The Message (88/141)

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Justin and Wisteria were in her office with her father and one of her brothers. Lady Striker and her greatcat had gone in person to impress the seriousness of the situation on the Watch. Justin had no intention of leaving the matter to whatever staff the authorities decided they could spare, in which respect he and Wisteria were in perfect accord. They were bringing Wisteria’s relations up to speed and going over maps of Gracehaven to organize the search. They intended to decamp to Anverlee after allowing a decent interval for Lady Striker to arrive ahead of them, in the event that Lord Striker was still being an ass.    

Wisteria was focused, intelligent, and efficient on the task of using their joint available resources, which Justin appreciated as he found himself checking his own temper at every foolish question or delay from some third party. Marshalling dozens of other people for the search was far more constructive than pacing the streets in person and demanding passerbys tell him where Nikola was, but Justin would far rather have been doing the latter.

As they finalized their search pattern and priority list, Anthser entered the study, brushing aside the footman who tried to present him. “I found his cufflink. I think,” the black greatcat said without preamble. The fel’s ears were canted backwards and whiskers against his cheeks, fur bristled. He lifted a paw to drop a gold cufflink on the table. “In an alley off Third, two blocks east and one north of Anverlee Manor. Too many other scents around, couldn’t trail him. No blood, no signs of fighting. Not positive he was there last night, but I think he was. Would guess he got into a cab or was otherwise carried away from the spot. Do you have anything?”

“Not yet,” Wisteria said. “We’re organizing the search now and will meet Lady Striker back at Anverlee Manor soon; she’s filing a report with the Watch.” Justin picked up the cufflink. He did not pay close attention to fashion in general, but Nikola only had two pairs of good cufflinks, and Justin had undressed him enough times to know both. This was one of his, gold with ruby chips on the face and a pivoting rod that served to clasp it.

Fel Fireholt gave a brusque nod and was about to go when Justin asked, “Did you find it like this?” He pointed to the rod, pulled straight.

The greatcat twisted to look at him, nodding again. “Why?”

“There’s a trick to straightening these, a push-then-pull. It doesn’t happen by accident.”

“So he dropped it on purpose?” Wisteria asked.

“Or someone took it from him and then dropped it?” This from her brother.

“I’d expect a thief to rip it off, not carefully unclasp it.” Justin stared at the cufflink, as if it could give the whereabouts of its owner.

A nervous young maid appeared in Wisteria’s office door with a folded note on a tray. “Begging your pardon, miss, but there’s a message just arrived, from Lord Nikola.”

All eyes went to the girl. Anthser, nearest the door, dropped his head to the paper and sniffed. “Who brought this?” he demanded.

“A street boy, fel—” she stammered.

“Is he still here?”

“I don’t—”

The greatcat didn’t wait for her to finish: he pushed her aside and bolted for the servant’s entrance. Wisteria, with perfect calm, had approached the door. She took the note and thanked the girl as she opened it. She read aloud, “‘Miss Wisteria Vasilver: We have your betrothed.’” Justin blinked. Betrothed? “‘If you wish to see him again, you will be at the corner of 8th and Valence, alone, at half-past two. If you value Lord Nikola’s life, you will tell no one of this. Come alone and without being followed or he dies. Notify the authorities and he dies.’” She paused. “It has the Fireholt seal.”

There was a brief, stunned silence. Well. Now we know what happened to him.

“Of course you can’t go,” her father was saying.

“The Watch already knows he’s missing.” From her brother. “We ought to give this to them.”

Wisteria glanced at a clock. “It will take twenty-five minutes on foot to get there from here. That leaves me fifteen minutes to prepare. Gentlemen, I am going. I would appreciate your help in this.”

Anthser reappeared, carrying a squirming ragged boy by the collar. The boy was trying to worm his way out of his clothes to escape. “I din’t do nuffin’ let me go!”

The greatcat deposited him on the office floor just inside the door. “This is the messenger. What did it say?”

The boy tried to dart past Anthser, saying, “I din’t bring no message!”

The black greatcat pinned him to the doorframe with a casual paw. “Your scent was on it.” He was looking at Wisteria. She repeated the contents back to him verbatim. His paw on the boy didn’t waver; there was something uncanny, shocking about the greatcat’s implacable use of force. Greatcats by nature did not use violence or even force against humans: warcats underwent extensive training that made them capable of violence in the execution of their duties, but even so Justin had never seen Anthser manhandle anyone before. The greatcat swung his head to regard the boy when Wisteria finished. “Who gave it to you?”

“Dunno – ow!”

“Describe the person.” Anthser didn’t appear to have moved. It struck Justin just how easy it would be for the greatcat to kill a man.    

“Dunno – grown-up, big guy. Like him.” The boy pointed to Justin: Anthser had his paw against the boy’s chest with his back pressed against the doorframe, so the urchin’s limbs were still free. “But not posh. Wharf guy. Wearin’ a scarf n hood. Din’t see no face.”

“Did he tell you to return with any message, or to let him know it had been delivered?” Wisteria asked. The urchin shook his head.

“How long ago?” Anthser asked.

“Dunno. Couple hours?”


“By the harbor, near dock three.”

“Thank you.” Wisteria retrieved a moneyclip from her desk and walked to the door to give the boy a mark. His eyes widened as his fist closed around the bill, jamming it into a pocket even as she said, “I’ll give you two more if you will accompany Mary here to the kitchen and stay there for the remainder of today. Agreed?” He nodded, and Wisteria continued, “Please let him go, Fel Fireholt. Unless you’ve more questions for him?”

The greatcat lifted his enormous black paw away from the boy, and Mary sidled out with the urchin and instructions from Wisteria to feed him.

“If he didn’t have instructions to say the note was delivered, they can’t know we got it,” Mr. Vasilver said. “Surely they wouldn’t kill Lord Nikola when you might not even be aware of their demand!”

“Perhaps they had someone watch the boy deliver it. It does not matter, Father: I am leaving here in twelve minutes. I suggest we focus on what precautions we might reasonably take.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Wisteria. I’m not letting you be taken as well!”

“Please stop posturing, Father. I am going.”

“You are not, not if I have to lock you in your room to stop you!”

“Fel Fireholt.” Wisteria was going through the drawers of her desk again. “This man is threatening to prevent me from helping you locate your master. Would you be so good as to assist me if he attempts to make good on this threat?”

Gladly,” Anthser growled.

Mr. Vasilver looked outraged, but intelligent enough to realize that Anthser was the trump card in this situation. His own greatcat servants wouldn’t obey an order to restrain anyone, and human ones stood no chance against a determined greatcat. “I – you can’t do this! Wisteria, please see reason. Byron, tell her not to be ridiculous.”

Byron Vasilver jammed his hands in his pockets, looking like the sort of man who knew better than to try to talk his sister out of anything. Justin had held his peace through all of this, in part because Wisteria and Anthser had done without prompting everything useful he could think of, and in part because his mind was paralyzed by shock, churning out useless noise like find them and kill them all. He had reservations about Wisteria meeting Nikola’s abductors as well, but not sufficient to stake Nikola’s life on the chance their threat was empty. He found his voice to say, “We’ve already violated their command that you tell no one. I assume you do not intend to abide strictly by the other orders?” His own ability to sound calm astonished him.

“I intend to keep any that they might reasonably notice if I violated. Such as not appearing, or having someone beside me. Being followed by someone suitably distant and inconspicuous seems appropriate. Ah.” She produced a whistle from a lumpy envelope in her desk drawer. “This produces a sound inaudible to human ears.” She blew on it.

Nothing happened except that Anthser’s ears flatted back. A moment later, they flicked up again and the greatcat’s whiskers relaxed into a more natural posture for the first time since he’d arrived. “Really? You can’t hear that?” At the blank looks from the humans, he shook his dark head. “It’s piercing. I bet I could hear it from five blocks off. At least.”

“Good. I may need you to. I’ll bring this with me if I need to signal you.”

Byron Vasilver cleared his throat. “Teeri, audible or not, a hardened criminal won’t let you blow on a whistle!”

“I’ll put it in a handkerchief and pretend to be blowing my nose or somesuch.”

You’re going to fake a reaction?”

Wisteria paused, considering this. “I’ll wear Mother’s lavender perfume. That always makes me sneeze and I want to have a scent that will be easy to track anyway.” She rang for a servant.

“Wisteria, what can you hope to accomplish from this?” her father asked. “Are you trying to get yourself abducted as well?”

“That’s one possibility,” she said, matter-of-fact. “I think it’s more probable that they intend to tell me their ransom demand, negotiate the terms of his release, and impress upon me their seriousness by frightening and threatening me.” A new servant appeared, and Wisteria continued without pause, “Oh, Richard, would you bring me a phial of Mrs. Vasilver’s lavender perfume? At once, this is urgent. Thank you.” As he departed, she returned without break to her earlier train of thought. “But if they do attempt to abduct me, I want Fel Fireholt and any other available greatcats to follow us at a discreet distance. Assuming they don’t take me, I’ll try to mark them with a scent so that the greatcats can follow them. Trailing the kidnappers is our best chance of finding Lord Nikola.”

“Teeri, why’d the note call him your betrothed?” Byron Vasilver asked. “Uh…you’re not betrothed, are you?”

“Of course we aren’t, and why they think we are – in fact, why they’re contacting me at all and not the Strikers about a ransom – is an interesting question. It suggests information a few weeks out of date, that they know the Strikers can’t afford a ransom, that we can, that marriage was considered but not that it was rejected. I am not sure what source would provide such an angle. Be sure to tell the Watch about it.” She walked to the door as a breathless lady’s maid returned with a bottle. “I should be going now. Here’s a sample of the scent.” She dropped a dollop on a spare handkerchief and dropped it on the table. “Do arrange for the greatcats – oh, hello, Sally,” she said as a grey-and-black-striped greatcat appeared in the doorway. “I’m sorry about the whistle. The gentlemen will explain. It’s very important. In any case, the address is on the note if you need it for reference. I wish to have support out of sight and via an indirect route. Be careful about leaving the house so that it doesn’t appear you’re following, in case someone’s watching for that. I’ll try to whistle once if my position changes but I believe I am safe and do not want intervention, twice if I believe I’m in danger and desire intervention. Good day.” She walked out with her father still sputtering objections.

Anthser stared after her. “She is my new favorite human ever.”

Mine too. Justin leapt to his feet after her. “A moment, Miss Vasilver.”

She did not turn, striding through her antechamber and into the hall. “My mind is set on this point, Lord Comfrey.”

“I do not wish to alter it.” He touched her arm, turning her to look at him. “Thank you,” Justin said, forcing the impotent rage at Nikola’s abductors aside. More than I can ever say, thank you. “And – if it comes to a question of money, I will pay any price. Any price. So long as his safety is assured. And yours.” He wanted to add more, to kiss her again while he still could. I love you went through his mind, sentimental foolishness that could not be true, brought on by the stress of the moment. He confined himself to a nod in response to hers and released her arm. He returned to the office and the task of determining how many of Vasilver’s greatcat employees could help.

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