now. Thank you, my lord.” She rolled onto her side to hug him back, wrapping a leg over his thighs and kissing him. “Although…is this sexual intercourse? Because, well, not that I ever got the clearest of answers on this question, but it’s not what I was expecting.” She squirmed, positioning herself so that his renewed erection pressed against her pussy in a way that suggested she’d had quite a good idea of what to expect. “And I don’t see why it would be all right for me to climax just yet if it wasn’t for you.”

“It’s all right because women, er, recover faster. And when I climax, my, um, member, goes limp and it takes some time before I can get an erection again.” Nik’s face reddened; it was hard even now to be frank. “All a woman has to do is remain slick, as far as the mechanics…ah…” Wisteria was demonstrating this property on him, tugging his hips closer with her leg and rocking so that the tip of his cock nearly penetrated despite the awkward position with the two of them on their sides. He cupped a hand around her rear and pulled, driving himself a little way inside with a groan. “Wisteria.

She nuzzled at his throat. “Oh, may we do more of this, please?”

Yes,” he growled, unable and unwilling to restrain himself under such encouragement. Nikola rolled her onto her back, kneeling between her legs, driving himself deep into her until he noticed the growing tension in her body. He eased back, but she locked one leg around his rear before he could withdraw completely. “Sorry, I should have been more gentle—”

Wisteria shook her head. “Don’t stop. It’s – please don’t stop.” Moving carefully now, he pushed into her again, biting the inside of his cheek to avoid giving into the euphoria of the experience, to avoid losing all control and pounding relentlessly. “Thank you,” she said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face against his neck. “Oh thank you, that’s…indescribable…” She rocked against him, pulling him deeper inside. Nik fought to match her rhythm, holding himself in check against the building waves of pleasure, until the growing tide overwhelmed him and his world dissolved into ecstasy.    

He returned to himself half-collapsed against Wisteria. She was still murmuring thanks in his ear, which was at once absurd and wonderful and entirely Wisteria. He kissed her to interrupt. “Thank you,” Nik told her, throwing his long hair over his shoulder to get it out of her face. “I love you, my beautiful lady wife.” He rolled onto his side, pulling her with him in a fierce embrace, feeling all the thrill of possession.

“I am so very happy, my lord.” She snuggled her face against his chest, curling one leg over his side to keep him near. “How did you learn all these marvelous things? Is it because you are a man? Will people answer when you ask instead of telling you it’s immodest even to think the question?”

He chuckled. “Perhaps. I don’t know. Adolescent boys will talk freely amongst themselves; I learnt a great deal of complete nonsense from my schoolmates. Some actual truth from…grown men, when I was older.” Justin. “And some from…er…women of negotiable virtue. And bits and pieces from my petitioners, in fact.”

“From your petitioners?”

“Yes. Most prefer to be cured or not without disclosing why they chose to petition, so discussions are rare. But sometimes, when I am re-examining those whom I could not immediately diagnose, they will volunteer specifics. There are some complaints that…well…eventually one realizes the reason I cannot diagnose them is because they are not disordered. I have seen far too many women shame-facedly confess to desiring or worse yet enjoying sexual intercourse. Sometimes I think the social order is crazier than any of my petitioners.”

“Oh.” Wisteria twirled a few of his chest hairs around one of her fingers. “I always thought there was something wrong with me for feeling lust. It never occurred to me to petition for it, though…it’s such a trivial thing in comparison with real troubles.”

Nik bent to kiss her fiercely. “There is nothing wrong or unnatural about desire, in either a man or a woman. There is certainly nothing wrong with you. You are entirely right and just as the gentlewoman I married ought to be.”

She twined her fingers through his hair to cradle his head as she returned the kiss. “I love you.” She paused. “So…does that mean we may do that again? Please?” She wriggled the length of her nude body against his in a fashion so tantalizing that he felt his prick stir to action again.

Nik laughed in pure delight, cupping a hand to her rear to pull her against him. “I am yours to command, my lady wife.”

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The Way I Would Like to Celebrate (124/141)

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The wedding banquet had been delightful. Wisteria was glad that Nikola had reconciled with Lord Comfrey, because the viscount was the most charming part of it. She could barely recall the food, but she could remember his smile and kind words as he toasted them.

Her majesty had generously offered the Vasilvers use of the Dragongate Palace in Viant for the wedding reception. When dinner adjourned in favor of dancing, the affair began to remind her of the Ascension Ball. The Dragongate ballroom was akin to Dawnfell’s only in opulence: the floor at Dragongate was of tiny fitted marble tiles in an intricate pattern that made it look as if one was walking on ocean waves, and there was no balcony from which to watch the dance. But the dancing and music were similar, and as she stood up in a set with her husband (my husband!) and Lord Comfrey and Lord Comfrey’s sister and four other guests, the sense of deja vu was uncomfortably intense. At least Wisteria had been allowed to detach her gown’s trailing cape for the dancing; having two children following her every motion had been an odd experience.

When the pattern of the dance put her and Lord Comfrey together for several turns, he opened conversation with a smile. “You must tell me how happy you are, my dear. I hope the wedding has matched expectation?”

“Oh, Lord Comfrey, I am happier than I ever have been before. Terrifyingly so.”


“Yes. I feel like a fairy-tale princess and part of me in convinced something awful must be about to happen. A demon-prince come to curse my husband, perhaps. Or worse. If a messenger comes to tell Lord Nikola that some petitioner needs his attention urgently, I do not think my reaction will be rational.”

“Now, my dear. If you tackle Lord Nikola to the floor and forbid him to leave your sight, I will vouch for it being the sole reasonable course. I will assist you, in fact.”

“Thank you, my lord. I am so very glad you understand.” Wisteria squeezed his fingers when their hands touched in the dance, before the next moves split them to new partners.

After two dances, no demon-prince had arrived at the party to curse them, and no messenger to summon Nikola away. Wisteria was increasingly anxious to escape any possibility of such. Also, she had been legally allowed to be intimate with her husband for nearly six hours now and that she had been allowed no opportunity to take advantage of this Most Important Fact was plain cruel. At her request, they took a break from dancing to take some air: it had been a warm day for early summer, and the ballroom was overheated.

It took half an hour to make their way out of the ballroom, as it seemed every guest not among the dancers wanted to stop them to wish them well and exchange a few sentences. It was like a miniature version of the endless receiving line after the wedding.

Wisteria had thought it would be safe outside, but it was worse: a good third of their guests had also taken to the palace gardens in pursuit of cooler air, and all of them also wanted to offer their congratulations and marital advice. Often, Wisteria would find herself steered aside, or Nikola “borrowed” from her arm for a few minutes, so that some relation or acquaintance might offer advice. Much of the advice was perplexing if not disturbing in nature.

When she had finally managed to reclaim her husband’s arm and they had escaped to an unobserved bower, Nikola breathed an enormous sigh. He peeked around the corner of the vine-covered trellis that sheltered them from view, then ducked behind it again to sweep her into his arms and kiss her. After a few moments, he drew back laughing, whirled her about and embraced her again. Wisteria clung to his neck, suffused with delight. “My wife,” he whispered in her ear.

“Yes, my husband?” she replied, just to say the words.

“Are you quite sure you made the right choice, marrying such a great fool as me?”

“Very sure. But what is your folly, my lord?”

“You will never credit it, it is so preposterous.”

“Oh, try me, my very dear husband. I have lived two years in Southern Vandu; my standards of unbelievable are high.”

“Well, there was a time – now, you must trust me on this, I know it sounds absurd – but there was a time when I thought I did not wish to marry you.”

“I am glad to hear that is so,” Wisteria said gravely.

Nikola blinked at her. “…you are?”

“I should hate to think you had lied to me, those months ago, when you said you were uninterested in marriage at the present time.”

“Oh! Yes. Still, it was exceedingly foolish on my part. I cannot imagine what I was thinking.” He pressed her back against the trellis to kiss her neck, one hand stroking down her side and the other around her waist. A few too-short minutes passed before he murmured, “I suppose we ought to get back to our party.”

“Must we?” Wisteria had unbuttoned his wedding jacket to slide her hands beneath it. It is much too warm for all these clothes. “I was hoping you knew some private room in this palace too, where we might be undisturbed.”

Her golden-haired lord chuckled. “I do not, my lady. But if you wish to retire early—”

“I do. Now. Six hours ago. This wedding celebration is ill-timed, I tell you, and not at all the way I would like to be celebrating my wedding.” She caressed his chest through the thin shirt, fingers tracing the lines of pectoral muscles, finding the nipples and lingering over them as he gasped.

Nikola wriggled in the most intriguing fashion, then seized one of her hands to kiss her palm. “Then let it be as you wish.” He stepped back, reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket, and with a flourish produced a whistle. As she tilted her head at him, he blew on it, producing no sound she could hear.

“But what do you want a greatcat for?” Wisteria asked. Nik signaled her to wait with one raised hand.

There was a thump above and to one side of them, and she looked up to see Fel Fireholt perched on the stone wall at the rear of the bower. “Don’t tell me you need rescuing from her, Lord Nik?”

“No, we need rescuing from this party. Will you get us out of here?”

The huge black feline rumbled a chuckle and dropped into a crouch in the bower beside them. “You got it, m’lord.”

The warcat was still in the regalia he’d worn at the ceremony, but had removed the riding seat. Nikola lifted Wisteria to sit sideways on Fel Fireholt’s back, the full skirt of her dress belling against his side. Lord Nikola swung up behind her and snuggled her to his chest. “Carefully now, Anthser; Mrs. Striker cannot get a good seat in this dress.”

“Yessir.” Fel Fireholt padded down the garden path with even, decorous strides. The guests who saw them leaving smiled and waved; Nikola returned the smiles and Wisteria waved, leaning against her husband for support she didn’t need as he held her for balance she also didn’t need. But it made a delightful excuse.

They had taken temporary lodgings in a charming inn overlooking the river, a mile or so from the palace. Even at an easy pace, it didn’t take long for the greatcat to carry them to it. The inn was a modern new building, with vaulted ceilings and vast doors and passageways large enough not only to accommodate a greatcat, but to accommodate one bearing riders. The inn’s doorman opened the double doors for them and stood aside as Fel Fireholt carried them in and padded up four flights of stairs to the royal suite, where another footman opened the doors. Fel Fireholt crouched in the sitting room. Nikola dismounted and lifted Wisteria off. “Thank you, Anthser. You may go.” The dark-furred warcat bowed and withdrew.

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Wedded Bliss (123/141)

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Wisteria wasn’t sure if her wedding day was the happiest day of her life – the day Nikola asked her to marry him gave it stiff competition – but she was undeniably happy. There were a few flaws in the perfection of the day, most of them falling under the header of “mother” and “mother-in-law-to-be”. The two women seemed determined to make even the most minor of issues sound like a major disaster. Last minute uncertainties in Queen Felicia’s schedule threw both women into fits, even though Prince Edgar was attending and had already confirmed his willingness to officiate if his mother didn’t arrive in time. Then the queen had arrived this morning and sent notice that she would perform the service, rendering the whole issue moot. The place cards, which had been delivered weeks ago, had a pattern of gold leaves on them which did not match the pattern of gold vines-and-leaves on the borders of the tablecloths, an issue Wisteria had not noticed even after her mother had pointed to the two in horror three days ago. New place cards were to be printed and delivered but had not yet arrived and Mrs. Vasilver was in a panic over it. “Everything has to be perfect!”

Lady Striker, meanwhile, had uncovered some problem or other with the soup course of the wedding feast and was flying hither and yon in an effort to make various hapless servants and caterers rectify it to her satisfaction.

Fortunately, neither woman expected Wisteria to address these matters. A few weeks ago, Wisteria had taken to responding to every statement on the lines of “There’s a problem with the wedding plans!” with “Has Lord Nikola changed his mind about marrying?” When the answer came back as “No” she would respond, “Then it’s not important.” This had not stopped anyone from telling her what they thought was wrong, but it had stopped them from expecting that she would care.

The marriage was taking place at the Alastasia Temple, in the duchy of Viant. The location was chosen not for convenience – it was close to neither Gracehaven nor Anverlee County nor Fireholt – but for prestige. The summer court was held in Viant. By long tradition, the members of the upper nobility – royalty, dukes, margraves, and counts – and their designated heirs had the right to an officiant from among the royal family and the right to be married at Alastasia Temple. An Alastasia Temple wedding was, Mrs. Warwick assured her, every little girl’s dream. Even Mrs. Warwick and her sister had not been wed here, as they were not heir to their father’s title, and their husbands were gentleborn but not titled.

In one sense, it was unfair that the direct recipients of this very great honor were so indifferent to it. In another, Wisteria reflected that the whole of the wedding was for the benefit of their two families, who appreciated the honor enough to make up for a score of uninterested wedding couples.

Wisteria’s wedding dress was even more elaborate than her gown for the Ascension ball. Unlike Ascension fashions, the style was classic and varied little, though hers employed modern materials. The underdress was spotless white lace over layers of silk opulence, with a full skirt that flared from the waist to swish about her ankles. The overdress was golden flaxvelvet with insets of matching lace, the whole trimmed in gold beads and set with indigo sapphires. The colors were symbolic: white for purity, gold for prosperity, and indigo because her intended was a peer. The overdress included a matching attached cape, secured along the shoulders and down the sleeves of the dress and extending behind her for several yards. There were two little girls, children of servants, trained for the role of following her about to hold the cape off the ground, until it was detached for the party afterwards. It would only trail during the ceremony itself. Wisteria wore her mother’s wedding jewelry for the ceremony: a necklace dripping with diamonds and gold ear cuffs and bracelets to match. As servants swarmed about Wisteria, arranging her various garments, she wondered if she ought to have put her foot down about some of these extravagances.


The Alastasia Temple dated back to the third century: the work of dozens of Blessed for stone and plants, as well as myriad other craftsmen, after the sacking of Viant destroyed the original temple. The original, by all accounts, had been a far more modest affair. Successive generations of kings and queens had added their own touches to the temple to make it ever-grander and more imposing. Like all temples, it was a round building with a speaker’s circle at the center. Unlike most temples, the speaker’s circle was lowered and the seats surrounding it rose in tiers of polished hardwood, inlaid with elaborate knotwork, and it included dedicated seating for a small orchestra. The domed roof alternated gleaming alabaster and panels of stained glass. The temple was enormous, so large that Nikola’s four-hundred-something invited guests filled only the lowest tiers. The ceremony itself, as was traditional for a marriage involving a peer, was open to the public. Thousands of commoners were in the higher tiers to watch the spectacle: there were just a hundred and three titles of a rank of count or above, so marriages involving them were rare. Hundreds of the spectators were greatcats; Justin had never seen so many greatcats gathered under one roof. Viant was a full day’s journey from Fireholt even for a greatcat; Justin had to wonder how many of them had made the long trip to see their lord wed.

Justin had come with his sister Meg and her husband, Henry Walker, who had received invitations of their own. While Justin’s invitation allowed him to bring a guest, no one assumed a bachelor such as he was would travel with a female companion. Which was as well, since he was in no mood to entertain some near-stranger of an acquaintance. Meg and his brother-in-law were much more suitable for the occasion: Henry Walker was a bluff, self-absorbed man without the wit to notice whether his companions were lively or not, and it was not in Meg’s nature to rely on anyone else to entertain her. Justin had to exert himself enough to be civil and show a semblance of good humor instead of sinking completely into brooding, but if his conversation lacked its usual polish no one remarked on it.

Justin feared Meg truly was jealous of Miss Vasilver; Meg had had nothing good to say of the match since its announcement five months ago. Justin had discouraged his sister from speaking ill of Miss Vasilver or Nikola’s prospects and Meg was making an effort to hide her resentment, but he did not think her happy about the proceedings.

As they watched the wedding begin, music swelling from the orchestra, Justin was not sure how he felt about it himself. Part of him was consumed by jealousy, of Nikola for marrying the one woman Justin had ever wanted, of Wisteria for taking from him the one man he’d ever loved.

Another part was happy – not thought-he-ought-to-be-happy, but genuinely pleased – that the two were marrying. They were both good people, the most intelligent, principled, generous people he knew. They were perfect for one another. Justin did not want to keep them apart.

But he regretted extremely that their union must inevitably separate him from them.

The east and west doors at the top of the temple opened, and all necks craned to one side or the other to watch the procession begin. Servants pulled levers at the top of either side, which opened dozens of cages that lined the stairwell, each full of white and gold swallowtail butterflies. The butterflies swarmed out to fill the air like confetti. Next came the siblings of the bride from the west, and the siblings of the groom from the east, each with spouse and children over the age of eight, if applicable. Each member of these groups carried basketfuls of wedding favors, cleverly folded paper creations designed to sail through the air, each carrying a mark-note – most singles, but a random few of larger denominations – in its interior. The favors were strewn liberally into the crowd in the higher tiers. The children and some of the men hurled them with particular vigor, ensuring that members of the crowd in the middle stood as good a chance at snatching one from the air as those near the edge. The greatcats, who would have had a tremendous advantage at the game in speed and reach, politely refrained from playing, though some of the youngest greatkittens could not resist batting ones down.

By the time they reached the lower tiers, the baskets had been emptied and the bride and bridegroom had made their appearance. Wisteria was mounted sidesaddle on a pure white greatcat in gold harness. The train of her cape flowed out over the greatcat’s flanks and fell to trail down the steps behind her as the greatcat bore her in slow, measured steps to the speaker’s circle. On the opposite side of the temple, Nikola descended, riding on Anthser. That greatcat’s fur remained its usual black, rather than bleached to the traditional white. His cape and harness were in Fireholt orange, however, making him match Fireholt’s colors of black and orange; perhaps that nod to Nikola’s holding was substituted here. Nikola’s own attire was a masculine version of Wisteria’s: white satin breeches with gold buckles, white silk hose, white shoes with gold buckles, white shirt with gold lace cuffs and jabot, brocade jacket of gold lace over white. He wore more expensive jewelry than Justin had ever seen on him: hair clasp studded with sapphire chips, rings over his gloves, a lapel brooch inset with indigo sapphires large enough to flash even at this distance, and the gold chain and obsidian pendant of a mind healer crossing his chest.

The parents walked, arms linked, behind their offspring. As the first of the siblings approached the speaker’s circle, they filed into the seats of the lowest tier. When the greatcats reached the bottom step, they too stopped. Their riders dismounted, turned to their respective parents, took their hands, kissed cheeks ceremoniously, and then turned to the speaker’s circle. Each crossed alone to meet the other at the center, capes drifting in their wake. A pace apart, they stopped. Nikola bowed low to her and fell gracefully to one knee as she dropped into a deep curtsey. The orchestra fell silent.

Queen Felicia, seated in her throne at the edge of the speaker’s circle, rose. The vast temple was still other than the fluttering of butterfly wings. “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, heir of Anverlee, by the grace of the Savior Blessed as healer of minds. Miss Wisteria Vasilver. You are come today in the presence of the Savior, your liege, your families, your friends, and your people to unite your lives and your families in sacred matrimony. Lord Rukert Striker, Count of Anverlee; Lady Voleta Rukert Striker, Countess of Anverlee: do you give your consent to this marriage?”

“We do.” The two spoke together from the east edge of the circle, Lady Striker’s voice wavery as she dabbed at her eyes.

“Mr. Ethan Vasilver, Mrs. Madeleine Ethan Vasilver: do you give your consent to this marriage?”

“We do,” Wisteria’s parents echoed. This portion was traditional rather than legal: parental consent was required where inheritance and parental property were concerned, but marriage itself only required a titled officiant (or one’s designated gentleborn representative) and the consent of the two people marrying.

“Lord Nikola. Miss Vasilver. You have the blessing of the Savior, the permission of your liege, the support of your families, and the goodwill of your nation in entering this union. In the years to come, you will find yourself relying on all of these things. Depend on the Savior most of all, my dears; he’s the most reliable of the lot of us,” Queen Felicia said to them, as smiles broke out across the crowd. “But you are in this circle alone because the ultimate success of your marriage rests upon you. The Savior and all of us wish for a more perfect Paradise for you, but it lies in your hands to build it. Conflicts in daily life are inevitable: it falls to you to resolve them with compassion, patience, and trust. You will know hardships, sickness, and suffering in your life together: it falls to you to share these burdens, to do what you may without resentment, to accept what is given to you with grace. It falls to you, Lord Nikola, to lead your wife wisely, to ensure the prosperity and honor of your holdings. It falls to you, Miss Vasilver, to obey your husband in all things, to nurture your household and your family with love and honor.

“Lord Nikola. Please rise,” the queen continued. Nikola stood, opening the velvet box in his hands as she continued, “Will you pledge yourself to Miss Vasilver?”

“With all my heart.” Nikola smiled, radiant, unreserved, as he turned to his bride. He took the gold, diamond-studded tiara of the Countess of Anverlee from the velvet box. It was customary for a groom to shower his bride with jewels at the wedding, as a show of his ability to provide for his new family. For a count’s heir, this was a traditional choice, even though as part of the county entailment it would not fall to Wisteria’s hands until the current Count of Anverlee passed on. Nikola placed it on her brow just the same. “My lady, I pledge my life to you, to honor and guide you, to cherish and protect you, to be true to you always, through all our days together.” He held out his hands to her.

Queen Felicia turned to Wisteria. “Miss Vasilver. Please rise. Will you pledge yourself to Lord Nikola?”

Wisteria took his hands and rose. “With all my heart.” Her expression was grave and calm even now, but her voice projected to the top of the temple as she continued, “My lord, I pledge my life to you, to honor and obey you, to nurture our family, to be true to you always, through all our days together.”

The queen lay her own hands over their joined ones. “And so let you be as one, and let nothing sunder you apart.” The orchestra swelled again as Queen Felicia stepped back and Nikola took Wisteria in his arms to kiss her. The crowd in the upper tiers cheered, greatcats roaring their approval, while the more dignified guests confined themselves to applause.

Justin joined in the applause, blinking hard and biting the inside of his cheek to avoid weeping openly.

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Why Can We Not Be Friends? (122/141)

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At the end of the Gracehaven trip, when Nik bid his (lengthy) farewells to Wisteria, he did so knowing that the next time he saw her would be for the wedding. And then I’ll never have to say goodbye to her again.    

As pleasant as the idea was, it was not to Wisteria that his thoughts turned on the return trip.

It was a beautiful day in the countryside, fifteen miles out from Gracehaven. Crops grew in knee-height green stalks in the fields to either side of the road, and cherry blossom trees bloomed in pink and white along the lane. The sun shone bright in a sky streaked with a few clouds. Nikola was riding Anthser because it was too lovely outside to be cooped up in the hired carriage. Anthser had wanted to stretch his legs, and so they were miles ahead of Nik’s entourage. Even Anthser’s pair of greatcat “friends-of-the-month”, Gavin and Rawlth, had been disinclined to keep up. Now the muscular black greatcat was strolling at an easy pace, sides vibrating with contentment. His blond rider was glad as well: travelling alone with Anthser made him feel free, unrooted by obligations, titles, employees. Nik could be anyone, going anywhere.

They were coming to a crossroads, where they’d turn northwest towards Fireholt. The lane they were on continued west, to Comfrey Viscountcy. Comfrey could not be said to be on the route to Fireholt; the trip was some thirty miles out of the way, a detour of at least two hours even riding alone on Anthser. As the greatcat moved to the side of the lane to let an overly wide wagon pass, Nikola told him, “Let’s keep going west.”

“West?” Anthser snaked back onto the lane and glanced at the crossroads. “Huh. You want to wait for the others?”

“No.” Nik grinned as the greatcat twisted to look at his rider. “Just the two of us. We can catch up to them later.”

“You’re ditching them? Even Gavin and Rawlth?”

“I haven’t ditched anyone in years, Anthser. Well. Months, anyway. Don’t you think I’m past due? Here, I’ll leave a note on the signpost for them so they needn’t fret.” He rifled through Anthser’s harness pouches to find a notebook, tore out a sheet, scrawled a message, folded it, wrote “Mrs. Linden” in large letters on one side, and tacked it to the post. “There.”

Anthser flared his whiskers, amused. “As you wish, m’lord.”

Nikola didn’t need to tell Anthser why they were taking the west road, or which turns to take. They’d made this journey many times before. Comfrey Viscountcy boasted a bustling, wealthy community, with a dock on the river that served as a hub for trade. Comfrey’s ancestral home was in a prime location, situated near the river and at the top of a rise, with a stone wall to separate it from the town. It was at the edge of town because the town had been unable to grow behind it: the rear several hundred acres formed Comfrey’s private hunting preserve, a stocked wilderness to rival the Markavian’s. Acres of garden surrounded the house itself, immaculate lawns lined by cultivated flowerbeds, selected so that there were always some flowers blooming among the green. Flowering hedges broke up the landscape, some sculpted together with trellised ivy to make private bowers.    

Nik had reconsidered his impulse a half-dozen times on the ride here. Once or twice he was on the verge of telling Anthser, “Never mind, I just wanted to take in the scenery, no need to stop.” But he let the greatcat carry him to the top of Comfrey’s steps. As the greatcat crouched, he slid off Anthser’s back onto the wide sheltered porch.    

One of Comfrey’s retainers must have seen their approach, because Nik had not even knocked before a footman opened the door. “Good morning, Lord Nikola. Our deepest apologies, but we were unaware you were coming and his lordship is out at present. His lordship is expected to return before dinner, however, if m’lord would care to wait in the parlor?”

Nik waved off the apology. “It’s fine, Mr. March. I didn’t send word…just a whim, in truth. I’ll—” Part of him was tempted to flee: what are you doing here? Comfrey doesn’t want to see you. But he had already come this far. “—wait in the garden. Kindly inform Lord Comfrey when he returns.”


Justin was running one of the trails in the vast hunting preserve behind his mansion. He hadn’t brought bow or quiver; the sound of his pounding feet as he hurtled down the track would frighten off any game. He didn’t have the patience for hunting any more. The stillness left him too much time to brood. Easier to run, to focus on making each stride faster, to maintain the pace even when his lungs burned and heart pounded. Don’t stop don’t slow just move go! His body obeyed. It was well-trained in that respect. I thought my mind well-disciplined once, too, but it’s evident now how I spoilt it. Justin shoved the thought away. He raced shirtless, in trousers and flexfiber shoes that conformed to his feet through each stride, black hair tied back and clubbed to keep it from his face.

He checked his pocket watch as he broke out from the cover of trees: not as good as his competition days, but better than his times from last year. Justin slowed to a jog as he crossed the lawn, sweat trickling down the small of his back. Someone was walking in the side garden to the west of the manor. Not a servant; too well-dressed, and besides all Comfrey’s gardeners were working on trail maintenance in the preserve today. Who could that be? he wondered, annoyed as he veered off to avoid catching the stranger’s eye. He disliked coming on people like this, as disheveled and scruffy as some lowborn farmer’s son. The stranger was tall, and that he was a gentleman was plain even at this distance, by his straight-backed carriage as much as by his summerweight suit. His back was to Justin, attention on the lane leading to the house, long hair gleaming gold in a ponytail that spilled down the blue jacket back. The silhouette and hair color arrested Justin’s eye, and he stumbled. It’s not Nikola, he told himself. Nikola would not drop by unannounced, would not drop by at all, stop that it’s not him. Despite his sternest admonitions to himself, his feet turned of their own accord, pace quickening to move in the newcomer’s direction. The closer he drew the more the figure looked like Nikola’s: even the suit was familiar. Justin slowed to a walk as he closed on the garden, wanting the man to look his way so this hideous mirage could be ended, not sure if he was more afraid that it was Nikola or that it wasn’t. I don’t want him to see me like this, like a bare-chested heathen. It was too late to turn and run into the house without looking even more ridiculous if and when the visitor finally noticed him. Justin cleared his throat to call out hello. The greeting came out half-strangled when the man turned that handsome, unforgettable visage at the noise. “Striker?!”

“Hello, Lord Comfrey.” Nikola squared his shoulders, uncomfortable.

‘Lord Comfrey’, is it? Justin let the weight of that formality squash the painful surge of hope. “Lord Nikola.” He delivered a short bow that must have looked ridiculous in his sweating, half-naked state. “What brings you to Comfrey Viscountcy?”

Nikola would not meet his eyes. “I was…I wanted to see you.”

“Ah.” Justin’s head was so full of things he could not say that it took a moment to supply another meaningless cordiality that he could. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is it?” Blue eyes flicked up to his face at last.

Is that another accusation? Justin was suddenly sick to death of pretense: of pretending to be cordial, polite, civilized. Happy. “I suppose that depends on why you wanted to see me.”

Nikola’s expression changed from a neutral one to a scowl. “Of course. If I didn’t come to fuck you there’d be no point in welcoming me at all, would there? Good day, Lord Comfrey.” He spun on his heel and stalked away between two sculpted hedges.

Demons take it all. “Striker—” Justin charged after him, seizing one arm. Nikola twisted to face him, arm jerking away as if the touch burned. Justin let go. “Curse you, Striker, I did not say that! I said nothing like that! Abandoned world! What have I ever done to you to deserve this?”

The taller man glowered at him, jaw working. “What was that crack supposed to mean, then?” His body was tense, words clipped.    

“I meant that if you came because you missed glaring at me and treating me as if I’d betrayed you then yes, that would considerably lessen the pleasure of your company!”

Still scowling, Nikola turned away. “Look, Comfrey, I know I have not behaved as I ought. I am grateful for all that you have done—”

“Curse it! I don’t want your fucking gratitude, Striker—”

“I know!” he hissed, stung. “All you want is my body to fuck—”

“Blood and death! I don’t even want that!” Justin lied; even now, even like this, if Nikola had offered himself, Justin would have taken him and been grateful for the chance. But it was not what he wanted most.

Nikola put a hand over his face, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I should not have come. Excuse me, my lord.” He walked away between two flowerbeds. The viscount did not chase him this time, though part of him ached to. What would be the point?

At an intersection of the garden’s stepping-stone paths, Nikola stopped and half-turned. “Lord Comfrey…I just…what would have made it good to see me?”

“…almost anything but this.” Justin walked after him, slowly. “Why can we not be friends, Striker? You don’t know how much I’ve missed your friendship. And no, I don’t mean screwing, I mean friendship. Hunting. Bowracing. Conversation. Things friends do.”

Nikola glanced sidelong at him. “I did not think you interested in that. Any longer.” A statement of belief, not an accusation.

“Well, I am. Do you truly think I’ve spent six years merely tolerating your company for the sake of the occasional opportunity to screw?” Justin was torn between indignation and amusement. “You’re a good lay, Striker, but not that good.” That last…might have been a lie, too. Nikola flushed, making a face at him and crossing his arms. Justin reached for the other man’s shoulder, let his hand drop without making contact. “I do not want anything of you because you are grateful, Striker, or obliged. I want your friendship because you are fond of my company, because I have always been fond of yours. I ask sincerely, what may I do to persuade you of the truth of this?”

The younger man turned to face him then, the emotion in his expression hard to judge. “Um. That,” he answered at last, and stepped forward to envelop Justin in a hug. By reflex, Justin caught Nikola in his arms, one foot going back to brace them as the taller man pressed against him. The feel of that long, lean form, of gloved hands against his naked back, sent a too-familiar surge of lust through Justin. He tightened his embrace to keep his hands from wandering, and rested his chin on Nikola’s jacketed shoulder. “I’m sorry, Justin,” Nikola whispered.

“If you’re apologizing for hugging me, stuff it.” Justin squeezed harder, rewarded by Nikola’s chuckle.

“Not for that. For doubting you. For reading in too much. I ought to have asked and not assumed.” Nikola relaxed in his arms, the contrast making it obvious how tense he’d been. Justin was tempted to steer Nikola into one of the garden’s bowers, screened from prying eyes by greenery, to push him down on a padded bench and see how much more relaxed Justin could make him. Ah yes, the perfect strategy with which to cap my credentials of disinterested friendship.

“No matter.” From somewhere, Justin mustered the will to release Nikola and step away. “I ought to clean up and change, Striker. Will you stay for dinner?”

Nikola was still flushed; he clasped his hands behind his back and smiled. “I’d be glad to.”


After dinner, Nik lingered over drinks in Justin’s study, talking and laughing as they caught up on all the news they’d missed. Nik felt better than he had in months, as if he’d been missing a piece of himself and finally had it restored. By the time he thought about leaving, it was too late to make his planned stop before nightfall. Justin invited him to stay the night; with a certain amount of hesitation, Nik accepted.    

At some point during their conversation in the garden, Nik had realized that at least part of his willingness to believe Justin indifferent was because that made it easier on himself. If Justin had never cared, then there was no reason to feel guilt or regret over ending their relationship. It was a convenient belief in that respect.

Seeing Justin like that in the garden, shirtless, muscles gleaming with sweat, had been a vivid and unnecessary reminder of how powerful the man’s appeal was. Comfrey made not one untoward suggestion or innuendo the entire day, took not one opportunity to touch him even when they played billiards and Justin offered advice. By the time they retired to their separate rooms for the evening, Nik was wondering if Justin’s avowal of physical repulsion during their fight earlier had been earnest. Had the months of coldness between them broken whatever power Nik had once held over him?

Because it had not altered Nik’s attraction to him. As he lay in bed that night, he couldn’t stop thinking of previous stays at Comfrey Manor, of the secret passageways that ran between the bedrooms. If he crept down it now to the master suite, would he find the concealed door in Justin’s dressing room latched against him? He’d checked the latch in his own chamber: sealed. Nik had left it that way, and by turns wished he hadn’t and was glad that he had, because if he’d found Justin perched on his bed in a dressing gown, Nik doubted he’d have the strength of will to do anything but pull him into bed and ravish him. As it was, his mind kept replaying memories of past nights together. Chastity was hard.

Perhaps it will be easier when Wisteria and I are wed was one of Nik’s last thoughts before sleep claimed him.


The next day, Justin sent a messenger ahead to the inn to let Nik’s retinue know they could return to Fireholt without him and that he’d be along later. Nik ended up spending another entire day at Comfrey Manor, just enjoying Justin’s company. He would have spent more time yet had he trusted himself. As it was, the two men were often alone and the temptation to violate Wisteria’s trust in him was far too great. Remaining chaste in distant Fireholt was far easier.

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How to Handle This Well (121/141)

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In mid-spring, Nik returned to Gracehaven to visit Wisteria. His parents were at their estate in Anverlee, so he had the enormous Gracehaven manor to himself. Himself and a few hundred petitioners, over the course of a week-long stay: they kept him busy, but it was not the overwhelming pre-Ascension crush.

Comfrey normally stayed in the city until the Assembly closed for the summer, but this year he had given his proxy to one of his political allies and removed from the city to return to Comfrey Viscountcy for the summer and early fall. Nikola had not heard from him since the Ascension season ended; only of him, from mutual friends. Including Wisteria.

Wisteria was engrossed in plans for Fireholt, which she would discuss with Nik in as much or as little detail as he liked. At first, the business angle had made him uneasy; he recalled his father’s mounting debts and worried about what he might be committing himself and his people to. But Wisteria’s competence and thoroughness, and her calm way of answering every question and addressing each nuance, had put his mind at ease. Her dowry was impressive, and he wanted to leave it in her care. In fact, he looked forward to putting her in charge of all their finances. He was confident she’d handle it better than he did, and enjoy doing so more.

His future mother-in-law found wedding-related tasks for him to do, such as chasing down answers from some of their guests who’d not responded yet but whom were almost certain to make an appearance. Despite the growing anxiety and pestering with messages from both sets of parents, Nikola could not be worried about it. There’d be someone there to perform the ceremony and Wisteria would say yes, and everything else was irrelevant pomp.

Well, perhaps not quite everything else.

One afternoon, after Nik finished with his last petitioner appointment at Anverlee Manor, Shelby informed Nik that Miss Vasilver had called, and awaited him in the back parlor. Nik was surprised. While a single woman would never call upon a single man in the ordinary course, a betrothed woman calling upon her intended was unexceptionable. However, Nik was to dine at Vasilver Manor in a couple of hours, and it was odd that Wisteria wouldn’t wait for his arrival.

He hastened to meet her in the back parlor. The coverings on the room’s antique sixth-century furniture were a trifle threadbare, but its modest size and the placement of its windows conspired to make it the warmest room in the mansion and very pleasant during the cooler months. Wisteria was sitting at the secretary desk by one wall when he entered; Nik had not seen its surface unfolded in years, but she had it open now to support a leather folder. She was studying the papers inside, but turned at his entrance. “Good afternoon, my lord. I apologize for my intrusion—”

He stooped to cup her cheek in one hand and kissed her. “Your presence could never be an intrusion, my love. Everything else intrudes on time I should rather spend with you.”

Wisteria slid her hands around the back of his neck and pulled him down again for a second kiss. “My lord is much too kind.” She stroked his jaw with her thumb and kissed him again. After a few speechless minutes, she disentangled herself enough to speak. “Not that I have the least objection to this use of our time, but I did in fact come for a reason beyond glorying in what a wonderfully talented and handsome betrothed I have somehow acquired for myself.”

Nik laughed. “Now, what better reason could there be?”

Wisteria considered this. “I will not go so far as to say it is a better reason. But I wanted to talk to you about the marriage contract.”

“Please no. I thought we’d settled all that before the season ended.” Newlant marriage contracts were convoluted documents, not merely between the two individuals marrying but also between their families. They specified the woman’s dowry, the man’s personal holdings, the inheritances that were intended for either of them and what circumstances might change the latter. In addition, they stipulated the terms under which various assets might be spent, invested, or must be held for the married couple’s heirs, what became of marital assets if one spouse or the other died without issue, what became of the heirs if both spouses died, and on and on and on. Some of it was covered by boilerplate and much of it was subject to future amendment by the involved parties. But since “the involved parties” included both Wisteria’s parents and Nik’s, discussions about the marriage contract had involved all six of them plus three lawyers plus assistants, and it had all been interminable.

“Yes, the financial details are settled, but there’s one thing that I wanted to discuss with you alone and not half of Gracehaven. I have been looking into the law involved…”

“Wait, wait, if we’re going to discuss law I want to get comfortable first,” Nik said. Wisteria nodded and glanced about for another chair to pull up to the desk. Nik, having other plans, scooped her into his arms.

“Oh!” She clasped her hands around his neck as he started for the couch. “Wait, my papers.”

He stooped with her so she could gather them awkwardly one-handed, then carried her to the couch and settled with her in his lap. She folded her knees to one side with incongruous decorum, so that her shoes did not rest against the couch as she leaned sideways against his chest. “Now, what is this one legal matter?”

“It’s regarding extramarital affairs,” she said, as calmly as if discussing the Fireholt entailment. “I – my lord, I know we discussed this prior to the engagement, but I am not entirely sure we have an understanding. Fidelity is the expected course, and I believe it advisable to, well, attempt to follow it, if only because there are good reasons for this expectation. Are we agreed thus far?”

Nik thought about Justin. You cannot have him. You never truly did. He remembered that surge of fear and jealousy at the thought of Wisteria loving another man. He kissed her forehead and marveled anew at the unique beauty of her mind. Her long curly dark hair was swept to one side and held with a comb, exposing the shell-like curve of her ear and the sweep of her long neck. “Yes, my love.”

“And yet…we did acknowledge that temptations might arise and so many people do fail at living up to this ideal, and I thought that perhaps we ought to plan for the possibility that one or both of us might…at some distant point…some very distant point…it’s very distracting when you do that, my lord.”

He paused in nibbling at her ear. “Sorry,” he murmured insincerely, nuzzling down her nape. “Do go on.”

“And the boilerplate has stipulations in it…my lord, am I wrong to bring this up? I know I plan for every contingency and perhaps I shouldn’t, only if we don’t plan for it now, well…I don’t know.” She wriggled in his lap, circling a hand around his head to cradle his face to her neck.

He licked the velvety skin of her throat, nipped, drew back before temptation overwhelmed him, and considered the question. The memory of Wisteria’s confession that there was another man still made him jealous and fearful. Even if the conversation they’d had back in Fireholt had made him half-suspect that ‘other man’ was Comfrey, the least likely bachelor in Newlant to commit to anyone. “I…is this about that other man? The one you wanted to marry as well?”

She shook her head. “No. Nothing will come of that. I speak only hypothetically.”

Nik relaxed, stroking her arm. “I admit, I don’t want to share you with any man. But I would rather share you than lose you, and I would rather you felt comfortable being honest with me. Please, continue. What does this have to do with the marriage contract? You can’t mean – our parents would have fits if we included terms on conducting extramarital affairs.”

“Oh yes, I learnt my lesson on that count already. No, I have been thinking about how to do this subtly. It is not my strength, I fear. First: are you aware that adultery is not a crime in Newlant?”

Nik blinked at her. “It isn’t?”

“No. There are two statutes on the prohibition of sexual intercourse. One prohibits unmarried persons from engaging in sexual intercourse. It dates from the third century and the penalties are rather silly: a week of temple service and suitable restitution for the dishonor to one’s family, not to exceed the value of a score of chickens. The other is from the sixth century and prohibits sexual acts between men, and the penalties there are unfortunately more serious. But there is no statute prohibiting sexual acts between, say, two married people who happen not to be married to each other. Instead, it’s a civil matter: a contract violation. Of the marital contract, specifically. In the boilerplate of virtually every Newlant marriage contract is a clause that prohibits adultery and specifies the penalties thereof. Which are quite standard things, such as pillorying for a single offense, up to divorce with all marital assets going to the wronged party for ‘gross violation’. Of course, few parties choose to sue for such breach, I presume because our society is so unforgiving of divorce and since adultery is often difficult to prove in court.”

“…that makes sense.” Nik had never given much thought to the legal consequences of adultery. He knew some cases where men had duelled their wives’ lovers for the insult, and some where women cheated in revenge for their husband’s infidelity. But almost any plan of action was regarded as preferable to the scandal of invoking the courts and airing to the world one’s marital problems and one’s inability to resolve them privately. “So you want to, what, snip out this bit of boilerplate before we sign?”

“That probably would not go unnoticed, since there are three lawyers involved and there will be a reading of the final contract before ourselves and our parents. No, I was thinking about the amendment clause.”

“How’s that?”

“Since our parents are signatories on the original marital contract, their signatures are generally required for amendment of it. However, an ‘amendment clause’, stipulating fewer people who must sign to make a change, has become common in the last few decades. Usually it’s for things like letting the marriage partners change the guardian of their children without getting the signatures of four grandparents. But there’s several pages of boilerplate that doesn’t impact on fiscal obligations and doesn’t involve the parents. I think we can make our amendment clause—” she flicked through the pages in her hands “—something to the effect of ‘Sections 1A through 8H inclusive may only be amended by consent of all living signatories or their designees. All other sections may be amended by consent of Husband and Wife.’ That doesn’t sound peculiar, does it?”

Nik smiled. “Wisteria. Listen to yourself. All legal terminology sounds peculiar.”

“Yes, granted, but it doesn’t sound any more peculiar than the rest, does it? And sections 1A through 8H are the only ones that concern property and our inheritance. All the rest is just about us. Including the article governing adultery. And I checked and it’s a little unusual to have an amendment clause like this but it’s by no means unheard of.”

Nik kissed her cheek. “I am sure it’s fine. So then we can amend it after marriage to say adultery is all right, if we like? That…doesn’t seem the sort of thing one would want on public record, even if no one is ever expected to look at it.”

“The adultery clause is…” Wisteria leafed through the pages again. “Section 10 Article I. I thought we’d file an amendment changing something reasonable – the guardian for Fireholt in the event we are both incapacitated but not killed, say – and in the same amendment have a line saying ‘Section 10I is removed’. Oh, better yet, ‘Section 10I is replaced by’ some minor rewording of Section 10L. Then if anyone wonders we could claim we meant to change 10L. Oops.”

Nik laughed. “I had no idea you were so devious, Wisteria.”

She dropped the papers in her lap, studying his face. “Is it wrong of me? I am not sure how to handle this well; it seems much easier to do it badly the way so many others have.”

“I think you are doing a fine job of it. Very subtle. Make it so, my love; I am with you in this and all things,” he said, and sealed the pledge with another kiss.

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Am I So Mistaken? (120/141)

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Wisteria fell in love with Fireholt at first sight.

Even the sophisticated suspension of the beautiful coach in which they travelled could not protect her and Byron from the jolts of the pitted stone road, but she didn’t mind. Old-growth forest rose to either side, towering trees arching over the lane with branches already budding with nuts. Spring berry bushes fruited in their shade. Narrow trails threaded between the trees and dense undergrowth: this land was a hunting preserve. It had once been reserved for the lord of the manor, but five generations ago Fireholt’s lord had opened it to all his people. Greatcat game wardens roamed the woods to prevent poaching by strangers, but enforcement was only strict against hunters who engaged in mass slaughter. Sally and Ransha, the greatcats pulling their carriage, were already chattering merrily about hunting plans as they pulled the carriage up the winding hilly lane. A second coach followed behind, bearing their luggage and servants.

This vast preserve was one of the things Vasilver’s mining plans would inevitably disrupt, and Wisteria and Byron discussed during the ride ways to minimize the damage.

“Gone sentimental in your old age, Teeri?” Byron asked during a contemplative lull. “Surprised to see you so concerned about a bunch of old trees and wild animals.”

“It’s important to the locals, and a miserable populace is an unproductive one,” Wisteria said. “Besides, Lord Nikola likes it. Oh.” She gazed out the carriage window as they emerged from the forest and into view of Fireholt Keep.

It was no longer a keep, of course: only a picturesque ruin of stone walls and eroded fortifications remained of the original keep. Instead, a lovely sixth-century house rose from within those crumbled ruins. By the standards of Vasilver or Anverlee, the house was small: a two-story building of three thousand square feet, according to county records, with the servant’s quarters and felishome detached. But it was beautiful, nestled with its back to a hill, and perched at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean to the east. A waterfall dropped down the hillside and meandered across the landscape until it cascaded down the cliff. Several square miles of land around the brook were cleared, with tenant houses and cottages dotting it, along with a few larger homes.

As was to be expected, all of Fireholt’s staff turned out along the house’s drive to greet the approaching visitors. Wisteria knew that Nikola’s staff was small, but it still startled her to see that just seven adult humans, one adolescent girl, and three greatcats were the sum of his retainers. But the staff paled into insignificance at the sight of Nikola, standing a little apart from the servants. A middle-aged couple waited with him, gentility by their dress, but Wisteria had eyes only for Nikola. Byron made some remark on the size of the welcoming party that she did not attend.

One of Fireholt’s footmen sprang forward to open the carriage door as soon as the vehicle stopped. Nikola was there with equal alacrity to offer his hand to Wisteria in helping her alight. A thrill went through her at the warmth of his gloved hand against her skin. She met his eyes as she stepped from the carriage, and then, quite careless of propriety, fell into his arms. He laughed softly and enfolded her fast in his embrace. “I’ve missed you too,” he murmured into her hair. “Thank you for coming, my love.”

“I am so very glad you invited us.” With an effort of will, Wisteria straightened and withdrew from his arms to stand a decorous pace before him. “Mother is driving me to madness with wedding plans. I may need to petition you.”

“I am at your service in all things, Miss Vasilver.” He gave her a short bow, and another for Byron who was now standing beside her. “And Mr. Vasilver. Thank you for bringing your sister to me, sir. Allow me to present my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Greenleigh.” Wisteria took Nikola’s arm as he conducted introductions, then the group ascended the wide steps into the house.


Life at Fireholt was delightfully peaceful. Nikola saw petitioners for two unhurried hours in the morning; he seldom had more than fifteen in a day. When Nikola was busy with that or his other duties as lord, Wisteria and Byron amused themselves tramping about the woods to look at old mines and make notes on the countryside, existing trails, roads, and available housing. Byron was appalled that Fireholt had no quickgas lines and relied on wood-burning stoves for heat and candles and lanterns for light. “That’s the first thing we’re fixing,” he declared.

They were not left entirely to themselves. The neighborhood – in this rural place, that term covered everyone within a few miles of the residence – had several other gentleborn families, and Nikola invited a few of them to dinner each day. He and Byron went hunting twice, although Byron was not much use with a bow. They also went fishing in the brook, which both men were even worse at – they caught not one fish, on three separate occasions – but which they enjoyed immensely nonetheless, judging by their mood on returning.

But much of the time was spent in Fireholt’s parlor or drawing room, talking, sometimes with company and sometimes alone. Byron did not believe that his sister either required or desired a chaperone and would leave her and Nikola alone for hours to talk. Which they did. Talk, that is. Also kiss and embrace and cuddle together on the loveseat. But fully clothed. For the most part.

But they discussed serious matters too, and trivial ones, and everything in between.

One afternoon, Nikola returned from handling an issue with one of his tenants to find Wisteria at work on the table in the drawing room. At her side were lists of names, charts cross-indexing names in different colors of pencil, a floor plan, a pair of scissors, and a tack-stick. She was cutting out names from the lists and arranging them on the floor plan.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Since my mother wants me involved with the wedding preparations, I told her when I left that I’d take care of the seating arrangements. I already ordered placecards and holders, but I still need to decide where everyone sits. I thought it would be interesting to be the one who gets to choose, for a change. Though I am a terrible choice for this task, since I have no idea who hates whom and shouldn’t be seated together. I interrogated Byron for details on all the guests he knows, but of course that doesn’t include any of your relations. Are there any intra-family feuds among them which I ought know?”

“Probably.” Nikola sat at the table and looked over the guest list. “Don’t put Uncle Henrik near any of the Kinsleighs. Preferably not in the same section of the hall, for that matter. Why is Uncle Henrik even invited?”

“He was on your father’s list. Is he so bad as all that?”

“Uncle James Kinsleigh duelled him four years ago for an unspecified offense against his daughter’s honor. Who, I might add, is nineteen now. Neither of them tried to kill the other so I suppose the specifics were not grave beyond measure, but I thought everyone in the family stopped speaking to Uncle Henrik after that. My mother certainly did.”

“I shan’t seat him at our table either, then. Perhaps between his mother, and…er…some other elderly female relation.” Wisteria went through the pile of unassigned names. Since the reception was a formal event, men and women had to alternate seats.

“Have you done our table yet?” Nikola shifted to stand, leaning over her to look at the floor plan and resting a hand on her shoulder for balance.

“Oh, yes, I did it first. I don’t want to do any of the rest, to be honest, but I didn’t suppose it would be quite the thing to take eight guests for myself and leave the other four hundred to someone else to deal with.”

“Do we truly have four hundred guests?”

“Four hundred thirty-two, to be exact.” It’s not too late to elope, Wisteria thought.

“Did one of us want a large wedding? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.”   

“Our parents, I believe. Well, mothers, at least. Though my father has not once complained about the cost, so I daresay he is pleased too.”

“Because it’s not too late to elope,” Nikola added.

Wisteria covered his hand on her shoulder with hers, amused at his echo of her own thoughts. “Funny you should mention it. But no, I have disappointed my parents enough times in my life already. You do not mind so much, do you?”

“Only the delay.” He kissed the top of her head, then frowned as he studied the seating chart. “Why is Lord Comfrey at our table?”

Wisteria turned to look at him, tilting her head. “Where else would he be?”

“Anywhere else. Did he say he’d attend?”

“Of course. He was one of the first to respond.” Wisteria was perplexed and a trifle anxious. Had Nikola somehow learned of Lord Comfrey’s proposal? If they had fallen out over me wouldn’t he have spoken to me of it before now?

Nikola twisted his mouth in what Wisteria had learned to recognize as a bitter expression. “Of course he would. Appearances must be maintained. Well, they don’t have to extend to him sitting next to me on my wedding day. Put him somewhere else.” He peeled back the name cutout – the tack-stick used removable glue – and stuck it to a random spot on the floor plan halfway across the room from their table.

“But why? Hasn’t he been your friend for years?”

He straightened, crossing his arms. “That’s what I thought too, but I daresay we have both been mistaken.”

Wisteria twisted in her chair to stare at him. “How could we be mistaken? He saved our lives.”

Nikola turned away. “Don’t you start too. Look, I know how great a debt I owe the man, but that doesn’t mean he owns me. Fine, put him wherever you like. I can pretend one more time to be cordial if he can.”

Wisteria tried and failed to see how this statement followed from hers. “I do not speak of indebtedness, my lord; I simply do not understand how Lord Comfrey’s actions could be taken as anything but those of a friend. He has always been welcoming when we see him, and he’s been an attentive companion to me since our engagement. Do you know, he never speaks anything but praise of you? Even when he jests. He might tease me for my fixation with analysis, but you would only be faulted for being ‘too principled’, or some such quality no one could possibly take for a failing. If there is some information I am missing, I should like to be enlightened.”

“Well. Appearances can be deceiving.”

“I am aware of that, and no one is more likely to be mistaken about appearances than I am. But I am not speaking of cues; I am referring to his actions. When I told my father that I intended to meet with your abductors, Lord Comfrey and Fel Fireholt supported my decision against his objections. Before I left, Lord Comfrey told me privately that he would pay any ransom they named. I do not understand how that could be the offer of an enemy or even someone who is indifferent. Will you not speak to me of your reasons?” Had she not promised Lord Comfrey that she would keep his proposal confidential, Wisteria would have blurted out an apology on the spot. Does he know about that carriage ride back from the ball? But why would he blame Lord Comfrey for that and not me?

Nikola was not looking at her, the sharp lines of his handsome face in stern profile as he stood to one side of her chair. “You’ve seen a great deal of him, since I left Gracehaven.”

“Less than before you left. He calls once a week or so.” She hesitated. “Are you jealous, my lord?”

He glanced at her then. After a moment, he gave her one of his wry lopsided smiles. “Perhaps I am.”

“Lord Comfrey has been unexceptionable in every respect since the betrothal, I assure you,” Wisteria told him. She stood and placed her hands on Nikola’s folded arms. “I am very fond of him, I admit, but I want to marry you.”

Nikola blinked at her for a few moments, mouth open but not speaking. Then he unfolded his arms to embrace her and bury his face in her hair. She hugged him close in return, resting her cheek against his chest. “I wish I could tell you my reasons,” he said. “But…you do not feel ill-used by Comfrey?”

“Not in any way.” More the converse. “Next to you and Byron, there is no man I would trust more. Am I so mistaken?”

“I don’t know.” He kissed the top of her head, arms curled snugly around her shoulders. “Perhaps I am.”

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The End of the Season (119/141)

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Nik saw Sharone Whittaker a few more times while she was still in Gracehaven, once to test if she had a Blessing for mind-healing. To no one’s surprise, she did not. Other tests determined she did not have one for physical-healing or for plants, and the two people with a Blessing for stone who observed her doubted she had one for stone either. Which left her as a riddle to the community: some did not believe she had any connection with the Savior at all. But Nik wasn’t the only one who felt, upon speaking with her, that there was more to her “Mr. Brown” than a mere imaginary friend, and she was certainly neither possessed nor impaired now. She was happy and healthy, to all appearances a normal little girl even if she did attribute the occasional flash of startling insight to her intangible friend. At length, the enigma as yet unsolved but with assurances that it was nothing they needed to fear, her parents returned with her to the Vastings of Kinder.

After the Ascension season was over, Nik lingered in Gracehaven for a little while. This was not unknown for him, but in the past his reason to stay had been Justin and clandestine; this year it was Wisteria and everyone knew it. The openness of their relationship was one of its many attractions; it gave him one area of his life where he no longer had to mask his feelings. Nik still felt that proposing to Wisteria was the best decision of his life, even as he hated what had happened between him and Justin because of it.

But he was never my friend. All that changed is now I know it.

Ignoring that change became more difficult after the season ended and Gracehaven went back to work. It should have been easier, because there were no longer a myriad of social events where he’d run into Justin and consequently be called upon to feign normalcy.

But for six years Gracehaven had meant Justin to him, and the lightened social calendar just highlighted Justin’s absence from it. Much as he loved and treasured Wisteria, he could not forget Justin. No matter how much he wanted to.

Thus, after a week of post-Ascension Gracehaven, Nik opted to return to Fireholt and ready his estate for its new mistress.

He and Wisteria exchanged long letters full of affection; indeed, in some ways her correspondence seemed even more loving than she had been in person, where he might be misled by her neutral tone and expression. The way she wrote of Comfrey did concern him, though. Comfrey had taken it into his head to befriend Wisteria, and Nik found it difficult to trust the man’s motives in so doing. What possible interest could he have in her? According to her letters, they spoke mainly of business, but Nikola could not believe the viscount’s sudden interest in his betrothed was coincidence. But surely he would not court an engaged woman out of spite. Nikola didn’t believe Comfrey spiteful anyway. Only…indifferent. But he could not imagine what Comfrey hoped to gain from Wisteria’s friendship. He wanted to caution Wisteria not to trust the man, but could think of no reasonable way to do so without revealing the entire story. And he had told Comfrey he’d keep his secret. So he said nothing.

In the early spring, Nikola invited Wisteria and her brother Byron to visit Fireholt. Nik dreaded entertaining on his limited resources, especially guests like the Vasilvers who were accustomed to the best of everything. He’d been living more frugally than ever since his return, but so many of his expenses were fixed that it was hard to cut back without laying off staff or postponing necessary repairs. He knew Wisteria was already aware of his circumstances and was not truly concerned she’d change her mind on seeing for herself his estate’s condition. Still, he did what he could to present it in the best possible light. His staff was more than commonly anxious to please. Only the greatcats were relaxed and mellow in the weeks leading up to the Vasilvers’ arrival.

By means unclear to him, Nikola had acquired an additional two greatcat…bodyguards, he supposed. They weren’t trained warcats like Anthser, and they weren’t on Nikola’s payroll – in fact, they paid him for their room and board – and they rotated out every four weeks. As they were officially guests of Anthser’s, no one asked them to do any work. The first pair, Oliver and Heather, Anthser had introduced back in Gracehaven as visiting friends, and had been among the greatcats who’d kept vigil over him during his time in the cottage. But Nikola noticed that even after his recovery, either one of those two or Anthser was always within earshot, keeping watch over him. After they were exchanged for a second pair, who behaved identically, Nik was no longer willing to credit that they were there to keep Anthser company. Nik suspected Anthser of hiring them, but both they and Anthser denied it. Nik supposed he could have denied them his hospitality and ordered them off for trespassing if they persisted, and on the one hand he hated the idea of unpaid employees. On the other hand, having an extra two sets of paws around was comforting. Nikola was no longer pathologically afraid of abduction, but he was aware that the world was not as safe a place for him as he had always assumed.

Anthser was, nominally, still Nik’s employee. After Nikola’s recovery, Anthser had insisted at first that he didn’t want to get paid any more. “I don’t need a job and I don’t want one. I’m just going to hang about and eat your food and take up your space and do whatever I feel like. You shouldn’t pay me for that. It’d be like salarying a friend for keeping you company.”

Nik had accepted this for two weeks, by which point it had become clear that “whatever Anthser felt like” was “being a hyper-vigilant warcat and making sure no one even thought about bothering his lordship over anything”. Nik no longer asked him to run errands – or asked him to do anything else, for that matter – but Anthser volunteered to carry him wherever he happened to be going eight times in ten. At which point, Nik insisted that if Anthser wasn’t going to accept a salary he was going to hire another warcat and force Anthser to stop working. Anthser had negotiated down to half his former salary: “I’m still not running errands for you, you know.” Nikola was not happy about the whole affair, especially since his family had never paid Anthser what a warcat of his caliber could make elsewhere. But at some point, it did not feel worth fighting over any more.

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No Longer Friends (118/141)

RA Header 118

Justin and Nikola were no longer friends.

Oh, there was no open hostility between them: Nikola didn’t scowl when he encountered Justin in a social setting, made no sharp remarks, offered no veiled insults. Indeed, in public he behaved just as he always had: gracious, friendly, civil, even warm. Justin reciprocated, offering the same appearance of easy, open friendship. In public, no viewer would think there had been a break between them.

In private…

There was no “in private”. They saw one another at events hosted by mutual acquaintances, where Nikola never strayed from a group of fewer than three and was often with Wisteria. On the occasions that the Strikers invited Justin for dinner, there were at least a dozen other guests and Nikola’s presence was required to entertain them until such time as some other social duty was certain to call Justin or Nikola away. For the two invitations to dinner parties that Nikola accepted from Comfrey, Nikola arrived with Miss Vasilver and left early, with an unimpeachable excuse each time. When Miss Vasilver was not about, there was always some other group. Invitations to hunt and to bowrace were both politely declined “due to prior engagements”. There likely were prior engagements, even, but Nikola of old would have offered an alternate date.

Nikola of now did not want to take any chance of being alone with Justin.

What was left was a hollow mockery of their former friendship, all appearance and no substance. The amiable public facade which had once concealed deep intimacy now concealed a vast empty gulf.

Justin felt the lack keenly. Sometimes, when he was telling a story at a party and Nikola was listening and laughing along, or when Justin and Nikola and Wisteria were all three offering droll commentary on a particularly insipid ball, Justin could forget that well-hidden animosity. For a time, he could pretend to himself that Nikola’s distance was but a product of his additional obligations to his betrothed and the stress involved in the wedding preparations.

Then they would meet by chance in some empty hallway, outside the lavatory or wherever, at a society event, and Nikola would give him a look of cold hostility and an icy “My lord” before hurrying away, and Justin would know that this was no matter of happenstance.

Distractions abounded: the Ascension season was nothing but one entertainment after another. Justin attended the galas and parties and theater performances, went to shadowed back rooms for anonymous assignations, forced his body through grueling exercise routines, tried to forget himself in noise and sensation. But at the end of every day, he was alone with the knowledge that he would always be alone. There could be no pleasurable anticipation of his next night with Nikola, nor his next day either.

There was nothing to look forward to at all.

It hurt, and Justin didn’t know what to do about it. Perhaps it was his own fault, for walking out on such an angry, bitter note. Perhaps he could have sent a note, apologized or at least explained that of course Nikola was not nothing to him, could never be nothing. I want so much more than friendship from you, but friendship would be better than this. But what could he write that would be enough and not too much, too dangerous to risk falling into unknown hands? And why must I always be the one to humble myself? After all I’ve done and risked for love of him, why must I still prove that I am his friend?

Some days Justin hated that he cared at all, wished he felt as coldly towards Nikola as Nikola did to him. If he tried, he could work up a righteous anger on the topic and sustain it for a while.

But mostly, it felt pointless. Everything felt pointless. Justin continued his activities out of habit, and for that occasional glimmer of forgetfulness, those moments near Wisteria or Nikola in some crowd, when the present was pleasant and ordinary and he could pretend it was real.

He intended to keep Miss Vasilver as a friend and had been thus far successful. If Miss Vasilver believes me capable of disinterested friendship why cannot Nikola, who knows me so much better? (Because he knows me so much better, of course.) He’d managed her news rather better than Nikola’s, perhaps because he’d spent some time contemplating how he would handle it.

Part of him wanted to seduce her still, to claim her body before Nikola could. (They are not yet wed; if I persuaded her to give her virginity to me, would she break with him and wed me instead? If he knew, would he break with her?) Justin desired Miss Vasilver more the longer he knew her, but he respected her too. He rather suspected that any attempt he made would end in humiliating failure. Even if she were receptive, she deserved better than such manipulative treatment. So he took care to avoid any circumstance that might tempt him otherwise.

At times he wondered why he bothered, wondered if it might not be better to seize at any chance, no matter how slim, that might end the dark pall that had fallen across his life. Who was he trying to impress by taking the high ground? Miss Vasilver? She already knew how little honor he had, given that he’d revealed Nik’s intentions to her and proposed himself. Nikola? Justin was never going to regain his good graces. The general public? Perhaps. Justin had put considerable effort into cultivating his reputation and some part of him, the part that said ‘this too shall pass’, did not want to throw that away for nothing. And it very likely would net him nothing.

And I still have Wisteria’s friendship. Do I want to risk losing that, too?

It was not as much as he wanted, but it was something, and Justin had little enough of true value to him now.

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