By tradition, the last meeting of the Association for Investment and Commerce each year was held the Saturday before the Ascension Ball: another marker for the end of the business year and the start of the social season. Not that the one ever stopped for the other, but there was a distinct shift in emphasis after the Ascension Ball that carried through winter recess, until government reconvened in the spring.
Justin had almost skipped the meeting, as he’d been engrossed in the process of assembling the reward for Nikola. The constraints involved made it a challenge. For the sake of Nikola’s pride, Justin wanted the gift to go unnoticed by anyone else. It also had to be cash or the equivalent – Justin didn’t want to burden his friend with investments or property that needed to be managed. The wealth needed to be transferred all at once; there was no possible way Nikola would agree to more than a single transaction. Last, he wanted the transaction complete before the Ascension Ball, because the kind of work required to convert a sizable fraction of Justin’s wealth into currency would be all but impossible during the season itself. The chief trouble was that – even setting aside the untouchable entailed property – Justin kept relatively little of his wealth in cash or the equivalent. There was no giant vault in Comfrey Manor filled with gold bricks or stacks of currency. He did have a wall safe for documents and ordinary expenses, which held fifty thousand marks or so because Justin had a generous definition of what might comprise an ‘ordinary expense’. Accounts at various different banking institutions totalled close to a million. The rest was scattered among investments of lesser degrees of liquidity: stock holdings in a number of businesses, promissory notes pledged by others, unentailed real estate, profit-shares in shipping ventures, patents, lease assignments, not to mention his personal property or the inventory and equipment of his wholly-owned businesses. All of which added up to staggering sums in the Comfrey ledger book, but converting a significant part of it to spendable funds on little more than a week’s notice was impractical.
After considerable time going over the figures and underlying assets, Justin concluded the best way to get this done in a timely fashion was to establish a line of credit at one of his banks and draw funds from it. He could then repay the line through an unhurried sale of assets, which would both lead to a better price and excite less comment. But that made it even more important that the transactions be kept in strictest confidence. Nikola had a horror of debt – understandable given Lord Striker’s foolish use of it, but still unfortunate. Justin didn’t want to think about Nik’s reaction if he found out Justin had funded the reward via such. It wouldn’t be half or even a quarter of Comfrey’s net worth – that much was out of the question without six months or more in lead time. But with minimally adequate management, it would be more than adequate not only for Nikola’s needs but to put Anverlee back on solid footing.
By Saturday morning, Justin had set in motion every wheel that he could, and was assured that the deal would close and fund by Thursday at the latest. It was all carried out with the utmost discretion. The bank extending the loan did not know his intended purpose for the funds – Justin had stated it was for a delicate negotiation that required great secrecy lest his competitors get wind of it, and since the line was secured by existing assets the bank did not need details. Once funded, the proceeds would go to a second bank, and from there to a separate account in Nikola’s name. No one at the second bank knew of the line at the first, and only two people knew that the money for the deposit would come from Justin. In any event, there was little to be done on Justin’s end now apart from wait, so he attended the AIC’s meeting as usual.
The Association for Investment and Commerce held its meetings in the Gracehaven Exchange building, a sixth-century edifice of limestone. Its grand Exchange Hall had an arched roof sixty feet high and glass windows set in narrow steel-framed slits. The Exchange itself was closed on Saturdays and Sundays, but the building was busy with workers catching up on accounting and paperwork generated during the week, and drafting clear copies from crabbed shorthand notes. The AIC met in a vaulted chamber on the far side of the building, where expensive uncomfortable chairs and tables were arrayed in a semicircle of tiers around the central speaker’s platform at the base. The last meeting of the year was usually a full one, as men jockeyed to seal deals and finalize terms. This one was no exception, packed full of wrinkled old men, many grey-haired or balding, most portly if not fat, with complexions that ranged from the predominant Newlanture golden browns to Haventure pale pinks. Justin was one of the youngest in the room, and he was the youngest not attending in tow of some elder relation or superior. Unlike the Markavian, the AIC was not exclusively human men: a handful of woman dotted the crowd – wives and daughters of male attendees. Greatcats were rarer still: Lord Walther, orange with black spots, and Fela Jonaston, a grey tiger, were the only members of their species in attendance.
Justin made the rounds of the chamber before the meeting began. He spoke with Mrs. Lavert and confirmed that the Lavert convoy had sailed on Wednesday. She thanked him effusively for his help with customs, one hand on his arm in her earnestness; he waved it off as a trifle, which it was. Thoughts of that supper party made him think of the night with Nikola afterwards and triggered an ache of desire. I need to send him another invitation. Maybe a shooting party. I wonder if I can get away with a party of two?
He fended off a couple of pitches from gentlemen hungry for venture capital, and listened to a third by an enthusiastic Mr. Lonsen, not entirely because Lonsen was a trim, attractive young man. Privately, he had to admit it didn’t hurt. When Mr. Colridge, a vigorish man who looked decades younger than his fifty-odd years, paused to chat, Justin exchanged civil but cool and unencouraging courtesies with him. Justin had made the mistake of screwing Colridge once and the man had tried to make a pet of him afterwards. Presumptuous git.
Justin had always been drawn to men, from his first schoolboy crush on a handsome curly-haired geography teacher. His earliest sexual experiments had been furtive gropings with other teenage boys at his all-boys school. He suspected most of his partners from that time had been driven more by sexual frustration and a lack of available females than reciprocal attraction. It hardly mattered: at that age he’d been driven by pure need and was often revolted by the personalities attached to the bodies he used to slake his lust. Avoiding the other participant in all public situations was the most desirable outcome. As an adult, he’d had more liaisons with tolerable men, but for the most part he preferred limited or no social contact with his sexual partners. It was safer to confine relations to secretive and even anonymous assignations, to avoid any attachment that might arouse suspicion. Besides, getting lovesick looks from grown men who ought to know better was repugnant. Apart from Nikola.
Nikola. Who broke all the unwritten, unspoken rules Justin held about sexual intercourse. Nikola, who could be his closest friend and yet still be so discreet that no one would think to accuse them, with never an untoward glance, a private smile, or a guilty look. A true friend, not merely an amiable companion but a man with standards and a willingness to stand up for them. Justin doubted he knew even one other individual who would have called him to account over his treatment of Southing. Everyone else would have been too intimidated by Justin’s rank and wealth to risk offense, or considered a viscount above reproach, or that Southing had deserved it, or that one could expect nothing else from a lord. Only Nikola would be unafraid, would believe not only that Justin should but would live up to his ideals. It was maddening and humiliating and somehow touching, that Nikola had so much faith that he could deliver such a reprimand yet never for a moment stop loving Justin.
Justin had never figured out why Nikola put up with him, never mind cared for him as much as he clearly did. Nor why Nikola, who plainly found women desirable, would choose any man for a lover. For Justin, women were a shabby second choice at best. If he was horny enough, a woman would suffice and he’d slept with the occasional prostitute or courtesan in preference to a lonely bed and his hand. But even if the example of his parents’ marriage had not been enough to alienate him from the institution, the idea of committing to a woman for the rest of his life was laughable.
Justin had no illusions that the same applied to Nikola, or that the state of affairs between them could continue indefinitely. One day Nikola would wed, and Justin doubted he would prove the sort of man to betray his marriage vows. Those curst standards of his, again. Though they were flexible enough to admit me as bedmate in the first place, so perhaps…No. Accept the Paradise the Savior gave you, Justin told himself. You’ve had his love for six years, and with fortune you may keep it a little longer. But you will not have a lifetime. Do not pine for what cannot be.
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