Ultimately, the Vasilvers provided three greatcats and three footmen to ride them. Justin offered the one of his greatcats that was on site, but Anthser rejected the individual as too clumsy and more likely to create trouble than solve it. Justin had not realized that greatcats could be clumsy, himself. But Anthser was the only one among them with any practical training in handling criminals and it would be folly to disregard his expertise.
Anthser did agree, to Justin’s surprise, to let Justin ride him to the site. Comfrey Manor was not far out of the way and it gave them an excuse to look as if they were going a different way from Miss Vasilver. At Anthser’s speed, it took only minutes to stop there and retrieve Justin’s finest large-game hunting bow and his dueling sword. The Vasilvers were able to provide him with a spyglass, a riding seat, and an overcoat borrowed from one of their employees in order to be a little less conspicuous than his own flashy one. The other greatcats and their riders had instructions never to get within line of sight of Miss Vasilver, because Anthser did not trust any of them not to put her or Lord Nikola in danger by doing something stupid. If Anthser saw anything that made him want them to move in, he’d roar. Otherwise, they’d be guided by Miss Vasilver’s cues. Some part of Justin, a part that wasn’t thinking find them and kill them all, rankled at taking orders from a woman and a greatcat commoner. I ought to be in charge. I ought to have a better plan.
But I don’t.
From his perch clinging to the seat on Anthser’s back, Justin could feel the tension in the greatcat’s body, a stiffness that made his gait jarring. Justin was used to the stress of competition, to giving his best performance under pressure. These stakes were far higher than any he’d ever played for before, but the same skills applied and his posture was easy in the seat, flowing with each stride and jump as Anthser navigated side streets like a wild thing, leaping onto buildings and running across rooftops. Anthser’s own competitive instincts or perhaps his training kicked in, because he lost the tense edginess that had impeded him at the start.
They were about halfway to 8th and Valence when Anthser’s ears flattened back and he doubled back.
“What?” Justin hissed. “If we forgot something it’s—”
“Whistle,” Anthser growled, jumping from a rooftop to a balcony, then bouncing to a lower one before dropping to the street.
“Once or twice?”
Blood and death, Justin thought, and hung on.
One block from Vasilver Manor, it occurred to Wisteria that it would be logical from a criminal perspective to meet her en route to the rendezvous rather than at it. So she had the whistle in her hand, concealed in a handkerchief. Her eyes were already watering from the scent of the perfume; she hated lavender. But it was good from another perspective: tears would make her look more appropriately distraught.
Perhaps even as distraught as she was. Wisteria was terrified and horrified. She kept thinking about the night before, how she’d wondered where Lord Nikola was, how she’d wanted to send a messenger to check on him but had not done so. Because it was inappropriate. Because young unmarried women did not send messages to men uninvited. What if I had? If we’d known twelve hours ago that he was missing, would we have been able to find him before now? She hated what she was doing but could think of no alternative that did not put Lord Nikola in even greater danger. No help for it.
Wisteria took an indirect path from Vasilver Manor to the meeting spot in an effort to avoid a possible ambush. Even so, she was suspicious of the bundled forms of three men with a handcart approaching behind her, and quickened her stride. It was a cold winter’s day, so hoods and scarves were not out of place – she wore a hat and scarf herself – but under the circumstances it was impossible not to be wary.
Thus, she was unsurprised when they too moved faster to draw up next to her. One of them, a stout broad-shouldered fellow, said, “Well done, sweetheart, ya spotted us. Now walk into that alley there with me and there’s no one as has ta get hurt.”
It would be just my luck to get accosted by random criminals on my way to meet specific ones, Wisteria thought, a flash of annoyance mixing with her fears. “Are you the ones holding my lord?” she asked, right before sneezing.
He took her arm and steered her to the indicated alleyway. “Yer in no position to ask questions, Miss Vasilver.”
Not random criminals, at least. She made a token resistance, lagging as she wiped her eyes, blew her nose and the whistle while she had her mouth covered. “If you’re not his abductors, you’re going to have to wait your turn, I’ve got other ruffians waiting on me.”
One of the other men pushing the cart laughed. “Hah,” the speaker said. “We got his gold-haired majesty all right. Now quit stallin’ an’ move!”
Wisteria complied. Out of sight of the street and with the cart further screening them, the man checked the pockets of her coat, took the coat from her, checked the pockets of her daysuit, found the perfume phial and took possession of it, along with her reticule. He didn’t try to take or examine her clutched handkerchief: she made a point of dabbing at her streaming eyes and nose with it during the search. She bore it, asking only about Lord Nikola. “Where is he? What do you want from us?”
He only laughed. “Dontcha worry, sweetheart, ya’ll be seein’ him soon enough. Anyone follow you?”
“Ya tell anyone ’bout this?”
“No. Your note said not to. Have you hurt him?”
“Nothin’ that won’t mend. Least not with a little help,” he said. Wisteria felt ill.
He pinned her hands together behind her back and she felt a length of cord against them. She finally made a real protest. “Please, sir.” She glanced over her shoulder, blinking against the stream of authentic if lavender-induced tears. “Show some pity! I’ve done everything you said.”
Her interlocutor only grunted. Perhaps one of the other men had the rudiments of a conscience, because one in a too-small and tattered overcoat said, “C’mon, Crit, she’s just a girl. What’s she gonna do?”
Crit grunted again. “Shut yer yap, Red.”
“Please.” Wisteria wriggled her hands ineffectually. “At least in front so I can still blow my own nose, sir.”
The broad-shouldered man sighed but turned her about and tied her hands before her. “Get in the cart.”
Wisteria looked at the cart. It had low walls on all four sides and no seat, like a farmer’s handcart. Or a fisherman’s, judging by the smell of the tarp over it. “What?”
“Get in,” Crit repeated, shoving her shoulder. Red pulled the tarp back.
Wisteria clambered in awkwardly, mindful of her handkerchief and whistle. “If it’s money you want, we’ll pay,” she said. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Which as we’ll get our money, sweetheart, dontcha fret. Ya’ll be on yer way with yer sweetie soon enough, there’s just one thing as we need from ’im first. Now, ya gonna be quiet or am I’s gonna gag ya?”
Wisteria closed her mouth, nodded, and lay down in the smelly cart without further objection. As soon as they were moving, she blew the whistle again. I hope this is as loud to the greatcats as they said it was. It was tempting to blow twice. Maybe with a handful of greatcats menacing them, these men would confess the location of Lord Nikola.
And maybe if there was any delay, they had accomplices who would move or kill him. I’m not in immediate danger, and they said they were taking me to him. So. The plan’s working.
…I hate this plan.
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