Taken (78/141)

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When Nik returned to himself, Sharone was asleep, curled sideways on the chair with her head on his shoulder. For his own part, he was resting against the chair with one arm on the seat cushion, legs folded half underneath him, the buckles of one dress shoe digging into his thigh and both legs numb. I really need to stop doing this when I’m not in a comfortable position. Or clothing. The Whittakers were standing nearby, watching him anxiously. Meredith was sprawled and asleep in a boneless heap on the floor.

“Ess she…will she be well, my lord?” Mrs. Whittaker asked, voice hushed.

He nodded, shifting Sharone’s head gently from his shoulder to the seat. “She’ll be a while recovering and it may be some time before her behavior is fully normal for a girl of her age. Being so long possessed took a toll on her. But the demon is gone now. She’ll no longer have spells of violence or wild uncontrollability or hallucinations.” Bracing against the chair, Nik heaved himself to his feet. Mr. Whittaker stepped forward to steady him as Nik winced at the prickle of life returning to half-asleep limbs.

Mrs. Whittaker gave a little gasp and covered her mouth with both hands, eyes watering with grateful tears. Mr. Whittaker pumped Nikola’s right hand in both of his, indifferent to the lack of glove. “Thank you, my lord, thank you, I don’ know how to tell you how grateful we are, for all tha’ y’ve done.” His mind was sturdy and well-balanced, especially for one whose life had been unsettled for so long.

Nikola waved off their thanks and their eagerness to press a gift on him now – “there will be plenty of time to deal with that in the morning. I need to return to the Palace – what time is it?”

It proved to be half-past midnight, which did not delight him. Still, the Ascension Ball lasted until after dawn, and even his parents rarely left before two in the morning. There would be time yet to enjoy Miss Vasilver’s company – not to mention the carriage ride home.

Nikola took his leave of the Whittakers, who were still thanking him, and made his way in long strides to the front door. Anthser had the night off, of course – even if the greatcat had not been independently wealthy, Nik would scarcely have asked any employee to work on Ascension when he himself expected to be out all night at a party. If it were up to him, there wouldn’t even be a footman made to wait by the door to let in returning houseguests and hosts. Gunther and Jill had taken the carriage and his parents to the party. After Meredith – who was not even an employee, for all love – had run all the way to the Palace and back again with a rider, Nik was not about to wake her from her well-earned sleep and ask her to repeat the trip yet another time. No, he’d find a cab, or one of the street runners – greatcats with riding seats who took fares. He paused by the hall mirror and used the lint brush from the bureau by the door to clean stray fur and dust from his coat and breeches, with help from the footman. “Do you need anything else, m’lord?”

Nik waved him off. “No, thank you, Robert, I’ll be fine.” His mother would have sent the man find a cab for her and bring it back, but Nik was too impatient to wait. He stepped out into the night and strode briskly down the drive, through the gates, and out to the quiet street beyond. Most of the cabs will be near houses that are hosting a celebration, Nik thought. I’ll head for the Palace and hope to catch one on the way. Or walk the whole way, if I must – it’s not that far.

The icy night could not chill his spirits, which were warmed by the lingering joy of healing Sharone Whittaker. He felt vindicated in his determination to help her, and beyond that elated by her recovery. On a considerably less altruistic note, the prospect of seeing Miss Vasilver again warmed him further still.

Distracted by the memory of her lips against his, Nikola paid little attention to his surroundings. He did not notice the three men trailing behind him until after he’d turned onto one of the darker streets.

Sensing someone behind him, Nik glanced over his shoulder, and was startled to see a burly figure lunging for him. Nik ducked by reflex and dodged to one side, only to collide with a second man. The first grabbed one of Nik’s arms while the second seized the other. “What—?” Nik started to say, kicking at the legs of the man behind him and trying to twist his arms free, when he felt a knifepoint at his back.

“’s enough of you,” one of the assailants hissed in his ear, pressing the blade hard enough to prick through the layers of frockcoat and jacket. Nik stopped struggling as a third man dropped a sack over his head. “Handsomely now, and there’s no one as gets hurt. Step along.”

Nik stumbled forward blind and unwilling, men herding him. “Where are—”

One arm wrapped over his chest and he felt cold metal slide beneath his jabot as the attacker pressed the blade against his bare throat. “Happens as I don’t need your tongue, yer majesty, so’s you can hold it or I’s can cut it out and hold it me own self,” the man at his back growled in a low voice. Nik closed his mouth and tried not to swallow. The knife felt razor-sharp against his skin. “Good choice. Which there’s less mess this way.”

They walked him several yards deeper into the alley. “Get the cart,” the knife-man said to one of his fellows. “Gag im. Don’t want his majesty gettin’ any ideas.” Someone pulled the sack up enough to force a gag into his mouth and tie it behind his head, then pulled it down again. They tied his hands behind his back as well, but left his feet free. So they want me to walk somewhere. Like this? Someone must notice. Nik did not struggle; the knife was too close to his throat. They must plan to hold me for ransom. Hah. At least I can afford to pay a ransom now. I just need to make sure they don’t have a reason to hurt or kill me before they make the exchange. He could imagine his father’s rebuke already: “What were you thinking, boy, walking about after midnight unescorted, in all your Ascension finery? You might as well have hung a sign about your neck reading ‘ABDUCT ME’.” Part of him was outraged by the whole situation: what kind of person assaults a Blessed on Ascension? Affrontery, anger, irritation (curse it I wanted to get back to the ball!) all vied with fear for dominance.

So far, fear was winning. He tried to think past the varied emotions: what can I do that might be useful but won’t get me killed? Leave a sign? He twisted his bound hands until his fingers reached the shirt cuffs, and worked off one of the links. He held onto it for the moment, afraid the men would notice the noise it would make falling.

A few minutes passed before the slow rattle of wheels against cobblestone approached. Nik considered the wisdom of causing a commotion in the hopes of attracting some attention versus the possibility of having his throat slit now. But the wheels stopped nearby anyway, and he realized this was the assailants’ own cart. As the men shoved him into it – it was small, some kind of pushcart rather than greatcat-driven – Nik dropped the cufflink, grunting and stumbling to cover the sound. One of the men cuffed him. “Shut up, you.”

Knife-man leaned down to whisper, “We’re gonna be right here pushin’ this cart, yer majesty, an’ they’ll hang a man for abduction sure as for murder.” He drew a shallow line in Nik’s cheek with the knife; Nik whimpered involuntarily as blood trickled from the cut. “So’s don’t be thinkin’ as anyone might save you afore we can kill you. Which you jus’ keep still and quiet and there’s no one as gets hurt.” They threw a tarp that reeked of seaweed and mildew over him, and the cart jolted into motion.

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