Every Solution (111/141)

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She wrote down a list of qualities, then erased them to reorganize them by category, and left some extra room in each so she could fill in other categories later. Then estimated numeric values for each one:

Heritage Lord Comfrey    Lord Nikola
Bloodline   9     10  
Blessing   5     10  
Appearance   10     10  
Health   10     8  
Social Position   9     9  
Political Connections   9     5  
Title   8     9  
Wealth   10     4  
Acumen   9     4  
Integrity   7     10  
Courage   10     10  
Honesty   6     10  
Consideration   8     10  
Loyalty   7     10  
Attachment to   ?     ?  

She studied the last section. There were more personal qualities one ought to look for; she had only put down the ones where she could think of relevant data points from her own experience. It was hard to quantify some of them: Lord Comfrey had been given a chance to be brave in a situation where no one would fault him for taking a safer course. Indeed, he’d taken risk after risk to put himself farther into harm’s way. By contrast, Lord Nikola had had few choices on what to do: taken unaware and outnumbered at his capture, bound and gagged as a prisoner. Perhaps he’d given them some trouble which led to them securing him more thoroughly than herself. Or perhaps they’d assumed a woman unlikely to resist. But even under such circumstances, even hideously tortured, he’d had the will and fortitude to free one arm. And he had used that very limited freedom, not to help himself escape, but to distract Brogan from assaulting her. It was such a small act compared with Lord Comfrey’s near single-handed defeat of several men and successful rescue. But she wasn’t sure it was any less brave.

Lord Nikola’s integrity was unquestioned; indeed, it was his fame as a healer of minds that had led to the abduction, and only a madman like Brogan could doubt his adherence to the Code. Lord Comfrey’s she had more concerns about: his indifference to the cronyism involved in an interest-free bank loan, for example. And as he himself had noted, to propose to a woman after learning his closest friend wished to do so was something less than honorable and loyal. She didn’t doubt Lord Nikola’s loyalty: she remembered his concern for his stricken warcat, his refusal to brook any delay despite his own distress.

For honesty and consideration she again had no reservations about Lord Nikola. Perhaps I ought to invent some reservations. He cannot be so much the paragon as I have painted him here. Wisteria reviewed the string of 10s with a skeptical eye, but could find no faults in Lord Nikola on them. When his parents had been outraged at her, he had remained civil and courteous. Even when he confessed to a failing, such as considering himself irresponsible and his demeanor unlordly, she found his candor irresistible and his flaws overstated. I ought to take him at his word on ‘irresponsible’, however. Lord Nikola has not mismanaged Fireholt, but Lord Comfrey has done more for his holdings. Wisteria took Lord Nikola’s ‘integrity’ score down to a 9 from a 10. Both men had been considerate of her, but Lord Nikola treated everyone well, including greatcats and servants. Lord Comfrey, she thought, was less aware of other people except as they related to himself. And she prefered Lord Nikola’s greater restraint and his more explicit communication of intent when they’d embraced. Not that Lord Comfrey had ever done anything she didn’t want, or pressed her when she drew back, but there was something unsettling about the way their encounters had begun. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if they were married anyway.

She pondered whether it was fair to mark Lord Nikola’s title higher than Lord Comfrey’s. Granted a count outranked a viscount, but Lord Nikola would not inherit Anverlee for decades yet, barring grave misfortune. And somewhere I ought to factor in that Lord Nikola’s parents detest me. Lord Comfrey’s have both passed away, I believe. ‘No mother-in-law to scold me’ ought to be worth something. She added in a line for Familial Relations and marked Lord Nikola at a 3 and Lord Comfrey at a 5, since she knew nothing of Lord Comfrey’s.

Under ‘personal’ she added ‘Children’ and put Lord Comfrey at a 3 and Lord Nikola at a 5, since their one brief discussion of child-raising suggested Lord Nikola did mean to have children at some point. She hesitated to score them too far apart on it with so little data.

Wisteria added the revised columns together. Comfrey scored at 125 and Lord Nikola at 126. Because I’ve weighted all the scores equally and have more items for Personal and Heritage than Financial or Social. If I gave each broad category equal weight instead, Lord Comfrey would average – she paused to do the math – about 6.96 to Lord Nikola’s 6.75.

She stared at the slate again. Oh, this is hopeless. I don’t even know what I ought to count as most important. Lord Comfrey’s right, I do believe Lord Nikola is a better man. I even like him better, I think. The thought was oddly painful, as if she were betraying Lord Comfrey by having it. Not even because he’s ‘better’, just…better suited to me. Lord Nikola encourages me to talk about what I think even when it’s improper, and Lord Comfrey steers conversations away from improper topics. My parents would prefer my husband did the latter, no doubt, and perhaps I would do better in society in such a case. But it would be so pleasant to live with a man who did the former. Her heart lightened at the memory of Lord Nikola’s openness.

But marrying Lord Nikola meant refusing Lord Comfrey. She remembered the Newlanture lord’s intent face, his ‘I’ll reconsider my stance’ in response to hers on children, every word of his proposal speaking of a powerful conviction. The pros and cons he’d offered were not unlike the list she’d made just now. He was, as he’d said, often glib, but today he had been more serious than she’d ever known him. ‘It took me thirty years to find a woman I wanted as a wife: I promise you I’ll not find another’, he’d said. She wished she’d asked for clarification. Did he truly believe no other woman would suit him? Surely such a man could not remain single. Not unless he preferred the unmarried state. Had he asked now out of certain desire or had his hand been forced by news of Lord Nikola’s resolve? Would he regret a decision made in haste? Perhaps that was why he sabotaged his own proposal by telling me of Lord Nikola’s, because he is unsure himself.

Unworthy thought. He had said too he would not change his mind, no matter how long she took to answer. She almost wished he had not given her so much information. If he had not proposed, or had proposed but not told her of Lord Nikola’s intent, then her decision would be easy.

There was a curious kind of honor in the course he’d chosen, Wisteria reflected, in giving her full knowledge instead. It reminded her of the way he had helped her dress again in the carriage when she was no longer sure, the way he’d seemed to read her mind and known it even before she spoke. She had thought then too that he might choose for her, and he hadn’t. He keeps allowing me to make my own decisions, even when I don’t entirely want to. He’d respected my decision to meet with the abductors, as well.

Throughout her life, Wisteria had dealt with people – her parents, brothers, even many of the senior executives of Vasilver Trading and the officials in Southern Vandu – who regarded her as a child. They might consider her wishes and her ideas, but they often felt free to decide what they thought best for her. A man who assumed she was best qualified to make decisions for her own life – that was a novelty.   

It was…hard. But she appreciated it. Appreciated him.

I love him.

The thought was inescapable, natural, inevitable. How could I not love Lord Comfrey, after all he has done for me? How can I refuse him?   

But accepting Lord Comfrey meant refusing Lord Nikola. Wisteria remembered him sneaking them into that room alone at the palace, and she had wondered if he took her there to seduce her. But no, all he wanted was a place to talk where no one else would listen, about all the things they weren’t supposed to talk about. And then it was she who tried to seduce him.

And he would ask me to wed him, after that? Nothing anyone told me about men was true. Or perhaps it’s just not true about any man I would ever care about.

She remembered Lord Nikola’s strained voice as soon as Lord Comfrey ungagged him, nearly his first words asking after her well-being and Lord Comfrey’s. Apologizing for missing the rest of the ball. As if that terrible situation was a minor but unavoidable inconvenience. When she thought him uninterested in any serious relationship with her, it was an unfortunate but bearable truth. But if he did want her – Savior, I cannot tell him no either. Why can I not marry them both? This is an impossible choice.

Looking at her ridiculous chart made her think she ought to marry Lord Nikola – she had no strong desire for more wealth, nor for political influence – but it made her feel no better about the decision. How can I pledge to be true to either man, knowing how much I want the other? Am I fit for marriage to anyone? Lord Comfrey’s stated indifference to chastity gave him a certain additional appeal in that, although who knew if he would be so charitable if she proved unfaithful after marriage? I could ask him. But even she knew now that wasn’t the sort of question one asked of any man, and Lord Comfrey did not encourage such deviation from the standards, in the ordinary course.

Lord Nikola does, though. Perhaps if I speak with him, things will be clearer.

Wisteria looked at the chart again, feeling the strangest mixture of joy and pain. If every solution to these equations must lead to choosing one over the other, what use are they? She copied it over to paper anyway, preserving just the first letters of each label and the accompanying scores, thus reducing it to cryptic columns of letters and numbers that would be meaningless to anyone but her. After pocketing the paper, she wiped the slate clean and went downstairs to change for dinner.

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Due Consideration (110/141)

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Byron returned to the back parlor a few minutes after Lord Comfrey’s departure. “Well?”

Wisteria was sitting again by the fire, her feet up and her mind still struggling to encompass this strange new world. “Well what?”

“Did he ask you?”

There is no way – “Ask me what?”

“To marry you! Don’t tell me he didn’t?”

“Byron, what in Paradise makes you think Lord Comfrey would ask me to marry him?”

Her brother sighed and flopped into the velvet chair opposite hers. “He’s been calling lately. Everyone’s talked about you two since the ball and the rescue. And he’d that terrified, agitated look of a man about to be hung. Or propose. One of the two. Thought for sure…” He gave another theatrical sigh. “What’d he want, then?”

“I should rather not talk about it.” Wisteria wanted more than anything to talk about it, but after Lord Comfrey’s request, it didn’t seem right to do so. Unless she was sure she was accepting him.

Byron gave her a sharp look. “He insult you?”

“No, of course not. And you may stop playing twenty questions with that one.”

“Oh, very well.” Byron gave her a comical look of long suffering. “There’s a house for let at Juniper Road and Azalea, near the warehouse district. Convenient for business. Know the one, with the gables and the little brick wall around it?”

Wisteria had never felt less like indulging Byron’s unserious thoughts on setting up his own household. “Do people truly expect Lord Comfrey to address me?”

“Eh. Maybe not ‘expect’. Consider it possible, sure.”

“Why, because he saved me? Does that happen with officers of the law too or is it only lords?”

“Don’t know, never happened to anyone I know before. But it’s not just that. Everyone knows he danced attendance on you at the Ball, after Lord Nikola left. And this makes, what, six times he’s called? Seven? In the last two or three weeks?”

“Some of those were for business.”

“That’s his excuse, yes. Look, not saying he’s serious. Only, he’s Lord Comfrey. Doesn’t attach. Kensleigh’s sister follows these things, says Comfrey never calls on anyone twice in one week. Any woman, that is. Maybe any man, for all I know. So. Noteworthy.”

“Oh.” They were interrupted then by Byron’s valet: Byron needed to get ready for a dinner engagement with friends.

After Byron left, Wisteria started to go to her office to brood, then considered that her office was less of a haven during the season – her mother sometimes chased her out, insisting she be sociable rather than work through the holidays. That Wisteria prefered working to socializing made no impression upon her. So Wisteria chose the unused third-floor schoolroom as her hiding place instead. The room was drafty despite the shuttered windows, so she dragged the big comfy tutor’s chair next to the heating vent and turned on the gaslights.

Bundled beneath an old quilt against the chill, Wisteria sorted through her thoughts and feelings.

She had been, to some extent, looking for a husband for the last nine years. Some years this search had been more active than others; when she was in Southern Vandu it had been confined to correspondence. Arguably, the correspondence had gone better than her efforts by more typical society events. She had received one offer, when she was twenty-one, by the impoverished younger son of a successful goldsmith. She had not liked him and did not think him attached to anything beyond the idea of her dowry, and so had declined.

When she had been very young, she had imagined handsome men vying for her favor. It had not occurred to her at any point in the last several years that this would ever happen. Certainly not with two men she particularly admired. Not to mention desired. Part of her still wondered if this was some peculiar joke on Lord Comfrey’s part. The notion was unkind, given he had been so agitated even she could tell he was not himself.

Another part was overawed, amazed by the idea that any man, nevermind one as powerful and attractive as Lord Comfrey, would be so moved by her. And his offer had to be for her own person: Vasilver was not Comfrey’s equal in wealth, title, or connections. From a mercantile perspective, it was a brilliant match for her, the sort that other women gossiped about with envy. Not a humiliating one for him, but by no means an equal match.

From a personal perspective: she did not know him as well as she wished, but he had been excellent company at the ball, and very kind to her since. Even more than the heroism of his rescue, Wisteria was endeared by his willingness to overlook the many peculiarities in her behavior, such as his acceptance without rancor of both her wanton behavior and her mercurial switches to reserve. That offhand remark – ‘I should not care if you had had a hundred lovers’ – was hyperbole no doubt, but promiscuity was not a failing most men would overlook in a wife. That he had offered even when she had given him reason to doubt her chastity was telling. And perhaps important, given all she had done. Beyond personality, his physical appeal was undeniable. The thought of undressing him in his – their – own home, sanctioned by law, custom, and society alike, thrilled her. She had once thought herself unmoved by such irrational considerations, but at the moment the influence of his kiss, his caress, could not be denied. Had he not told her of Lord Nikola’s intentions, she would have accepted him at once and never mind how serious a decision it was to make on impulse. He is the kind of man who will risk his life for his friends, who will fight and kill for them, and not even wish for gratitude. In all that list of pros and cons, never once did he mention the debt I owe him. That says as much about Lord Comfrey as all the words he spoke.

Nor did he have to tell me of Lord Nikola’s intentions, and he would have been within his rights to request a prompt reply rather than urging me to consider the question in depth. No, whatever he might say of himself, Lord Comfrey was a good man.

But so was Lord Nikola. Does he truly intend to ask me? She had not seen him since the rescue, although he had sent a wonderful letter, gracious and sweet and humble, inviting her to call on Wednesday. Would he ask then? The whole idea seemed so improbable, nearly as unlikely as Lord Comfrey himself asking. But why would Lord Comfrey carry the tale if it were untrue? Do I want to wed Lord Nikola? The instinctive answer was Yes!

But I cannot wed them both. Whom would I prefer for a husband?

Wisteria tried to consider the question systematically, but memories and feelings about both men kept jumbling in her head. Lord Nikola, eagerly inviting her to speak about anything at all in that absurd extravagant glass carriage. Lord Comfrey pulling her against him on her office couch and kissing her, then asking if that distracted her. Even Lord Comfrey’s sarcastic remarks at the Association which had so irritated her when she realized her mistake in taking them for sincere – ‘Your lecture is too sophisticated for him, miss’ – had a charm in retrospect. She couldn’t think this through in her head alone: she wanted to organize her thoughts in writing. In a chart. After a few minutes, she rummaged about the schoolroom for a slate and chalk and set to creating one. Perhaps if I score each on the various qualities one expects in a husband, it’ll be easier to see which I should choose.

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Proposal: Part One (109/141)

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In his private carriage, Justin stewed in anger, an anger he knew full well masked a terror as great as any of mortal peril.

But it was still better to be angry, better to blame Nikola, than to admit that fear. He thanks me in one breath and breaks with me in the next and with the third accuses me of being inconstant! Claims a disinterested friendship with Wisteria one day, pledges his love for her the next, and I am fickle? Hypocritical self-righteous bastard!

Whispers of self-recrimination broke into his fury. There was something wrong with Nikola, something the Savior couldn’t fix, and Justin didn’t even know what because he was too circumspect to ask. Circumspect. Hah. The first thing I did today was try to seduce him, but I am too circumspect to ask him to tell me his troubles? Too self-involved, perhaps, unwilling to confront an uncomfortable subject. Because what could be more important than my own comfort? Then he’d twist back around to how this was all Nikola’s fault – he’s the one who broke it off! He betrayed me! (Betrayed what? There was no oath between us, no pledge of undying love. No statement of love, even.) And then implied my interest in him has always been merely physical! (And if he thinks that, whose fault is it? What was your first instinct on finding him in private?) I saved his life! (And threw it in his face, as if that obliged him to fuck you.) It’s not about obligation! He should know that I’m his friend, curse it! He’s no right to question me on that. (And surely turning your back on him and stomping off in a tantrum proves your devotion.)

But it didn’t matter how the argument in his head went. Nikola was lost to him now, if indeed he could ever have been said to be his at all (he never was). And as if that were not enough, Nikola was going to propose to Wisteria, and she would be lost as well.


He rapped on the front wall of the carriage to get the draycats’ attention, sliding open a panel as the carriage slowed. “Take me to the Vasilver house.”

Wisteria was in the back parlor talking with Byron when Lord Comfrey called. She asked him to be shown to it, because it was his fifth visit and she thought he deserved to escape the pretentious parlor by now. They exchanged the usual greetings when he was shown into the comfortable room, with its view of the rear gardens framed in two square windows and its worn but well-padded chairs, each with an unfashionable ottoman to rest one’s feet upon (her mother despised those ottomans, and the entire practice of putting up one’s feet for that matter).

Lord Comfrey showed no sign of noting the defiant ottomans; in fact, although he sat at her invitation, he was on his feet again in moments, pacing. Even to Wisteria’s inexpert eye, he looked agitated. After inquiring of the health of her family, he and Byron exchanged a look. Perhaps it conveyed some meaning to Byron, because her brother excused himself a minute later, leaving the parlor door ajar for decency’s sake. Wisteria wasn’t sure if she and Lord Comfrey still needed a chaperone: he had called twice since last Wednesday, and both visits had been pleasant but entirely circumspect. To Wisteria’s disappointment, although she could not bring herself to initiate such intimacies herself, and in any case there had been no opportunity on either prior occasion.

Now there was an opportunity, but Lord Comfrey’s nervous pacing intimidated her. “My lord? Is something amiss?” she asked after Byron left.

Lord Comfrey shook his head, then pivoted to face her. Wisteria was seated a few feet away, with her feet on the floor and ankles crossed demurely beneath her long yellow skirt, too anxious to use the ottoman. His dark brown eyes studied her face, his countenance unsmiling. Wisteria tried to remember if that was normal for him – it was difficult for her to notice or recall even obvious expressions – and thought it wasn’t. He strode abruptly to the door, checked the hall, left the door half-closed again, then returned to her. “Were you aware,” he asked, “that Lord Nikola intends to propose to you?”

Her first thought was What? followed by That cannot mean what it sounds like it means. “Propose what, my lord?”

That made him smile for a moment, though it faded as he replied, “Marriage.”

“To me?” Wisteria felt unusually stupid. Surely even if he did propose to me he would not do so through Lord Comfrey. Would he? Does anyone still use intermediaries in Newlant?

“To you. Yes.”

“No, I was not. I am not sure I am aware of such a thing now. Is this a jest, my lord? I am afraid I do not follow the humor in it if so.”

“No jest.” He took a step closer to her chair, looming over her.

Wisteria stood, discomfited and flattered and taken aback all at once. “Truly? But his family dislikes me, except for Mrs. Warwick, and I am not suitable for marriage, and this is all so very strange. Why did he send you to ask? Is he unwell?”

Lord Comfrey clasped her hand between his. “He did not. Forgive me, Miss Vasilver, for the irregularity here. Of course I should not be telling you such things. Lord Nikola would be furious with me – rightly so – if he knew I was relaying his intentions to you. It is not my place to do so, and believe me I am well aware of that. I have gone back and forth over what to do this last hour and my resolution, such as it is, has not favored the most honorable course. But tell me, my dear, why would you say you are not suitable for marriage?”

“Because I am not? I am blunt and indelicate and I speak of things that ought not be spoken and I can’t even remember that they’re not even though I’ve been told and everyone else understands these things. And you, as much as anyone, ought to know how far I fall short of the ideal. I cannot imagine why he would ask, or why anyone would save a man blinded by greed. Why, Lord Nikola told me himself he was not interested in marriage at this time of his life.”

Lord Comfrey smiled, stroking the back of her hand. “He has reconsidered that stance. My dear Wisteria—” her attention was arrested by the sound of her given name in his baritone voice “—you sell yourself far short of reality. And it is due to that brilliant, courageous, passionate reality that I am engaging in this…rather dishonorable course. For you see—” he lifted her hand to his lips, brushing the skin in a caress that made her insides melt. “—I wish to marry you myself.”

Wisteria watched him, her mind wiped blank by pure shock. He laid a tan finger against her lips before she could formulate a coherent thought, much less a response. “Do not answer me now, my dear. It is wrong of me to have asked immediately after my friend confided his own intentions to me. I will not compound that error by forcing you to a decision before allowing you the chance to consider his offer as well.”

The tall, broad-shouldered man took a deep breath and continued. “I imagine you know already that of the two of us, I am by far the wealthier and more influential. My good friend is frugal but has little interest in business and less in politics. ‘Viscountess’ is not so grand a title as ‘Countess’ and Anverlee is larger than Comfrey, but Comfrey is prosperous, developed, and well-managed. In certain respects, I have made good use of the advantages I was born to. I will not undersell the match.” He moved his finger from her lips to stroke her cheek, then cupped her chin and angled it to his face as he leaned closer. “And I flatter myself that you are not indifferent to my charms.” He kissed her, too briefly; her face followed his when he drew away. “But let me be honest, as I so rarely am. As a man, I am deeply flawed: hypocritical, cynical, temperamental, unchaste – indeed, my dear, I care so little for chastity that I should not mind if you had lain with a hundred men, so long as I might be the hundred-first – sarcastic, flippant – wait, that might be one of my virtues. Wisteria – did I mention presumptuous on that list of vices? that too – Wisteria, I very much doubt marriage will improve me in any respect. Lord Nikola is generous, devoted, devout, honest, kind, and a better man than I will ever be. I have no doubt that he will make a better husband. And a much better father, should you desire children.” He gave a bark of laughter. “Saints, I’ve never considered being a father before. I’m not sure I could do it.”

Most of this conversation had been so stunning – wait, someone wants to marry me? Two men want to marry me? The two most attractive and most fascinating men I know want to marry me? – that Wisteria could not process it, never mind comment. That last begged the question, however: “You do not want children, my lord?”

Lord Comfrey shook his head. “My sister has a Blessed son; I designated him my heir seven years ago. I’ll sire no bastards, and I never thought I’d find a woman I wanted to marry.” He caressed her cheek with his thumb. “Until I met you.” He cleared his throat. “Did you want children, my dear?”

“Oh yes. Very much.” She leaned her head into his hand.

He gazed into her eyes. “I would reconsider my opposition,” he said, and for the first time Wisteria wondered if he felt as much like she had upended his world as he had hers. He gave her another gentle kiss. She put her hand on his shoulder for balance, and then somehow they were embracing, kissing hungrily, until Lord Comfrey released her and took a step away. “Ah, I had best leave before I add to my list of rash ill-considered dishonorable actions. I do not know when Lord Nikola will offer, but I urge you to take all the time you need in considering your choice. It took me thirty years to find a woman I wanted as wife: I promise you I’ll neither change my mind nor find another. I shall call again, my dear, but consider yourself under no obligation to answer me at any time. I beg you to wait at least for Lord Nikola to say his piece. He is a good man, a better man than I by far. And, ah, if your answer to him is yes, I would take it as a kindness if you did not speak of my proposal. Given the circumstances.”

He started to withdraw, and Wisteria caught his hand. “Lord Comfrey—” she could not bring herself to say Justin, though she longed to “—if you believe that he would be a better husband and that you are in the wrong for asking, why did you?”

His narrow lips smiled. “Did I forget to mention ‘selfish’ on my list of vices?”

She shook her head. “But then why tell me his intentions at all? Why list reasons to choose him?”

“Ah.” Lord Comfrey looked away. “Perhaps because I do not think it my place to decide. It is you who must live with one of us—” he smiled “—or neither, as you prefer. The choice belongs with you. Good day, my dear.”

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Everything to Me (108/141)

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Nikola managed a smile in return. “Funny you should mention it.” He moved away from the wall at last and took a ledger from the table beside the carafe and handed it to Justin before taking a seat in one of the armchairs. Justin pretended not to notice the trembling in Nikola’s hand and sat on the sofa, giving a puzzled glance to the ledger book. It had Fireholt’s symbol embossed on the cover. “Your reward,” Nikola said, as if in explanation.

With an unpleasant suspicion in his mind, Justin opened the ledger: inside was a signed and notarized assignment of an account at Michaelson’s, to change ownership from Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, to Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey. It awaited only Justin’s signature acknowledging the transfer.

Of the same account Justin had set up for Nikola not two weeks ago.

“It’s a little short, I’m afraid, but since you’d already set the price of a life-saving I thought it only fair I do my best to meet it,” Nikola was saying.

Justin felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. He could hardly breathe. You can’t, you agreed to accept this, you can’t just give it back— He looked up from the account papers to Nikola’s handsome, smiling countenance. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Oh, but I do. I do.” He scooted forward in his seat, hesitated, leaned over to put his hand on Justin’s. “Justin: thank you. I can’t say, can’t describe, how deeply grateful—”

“Nikola, don’t, it’s—”

“Please, Justin. Let me finish.” Nikola stared at their hands, his white-gloved fingers curling under Justin’s palm, thumb caressing the back. “You did more than save my life. Were it not for your intervention, had you and Miss Vasilver been unable to locate me, I would be lucky to be dead now. What Brogan planned next does not bear contemplation.” Justin’s fingers tightened over Nikola’s; he had to force himself to relax his grip. I wish I’d killed that man. No: I wish I’d made him suffer. “I owe you more than I can ever repay – let me finish, Justin – but I must at least try. I am a wreck of a man right now, and there are a great many things I cannot induce myself to do. But this much I can. And will.” He raised beautiful deep blue eyes to meet Justin’s, his smile turned shy. “I cannot keep taking everything from you and give nothing in return.”

You are everything to me. Justin could not say such a thing. “Oh dear. Does this mean you have tired of taking all the abuse I heap upon you?”

Nikola stifled a smile, looking away. “You know what I mean.”

“I should be sorry indeed if you were weary of taking my time. Or wait, am I taking yours? Perhaps you could repay me in that instead. Are we even there? I confess I have not kept track.”

His lover rose to pace the room. The ceilings were too low: his posture was slightly stooped because of it. “You said I’d won that wager, over the bowrace. The favor.”

Justin blinked at the change of subject. “Yes…?”

“Then I’m calling it in now. Be serious. Will you do that?”

Justin stared at him for a moment, then leaned back, arms to either side along the sofa back. “Of course.”

“Are you going to accept it or must we fight about this?” Nikola nodded to the ledger.

Are those my only choices? Justin swallowed the quip. “What of Miss Vasilver? Fel Fireholt? My part in the rescue was minor.”

“You killed two men for me.”

I would have killed every man on that boat if need be. “I would not have been in a position to do anything had Miss Vasilver not led Fel Fireholt to you.”

“Anthser was doing his job. He doesn’t want a reward, or even a bonus.”

“Nor do I.”

Anthser also never set the price for a life.”

Justin grimaced. That was different! You know perfectly well why I wanted to reward you. Anverlee is all but bankrupt. He could not say it, could not state flatly that all his protestations had been mere cover for Nikola’s pride. Insufficient cover.

“As for Miss Vasilver.” Nikola stopped pacing to stand in profile before Justin, golden hair brushing the low ceiling, and half-smiled. “The princess’s hand in marriage is the other traditional reward, isn’t it? Heir in this case, I suppose, though Anverlee’s not much of a county, and certainly no kingdom.”

What— “You asked,” Justin said through gritted teeth, “that I be serious. Will you accord me the same courtesy?”

The half-smile vanished. “I am perfectly serious.”

Justin straightened, clenching his fingers into the sofa back to keep himself from surging to his feet. “You cannot mean to marry a woman out of gratitude, Nikola.”

“No.” The Haventure man turned to face Justin. “Not out of gratitude. I love her.”

The bottom fell away from Justin’s world. No this cannot be happening you cannot love her you belong to me – “Saints, Striker you made an anti-proposal to her! You cannot be serious!”

Nikola dropped his eyes, smiling wryly. “I didn’t know her then.”

“And you know her now? You met her less than a month ago!” Justin was fully aware of the hypocrisy of his words, when he’d had the same thoughts on an even shorter acquaintance, but he had to say something.

“Well enough to know there’s no woman in the world I’d rather marry. Look, I don’t know that she’d be fool enough to accept my proposal – I would not marry me, especially in my current condition. But I intend to offer. When I am…better.” Nikola returned to perch beside Justin on the sofa, taking his hand. “She is the most remarkable woman, Justin, and no, I do not mean only because she had the will to find me, the courage to risk herself doing so, and the wit to lead you to us when she did. She has the most extraordinary mind, the most fascinating way of viewing – everything. I know you are not much impressed by women, Justin, but Miss Vasilver is different. Special. If you knew her as well as I do, you’d understand.”

I’ve seen her half-naked; is that well enough? For a moment, Justin entertained telling his friend that – would you think so well of your would-be betrothed if you knew how easily she could be seduced? The thought was petty, unworthy of him: what right had he to tarnish Wisteria in Nikola’s eyes? But surely he deserves to know what kind of woman he’s thinking of wedding.

While he wrestled with that thought, Nikola continued, “I feel as though I can speak to her about anything, anything at all. And that’s the other matter I need to speak with you regarding. I want to tell her about us.”

Justin stared at him. “What do you mean, ‘about us’?”

“You know what I mean.” Nikola met his gaze earnestly, gripping his hand. “I would share my life with her; I do not want – I will not – deceive her. About who I am, or what I do.”

Justin’s jaw dropped. “Have you gone mad?” He jerked his hand away as if insanity might be contagious.

The Haventure man dropped his eyes. “Yes. But not in this,” he said softly.

Justin barked a mirthless laugh. “That would settle the question of your marrying her, anyway; she’d certainly refuse if you told her that. You cannot, Nikola, it is absolutely out of the question. You would ruin us both.”

“Miss Vasilver would not expose us, I’m sure.”

“‘You are sure’? And on this certainty, this acquaintance of what, three weeks? Four? You would stake our reputation, fortune, freedom – everything?”

“She’s not some naive sheltered girl, Justin.” Nikola hesitated. “She’s spent years traveling. Miss Vasilver would understand.”

“Do you even hear yourself? You say you wish to marry her in one breath and in the next say you would tell her the one thing guaranteed to make her refuse. Even if – if! – you are right that she would not intentionally expose us, a few careless words could do untold damage. If you are seeking my blessing for this insanity: no. Absolutely not.”   

Nikola stood and took a few steps away. “There is nothing I can say to persuade you?”

“Nothing.” Justin had a terrible premonition that his words had made no impact on his friend’s intended course. “Nikola – I beg of you, for both our sakes, do not do this.”

“I won’t betray your secret, Justin. If that is what you choose.”

“It is.”

“But…” Nikola half-turned to look at him again. “I’ll not deceive her about my behavior, Justin. We cannot continue as we have been.”   

Justin had spent six years waiting for and dreading this moment. Everything about this bizarre conversation had suggested it was near. The announcement could not be said to be a surprise. Yet the pain of it was worse than any physical blow. He could not mask entirely the shattering sense of loss; he bent, placed a hand over his screwed-shut eyes, controlled a shudder.

Nikola stepped to him, put a hand to his shoulder. “Justin, I’m—”

“Don’t.” Justin cut him off, voice harsh with grief. “Do what you must, but don’t you dare apologize for it. Don’t tell me you wish it were otherwise. It’s your choice. You made it.” He stood, shrugged off Nikola’s touch, moved blindly to the door.

“Is that it, then.” Nikola said to his back. “If we are not lovers, I am nothing to you.”

The dark-haired lord whirled upon him, snarling with rage and pain. “It’s your choice, how dare you fault me, how can you think—” Justin took two steps closer, fists clenched. Nikola turned his face to one side, pale and eyes shut, tensed for a blow. “You accuse me of lack of friendship? I saved your life!” By reflex, Justin had one fist raised to strike, a dozen conflicting thoughts running through him. He almost hated Nikola in that moment, for leaving him, for shaking with fear instead of being angry like a true man, like he was—

—and then Justin realized the reason for his own anger. I don’t want to lose him.

I already have.

With an inarticulate cry, Justin turned and stormed from the cottage.

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Not Ungrateful (107/141)

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Justin called on Anverlee Manor at ten o’clock on Monday morning. That was an hour earlier than could be considered reasonable for a social visit during Gracehaven’s Ascension season, but Justin had already waited as long as he could tolerate. The peaceful crowd outside Anverlee’s gates was even larger than the last time he’d called; their makeshift shrine full of offerings had also swollen.

He was nervous, an emotion so unusual in him that it took him some time to identify what he was feeling.

Anverlee’s butler showed him into the parlor, betraying no surprise at his early arrival. Nikola’s younger sister, Mrs. Adonse, stopped in to greet Justin. A few years ago, there’d been some awkwardness between himself and the girl due to her infatuation with him. But she’d recovered from that obsession by fixating on the man she was now married to, and eventually recovered from her embarrassment at contriving the infatuation as well. Now she was at ease with him. “Nik said you’d be by this morning. I am so glad he’s feeling a bit less antisocial. We were starting to think he was going to miss the entire season! I hope he comes up to the house to see you,” she chattered away.

Where else would he see me? Justin recalled after a moment Lady Striker saying something about a gamekeeper’s cottage. The thought reminded him of the hunting cottage he’d arranged for them at the Markavian hunting preserve. Part of him wanted to press for further details on Nikola, but the greater part rebelled against gossiping about his closest friend. “Location is no matter. How has your own family been, madame?”

The little blonde woman giggled, as if still surprised three years after marriage to have it acknowledged. “Oh, worried, all of us,” she said. “Not the baby, of course, but even the captain’s been…wondering. You know. When we heard you’d brought him to the infirmary, I thought that was it, he was safe, he’d be treated, it’s over.” She lowered her voice, the remnants of her smile vanishing. “But it’s not. Not that we aren’t grateful for all that you’ve done, Lord Comfrey!”

Justin was saved from having to produce another diversion by the arrival, not of a human servant, but of Anthser. “Heyo, Lord Comfrey. This way, please.” He motioned to the hall with his dark-furred muzzle.   

Mrs. Adonse made a moue of disappointment. “Nik’s not coming up, Anthser?”

“Not today, Mrs. Daphne,” Anthser said, apologetic.

She rose when Justin did, as if to follow him. Anthser’s head sank and ears went back as he gave her a look, his body language uninviting. Mrs. Adonse sank back to her chair. “Do stop in again before you leave, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin nodded assent and followed Anthser down the hall. “Have you been promoted to Lord Nikola’s butler now? Er, would that be a promotion, from warcat?”

The black greatcat shrugged. “Maybe? I can’t keep track. We’re just doing whatever he needs us to, for now.” Anthser led him out to the cold lawn and down a path into an orchard, barren branches stark against the wintery sky.


“All us greatcats.” Anthser raised a paw in a gesture that encompassed the grounds. Justin realized several greatcats were around: an adult stationed where the path joined orchard and lawn, a couple of adolescents about the fringes of the small orchard, another adult on a nearby rise, a third adult lounging atop the broad ledge of Anverlee’s eight-foot stone wall. They had the languid postures typical of greatcats, but their heads were up. Alert, watching.

“…I didn’t think this many greatcats worked for Lord Nikola. Or Anverlee.”

“Don’t. Those two are Gunther’s kids, the rest are volunteers. Making sure no one bothers Lord Nik.”

“Ah.” Volunteers?

The cottage was small, old, and dilapidated, with a patched roof and little windows of bubbling, distorted yellow-brown glass. It hurt to picture Nikola in this squalid half-ruin. Anthser pawed open the door and announced him, standing back so Justin could pass. The interior smelled of bleach with a faint undertone of mildew, dark enough after the light of day that it gave the impression of dinginess.

Nikola stepped through an interior entranceway and Justin forgot all about the room. “Good morning, Comfrey.” The tall lord wore his habitual crooked smile. His neckcloth was tied askew, but that could not detract from his splendor in a blue morning coat and matched trousers, long blond waves of hair left loose to frame sharply-defined features. Nikola did not look pallid or sickly: he looked like himself. Perfect.

Justin’s face lit with pleasure and relief as he crossed the room to meet his friend in the middle, clasping his gloved hand. “Striker.” It took all his restraint not to fall into Nikola’s arms.

“Thank you for joining me.” Nikola motioned to Anthser in dismissal. The greatcat ducked into a bow before stepping back outside and closing the door, leaving the two men in private. “I’m sorry about the squalor here. I ought to have received you in one of the manor parlors, I know.”

Justin dismissed their irrelevant surroundings with a wave of one hand. “It doesn’t matter.” Then he took another look about, considering. “Are you all alone out here, without even servants?”

“Yes. The greatcats have been a tremendous help, of course, but they’re all outside at the moment.” Another crooked smile. “Mostly they help by intimidating the well-intentioned from trying to press their company upon me. It turns out all I need do to get some privacy in Gracehaven is be held prisoner and tortured. Who would have – Justin?” Nikola was caught by surprise as the viscount took a pace closer, steered them out of sight of the room’s narrow windows, and wrapped him in his arms.

Justin nuzzled golden hair aside to press his cheek against Nikola’s neck, breathing in his scent, feeling tension flow out as he exhaled. “I wouldn’t recommend the strategy, just the same,” Justin murmured dryly.

Nikola put his arms around Justin’s shoulders in return. “No. Not worth the cost,” he agreed, then stumbled a bit as Justin moved them farther back to push Nikola against the far wall. Justin pressed the length of his body against Nikola’s, brushing lips over the taller man’s pale neck, running hands down his sides. A familiar ache of desire rose in him, but Justin craved connection more than release, to hear Nikola gasp with pleasure under his touch, to explore every inch anew and verify for himself his lover’s well-being. He licked the line of Nikola’s chin, skin fresh-shaven and smooth against his tongue. “Justin…” Nikola said, quietly. The viscount snuggled closer still, trapping Nikola against the wall as he nipped at Nikola’s throat, exposed above the high collar. Nikola swallowed, breathing unevenly. “Don’t.”

Justin slid his hips against Nikola’s, feeling the other man’s arousal. “If you’re worried about the greatcats, I’ll bathe afterwards. I don’t have anywhere to be.” He caressed Nikola’s shoulders, stroking down his arms to capture the wrists.

At that, Nikola twisted violently, raising his arms to break the grip. “No!” Justin stepped back at once, releasing the other man, realizing too late the sincerity of that initial objection. Nikola was white, breathing too quickly, head turned to one side and eyes screwed up as if in pain.    

Savior, I’m an idiot. Justin took another step away, crossing his arms to keep himself from doing anything else stupid. Apologizing felt wrong: to do so would draw attention to something that would be better to pretend hadn’t happened. Draw attention to the unusual nature of Nikola’s response. He poured a glass of winterberry juice from the carafe on the parlor table and moved to the sofa.

“It’s not that I’m not grateful, Justin,” Nikola said, voice catching. “I am. But I – I can’t—”

Justin clenched his hand around the glass. Do you think I expect you to screw me out of obligation? That I would want you to? He looked to his friend with the easiest smile he could conjure. “Don’t be absurd, Striker.” One corner of his mouth quirked higher with sincere mirth. “After all, it’s not as if you never saved my life before.”

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Never Asked (106/141)

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Nik had been sleeping more than usual, and more erratically: napping when ennui and depression overwhelmed him, waking from nightmares at odd hours, unable to return to sleep. Staying awake through the night was harder than usual, and then paradoxically he lay sleepless in bed for an hour after retiring, apprehensive about every part of this plan. None of this is going to work if I can’t manage to sleep.    

That was his last thought before the sound of quiet sobs stirred him from slumber. Heavy curtains blocked the sun from his bedroom windows, the darkness only mitigated by sunlight through the half-open bedroom door. He sat up against the pillows and squinted to make sense of the form seated in a chair by the bed. “Lady Beatrice? What’s wrong?”

Indrawn breath, stillness. “I’m so sorry, Lord Nikola.” Her voice was strained, tears choked back. A rustling, next words muffled as she dabbed at her face. “I can’t, I tried, but even asleep, something in you kept him out. I’m so very sorry.”

He fumbled a hand out of the bedclothes to pat at the vague shape of her arm, fingers brushing the skin of her hand. “It’s all right.” A new burr of trauma had formed in her mind, inflaming her conscience. I feel like a disease, infecting everyone I know with mental anguish. “It’s not your fault.”

“Oh, Lord Nikola.” She sounded heartbroken, as if she wanted to believe him but couldn’t. “I wish I had, had…” A shuddering breath. “…been able to do…something. That monster. That vile, abominable beast.”

Nik shivered at the thought of Brogan, hands curling to protect his fingers. He couldn’t understand why Lady Beatrice was taking the situation so personally. “It isn’t your fault.” As he repeated the words, a chilling thought passed through him.

Lady Beatrice nodded, composing herself. She gathered her skirts and rose. “I’m so sorry. I should be…if there’s ever anything…”

“Did she petition you?” Nik asked of Lady Beatrice’s back.

“My lord?” She paused, silhouetted by the light of the half-open door.

“Marie Brogan. The man who abducted me said he’d taken her to all the other healers of minds in Newlant. So you must have seen her too.”

“Oh, um, I’m sure I would not remember, my lord. So many petitioners, you know how it is, they all blur together,” she said, with a brittle false lightness.

“She stood out to me.” The terrible suspicion grew stronger. “A sleepwalker, seeming unaware of her surroundings. Not unconscious: she was capable of moving when steered. I don’t think I’ve seen another one like her. I suppose you referred them to me.”

“I – I – yes, I thought – I mean, I would have, I always refer those I, I can’t treat—”

“It’s all right,” Nik said. “You had no way to know what he was capable of.”

Lady Beatrice shook her head. “None at all. Oh, how I wish I’d touched him, if I’d seen that demon…” Heartfelt, honest regret.

“And you were sure I’d be able to treat her.”

She looked over her shoulder at him. “I – everyone knows you are the best of us—”

“And you could see what was wrong with her,” Nik said, very softly. “So of course you thought I would.”

She put her fist to her mouth to stifle an involuntary cry. Turning, she fled the room.

Nik clenched his fingers against the blankets, shaking with cold fury. After a moment, he rose and drew on a dressing gown and slippers. Lady Beatrice was in the parlor, crumpled into a chair, her short chubby form hunched in guilt and misery, face hidden behind her hands. Anthser loomed imposingly by the front door, fur bristling; from the greatcat’s expression, Nik knew he had heard everything. Nikola raised a hand palm-out to Anthser in a ‘hold’ gesture, but did not speak. At length, Lady Beatrice began to speak in low, desperate tones. “I was so busy that day, I had a final fitting to go to, and petitioning hours were over, I just – I could see how long it would take, and I just couldn’t then…”

“So you told him you could not diagnose her.”

She winced, nodded. “I knew you’d be in town soon, I thought – you’re so good with those complex ones – I didn’t know he was possessed! I didn’t know! I didn’t think it would hurt anyone!”

“Except her.” Nik met Lady Beatrice’s eyes as she looked up. “Mrs. Brogan. You left her suffering. So you could be fitted for a dress.”

She clenched her hands around her handkerchief, flushed as she looked away. “There’s always someone,” she said. “It’s my life too. I have a husband, children – we cannot all be as devoted as you, Lord Nikola.”

“You could have arranged for him to bring her back. But they looked poor and shabby and not worth your time.”

Lady Beatrice would not meet his eyes. “I didn’t ask to be Blessed.”    

Nik crossed the room in two quick strides, dropping his hands to the arms of her chair to loom over the older woman. “I didn’t ask to be abducted and tortured. Marie Brogan didn’t ask to be cursed,” he snarled. “One of those things you can remedy, Lady Beatrice. And you will. You’ll find her and heal her. None of this is her fault.” She flinched, nodded mutely. The tall lord released the chair and stepped back. “Good day, madame,” he said in cold dismissal. She collected herself, still not looking at him, and Anthser stood aside for her as she fled the cottage.

Anthser stared at the closed front door after she was gone, lips pulled back to bare sharp teeth. “Wretched little cow—”

Nik was suddenly overwhelmed by weariness, even more than anger and self-righteousness. Who am I to judge her? I haven’t heard a petition in over a week. I can’t even help myself. “Let it go, Anthser.”   

The great black cat flattened his ears. “This is all her fault.”

“No. It’s all Brogan’s fault.” Nikola moved to Anthser’s side and patted his neck. “He just had help.” Surprisingly, he felt a little more like himself now. I’ve made it through two encounters with a human being without wanting to burst into tears or flee. That’s progress of a sort. Maybe seeing Justin tomorrow will go well after all.

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The Least I Can Do (105/141)

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Saturday afternoon found Nikola in the cottage’s ersatz workroom, transcribing and elaborating on some salient portions of his great-grandmother’s letters to him, when Meredith poked her head in. “Um, Lord Nik? We know you don’t want to see any humans but there’s a lady at the house for you and Jill said we ought to tell you about her just in case? If you don’t mind?”

Nik tensed at the idea of company, then made himself relax and sat up, squaring the correspondence into a neat pile next to him. Miss Vasilver? I did ask her to come, albeit not this soon… “That’s fine, Meredith. Who’s calling?”

“Lady Beatrice, if it pleases you, m’lord?”

“Ah.” Rumor travels fast. Nik was not ready for this, for another round of the hope/stress/panic that offers of help from a Blessed had invoked so far, that deterred him from so much as reaching for the Savior’s presence on his own. But this will spare me the stress of braving the crowds of her petitioners later. He did not delude himself that this visit was unrelated to his current condition. “Thank you. Tell her I’ll be with her shortly.” He stood to change into suitable attire.

Meredith spread her whiskers, ears perking. “Yes m’lord!”

While shifting from dressing gown to trousers and a short jacket appropriate for a social call, Nikola’s mind ran ahead, picturing himself entering Anverlee Manor to greet Lady Beatrice in the main parlor. That didn’t sound bad. He’d run into his mother, too; fair enough, he wouldn’t mind seeing her at this point. Or his sisters. Father? He didn’t want to see Lord Striker; his father had little understanding or sympathy for mental illness. There would be others at the manor, too: servants, guests, his sisters’ husbands, all questioning, demanding—

—he tried to divert his thoughts but couldn’t, fastening buttons with sweating hands, heart pounding. Curse it, I can do this, I can do one ordinary thing

Jill’s voice at the dressing room door broke into his thoughts. “Lady Beatrice’s in the cottage parlor now. So’s ya know.”

Nik realized he had not told Meredith where he would see his visitor. A greatcat wouldn’t realize how unsuitable the cottage’s parlor was for a wellborn caller, and it was too late now to amend the mistake. He wiped his damp palms on a handkerchief and hunted for gloves: he had not worn a pair in days. He checked his reflection in the mirror, rearranged his neckcloth a few times, realized he was stalling as well as not improving it, and left off.

Lady Beatrice was seated in the parlor chair nearest the stove, with her wrap still around her shoulders; it was a cold, drafty room. “Lady Beatrice. Thank you for calling; I must apologize for the shabbiness of my hospitality,” he told her as she rose at his entrance.

“Oh, Lord Nikola, please don’t apologize.” Lady Beatrice drew off her glove and extended one plump hand to him, bracelets tinkling around her wrist. The evident distress in her voice surprised him. After a brief hesitation (why am I seeing her if not for this?) Nik likewise removed his glove and took her fingers. She gasped, tightening her grip. “Oh, Lord Nikola, I am so very sorry. You – what they must have done to you – I—” Lady Beatrice took a deep breath, clasping his hand between hers. “Do you not see it as well?”

He looked to the window, uncomfortable. “Of course.”

“Then why – oh, I know it’s not been a week, but surely the Savior would…I mean…”

Nik knew what she meant. The Savior wouldn’t heal recent trauma because the brain needed time to process and learn from experiences, including traumatic ones. But with damage that was extensive and not improving, as was his case, the Savior would certainly be willing to intervene by now. He shook his head, extracting his hand from hers. “It’s…complicated.”

“My lord?” Lady Beatrice had her round, anxious face turned up to watch him.

Nikola paced to a window and rested a hand against the trim. “I can’t.”

“But…you cannot see what needs to be remedied? Will you let me help you, then?”

He shook his head, looking through the narrow, distorted, yellowing glass of the window. A greatcat sat on the path to the cottage, fifty yards off, keeping watch. “It’s not that I can’t see it. I can’t ask for the Savior’s help. I…don’t feel him any more.” Nik closed his eyes at the woman’s gasp, not wanting her pity. “I—” I hurt him, I don’t deserve his help, I cannot feel him again, not that fury and outrage “—when I saw healers of the flesh, they said I was refusing them unconsciously. Lord Walther managed to heal my body while I was sleeping, however. That…might work again, I suppose.” But you’re not a greatcat and I can’t ask a lady to watch me sleep; the whole idea is absurd.

“But you – why would you – how can you not feel—” Lady Beatrice put a hand over her own mouth to stop the words. “I’m sorry, my lord. It’s not my place to pry.” She folded her hands together. “However, please know that I believe your injuries are within the Savior’s power to remedy. I would be happy to make the attempt now. Or at any time of your choosing, including while you sleep tonight. You don’t have to suffer like this, Lord Nikola.”

Nik half-turned to her. “Lady Beatrice…I cannot ask you to—”

“Then don’t ask.” She crossed to his side and took his sleeve, her small plump form looking up at him with a pleading look. “Just agree. You – you of all people deserve better. I’ll stay until you sleep, if that’s what it takes.”

Nik blanched, horrified by the impropriety and irregularity of it all. “I can’t let you do that. Your reputation! I ought to be petitioning you—”

She waved a hand in dismissal. “I will not let convention stand in the way of your well-being!”

Nik couldn’t imagine even trying to sleep with a casual acquaintance just outside his door in this tiny cottage. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful, but – here: I’ll stay up the night and go to sleep tomorrow morning. You can call then; I’ll give the greatcats instructions to show you in. I’ll be less likely to wake if I’m already sound asleep in any case, and I don’t wish to waste your time. And a daytime call will excite no gossip.”

Lady Beatrice offered a troubled smile, her eyes still worried. “Whatever you prefer, my lord. Are you sure you don’t wish me to try now?”

Nik swallowed against a spike of terror, remembering the terrible weight of the Savior’s emotions smashing him into oblivion. He shook his head. “Believe me, it wouldn’t work. I do appreciate your concern, my lady. It’s very generous of you to indulge me in this.” Nik was surprised and touched by her heartfelt offer; he couldn’t imagine what he’d done to merit it. I wonder if this is how the Whittakers felt when I invited them to stay at the manor? Maybe some things you get because your need is so desperate.

“It’s the least I can do.” Lady Beatrice took his hand and gave it a quick squeeze. “I shan’t tax you with further pleasantries, Lord Nikola. I’ll see you again tomorrow, I promise.”

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A Question of Justice (104/141)

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As he dragged his attention back to the letter he was struggling to compose, he heard the click of the front door opening and tensed. Anthser bolted upright, ears alert and swiveling, muzzle wrinkled in a half-snarl. “Yo, Lord Nik?” Jill’s voice called out.

“In here, Jill.” Nik patted Anthser’s neck. The black greatcat relaxed again.

Jill poked her head through the archway. “There’s a watchcat here. Wants to talk about Brogan an’ the trial. Want me to send er away?”    

Nik did not want to talk about Brogan or a trial or anything else that would remind him of that ordeal. I have enough trouble putting it from my mind already. Anthser curled closer to him, rumbling with a protective purr. Still, Nik could not turn the Watch away forever, and he’d already refused them three times at least. “A watchcat? Just the one?”


“I’ll see her. In the parlor here.” Nik disliked the idea of visitors seeing his squalid surroundings, but the thought of approaching Anverlee Manor’s bustle was far worse than mere mortification. And it was only a greatcat.

The Watchcat was young, leopard-spotted, and huge, as large as Jill. “I’m Feli Thranthier,” she introduced herself, jaws parted to imitate a human smile, whiskers spread wide in true reflection of her good mood. “Thanks fer seeing me, your lordship.”

“Thranthier?” That wasn’t a Newlant place name. “Are you from the Free Nation?”

“Parents are, m’lord. I immigrated back.” She declined Nik’s gesture to the human-proportioned couch, which looked barely adequate to her size if she lay lengthwise upon it. Instead, she sat on her haunches on the small carpet set at the center of the grouping of couch and chairs, while Nik took the chair in front of her. Thranthier tucked her tawny black-tipped tail before her forepaws, scarlet and brown-trimmed watchcloak settling on her back. “Want t’ talk to you about the trial of your abductors. Mr. Vance – the prosecutor for this case – wants to set a date fer the trial and would like it at a time good fer you to stand witness.”

Nikola rubbed a hand over his face. Everything about the prospect appalled him: appearing in a packed courtroom, bearing up under cross-examination, forced to relive the horrors of that night, confronting Brogan – he controlled a shudder and forced his mind away. No time is good. “Must I?”

Feli Thranthier ducked her head and hunched her shoulders in a vain effort to appear smaller than Nikola. “Need your testimony, m’lord. Mr. Vance wants those bastards to hang, pardon my language. Miss Vasilver c’n testify as to her own abduction, which’s a capital crime in itself. But Mr. Vance don’t think that’ll be enough. But what they did t’ you—” her voice hardened “—well, with yer help, we’re sure t’ nail em.”

Nikola stared at his hands, fingertips curled inwards by a reflexive instinct for protection. “I don’t care,” he said, softly.

“Beg pardon?”

“I don’t care what happens to them. Brogan’s not even in his right mind.”

“They – m’lord, Lady Beatrice says he knew what he did was wrong. We got t’ punish him, or what’s t’ stop others from doin’ the same?” The spotted watchcat canted her ears flat to either side in dismay.

This time, Nik did shudder. What’s to stop them now? “They didn’t fear death anyway, Feli Thranthier. Especially not Brogan. Killing them now won’t change that. Look, I know you want to protect people, and I’ll not stop you from doing your job. But I am not fit to testify, and I do not know when or if I will be, and to be honest I just want this to be over. Far more than I want vengeance. What’s past cannot be undone, and no amount of punishment can make it better.”

The watchcat lay down on her belly with her eyes turned up to him, supplicating. “Please, Lord Nikola. Mr. Vance can delay the trial til yer better, but y’ got t’ testify.”

“No, I don’t.” Nikola rose. “Good day, feli.”

She didn’t rise. Very quietly, she said, “They’ll subpoena you.”

Nik stopped. “What?”

The greatcat shifted, still prone. “They’ll subpoena you. To testify. Was a capital crime, Lord Nikola. They got t’ press charges. They’ll make y’ testify, even if you don’t want to.”

“What?” Nikola took a step backwards, crossing his arms over his chest. “Are you honestly telling me the watch will drag me in chains to stand witness? For the crime of being the victim of abduction?”

The feli would not meet his gaze. “’s the law.”

“Get out,” Anthser growled. Nikola started, jerking to one side; he’d not even heard his warcat enter the room. The black greatcat loomed in the archway between parlor and ersatz study, fur bristling, head lowered, teeth bared in a snarl at Thranthier.

The watchcat flattened her ears, rising to a defensive crouch on the carpet. “Look, I don’t like it neither, but we need is help—”

Anthser leapt past Nikola to land before her with a thump that shook the cottage. “Enough!” he roared, tail lashing. “You want to know what we need his help for? To mend greatkitten minds. Only we’re not getting that any more, and you know why? Because we failed him. Because you failed him.” He advanced on her; even though she was the larger of the two, he drove her backwards with the force of his fury. “That’s the deal, curse it. We take care of him and he takes care of us, and we blew it. Where was the watch on Ascension night, when he needed them? Where were you the morning after, when we rescued him? Too fucking little and too fucking late, that’s what you were. And now you have the gall to come here and tell Lord Nik he has to do any curst thing? Brogan a problem now? He’s your problem. Take care of it.” Anthser had backed her to the front door now: Thranthier looked as agitated as he did, her hackles raised and muzzle wrinkled to show teeth. She started to say something and Anthser roared over her. “NO! We’re done here! Get out.

“Fine!” Thranthier snarled, then turned tail and fled the cottage.   

Anthser watched her go, his body tense and quivering with rage. After a few moments, he took a deep breath and turned back to Nikola, whiskers straight and ears canted in a parody of his normal good humor. “Er. Sorry about that, Lord Nik.”

Nik stared at him, not sure what had just happened. Unsteadily, he crossed the floor to Anthser. The black greatcat met him halfway, dropping his head to nose the hand Nik extended. “Anthser…it’s not that I don’t want to see petitioners, you know.”

The dark head sank lower, ears flat and whiskers drooping in mortification. “’Course not, Lord Nik.”

“I can’t. I’m not doing it to, to punish anyone. It’s not your fault. Or hers, or the watch, or…whatever you seem to think.”

“I know.” Anthser slid his muzzle against Nik’s hand, then butted his head against the man’s chest. “I didn’t mean that you would. No one thinks you’re doing it on purpose. But…we should’ve been there for you. None of this ever should’ve happened.” The greatcat screwed his eyes tightly shut, pressing his head hard enough against Nikola that the man had to put one foot back to brace against the weight. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

Nik bent, hugging the warcat. “It’s not your fault.” He stroked the bristling dark fur down. “It’s not your fault.”


While Justin was at breakfast on Friday morning, one of his servants came in to say, “M’lord, there’s a greatcat from Anverlee here with a message. Says it’s important.”

Justin’s heart leapt – perhaps Nikola will see me earlier than Monday after all! – but he confined his reaction to a calm “thank you,” and held out his hand for the message.

The serving girl looked anxious. “Begging your pardon, m’lord, but she won’t give it to me. Says only to you personally.”

Justin raised an eyebrow. “Very well. Show her in.”

This time, he recognized the massive blue-gray form when she padded into his dining room: Jill, the greatcat who’d started the search for Nikola while Lady Striker dawdled. “You have something for me, fela?”

She dropped to her haunches on the polished hardwood floor and glanced to the servant by the door. “’s private, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin wondered what Nikola felt this creature could be trusted with that his own servants couldn’t, but dismissed the serving girl. “Well?”

“Some prosecutor is out to make a name fer himself by makin’ an example of Lord Nik’s abductors,” the greatcat said, without preamble.

“Good for him.” Justin felt a certain grim satisfaction in that, although he was perplexed why this greatcat was telling him.

“No. Not good for him. Lord Nik doesn’t want to be dragged through standin’ witness at some long, drawn-out trial, forced to relive it all again and again. He doesn’t need the hammer to come down on those monsters. He needs this to be over.”

Granted, that did sound like his friend. But… “Why did Lord Nikola ask you to tell me this?”

She snorted. “Lord Nik didn’t ask me. You know he won’t ask for help. But he needs it just the same. Prosecutor’s threatening to force him to testify whether he wants to or not. You’ve got influence. Make em back off.”

Justin blinked at her. “You’re never serious. Subpoena the victim? The prosecutor would have to be mad.”

“Then you tell im that. Savior knows they won’t listen to me.”

“You are serious.”

She dipped her massive blue-gray head in a curt nod.

“And Lord Nikola doesn’t know you’re here.”

“’Course not.” She gave him a scornful look. Her whole attitude was infuriatingly insubordinate, but beyond that it unsettled him. Everyone knows Nikola and I are friends, and I am the most influential friend he has. Naturally she would turn to me. It doesn’t mean she knows anything more.

But she knows us well indeed, to realize this is a favor I would do for Nikola as well as one he would never request of me. “Who’s the case prosecutor?”

“Mr. Vance. You know him?”

Justin shook his head. “No, but it’s no matter. I’ll see he’s set straight. If he imagines bullying a lord and a Blessed will help his career, he’ll soon enough realize otherwise.”

The greatcat relaxed, whiskers flaring, her imposing demeanor vanishing with her tension. “Great. Thank you, Lord Comfrey.” She rose to all fours and offered a low bow, head down and both forepaws stretched before her.

“You’re welcome. And – there is no need to tell Lord Nikola any of this, of course. Good day.”

“’Course.” She flashed an open-mouthed smile and left him to his breakfast.

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Broken (103/141)

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Nik was staying in the gamekeeper’s cottage on the grounds of Anverlee Manor. It was a modest one-story building screened from the main house by a small orchard of apple and pear trees. The hunting preserve was long since gone: it had not been part of the entailment when Anverlee County had been restored to Nikola’s ancestors. The Strikers had never kept game in Gracehaven, and the cottage had been uninhabited for decades. It was weathered by time and disuse, but Anverlee’s people had put a great deal of effort into making it habitable in the day before Nikola took residence there. The furnishings were comfortable if unfashionable, taken from his suite and office in the manor, plus some of the more serviceable pieces dredged from the attic. Lady Striker had purposed its rooms as parlor, dining room, bedroom, and dressing room: it was so old that it had an outhouse, a detached kitchen, and no plumbing. The greatcats brought him food from the manor’s kitchen. At Lady Striker’s direction, an antique tub occupied the dressing room, but Nik made the trek every day to the felishome to use their bathing facility instead. The felishome had a spacious pool that the greatcats themselves seldom used, preferring old-fashioned tongue-grooming. The cottage lacked gaslights or a furnace as well; it had wall sconces instead, and wood-burning stoves in three rooms.

The “dining room” was more a workroom at this point. At Nik’s request, Jill and Gunther had retrieved boxes of papers from the house: old journals, correspondence, observations. Some were Nik’s own, and some inherited with Fireholt. Nik had brought it all from Fireholt with him, half-thinking he’d get to it during the season and suspecting he wouldn’t. Now they were spread in heaps across two long tables pushed against the room’s two exterior walls, while a not-yet-crowded bookcase stood against an interior wall. With help from Anthser and Meredith, he’d sorted most of the papers into rough categories. The dining chairs had been stacked and displaced to the front room; the only seating in the room was a greatcat-styled couchbed beside the bookcase.

Nik lay on his stomach on the couchbed, open notebook on a lapdesk before him, pencil in one hand. Anthser sprawled next to him facing the other way, dozing with a foreleg draped over Nik’s right calf. The situation made Nik feel like a small child, before deportment instructors beat such undignified behavior out of him. He didn’t mind; feeling like a boy kept worse recent memories at bay.

Mostly at bay.

He had been indexing case studies for an hour, until the description of one mind reminded him of Mrs. Brogan’s, and the memory drew him back to that awful cabin. Nik had spent a quarter of an hour trying to force himself to continue regardless, to ignore the panic, the shaking, the terror and remembered pain. None of it real.

Knowing it wasn’t real almost made it worse, because there was no Brogan here to blame. Only his own mind, doing this to him.

Forcing the issue hadn’t helped; he’d given up when Anthser had come back with a pile of books and found Nik curled in a tight knot on the couchbed, crying.

The greatcats’ concern – all of them, not just Anthser – was hard to bear. Everything was hard to bear: solitude left him with too few distractions from memory, company oppressed him with their fears added to his, work reminded him of trying and failing to help Marie Brogan and of lashing out at the Savior, leisure made him long to go out at the same time that panic rendered him incapable of doing so, sleep brought nightmares – whatever he did or didn’t do had its costs. So he rotated between activities until the next one sounded not as bad as the current. Waiting for this to pass, for the day when life would be good again and not just endured.

Nik was working on a letter to Miss Vasilver now. It had taken him two days to finish a short letter to Justin, draft after draft fed to the stove: too intimate, too many details, too revealing, not grateful enough, ungracious, cowardly, everything wrong. Nik wanted desperately to see Justin and was desperately afraid to do so. Terrified that even Justin would trigger those too-vivid memories of torture, that he would crumple – again – in front of his closest friend, that Justin’s gaze would hold nothing but horror and pity at the wreckage that remained of him. Bad enough that Justin had seen his degradation after Brogan’s abuse, but this inability to cope even when he was safe, when everything was fine – this was inexcusable weakness.

Oddly, he was less worried about Miss Vasilver even though he knew her less well. Perhaps because he knew her less well: it wouldn’t be as awful to be judged by her. But more likely it was her frankness, her willingness to broach any subject without hint of judgment or condemnation. As attached as Nik was to Justin, feelings were not something they ever talked about. Trying to do so was unnatural, an invitation to awkwardness at best, if not scorn and contempt for such unseemly behavior.

But Miss Vasilver, with her peculiar disregard for convention, would perhaps not be sensitive to this.

Even so, he could not write her about his present state. Every line that conveyed too much, Nik crossed out. All he wanted to do was express his gratitude in some decent fashion and invite her to call on Wednesday. Maybe by then he’d be able to face Anverlee Manor, his parents and family and the horde of human servants.

…Nik doubted that.

His mental condition had not improved in the four days since Justin and Miss Vasilver had saved him. If anything, it was worse. He had a full catalog of problems: trauma-induced panic attacks, flashbacks, phantom pain, isolation, depression, self-loathing, and thoughts of suicide. Nikola was…pretty sure he wouldn’t attempt suicide. I know I’m irrational. This isn’t like when I was thirteen and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. All of this is textbook, diagnosable, curable.

With the Savior’s aid.

…which I am too terrified to request. And there aren’t any greatcats with a Blessing for minds. But the same gambit might work with a human mind-healer. There’s hope. I can’t give up yet.

But it was irritating that he would even think about suicide again, that he would fantasize about those freezing moments in the harbor before Crit pulled him from the water and wish he’d drowned instead. I thought my great-grandmother had cured me of this urge ten years ago. Why is it back now? He could guess the answer to that. When he was twelve, he’d realized he was sexually attracted to men and not just women. That realization had led to the terror of discovery, and a desire to cure himself of his unnatural longings. He’d prayed to the Savior, begged for insight, and scoured his mind for the source of his carnal urges. When he hadn’t been able to find it, he had been overwhelmed by guilt and shame, and descended into the despair that led to his suicide attempt.

What his great-grandmother had cured was not his lust, obviously. Instead, she had altered his mind so he was no longer ashamed, no longer as eager to please a society that condemned his nature. Nik had long known that – among other things, it meant his intractability as a youth was even more pronounced relative to his childhood than most. It wasn’t until now that he had realized the impulse to self-destruction in the face of adversity was still untouched under that change. It was only that he hadn’t had a reason to face despair since then.

Nikola stared at the shapes of his own mind with contempt. I hate the way my head works. What a mess.

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As Long As You Will Be There at the End (102/141)

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Justin did not know what he was doing, which bothered him as much as anything else.

Other than Nikola, Justin had no close friends. He had a wide range of acquaintances, and a fondness for many of them. Even silly giggling girls and overstuffed peers were amusing in their own ways. But all of them were interchangeable, each with some uses and one no better than the other as far as company went, only differing in the details. There was no reason to cultivate any particular one for the sake of mere companionship. He preferred to keep them at arm’s length: it discouraged hangers-on and presumption. Even with people he screwed – especially with people he screwed – he recoiled from the appearance of attachment. In part that was due to the need for discretion, but it was a personal preference as well. He did not want be dependent on any one individual for anything. If his admiration for Nikola had not always been so intense, he would never have let their friendship progress as far as it had.

And now Wisteria Vasilver threatened to do the same. She was unlike anyone else he knew, with her quick grasp of details, her deep understanding of finance and investment, her cool, calm, analytical mind. Not to mention her remarkable bravery, her fearless, dispassionate evaluation of risks. Men called him brave, but Justin was not the one who – with both hands tied! – had tackled an armed man half again his size. Even without her considerable physical appeal, he wished to see more of her. With her considerable physical appeal, he wasn’t sure what to make of her. He was certain that she was a virgin who wished to preserve that state for marriage. Perhaps he could persuade her otherwise, but…he liked her. He didn’t want to risk that for mere physical gratification. Apart from the way he kept acting as if he wanted to risk it. He hadn’t meant to embrace her this afternoon, never mind kiss her. Yet it had seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. Madness in retrospect. Perhaps I ought to propose to her. Isn’t that what normal bachelors do with maiden women they admire and desire? But it was far too soon in their acquaintance for such thoughts, even if he’d been a normal man. Which he wasn’t. If I wed, would Nikola break from me? Even if he did not, it would be still harder to arrange assignations with him.

Justin assumed he would see Nikola again eventually. The alternative did not bear contemplation.

He arrived home without reaching a resolution even in his own mind. In the foyer, Justin shrugged out of his overcoat, letting the footman take it as he asked his butler, “Messages while I was out?”    

“Two callers left cards, my lord, and three letters delivered.” The uniformed man proffered a silver tray with the papers on it. “The top one is from Lord Nikola.”

Justin couldn’t contain his smile, his heart lightening at the name alone. He collected the correspondence with more haste than necessary. “Thank you, Frederick. That will be all.”

Justin went to the cosy second-floor parlor, taking the seat by the window that Nikola always chose when he called. He put the cards and other letters aside without looking at them, holding Nikola’s in his hand. An actual letter in an envelope, not a folded page sealed. For a few moments he gazed at his name, penned in Nikola’s own deft slanted hand, then broke it open.


I must apologize – for quite a few things, in fact, but first and most of all for not contacting you before now. I know you’ve called, and I cannot readily describe how much it troubles me to have turned you away. Friendship alone demands a better reception than that, nevermind the very great debt that I owe you. To have treated you so shabbily after you have done so much for me…Common decency insists I return the call, but I do not know when I will be in a position to do so. But if you were so kind as to call at Anverlee Manor yet again, say on Monday morning, I should be very happy to receive you. I know it’s nonsensical to say in one breath “I cannot see you” and with the next “I’ve missed you”, but it is nonetheless true. Anthser and Jill and the other greatcats are good people, but they are not you. And there are the (admittedly rather tattered in my case) obstacles of class between them and I. It’s not the same as conversing with a peer. I do hope you will excuse my lapses and return, my friend.

I cannot thank you enough for rescuing me. I do not write that as hyperbole, but literal truth. I understand from Anthser’s account that he and Miss Vasilver played critical roles in finding me, but all that would have been for naught were it not for your skill and courage. I have never been so glad to hear anything in my entire life (and hope never to be again) as the sound of your voice ordering Brogan to surrender. I shudder to think what would have become of Miss Vasilver and myself without your intervention. I should sooner be exiled to the Abandoned World than have spent five more minutes as that man’s prisoner. I have done a poor job indeed of expressing my gratitude thus far, but never imagine I do not feel it. I will see what I may do about rectifying that lapse in the future. In the meantime: thank you, Comfrey.

I am not myself of late – I imagine you’ve noticed. I have a mountain of apologies to write for canceled engagements. Jill thinks I am mad for caring: “Nobody expects you to apologize for bein’ tortured.” Savior, I hope the whole world doesn’t know everything that transpired. But Jill thinks all humans mad, and I know better than most that is untrue. Apologizing for my indisposition is perhaps not needful, but it’s one of the saner things I’ve done of late. I am trying to make some use of my time, organizing my own notes on my work and cross-referencing them with my great-grandmother’s and her grandfather’s. It’s slow going, but I daresay a worthwhile project.

I hope this finds you well, Comfrey, and enjoying all the usual Ascension things. I look forward to hearing your dry commentary on Lady Dalsterly’s Fifth Night supper and Elsbury’s dance and everything else I am liable to miss this year. Take care, my most excellent friend.

Your obedient servant,


Justin touched his fingertips to the final sentence, a smile still on his lips. Monday! he thought, heart soaring. It did trouble him that the date was five days off and that Nikola wrote as if he were a recluse or a pariah, with all plans canceled. Why? With his body healed and himself a mind-healer, what could be troubling him so? Does he have some undiagnosable condition?

But five days was nothing: through most of the year Justin went months without seeing him, while Nikola was at Fireholt and Justin in Comfrey. Even when they were both in Gracehaven for the season, they might go a week without seeing one another. The important thing was that Nikola would see him, still cared for him and thought well of him. The typical round of parties would be far duller without Nikola there to enliven them, but it was of no consequence. I could wait five days, or five weeks, or five years if I have to, so long as Nikola will be there at the end. He smiled at the dramatic turn of his own thoughts. Being cynical and unromantic is just another of the many pretenses of my life. He traced his fingers over the words, reading the letter again, guessing at the emotions that went unwritten in it. The unhappy, apologetic tone bothered him more on subsequent reading, but the tangible proof of Nikola’s regard was too precious not to re-read. Justin gave over after the third reading and composed a quick note of reply.


You know I would not give an overripe berry for convention in this case. Any man who would is an insufferable pompous ass, and I would like to think I am not such. (Pompous, yes, undeniably, and an ass – alas, I cannot refute it – but surely a sufferable one.) Had you done anything to forgive or excuse, I would readily do so. Since you have not, there is no need. It will be my pleasure to wait on you Monday.

Your devoted friend,


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