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Subject:The Association for Investment and Commerce (49/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 049

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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Subject:Second Monthiversary of Self-pub: MOAR DATA
Time:10:41 am
It's the second full month since official launch of my polyamorous fantasy romance novel, A Rational Arrangement. (Buy it here! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print).

That means it's time for DATA!

Amazon KDP Sales Graph:
RA Sales Graph 2015-08-29

Total Sales:

Pre-launch: 36
1st Month: 507*
2nd Month: 291
Total to date: 834

Average unit sales:
1st Month: 16.9
2nd Month: 9.4

Since I did a monthiversary post at the end of July, I figured I'd do another at the end of the second month, because I am still all excited about this whole "people are buying my book WHAT" thing. I will probably stop doing these at some point.

August sales were uniformly down from July: I went from having frequent days of 20+ sales and most days having over 10, to no days that were over 20, and most days being 10 or less. For the first few weeks it was an up-and-down seesaw from day to day: 17! 6! 19! 7! The last ten days flattened out to around 6-7 a day.

I have no good explanation for the flattening of sales at the end of August. My bad explanation is "the WorldCon effect": sf&f readers were attending WorldCon and have been buying/reading books they bought in person, and/or reading the Hugo winners, rather than buying new books online. This lines up with anecdotal reports from a few other authors who saw their sales drop in the same period, but I'm not sure WorldCon is the right explanation for the downturn. Sasquan's webpage shows 4,151 attending members, which is a pretty small slice of overall fandom. A huge media con like DragonCon (next weekend!) is more where I'd expect that kind of impact.

I have not systemically tracked RA's sales rank on Amazon. However my rough sense is that it correlates to sales as follows:

18-22 books-per-day: Sales rank around 10,000
10-12: Sales rank around 20,000
5-7: Sales rank around 30,000

This is highly unscientific. Also, while Amazon sales rank is heavily weighted by the most recent sales, it does take into account past sales in some fashion or other.

A Rational Arrangement picked up 8 more reviews this month (yay!) including the best 2-star review ever. Seriously, it starts out with "The author is talented and inventive". The complaint amounts to 'book was not clearly labeled as CONTAINS GAY SEX'. I am totally down with people who look at the reviews seeing one that warns them BOOK CONTAINS GAY SEX.**

In conclusion: I'm still delighted with RA's overall sales. In the next month or two, it's quite likely to hit four-digit sales, which is like WHOA. I would love to see it return to last month's highs, but it's vastly exceeding my expectations as it is. \o/ In September, I plan to buy a modest amount of Amazon advertising. I am curious to see if that will have a perceptible impact! (EDIT: Whoops, looks like a book needs to be Kindle Select in order to run an Amazon ad campaign. Never mind!)

* For anyone wondering why my previous post showed total sales of 550 while pre-launch and first-month sales on this one total 543: my last post included 7 sales from the second month, because I was giving totals to-date on July 30.

** In perfect seriousness, I do feel that the RA blurb should do a better job of establishing that the book is a polyamorous romance and two of the characters are bisexual. But I haven't thought of a way to do so that I like and find consistent with the rest of the book's style. The cover tagline, "It's not easy for individuals of a Certain Disposition to wed in Newlant. But surely three reasonable adults can come to a Rational Arrangement" was intended to suggest this in a way consistent with the book's themes. But it's still pretty subtle. Anyway, I don't actually want to trick people into buying a book they won't like, so I am totally good with a review that warns about it, especially one that does so in such a kindly fashion.

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Subject:So Very Little of You (48/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 048

Nik grinned, charmed by her plainspoken self-analysis. “Does this mean your preference for honesty does not extend to expecting answers to direct questions, Miss Vasilver?”

“Not when the question is nothing of my concern.” Miss Vasilver paused, then added, “Although I don’t have at all the right notion of what ought to concern me, I’m afraid. In truth, I would prefer a social order where one might ask whatever one liked, but where a response of ‘I prefer not to answer that’ was in no way remarkable. I am perplexed by why that response is seldom offered and poorly received when it is…I don’t suppose you know, my lord?”

Nik gave the question due consideration. “It interrupts the flow of conversation, forcing a new topic to be chosen and suggesting that the questioner is prying into something he should not.”

“But is this such a hardship as to justify animosity? I understand that sometimes one might not want to talk about a given topic, regardless of what that topic is or what one’s reasons are – it hardly matters, does it? But to be offended that it is brought up at all? Or to flee the room because it goes unanswered? Wouldn’t it be simpler to pick a new topic and not fret over it?”

“It would.” Nik smiled. “I’m afraid it would not be very like a human to do so, however. I daresay being affronted is one of our primary pastimes.”

“Why? It’s not an enjoyable one so far as I can tell.”

“Isn’t it?”

“My lord?” She tilted her head, inviting him to elaborate.

“It’s natural, would you not agree, to take a certain satisfaction in being correct? In doing what is right, or for that matter in simply knowing the proper answer or solution to a conundrum?” Nik waited for her nod before continuing, “Affrontery is a variant on that feeling. When I take offense at another’s actions, I stimulate the part of my mind that believes I am right, superior to whomever has offended me. It’s a different route to a similar sort of pleasure to what one might derive from a more concrete form of mastery. It has the disadvantage of being connected to other unpleasant emotions too, but it’s nonetheless much easier to find something to be offended by than to go to the trouble of, say, actual learning.”

“Oh!” Miss Vasilver leaned towards him, the fingers of one hand fluttering. “So there is a reason! I have always wondered. It’s…a rather awful reason, though. Are people truly supposed to be that way? Have you observed this from your study of minds, my lord?”

Her calm curiosity – not awed, intimidated, or impressed by his Blessing, but merely inquiring as a matter of fact – impressed Nik. “In a sense,” he answered, after reflection. “It’s…speculation on my part, based on observation. The parts of the mind do not come with tidy labels or unambiguous connections. My great-grandmother taught me to interpret what I experience, and my practice since then has suggested that my interpretations are mostly-but-not-always right. So – yes, my observation of the human mind is that, in most but not all humans, the mindshapes that produce outrage feed into those for satisfaction just as the mindshapes for conscience, curiosity, intellect and other skills do…much of what the mind does, whether we deem it positive or not, is capable of leading to satisfaction. Offense and outrage are part of how humans bond with their own class: one shares the sense of repulsion with others of one’s class to prove that one belongs. That one has to make an example of another for not belonging is, perhaps, incidental. Or…I don’t know, perhaps that’s essential, that there can be no ‘us’ without a ‘them’? Or as a way of establishing one’s place in the hierarchy.” Nik shook his head. “I apologize, Miss Vasilver. I fear I sound as if I possess more information or certainty than I do. Being able to perceive certain qualities doesn’t mean I truly understand how they work, much less why. As for how people are supposed to work – allow me to say that what I describe are attributes of personality, not pathology. A man whose mindshapes connect outrage and pleasure is not ill – and neither is one whose mind does not interrelate the two.”

“How very fascinating. Is the same effect observable among greatcats as well?” Miss Vasilver had shifted to the edge of her seat, head turned to put her ear towards him, light brown eyes fixed on some distant point.

“Yes…perhaps to a lesser degree than among humans. At least Newlant humans. Greatcats value hierarchy less than we do. Less than most humans do,” he amended, out of loyalty to accuracy.

“Most, my lord?”

“There’s a great deal of variance among individuals of all nations and species, but nationality, gender and culture all play a part, such that a Newlant gentlewoman will tend towards different traits than those of a Kinder laborer. And there are always exceptions.” Nikola looked down, started to fold his gloved hands together and stopped, wincing at the twinge of pain from his injured hand. “In truth, Miss Vasilver, I am not much for hierarchy myself.”

“How do you mean, Lord Nikola?” Her attitude, with her face in profile and head tilted, made her look as if she were not attending, but Nik had the clear sense that she was listening intently. It was almost easier to continue than if her eyes had been upon him.

That. ‘Lord’ Nikola. I’ve had that title my whole life and I still don’t manage to live up to it. I hate being responsible for the livelihoods of other people. I don’t want to tell them what to do, nor do I wish for others to command me. As for the dignity of my rank – I’m more or less an embarrassment to the whole peerage. I’d sooner curl up on a greatcat couchbed than sit in one of these chairs, or race across town on catback and have fur shed all over my clothes than travel with propriety in a carriage. I am the despair of both my parents and even my friends mock me for it. Half the reason I don’t want to marry is because that will give me one more thing I am supposed to be in command of and I am doing a miserable job mastering my existing responsibilities.” The words spilled out of him in a low, urgent rush, unstoppable once he’d begun.

“I cannot agree,” Miss Vasilver said as he paused for breath. Nik blinked at her. She still didn’t look at him, as if too intent on the meaning of the words to spare any concentration for the flesh producing them. “That is – of course I do not dispute your feelings on the subject, upon which you must necessarily be sole expert. But that you do a ‘miserable job’ is factually inaccurate. You still employ all the servants you inherited with Fireholt, save those you’ve pensioned who were no longer capable of work. You guarantee them one day off each week, more than most employers do. You live within your means, adjust your expenditures downwards as necessary, and do not indulge in expensive hobbies. Your tenants’ homes are properly maintained, as is Fireholt itself. I do not say that you have taken all possible measures to maximize the wealth of your holding, but certainly your execution of your duties has been unexceptionable.”

“Oh,” he said, faintly.

Miss Vasilver turned to him at last. “…due diligence.”

“Yes, I…you know, I had planned a digression on how greatcats are different from humans in this respect, but now it strikes me that you know everything about me and I know so little about you, Miss Vasilver. Do you perhaps have a dossier on yourself I might peruse?”

“I fear I do not, my lord. I could have one prepared if you like,” Miss Vasilver offered in her usual grave manner. “I am sure Byron could be persuaded to write a character reference for me.”

“My word, did you accumulate character references on me? I am surprised your father didn’t have to haul you to that first meeting in chains.”

“My lord is much too hard on himself.”

“And still woefully uninformed about you, Miss Vasilver. Since you do not have a dossier at hand, will you do me the kindness of telling me more about yourself now? Or shall I be forced to interrogate my sister for information – ah, I nearly forgot: Lysandra sends her love.”

“Miss Striker? Oh, but she is married now – Mrs…Warren?”

“Warwick.”

“Of course. How kind of her to remember me after all these years. Is she visiting your parents as well?”

“Yes, with her husband and all five of their children. She recalls you with great fondness, I must say.”

“She does? Please give her my best compliments, my lord. I should very much like to see her again…do you think – no, I don’t suppose I ought call on her at Anverlee Manor.”

“If you wish to write out a message or an invitation for her, miss, I should be happy to convey it.”

“Oh, thank you, my lord, I will do that before you go.” Miss Vasilver rang for a servant for writing materials. She glanced to the clock. “Did you wish to stay for dinner, my lord?”

“Is it so late already?” Nik frowned at the clock as if it offended him. “No, I shouldn’t impose—”

“—it’s no imposition, my lord.”

But he was steadfast. Accepting a dinner invitation obliged him to offer one in return and he could not invite her to dine at Anverlee, or afford private dining elsewhere. Except you will be able to, with Justin’s money. Whatever appetite he possessed evaporated. “No, thank you,” he repeated, watching as she wrote out a note for Lysandra. He was acutely aware that his effort to learn more about Miss Vasilver had been entirely deflected, and was unsure if that was intentional on her part or accidental on his own. But I still don’t know anything about her. Except that she’s brilliant and inquisitive and honest and easier to talk to about anything than anyone I have ever known, and I want to see her again and know more. He rose to take the folded note from her hand when she offered it, and took her hand in his gloved ones at the same time. On impulse, Nikola asked, “Miss Vasilver, would you be so kind as to accompany me to the Ascension Ball Saturday next?”

She did not answer at once; her eyes glanced from his hands around hers to his face and away again. Ah, someone has already asked her, he thought, disappointed. But then she answered, cool and decisive, “You honor me, my lord. I would be very happy to join you.”   

“Thank you, my lady.” He gave her a dazzling smile, forgetting her proper honorific in the startling rush of elation that followed her answer. “Good day to you.”



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Subject:Exercise Habit
Time:01:32 pm

I read an article whose author described exercise, like drug use, as an addiction: 'providing a stress-relieving high' or something on those lines.  And I thought "Really? An addiction?"

I've been getting regular exercise for over ten years now, pretty much continuously. I've skipped weeks now and then, and the amount varies: some times I might barely have jogged 30 miles over an entire month, others I might bicycle for over 300. But nonetheless. It is a habit. I exercise regularly. It has some tangible benefits: I do feel less stressed afterwards, particularly after biking outside.

But an addiction?

I am tellin' ya, if this is an addiction, it would be the easiest to break ever. Give me one reputable headline saying "exercise wears out your heart! Conserve heart action by sitting on the couch more" and I would be ALL OVER that couch. Yesssss. Come to me, sweet couch. Heck, I don't even need to learn that exercise is bad for me! Just demonstrate it's not good for me! I COULD QUIT ANY TIME.  LET ME QUIT RIGHT NOW. PLEASE.

It's a habit, yes. Like going to work five days a week. That doesn't mean I crave it or even want it. I have never found myself thinking, "Oh, I know I should stay home and eat ice cream, but I just can't resist the incredible lure of EXERCISE! I'm trying! I know it's a mistake but ... " *bikes for 10 miles, unable to control herself*

Yeaaaaaah no. Maybe there are people who're addicted to exercise, but I am so not one of them. -_-

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Subject:Are You Supposed to Ask That? (47/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 047

“I thought that was just in the mornings?”

Nik grimaced. “The petitioner’s hall hours are in the morning. For the more complex cases, I take appointments in the afternoon. And evening.” And night. “With Gracehaven so much more populous and well-travelled than Fireholt, I always see more petitioners when I’m in town. This season has been especially busy.”

“Why does it take so long to help them?” Mrs. Vasilver asked. “I thought the Blessed need but touch the afflicted to cure them.”

“Some are that easy, but with most the Savior needs time to affect treatment. For example, a child whose mental development has been badly stunted may require a half-hour to restore her mindshapes to their proper structure.”

Miss Vasilver tilted her head, listening. “Is that typical of the Blessed?”

Nik started to nod, then paused to give the question real consideration. “In truth, I don’t know. It seems to vary by individual and by Blessing. Blessings for stone and plants strike me as very different from those for minds or bodies; I don’t know how to compare it, since they do not hear petitions or work cures on men. Those for bodies are more akin to minds, although the recovery process for bodies is…not necessarily slower, but more obvious. People overestimate the ‘instantaneous’ effect of treatment, because they go from feeling sick to feeling healthy and don’t realize that there’s still an adjustment process involved. Er…” Nik chased the thread of his point. “At any rate, my great-grandmother, who had the same Blessing I do, spent a fair amount of time with a number of her petitioners when curing their ailments, but I cannot say I know the proportions involved – it’s been too many years. And I suppose it depends on whether one classifies those I cannot cure as ‘more complex’ or leaves them out of the calculation.”

“And how would you classify those?” Miss Vasilver asked.

“Oh, as more complex,” Nik said at once. “A few of them may be untreatable for various reasons. But there’s such a wealth of detail in every mind, and each one so different, that when I cannot make a diagnosis I usually feel as if I just don’t know enough yet.”

Mrs. Vasilver furrowed her brow. “But how can it be a learned skill? Even infants who carry a Blessing will cure the ill.”

“Yes: casting out demons is so obvious it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a reflex. But most ailments aren’t caused by demons. Or if they are, it’s a demon so subtle that it cannot be sensed as such. That manifests as a malformation in one of the hundreds of facets of the mind which have thousands of distinct but healthy shapes. It’s…complex. I learned a great deal from my great-grandmother and the notes from her and her grandfather, and, well, I try to learn more by studying the minds of the sick and the healthy.”

Mrs. Vasilver gave a delicate shudder. “It must be harrowing, seeing the thoughts of strangers all the time. What secrets you must be forced to keep, Lord Nikola.”

“Mother, he doesn’t read thoughts,” her daughter said before Nik could respond. “The Savior’s Blessing lets him see something of the ways in which minds work, not what the person is thinking now. It would be as if – oh – you showed me a blueprint of a house and then asked me to tell you what the inhabitants are doing at the current moment. The one does not give much information at all about the other.”

Nik flashed her a surprised, grateful smile. “That is an excellent analogy, Miss Vasilver. Do you mind if I steal it?”

“I do,” she said gravely. “You must accept it as a gift freely given instead, to do with as you please.”

“If I must.” He rose to give her a bow as solemn as her expression. “Thank you, miss.”

Miss Vasilver inclined her head in acknowledgement. “Is that why this season is busier for you, then?”

Resuming his seat, Nik tried to see the connection and couldn’t. “Beg pardon?”

“If you’ve learned to diagnosis new conditions, that means that people you would have once turned away now take more time, doesn’t it? And your average time per person must increase, because the number of simple treatments would not change but the number of complex ones will rise.”

Nik blinked at her. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. I always thought I was putting myself out of work, because once I’d cured someone they would not need to petition again. But for those who don’t have demons, it is technically faster to turn them away than to treat them. Still.” He shrugged, self-conscious. “It’s so little of my time, relative to their benefit. It would be a shattering waste of the Blessing, not to do all I may.”

“Very much to your credit, my lord,” Mrs. Vasilver said, with an awed look that made him sorry he’d said anything. Nik took some comfort from Miss Vasilver’s bland, unimpressed expression.

“It’s no sacrifice,” Nik said quickly. “And I’m not that diligent about it. I cancelled all my appointments today, for example.”

“Did you in truth, my lord? Just to call on my daughter?” The older woman’s dark eyes took on a speculative cast.

Nik wondered how he’d gotten himself into this subject and, more importantly, how to get out again. “Er…”

“Are you supposed to ask questions like that, Mother?”

Mrs. Vasilver blinked at her daughter, diverted. “I beg your pardon?”

“It’s fishing for a compliment, isn’t it? I suppose it’s fishing for one for me and not you, but it puts Lord Nikola in an awkward position if that’s not what he intended, doesn’t it? Or if he didn’t wish to give his reasons for cancelling the appointments. I thought that was the sort of thing I wasn’t supposed to do,” Miss Vasilver observed in uninflected, analytical tones. “Is this one of those areas where there are different rules for you?”

“Wisteria – I – you—” The older woman’s tan face flushed, highlighting the soft wrinkles in her skin, and she directed flustered looks between her daughter and her guest. Nik offered no rescue to her. “It’s—” Miss Vasilver watched her mother, awaiting enlightenment. Mrs. Vasilver coughed. “I have just recollected that I have some papers to attend to upstairs. Do excuse me, Lord Nikola, Wisteria.” Nikola rose with her and offered her a bow, then reseated himself after she completed her retreat.

“That was peculiar,” Miss Vasilver said, eyes on the open door her mother had left through. “Usually she answers my questions first.”

Nik laughed. “I believe that was an answer.”

“It was?” She turned her attention to him.

“Oh yes. Roughly translating to ‘You are correct and only by abandoning the entire engagement can I save face now’.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean to embarrass her. Should I go apologize, do you think?”

“Not at all. She embarrassed herself, Miss Vasilver. It was an awkward question and you rescued me from it, which I appreciate.”   

Miss Vasilver digested this. “I am glad to have been of assistance, my lord, though I admit this is a novel position for me. Usually my parents are the ones who tell me I have done something unacceptable. I didn’t even mean to tell my mother she had; I assumed there was some nuance I had not perceived. There normally is.”



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Subject:Looking for 2015 SF&F Recommendations!
Time:09:28 am

Next year, I'll be going to MidAmericon, the 2016 WorldCon. This means I'll be eligible to make Hugo nominations!

Which means that I should read some SF&F that was written this year.

Because I have a habit of reading only work that's been recommended to me, and I'm too cheap to buy hardcovers/e-books priced like hardcovers, my reading is rarely anything published in the last 12 months. But hey, I can check stuff out from the library and even figure out the nationwide-interlibrary loan system again if I have to! And indie books are usually reasonably priced even when new. LET'S DO THIS.

So if you know any good sf&f that came out this year (including your own!), please let me know. I am especially interested in short fiction -- I actually know 2 novels to nominate already -- but anything is good.  If it's something you enjoyed but feel is a "guilty pleasure" or "not literary enough for an award" or whatever, please recommend it anyway. I like light fluffy stories and will be happy to nominate a good one for an award.

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Subject:The Usual Courtesies (46/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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It was half-past noon when Nikola arrived at Vasilver House, in his third-best morning jacket and the sole one that he hadn’t already worn for a call to Miss Vasilver: a dark grey ivytweed with blue piping. Shelby had put his Fireholt monogrammed lapel pin on it, and Nik had taken it off again. He was not courting Miss Vasilver and had no need to impress her with pretensions to wealth, and moreover the pin had been a gift from Justin. It was one of the very few pieces of jewelry Nik had received and kept – wealthy petitioners often donated jewels – rather than sell for the maintenance of his household.

Mrs. Vasilver received him in their overly-formal parlor, its too-cluttered look restored by the return of the Ascension tapestry rug, no worse for his father’s spilled tea. The room reminded Nikola of what Justin called his ‘stiff parlor’, full of pretentious ornaments and uncomfortable furniture, trotted out to impress visitors who might care about such things. Five minutes, Nik told his brain. Can you not go five minutes without thinking of him?

Miss Vasilver’s mother was a softer, shorter, darker-complected version of her daughter, but plump and rounded instead of slim and straight, dark hair streaked by silver a little like Justin’s (enough already!) piled on her head and secured by a fashionable net of silver chain and green stones. Fine lines marked a long face with a high forehead, but unlike her daughter, Mrs. Vasilver had a kind, welcoming smile. Nik had a sudden strong urge to see that smile on her daughter’s lips. What would it be like, if she looked at me just once that way?

They exchanged the standard meaningless courtesies for some minutes. Mrs. Vasilver was a bit worn and melancholy under her gentle kindness: not insincere, but as if her life had held one too many recent disappointments and cheerfulness could not be mustered. Nik sympathized.

When Miss Vasilver arrived, Nikola felt his own mood lighten as he rose to greet her with a smile. She had her hair down and swept to one side again, and wore a vivid blue daydress trimmed in pale blue lace, with a striking jacket entirely of matched lace. She dropped a curtsey to him and offered her hand when he extended his. He kissed the air over her fingers and enjoyed her unaffected air: no simpering or blushing. “Lord Nikola, it’s delightful to see you again. How do you do?”

“The better for seeing you, Miss Vasilver.” Nikola said, because it was true. Her words warmed him even if her cool voice did not sound delighted; in light of their last conversation, he considered she was not the type to utter false pleasantries. Maybe she’s just not the sort of person who smiles. He realized he still held her hand and released it, taking the chair opposite her as she sat.

“Am I to sit quietly and be admired then, my lord? One of my brothers says that nothing spoils a woman’s looks like her open mouth,” Miss Vasilver said, deadpan.

“Oh my goodness, who said that?” Mrs. Vasilver asked. “Mitchell? I’ll have his father beat some manners into that boy yet.”

“Stephen, actually, and I am afraid it is many years too late to beat anything into him, Mother. Perhaps if you could convince Father to withhold his share, but I do not think I could countenance such a move myself.” To Nikola, she added, “Stephen is one of my older brothers, my lord, and captain of Bright Angel, one of our trading vessels.”

“I trust he is a better seamen than wit.” Nik smiled. “Nothing against your looks, Miss Vasilver—” indeed, she looked better today than she had at either of their previous meetings; perhaps the lace had a softening effect on her features “—but I came more to admire your conversation than your person. I would be disappointed indeed if you were to remain silent.”

“I would not disappoint you for anything, my lord.” Her uninflected delivery gave the words a sincerity that the coy flirtatious smile of another woman would have stripped away; Nik found himself touched. “Did my lord have a topic in mind?”

“Not as such. I thought we’d flounder through the usual pleasantries until we stumbled upon something of mutual interest. How do you do, Miss Vasilver?”

“The better for seeing you, Lord Nikola. Am I allowed to steal your lines? I never have been good at the usual pleasantries.”

“Not a bit! I absolutely forbid you to steal my lines. I have given them to you freely, so any use you find for them thereafter is entirely legitimate.”

“In that case – wait, I already asked how you did. How is your family, then? Is that my next courtesy?”

“I believe it is, and they are all well, as well as jammed into every nook and cranny of Anverlee Manor. The place was a great deal larger a week ago before they all descended in force upon it. Alas, I have already asked your mother after the health of your family, so it would be redundant to ask you now.” Nik inclined his head to Mrs. Vasilver. The older woman offered her kindly smile, her expression otherwise bemused.

“Oh dear. We are not yet reduced to the weather, are we? You will be sadly disappointed in my conversation after all, if it comes to that.”

“Now, why would you think that?” Nik smiled at Miss Vasilver, but her long face remained grave. She had lovely skin, clear and flawless, color halfway between the pale-peach from her Haventure heritage on her father’s side, and the warm Newlanture brown of her mother’s.

“Well, for one, I have not set foot outside these last two days, so I do not know what the weather is. I assume we still have some?”

“I daresay we do.” The day was cold, rainy, and dreary; if it had been at all tolerable Nikola would have suggested another walk to Miss Vasilver to get out from under the eye of her mother. “So what has kept you cooped up for two days?”

“I would not say ‘cooped up’. I’ve not had anything I wanted to leave to do, and plenty of work at home. Checking accounts for Vasilver Trading to ensure all is in order for when we close the books at year-end.”

“My daughter works far too much, Lord Nikola.” Mrs. Vasilver gave her daughter a fond smile but there was a hint of steel beneath the words. “I imagine you have been more in the spirit of the Season? Dinner engagements every day and supper engagements every evening?”

“Only if one counts dinner with my family. In fact, I’ve been busy with work myself. Seeing petitioners, I mean.”



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Subject:Trauma (45/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Halfway through the petitioning assembly, Nikola already felt flayed to the bone. He’d lost track of numbers cured and those sorted, but several of those he had not been able to cure were wailing, crying, or screaming, despite the best efforts of their family or friends to calm them. Desperate petitioners clutched at him instead of following instructions, as if holding onto him hard enough would force the Savior to fix them at once.

At one end of the hall, his footman Bill and Anthser wrested apart a pair of belligerent petitioners; at the other Mrs. Linden spoke in a low voice with one of the Anverlee staff about cleaning the mess created by one agitated woman. Shelby was straightening out someone who insisted he had an appointment, even though it was 10:30 and Shelby never scheduled appointments before noon. It took an effort of will for Nik to keep moving down the endless line alone. A traitorous voice in his head whispered, Think how much easier this will be with more people, enough to handle the mob, enough to work in proper shifts, perhaps with expertise at handling those with impaired faculties. With Justin’s money you can do all that… Nik hated himself even more for that thought. Has all my resolve been nothing but coy, missish objections that I wanted him to overpower? Is it his money I’ve been after all this time in truth, like some gold-digging mistress? He forced his attention to the mind before him instead: no demon, and he struggled to focus enough to diagnose any other problem. After half a minute, he discerned that the mindshape for anxiety was grossly overinflated (that should have been obvious) and directed her to go to the section for the treatable. He turned to give Shelby a time estimate for her appointment, and realized the valet wasn’t back yet.

Sighing, Nik continued on to the next petitioner, a big twentyish man who knelt with eyes downcast. He touched the man’s cheek and saw the demon in his mind at the same time the petitioner turned his head and sunk his teeth into Nik’s hand. Nik screamed, as much from surprise as pain. Savior! He invoked the god by reflex to cast out the demon. A large shape flashed in his peripheral vision, accompanied by a deep roar, then a greatcat – tawny, not Anthser – knocked him aside and pushed the petitioner to the floor. Nikola staggered and winced as his hand ripped free of his assailant’s mouth. He clutched at his wrist as the hall around him erupted in noise. Anthser was upon them before the strange greatcat had time to finish asking, “Are you all right, m’lord?”

“What happened?” Anthser snarled at the unfamiliar greatcat as he curled his body around Nikola protectively. A half-dozen other greatcats – relations of petitioning kittens – had crossed the hall to gather around him, though they stayed back to give him and Anthser space.

“Man attacked Lord Nikola,” the golden greatcat answered, one paw pinning the unresisting assailant to the floor.

“I’m so sorry, my lord!” the youthful petitioner said, wide-eyed. He looked stunned but not hurt. “I don’t know why I did that!”

“I’m fine,” Nikola said automatically, although he did not feel fine at all. The physical injury was minor, however. Blood welled from torn skin on the back of his hand; deep tooth marks marred the palm, back of the hand, and the first joint of the index finger. Nik pushed on Anthser, and the great dark form shifted aside enough for Nik to move forward and crouch to touch the petitioner’s bare hand. “Let him up.”

“My lord?” the strange greatcat said.

“Demon’s gone. Let him go.” The rest of Nikola’s staff materialized around him as he stood; the barricade of greatcats had stepped aside for them. Nik felt suddenly claustrophobic, smothered by the expectations and even the goodwill of all the people crowding him. “He’s not a criminal.” If the man had been a prisoner brought for treatment, his guards would have warned Nik first. Mrs. Linden tried to take Nik’s hand, but he shook her off. “It’s nothing. I…” Nik pictured continuing the petitioning hours, trying to restore order, spending hours with his appointments for the day, and shuddered. He tried to move, just to see who was next, and his legs would not respond. I can’t do this. “Clear the hall,” he told Mrs. Linden. He wanted to sag against Anthser but forced himself upright. Curse you, you’re a man and a noble, act like it for five minutes, he told himself.

“My lord?” Mrs. Linden looked surprised.

“Clear the hall,” he repeated. He looked at the faces around him. “Shelby, cancel all my appointments for the rest of the day. Anthser, with me.” Nikola started towards his office at the back of the hall; Anthser paced alongside, long black tail lashing a warning. Five minutes, Nik told himself. The office door seemed impossibly distant.

“But…what do we tell them?” Bill Coxsleigh asked, trailing behind.   

Find another miracle worker. There’s three others in the country. “They may come back tomorrow.” Nik closed on the office with slow, deliberate strides, not looking to either side, afraid if he moved any faster he would start to shake. Or perhaps run. Anthser put a paw on the door handle and pulled it open for him. “Thank you. Please wait outside and see that I am not disturbed.” Nikola stepped inside and Anthser closed the door behind him. He made it halfway across the room before the shaking started. Useless, pointless tears that had nothing to do with pain trickled down his cheeks as he washed the injury in the room’s basin and wrapped a clean handkerchief around it with trembling fingers. Nik sprawled over the couchbed, eyes directed sightlessly at the gift mural for some time, until his body started behaving properly under his conscious control again. At that point, he took a long close look at his mind in an effort to figure out what his problem was now.

No demons, of course – those were so obvious he would not have had to make a special check to find them. His mindscape looked much the same as it had for the last few months. There were minor developmental changes: nothing as dramatic as watching his mind alter while growing up, where it was as obvious as his physical growth, but the process was still ongoing. His great-grandmother had told him that in some people, their mindshapes became rigid in their teens or twenties, but in many the mindshapes continued to shift, change and sometimes grow. It wasn’t unhealthy either way. Nik’s hadn’t settled down, but his great-grandmother’s never had either. Even in the last year of her life, when she was a hundred twenty-seven, he could still notice the little alterations from month to month.

Nik wished she was here now, to tell him he wasn’t crazy.

He found the most probable source of trouble: little burrs of recent trauma, positioned so it was easy for them to scrape other parts of his psyche. What caused that? Don’t tell me I was traumatized by watching Justin nearly die. Or by being bought. Am I so fragile? Nik sighed and washed his blotched face in the basin. Apparently so.

He didn’t ask the Savior to fix them: he could tell they were too recent for a miraculous cure. Trauma was a part of life: the mind needed time to learn from events, including difficult ones, and could recover naturally in good time from most. If his mind could not cope long-term and they were still a problem – or had grown more severe – in a week or two, the Savior would intervene then. Until that time, he had to manage on his own. And manage better than pitching a fit and throwing out my petitioners after a minor incident. Not to mention alarming my staff.

After drying his face and hands, Nik straightened his attire and hair. Hoping he looked presentable or at least not disgraceful, he left his makeshift sanctuary. Anthser, sitting on his haunches on the marble floor by the door, turned to look at him. Shelby stood from a chair next to the warcat, a basic treatment case at hand. “Your lady mother and the count asked after you,” Anthser said.

Nik almost returned to the office. The thought of facing his family, the eager questions about why he’d dismissed his petitioners early, concern for his health, his father’s now-justified objections to petitioners being in the house at all – it was nearly enough to destroy his fragile façade of normalcy. “Thank you, Anthser.”

Shelby cleared his throat. “Does m’lord wish to see a healer?”

“No. It’s nothing.” No one can fix what’s truly wrong with me, anyway.

“May I, m’lord?” The thin, white-haired valet gestured to the treatment case.

“Very well.” Nik sat and allowed Shelby to clean and dress the bite marks.

Anthser loomed nearby, watching, tail lashing again. “Maybe we should have em all tied up before letting em in,” he growled.

Nikola sighed. “I have to touch them to treat them, Anthser. And bound hands wouldn’t stop a man from biting me.”

“Gagged too, then.”

“No, Anthser. It’s nothing.”

“Then why—” Anthser cut off as Nik looked at him, and dropped his massive dark head, ears drooping. “Sorry, Lord Nik.”

Proper bandages were almost invisible beneath Nik’s habitual gloves. Nik tried to imagine facing whatever his parents had to say to him without screaming, weeping, collapsing, or otherwise humiliating himself. Justin would never be this shamefully weak.

Curse you, Justin.

He wanted to escape, to go somewhere safe, where he wouldn’t have to deal with family or Justin or even be reminded that Justin existed. To talk to someone sensible, someone who would not try to manipulate or control him. “Shelby, please give my parents my best compliments and inform them that I have gone out. My regrets but I will not be available for dinner today. Anthser, kindly bring the gig around to the front. I will call on Miss Vasilver.”



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Subject:Cowardice (44/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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On Thursday morning, Nik awoke disoriented, too early, depressed and nauseated and unable at first to remember what was wrong. Then it came to him in a sickening rush of anger, fear, betrayal. Justin, grinning like it was a joke, as if he would actually consent to alter his personality just to force Nik into his debt. Demons take you, Justin. How dare you. I should have called your bluff. I should have trusted that the Savior would not allow you to be greatly changed, perhaps not allow a change at all.

But what if Justin hadn’t been bluffing? What if changing the way he reacted to fear did make him more cautious? Made him reconsider the foolish risks we take when we…

Then that would be the Savior’s will. And who could fault it? Is this not the definition of madness, in violation of law, custom, nature? Shouldn’t I trust the Savior to do what is right? Nik had never had any trouble trusting the Savior before, not even when he’d prayed for alteration to his own mind. Yes, and that didn’t go as you planned, either. What do you truly fear? That you will be able to cure Justin when you have never, ever been able to cure yourself? Selfish coward.    

Curse it all. What possessed me to tell him about it anyway? A misplaced sense of obligation; the fool notion that he owed it to Justin to tell him. Because his conscience had been pricked by Justin’s jibe: ‘A true friend would’ve told me I was crazy and cured me’. He punched the pillow in remembered anger. So what kind of friend am I, Justin? Right. The kind you have to buy.

The tangled web of emotions knotted into a sudden hard ball of hatred: for Justin for putting him in this position, for making everything be about money, about Justin having it and Nik not and never letting him forget that. For the Savior for giving him this curse of a Blessing – I never asked for this! For himself, for his own cowardice, for letting Justin do this to him, for not trusting the Savior.

When Shelby arrived with breakfast, Nik was still hunched in his four-poster bed, maroon and white linens in a disarrayed heap around him. The valet inquired after his health, but probed no further in response to Nik’s monosyllabic reply. Nik went through his usual morning routine sluggishly, and approached the reception hall with a sense of dread. It was by no means the first time he’d felt ashamed to invoke the Savior, and he knew the Savior would do his part whatever Nik’s mood or personal feelings. Even so, he took a moment outside the reception hall to bow his head and ask the Savior to forgive him.    

The Savior’s presence when Nik prayed was different from his presence when Nik invoked his Blessing. Instead of an overwhelming rush of golden warmth and power, Nik sensed an expectancy inside his mind, a hushed listening. His prayer was silent but heartfelt: I am sorry, my Lord. For not trusting you. For being selfish and mean and petty. For selling myself. For resenting it. For being broken. For not wanting to enter this room and help people with problems a hundred times worse than my own. I am unworthy of the gift you have given me. Please forgive me.

His answer came in a touch of the Savior’s love, a warm wind enfolding him: invisible, untouchable, but nonetheless vaster and more powerful than the human mind could encompass. Behind that love was a hint of sorrow reminiscent of the Savior’s response to a petitioner Nikola could not diagnose, as if the Savior were shielding Nik from the god’s own disappointment. The certain knowledge of the Savior’s love took some of the edge off of Nikola’s misery, but it didn’t take away any of his current problems or make them feel more solvable. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and nodded to Bill to open the reception hall doors and announce him.



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Subject:To the Letter of the Code (43/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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A chambermaid entered with a box of candles, dropping a polite curtsy and a “m’lords” before she set about filling and lighting the room’s candelabra and wall sconces; apparently, the room had never been refitted for gaslight. Nikola fetched down cue sticks and Justin racked the balls – things a footman would do at Comfrey Manor, but that was more of an inconvenience than a convenience in this case – while the girl drew the curtains.

“Thank you, Mary,” Nikola told her as she finished. “That will be all.” The Haventure man leaned over to take the first shot as the maid withdrew again.

For form’s sake, Justin took a shot too, and was amused as the warping of the table turned a straight rebound into a curve after the ball lost most of its momentum. “Perhaps you should patent uneven surfaces for billiards, Striker. It adds a whole different feel to the game, gives an incentive to know the terrain well. Like trail-optional bowracing.” When Nikola didn’t respond, Justin looked up to see the man standing at his elbow, round blue eyes intent upon him.

“I don’t know how you can joke about it,” Nikola said, voice low. “I still have nightmares.”

“So do I, but only that I have to apologize to Southing again,” Justin took the cue stick from Nikola’s unresisting hand and set both on the table to hug him again. “I am fine. See?” he murmured into his lover’s ear. “Thanks to you. I am deeply in your debt, you know.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Nikola stiffened and pulled back, turning away. “No, you are not,” he said shortly. Justin grimaced at his back. I am not just letting this subject drop again, curse it. You will let me repay you. Before he could decide on the best approach, Nikola said, “You never asked me if you were crazy.”

Justin blinked at the non sequitur. “What?”

The tall blond man strode to one of the faded chairs before the curtained windows and fell into it. “You told everyone you’d asked me if you were insane. Which you had not.”

“Come now, Striker, you can’t be upset about that. I was being facetious. Everyone knew I wasn’t speaking literally! Besides, you’ve seen my mind a thousand times. It’s not like I’d have to ask,” Justin said. Nikola’s face was turned away; he didn’t answer. “…would I?” The heavily-muscled lord crossed the floor to stand before Striker, leaning down and planting his hands on the arms of the chair when Nikola still wouldn’t look at him. “Curse it, Striker, am I crazy?”

Nikola met his eyes at last. “Have I ever told you how my Blessing works?”

“I know how it works, you cast out demons, blood and death, Nikola, have I got one or not? Is this such a hard question?” Justin snarled, feeling as though if he were not mad already he was on the verge of becoming so.

“Yes, it is!” Nikola snapped in return. “It’s not – no, you don’t have a demon, yes, of course I’d say something if you did, curse it, Justin, sit down and let me explain.” Taking a deep breath to compose himself, Justin dropped into the armchair opposite. Nikola stripped off his gloves. “Give me your hand.”

Justin quirked an eyebrow. “You had my cheek against yours not five minutes ago, Striker.”

“Yes, and five minutes ago you hadn’t petitioned me. Now you have. Do you want an answer or not?”

Justin leaned forward, putting his strong, thick-wristed hand between Nikola’s long-fingered pale ones.

The other man exhaled. “There’s two causes for disorders. One is demons. Those are easy to spot and expel, and afflict, I don’t know, perhaps a quarter or a third of my petitioners. The other is…oddities in mindshapes. It’s hard to explain in words and I usually don’t, so just listen, Comfrey. All right? Just listen.” Nikola took a deep breath, his hands clasped tightly around Justin’s. “There is a great deal of variation in the way minds look, and most of it is what I consider normal. No,” he corrected himself, “I mean ‘healthy’. Because ‘normal’ implies ‘like everyone else’ and it’s not like that, it’s just…it feels right. Not obviously defective. If someone comes to me with their sense of joy the size of a grain of sand, I can tell that’s a problem. If it’s shaped like a flower on one person and like a corncob on another, though, I’d say they’re both healthy, even though those shapes are unique to them so it’s not ‘normal’. The Savior won’t let me change the shape of one to another if it’s like that – it’s come up, I’ve tried on depressed people whose shapes were particularly odd – because that’s not unhealthy. Just different.” Nikola spoke quickly, agitated, blue eyes unfocused. “Sometimes – much of the time – I can’t tell what’s wrong, And – I don’t tell people they’re crazy, Comfrey. You need to understand that. When people don’t petition me, I don’t look for things that might be unhealthy. Unless a demon or a pattern I know is unhealthy jumps out at me, I’m not going to assume that any of the odd things I see are anything but odd. Part of the natural variation.”

Ahh. “So I am crazy.” Justin felt oddly sanguine about this. It explains so much.

“No!” Nikola cut himself off, swallowed, continued, “I wouldn’t say that. But if you want to know if there’s anything unusual about your mind that would explain why you snapped after the – the fall – yes, all right? There is. Your mind is structured so you’ll become angry instead of frightened. Or find scary things funny.”

“And you were wondering how I could make jokes about it,” Justin said, dryly.

Nikola laughed. “I suppose I should have seen the connection.” His expression sobered again. “I do not—”

A knock at the door cut him off. Stifling a growl, Nikola released Justin’s hand and sat back. “Yes?” he called.

Nikola’s valet opened the door. “Beg pardon, sir, but your five-thirty is here.”

Nikola gritted his teeth. “I’ll be with them shortly, Shelby, thank you.” After the servant bowed and left, the young lord leaned forward again, resuming where he’d been cut off. “My professional opinion is that you are sane, Justin. You said that situation had never arisen before, and if it – if anything like it – I don’t even know if being terrified is more useful than being angry anyway. For that matter, I don’t know if the Savior would change it if we wanted, and if it were up to me I would not ask. Changing something about a mind often has unintended consequences. It could, for example, make you more cautious, not just about physical danger but perhaps in…other areas of your life. It would not make you irrational but it would make you less you. Less who you are now. Usually my petitioners are people whose everyday lives have been made so difficult that the risks of such changes are comparatively inconsequential to them. But you…” He trailed off for a moment. “You’re not like that. Do you understand?”

“I believe I do.” Justin gave him a puzzled look. “But if you do not think it should be changed, why are you telling me about it?”

Nikola swallowed. “Because it is not up to me to choose. It is your mind. It is your choice.”

“Ah.” Justin paused, wanting to give the subject the consideration Nikola felt it deserved. Then his mind lit on a tangential realization. “If you did treat me, you would have to accept a gift from me.”

His friend jerked his head up to stare at him. “What?”

“You could not possibly balk at it: a gift for a Gift, amount at the discretion of the giver, Blessing involved, exactly conformed to the letter of the Code.” Justin grinned, dark eyes dancing at the thought. Yes!

“No!” Nikola rose, knocking back his chair.

“‘No’?” Justin tried to fight down his humor and failed. I have you now, boy. “Did I misunderstand something here? Would you refuse my request? It is my right and obligation to give in return, is it not?”   

His stubborn friend set his jaw. “You wouldn’t – you couldn’t – not to—” He turned and stalked away, hands clenched to fists at his sides. “Fine,” he snarled.

Justin stood to follow him. “Beg pardon?” he inquired at his friend’s back, all light and innocence.

“I said fine.” Nikola turned his head sideways, angular face in profile over his shoulder as he spoke in clipped words. “Whatever ‘reward’ you want to give me, just do it. Say it’s for catching you after the fall or for a private consultation or, or, a curst naming-day gift. Whatever you like. Only, curse it Justin do not make me do this just so you can fucking buy me.

Justin hesitated, struck by Nikola’s vehemence, and his curious turn of phrase. Buy him? But Savior knew when he’d have this opportunity again. “Agreed.” He offered his hand before Nikola could change his mind.

Nikola turned to face him, eyeing his hand as if it were a venomous serpent. “To what?”

“You will allow me to present you with a suitable monetary gift—” Justin chose his words with legalistic care “—in recompense for saving my life, and I will make the decision regarding my mind independent of any consideration regarding you.”

His friend bowed his blond head. After a moment, he lost his rigid, tense posture, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Agreed,” he whispered. His hand in Justin’s felt cold. Justin’s elation – Yes! Finally! – was marred by a twinge of concern over Nik’s attitude. It’s just a ding to his pride, embarrassed that he needs the money at all. He’ll get over it, and things will be much better between us without this foolish gulf in relative wealth. Justin released the hand to draw Nikola into his arms and kiss him, fingers curling around the nape of his neck. Nik was stiff in his embrace, but yielded enough to answer the kiss. He held Justin in return for a moment, then pulled away. “I should go.”   

“Right. Your five-thirty.” Justin stroked his cheek tenderly. “I’ll arrange for the gift soon…it won’t be ostentatious, Nikola. Nothing untoward. I promise.” He gave his lover a last hungry kiss, earnest against their next time alone together, before releasing him.

“And…as far as your mind goes…?”

“If you don’t think intervention is advised—”

“I do not.”

“I trust your judgement.” Justin smiled at him. “I shall keep this quirk in mind and control my temper better the next time my life is endangered, in view of the likelihood that I will misjudge intentions in such conditions.”

Nikola exhaled, nodding. He looked wrung out, even paler than usual. The blond lord escorted him to the front door as was their habit, with Justin maintaining a flow of everyday conversation and receiving mechanical replies in return. Justin was used to upholding the occasional conversation with a partner who could not maintain their end, due to shyness, lack of skill, intimidation, or whathaveyou. But it was strange to be doing so with Nikola, who usually made everything easy. As Justin stepped into his carriage to depart the premises, he suffered from the same strange mix of pleasure and concern. It’s only pique at being outmaneuvered in this silly game we’ve been playing far too long. He’ll get over it.

Justin leaned back in the coach seat and smiled, imagining a future where Nikola no longer fretted about the amount of a wager, where he no longer needed to decline invitations because he could not reciprocate them, or feared hosting guests at Fireholt for lack of appropriate entertainment. Oh, yes. He’ll get over it.



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Subject:The Money Problem (42/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Justin remained pleasant and agreeable through the remainder of dinner, smiling and listening after having taken up so much time earlier relating his anecdote. Inwardly, he was irritated and frustrated. Not at having related the whole sorry episode – that didn’t trouble him. Anyone who thought less of him for it deserved to, and besides the only listener in the room whose opinion he valued already knew the truth.

No, Nikola was the problem.

It had struck Justin on Sunday evening that, finally, he had a certain way to force his proud, impoverished friend to take some curst money from him. Money, which always lay between them like a needless thorn. It was an unspeakable injustice that Nikola, whose gifts restored men’s minds, gave them back sanity, dignity, memory, intelligence – everything that made life bearable – should be forced to scrape along in a household hobbled by debt and understaffed to serve the needs of his Blessing, never mind those of his personal life. The world ought to shower the man with riches, not leave pennies in an offering bowl while walking away with the true fortune of an intact mind. Whereas society lavished rewards upon Justin for his far less significant talents in making connections, persuading influential people, and choosing investments. Justin had long ago passed the point where he wanted money for the sake of what he could purchase: it was just a way to keep score, to show that he was winning at yet another game. Justin liked winning, and liked having something to show for having won, but beyond that he didn’t have much use for most of his fortune other than investing it for the next round of the never-ending game. Which was a certain amount of fun, but he’d rather have spent it on something important. Someone important.

Nikola.

Who did need what money could acquire, but didn’t want it from Justin.

Every effort Justin had ever made to alleviate Nikola’s relative poverty had failed, sometimes disastrously. Granted, the disasters were mostly Justin’s fault – one time in particular pained him to recollect, several years after the fact. Somehow, knowing he was to blame did not make his failures any easier to bear.

Why can’t I do this one thing?

Half the reason he’d chosen to tell the entire story of the race at the dinner table was to make Nikola’s rescue public knowledge, and to assert Justin’s right to repay the debt before witnesses, where it would be harder for Nikola to fend off the claim. It should have worked, curse it. Nik was accustomed to being paid to save lives. Not in anything like proportion to the value of the life saved, granted, but nonetheless. Perhaps Justin had started negotiations too high – he’d expected Nikola or the Strikers would object to what would be, admittedly, an outrageous sum. That he would have gladly paid. But he figured he’d let them talk him down to something more reasonable, such as ten or five percent. He had not reckoned on Nikola’s obstinate end run around the entire issue. There’s nothing wrong with ideals, boy, but there’s no shame in seeing to your own needs, either. Perhaps making it a public issue had been a tactical error and he’d do better at private negotiations. You know, most people have this sort of problem acquiring wealth, not convincing someone else to take it, Justin reflected dryly. I have to be different about everything.

The back of his mind was still turning over the issue when dinner concluded. Most of the party withdrew to the drawing room, though Mrs. Adonse took her sister and her female friends, Miss Quinen and Miss Rubane, upstairs to the nursery to show off their offspring. Nikola asked Justin, “Would my lord care for billiards?”

“By all means.”

“Anyone else, gentlemen?” Nikola asked politely. None of the others were interested – Lord Striker’s brow was furrowed in outright disapproval, for no reason Justin could discern. After exchanging bows with the others, Nikola led Justin alone to the billiards room in the north wing. “I didn’t know you had a billiards room, Striker,” Justin commented.

Nikola gave him a lopsided smile. “We do. After a fashion.” He opened the door on a forlorn-looking chamber ill-lit by what late afternoon sunlight came through the east-facing windows. The room held a few shabby chairs and an ancient pocketless billiards table in need of recovering. “My father likes to pretend it doesn’t exist because he’s ashamed of it. Captain Adonse detests playing on it because the surface is so warped.”

Justin stepped onto the threadbare rug of Anverlee blue, strolling to the table as Nikola closed the door. “Ah, you know I do love a challenge, Striker.” He stroked a hand over the worn red velvet on the uneven top, then turned to fetch down a cue stick from the wall – only to find Nikola standing a few inches before him, tall and slim in his formal blue dinner jacket and neckcloth with its fraying ends concealed in careful folds. Without a word, the blond lord enfolded Justin in his arms, pressing his cheek against dark hair, holding so hard that he forced Justin back a half-step to bump against the billiards table. Justin laughed, startled but pleased, sliding his own arms around Nikola’s waist. “Or perhaps you don’t want to play billiards, either?”

“Perhaps not,” Nikola admitted. Justin could feel the tension in his lover’s body, a strain that did not feel like passion, though Justin’s own body was responding predictably to the pressure of Nikola’s leg between his thighs. The fantasy of bending Nik over that billiards table and taking him, here, now, in his father’s house, flashed through Justin’s mind. Down, boy, he told himself, and just held his friend instead, stroking a hand over his back.

Nikola had begun to melt against him when they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Neither man started, though Nikola growled in Justin’s ear, tensing again. Calm, they dropped their arms and Nikola took two steps back before calling, “Enter.”



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Subject:A Question of Debt (41/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Justin resumed his story. “As I was saying, myself and my landbound mount did our best to follow in their wake, getting smacked in the face by branches that they soared over, picking our way along the narrow ledges of cliffs that they flew up, and falling farther and farther behind. At length, Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt reached a cliff – a gigantic, sheer cliff – so high that Fel Fireholt said to Lord Nikola, ‘I don’t think my wings can carry us up this one. We’ll have to run the path like mere mortals.’ And Lord Nikola said, ‘That’s fine, they must be a mile behind us by now, take your time.’ So they moseyed up to the top, had a little nap by the target, stuck some arrows in it, and glided down to the bottom.”

Flushing, Nik covered his face with his hands. “Lord Comfrey. Please.”

Justin ignored him. “While they flew down, Feli Southing and I at last reached the cliff base. Evidence the second: I tell Feli Southing, ‘Don’t take the path on this cliff! This is our chance to finally gain some ground on them.’

“She replies: ‘…how?’

“‘Go straight up! The way Fel Fireholt does! Only, you know, without the wings. You can jump from rock to bush and to trail,’ I tell her, and I gesture to a series of points along the cliff face that a madman might conclude could be used as footholds.

“Feli Southing, demonstrating her comparative sanity, says, ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’

“Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?’

“‘We could fall off and die.’

“‘Don’t be ridiculous! Neither of us has ever died before, no reason to think we’d start now.’” Justin waited for the ensuing laughter to quiet before continuing, “Convinced by this illogic or perhaps by my threats regarding her continued employment, Feli Southing made the attempt, leaping vertically from one toehold to the next, sinking her claws into solid rock to scale the cliff.

“At the foot, Lord Nikola told his mount, ‘That looks exceptionally brave and/or stupid. We’d better wait here for when they fall off.’ So they waited and watched as we neared the top, until only an overhang stood between us and the summit. Feli Southing lunged for it, grabbed the underside, fell, caught herself on a tree which started to crack under her weight—” By now, the rest of the table had fallen silent to listen to Justin’s yarn. Nik closed his eyes against the memory of the next few moments, amazed that Justin could speak so easily of it. “—Feli Southing shoved off again, tree tumbling down the cliff with the force of the launch, seized the outcrop with all eighteen claws, and clambered upside down until she’s over it and safe at the top!”

“Oh, thank goodness,” the Lady Striker said from the other side of the table, holding one hand to her ample bosom.

“She actually made it?” Daphne asked.

“She did indeed!” Justin punctuated this statement with a triumphant upraised fist. “Unfortunately, I did not. Not being even a tenth part sphynx, I fell from the seat and plummeted towards the ground hundreds of feet below.” A collective gasp rose from the assembly. “Fortunately, Fel Fireholt and my good friend Lord Nikola, anticipating this contingency, were already flying to my rescue. They intercepted me halfway down, where Lord Nikola plucked me from the air like an eagle saving an exceptionally clumsy chick. An exceptionally heavy, unwieldy chick, who would have pulled a mortal man from the seat and sent both of us to our deaths, whereas Lord Nikola remained part of the chimerical beast he and Fel Fireholt comprised. All three of us touched down at the cliff base again, quite unharmed.”

“Nik! You never told us any of this,” Daphne said.

Nik had a hand over his eyes, so he couldn’t see her expression or anyone else’s. “Lord Comfrey exaggerates. Wildly,” he said in strangled tones.

“Bah! I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Feli Southing caught up to us at the base, and as evidence the third that I am not in my right mind, I had concluded that – since falling from an upside-down greatcat, after commanding her to the action, cannot possibly be my fault – it must be an attempted assassination! I launched into a scathing tirade against my hapless employee, demanding to know the identity of my enemy, threatening her livelihood, and generally posturing like an insufferable pompous buffoon.”

Miss Rubane laughed. “Oh, you never did,” she said, disbelieving.

“He was nothing like that bad,” Nik objected, with more loyalty than accuracy.

“No, not at all, I was much worse.” Justin’s expression sobered for a moment, before lightening again as he continued, “As I frothed at the mouth through this baseless diatribe, Feli Southing gave Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt this look as if to say ‘So, did he hit his head on the way down after all?’ And Fel Fireholt said to Lord Nikola, ‘I’ve changed my mind about this rescuing thing, I’ll just carry him back up there and drop him off again shall I?’ For reasons unclear to me, Lord Nikola did not support this plan. Feli Southing sensibly quit my service and departed, and Fel Fireholt followed to console her while Lord Nikola patiently attempted to explain to me that my reaction may have been something less than completely reasonable.

“‘Am I crazy?’ I asked him, when at last I was persuaded of my folly. ‘Is that my problem?’” As Justin spoke, Nik had to bite his tongue to keep himself from making another angry outburst. You did no such thing! “And on reflection, had he been a true friend, he would have said ‘Absolutely! You were possessed of a demon, which I will now remove thus and nothing that just happened is your fault.’ But no, he maintained that I am sane and, accordingly, to blame for being an utter cretin.” Justin is joking, Nik told himself, feeling his face flush, furious and mortified, knowing he was taking this too seriously. Everyone else knows he’s joking. No one is taking him at his word. But his memory flashed back to that argument, to noticing the intertwined shapes of fear and anger in Justin’s mind. Was there something wrong in that? Should I have said something?

Justin was continuing the tale, oblivious to Nik’s internal reaction. “I had no recourse but to throw myself off the cliff again. Or apologize. After considerable internal debate, I was forced to conclude that getting back up the cliff under my own power would be too hard and I humbled myself before Feli Southing in apology instead. So, in answer to your original question, Mrs. Adonse: I lost the race, my dignity, my temper, and my pride – nothing of any great value, I promise – but do you know the worst of it?”

Daphne shook her head, eyes bright with mirth.

“I never did offer either Fel Fireholt or Lord Nikola proper thanks for saving my life. I believe I must repay them – how does that part of the Code go? ‘A gift for a gift’? ‘Half my kingdom’ is the usual rate for princesses, isn’t it? I cannot split an entailed viscountcy, but for a mere viscount perhaps half my unimpaired wealth might suffice?”

Nik found his voice before anyone else in the ensuing silence, the listeners uncertain whether to laugh at a jest or be shocked by Justin’s earnestness. It was a struggle to keep his voice level, to sound reasonable and not irrational, angry, offended, embarrassed. “First, nine-tenths of that was pure embroidery and the danger was by no means as great as you make it sound. Second, that part of the Code applies to Blessings, Lord Comfrey, which were not involved here. You owe me nothing.” And even if he had, the amount he’d suggested was beyond absurd – some grateful and wealthy petitioners might present an outsized gift, but no one outside of a children’s story had ever given up half their wealth in trade.

“I must disagree, my lord.” Justin smiled, his tone still light, but there was a hardness in his eyes as he met Nik’s. “Perhaps I value my life more highly than you.”

Given the evidence of your actions, I very much doubt that, Justin. “Your continued friendship is worth more to me than any sum you could name,” Nik said, with a quiet but honest conviction. “It is all the thanks I desire or require. To your health, Lord Comfrey.” He raised his glass and the rest of the table joined him in the toast, putting an end to the topic.



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Subject:Would You Let the Truth Get in the Way? (40/141)
Time:02:43 pm
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With the calm composure that teachers and tutors had drilled into him throughout his youth, Nik waited while Shelby finished arranging Nik’s neckcloth for dinner on Wednesday afternoon. He did not dance with impatience or tell the dignified old servant to ‘hurry it up already’ because a footman had announced Justin’s arrival and Nik wanted to meet him in the parlor before they were seated for dinner. Their friendship was in no way a secret, but rushing down like a schoolboy with a crush was undignified and ill-advised.

Instead, the parlor was full when Nik arrived. In addition to the manor’s current seven gentleborn adult occupants, the Lady Striker had invited two women to balance the genders: Miss Andrea Rubane and her cousin Miss Eliza Quinten. Nik wondered if either of them had wealth enough to have become his mother’s next target for a betrothal. Miss Quinten had a remarkable figure and bright, pretty green eyes in a face framed by gold curls. She was also a giggly creature who hid behind her fan, a ridiculous affectation in wintertime, perhaps in a vain effort to conceal her discolored teeth. Miss Rubane had a less attractive figure – scrawny and of average height, with nondescript Newlanture features and dark hair – but she had a quick smile and an intelligent expression. Nik exchanged amiable greetings with them when Daphne introduced them as her friends. He did not have time for more than some meaningless chitchat and a friendly handshake with Justin before the party was seated for dinner.

Lady Striker had shown some mercy in the seating arrangements for dinner, however. She did place Miss Rubane on Nik’s right, but Daphne was on his left and Justin just to the other side of Daphne. Justin, as usual, was magnificent: long black hair loose except for a narrow queue down the back, broad shoulders encased in a jacket of wine-colored velvet, patterned waistcoat of gold and white just visible beneath it, neckcloth immaculately tied, strong well-turned calves outlined by white stockings, buckled shoes gleaming.

Dinner went off in a fine flow of food, drink, and conversation. Miss Rubane was an attentive but not simpering companion, politely dividing her attention between Nik on her left and Edmund on her right. Daphne was perhaps Nik’s favorite relative, and he had no objections to catching up with her.

Partway through the second course, Daphne asked Justin, “So how did your bowrace with Nikola go, Lord Comfrey? You know I so seldom see him for two minutes together that I’ve not even had the chance to ask him who won.”

Nik suppressed a wince and turned to distract Daphne, only to find Justin laughing at the question. “Oh, that’s just as well, Mrs. Adonse. I promise you Lord Nikola’s version of the story would be much less entertaining than mine.”

“It would?” Nik raised his eyebrows, wondering what tale Justin could plan to spin out of the debacle.

“Without a doubt.” Justin grinned, intention unreadable in his dark eyes.

Daphne all but bounced in her seat. “Don’t keep me in suspense!”    

Justin steepled long tan fingers, considering his subject matter. “A bit of background first. Some weeks ago, I hired a racing greatcat for the express purpose of bowracing: Feli Southing, a superb racer, albeit with little bowracing experience. Still, fair enough, I am not an experienced rider either, so we planned to learn together. Second, as I suspect you are already aware, I am excessively competitive in every sport in which I partake. As one might imagine, Feli Southing, a professional racer, is as well! Surely this is a partnership destined for great things.”

“Oh, so you won?” Miss Quinten piped in from Justin’s other side.    

The dark-haired lord shook his head at her. “Ah, don’t let me get ahead of my narrative, my dear. Lord Nikola and his greatcat, Fel Fireholt, are an excellent bowracing team, with a considerable advantage in both experience and teamwork, if not in competitive drive.”

Nik smiled despite himself. “Or in general physical condition.”

Justin acknowledged this truth with an inclination of his head. “Feli Southing and I are obsessives, you see, while Lord Nikola and his associates are famously sane. Why haven’t you ever cured me, anyway, Striker?”

“Because you’re not crazy.”

“A blatant falsehood, which I am about to disprove!” Justin dismissed Nikola’s answering glower and grinned as he continued, “That should be enough prologue: let us advance to the main event. The four of us had run through the first three of four legs in the bowrace. Feli Southing and I, through a combination of speed and accuracy, had established a comfortable lead over Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt. To the point where the two greatcats spoke of Lord Nikola’s team forfeiting to us and calling it a day. As evidence the first of my insanity, I objected: ‘No! We must finish thrashing them in the grand finale!’ This despite the final leg being a cross-country romp where the greatcats are expected to blaze their own trails through impenetrable woods and up and down cliff faces. Now, I mentioned Feli Southing was a racing cat, did I not? Trailblazing is not her specialty. Fel Fireholt, on the other hand, is in truth part sphynx (the wings are invisible) and so he flies over the brush, down the cliff faces, and up the trees, occasionally putting a paw down against a tree or a boulder or whathaveyou for the sake of appearances.”

Miss Quintin giggled and Daphne smiled; on the far side of Nik, Miss Rubane was leaning around to listen. “Now I want to see this greatcat in action,” she murmured.

Nik shook his head. “Trust me, it’s not as impressive as he makes it sound.”

“It is far more impressive, Miss Rubane. I highly recommend it. As an observer. Not as a participant,” Justin said. “Understand that Lord Nikola becomes the man-portion of this sphynx-like creature, and therefore cannot be unseated. This will be important later. Feli Southing and I, being but greatcat and man and wholly mortal, struggled to follow this mythical arrow-spouting beast across the impossible and more relevantly impassible terrain—”

“It’s not like that at all, Lord Comfrey. Ladies, there are perfectly good trails—”

“Hush, Lord Nikola – didn’t I tell you this would be a better story told my way, Mrs. Adonse? Would you have a trifle like accuracy get in the way of a good tale?” Justin appealed to Daphne.

Daphne, trying not to laugh, shook her head. “Never, my lord.”



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Subject:July in Review
Time:11:26 pm
Health/Fitness
I cut back very slightly on junk food consumption. Most of that cutback was undone this week, 'cause I keep eating ice cream in the evenings. Ah well. Still biking lots, although I haven't done any long trips because the heat is killer.

Writing
I wrote a new story! "Inconceivable", which is about Wisteria, Justin, and Nikola and takes place after the end of A Rational Arrangement. I didn't quite start-and-finish it in July: I wrote the outline in early July, started the story on July 9, and finished the first draft on August 2. It's 17,455 words at present, just shy of novella length. Anyway, that's a pretty good clip by my usual standards. I am pleased.

The Business of Writing
The "all the details on self-pub sales" post covered my July activities on the business side pretty well. July was more about writing than the business of writing, though. This both pleases me and makes me feel a bit like a slacker. I think "feeling like a slacker" is my default state, however. Whatever I'm doing, I'm not doing enough of something else. Possibly the biggest downside to "I always feel like I'm lazy" is that there's not much differentiation in how I felt day-to-day whether I got a lot of stuff done or almost nothing. I was clearly slacking either way!

Anyway. On the business end, I decided to prioritize putting out a collection of Paradise stories, which means writing more of them. I've got two novelette-length ones now, and an outline for what'll probably be a novella. I may or may not write a fourth story to add to the collection; depends how long it is overall after the third. Once the stories are all drafted, I'll revise/edit/polish them. All of these steps will take longer than I want them to. It'd be cool if I could finish the draft for the new story in August, though.

I did not do a lot of promotional work for RA after the initial launch post/tweets. But I did write up a new scene to use in a promotional post on Angela Highland's blog.

Can I just say how freakishly weird it is that the "Business of Writing" section of these posts is no longer a joke? I mean, I know I've been pretending for a while now that I was going to do something professional-ish with my writing, but I truly did not expect it to work out. I've had "make money at writing" as a goal for most of my life. After 30 years of dreaming about it, it felt like one of those things that couldn't ever happen. Something I'd been saying I'd pursue for so long that I figured if I was actually going to go for it I would've by now.

But. Uh. I did.

SO WEIRD.

Art/Other
I wrote in July. I did not art. At all. It's a good thing I have a lot of buffer on the headers. I've got another three weeks of buffer left, so I am going to have to get back to the illustrating thing this month.

Gaming
I've been playing ARK: Survival Evolved with Lut. "Playing with" in this case is rather different from what it means in an MMO. Instead of going out and killing stuff together, I mostly stay at the home base and putter around my garden and feed the dinosaur herd and occasionally gather stuff. We work on shared goals together (like expanding the base and building bigger/better pens). It's pretty fun and low-key, and works fine in short doses.

Socializing
Outside of online and Lut, I saw Corwyn once in July when he took me to the store. I are an introvert. Yikes.

Happiness
Between sales of A Rational Arrangement vastly exceeding my expectations, and writing a new story, I spent most of July in a joyful daze. August has been more down-to-earth so far.
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Subject:Don’t You Ever Get Tired? (39/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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When the new week began, Nikola had as many new petitioners as ever, plus a backlog of appointments from the prior week. In response to Daphne’s complaint of Sunday, however, he had Shelby defend two and a half hours in his schedule each afternoon for the family dinners. “Family” was an expansive term at this season, and encompassed not only his parents, sisters, and brothers-in-law, but also a selection of aunts, uncles, distant cousins, and friends of all kinds.

One of the latter was to be Justin: Nik invited him to dinner Wednesday to reciprocate Friday’s supper invitation. At Anverlee Manor in the afternoon during the Season, they’d be lucky to have even a moment alone, much less any true privacy, but Justin’s note of acceptance pleased him nonetheless.

Monday and Tuesday passed in a blur of unfamiliar faces and misformed minds gently reshaped by the Savior’s power. When he finished the last Tuesday appointment after eleven in the evening, Anthser padded with him back to his room. “I don’t think I’ll go out tonight. I’ll just change out of this jacket and see if Nathaniel and Edmund are at cards in the drawing room.” Nik loosened his neckcloth as he spoke.

Anthser yawned. “Don’t you ever get tired, m’lord?”

Nik chuckled. “I sleep. Eventually. You needn’t stay on duty, Anthser.”

“I am off-duty. Harassing you is what I do for fun.” Anthser bumped his nose against Nik’s head, then licked his cheek with a broad raspy pink tongue while Nik laughed and pushed him away, making a face.

“Ugh, you brute, get off me.” Nik sidestepped the black greatcat to enter his suite, and washed his face in the adjoining bathing chamber’s basin.

“Hey, I just did that,” Anthser protested, craning his dark massive head around the door.

Nik dried his face and hands and hung his jacket and neckcloth on a peg for Shelby to deal with in the morning. “Humans wash with soap and water, not tongues. And I am not a greatcat.”

“Nobody’s perfect.” Anthser sat in the hall while Nik shrugged into the after-supper jacket Shelby had laid out for him earlier. It was a long, loose coat suitable only in the late evening at home among family. Nik stuck his tongue out at the cat, who tilted his head. “Wait, did you want to groom me now?”

Hurriedly pulling his tongue back in, Nik grimaced. “You are impossible.”

“Same to you. Seriously, Lord Nik, you work hours that you’d be ashamed to subject any of us to – you told Mr. Shelby and Mr. Coxleigh to knock off, what, five hours ago? And when you finally do finish up you’re up all night talking and playing cards or whatever.”

I am fifty years younger than Shelby, and he has to rise earlier than I do for his duties. Besides, my part’s easier than yours. I just lounge about while the Savior takes care of everything. I’m not the one fending off unsatisfied petitioners and outraged parents and whatnot.” Nik straightened the wide cuffs of his after-supper jacket and strolled down the hall to take one of the side stairwells down to the drawing room.

“Mmf.” Anthser followed to rub the side of his head against Nik’s shoulder. “If you say so, I guess. M’lord.” He sounded so dubious that Nik had to smile. “We worry about you. It’s a lot more work than you’re used to. Are you sure the Savior’s not going to get mad at you for overdoing it?”

“Anthser. To the best of my knowledge, the Savior has never been angry with anyone, man or greatcat, for any reason. Including wilful retention of demons. I am fine. So is he. Trust me.”

The greatcat ducked his head, looking so pathetic that Nik turned to embrace him, stroking the wide furred neck and rubbing the side of his head against Anthser’s whiskered cheek. His liegecat sat, wrapping a paw around Nik’s back to hug him in return, rumbling with a sound half purr and half sigh. “All right then. Good evening, m’lord.”

§


The children were, of course, already abed, but the rest of his family was gathered in the drawing room. It was a large chamber furnished in seventh-century style, using the house colors of blue and silver. A long narrow couch was set against the wall opposite the picture window, beneath a stormy seascape painting. Two wingback armchairs bracketed the fireplace, alongside shelves full of antique leather-bound books his mother deemed too pretty for the library. To one side was a carved wooden parlor-game table, surrounded by four matching chairs.

Lysandra was at work on a portrait, sketchbook on a lapdesk while the Lady Striker sat for her in one of the armchairs, wearing her countess’s circlet and looking pleased with herself. A fire crackled in the hearth beside her: the manor had been remodeled with a furnace when Nik was a boy, but the quickgas heat had never been well-distributed and they often set fires in the most-used rooms rather than keeping the entire house warm. Daphne had a handkerchief in an embroidery hoop, which she occasionally tormented with a needle. Mostly she watched Lord Striker play cards with her husband, Captain Nathaniel Adonse, and Lysandra’s, Mr. Edmund Warwick. Both of his brothers-in-law were several years older than Nik and he knew neither well, although he found Edmund grating: the man had known Nik since he was twelve and had never stopped treating him like a child. Nathaniel, at least, always called him Nikola.

Nik offered a cordial greeting to all, giving a dutiful kiss to his mother’s cheek despite Lysandra’s admonition not to stir her model. He received welcomes in varying degrees of warmth, Lord Striker’s being the coolest. His father was still irritated with him: about the constant influx of petitioners in general and the Whittakers particular. No one had asked Nik about the Whittakers since Thursday; Nik suspected his mother of deflecting enquiries. Mr. Whittaker had sent for him to see Sharone on Monday evening, and she’d been calm and as coherent as a normal six year-old for a quarter of an hour. Sharone had acknowledged that she needed help, even said she wanted it, but when Nik went to take her hand she’d become unhinged again, as resistant as ever.

Nik had not told anyone about that yet. He wasn’t sure how long he ought to keep trying; he’d already far surpassed the requirements of the Code. But she seemed so close to consenting. Surely a little girl’s life and sanity was worth more than a few days or weeks of inconvenience?

“We’re just starting a new round, Nikola, would you care to join us?” Nathaniel asked from the game table. The captain was a broad-shouldered, heavyset man of about thirty, with a complexion dark even for Newlanture, and black hair that he wore clubbed, folded back on itself and secured with a ribbon.

“Certainly.” Nik took the empty seat opposite his father, who barely acknowledged him. They were keeping score with chocolates, Nik noticed with some amusement.

“So where were you off to on Sunday, Nik?” Daphne asked from the couch, while Nathaniel dealt. “I never did ask.”

“Bowracing with Comfrey,” Nik said.

“What, in lace cuffs and neckcloth?”

“Ah…” Nik reviewed the cards in his hands to hide the pause while he tried to work out an answer that didn’t involve with Miss Vasilver. He covered Edmund’s ten with a queen. “Right, I called on a gentlewoman before I went on to Comfrey’s.”

“Oh?” Daphne’s interest was wholly captured now. “Whom?”

His mind produced no practical diversions. “Miss Vasilver.”

His father gave him a sharp look from across the table, while Lysandra said, “Wisteria Vasilver? How lovely! Is she in town now then? How is she?” She missed her mother’s sputtering as she turned her attention to Nik.

“Very well,” Nik answered, surprised. “I didn’t know you were acquainted.”

His mother, red-faced and aghast, got out. “Nikki, you didn’t. Not that dreadful creature! Whyever would you call on her?”

Because I like her. Nik was saved from answering by Lysandra: “Mother! Whyever would you speak so about Miss Vasilver? She’s an excellent woman, generous and frightfully clever. We went to school together, Nik.”

“Then she’s changed since you met, because I have never encountered a woman so crass and uncouth.” Lady Striker shuddered in recollection.

“I can never believe that, mother, whatever did she do?” Lysandra asked.

Lady Striker raised one hand and shook her head. “It’s not fit for a lady to repeat or to hear.”

“Mother! You can’t tell me my old schoolfriend has done something dreadful and then not tell me what,” Lysandra cried in protest. Her mother was unmoved. “But you can’t have thought her unbearable, Nik.”

“Not at all.” Nik claimed the current trick and led with a deuce. Lord Striker snorted and muttered something under his breath that made Edmund smirk.

“Nikki, I can’t believe you’d call on that woman again,” Lady Striker admonished him. “Think of the ideas you’ll encourage.”

“What ideas?” Lysandra demanded.

“I have no notion what you’re talking about, Mother.” He trumped the next trick with a low spade and led with an ace.

“You know very well,” Lady Striker said.

I certainly don’t,” Lysandra complained.

Their mother gave an exasperated sigh. “May we please speak of something else?”

“By all means,” Nik said, and asked Nathaniel how he was enjoying his holiday from the regiment. The man gamely stepped up to the diversion. Sulking, Lysandra returned to her sketching.

After a decent interval, Lysandra chose to retire. As soon as she was out of the room, Nathaniel grinned across the table at Edmund. “Shall we move to a more dignified stake than chocolates, gentlemen?” he asked.

Edmund chuckled. “One mark a point?”

“Suits me,” Lord Striker said, dumping his stash of chocolates into the candy bowl.

“You know, I’m for bed as well. Petitioners in the morning, you understand. Good night.” Besides, the sooner I go to bed, the sooner it will be tomorrow and Justin will call. After rising and offering a short bow to the room, Nik took his leave.

He met Lysandra again just outside her suite, two doors down from his; she’d stopped in the kitchen for a mug of warm milk with a shot of brandy. She was tall and as brown-haired as their father had been in his youth, with a narrow face; only her clear fair complexion was shared with her shorter and rounder sister and mother. Lysandra stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Oh, Nik – whatever did Mother mean about Wisteria? You’ll tell me, won’t you?”

Nik hesitated, but relented at Lysandra’s pleading look and gave a concise explanation.

His older sister covered her mouth with one hand, the mug in her other quivering as she tried to mask an expression of mixed horror and mirth. “Oh no, no, how…oh goodness, Nik. She was always a little too forthright, I suppose, but…you did forgive her?”

Nik tried not to smile and failed. “I honestly was not offended. Father and Mother haven’t, as you saw.”

I think she’d make a splendid wife, Nik—”

Nik lifted his hands to forestall her. “None of that, Lys! ‘I wasn’t offended’ doesn’t change my disinclination for marriage. I wasn’t in favor of this whole business at the start. I just…did not want her to feel slighted.”

Lysandra made a face at him. “It would be a good match, though. And I would love Wisteria for a sister – you know I never should have learnt the first thing about accounts were it not for her. Anyhow, you’re not interested I know la la la.” She wiggled the fingers of one hand in dismissal of the concept. “Good night, Nik.”

He continued on to his suite, half of him irritated that everyone – Justin, his parents, Lysandra – seemed to think there was no possible reason he could call on Miss Vasilver other than to evaluate her potential as a bride.

The other half wondered if being outnumbered by everyone else was a sign that he was in the wrong. But I don’t want to marry her. And I’d have to be the first to know if I did. Besides, I am not alone in this view; I told Miss Vasilver and she thought it perfectly reasonable. With this thought in mind, he retired to his bed.



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Subject:The Next Story in the RA Setting, and a Contest
Time:08:02 pm
I've been working on short stories novelettes in the same setting as A Rational Arrangement. I have rough drafts for the first two now. While I was writing the second, I complained about my process on Twitter:

Step 1: Write outline, with 6 scenes.
2: Finish scene 1 of 7 scenes.
3: Finish scene 2 of 8.
4: On scene 3 of 8.
5: Scene 5 of 9 ...

*finishes scene 6 of ... 8? 9? something like that* #amwriting

*finishes scene 8 of 10*
*grumbles at long-winded side-tracking characters* DO YOU NOT KNOW WHAT A PLOT IS, CHARACTERS?

*finishes scene 10 of 6 10 11? some finite number in her short story novelette*

*finishes scene 11 of dammit 12 will be the LAST ONE y'hear me?*

*finishes writing scene 12 of 6*

By the time I got to scene 10 or so, my Twitter-friends had started to place bets on how many scenes the story would actually take.

A few days ago, I wrote an outline for a new short story. Actually writing it ... did not go well. Also from Twitter:

*starts to write story*
Characters: "wait, how did we get here?"
Me: "You start here."
Chars: "... so there's a flashback later?"
Me: "No, there's no flashback."
Chars: "But how did our relationship get to this point?"
Me: "It just did. It was boring. Let's move on."
Chars: *stare* "No. We can't just 'be here'! We need background!"
Me: "This story is already gonna run too long! You can't have a prelude!"
Chars: *stare* *dig claws in* *refuse to move*
Me: "ARGH. Fiiiiiiiine."
Me: *writes new outline for earlier story*
Me: *looks at new 10-scene outline* "This is gonna run 20 scenes and 30,000 words, isn't it?"
Chars: *purrrrr*
Me: "I hate you all."

Because I thought the bets on how many scenes it would take were funny, I am going to run a silly contest: Guess how many scenes the story will run! Winner gets a free sketch.

You can also guess "author abandons story", which certainly does happen from time to time. If you do, you should predict the scene # when I quit work on it. For purposes of this contest, the story will be considered abandoned if (a) I say I'm shelving it or (b) over two weeks pass without me writing anything more on it.

In the event of a tie, I'll choose a winner at random from those closest to the correct number of scenes. Entries close tomorrow night!

Bets so far:

alinsa: 12
@ThePaperMedley: 13
archangelbeth: 16
tuftears: 20
iron_fox21: 21
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Subject:The Intractable Question (38/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Vasilver House gathered for breakfast at ten-thirty, which was a compromise between Wisteria’s father, who prefered to rise with the sun, and her mother and Byron, who felt that noon was more than early enough to awaken. Wisteria’s compromise was to filch food from the kitchen whenever she was hungry, but to sit with her family during meals and, if she didn’t feel like eating then, push small quantities of food about her plate while everyone else ate. After all, the ‘meal’ portion of the occasion was merely the excuse for gathering: the real point was to be with one’s family and guests. Wisteria wasn’t sure if food served an actual purpose in crafting bonds between people, or if other humans just needed excuses to group together and talk. But the experimental evidence of some years of timing her meals to coincide with others had shown that it didn’t have an impact on the way she bonded with people, so Wisteria had given up on the inconvenience of that aspect.

Several years ago, Mrs. Vasilver had forbidden business as a topic of conversation at the breakfast and supper table, a move Wisteria had supported even though Wisteria herself was one of the most likely to talk shop. The purpose of family meals was to communicate with the family, and neither her mother nor her youngest brothers had any real interest in business. Her father had held the line against barring talk of commerce at dinner, however: they had too many dinner guests who were businessmen, and the middle of the day was a convenient time to discuss issues that had arisen in the morning or early afternoon.    

Father and Mother were, as usual, at opposite ends of the breakfast table, with their children between them. Today, Mitchell and David bracketed Father as they chattered away about a two-week hunting party in the spring they’d been invited to by one of Mitchell’s friends. They were still trying to persuade Father to let them accept. Byron devoted himself to coffee and silence. Mother contemplated her offspring as she picked at an omelet.

In an effort to connect with her mother, Wisteria had been reading some of the same novels she did. Her mother’s taste ran to tragic love stories, which Wisteria found by turns bewildering, absurdly implausible, and fascinating. The amount of information that normal people could purportedly transfer by looking into one another’s eyes was astonishing. Wisteria never saw anything but whites, irises, and pupils when she met a person’s gaze. The current story they were reading was set in the Abandoned World not long before Ascension. The characters tended to the insipid and Wisteria found the demon-possessed male protagonist rather horrifying even when he wasn’t outright assaulting the female protagonist. The story’s most intriguing facet was the author’s interpretation that the Abandoned World had once been a harsh but habitable place that, over generations, became almost completely inhospitable. The inhabitants of the story lived in the sunless, near-lifeless land of legend, but amidst the ruins of a dying civilization. They survived by breaking up old wooden houses for fuel, growing fungi for food in cellars and caves, and scavenging the remaining canned goods and preserved meat from an earlier and less-destitute age. Wisteria wasn’t sure that it made sense, but it gave the book a verisimilitude many Abandoned World stories lacked, and a grim urgency. Without the Savior, these people were sliding into a certain oblivion all the more convincing for the details behind it.

Wisteria had just decided to ask her mother what she thought about that aspect of the novel when Mother turned to her and asked, “Since Lord Nikola is…uninterested, dear, have you given any consideration to other matches?”

Wisteria blinked at her. “No?” She did have notes on at least a half-dozen other men of appropriate social status, age, and fortune. But those were all from before she’d asked her father about introducing her to Lord Nikola, and Lord Nikola had been far and away her first choice from among them. And…well, she didn’t have her heart set on Lord Nikola, but she’d thought to give other parts of her a chance to recover before she made another attempt.

“You ought to, Wisteria,” Mother said. “You’re not getting any younger.”

“Leave her be, Mother.” Byron glanced up from his coffee at last. “Last I checked – which would be about three hours ago – Vasilver Trading’s not so poor that you need to hawk offspring. Rest assured.”   

“Byron, this has nothing to do with business,” Mother told him.   

“Of course it has to do with business. Marriage is a business,” Wisteria said. “It’s an alliance between families for mutual benefit and sealed by flesh and blood. It is the most basic form of commerce, which is odd when you consider how stunningly complex it is in terms of the entanglement of lives and commitments involved. Byron is merely concerned that I do not possess all the requisite skills for it—”   

“I did not say that!” Byron jumped to his feet and planted his fists on the table. “I never said that!”

“—which is a reasonable concern, I am sure we all agree. Please sit down, Byron.” Nearly everyone gets married. Which is not the same as ‘everyone’. And I am as far from ‘everyone’ as one gets.

“Look, Teeri, you want to get married, that’s one thing.” Byron straightened his jacket and resumed his seat. “But there’s no excuse for Mother – or Father—” he directed a look at their father, who was engrossed by his breakfast “—to badger you about it at the breakfast table.”

“So when’re you gonna propose to someone, By?” David piped from his end of the table.

“No one needs to badger me, either. Shut up, Davey.”

“Mother isn’t badgering me,” Wisteria said. “Did you have anyone in particular in mind, Mother?”

“Well. That nice Mr. Worth is still single.”

“Do you have anyone new in mind, Mother?”

“What’s wrong with Mr. Worth?”

“Nothing is wrong with him,” Wisteria said. “But introductions between us did not prove fruitful a year ago and I don’t imagine a renewed acquaintance will have better luck now.”

“But time may change a man, dear, and perhaps, since he hasn’t found anyone else…you never know,” Mother said.

The last time we spoke, Mr. Worth called me an unfeeling cold-blooded lizard and said that he’d sooner wed a greatcat, Wisteria didn’t say. There were some truths even she’d learned not to repeat to her family. “Trust me, Mother. This time, I know.”

“She badgering you now, Teeri?” Byron asked. “Sounds like badgering to me.”

“What about Lord Comfrey?” Mr. Vasilver said.

Her younger brothers perked up. “Saints, marry Lord Comfrey!” Mitchell said. “Comfrey Viscountcy’s got the best hunting grounds in all of Newlant.”

Across the table from Wisteria, Byron grimaced into his coffee. Wisteria shook her head at her father. “That’s not a practical match.”    

“What? Why not? He’s a good mind for business, solid fortune, title, about your age,” her father said. “What’s the objection?”

“He’s much too far above me? He’d never consent to the match.”

“But Lord Nikola was a count—”

“A count’s heir. And Anverlee County may be much larger but it has not an eighth part of the wealth of Comfrey Viscountcy,” Wisteria pointed out.

“And he’s a bit…” Byron trailed off.

“A bit what?”

Byron rubbed the back of his neck. “Sarcastic. Don’t think you’d get on.”

“Oh, yes.” Wisteria nodded concurrence.

Her father harrumphed. “You might at least meet him first.”

“I should be perfectly happy to be introduced,” Wisteria said. “If the opportunity arises. But I think arranging an opportunity with the goal of betrothal in mind is unadvised.” Even her mother nodded to that. Wisteria nibbled at a crepe, contemplating the intractable difficulties of the marriage question. “This would be much easier if one wasn’t obliged to unite so many roles in a single person.”

“Beg pardon?” Mother said.

Wisteria fluttered the fingers of her left hand. “I am seeking one man who is well-bred, well-educated, of some consequence in society, whose own person and also his relations and connections will be a good fit for Vasilver Trading, whose personal holdings will be of value to us, who will be my companion and lover for a lifetime, who will be father to my children and guide them as they grow – this is an impractical amount to expect of a single individual.”

Byron snorted a laugh. “So ought to marry two or three men, one for each of the different parts?”

“Exactly,” Wisteria agreed, pleased that someone understood. “At least. Of course, they’d need two or three wives each – I cannot be all women for all things myself—”

“Numbers might get unwieldy,” Byron said. “What with each wife needing her own set of husbands. And so forth.”

“True. Perhaps we could arrange some overlap?”

“Wisteria…” Her mother covered her eyes with one hand, a familiar gesture of exasperation.

“Please don’t be facetious, Wisteria, Byron,” Father said. “Your younger brothers are at an impressionable age.” David stuck his tongue out at his father at this.

“But—” I am not being facetious. Wisteria realized before speaking that this would be ill-received. Instead, she tried, “Of course I don’t mean literally having multiple spouses.” Though now that Byron had mentioned it, it sounded like a good idea to her. “But you have to see how unrealistic it is to hope for one person to fulfill so many needs.”    

“No marriage is perfect, dear,” her mother said, not taking her hand from her eyes. “One must learn to compromise.”

“Of course, there will always be compromises. That’s what people do. But would it not be more rational to have a system that put less pressure on two people to be everything to one another?”

“That’s the way it’s done, Wisteria,” Father said.

“Not in all countries. In Myantia—”

Her mother cut her off with a little shriek. “I knew we should never have let her travel, Ethan.”

“It’s the way it’s done in Newlant, Wisteria, and we are Newlanters and will abide by tradition. Am I understood?”

“But—”

Father stood. “Just accept it, will you? Don’t question everything! Do you honestly think you, one woman a mere twenty-six years of age, can devise a better system than one that has stood the test of eight centuries?”

But it’s changed several times since the year zero; even in Newlant, current marriage contractual language is still being altered by participants. Wisteria held back the words. This must be another one of those topics she wasn’t supposed to talk about, or not talk about the way she was, or some equally maddening and pointless distinction. “Very well, Father.” She picked a few more bites off her crepe, then excused herself from the table.



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Subject:Mating Flight!
Time:07:32 am
Bard Bloom has published the Mating Flight duology! This is one of my favorite stories, which I somehow or other have totally failed to write much about on LJ before. *facepalm*

Bard posted about the book launch over on sythyry. I put together that launch post, so I stuck a recommendation in the middle of it, and I've reviewed Mating Flight: a Non-Romance of Dragons and World in My Claws: Mating Flight Concluded over on Amazon, too.

But I love this series so much that I am going to blather on about it MOAR here. I am even going to say different things!

One of the things I adore about Mating Flight is that, amidst the fantastical backdrop of alien worlds and extraordinarily powerful dragons, Bard depicts wonderfully realistic relationships. I wrote about polyamory in A Rational Arrangement as wish-fulfillment. Obviously, I believe that's a totally valid choice for a story, and I did my best to make the triad in RA plausible and believable. But it's an optimistic and idealized take on the subject. In Mating Flight, Bard depicts a a race of dragons for whom a certain amount of sexual promiscuity if biologically advantageous: dragon eggs must be fertilized multiple times, ideally by multiple different male dragons. Draconic society has chosed to satisfy this biological drive by arranging "mating flights", during which three affianced newly-sexually-mature female dragons and their six affianced newly-sexually-mature male dragons go off together (a) have lots of sex and (b) compete to see which dragoness gets to marry which drake. At the end of the mating-flight there are only going to be three married drakes: sexual promiscuity past that initial period is strictly taboo.

Jyothky, the narrator of both novels, has a mating flight that goes wrong in too many ways to list here, all of which make for a wonderful book. But one of the themes in the novel is "how do you deal with the conflict between individual needs and societal taboos?" and the way the characters grapple with this question is marvelous. Because it's not just a matter of "these taboos are stupid and we're going to do something else and it will be perfect". OK, the taboos may be stupid, but there are still reasons for them and the existing society works well for many dragons. The characters can't just shrug them off, and when they do let their own needs take precedence, it's a struggle to accept the consequences not just of society, but in the resulting complexities of their new relationships. They try to make a new path that works for them, but it's not perfect and it does not solve everything. And I love how real, how genuine it is.

Another great thing -- this story has a large cast: nine dragons of the titular mating flight, plus assorted others. In another book, I'd've had a hard time keeping track of who was who among all the different names. But the characters in Mating Flight are so well-drawn and distinct, with unique voices and personalities, that it was easy to remember exactly who they were and how they related to other characters. Someday, I hope to write characters so well.

I did fan art for this story quite a long time ago, so I'm going to close with that. The small dark dragon in the background on the left is Jyothky, the narrator. The foreground dragon on the right is one of her fiances, Csirnis.
no title

PS: Did I mention book one is just $0.99? Go on, try it. It's wonderful!
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Subject:Temple (37/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Nikola returned to Anverlee Manor in good time that evening, with enough to spare for a quick wash and to change for Temple. It was harder to school his thoughts into an appropriate frame of mind. More than anything else, he wanted to be able to hold Justin now, just hold him for an hour or two, long enough to convince himself that Justin was well and whole, to erase the memory of that terrible heart-stopping fall. To lie beside him and feel his warmth and hear his heartbeat and know that he was alive and safe. Why is this too much to ask?

But it was, of course. It was absurd and unmanly, particularly to crave that he be comforted because Justin had been in danger. As Shelby arranged a fresh jabot for Temple about his neck, Nik studied his own mind, hunting for the thousandth time for the fault or faults in it that made acting like a normal man so difficult. As ever, he couldn’t find it. Does this mean everyone else has the same problem, and we are all pretending? Horrid thought.

The Anverlee Manor property had its own temple, a large round building separated from the manor by a few dozen yards of lawn, with a wide covered pathway between the two. A sizable number of Striker relations had gathered at the manor for the evening: Nik, his parents, his two sisters, their husbands, their children (six between them), Lord Striker’s younger brother and his wife and their two youngest children. All of them were dressed in their Sunday finest: tailored suits of conservative cuts and jabots for the men, modest wide-skirted dresses in solid pastel colors for the women. Temple was one of the few occasions where everyone, not just the Blessed, wore gloves: lace for women and solid fabric for men. Both genders wore traditional jewelry: brooches or lapel pins, rings, bracelets, gold circlets on the brow of the Count and his Countess. Temple attire was less flamboyant in color and shine and more conservative in cut and fabric than the fanciful creations the nobility sported at formal balls, but it was no less cultured for that. Lord and Lady Striker were at the head of the procession from manor to temple, magnificent in ancestral jewels and embroidered clothing. The rest of the party followed in strict order of precedence; as usual, Nik looked sober and unadorned in contrast with his parents, suit with self-covered buttons instead of gold, fabric a common ivywool blend instead of one of the more recent and expensive creations of those Blessed for plants, his only jewelry a plain gold lapel pin of a monogrammed ‘F’. Daphne and her husband, a marine captain, brought up the rear of the gentleborn with their son in his mother’s arms. Behind them followed a small army of servants, both Anverlee’s own and those of their guests, in some cases with their own spouses and children. They were also in order of precedence, which meant that Anthser as the sole warcat led the section. Then came Mr. Bronson, the Anverlee head butler, and Mrs. Goslin, the Anverlee chief of staff, followed by Mrs. Linden as Fireholt’s chief of staff, then the Anverlee greatcats, and so on down to the scullery maids.

The temple facade was white stone polished smooth. Inside, the floor was likewise stone, but the rest of the interior was all sculptured wood, intertwined in shades from light blond to mahogany, carved in fanciful relief designs and elaborate cutouts layered over the windows. The Lord and Lady Striker had massive wooden chairs with velvet-cushioned seats and armrests. These were placed directly before the Speaking Circle, a ring of open floor some thirty feet across, with an ornate chest of iron-bound wood at the center today. Arranged to either side of these throne-like edifices were comfortable padded benches for the rest of the family members, surrounding the Speaking Circle but leaving wide gaps for aisles at each of the compass points. Behind those were plain wooden benches for the servants, apart from one section of raised platform at the back, where the greatcats sat. Nik took his place at the right hand of his father and waited patiently as the servants filed in and took their places behind the gentility.

When the last servant had taken her place at the back, there were few seats left in the temple. More guests still would be arriving next week; on the following Sunday, most of the plain benches would have to be removed so there’d be enough space for all the servants, though they’d have to stand.

Lady Striker rose from her seat to enter the Speaker’s Circle and begin the service. Traditionally, temple services were led by a titled noble, although most denominations now permitted any member of the gentry to do so. At Anverlee, family members had always taken turns. Lady Striker took more than her share, having more aptitude for it than any of her relations, and Nik took far less than his because he hated leading services. Because of his Blessing, people often looked upon him as some kind of theological expert, and he was uncomfortable with that role. He loved the Savior – he didn’t see how it was possible not to – but did not feel as though he had any profound insights on the divine. Nik wasn’t sure his mother had any either, but no one expected her to be a better temple leader than any other noble.

Now Lady Striker raised her arms, clad in pale yellow overlaid with white lace and made resplendent with jeweled bracelets and rings. “My family, my friends, my guests and my people of Anverlee and of Paradise, Savior give you welcome to his temple in this, the Paradise he has given to us his people.”

At the invocation, the Savior’s presence filled Nik’s senses with a golden warmth and light similar to when he healed minds, but different without that necessity: merely present, loving. Welcoming. “Thank you, O Savior,” he said in chorus with seventy-odd other voices, young and old, just as he’d said at hundreds of services before. It was rote, automatic, and no less heartfelt for that.

The Lady Striker lowered her arms and spoke in a clear, carrying voice as she turned in the circle to address the whole of her audience. ``Let us reflect today on the Saints, the first-Blessed that the Savior gave unto his people.

“Nine centuries ago, our forefathers lived in the Abandoned World. The deadlands: a world without sun or stars, a world of eternal winter, harsher and colder than any winter Newlant has ever known. A world buried in snow, where plants did not grow and animals perished.” This story was familiar enough that Nik could have recited it himself, and had in years past. As a child, he’d questioned it. If there weren’t any plants or animals, what did people eat? If there was no sun, how could the Abandoned World have any warmth at all? Did they light a lot of fires? What did they burn if there weren’t any plants or trees? As an adult, he’d decided the story wasn’t meant to be taken literally. “It was a world ridden by demons.”

If you took it literally, it didn’t need demons to be terrifying. The Lady Striker beckoned to the boys in the audience – both noble and servant, of ages from eight or so to thirteen or fourteen, and including the nine year-old greatkitten son of their draycat Gunther. They swarmed from their seats to pile into the Speaking Circle. There was an inevitable amount of shoving and some squealing and shushing as they opened the chest in the center and seized demon masks and handfuls of black ribbons from inside. Meanwhile, the Lady Striker continued to narrate, loud enough to override their hushed scrabbling: “Humans – for in the Abandoned World, there were no greatcats – had no defense against the monsters that walked among them, striking down whomever they chose, maiming and slaying.” Now clad in demon-masks, the boys spread out from the circle, ‘assaulting’ the audience with black ribbons. No boy had ever dared beribbon Lord Striker, but today Lysandra’s grinning son Adamos headed straight for Nik. “I’m striking you blind!” the boy said in a loud whisper, while Nik cringed down in mock fear. Adamos tied a black ribbon around Nik’s eyes. While Nik held his hands out before him and turned his head this way and that in confusion, Adamos chose his mother for his next victim. His sisters were off-limits, which Nik knew from experience was a hardship. All around the assembly, adults pretended to be stricken as giggling boys tied black ribbons onto them.

“Even after the Savior led our people through Ascension and brought us to this Paradise where light, warmth, and beauty are so abundant, the demons and their afflictions remained among us. They hid in the hearts and minds of unwitting men who carried them here.” Some denominations quarrelled with that last, contending instead that demons had been smuggled intentionally by the traitorous humans Enson and Viar, or that demons had disguised themselves as men and followers of the Savior and tricked the Savior into Ascending them. “Seeing the suffering of his people, the Savior was moved to aid us further. He chose thirty-one of the Ascended to be Blessed as Saints. He gifted them with the power to cast out demons from mind or body, or to shape stone that they might create shelters against wind and rain for the people, or to shape plants that they might grow food for the hungry.”

A furry paw landed on Nik’s knee while another touched his face, and he dropped his arms to wait as an adolescent greatkitten perhaps half Anthser’s size worked the ribbon out of his eyes. “I’ll heal you, my lord,” she promised. After she’d pushed it up and out of his eyes, he could see his ersatz saint was Meredith, Gunther’s calico daughter. A wide circle of shimmering iridescent white satin was tied by a ribbon beneath her chin to form a crooked halo. She spread her whiskers in a smile and dropped to all fours.

“Thank you, Blessed,” he told her solemnly, and fished in his pocket: he had a couple of chocolates laid aside for the possibility, but those would not suit a greatkitten. He produced a silver half-mark instead and presented it to her: “A gift for a Gift.” With a nod just as solemn, she accepted the gift and tucked it into a pouch on her harness, before padding away to help another ‘victim’.

The Lady Striker was continuing, still pacing in slow circles to address each segment of her audience. ``The Savior had work yet to do outside of Paradise: he Passed back to the Abandoned World, that he might help those who had been unable to Ascend with our ancestors. But a part of him remained with the Ascended, inside the persons of the Thirty-One Saints. Through them, he helped our ancestors still. And later, through their children, and the children of their children, and so on for all the centuries to follow.

“But as great as his Blessings are, and as magnificent as the Paradise he shared with us is, the Savior did not give us perfection. It is up to us – each of us, from the lowest servant to the highest lord, from the most unskilled child to the most potent Blessed—” the Lady Striker paused on that word, eyes on her son, and Nik wished she hadn’t “—to make of this world a more perfect Paradise. To honor the gifts of the Blessed with gifts of our own. To never forget all that we have been given, and all the ways that we may repay it.”

“Thank you, O Savior,” the assembly responded in chorus.



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Subject:New Scene with Characters from A Rational Arrangement
Time:01:20 pm

Angela Highland, a friend of alinsa, invited me to participate in her Boosting the Signal column. The column has an interesting approach: instead of the same blurb that shows on Amazon, she has the authors write or use an excerpt of one of the characters describing a goal.

One of Wisteria's goals is "have children", and I always wanted her to explain why this was important to her, but it never came up in the novel.  So I wrote a scene showing it for the column. Go have a look!

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Subject:Apologies (36/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 036

The Markavian had a felishome near the clubhouse: an oversized building with extra-large doors and windows, its amenities tailored for use by paws or mouths rather than hands. The interior was plain, as the space was designed to be used by employees and not members – the membership was exclusively male humans. The front room had hardwood floors and whitewashed walls, and was furnished with several wide low couch-beds. When Justin opened the door, he found the front room empty save for Fel Fireholt and Feli Southing. The two greatcats were sprawled together over one of the couch-beds. Their heads raised at his entrance, ears flattening as they identified him. Fel Fireholt’s lip curled back in a half-snarl that surprised Justin: Nik’s liegecat had always been an amiable individual. Feli Southing’s flat-eared, flat-whiskered look was merely cold. Fel Fireholt gave the bare minimum of courtesy in a growled, “My lord?”

Justin decided his impulse to withdraw was more cowardice than prudence and stood his ground. In as deferential and inoffensive a tone as he could manage, he said, “Feli Southing, might I have a word with you, please?”

“No,” she said flatly.

That was final. He bowed. “I apologize. You may collect your severance pay from Mr. Black at your leisure.” Justin withdrew, resigned to writing out his apology instead. Ethan could give it to her with the severance.

He was halfway to the clubhouse when Southing’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Wait.”

Justin bridled at the imperious command from a commoner, but at this point he owed it to her to oblige. He turned around on the marble path. “Yes, feli?”

The gray-and-white striped greatcat stood between evergreen hedges that lined either side of the path. Her tailtip twitched and her ears remained canted backwards. Justin braced himself against getting angry again because she was. But all she said was, “I quit.”

“Yes.”

“You don’t get severance for quitting.”

“I think, under the circumstances, you’re entitled. Don’t you?”

Southing lashed her tail, making branches of the adjacent bush sway. “I think I’m entitled to a lot more than that.” Justin inclined his head to acknowledge the truth in this. The tension in her whiskers eased. “…did you really come to apologize?”

“I did, feli. I intended considerably more humiliating detail than the mere two words, but as you were understandably not in the mood to listen I thought I’d just write it.”

“Huh.” The greatcat’s tail stilled, the muscles beneath her fur rippling as she paced closer. “Well. If that’s what you wanted to say, I’ll listen.”

Justin tried not to smile and did not quite succeed. “Thank you, Feli Southing.” She kept moving, slowing to a human’s pace, so he fell in step beside her as he continued, “I wish to apologize for my actions today, to wit: instructing you to take a risky route, falling off when you complied, faulting you for my own error, insulting your person, threatening your career, and in general acting the complete twit.” Beside him, Southing’s whiskers twitched up in a slight greatcat smile. She turned down one of the side paths, past dormant flower beds bordered by ankle-height picket fences intended to discourage walkers from trodding on the plants. The viscount continued, “My behavior was inexcusable. I regret my tone and inflammatory words in particular extremely. I bear you no animosity and, obviously, do not intend to carry through on my ill-conceived and idiotic threats. I will be happy to provide you with a favorable letter of recommendation when you seek your next patron.”

Southing and Justin took several steps in silence. Finally, she asked, “Do you lose your temper like that a lot?”

He gave a dry laugh. “Thankfully, no.”

“So…why?”

Justin didn’t want to answer this question for Southing any more than he had for Nikola, and knew he’d put himself in a position where he had no right to refuse. “At one juncture in my youth, I trained myself to redirect fear into anger. As a reflex, the same way one uses a certain stance in fencing or a particular approach for climbing. There have been occasions where this reflex was useful. Today was not one of them.”

Southing dipped her head in a nod. The two of them came to an open space in the dormant garden, where the stone path wound in a circle about a patch of grass. The striped greatcat strode in front and turned to drop to the grass before Justin, laying her head against her forelegs in a startlingly submissive gesture. “I didn’t mean to throw you.”

“I know. Now.” A self-deprecating smile. “I regret that I am not at my most perceptive when angry, either.”

The massive feline head turned to one side, gaze on the silhouette of a stand of barren cherry trees in the near distance. “Anthser told me there’s a…kind of trick, to how you can move in that position so you don’t shake off a rider by accident. He said there’s basically no way a man can stay on if you do it normally.”

“I should not have told you to attempt the climb,” Justin said. “My error regardless.”

Southing nodded more emphatically than Justin thought necessary, but then added, “Still. I did…I mean, I had meant to say I was sorry. I was going to when you started yelling at me.” She glowered at him, and he schooled himself to limit his response to an acknowledging nod. The greatcat sighed, looking away again. “And I think I still should. Even though it was an accident and sort of your idea. So. I’m sorry.” She paused. “That was a pretty terrible apology, wasn’t it?” Justin stifled a laugh. She continued, “I really am sorry. And I’m glad Anthser and Lord Nik caught you and you’re all right. Um, you are all right, aren’t you, m’lord?” The feline peered up at him anxiously.

“My pride may be crippled for life, but the rest of me is fine,” Justin assured her.

“Bet Lord Nik can fix that for you.”

He chuckled, then sobered to say, “I’m not sure I’d want him to. It deserves the abuse. And I accept your apology, Feli Southing.”

“Thanks.” Southing climbed to her feet and shook out her fur. She’d traded her narrow racing cloak for a wider one in plain red; it flared before settling against her flanks again. She swiped a paw over her face, then raised her head high, until her eyes were level with his. “Um. I accept yours, too, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin raised an eyebrow. “Good manners and my failing require me to apologize,” he said, in mild, neutral tones. “Neither requires you to accept it.”

“No, I do. I mean, I want to. I know I don’t have to.” She turned to sit on her haunches beside him, massive form in profile. “Sorry, I’m not good at gracious.”

“It’s fine. Thank you.” He offered a short bow, which she returned awkwardly. They remained in silence for a few moments, the breeze ruffling through the end of Justin’s ponytail and stirring the edge of Southing’s cloak. “I should be on my way. Take care, Feli Southing.”   

“You too, m’lord.”



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Subject:Excel VBA wheeeee x_x
Time:01:28 pm

My Google-Fu has failed me. Help me, Social Media, you're my only hope.

I'm working on a ridiculously overcomplicated Excel workbook, with a bajillion triggered events based on the cell contents.

I want the user to be able to hit "delete" on one cell, and have the spreadsheet trigger an event that clears a varied assortment of other cells.

This workbook has existing code that already does this "clear assorted cells" operation whenever the cell is changed to one of the six values on its picklist. The picklist values are assigned from a sequence of cells elsewhere in the workbook. One of those six picklist cells is empty. If you choose the empty value from the picklist, it will trigger the "cell is empty" event. It does this with code that reads either:
* ElseIf IsEmpty(Target) 
* ElseIf Target.Text = ""

But if you hit the delete key, it doesn't trigger the "cell is empty" event. It looks like Excel doesn't consider the deleted cell to be a "Target" the way it does when the user selects an item from the picklist, because deleting the cell won't trigger an event phrased as EITHER "ElseIf IsEmpty(Target)" OR ElseIf IsEmpty(Target) = False, and one of those should be hit if it were triggering the "change happened" code at all. There's code that prevents the user from entering an option that's not on the picklist, but this won't stop the user from using the delete key.

So. Any idea how I get "delete cell contents" to trigger an event?

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Subject:Monthiversary of self-pub: ALL THE DETAILS
Time:09:55 am
RA Sales Graph 2015-07-29


This is the Amazon sales graph for my polyamorous fantasy romance novel, A Rational Arrangement. (Available at a URL near your mouse cursor! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print).

Graph by request of alinsa, who thought the sales graph in particular would be cool.  I left the scale on because I do not care if the whole world knows how many copies it's sold. HERE, HAVE SOME DATA, WORLD.

Incidentally, this is the graph that Kindle Direct Publishing gives authors when checking their reports. There are add-ons available for KDP, but I haven't gotten any because the basic page suits my purposes fine.

The "days" are weird.  I don't know when Amazon rolls its day clock over, because the downloadable spreadsheet they'll give doesn't have the same sales-per-day as the graph.  Like the graph shows I sold 3 copies on 6/23 and 1 copy on 6/24, but the spreadsheet shows no sales on 6/23 and 4 copies on 6/24.  Even stranger: it's not consistently "graph shows some sales with a datestamp a day earlier than the spreadsheet". Yesterday morning, the graph had 8 copies for 7/28 and 3 for 7/29, while the spreadsheet gave 11 sales on 7/28 and 1 on 7/29. Uh. Okay! Whatever, the overall numbers match up and this is still data a billion times better than what authors get from major publishers.

Some landmarks for reference:

6/23: Uploaded book to Amazon at night.  Alinsa bought a copy to make sure it was working. It was not.  Alinsa ironed out an erratic problem with the .mobi's display of italics on some devices. Alinsa got it sorted (Amazon screws with the .mobi after upload and she has to make sure they can't mess it up with what they do). I re-uploaded on 6/24.
6/25: "Soft launch": Amazon copy looks good now! I let my Twitter followers know it's up on Amazon and propagating to other book-selling sites. (Kobo and Barnes & Noble already had it -- and were not affected by Amazon's glitchy handling of italics anyway -- but iBooks was dragging its feet). Several people retweeted the announcement. 16 copies sold! I was a little excited, and also a little "this is probably half of what I am ever going to sell, oh well."
6/29: Official launch! I pimped my book everywhere I have a web presence. I mentioned it was on sale ($2 off! Buy now!) I got a fair number of retweets and tweet-quotes on the lines of "buy it! It is good!" plus a tremendous boost from haikujaguar, who included a recommendation and link to it from her blog.
7/7: The last day of the $4.99 sale.  I originally intended to have the sale run for 7 days, but that would've ended it on a Sunday, which is a bad social-media day. So then I planned to end it on Monday 7/6, but forgot my phone and so couldn't make a "last day of the sale!" announcement. So I ended it on Tuesday instead.

My best guess is that most of the books during this period sold to people who follow haikujaguar.  Not that people following me weren't buying it (I love you all!) but she has a much bigger audience than I do, and frankly, a third-party endorsement of a book is much more appealing than the author's own endorsement.

Also, Micah released her Blood Ladders trilogy, which begins with An Heir to Thorns and Steel, just a few days after RA came out. So my book showed up on the "customers also bought" section of her Amazon page (and vice versa), meaning people who go off to buy her book were reminded that mine existed and might check it out.

7/8: Predictably, RA's sales dropped after the price increased to $6.99.
7/11: Unpredictably, RA's sales went back up.

My best guess at why my book started selling again:

Lois McMaster Bujold released a new novella, Penric's Demon, on 7/6. Micah's new series is in the top results of Bujold's "also bought", and RA is in Micah's. RA started out buried at around #12 of Bujold's "also bought" list, but it eventually climbed to #5 (and is currently #6).  So it looks like people are finding it either via Bujold's novella, and/or because Amazon is putting it on customer's home pages under "Recommended because you liked [X]" page. In any case, I started getting reviews from people who've never reviewed Micah's work but have reviewed Bujold's. One reviewer mentions that it was recommended to her because she liked Diana Wynne Jones's The Lives of Christopher Chant, which, wow, Amazon, that is SO SWEET OF YOU TO SAY.  And also whacked because that is a YA/middle-grade novel and um RA really is not.  But I still appreciate the thought!  And she did like RA, so I guess it works?

7/19: I have no idea what happened that Sunday.  Literally, I got nothin'. I hope it happens again someday.  That was nice.

7/27: My average up through this day has been about 15-16 copies per day.  Overall, it's been selling a little better per-day at $6.99 than it did at $4.99 (even discounting the slower sales prior to official launch).  I think the early boost from Micah was critical to getting RA up in the Amazon rankings and into Amazon's recommendations algorithm. Without that, I am pretty sure the book would've stopped selling once the sale period ended. Sales through iBooks/Barnes & Noble/Kobo dried up at that point. So it looks like people who hear about me directly (via my social media or someone else recommending me) might go to those stores to buy it. But only Amazon is selling A Rational Arrangement without anyone else directly pointing to it.

7/28: In honor of my monthiversary, sales have decided to halve. Ah well.

I don't know if the last couple of days are a fluke or a new trend towards lower sales.  I'd be quite happy to have sales hanging around 10 per day, in truth. Time will tell.

Total books sold at the $4.99 price point: 170*
Total books sold at the $6.99 price point: 380

Days at $4.99: "Available" period was 15 days. "Official launch" period was 9.
Days at $6.99: 21

Total sales to date: 550.

For a big publisher, 550 sales in the first month is "fire this author" territory.  For me: I am floored.  I am absolutely amazed that 550 people bought my book.  People I don't know bought my book.  People who don't even know anyone in common with me bought my book. WHAT HOW IS THIS I DON'T EVEN.

I keep trying to picture it: a random stranger browsing Amazon saw the cover image that I created and Alinsa laid out and thought "that looks interesting". And then read the blurb I wrote and went "sure, I'll try it."  This does not seem like it could happen even once, much less happen dozens of times.

Wow.

Seriously, my expectations were set at "eh, maybe 50-100 copies for the year". This does not exceed my wildest dreams (I am a fantasy author: my dreams get a whole lot wilder than this, believe me) but it still feels unreal.

Great! But unreal.My expectations are that 7/28 heralds the beginning of the end, and that sales will peter off to 0-1 a day from here. But hey, (a) my expectations were wrong last time, so whatever, and (b) 550! Woo! That's not gonna change.**

In conclusion:

\o/

* Total sales is accurate, but the split between price points is +/- 5 copies, because the breakdown from D2D is less accessible than Amazon's, and I don't feel like untangling it.
** Okay, yes, it can change. Amazon lets you return ebooks. But it's not a huge factor the way "shipped" vs "sold" is wildly different with big publishers.

Edited to add purchase links at top & bottom, because I fail marketing 101. *^_^*

If you'd like to be sale #551, A Rational Arrangement is available at any of these fine websites: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print
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Subject:Self-Published: Monthiversary!
Time:08:16 pm
As of today, it's been a full month since the public release of A Rational Arrangement.

Sales have far surpassed my (very modest) expectations. Checking the sales graphs and the Amazon rank is weirdly addictive; I am trying to cut back on the former to "once per day", and the latter to "only if sales levels are unusual." I do not presently DO anything with this information, and the sales data accumulates and I am not going to miss anything if I only check, oh, once a month I definitely don't need to be staring at it multiple times a day.

I plan to buy some advertising on Amazon at some point; I am curious what effect that'll have. Since the $4.99 sale ended, Amazon has been doing all the work of selling RA. iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble combined account for less than 5% of my sales.

My modest success thus far has been very motivational: after months of writing little-to-no fiction, I've spent the last three weeks working diligently on a novelette in the same setting as A Rational Arrangement. As I've noted in comments, I'll be putting out a collection of shorts in the setting. The collection will be much shorter than RA -- perhaps 50-80,000 words all together, instead of RA's 210,000+. I have this delightful fantasy in which I am able to release it this year. I am not convinced this will happen. But I do have about 30,000 words on it already (13,000 from this month and 17,000 that were written in 2013.) Of course, publishing a book has a whole lot more moving parts than just writing the first draft. But I am pretending this is the hard part (hint: it isn't) for the sake of keeping my motivation high.

I am tempted to write about specific numbers: how many books sold, royalties earned, what the patterns are like, etc. I am not sure if this is wise. I will do a poll! Vote in the comments if you like, and don't have an LJ. :)

Poll #2018262 ALL THE DETAILS

Should I post ALL THE DETAILS about A Rational Arrangement's sales figures?

Yes! I am terribly curious!
10(45.5%)
Yes! This data is valuable to me for professional reasons!
1(4.5%)
Yes! Information wants to be free!
0(0.0%)
Sure, if you feel like it.
7(31.8%)
No, I really don't care.
0(0.0%)
No, it's too personal.
0(0.0%)
No, it'd be bragging
0(0.0%)
No, it'd be whatever the opposite of bragging is. Pitiful, compared to authors who don't need a day job.
0(0.0%)
No, quit obsessing over your one published book and GET BACK TO WRITING.
1(4.5%)
Oooh, clicky!
3(13.6%)
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Subject:She Tried to Kill Me (35/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 035

For a few minutes, the cliff base was still save for the rustle of leaves and the quiet babble of water flowing down the creek. Justin spoke at last. “She tried to kill me.” His voice was tight and controlled.   

“She attempted a highly dangerous maneuver at your request, in contravention of her own judgement. As a result, you fell.” Nik didn’t open his eyes.

“Curse it, Striker! Are you saying I can’t tell the difference between a throw and a tumble? When it’s happening to me?”

Nik looked to Justin, the image of his strong handsome angry friend superimposed in his mind with the sight of that terrible fall. I almost lost you. He swallowed, nauseated by lingering fear. “I was watching,” he said, softly. “Feli Southing did just what every other greatcat does when clambering over an outcrop with a bad grip. Kicked off with her hindlegs to get lift and momentum.”

“Are you telling me Anthser would have done that?”

“Anthser and I used the trail on this cliff.” Nik paused a moment to let that sink in. “He would not today, not with a rider. But he has before. Five or six summers ago. Jumping from the ground to a second-floor balcony. I fell, too.” Voice low, he went on, “You do not know how grateful I am to be able to argue this point with you, here and now.”    

Justin exhaled. After a moment, he sank down to sit beside Nik on the log and put an arm around the blond man’s shoulders. “Thank you for catching me,” he said, just as quietly.

Nik twisted sideways to hug Justin fiercely, hiding his face against the man’s tan neck. “You’re welcome.” Nik swallowed, closing his eyes as Justin held him in return, caressing his back and smoothing his hair. After a long silent moment, he added, “I would take it as a great kindness if you could manage not to get yourself killed, my lord.”

“Hah. I’ll do my best.” Justin bent to kiss Nik’s pale forehead. Another silence, then: “So. An ass.”

A strangled half-laugh. “Inexcusably. Saints, Justin, even if she had tried to kill you, your behavior was out of line.”

“Oh, come now,” Justin protested. “I wasn’t that bad.”

“You were abominable. ‘I’ll see you never race again’? I’ve never seen you so petty or so crude.” Even in retrospect it shocked Nik, so unlike Justin’s usual easy-going demeanor. With their heads still touching, he scanned the familiar contours of his friend’s mind for a clue to the reason. He’d always been fascinated by Justin’s mind, quite unlike those of other men and yet so sane, orderly, efficient. Long-healed traumas nestled like pearls among the different mindshapes. Most of his anger channeled into humor, where it soon dissipated, rather than into violence or outbursts. The capacity for the latter existed, but by a seldom-used connection chained alongside fear. Like Anthser’s, Justin’s sense of fear was modest; unlike Anthser’s, it had an odd shape to it, and was twined with anger. Links between fear and anger were not uncommon, but this level of intertwining not something he’d seen in anyone else. Still, much of the variance in minds was unusual or unique to Nik’s experience, without causing any apparent difficulty for the individual.

Justin had winced at Nik’s remark. “She kept provoking me.” Nik sat up to look him in the eye. “She did. If she’d shown a little humility instead of backtalking – stop looking at me like that! It’s not a servant’s place to question a lord. Even if I was a little unreasonable.”

“‘A little’? I’m not even willing to repeat the things you called that poor greatcat. And she wasn’t your servant, for pity’s sake. You can’t expect a greatcat to show the deference of a scullery maid.”

“Why not? She works for me. Worked.”

“Well you can, but you’ll be disappointed. Saints, I hope you don’t treat your human servants that way.” Nik drew away, leaning against the cliff instead.

“Only when they try to kill me.” At Nik’s sharp look, Justin added, “It’s never come up before, all right? Believe it or not this is the first time in thirty years that one of my servants has tried to kill me. Employee. Accidentally almost killed me. You get the idea. It’s a new experience for me.”

“…have people who don’t work for you tried to kill you before?” Nik asked, frowning, wondering again about the Justin’s intertwined mindshapes for fear and anger.

“I have fought duels,” Justin pointed out, then sighed. “I suppose I did handle this badly.” Nik looked at him without comment. “Very badly.” Nik kept looking. Justin put his face in one hand. “I should apologize, shouldn’t I.” It wasn’t a question.

“Oh saints yes.”

“Curse it. I hate apologizing to an inferior.”

One corner of Nik’s mouth twitched up in a smile. “It’s turned out well for you in the past.” At Justin’s sour look, he added, “Remember when we met?”

Justin shuddered. “Show some mercy, boy. I’ve made enough mistakes today that you needn’t dredge up the ones from six years ago to throw at me.”

Nik pulled Justin into his embrace again. “Sorry.”

Justin closed his eyes, resting his head against Nik’s chest. “Forgiven.” A distant querulous ‘hallo’ caught their attention, and the two men straightened into more dignified positions. “Curst attendants.” Justin climbed to his feet.

“It’s not their fault either,” Nik said. “At least this way you won’t have to walk back to the clubhouse.”

“I think I’d rather walk back.” Justin called out a hallo in response anyway.



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Subject:No Way to Make It (34/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Two-thirds of the way through the final course, Anthser and Nik enjoyed a solid lead over their competitors: intimate knowledge of the course and their own abilities let them exploit every shortcut. As Anthser jumped twenty feet down to splash into the shallow water of a creek, Nik glanced over his shoulder to look for their competitors. The cliff Nik and Anthser had just descended was too steep for even them to attempt any shortcuts on the trail up, the few scrubby trees adorning its surface too short and angled to be climbed. So Nik was startled to see Southing writhing vertically upwards, perhaps a half-dozen yards from the top. The base of one of the trees growing straight outwards from the cliff served her as a foothold to push off from and surge towards the next. Justin lifted from the seat to hang in the air for an instant before pulling himself back into it. Nik’s heart stopped, watching them. “Saints and angels…”

Anthser splashed out of the creek to the dry beach alongside and glanced up at Nik’s words. Then he stopped to watch. “Oh blood and death. There’s no way they can make—” Southing shoved upwards from another narrow tree trunk; forepaws scrabbled at an outcrop of rock above her but found no purchase and she fell backwards. As Nik and Anthser stared, she caught herself on the same tree she’d pushed off from; its roots strained and trunk bent under her weight. She launched herself again: the wood cracked under the maneuver, tree trunk tumbling down the cliff face even as greatcat and rider went up. Southing caught the outcrop above with her forepaws, hindlegs curled below. With a violent thrust from her lower body she pushed herself all the way up—

—and threw her rider clear off.

JUSTIN!” Even as the cry left Nik’s throat, Anthser was already in motion, leaping from the beach to a ledge near the base of the cliff and surging up from there as powerfully as he could, his launch almost vertical in an effort to intercept. Justin twisted catlike in the air, curling to get his feet under him as if that might help on an eighty foot drop, and extended his arms out to Nik. Nik dropped his bow and grabbed Justin as he fell. The heavier man’s momentum nearly jerked Nik from the seat himself. By then, Anthser had reached the apogee and was falling as well, and Nik had enough leverage to pull Justin sideways onto Anthser’s back. They landed in the creek with a massive splash, the transmitted shock almost enough to knock both humans off. Nik’s thighs were locked into the seat as his arms clutched Justin to his chest, heart hammering in delayed terror. “Justin, Savior, Justin, are you hurt?”

Justin managed a shake of his head, looking more angry than frightened. Anthser waded out of the creek with flanks heaving, the two humans on his back. Nik clung to the other man, shaking from the spike of adrenaline, stroking Justin’s hair and pressing lips to the top of his head, oblivious and uncaring of how it looked, aware only of one thing: I almost lost you.

I almost lost you.

Anthser more collapsed than lay down on the shore, gasping for breath. Justin broke from Nik’s embrace to slide off and stand on unsteady legs. Southing dropped with a splash into the creek beside them, breathing almost as labored as Anthser’s after half-running and half-falling after them. “Crap, Lord Comfrey, I’m sor—”

“Wildcat bitch! Were you trying to kill me?” Justin roared, cutting her off. Southing rocked back on her haunches in the creek, ears flat back. Nik and Anthser stared at Justin. The viscount didn’t wait for her response, advancing on her with one hand raised. “Because as assassination attempts go, that was pretty fucking convincing! I thought you were a fucking professional, not some Abandoned World demoncat. Just what was bucking me off at a hundred feet supposed to accomplish?”

Southing’s lips peeled back in a snarl. “I wasn’t—”

“Don’t backtalk me you disease-ridden furball!” Justin stopped just inches from her, his head looming over the greatcat’s, though she was more than ten times his mass. His raised palm made it look as though he were about to slap her, which would perhaps rank as only the second-most suicidal thing he’d done that day. “Is this what I’m paying you for? Because I can throw myself off an abandoned cliff for free if I want!”

Nik slid off Anthser. The black greatcat rose to all fours, tense, and Nik placed a steadying hand on Anthser’s shoulder. Southing’s wet fur bristled as she rose from her seated position to a posture as menacing as Justin’s. “You told me to do it!”

“Justin…” Nik could not quite fathom that this argument was happening, much less how to derail it.

The Newlanture lord ignored him, still focused on Southing. “Is your mind made of fur? Because my friend here can fix that for you!” Justin waved a hand at Nik, who winced. “So you know, ‘give it a shot’ does not in fact mean ‘throw me off at the highest possible point’!”

“I warned you that we—”

“Hold your tongue, you insolent wildcat-brained ill-bred monstrosity! I’m not paying you for your worthless mouth, I’m paying you for your equally worthless racing—”

Southing roared, back arched and gums bared to reveal a mouth larger than Justin’s head, lined by jagged pointy teeth. “Blood and death you are! I am through!” She pivoted and stalked away.

“You can’t turn your back on me! I own you!”

She twisted her head to look over her shoulder, snarling, “No, you don’t. I quit, Lord Comfrey.” The greatcat drew out his title like an insult.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me! I’ll see you never race again, you little beast!”

Just watch me, little man.” Southing leapt to the far side of the creek and paced away down the trail, tail lashing.

Justin sputtered, turning back to the others. “That halfwitted homicidal demonspawn – can you believe—”

“Comfrey—” Nik found his voice at last “—shut up.” Anthser’s fur bristled and his glare at Justin was full of loathing. Nik smoothed the fur beneath his hand. “Anthser, feel free to accompany her if you please.” The greatcat acknowledged with a nod and bounded after Southing.

Justin glowered at Nik in disbelief. “Demons, Striker, you’re not taking her part?” Nik turned away, walking stiffly to a damp fallen log at the base of the cliff. Justin followed him, shaking with rage. “You bastard! She almost killed me!”

“Comfrey, you are being an ass,” Nik said. Justin seized his shoulder and jerked the slighter man around to face him. Nik regarded Justin’s livid visage with icy blue eyes before he dropped his gaze pointedly to the tan fingers digging into his shoulder. “Did you want to insult and threaten me as well, or will you skip directly to the beating?”

Jaw clenched, Justin dropped his hand as if burned. He crossed his arms over his muscular chest and turned away. Nik dropped to sit on the log and leaned back against the cliff, long legs stretched before him and eyes closed. The water of the creek lapped around the heels of his riding boots. Nik could not bring himself to care.



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Subject:The Best Part (33/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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In the event, Anthser and Nikola did much better in the next section. It was one of the two they’d chosen, and while Southing and Justin started in the lead again, Anthser passed the other greatcat on one of the climbs and they maintained that lead for the rest of the section. Justin and Nik shot comparably in that leg. The final score was not enough to offset Justin and Southing’s edge in the first leg, but it left the two teams close again. “See?” Justin said after the scoring. “Plenty we can learn from you.”

“Assuming you didn’t let us win,” Nik replied, with a mock-suspicious glare.

Southing flattened her ears, offended, but Justin laughed. “Never in life, Striker.”

The third leg was Justin’s pick, and predictably, Comfrey’s team extended their overall lead further during it. “Ready to admit defeat now, m’lord?” Anthser asked, as he and Southing panted while awaiting the formal section three scores.

Nik and Justin had dismounted to stretch. Only Comfrey was as energetic and alert as when the afternoon began. Southing stretched her forepaws before her and clawed at the ground with back arched downwards. Their final trail began at the top of a steep slope and soon disappeared into a twisting path through dense undergrowth and sturdy trees. Their vantage was high enough to see past the trees and into the ravine below. A creek ran far beneath; reflections from the water flashed through the trees at irregular intervals. The opposite slope was just as steep as the switchback trail climbed it, then ran along a ridge and vanished into another valley. The various targets were set back in the dense wood, not visible from this distance. Southing eyed the final trail with a certain trepidation. “I’m ready to collect my wager if you’re ready to pay, Blackie.”

“What? And miss the most exciting part of the course?” Justin protested.

She rolled dubious eyes towards him. “If this is the best part, why did Lord Nikola pick it instead of you?”

“I didn’t say it was the part I was best at. Besides, Striker always picks this section.”

Nik bent over to touch his booted toes, grunting. “I may have become too predictable, Anthser.”

“Naw, Lord Comfrey’s just trying to manipulate you out of good strategy.” The black greatcat arched his spine and shook himself out, fur ruffling across his body.

An attendant brought them the score: Justin had out-shot Nik again, to cement Comfrey’s lead even further. “My offer to collect now stands,” Southing said.

“No it doesn’t.” Justin vaulted into his warcat’s seat without waiting for her to lie down first. “Come now, Feli Southing, it’ll be fun. Didn’t you say you love a challenge?”

“Let’s not cry mercy just yet, Anthser. Especially if you’re defending my strategy.” Nik waited for Anthser to stretch out, then mounted in the usual prosaic fashion.

The black greatcat nodded his acquiescence and asked Southing instead, “Have you run this course before?”

“Lord Comfrey and I have run it a couple of times,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve perfected an approach for it.” This particular section of course was distinguished from the others not only by the difficult terrain, but because running the trail was optional. Competitors could take any approach they liked, as long as they hit each of the six targets in correct sequence and at least once, and didn’t cross into a target’s hazard zone – the area about a target that was proscribed to prevent accidental shootings during the race.

“Only one way to improve,” Justin said cheerfully. Southing rolled her shoulders before his knees, and padded to the starting position. Anthser followed suit; the two greatcats crouched together at the top of the steep trail. A Markavian-uniformed man stood on the stump of a starting post, flag raised.

“He’s right, you know,” Anthser murmured to Southing as the servant began the countdown. “You don’t want to miss this.”

The flag dropped. Southing surged down the switchback trail.

Anthser followed for a half dozen yards, then twisted to the side, leapt through a gap in the trees, and flew. Nik clung close to Anthser, face hidden against the greatcat’s neck so that the slender branches scraped against the top of his riding helmet instead of skin. Together, they soared past trees down the slope to land a dozen yards ahead of Southing on the path below. Anthser roared, a deep triumphant note. They lost half a second as he recovered from the turn onto the trail and regained momentum running along it. There wasn’t another gap in the trees large enough for them until they were past the next turning. Then they were airborne again, Anthser’s paws fending off smaller branches and grabbing a thick one to bounce off of it and leap over a stubby tree, falling again onto the clear path below. Behind them, Southing cursed as she crashed through the woods in their wake. Anthser laughed, already racing away down the track. When they reached the bottom of the ravine, he jumped the creek and climbed one of the thickest trees instead of taking the switchback trail up. Claws sank into wood while Nik clung to the racing seat with the boneless ease of a leech. Below them on the switchback trail, Southing raced with her tail tip lashing. Justin grinned like a madman from his perch, form as good as Nik had ever seen it. Though she had much more ground to cover, Southing was remarkably fast on the trail, jumping sideways to rebound off the trees in taking the hairpin turns at nearly top speed. Heart in his mouth, Nik followed Justin with his eyes through one rebound, the viscount all but floating parallel to the ground for a moment before his warcat’s body twisted to land with a bone-jarring thump that nonetheless did not loosen her rider.

The tree Anthser was climbing swayed under their weight. The greatcat shifted his weight to bend it down toward the slope, his progress slowed by the vertical climb and the uncertain footing. It redounded away as Anthser jumped from it to the trail, Southing and Justin only a few turns below them. “They deserve to win, you know,” Anthser said between deep breaths. “Better’n we are.”

“I know.” Nik readied his bow as they crested the final rise, and loosed an arrow for the first target. “Let’s beat them anyway.”

“Gotcha.” Anthser pelted across the top of the rise; Nik had just enough time to sink three arrows into the target before they left it behind.



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Subject:The Race (32/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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The Markavian was one of Newlant’s most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, with membership by invitation only and a required annual donation that would have paid the salaries of Nikola’s entire staff. Nik only belonged because one of his petitioners had bestowed the membership upon him as a gift and memberships were not transferable so he couldn’t sell it. For Justin, it was one of four or five gentlemen’s clubs in which he held memberships.

The club’s founding location was a beautiful old building in the heart of Gracehaven, a scant block from the Chamber of Assembly. But they maintained several satellites, including this sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city. Among its amenities was a multi-stage bowracing course, where dozens of miles of trails wound through hundreds of acres of tended forest and open fields, going back and forth across creeks and streams and up and down small hills. It was one of the country’s most challenging courses, featuring both steep climbs and hard shots. Nik had had no difficulty in reserving the course time – not surprising, given the season and the club’s exclusivity.

At the clubhouse, each of the four selected a section of trail: Nikola and Anthser, by mutual consent, chose sections with lots of climbs, jumps, and switchbacks. Feli Southing’s racing experience had included obstacle courses, but a great deal of it was on level ground and almost none of it had been with a rider. The one advantage Nikola and Anthser had in this match was that Justin and Southing were less experienced as a team and as bowracers. Southing chose a flat section through open fields, and Justin a course with some of the most distant targets, because the heavier draw on his bow gave him an edge in range. Taken as a whole, the chosen race was some sixteen miles and had a par time of forty-nine minutes.

The layout of the property made Southing’s choice the logical starting point. The greatcats exchanged their riding seats for racing ones, stretching and bouncing on their paws to limber up, exchanging private spread-whisker smiles. At the same time, their riders handled the racing bows and arrows, taking a number of practice shots to test the tension in the bowstring and re-familiarize themselves with the equipment. At length, they returned to their mounts and rode to the start line. The felines crouched low: between Nik’s thighs, he felt rather than heard the rumble of Anthser’s chest, purring in anticipation. Southing’s tail lashed. Nikola and Justin leaned forward in their seats, bows slung over one shoulder, quivers strapped and angled alongside the greatcats’ flanks. The club-provided attendant counted down from five, dropping his flag on the final count. The cats needed no further encouragement to surge into motion.

Bowracing was more marathon than sprint; both greatcats paced themselves for the long term, breathing deeply, legs stretching and bunching in smooth strides. They loped with economical grace, none of the flash of Anthser’s pounces when he’d been dashing through the streets of Gracehaven for Nikola’s amusement. Southing soon took the lead, her ground-eating run seeming effortless as her narrow racer’s cloak streamed behind her. “Let them go,” Nikola said in Anthser’s ear in reminder, the wind catching at his words and whipping them away. “We’ll catch up on the later stages.” That was the plan, anyway, and in the moment Nikola believed it. His blood sang with the thrill of the race, the rush of speed, the sense of power unleashed in Anthser’s body beneath his. The flowing wind washed stress away from him, body so tuned to the greatcat’s that he felt like a part of Anthser. Not a sack of flesh bouncing against the greatcat’s back, but an appendage, as if his arms were Anthser’s, or Anthser’s racing legs belonged to him. Nik laughed aloud in delight, watching Justin and Southing tearing along the trail ahead of them.

“Least the view’s good,” the greatcat rumbled between deep breaths, with equal good humor. Looking at the flag of Justin’s long black hair and the flare of his riding coat, Nikola privately agreed. As the pair ahead drew near the first target, Justin rocked back in the racing seat to unship his bow and nock an arrow. He let fly early, arrow missing to sink into the berm serving as backstop. Southing slowed as they drew closer still, and Justin’s next arrow struck true, though not in the bullseye. A second hit as they drew alongside the target, twenty or so yards to one side of the trail. Southing picked up speed as Justin twisted to strike home with a final shot. That gave them the three hits needed to avoid a penalty for that target. By now, Nik was concentrating on his own shots: crouched over the seat, bow angled as he drew: exhale, fire, next arrow drawn without watching the flight of the first. He re-aimed and fired, barely noting the red fletching on the target that showed his first arrow had found the mark. Nik managed to land with three arrows as well; he and Anthser gained a few yards in the exchange, as they slowed less for the shots.

Nikola didn’t try to track the results of his shots or Justin’s as the race progressed: an attendant from the club would collect the spent arrows and tally the score for them: penalty time was added to the run for every target not struck thrice, and a bonus subtracted for each bullseye. They finished the first section almost thirty seconds behind Justin and Southing, and Nik was glad to have kept the gap as narrow as that. As they waited together at the finish line for the attendants to score their shots, Justin asked him, “Show me your shooting stance?”

“What, this?” Nik drew back his bow as he sat upright in Anthser’s racing seat, puzzled by the question.

“No, no, the one you actually use. When Fel Fireholt’s running.”

Nik blinked. “It’s not this?”

“Not at all,” Southing seconded Justin’s opinion.

“Then…I don’t know,” Nik said. “Trot in a circle, Anthser? Let’s see what feels right when we’re moving.” The dark greatcat obliged by padding into motion. Nik hunched over his liegecat’s neck in his standard racing position, then leaned back again just enough to draw the bow.

“That!” Justin cried. “How do you fire with any accuracy at all while doing that?”

“I just…do.” His shooting stance was raised slightly from the seat on the strength of thighs and knees, while his torso remained almost parallel to his warcat. It felt natural to him, though now that Justin called attention to it he could imagine how odd it must appear.

“That’s why Anthser can move faster through the shoot, though,” Southing observed, turning to watch them. “Less wind resistance.”

“I doubt I can duplicate it.” Justin tried on his standing warcat, and not only positioned himself awkwardly but was unable to draw his bow at that angle.

Nik and Anthser rode up alongside. “I think you need to rise in the seat more. No, from your knees, not your feet. Feli Southing, Anthser, would you pace each other? Not fast, just it’s a little more natural in motion I think.”

Nik made an effort to give Justin riding pointers for a few minutes, while the other lord laughed in amusement at his own difficulty in imitating Nik’s trick. “Now I know what to strive for,” Justin said with a smile, as the attendants returned with the score for the first section.

“Maybe not,” Nik said while the scores were read off. They both had targets they missed once, but Justin had tagged two bullseyes to Nik’s none, so the viscount’s team was even further in the lead for the first section. “Why are we giving you tips? You should be schooling us.”

“They already are, m’lord.” Anthser grinned at Southing.

She spread her whiskers and canted her ears in a greatcat laugh. “Because our advice would be things like ‘run sixty miles a day, at least fifteen of them in under two minutes each’.”

“Or ‘do a hundred chin-ups’,” Justin said. “But only every other day. Amongst an alternating regimen of thirty other exercises. You’re welcome to use my weights any time, Striker.”

“Let’s not take their advice,” Anthser said to Nik in a stage whisper, as the two greatcats bore their riders to the starting point for the next section. “I don’t mind losing that much.”

“Agreed. Though I’m not ready to admit defeat yet.” Nik settled into a racing crouch on Anthser’s back as the greatcats waited for the flag to drop. “Perhaps we can’t outrun or outshoot them, but we may yet outwit them.”

Justin grinned at him. “Just try it, boy.”



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Subject:Of Wagers (31/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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“So, what shall we wager on today’s race?” Justin asked as they strolled down the grand staircase to his front hall.

Nik rolled his eyes. “Nothing?”

“Where’s the thrill in that?” One of Justin’s footmen waited by the door with Justin’s riding coat. Justin slipped it on before they stepped outside, pulling his ponytail free of the collar. He took his riding helmet from the man as well and tucked it beneath one arm.    

“Shooting targets at high speed from the back of a charging greatcat is not thrill enough for you?”

“Of course not. Come, Striker, it needn’t be cash.”

Anthser and his ladycat friend, alerted by bellrope, waited in the drive for them. The two were largely ignoring the humans in favor of each other, heads close together and engaged in private conversation. Justin’s new riding cat was longer and sleeker than Anthser, a lithe powerful figure with large paws and white stripes running through grey fur. Beside her, Anthser’s dark, heavily-muscled frame looked almost fat and indolent. Bowracing was one of the few sports where Nikola was not hopelessly outclassed by Justin: Justin was a much better shot with a standing bow, but Nik was the better rider, especially on Anthser – they’d been riding together since Nik was a boy. With riding bows on catback, Nik and Justin were almost a match. But given Justin’s new riding cat and Anthser’s comment about a ‘wall full of medals’, Nikola suspected he and Anthser would be outclassed today. He ignored Justin’s remarks about a wager to retrieve the riding gear Anthser had set on the steps, and sat on the stoop to exchange shoes for boots.

Justin leaned against the railing, watching him with a smirk. “Were you raised by wildcats, Striker?”

“Shut up.” Nikola tugged on the second boot and stamped into it.

“I have a whole house full of dressing rooms, you know. And servants to help. I know that ‘lord’ on your name is a courtesy title, but I could’ve sworn your parents were peers too…”

“Shut up, Comfrey.” Nik threw on his coat and strapped the riding helmet over long blond hair.

The greatcats broke off their conversation as the two men approached them. “Heyo, Lord Nik, this’s Feli Callista of Southing,” Anthser said. “Callie, this’s Nikola Striker, m’lord of Fireholt.”

Justin quirked an eyebrow at the introduction, while Nikola gave the gray-and-white cat a cordial nod. “Feli Southing.”

She bowed to him. “My honor, Lord Fireholt.”

“Lord Nikola,” Anthser corrected quickly. She lowered her ears, embarrassed, while Nikola waved the error off. The two greatcats lay down so that the humans could mount.

Feli Southing asked Anthser in an undertone, “So…why is the Viscount of Comfrey called Lord Comfrey, but the Lord of Fireholt isn’t called Lord Fireholt?”

Anthser shrugged. “No idea. Human thing.”

On his back, Nikola laughed. “It’s stupidly complex. I can explain if you truly wish to know.”

The white-striped greatcat flatted her whiskers, apologetic, but Anthser said, “Sure, I’m curious.”

“The land holding of Comfrey Viscountcy is an early entailment – right, Comfrey?” Nikola began, glancing to Justin, who nodded. “Meaning it was established not long after the founding of Newlant – first century or second?”

“First,” Justin said. “Technically. In 98.”

“Right. All original Newlant entailments follow the family line; they may be left to either the oldest son, or the nearest Blessed relation. All Newlant peers at that time took their surnames from their holding, so whomever inherited Comfrey Viscountcy would take Comfrey as his or her surname. So the viscount or viscountess of Comfrey has always been Lord or Lady Comfrey,” Nikola continued.

“But Fireholt is one of the Blessed entailments established by Newlant in the third century. It was bestowed on the first Lord of Fireholt, Galest Kirklynn, as a Gift in return for curing the princess’s clubfoot. Blessed entailments are separate from the family line; they must be left to someone with a Blessing, whether a relation or not. My great-grandmother – my mother’s father’s mother, to be exact – left it to me—”

“He was her favorite,” Justin interjected.

“—because I had a gift for minds, as she had and as had her grandfather, who raised the greatcat race from wildcats. She wanted Fireholt’s lord to be someone able to take care of its large greatcat population. A large greatcat population compared to the small size of the holding, that is. A few thousand acres.”

Feli Southing gave him a wide-eyed look as she kept pace easily beside Anthser, Justin seated straight-backed astride her. “You’re descended from Lord Iason?” She sounded impressed.

“That’s him,” Anthser supplied, puffing out his own chest as they padded along the Gracehaven streets.

“You didn’t tell me that!” she accused Anthser.

“You didn’t ask.” Anthser rolled his eyes back and tilted his head to look at Nik. “So why didn’t you take Fireholt as your surname?”

“Because it’s not a family property. That is, it happens to have stayed in my family through the last three holders, but that’s coincidence. I have no relation to Galest Kirklynn, the first Lord of Fireholt.”

“Uhhh…if you say so. Why’s your dad Lord Striker instead of Lord Anverlee, then? You can’t tell me Anverlee’s one of these Blessed-entailments because I know he’s not Blessed.”

“No, it’s not. Anverlee County was endowed on my family by the Queen of Havenset—”

“Wait, what? Havenset has a queen?”

“It used to. This was before Havenset was annexed by Newlant. Surnames in Havenset have always been patrilineal rather than taken from the names of holdings. So he is the Count of Anverlee, but our family name is Striker and so he’s Lord Striker. Havensetter peers never adopted the Newlant practice on that. Even the Newlanter family that took possession of Anverlee County for a time after the annexation never renamed themselves Anverlee. And eventually the county was restored to my family.”

Anthser crossed his eyes. “So you’re Lord Nik and not Lord Striker because…?”

“I appear to be ‘Lord Nik’ because ‘Nikola’ is too many syllables for you,” Nikola said, teasing. Anthser splayed his ears. “Since Fireholt is not a hereditary title it doesn’t extend to my personal name – I am the Lord of Fireholt, and I am Nikola Striker, but those are separate roles, so to speak.”

“But… ‘Lord Nikola’?” Feli Southing looked bewildered.

That is my courtesy title as my father’s heir. The holder of a family entailment is ‘Lord Surname’ and his heir has the courtesy title of ‘Lord Givenname’.”

“‘Courtesy title’?”

“Extended as a courtesy, because the heir doesn’t have a holding or an actual title.”

“You forgot the courtesy title from your Blessing,” Justin said.

Nik rubbed his face with one hand. “Right. Anyone who has a Blessing for healing, either mind or body, gets a courtesy title too. So I’d be Lord Nikola for that, even if my father disinherited me.”

“So why the deal over Lord of Fireholt not attaching to your name, if you’d get a title anyway?” Anthser asked.

“A courtesy title. Because courtesy titles for the Blessed were granted in the sixth century and Fireholt dates three centuries before that,” Nik said. “I told you it was complicated.”

“And Fireholt could be left to someone with a Blessing for stone or plants,” Justin added. “So it wouldn’t necessarily go to someone with a courtesy title.”

Feli Southing shook her head. “You people are crazy.” The two men laughed.

“Told you. Human thing,” Anthser said.

“In my professional capacity, I must inform you that we are not, in fact, insane,” Nik answered the gray-and-white feline, with all the authority he could muster. Then ruined it by adding, “But on a personal note, it’s hard to argue the point.”

Justin chuckled. “It’s not our fault. We were born to these laws. And if you’re done with the history lesson, Striker, there’s the question of this wager to settle.”

“Are we betting on the race?” Feli Southing’s grey ears pricked in interest.

“Striker and I are.”

“No we aren’t.” Nik said.

“But not money. Something else, then. Loser has to ask Lady Dalsterly to the Ascension Court Ball? Do you have a companion for the event already?”

“Lady Dalsterly already has an escort for the ball – her cousin is taking her – and that’d be more prize than price, Comfrey. I wish I could invite Lady Dalsterly. My parents wanted me to ask Miss Vasilver, before they decided they hated her. I’m not sure now. So you haven’t asked Miss Dalsterly yet?”

“I am not asking Miss Dalsterly.” Justin grimaced. “Miss Rubane, perhaps. All right…winner gets to determine the stakes for the next three matches?”

“No,” Nikola said. “You’re not bullying me into this, Comfrey.”

“Do you want to wager on the outcome?” Feli Southing asked Anthser.

“Sure!” the black greatcat agreed readily. “Go for nip afterwards, loser pays?”

“Oh…I don’t take catnip. Training, you know. Loser grooms winner?”

Anthser’s whiskers spread and his ears canted in pleasure. “Agreed,” he purred.

Nik could feel Justin’s gaze on him, the laughing smile in those dark brown eyes. He kept his eyes forward, afraid of the chain of thoughts that would follow if he dared glance at the man. “Am I the only one who doesn’t think games require a bet?”

“Yes,” Feli Southing and Justin said, almost at the same time.

Anthser tipped his head back. “Sorry, m’lord.”

“I could cover your half of the wager again,” Justin offered. “Give you two hundred marks and then you could give it back if I win, or I give you another two hundred if you do.”

“So you win nothing or lose four hundred?” Feli Southing wrinkled her nose. “Why would you do that?” Justin ignored her.

“No,” Nik said.

“Why would you turn that down?” Feli Southing asked. Nik ignored her too.

Anthser murmured in an aside to her, “Human thing.”

“Hmph. You weren’t this obstinate the other night,” Justin told Nikola.

Nik gritted his teeth. “I didn’t want to make a fuss in front of your guests. I am perfectly willing to raise however much fuss is required in front of you, Comfrey.”

“Oho! That sounds like a challenge. How much fuss would that be, do you think?” Justin watched him sidelong from beneath dark eyebrows, a slight smile on narrow lips.

Nikola lifted his chin, eyes on the overcast sky. Justin would never be serious: everything was a subject of fun for him. That made him good company most of the time – Nik quietly loved Justin’s easy unworried manner – but it also meant he didn’t know when to stop. “Nice day, isn’t it? For this time of year. A trifle cold perhaps, but good riding weather.”

“Or running weather,” Anthser said, stretching his legs and flexing his paws with his next stride.

“I prefer days like this for a workout,” Feli Southing contributed. “On sunny warm days you get overheated.”

“How’s this,” Justin went on, undeterred by Nik’s latest diversionary effort. “Loser owes the winner a favor. Any minor service, and before your legalistic mind goes anywhere with that, Lord Nikola, I’ll stipulate that the loser may veto any request he deems inappropriate. That cannot be too much for your sensibilities, can it?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to be as annoying about taking ‘no’ for an answer in attempting to collect on this favor as you are being right now about this wager business?”

Justin laughed. “Upon my honor, I’ll not press it. Assuming I win.”    

With a sigh, Nikola yielded. “Very well.” The sunny smile Justin gave him in reward melted Nik’s heart, making it impossible to resent Justin for carrying the point.



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Subject:Not Private Enough (30/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Justin led him up the sweeping mahogany staircase in the entranceway and along the second-floor hall to the master suite’s dressing room. It was a large chamber for the purpose, with one wall lined by clothing racks. A dresser stood against another wall, alongside a tri-fold mirror, while a settee occupied the third wall. “Take off your shirt,” Justin ordered, flicking through the hangers.

Nik complied, peeling off gloves before looking down to untie his neckcloth. He was keenly aware of Justin’s presence in lieu of the usual valet, and the lack of any other observer. Nik’s fingers trembled slightly as he unfastened the buttons of the shirt. Justin had a spare shirt draped over his shoulder, held by two fingers; Nik could almost feel the heat of his dark-eyed gaze.

Justin closed the distance between them with a few strides. “Need a hand, Striker?” Then those strong hands were on Nik, pushing the shirt off pale shoulders, sleeves tangling around forearms as Nik hadn’t yet undone all the buttons. Justin leaned close to nuzzle at the fading bruises on Nik’s neck.

Nik swallowed. “Don’t, Justin,” he murmured, shivering with desire as tan hands caressed his biceps. “The greatcats. They’ll smell you on me.”

“Of course they will.” The stronger man shifted his weight to pin Nik against the wall, kissing the bruises, pressing the hard length of his body against Nik’s. “You’ll be wearing my shirt.”

Nik closed his eyes against the response of his body, the wave of need driven to an almost painful pleasure as Justin’s hand slipped into his breeches. He gasped with longing, hips thrusting of their own accord into Justin’s fingers. Nik squirmed an arm free of the shirt to caress his lover’s chest, then froze. “Won’t explain—” Nik lost the power of speech for a moment under Justin's attentions, a stifled whimper escaping. After drawing in a ragged breath, he struggled to get out, “my scent on you.” Justin closed his mouth on the side of Nik’s throat, and Nik stiffened, wanting nothing more than to lose himself to the sensation and terrified to do so.

A moment later, Justin released him and withdrew two paces. Nik reached for him reflexively, fingers clenching on air as Nik forced himself not to pursue. Curse it, I asked him to stop. I’ve no right to complain that he did. But he felt cold and bereft without Justin’s warm weight against him. “Of course.” Justin said, his own breathing not quite steady. “Of course.” He tossed the riding shirt to Nik and turned his back, straightening his cuffs. Nik drew the borrowed shirt on; it was too big across the chest and shoulders, the sleeves a trifle short, but it didn’t signify.

Justin’s composure was restored before they stepped into the hall; Nik wished he could say the same for his own. Six years. Why is it still so hard to get him out of my thoughts? Damn law and propriety and greatcat noses anyway. I should’ve picked something else. Hunting. Cards. Even billiards. Anything where we could be alone.



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Subject:Miss Too Honest (29/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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One of Comfrey’s footmen showed Nik to the private dining room, where Justin set aside a copy of the Times Commerce and welcomed Nik with his usual warm smile and a handshake, making no mention of the delay. He did quirk an eyebrow at Nik’s morning-call attire: formal jacket, neckcloth, lace cuffs, breeches, hose and buckled shoes. Justin was already dressed for riding, in gleaming mahogany knee boots, snug cream jodhpurs and a vest over a plain high-collared shirt, black hair in a simple ponytail.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Comfrey,” Nik apologized anyway, taking a seat at Justin’s cue. The dining table had been collapsed to its smallest state – still large enough for six – and set for two. “I called on Miss Vasilver earlier and did not realize the lateness of the hour.”

“Vasilver? Wait, that girl your parents wanted-up-until-they-didn’t-want you to marry?” Justin motioned to the butler to bring the soup course.

“That’s the one. Have you met her?”

Justin thought for a moment. “I don’t believe so. I know her…father and brother, I believe. From Association events.”

“Pity, you’d like her.”

“What, Miss Too Honest? Me?” Justin raised his dark eyebrows.   

Nik smirked. “Perhaps not. But she wouldn’t be bored or perplexed by your business dinners. Brilliant woman.”

“Worse and worse!” Justin shook his head. “How would I impress her with my lordly superiority if I could not depend on patronizing explanations of commerce? I’d be reduced to relying on my title. You know how I despise doing that, Striker.”

“Isn’t that why you maintain your lordly physique?”

Justin grinned. “Have you looked at our peers? There’s nothing lordly about my physique. I’d need to maintain a regimen of strict rest and constant consumption to achieve that.” He leaned back and slouched, puffing out his cheeks and stomach in an effort to look fat. Even that attempt could not disguise the breadth of his muscular shoulders and chest.

Nikola laughed. “That would leave some kind of impression, no doubt.”

“It always has on me.” Justin returned to his normal straight-backed posture as a footman placed bowls of lobster bisque before each lord. “Alas, I am far too fond of sport to give myself over to my appropriate place of huffing and wheezing after a quarter-hour’s walk.” He waved his spoon dismissively and added, “One of my many failings,” before tucking in to the soup.

They ate for some minutes in silence, Nik reflecting on his conversation with Miss Vasilver. Strange that he could not remember seeing her smile, even after hours of talking. Every witticism she delivered was with an expression so deadpan one could only gauge her intent by context. She never laughed at his banter, and yet he had the clear sense that she’d been amused nonetheless. She did banter in return, after all.

“Striker?” Justin said, and Nik realized with a guilty start the other man was repeating himself.

“Yes, excuse me?”

Justin gestured with his spoon to the Nik’s forgotten and cooling soup. “Don’t care for the bisque? Mrs. Alsberry will be devastated.” Justin’s own bowl was empty. “Or I could eat it for you and spare her feelings. I liked it.”

“No, it’s good, sorry.” Nik set to consuming the rest, while Justin sent the footman to fetch himself another bowl.

Justin waited a few moments, then asked, “So, is the engagement back on, then?”

“What? No! No, of course not. Not there ever was an engagement.” Nik shook his head with enough vehemence that he had to rescue his wavy ponytail before it fell into the soup. “In fact, we’ve an explicit understanding that there will be no such understanding.”

His companion raised dark eyebrows. “You reached an understanding with a girl to not marry her. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an anti-marriage proposal before. Er – don’t tell me you offered to make her your mistress?”

Nik choked on a mouthful of soup, spitting it back into the bowl and grabbing his napkin. Round blue eyes glared at Justin until he’d recovered himself enough to say, “No! Why would you even – Savior! With Vasilver’s daughter? Honestly, Comfrey. Besides, it’d be like hiring a first-rate inventor to pull your coach. Highly inappropriate and unsatisfying for all involved.”

Justin laughed. “I wonder if that’s why her family keeps her under wraps – embarrassment?”

Nik pushed his bowl aside. “They don’t,” he said shortly, regretting raising the topic. “I’ve seen her about town before. And she did mention travelling a great deal.”

“As you say.” Justin’s amused smile lingered. “So how did you come to make an anti-marriage proposal to this girl?” The footman returned with the next course, roast stuffed partridges, and cleared the dishes from the last at his lord’s wave.

“Ah. Well – since she’d said she prefered people to be straightforward, I thought I’d just tell her I wasn’t interested in marriage. The quickest way to make sure I wouldn’t mislead her on that count.” Nik cut into the partridge. “You know, as opposed to you and Miss Dalsterly.”

“I did not mislead Miss Dalsterly! I invited her to one supper.” Justin shot Nik an aggrieved look. “And only because I needed her to make the numbers, plus I could not invite Lady Dalsterly without her.”

Nik smirked. “And did you tell her that?”

“Saints no. Are you mad?” Justin took a bite of his fowl, then asked, “Wouldn’t the quickest way to show this girl you don’t want to marry her be to not call on her? Why’d you go?”

“Well…I like her.”

Justin raised a dark eyebrow. “But not enough to marry her?”

“Is that so hard to believe? I like you, and—” Nik regretted the words as soon as they were out, but there was no way to stop now “—I’m not going to marry you.”

“I am a man. You may have noticed. At some point. This might have influenced your calculations in that respect,” Justin said, with a great dignity spoiled by his lurking smirk.

Nik hurried on. “Anyway, my parents were perfect beasts to her, and I didn’t want her to think they represented my own feelings.”

“Which would be…?”

“Disinterested admiration for her intelligence.” Nik sipped his wine, eyes daring Justin to question his motives further.

“And how was your anti-proposal received? Was it the joyous occasion one imagines of the converse?”

Nik made a face at him. “With perfect composure. I suspect she was as relieved as I, under it all.”

“Do you.” Justin put his elbow on the table in defiance of good manners and rested his chin on one tan fist.

“I’d make a terrible husband. I spend half my time with impoverished petitioners and the other half gadding about town. What could she see in me?”

The dark-haired lord gave Nik a long, measuring look as Nik dissected his meal. “Can’t imagine,” Justin drawled at last. “So if this anti-marriage proposal was quick, what did delay you?”

“Oh – business, mainly.”

Justin blinked at him. “You always complain when I talk business.”

Nik had the grace to look apologetic. “This was different. We discussed Anverlee and Fireholt. She had a number of interesting ideas on how to get the house on a better financial footing.”

“I didn’t know you cared,” Justin said, with a slight smile. “I thought you prefered to leave all those plebeian details to other mortals.”

Nik made a face at him. “I am not devoid of all familial feeling, Comfrey.” He paused for a mouthful of meat, then added, “Just most of it.” He went on to make a good-faith effort to explain Miss Vasilver’s plans to Justin. As he did so, Justin offered the occasional request for clarification, which inevitably led to Nik correcting himself on a term or chain of events. Nik was left with the distinct impression that Justin knew better than Nik did what he was talking about.

“It seems reasonable,” Justin allowed grudgingly. “Though why is she so convinced Fireholt’s got onidian deposits anyway?”

“Oh, that’s easy. It’s been mined there before. All the pure veins were tapped out decades ago, but Vasilver’s got a new patent for a smelting process that will let them cheaply extract onidian from the remaining ore. All they need are ore deposits.”

There were tiny tarts for the final course, but Justin had ordered a small dinner in light of their plans for exercise immediately thereafter. “Shall we stop by Anverlee Manor so you may change?” Justin asked as they rose from the table.

“No, Anthser’s got most of my riding gear on him; I’ll just wear it over this.” Nik had intended to change first, but Anverlee Manor was in the opposite direction from the club’s bowracing grounds, and his unintentionally late departure from Vasilver’s had prevented him from doing so beforehand.

“Bah. I’ll lend you a tunic at least. You’ll ruin the cuffs racing in that. Not to mention look ridiculous.”



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Subject:Nearly Certain (28/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Still dazed by his long conversation with Miss Vasilver, Nik traveled by cab to Justin’s manor. What a remarkable woman. He didn’t think he’d ever had such a frank discussion with anyone. She hadn’t been the least perturbed by his admission that he was not interested in marriage: quite the opposite, given her willingness to elaborate on alternative solutions to Anverlee’s financial woes. Perhaps she was relieved as well; other than a title and a bloodline, he had little to recommend himself. Probably she dreamt of a husband with a mind as keen for business as her own, someone who didn’t look at her blankly when she spoke of ‘due diligence’ and understood at once the distinction between income and revenue. Though she’d been very patient in her explanations, her cool calm voice holding no trace of condescension or contempt for his ignorance. Miss Vasilver had the most wonderfully concise and clear way of describing complex concepts, unpacking technical details into plain language even Nik could understand.

But the most amazing thing was how easy it was to talk to her about everything. He’d been afraid a few times that he’d given her offense – indeed, how could she not have been offended when he’d inadvertently impugned her virtue? – yet she remained unruffled throughout.

And it was a great relief to have the matter of courtship taken off the table so easily. Nik tried to imagine broaching that topic with any other woman: how would Miss Dalsterly, say, respond if Justin told her up front of his disinterest? The mental image that followed made him wince. Of course, no doubt it helped that Miss Vasilver barely knew Nik and her affections were far from engaged.

It was…almost a shame, in a way. The state of matrimony did not have much to recommend itself, but wedding a woman like Miss Vasilver – a practical, intelligent wife one could talk to, who would listen with calm comprehension to even the most outrageous statements – that had a certain appeal. That document of hers, with its tolerant terms on the conduct of extramarital affairs.

But even her tolerance would not, could not extend to… he squashed this entire line of thought as he stepped from the cab and ascended Comfrey Manor’s steps.

§


Wisteria felt as though she were made of light. After Lord Nikola took his leave, she leaned back in the parlor chair and closed her eyes to cherish the afternoon in recollection. He called on me! He wasn’t sarcastic or jesting at all! And he said he’d call again! She ought to go upstairs to dress for dinner, but she wanted to commit every moment of the last few hours to memory first. I told him I prefered honesty and he believed me. She pictured Lord Nikola’s angular face in her mind, framed by waves of tied-back golden hair, blue eyes on her, so intent when he caught her hands in his. Imagine him worried that he had offended her. Mirth bubbled inside her at the idea. Oh, but it felt so good to speak plainly and to get plain answers in return.

She shouldn’t let it lull her, she knew. No doubt she’d fall all unwitting into some new conversational death trap at some point, one Lord Nikola would not be so ready to assist her in escaping. He could not be so unlike other people as to truly sympathize with her feelings on politeness and forbidden topics. But he had been so very kind.

When Helen found Wisteria, she was still woolgathering in the parlor. The lady’s maid clucked at Wisteria’s attire and hurried her upstairs to change for dinner. “It’s only family, Helen, does it matter?” Wisteria complained as Helen shut the door on her dressing room.   

“Yes, miss. It matters to your family. They count too, you know.” The lady’s maid plucked a dress from racks well-organized by type and color.

“Of course. They count more, in point of fact. But by now they ought to know better than to judge me by what I wear.” Wisteria stood before the full-length mirror on a cherry stand in the corner by the door.

“Clothing makes the woman, miss.” Helen slipped the jacket from Wisteria’s shoulders and unfastened the rows of buttons down the back of the dress until Wisteria could step out of it. The angoraflax daysuit was exchanged for a formal dinner gown of emerald green with matched jewelry, all selected by Helen. Wisteria never chose her own attire, although she sometimes vetoed singularly uncomfortable selections.

Makes her into what? Wisteria wondered, gazing at her reflection. Helen shifted Wisteria to sit at the vanity, and the lady’s maid busied herself dressing long dark tresses. Wisteria didn’t rush the woman this time. My family won’t leave because I’ve taken too long, she thought. And if they did, it wouldn’t be all bad. Which was unkind and untrue. Almost entirely untrue. Wisteria returned to her daydreams over Lord Nikola while her attendant swept her hair into an elegant twist and secured it with a tourmaline-studded comb.

Dinner was just family for a change: her mother, father, Byron, and her two teenaged brothers, Mitchell and David, home from school on winter break. Wisteria had two other older brothers, both captains in Vasilver’s merchant fleet, and overseas at present.

Byron and their father were already deep in a discussion of trade with Heschia Dachee Company, an overseas press in Esanalee. Vasilver Trading did brisk business shipping their books: HDC had some marvelous secret technique for printing or ink or paper or binding, or perhaps all four, that enabled them to sell volumes for a quarter of what local presses charged despite comparable labor costs in the two countries. Wisteria joined as they debated the merits of continuing to import from HDC versus attempting to duplicate HDC’s processes locally. Their father favored the former and Byron the latter. Byron saw in terms of efficiencies and diversification, preferring to spread into a variety of businesses to avoid overdependence on a single economic sector, while the senior Mr. Vasilver was reluctant to jeopardize a good business relationship and source of profit, and disliked jumping feet-first into businesses Vasilver had no practical experience in running. They both had good points to make, so it was always a balancing act. Wisteria suggested partnering with HDC to create a press in Newlant, allowing Vasilver to provide local knowledge and HDC printing expertise, especially since HDC was reluctant to sell their trade secrets.

While this discussion continued, Mitchell and David fought or maybe just roughhoused at their end of the table – Wisteria could never tell the difference – as her mother ate in silence. Wisteria felt a twinge of guilt. Poor woman. Five sons, and her one daughter is even more incomprehensible to her than they are.

When they reached an impasse on HDC that could not be solved without more information, Mitchell took pity on their mother – or perhaps wanted a different sibling than David to harass – but at any event changed the subject. “So, Teeri, you had a caller this afternoon…?”

Lord Nikola’s face displaced the chart of pros and cons on involvement in the printing process that Wisteria had been building in her mind. “Oh, yes, I did.”

“Well, how’d it go?” Mitchell demanded, when she didn’t elaborate on her own. “You were talking to him for hours.”

“Oh, it was marvelous. Did you know, Father, he liked the document I gave him the other day, we were talking about it.” Wisteria turned to her father as she spoke.

“Were you now?” He gave her a too-familiar look that she had learned to recognize as something between apprehension and horror.

Wisteria abruptly recalled herself. “Yes…” She tried to sort out which parts might be safe to relate to her family. Her father had complained about its business clauses too, but less so than the rest. “Mostly about Fireholt and mining.”

“In truth? Thought Lord Nikola wasn’t much of a man for business,” Byron said.

“He seemed interested enough,” Wisteria said, now second-guessing herself. Would I have noticed if he’d been humoring me? “He lost track of time until Betsy came to say it was near dinner.”

“Teeri’s got a lo-ord,” David sing-songed from his end of the table. Mitchell snorted a laugh.

“Hush, David,” Ms. Vasilver said. Mitchell cuffed his younger brother, and David pulled a face and cuffed him back.

Wisteria was unperturbed by her squabbling younger brothers. “In any case, Lord Nikola said he would call again. I’m sure you can discuss it with him yourself – the onidian mining operations are your bailiwick, after all,” she said to Byron.

“Hmm.” Byron paused, then asked, “So, this mean the engagement is back on?”

Wisteria blinked at the idea. “Oh, no, not at all. Not that there ever was an engagement, of course. But no, nothing of the sort.”

Their mother, who’d paused in eating while this conversation waxed on, heaved a sigh and turned back to her plate.

Byron gave Wisteria a quizzical look. “So Lord Nikola called, to discuss these papers you’d put together in pursuit of a marital alliance – papers he admired – and you had a marvellous conversation, and he’s going to call again.”

“Yes.” Wisteria had no idea why her brother was summarizing her earlier statements.

“But he’s not courting you.”

“Correct. Are we making progress in clear communication, Byron? You have grasped my precise meaning.” Wisteria took a bite of her pudding.

Byron exchanged glances with their parents. “Clear, yes. Understandable, perhaps not so much.”

“Teeri’s got a lo-ord,” David sang out again.

Lacking whatever telepathic abilities were apparently required to explain the situation properly, Wisteria gave up and addressed herself to her food. Yet it had all made perfect sense to Lord Nikola, I am certain.

Nearly certain.



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Subject:Technically Not Unspeakable (27/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Lord Nikola turned to face forward, offering his arm to walk beside her again. “I had not realized how heartfelt you were in your preference for truth.”

“My lord, you have no idea. Polite fiction drives me mad. Everyone else but me seems to have a mystical knack for distinguishing between simple truth and a well-intentioned lie, but I fail at it every time. I just want people to use words. Plain words. To tell me what they mean. Politeness is an endless guessing game and I lose at every single round of it.”

He smiled. “That’s quite an indictment.”

“Oh, I would use stronger language, but that would be rude,” Wisteria said, making him laugh. She continued, “Very well, I admit I don’t hate everything about polite behavior. But almost everything. All the dishonesty and the inexplicable rules about what you aren’t supposed to discuss. As if problems will disappear if they go unspoken. Does that work for other people? It never does for me.”

“I don’t think it does.” They took a few steps in silence before Lord Nikola added, “If I may continue to rudely speak of the unspeakable…”

“Please, by all means, do.”

Lord Nikola smiled again. “In that document of yours… article six or so? You wrote of child-rearing. The section on religious upbringing in particular bemused me. Did you write this entire piece with me in mind, or was it adapted from some prior effort?”

“Oh no. This was for you alone. I make a point to avoid old mistakes by making entirely new ones each time, my lord.” That won her another smile. Her heart gave a little convulsive twist. But he’s not interested in marriage. “I think too much about things. Children and what one teaches them are an essential component of marriage, so it seemed like a logical inclusion. To me.”

“It does proceed naturally from procreation,” Lord Nikola agreed. “But… I can understand differences of denomination, but ‘no religious observances’? Why would you suggest prospective children might be raised in ignorance?”

“Observance and education are not the same,” Wisteria said. “One may be taught about the various Ascension belief systems without being indoctrinated in them.”

“Do you not believe in the Savior and the Ascension?”

“I do, my lord. But the religious trappings inherent therein are my beliefs, not facts I can prove.”

“…you can’t?”

“I don’t mean the specifics of history. The archaeological evidence of the Ascension and the historical record are reasonably clear: approximately three thousand humans arrived by mysterious means in Paradise a little less than nine hundred years ago, from a world they seldom described and which historical records depict as nightmarish. They were led by a man we know as the Savior and assisted by Saints, the first known humans with Blessings, who could shape plants and stone, heal bodies and minds. These people set about populating Paradise. That much is corroborated by a variety of sources. But most Ascension teachings aren’t. I do not have evidence that, say, lords who can bring the dead back to life will be born to us when we finish perfecting Paradise, or that it’s the Savior’s presence that sanctifies marriage. Or that the Savior had angels who helped him find and gather the people of the Abandoned World before the Ascension. I can’t even prove the Code we follow is his, because the first written version of it is over a hundred years after his Passage. Oh, and I can’t prove he Passed back to the Abandoned World to save others, because that’s just as much a mystery as his arrival. And if he did Pass back, it’s even more an article of faith that part of him remains here and watches over us.”

Lord Nikola cleared his throat as she finished, and Wisteria glanced at him, her head tilted. After a moment, he said, “Miss Vasilver. I channel the Savior’s power every day to heal the ill. How much more proof do you require?”

“But that doesn’t prove anything about the Savior, does it? It proves that you may touch people and heal them, but it doesn’t prove what process does the healing. That is – if a little child cuts his finger, his skin will heal in time. And it will heal whether or not he knows about the cells of a human body or the way they may replicate and knit together anew. Being capable and having full understanding of what that capability entails are two different things.”

“Are you saying I don’t know how my own ability works?”

For the first time, it occurred to Wisteria that Lord Nikola’s questions might originate from outrage rather than a simple desire to understand her reasoning. Was he upset? How would I know? He hadn’t stormed off yet. And this visit had been going so well. She tried to think of some way to salvage this. “I – my lord, I mean no disrespect, and surely you understand what you do far better than I. It’s just – in my travels, I met a number of men and women from foreign nations who bore what we call Blessings. Yet they did not all share our beliefs. Some thought their powers came from a place inside themselves, or from the Isuelda, a sacred pool in the mountains of Benonya, or… oh it doesn’t matter. I apologize, Lord Nikola.”

“Well, they’re mistaken,” the blond man muttered under his breath. He gazed into the distance.

“Yes, my lord.” Wisteria cringed inside.

“Miss Vasilver—” His attention snapped back to her face. “Are you agreeing with me to be polite?”

Impending doom closed upon her. “…maybe?”

Lord Nikola laughed. “Well, don’t. I’m not offended, Miss Vasilver. Startled. Not upset. That’s a very unusual line of reasoning. I will say that I have no doubt the power to heal comes from the Savior. I can feel his presence, you know. His joy and his sorrow. Quite distinct from my own.”

“Oh. What’s it like?”

“Like sunlight on my soul. Like a downpour so thick and vast you could drown in it, except he’d never let you.” He shook his head. “There are no words for it. I suppose that’s the problem. Taking my word for it means disregarding the testimony of anyone that contradicts me.”    

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, my lord. I do, I do believe in all of it. It’s what feels right to me. I think the idea of a pool of water that mystically acts through certain people to heal other people is…silly. Very silly. I am no apostate. But even so I must acknowledge that my belief is not factual. And I could be mistaken.”

“You’re not.” They’d made the full circuit of the small garden a few times now, without paying any real attention to it. “But I take your distinction. Fascinating way of looking at it.” Lord Nikola led them past the steps back to the house to continue around again. “Do you truly believe a business arrangement between Anverlee and Vasilver Trading might answer, Miss Vasilver?”

Relieved that he’d turned the conversation to less treacherous ground, Wisteria answered, “It would be trickier to structure, without my marriage portion to serve as capital, and with the entailment – marriage is the easiest way to ensure Vasilver shares in legal rights on the property involved – but I am certain it’s feasible.” Wisteria reviewed figures in her head and considered the relevant statutes.

“My father has expended some effort on the business side, and I fear it’s made matters worse.”

Wisteria hesitated. Maybe all conversation is treacherous. “With all due respect, Lord Nikola, I don’t believe modern business and investment is your father’s area of expertise. He, as I understand it, has been borrowing money to cover operating expenses without any particular strategy to increase revenue or net income.”

Lord Nikola didn’t respond to that for a few moments, and Wisteria wondered if she’d offended him this time. When he spoke at last, he said, “You know a great deal about my family’s affairs.”

She wasn’t sure what to make of that. “My parents and yours were keen on the engagement idea. Until we met, anyway. We did research. Due diligence.”

“So… what would your strategy be? For increasing revenue or net income.”

“Oh, I’d have to look over everything again, but selling mineral rights comes to mind. Or rather, arrange a long-term lease to a mining company, since one cannot sell rights on entailed property. A mine would have the added benefit of attracting people to the area. So you’d want to plough your lease receipts into housing convenient to the mine site. And storefronts, of course—” Wisteria broke off. “I’m sorry, my lord, I don’t know how many details you wished to hear.”

He smiled at her. “All of them, I think. What if the mine doesn’t work out, for whatever reason? We’ve got empty housing in the area already.”

“You can spread some of that risk to your partner, by having the lease contract spell out how many people they’ll be employing in the area and forfeits if they don’t fulfill those terms. Perhaps discounts if they do better, though you want to be sure their estimates are solid – you don’t want to incentivize them to lowball their figures—” Wisteria’s free hand fluttered as she spoke.

They took another few turns about the garden, talking until they grew hoarse, at which point Wisteria recollected herself enough to take her guest back into the house and serve him tea. Over china cups and an atlas of Newlant, they continued the discussion in, if not all the details, at least a great many of them. The conversation meandered often, digressing into side-topics on history or markets, or to personal matters like how to manage family expectations. The latter was more commiseration than collaboration: Lord Nikola didn’t appear to have much better luck getting his family to understand him than she did with her own, albeit for different reasons.

At length, Betsy arrived in the parlor to inquire diffidently, “Mistress wishes to ask, will his lordship stay for dinner?”

Which prompted Lord Nikola to check the time. “Is it so late already? I apologize, Miss Vasilver, I’d no intention of keeping you so long – no, thank you, I cannot stay to dinner, I’ve another engagement.” He took his leave with another hurried thanks-and-apology, and a promise to call again.



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Subject:May I Be Honest With You? (26/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Wisteria could not believe Lord Nikola had come back. She’d been agitated when she heard of his arrival, and enlisted her maid’s aid to select a presentable outfit for noble company and to arrange her hair for a suitor. She’d even grown impatient while Helen tried to fix it into an elaborate updo – “Something quick, if you will” – resulting in the comb and the simple spill of curls. That was doubtless a mistake. Wisteria needed every advantage other, normal, people might give her in this business. She would give few enough to herself. Men were used to waiting while women fussed over their attire. Surely Lord Nikola would not have left because she was taking too long. Well, it didn’t matter now. He held the door into the garden for her, then offered his arm. Which was a perfectly ordinary thing to do on a wide variety of social occasions, and she had done it more times than she could remember with relatives and acquaintances young and old, and there was no reason at all for her heart to catch or her fingers to wish to stray from their appointed place at the crook of his arm. She wondered what he would say if she asked, May I caress you, my lord? Even she didn’t need her father there to tell her she could not ask that.

For wintertime, it was not a bad day: cold enough that Wisteria was glad she’d put a coat and gloves on before they stepped out, but not freezing or windy. “I’m afraid the garden has little to recommend itself at this time of year, my lord.”

“It’s fine. Winter has enough miserable days that leave one cooped up inside that I like to take advantage of the ones that aren’t dreadful. Just to be…outdoors. I hope it’s not too cold for you, miss?”

“Not at all,” she answered truthfully. The garden path wound between mostly-dormant flower beds, only the white and pink wintertater blooms starting to open, marking the ripening root vegetables below ground. The statuary beneath the bare branches of the trees added most of the visual interest, each its own small tableau. Most of it was religious in theme, in detailed, idealized Markavian style: a woman fleeing from a monster of the Abandoned World here, children sheltering under the arms of a saint there. Wisteria considered saying something about them, or their provenance. That was the proper course, wasn’t it? Make inconsequential chatter about things no one cared about. Normal people did that, for reasons she had never begun to understand. She had no shortage of things she did care about to discuss. Wisteria chose one of those instead, one that she thought – with more hope than certainty – would not be inappropriate. “Please allow me to apologize again for my behavior of the other day—”

Lord Nikola frowned, gesturing with his free hand. Wisteria could not tell if he was politely waving off the apology or doubting the sincerity of her words. “You were fine, miss.”

That sounded promising. “I did not intend to presume, my lord, or be crass. I regret presenting you with that…document.”

“I don’t,” Lord Nikola said.

At that, Wisteria aborted her apology, instead turning to look at him as they walked side-by-side along the stone path. “You don’t?”

He glanced to her, a lopsided smile on his lips. “It’s made interesting reading.”

“You read it? Beyond the bit you skimmed during the call?”

Lord Nikola nodded, his handsome face in profile, the straight planes of nose and forehead and the shadow of his sharply-cut jawline stark in the winter sunlight, emphasizing the pallor of his Haventure skin. He was very tall – she was of a height with most men, and it was peculiar to have her face on level with his neck. He fell silent while Wisteria wrestled with which question she wanted to ask most and whether or not it was permissible to ask any of them. Before she had reached a decision, Lord Nikola stopped walking and turned to face her, his deep blue eyes capturing hers. She forgot her train of thought entirely. “Miss Vasilver, you said the other day you preferred difficult truths…is that…that is…may I be honest with you?”

Oh. Wild fantasies of what kind of inappropriate things he might want to say flitted unbidden across her mind. It is probably something dreadful, such as that he finds me repellent. But that didn’t matter – “Oh, yes. Please do. I should like that more than anything, my lord.”

“I am not at all interested in marriage,” Lord Nikola said in a rush. “I suppose I will need to marry at some point, but with a century or so ahead of me I see no need to rush to it. If it weren’t for Anverlee’s present financial disarray, I doubt my parents would see a need to rush it either. But…”

Wisteria waited a moment for him to continue. When he didn’t, she tried prompting: “But you intend to do so for the sake of your family?” Many people did: that was normal, too.

“No!” Lord Nikola said. “Not at all. That is…” He trailed off again.

For the first time, it occurred to Wisteria that he might not be saying what he thought because he was not sure himself. “There is no reason you should have to,” she said into the silence. Wisteria had resigned herself long ago to the likelihood that any marriage she entered into would be practical and without romance. She was not the sort of woman to inspire passion in anyone; after considerable research on the topic, she still did not understand so much as the basics of flirtation and coquetry struck her as absurd if not insane. Romance sounded lovely in books, but she had no idea how one translated it to the reality of Paradise, or if such a thing was even possible. Marrying a man who also sought a practical alliance was her best hope. But wedding one who was repulsed by that idea? That had a whole new layer of unpleasantness to it. If she was supposed to be encouraging him to do so – well, that would just have to get in line with all the other tests she had failed.

His lips compressed into a thin flat line. “In a more-perfect Paradise, perhaps.”

“In this one,” Wisteria said. “Your father’s estate – and yours, for that matter – are underutilized and illiquid, but those problems are solvable with an appropriate partner. A business partner, that is, not necessarily a marital one. It’s not as though your family can bring nothing to the table but a title and a bloodline. In truth, I ought to have a put together a business proposition for Anverlee instead of trying to fashion an engagement out of it.”

Lord Nikola watched her, blinking. “A business proposition?”

“I am much better at those. I imagine you noticed.”

He laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. Some of the uniquely marital clauses were most intriguing.”

“‘Intriguing’? Is that a polite word for ‘outrageous’? Or ‘unspeakable’?”

“Not at all. Or if it is supposed to be unspeakable, I found it refreshing to have it spoken. Written.” Lord Nikola waved a hand. “On article five, I found myself wondering if you had a lover in mind already or if you were only assuming that I did.”

“Oh, no wonder your parents were horrified.” Wisteria hadn’t even thought about how the clauses on extra-marital affairs would cast her current virtue in doubt. Idiot! “No, I don’t have any candidates – I’m a virgin, of course – I didn’t even mean to imply you would, my lord. I’m just…”

Too thorough, she planned to add, but she was cut off as Lord Nikola said, “Ah, no! I apologize, Miss Vasilver. I didn’t – that is – I shouldn’t have said – that was inexcusable of me. I meant no insult, I assure you. Please forgive me.” Wisteria tilted her head; he was flushed and spoke quickly, hands held up with palms out: even to her unreliable skills of observation, he looked flustered and mortified. He muttered under his breath, “Now I remember why one doesn’t speak one’s thoughts.”

“Oh, please don’t say that, Lord Nikola. I was not offended—” should I have been? The context of his words had been nonjudgemental; it hadn’t occurred to her that he might mean them harshly “—and in any case I should a thousand times rather you called me a slattern to my face than that you thought it unspoken, and let me believe I had your good opinion when I did not. And was unable to answer the accusation.”

Lord Nikola faced her on the garden path, yellowing plants and the black branches of bare trees surrounding them. He bent his head towards Wisteria, round blue eyes searching her face for something she doubted was there. Gently taking both her hands in his, he said, “As you say. But I did not – I did not, and I do not think anything ill of you, Miss Vasilver. Quite the opposite. I would not have you believe otherwise, even for a moment.”

Wisteria lowered her eyelids, gratified. “Thank you, my lord.” He bowed then and kissed her gloved hand, and this time she had no doubt she had his respect.



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Subject:Last Day of the Sale on "A Rational Arrangement" in E-book Form!
Time:08:05 am
This is the last day to get A Rational Arrangement for $4.99! Tonight it goes up to its list price of $6.99. So buy it now! Or you can buy it tomorrow for more money, it's all good to me. :)

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In other book news, it is also available in print! You can buy it from Amazon or from Createspace. The print edition is $19.95. It is going to just stay $19.95, because the economics of print-on-demand make it impossible for me to offer a meaningful discount on that price, and $19.95 is plenty expensive enough.
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Subject:The Technical Term Is “Personality” (25/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Nik arrived at the Vasilver residence by cab, a little after eleven in the morning. Nik’s flaccid wallet had been refilled by gifts from his petitioners over the last few days: no single gift had been sizable, but the collective sum had been sufficient to provide a tolerable bonus to his staff while Nik retained enough to pay for ordinary incidentals.

Vasilver’s butler ushered him into the same expensive, formal parlor as before. Nik sat in one of the two green-and-gold velvet brocade chairs this time. The elaborate tapestry rug was missing, revealing a parquet floor patterned in blond wood with walnut-stained accents. Nik hoped his father’s spilled tea had not ruined the rug, although its absence improved the room, relieving it of some of its clutter and allowing a sense of openness.

At the sound of footsteps in the hallway a minute or two later, Nik rose. The figure who entered was Mr. Vasilver, however, not his daughter. Savior forbid we lack a chaperone. He can’t be as annoying about it as my parents, at least.

Mr. Vasilver’s long narrow face looked surprised but not displeased to see him: anxious, perhaps. “Lord Nikola! Thank you for calling.” He shook Nik’s gloved hand before gesturing for him to resume his seat. Vasilver sat on the couch opposite.

Nik made a polite inquiry as to the welfare of Vasilver and his family, and received an automatic reply. A query on the state of Vasilver’s business was answered with equally meaningless civility. After a few moments of awkward silence, while Vasilver’s brown eyes darted nervously about the room, Nik said, “I do not wish to keep you, if this is a bad time for you. Or your daughter?” He half-rose.

Vasilver’s features contorted, horrified. “No, no, not at all, please, Lord Nikola.”

If you are waiting for me to read your mind, sir, we will both be waiting a long time. Nik re-seated himself, consciously relaxing, hoping his calm would prove contagious.

After another uncomfortable pause, Vasilver leaned forward over the inlaid coffee table and blurted, “Did you come to treat my daughter, my lord?”

Treat her to what? Nik gave the older man a blank look. “I beg your pardon?”

Vasilver ran an anxious hand through his dark, receding hair. “I couldn’t ask her to petition, you understand, not and face the additional stigma if she’s incurable. But I’m sure you noticed her…condition.”

Nik blinked. “No. I did not. What condition would this be, sir?”

The older man scooted to perch at the edge of the couch, lowering his voice. “You know. You saw how she was with you and your parents. That dreadful contract. She doesn’t comprehend that it’s not normal – she’s got this, this—” he broke off, hands waving vaguely.

Nik stared at Vasilver as if he were a new and particularly repulsive kind of bug found crawling on a sleeve. “The technical term you are looking for, sir, is personality.” Icicles dripped from each word.

Vasilver cringed. “Yes, but—”

“I am afraid you have misunderstood the nature of my Blessing. The Savior uses me to heal minds and treat mental illness. Contrary to what you may have been told, a personality is not a disease.” Nik’s quiet, clipped tones did nothing to hide his disdain and disgust. “A desire for clear communication is not a defect. Your daughter’s actions demonstrate no mental illness—” you, on the other hand – Nik cut himself off as footsteps clicked in the hall. Mr. Vasilver stared at Nik, shocked.

Nik rose smoothly as Miss Vasilver stepped into the room; her father took a moment longer to recover himself and follow suit. She wore a violet gown dotted with tiny yellow flowers, and a matching short jacket. It suited her light golden-brown complexion and the time of day. Her hair was pinned by a comb on one side of her head and the rest left to drape in dark curls over the opposite shoulder. Nothing could make her long face or board-like figure beautiful, but it softened the severity of her features. She curtsied with perfect correctness to him. “Lord Nikola. This is a pleasant surprise.” Her even voice sounded neither pleased nor surprised; Nik wondered how much of the conversation she had caught. Does she know her father regards her as defective? How could she not? Perhaps her cold demeanor towards him was part wariness of his Blessing. Maybe she fears that I am here to ‘cure’ her.

He tamped down the surge of renewed anger at Mr. Vasilver. “Miss Vasilver.” In a gesture calculated for her father’s benefit, Nik took her hand and bowed to kiss the air over it. “Thank you for receiving me.”

“You are very welcome.” Her gaze flicked to her father, back to Nikola, away again. “Please, won’t you be seated?”

Nik clenched his jaw at the thought of spending the call pretending to be civil to Mr. Vasilver. He untensed and said in his best nonchalant tones, “In truth, I should like some air. Would you do me the kindness of showing me the grounds, Miss Vasilver?” That should be public enough that the old fool won’t feel the need to follow us to defend his daughter’s virtue.

“It would be my honor,” Miss Vasilver answered. “Will you be joining us, Father?”

“No…no, I have…things I should do.” Mr. Vasilver waved a hand. Nik imagined the man no more wished to feign normalcy than Nik did. “You go on ahead, Wisteria. A pleasure to see you, Lord Nikola.”

Nik gave a slight nod in acknowledgement and followed Miss Vasilver out.



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Subject:June in Review
Time:06:53 pm
Health/Fitness
Much the same as the last five months. I still exercise regularly, and I still eat too much.

Writing

I did ten LJ entries, a couple of Flight Rising bios, and some trace amounts of fiction. I've written up some notes about ideas I'd like to work on next. Birthright is stalled in the "everything I write for this is terrible" mode. -_- I am hoping that I can work on something new at the same time that I work on Birthright, by way of giving me a project that's fresh and gives me enthusiasm instead of sapping it. We'll see if that works at all.

I have a mostly-finished novelette (probably 50 or so pages typeset), "His Angel", that's a prequel story about Nikola Striker and Justin Comfrey from A Rational Arrangement. I hope to write a few other short stories and then make a collection of it. I am reluctant to release it as a standalone for $0.99, partly because I've heard the $0.99 shorts do not sell as well as book-length ebooks, and partly because I don't want readers thinking "this comes first chronologically, so I should read it first." In my opinion, it's better read afterwards, for a few reasons.

The Business of Writing

I PUBLISHED A BOOK.

Whew.

It's accumulated 5 reviews so far! Zero of which were written by me or my mother! By the way -- if you've read it and not yet written a review, reviews are much appreciated and highly useful. Assorted promotional opportunities (like asking review sites to review it) are only available once the book has 20+ reviews.

Wow, I actually did all of that business-of-writing stuff that I've been postponing forever.

I am allllmost ready to declare the publishing process complete. I am just waiting for Amazon to link the print edition to the ebook edition, so that Amazon shows them as different versions of the same book. Amazon does have the print book listed, but the print version doesn't show up on Amazon's search as of this writing, and the "show other formats" link doesn't show both formats on either page.

I have been trying not to check A Rational Arrangement's sales obsessively, and mostly failing. I am down to only checking two or three times a day now! Probably when sales peter off (which I expect to happen on Tuesday, after the sale ends and it goes up to the list price of $6.99) I will stop checking frequently.

Art/Other
I did 12 headers for RA, drew and colored six pictures from Twitter prompts, and colored one page from haikujaguar's The Jokka Coloring Book.

...

I am so much more diligent about doing art this year than I am about writing. It's kind of depressing.

Socializing
I went to visit terrycloth, for the first time in ages. I failed at contacting any of my other Seattle-area friends because I've had massive organizational failure surrounding trips for like the last year. chipuni noticed me tweeting about being in Seattle, though, and so I got to see him and misseli. \o/ I also went to the local maker's fair with Corwyn and Kat last Saturday. And Lut and I both went to visit him and Kat and watch a movie on Friday night. Other than that and Lut, it's all been virtual.

Happiness
I had a great week in Seattle. <3 Other than that, though, I spent most of June feeling rather wrung out, probably because I was trying to get all the publishing bits done. Also, I am more aggravated by my day hobby than ever. Hopefully, July will go better overall. Having my first book out for sale, and people actually buying it and saying nice things about it, is certainly a good start. <3
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Subject:Mind-Reading (24/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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The next two days followed a similar pattern: it felt as though there were not enough hours in the day to treat everyone whom Nikola was capable of helping. Nik didn’t mind so much for himself; most of the time slipped away in a trance with petitioners and the Savior, and he ended each evening as alert as when he’d awoken. But the long hours and the number of people were a strain on both his staff and Anverlee’s. He needed more people so they could work in proper shifts, but he scarcely had the funds to pay the staff he already had. Maybe Mrs. Linden should send for one of the three staff left to manage Fireholt. Not that he wanted Fireholt to be in a state of disrepair on his return.

After he finished with petitioners at night, Nik went to his gentlemen’s club, the Markavian, ostensibly to catch up with his peers. But at the back of his mind, he always hoped Justin would stop by. That would work…eventually. But at this time of year, before the current session of the Assembly ended and the grand social galas began with the Ascension Ball, Justin had little leisure time, and the Markavian’s rules forbid both business and political meetings on the premises.

Anverlee Manor itself was full of relations Nik had barely had time to greet over the past two days. Both his older and younger sister had come for the season, bringing along their husbands, children, and a few more servants. For the Whittakers, Lady Striker had opened one of the suites in the disused north wing and furnished it with relics from the attic too shabby to have been sold. They were out of the way for now, but with the Strikers expecting yet more guests, Nik felt greater sympathy for his father’s initial reaction. At least Sharone Whittaker was calm enough now that her parents didn’t need to keep her restrained most of the time, and her screaming jags were rare and muffled enough by distance and walls that they did not disturb the rest of the household. She still went into fits at the sight of anyone but her parents, however. Nik had stopped in a couple of times, but while her behavior was less ear-piercingly intolerable, she’d not yet had any periods of lucidity and Nik’s presence seemed to provoke her.

Nik still kept Miss Vasilver’s quasi-contract close at hand, transferring it to his nightstand when he went to bed and to the inner breast pocket of his jacket when he rose the next day. He felt protective of it without knowing why, as if it were a trust he could not expose to the possible scrutiny of Anverlee’s servants. From time to time, when he had a few minutes alone, he’d take it out and review its curious clauses with their proliferation of alternatives. He’d always thought the sole choice in marriage was whom one married: everything after that was just…marriage. To Miss Vasilver, marriage appeared a great deal more open-ended.

He’d told her he would call on her again. Nik found himself wishing to do so; Savior knew he didn’t want to court her, but the glimpses of her thought process revealed in the document piqued his curiosity. He wanted to know more of her as a person, not a potential wife.

The fifth day after their first meeting was a Sunday, the one day he didn’t see petitioners. Justin had, to Nik’s surprise, accepted an invitation to bowracing for the late afternoon: they were to meet for a quick dinner at Comfrey Manor before setting out (“No business or politics, I promise,” Justin’s note of reply specified). Nikola decided to call on Miss Vasilver prior to that. He didn’t know what hours Miss Vasilver kept – in Gracehaven, people of quality tended towards late hours – but their previous meeting had been set for one o’clock. For most, that was a decent interval after breakfast and before dinner. Nik opted to aim for earlier today, in part to be sure it didn’t conflict with his engagement with Justin, and in part to escape Anverlee Manor before his parents could waylay him to ask where he was going.

Nik made it out the front door unhindered, but on the front lawn he ran afoul of his younger sister Daphne. She was wrapped in a warm coat, watching her own baby boy – not quite two – play with their elder sister Lysandra’s brood of five in ages from two to ten, as well as Jill and two of her grandkittens. Two human nannies were also supervising.

“Oh, Nikki, you’re not going out?” Daphne asked, half-turning as he came out. She was a short woman, blond and round-faced like their mother, figure gone from slim to plump since the birth of her first child. After getting a good look at him, she repeated with a laugh, “You’re not going out like that.” She stepped to his side and fussed at his neckcloth. “How did your valet ever let you out of his sight? Maybe it’s time you got a younger man for that job.”

“Shelby has the day off,” Nik said. He suffered patiently as Daphne untied, rearranged, and re-tied his neckcloth.

“Well whoever did help you ought not be allowed to again, Nikki.” She patted at the folds of the cloth and twitched his cuffs straight.

No one did. Nik didn’t feel like explaining to his sister that he gave his entire staff the day off on Sundays. “Daphne.” He laid a gloved finger beneath her pale chin and tipped her face to meet his eyes. With mock sternness, he informed her, “One more ‘Nikki’ out of you, and I will teach every one of Lysandra’s children to call you ‘Aunt Daffy’.”

Daphne giggled. “Nik. Sorry.”

“Much better.”

But the delay had given the children time to notice him, and they swarmed over, demanding attention. “Uncle Nik! Uncle Nik!” Nik doled out hugs. His youngest niece, Annaliese, pressed her forehead to his as he held her and squeaked, “Unca Nik! Ree m’ mind!”

“You want chocolate,” Nik hazarded.

She giggled as he released her. “Kin I ha’ some?”

“Ask your nanny,” Nik told her, as eight year-old Adamos put a grubby hand on Nik’s cheek next and insisted ‘me! Me now!’ “You caught a frog,” Nik told him, based on the damp dirt on the hand in question and a wriggle in the boy’s jacket pocket. Adamos gave him a look of wide-eyed amazement.

Each child insisted on a turn, with cousin or sibling handing up the two that were too young to ask themselves. (“You need a diaper change,” Nik said of Daphne’s baby, and passed the boy to his nanny.) The children had a pleasantly diverse array of healthy, growing minds; it soothed his mindsense to observe undamaged minds for a little while. After ‘mind-reading’, the assembled nieces and nephews presented a variety of childhood treasures for him to dutifully admire, including Adamos’s frog, one snake, a garland of flowers woven for Lady Striker, two snails, Jill’s grandkittens (seven year-old twins whom Nik had met before), Jill herself, and a scabbed knee. Fortunately, a human uncle was no match in entertainment for a trio of greatcats, and soon the kids were back to playing without him.

Nik turned to Daphne as the children pelted away shrieking across the lawn. “Am I unpresentable again?”

Daphne wetted a handkerchief and wiped off his face as if he were her son, then scrutinized his attire. She brushed some flecks of dirt and grass strands off, and shook her head. “No, you’re fit to go. Are you truly leaving? We’ve scarcely seen you since we arrived.”

“You and everyone else. I’ve barely seen myself since Wednesday. I’ll be at Temple tonight, and home for supper. I promise.” He swept her a bow.

His little sister smiled and curtsied with the same faux formality. “I’ll hold you to your word, Lord Nikola.”



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Subject:The Most Pig-Headed Way Possible (23/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Not one of the reevaluations yielded any options for treatment. The depressing monotony of sending away petitioner after petitioner disappointed was broken by a dozen or so new arrivals looking for help during the hall hours. Even so, Nikola was glad when noon arrived and Shelby showed in his first appointment. The appointments would not be quick, but at least he knew they were treatable.

The first three appointments went smoothly. As Nik emerged from the trance of the Savior curing the fourth, he became aware of a disturbance outside the office door. His father’s voice, raised: “This is my house, you filthy flea-ridden mangy beast, and you’ll curst well not stop me going wherever I please in it!”

I suppose it was too much to hope that this confrontation could wait until dinnertime. Nikola rose and helped his petitioner – a two year-old greatkitten, blinking and bewildered by the expansion of his mental faculties – from the couch. He normally took the opportunity of the privacy of appointments to ask to touch the minds of the healthy people who came with his petitioners – contact with healthy minds was one of his avenues for learning what was different in unhealthy ones. But right now, Nik needed to rescue Anthser as quickly as possible, so he showed the kitten and greatcat father to the office door, interrupting Lord Striker’s next round of invective against Anthser. Anthser was weathering the tide of verbal abuse with flattened ears and ruffled fur, back arched and tail bottle-brushed. “Stand aside, you feral brute, or I’ll—” Lord Striker was saying.

“It’s all right, Anthser,” Nik said. “I’ll take care of this.” His liegecat slunk to one side of the door, tailtip twitching. The young man waited until his petitioners had departed before addressing his father. “I see you are in need of someone to abuse, Father. By all means, allow me to offer a target.” He stepped aside and bowed his father into the office with a sarcastic flourish.

Lord Striker growled under his breath and strode inside. He waited until Nik closed the door to begin his diatribe. “Abandoned World, boy, what do you mean by lodging your howling mad commoners in my house, without so much as a by-your-leave?”

“The child is demon-ridden—”

“Then banish it and have done! Is this some new tantrum, boy? If I don’t like having your petitioners in my hall you’ll sully my entire house with untreated ones instead?”

Nik ground his teeth together. “The girl is refusing treatment—”

Lord Striker interrupted with a derisive snort. “Savior, boy, your precious Code says you have to help any who asks, not those who don’t!!”

“—because of her extreme agitation. She needs a chance to settle and learn to trust enough to accept the Savior’s aid.”

“To settle in Anverlee Manor?” Lord Striker was incredulous. “This is the residence of nobility, boy, not a madhouse. We have standards to maintain, an image to uphold. Bad enough that they tramp through here every morning, but I will not have a pack of crazed nobodies living beneath my roof and disrupting my staff! How dare you offer them my hospitality without so much as consulting me?”

Because I knew you’d refuse. “I have a duty to help those I may.”

Lord Striker snorted. “Hah! As if you care about duty. You have a duty to sire an heir, boy. A duty to uphold your family’s honor and not humiliate us with your shameless affairs. A duty to maintain the dignity of your name. A duty to provide for your people. What are you doing by way of those duties today? This week? Ever?” When Nikola made no answer, his father shook his head in disgust. “I’ve indulged too many of your ridiculous fancies. Your vermin are to vacate at once; either you will tell them or Gunther will.” Lord Striker spun on his heel and started for the door.

“As you will, Father,” Nikola said, voice icily calm. “My guests and I will remove to Fireholt this evening.”

Lord Striker paused, right hand clenching into a fist. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re staying a month yet. You just arrived.”

“And now I am just leaving. I have an overfull schedule today, Father, and can no longer postpone any of it until the morrow. Do excuse me.” Nik crossed the hardwood inlay floor to the door and held it open.

His father’s tall, trim frame stood unmoving. “You cannot leave before the Ascension Ball.”

“Watch me.” Nikola beckoned to his valet. “Shelby, please notify the rest of my staff that we will be removing tonight. We’ll be taking the guests I placed in a suite earlier with us. Please give my lady mother my apologies that, due to the suddenness of this change, I will be unable to make dinner.”

Shelby, Savior bless him, made no murmur of protest. He only bowed and said, “Yes, my lord.” Lord Striker growled deep in his throat and stalked away.

Anthser was flat-eared in dismay. “Tonight, Lord Nik?”

Nikola sighed. “So it seems. Would you round up whoever’s next on the list and send them in?”

§


An hour and three petitioners later, Nikola showed the latest one out and found his mother waiting for him, her short stout form ensconced in a comfortable chair next to Anthser. She gave Nik an affectionate smile. “I’m sorry to disrupt your schedule, Nikki love, but I must speak with you. May I have a moment?”

“As you will.” He stood aside for her. Anthser gave her a paw up from the chair, and she rose in a billow of long skirts and swept into the office.

“Nikki.” Lady Striker’s smile faded, although her blue eyes remained affectionate. She sighed, dropping into one of his chairs with a rustle of satin and lace. “This is terribly unkind of you. You are making your people do an awful lot of running hither and yon for no purpose. Not to mention breaking your poor mother’s heart.”

“If my father wishes to uninvite my guests, then he has uninvited me.”

She waved the plump fingers of one hand. “And that! Why do you have to back him into a corner so, Nikki? You know how he hates being seen to change his mind, especially in front of the public. And threatening to leave Gracehaven before the Ascension Ball! The insult to the Crown alone…” She clucked her tongue and wagged a finger at him.

“The Crown won’t even notice one less guest among the however-many-hundreds it is this year.”

Lady Striker sighed again. “Oh, how little you understand. Nikki – of course your guests may stay. I have already persuaded your father and told them myself. Not that it wouldn’t’ve been ever so much easier if you’d told me first. Truly, Nikki, I don’t see why you must set about everything in the most pig-headed way possible.”

Nik let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, finally letting himself think about how little he wanted to act upon this particular grand gesture. “Thank you, Mother.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek.

She smiled and waved him to the door. “There, now, go tell your dear warcat to find your scattered people and let them know they can stop scrambling to arrange a removal on no notice. And in the middle of your appointments too! Poor dears, you’ve no notion how much trouble you’ve made for them. If your Mrs. Linden deserts you over this, I shan’t fault her a whit.” Nikola hastened to comply; Anthser accepted the instructions with a smug look that implied he’d known it was coming.

“Much better,” his mother said, satisfied, when he returned to her side. She held out her hand, and Nik helped her to her feet. It still surprised him how little she was, head not even reaching his collar. In his mind she loomed so much larger. “Now, if you need to do something like this again – Savior forbid – you tell me first, dear.” She tugged his head down with her hand, and kissed his cheek.

At the touch, Nik felt the familiar contours of her mind, the shape of a propriety as well-developed as his father’s but nonetheless different, buffered by the warm pink glow of compassion. People assume that because I can see minds, I can read thoughts, or at least understand the way they think. They could not be more wrong. “I will,” he answered her.

She patted his cheek, smiling fondly. “Good. I’ll let you get back to your petitioners, dear. Dinner at three, now. Don’t forget!”

§


In the event, Nikola was not permitted to forget: Shelby rescheduled his last afternoon appointment and chivvied him back to his room to dress for dinner, whether he would or no. Nik went along meekly, figuring he’d caused everyone enough trouble for one day. He first sent Anthser off to get some rest: “You worked late enough last night, and this far past open petition hours I shouldn’t need a wrangler.”

Anthser snorted. “Like spending four hours nipping and three flirting counts as ‘work’.”

Nik set his mouth in a grim line. “And how long were you subjected to my father’s abuse while you guarded my door today, Anthser?”

The warcat looked to one side, shrugging. “’s of no account, m’lord. Just my job.”

No, it isn’t. Or shouldn’t be. Nik fought down the urge to hug his liegecat, wanting to apologize for his father, for the recalcitrant petitioners, for everything Anthser did not because it was a warcat’s duty but because Nik needed him to. Instead, he said, “Thank you, Anthser. Now scoot. Go have fun. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

The big black cat turned back to him, then gave an insouciant bow. “Yes m’lord.”

Dinner itself, somewhat to his surprise, was entirely pleasant. Lady Striker had invited two of his old school friends, John Glenton and Kelly Veigh; he’d not known they were in Gracehaven for the season. Also invited were his aunt and uncle, who kept his parents sufficiently distracted from him that he could enjoy catching up with his friends in peace. The apology-menu of all his favorite foods made Nik feel a twinge of guilt. Mother has less to apologize for than any of us, today. Nik could tell his father was still angry about the Whittakers, but Lord Striker was too well-bred to make any uncivil comment in front of company.



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Subject:Undiagnosable (22/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 022

The interview with the second refuser, the hopeless man, went much better. His name was Mr. Court, and his relations had brought him because he’d twice tried to kill himself. Mr. Court was afraid that treatment would change his character; Nik freely admitted that it would. “You’re not demon-ridden. Your impulse to self-harm and the accompanying misery comes, in your case, from the stunting of certain of your emotions. Your ability to care, to find contentment, and to perceive joy, are all damaged. Remedying that will change who you are and how you behave, sometimes in unpredictable ways. For example, making it easier to feel joy can make a person stop striving for perfection in his activities, because he can now find satisfaction in a mediocre achievement. The interactions here are not ones even I understand well. It is your decision, of course. But I might note that anything we do here today will have a considerably less dramatic impact on your mind and those who care about you than killing yourself will .”

Mr. Court, a gaunt and stooped man of middle years, stared at his hands. “Could it make me worse? Make me an imbecile, or mad?”

“No. The Savior would not allow that. Your faculties will remain intact. You will be a different man, and some of those changes may not be ones you would prefer. But nothing that could be construed as an impairment.”

In truth, after Miss Whittaker it was a profound relief just to have this be a coherent conversation, but Nik was even gladder when Mr. Court agreed to let the Savior help.

It was a little victory to sustain him against twenty-two reevaluations. Those began on a particularly sour note, with the sleep-walking woman. Her son named her as Marie Brogan and himself Ian. When Nikola could find nothing to remedy on a second examination, Ian Brogan was violently distraught. “Are you implying she’s faking it?” Mr. Brogan yelled.

“Of course not,” Nik snapped. “It’s a reflection of my limitations, not her condition. If a healer tells a man with a missing arm ‘I cannot re-grow the limb’, do people say ‘the hand must be there after all’?”

“Then why won’t you heal her? What do you want?” Brogan threw himself at Nik’s feet, begging. “I can pay! I have a ship, money, just name your price!”

“If I could, I would do it for an eighth,” Nikola said coldly. “It is not a question of price. The Savior cannot fix what I cannot diagnose. I regret it extremely.”

“But you must! You’re the best! You have to!” Brogan surged to his feet, looking ready to hit something. Or someone.

Nik took a step back and raised his voice. “Anthser!” Brogan closed the distance with fists clenched and half-raised, as Nik’s warcat pawed open the door. “Please show Mr. Brogan and his mother out,” Nik said, taking another pace back.

“You insufferable arrogant—” Brogan drew back his fist. Anthser crossed the room in one leap and grabbed the collar of Brogan’s jacket in his teeth.

The warcat raised his head to lift the curly-haired figure from the ground and hauled him back a couple of strides before depositing him back on his feet. “Should I teach him manners too, Lord Nikola?”

Brogan, realizing the ill-advised nature of his threatening posture and insults, dropped his hands and lowered his eyes.

“No. Just escort him off the estate.”

Anthser bobbed his head and nudged Brogan towards his mother, who had sat unmoving and indifferent on the couch through the entire confrontation. The warcat followed them out and Shelby showed the next reevaluation in.
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Subject:A Rational Arrangement: On Sale Now!
Time:08:08 am
A Rational Arrangement is now for sale! At URLs conveniently accessible to your browser!



About the book


“But these are vital aspects of marriage. If one cannot discuss them, what's the use in meeting at all? It's like trying to decide what you'll have for dinner without mentioning food.”

Wisteria Vasilver does wish to marry. Truly. But though she lives in Paradise, arranging a match is full of traps and pitfalls for the unwary ... or perhaps just for her.

Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, expects he'll wed -- someday. But not now, and never to a rich icicle of a woman like Miss Vasilver. No matter how much his parents might want the match, or his house might need her dowry. Besides, he has his own problems -- most of them people who need his help as a mind-healer.

Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey, would be more than happy to help Striker with his financial troubles, and not just to ensure that Miss Vasilver's dowry doesn't tempt Striker into marriage. If only he could find some way to make his proud, stubborn friend accept the money!

Can three people of such different temperaments ever find their way to a more perfect Paradise?

Special New Release Price!


In honor of the release, it's on sale for a week at $4.99! Buy it now, because on July 6, I'm raising the price to $6.99.

When the serial is finished in 2016, I will make the regular price $4.99, and will likely run occasional sales lower still. (Probably bottoming out at $2.99). I figure it makes sense to discount the price once the whole book is available for free on the web, albeit in less-convenient form. So you can wait a year or so and get it Even Cheaper, but the disadvantage there is: you have to wait.

Publishing Details


Special thanks to Alinsa, who lovingly typeset the book for me. This edition does not contain the illustrated headers I am doing for the serial, because (a) I'm not done drawing those yet and (b) the book is long enough without illustrations. (636 pages in trade paperback!) It does have elegant typeset chapter headers -- check out the interior! Even if you're not going to buy it. It's gorgeous.

If we do opt later to make an edition of the e-book that includes the illustrated headers, it'll be as an update to this edition, so anyone who buys it now will be able to re-download it with illustrations.

The book will eventually be available from iBooks UPDATE: now available on iBooks! Thanks for the heads-up, archangelbeth. It turns out that Apple (a) has extra-special requirements for book formatting that no other store cares about, and (b) they are extra-slow about accepting and/or rejecting a book. (Seriously, every other store made the book available within 12 hours of upload. Apple took 3 days to tell me that the embedded cover had "too many pixels". Anyway, these issues are all resolved now.

A Rational Arrangement will also be available in print form in the next week or two. I am waiting for CreateSpace to ship me the proof copy; once I've checked it and approved it, it'll be distributed via CreateSpace and Amazon, with a cover price of $19.95.

Other Ways to Support the Author


If you do not wish to buy, or cannot afford it, that's fine. If you like the story, please spread the word! Recommendations to friends, retweets and reblogs of the story installments, reviews on your own blog, etc., are all much appreciated.

For those who've read the entire book: reviews on Amazon are especially helpful! Not only do they increase the book's visibility on Amazon, but when the book accumulates enough of them, various book review sites will let me submit it for Yet More Reviews. (It's a virtuous cycle!)

Regardless, I will continue to serialize A Rational Arrangement for free, so everyone can read along in bite-sizes pieces. (Today's installment is above this post, by the way! I did not skip it in favor of shilling the e-book, I promise.) Thank you for reading, and enjoy the story!
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Subject:Refusal (21/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 021

The petitioner’s hall had an adjoining suite, most of which was shut up, but Nikola was using its front room as an office to treat petitioners in private. The tradition of the hall was fine for the demon-ridden he could diagnose and cure with a moment’s touch, but the ostentatious public display added too much difficulty to anything more complex. His petitioners didn’t need a roomful of gawkers while he asked them about their problems, and he didn’t need extra people staring as he spent twenty minutes entranced and mumbling while he and the Savior worked.

The room was lit by south-facing windows and furnished like a parlor, with a loveseat, a couch-bed of the sort the greatcats prefered and to which Nik himself was quietly partial, and a pair of upholstered wingback chairs. The floor was a hardwood inlay; the walls were hung with some of Nikola’s favorite paintings and drawings from among those gifted to him by previous petitioners. Some were skillful, others amateurish, or the work of children. The largest piece was a mural of smiling figures in a park, done with no great skill but considerable enthusiasm by the former inmates of a madhouse in North Mansay he’d been to once. The image was so crowded that some of the figures were flying about in the sky. Nik sat in one of the chairs and regarded it with a fleeting smile.

Sharone Whittaker was carried in by the heavyset man and followed by a hollow-eyed woman. Anthser brought up the rear of the procession. “Mr. and Mrs. Bartholomew Whittaker and their daughter Sharone,” the warcat announced, almost like a footman. “Do you wish to see Miss Whittaker alone, m’lord?” Nik usually saw refusals alone, but he usually didn’t have six year-old violent refusals, either. Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker looked alarmed by the idea.

“Let me talk to her parents first. Please wait outside, Anthser.” Once the greatcat guarded the door from without, Nikola said to the human parents, “Unbind her, please.”

Mrs. Whittaker wrung her hands. “M’ lord, she ess na – na normal. A’ all. You mus’ understand – we can na control her.” The woman spoke with a pronounced Kinder accent.

“We try, but we jus’…can na.” Mr. Whittaker added, in the same accent.

“Do you keep her bound all the time?”

Mr. Whittaker shook his head. “Na—”

“We could na—”

“Only when we mus’ travel. Else she migh’ hurt another.”

“Or herself. At home ess…na so difficul’. Everything arranged so’s to be safer.”

Nik looked at the little girl. She glared back at him with dark brown eyes, face screwed up in a snarl around the gag. “Understand that I cannot help anyone who doesn’t wish it. Would you like me to help you, Miss Whittaker?” She shook her head emphatically, over and over again, squirming against her bonds.

“She ess na always thus, m’lord,” Mrs. Whittaker said, looking at him as if by hope alone she could change the way Blessings worked. “Ess the travel tha’ makes her worse. But she has moments. She can be sweet. But it never lasts. Ess as if she has her own world.”

“Like her soul ess trapped in the Abandoned World, most of the time,” Mr. Whittaker said. “She does na know this ess Paradise. Please, lord. We’ve seen everyone. They all say you are the best.”

“If you can na help Sharone…” Mrs. Whittaker trailed off.

Nik looked from the girl to her parents. Both instincts and his mindsense told him they were neither part nor cause of the child’s problems. And yet… “I’ll need to speak with her alone. Please seat her on the couch, remove the gag, and wait outside.”

The parents exchanged despairing looks, but did as he asked. Sharone howled like a wild dog, a wordless yowl of impotent fury. Nik controlled his wince, motioning for them to continue. Mrs. Whittaker tried, uselessly, to calm the girl while her husband set her on the couch. The child’s frantic struggling increased, writhing and bucking. “She’ll hur’ herself, m’lord!” Mrs. Whittaker shouted to make her voice audible over the girl’s shrieking. Nik nodded and approached to put his hands on the girl’s shoulders to hold her against the couch, positioning himself to avoid her thrashing hobbled legs. He motioned for the parents to go. Reluctant and fearful, they did.

The child’s wailing worsened after they left. Her energy and volume was uncanny. I need to check the parents to make sure they are sane. Much of this would suffice to drive any man mad. “Miss Whittaker, what do you want?”

Somewhat to his surprise, her shriek changed to something like words: “Le’maygoLe’maygoLe’maygo!”

“If you’ll sit on the couch for a few minutes, I will,” Nikola said. He didn’t raise his voice, which meant he could not make out his own words over her continued yelling. He repeated himself at the same conversational volume, several times, while the girl thrashed and writhed with no sign of understanding him or complying. What she screamed was poorly articulated but clearly speech, marked by the same Kinder accent as her parents; he could make out ‘help me’ something like ‘Mrs. Square’ (Mrs. Square?), ‘do not’, something he couldn’t make sense of, and ‘let me go’. Nik tried removing his hands for a moment, but almost at once put them back, as it was obvious that she would knock herself to the floor and risk injury if not forced to remain in one place. He was surprised by how much she could manage to move even bound as she was. He listened to her for a little while, trying to tease out what meaning there was behind her speech, but she soon deteriorated back to wordless screams.

“All I wish is to speak with you for a moment,” Nik tried again. It was always easier to be patient with his petitioners – these people he didn’t know, who needed the Savior’s help – than with friends or family who irritated him. I expect more of the latter, I suppose. Even so, he felt Miss Whittaker’s lung capacity and energy exceeded both the time and patience he had for this task.

Nik talked to her anyway, speaking slowly as he struggled to organize his thoughts in the face of her incoherent shrieks. He kept his own voice low, letting the words be drowned out by her cries. “Miss Whittaker, there is a demon in your mind. I don’t know exactly what it says to you, but I can tell that it is warping your perception of reality. It makes you see things that don’t exist, respond to threats that are not present, ignore dangers that are real, and hear phantasms. I don’t know if it would let you hear my words even if you weren’t drowning them out. I can only try. This demon is the cause of your insanity. The Savior can banish it, if you will allow his power to do so. Right now, you are refusing him. Your mind is holding onto the demon; perhaps it has lied to you and told you that you need it, or that it is a part of you, or that you deserve to be crazy, or that something terrible will happen if you allow it to be banished. None of these things are true. You do not have to live like this, physically restrained, a danger to yourself and those around you, unable to control yourself. Please. Let me help you.”

For a few moments while he spoke, her yelling slackened to a hoarse whimpering – Saints but her throat must be raw – and Nik thought she might be listening. But before he finished she was yelling again. “NONONONOSTOPPI’ MISSUSSQUAREDONAMIS’ER BROWNLEMAYGOLEMAYGONONO!” Despite the ‘let me go’, the child did not seem to be aware of him, face contorted in fear, eyes tracking on spots beyond him, as if watching the movements of some other figure in the room. Nik followed her gaze, but there was nothing there.

Nik listened for a little longer. “Who’s Mrs. Square?” he asked. The girl didn’t respond directly to the question, but her subsequent monologue suggested that the girl was afraid of whomever she was, and that Mrs. Square was in the room with them. He couldn’t figure out what Mr. Brown’s role was. After a few minutes, her words tapered off into violent, inconsolable sobbing. Her struggle to escape ceased, as least. Nikola moved his hands from her, slowly in case the movement provoked her to violence. He touched her cheek again, just long enough to brush her with the Savior’s power and feel that awful rebuffing again. This poor creature doesn’t need someone to throw her a life preserver; she needs a diving team. He strode to the door and motioned to the Whittakers to re-enter. They hurried to the girl’s side, where Mrs. Whittaker perched on the couch beside her and hugged her gently with one arm. Neither of them asked if he’d done something to provoke her.

“Ess there anything…?” Mr. Whittaker asked, in the tones of a doomed man.

No. Saints, no. Please take her away so I can get back to the twenty-odd people the Savior can help. Nik swallowed. “You said sometimes Miss Whittaker is better than others. Is she ever lucid?”

The man shrugged helplessly. “She usually knows us, and ess at leas’ a li’l aware of what ess happening in this world and na jus’ her nightmare one. You can talk to her and she’ll understand, at times, and respond. Other times she ess…jus’ lost. Like this.”

“She ess better at home,” Mrs. Whittaker said quietly. “This trip hass been very hard on her.”

“Where is your home?”

“Ambersdell, m’lord. In the Vastings of Kinder.”

The Vastings of Kinder were over nine hundred miles away, across the Silver Sea, on the continent of Savorift. That journey would be hard on anyone. “Where are you staying now?”

“We had a room at a hostel on 135th,” Mr. Whittaker said.

“‘Had’?”

He looked at the floor. “They turned us ou’ this morn.”

Nikola could not blame them. He rubbed his face with one hand. “I’ll have you shown to one of the suites here. Whenever she seems lucid and likely to cooperate, send for me and I’ll try talking to her then. Whenever. Day or night, whatever I may be doing, do you understand? I’ll let the staff know.” He tried not to think about how his parents were going to react.

The Whittakers stared at him, almost as uncomprehending as their mad daughter. They were still stammering their thanks and appreciation as Nikola opened the door and beckoned Mrs. Linden over to ask her to make the arrangements. Mrs. Linden was aghast and nearly mutinous, which bode ill for his parents’ response. She did comply, however, and took the Whittakers and their sobbing girl away.
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Subject:More Every Day (20/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 020

Mrs. Linden began the proceeding, voice booming out to fill the hall: “Visitors and people of Gracehaven! Lord Nikola will now move amongst the petitioners! Remain still, do not speak, and be patient. After he makes a determination, do as he directs you.”

Nik drew off his right glove and stepped to the start of the line, fingers touching the top of a bowed gray head. An instant’s contact was enough to see the spiky shell of a demon growing where the thick web of memories joined the rest of the mind. Savior. The god’s sunlit grace flowed through Nik and into the willing mind beside him: the hard demon shell melted away like snow in a thaw, vanishing from Nik’s perception in a moment. The petitioner’s head jerked up. “Oh! Oh.” Clear brown eyes looked up at him. “Is that all there is to it, my lord?”

Nikola smiled. “That’s all. You’ll be fine now; you may leave.” He moved on to the next petitioner, giving an absent nod in response to the profuse thanks of the elderly man and the relations with him. Bill Coxsleigh, one of Nikola’s own footmen who was helping to manage the crowd, gently but firmly herded them away. The next was an old woman with the right side of her body slack, a woman next to her helping to keep her steady in position. A touch, and the demon in her mind was gone. She lifted her right arm and laughed out loud, her face breaking into a smile.

The next was an unresponsive Haventure woman of middle years, with a man of about Nik’s age attending her. A frown creased Nik’s brow as he touched her: her mindshapes were all unremarkable, well within normal variation, no sign of a demon. “Please move to the end on the left,” he told her. She did not stir. He tilted her unresisting head back. Her eyes were brown, open but unfocused in a waxy, lined face: it was like looking at a doll.

The man behind her – her son, given the similar curly brown hair, narrow nose, and pointed chin – said, “She can’t hear you, m’lord. She doesn’t react to anything any more. Won’t you help her?”

“I will if I am able.” Which I almost certainly am not. Still, that was only ‘almost’, and he wanted to give her another chance after he finished the initial pass. “Please take her to the end on the left.” Nik stepped to the next petitioner.

“Please, my lord, I’ll do anything,” the curly-haired Haventure man said, grabbing Nik’s left arm. At the far end of the hall, Anthser snapped to his feet, and the footman by the door moved towards them.

Mrs. Linden disengaged the man’s hand. “His lordship will do whatever he can,” she said, firm. “Go to the end of the hall and wait on the left.”

The man shook her off and looked on the verge of seizing Nik bodily again, but as Anthser bore down on them he recovered his senses and bowed low instead. “Come, Mum,” he said in a quiet voice, taking her beneath the arms and lifting her. The woman did not resist, and her feet dropped into a standing position when he held her high enough. She shuffled like a sleepwalker as he steered her to the back corner. Nik was already engrossed by the next mind.

More petitioners arrived while he worked his way down the line. Nik continued in the usual pattern: curing the demon-ridden if they did not resist, and sorting the rest into groups. Most of the latter fell into two categories: those with a problem he could identify and cure given more time – the greatkittens went to that group – and those whose problems he could not determine, which today was about one in four.

When Nik reached the restrained little girl, she glared at him with pure hatred: had she not been gagged, he thought she might have bitten him. Nik paused before her, and went to one knee to meet her infuriated eyes. “Good morning,” he said to her, then looked up at the heavyset man who loomed over her, holding her shoulders. “What’s her name?”

“Sharone Whittaker, m’lord.” The man had a weathered, careworn face, bags under his eyes. Nik wondered if he was as old as he looked.

Nik nodded. He wanted to ask for her to be unbound and the gag removed – such a small child, she could hardly be a threat – but at the same time was hesitant to override the measures her caretakers deemed necessary. Particularly in a public setting, with so many watching. “I’ll not harm you, Miss Whittaker. I am only going to touch you for a moment.” The girl made an animal growl deep in her throat as Nik raised his hand. She flinched back from his touch, writhing violently in the arms of the man behind her despite her bonds. Gritting his teeth, Nik grazed his fingertips against her cheek.

She was not so much demon-ridden as infested, mindshapes riddled by hard black thorns, thousands of tiny spikes that jabbed into her everywhere. Nik invoked the Savior, but it was as useless as he’d expected. Her mind clung as fast to the demon as the demon did to her, repelling the Savior’s power as if it were an invading enemy. The deep, profound sorrow of the Savior at this failure washed through Nik as he let his hand fall away. He could imagine too well what that demon was doing to her mind: warping her perception of reality, whispering to her in a dozen different voices, even controlling her body at times. Sharone gave a plaintive whimper, squirming. The man holding her wore a painful look of desperate hope. “Can you help her, m’ lord?”

No. “I don’t know.” Nik rose, rubbing his face with one hand. “I will need to discuss her situation with you and her further, but I’d prefer to do so in private. Please wait there—” he pointed to an empty corner of the hall “—and I’ll return to you soon.”

The little girl wasn’t the sole case that morning who refused treatment. A man whose very posture spoke of hopelessness, only there because his wife and son had dragged him in, also rejected the Savior’s help. Nikola directed them to wait in the same section as the child. More people came in as he finished those who’d been waiting from the start. When Nik had finally looked at everyone once, he consulted with Mrs. Linden: “How are we doing?”

She consulted her list. “It’s half-past ten, m’lord. Thirty-two cures, twenty-two awaiting reevaluation, twenty-nine requiring extended treatment, two refusals.”

“And you have eleven appointments this afternoon already, m’lord,” Shelby reminded him.

“Right.” If he averaged five minutes for each reevaluation and fifteen for each extended treatment… Well, there’s probably enough hours in the day. Especially If I skip eating and sleeping. “Is it me or do we have more petitioners each day than we did the previous?” He had appointments left over from yesterday because he’d cleared the afternoon for the call on Miss Vasilver, but even so – three hours had always sufficed for petition hours in Fireholt. In distant, rural Fireholt.

“Each day has more petitioners than the last,” Mrs. Linden confirmed. “Word that you’re in town is spreading. I could send the reevaluations away if you wish, Lord Nikola?” Unspoken was the fact that the reevaluations were nearly always futile. Nik reevaluated scores of petitioners in vain for each one on whom he found a treatable anomaly upon second look. Hours of my time.

But it’s their entire life at stake. “No, they don’t take long. Let’s see if I can get through them all before the appointments start. First is at noon?”

“Yes, my lord,” Shelby answered.

Nik nodded. “Do I have any other engagements for today?”

“Your lady mother is having company for dinner and requests your presence at three o’clock.”

“And that will last until five or so…” Nik considered how his father would react if he saw petitioners by appointment in the evening. And then about telling twenty-nine humans and greatcats to come back tomorrow to see if his schedule looked any better. More every day. “Take appointments from five-thirty to nine tonight, Shelby, and those who wish to wait may in case I’ve extra time. For now, I’ll see the refusals first, and then do the reevaluations until noon.” Nik nodded to his staff, ignoring Mrs. Linden’s purse-lipped frown, and turned to the office.
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Subject:Why It’s Called the Petitioner’s Hall (19/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 019

Nik awoke when Shelby brought breakfast to his room. The valet had already laid out clothing: a sober navy morning jacket, cream-colored breeches matched to the neckcloth, a light blue shirt with plain cuffs. Shelby was a pale white-haired old man who had been a footman in his great-grandmother’s service. Nikola had promoted him to personal valet, a position Shelby took far more seriously than Nik did. Shelby had a demeanor so exactly proper to his position that Nik often thought Shelby would have played the part of lord much better than Nik did. The valet was discreet and deferential, never breathing a word against his master.

In token of Nik’s unfitness for his position, he generally prefered the unawed if not outright insubordinate attitude of his greatcat employees.

But it was good to eat in peace, with someone who didn’t try to make conversation or question the marks on his neck or appear, in any way, to judge him. Nik finished an omelet and sipped at a glass of orange juice. “How does my morning look?”

“Full, my lord. There were over thirty people waiting at the gates when I came up.”

Nik glanced at the clock. “It’s not even half-past eight.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Nik rumpled his hair with one hand. “Please have them shown into the petitioner’s hall, Shelby. No point making them stand outside.”

“As you wish, my lord.”

Nik had finished his juice and was mostly dressed when Shelby returned. Nik stood still while the valet adjusted his attire and tied back his hair with quick professional movements. “Thank you, Shelby. How many appointments do I have for the afternoon?”

Shelby consulted the appointment book, following in Nikola’s wake as he headed for the petitioner’s hall. “Eleven, m’lord.”

Busy indeed. “Any marked as complex?”

“Three.”

At the top of the main staircase, Lord Striker intercepted them. “Nikola. Must you have so much riff-raff let into the petitioner’s hall? Think how it reflects on us.”

“I thought petitioners were what it was for. Isn’t that why it’s called the petitioner’s hall? Shall I show them to the ballroom instead, Father?” Nikola stepped around his father’s looming form and started down the steps.

“That is not what I meant and you know it, Nikola.” Lord Striker spun to follow his son.

“Do I? I am sure you wouldn’t ask me to violate the Code by refusing to see petitioners, Father.”

“No one is saying you should refuse them, but the Code does not demand you do so every day, and having this house overrun by the lowest sort of people is a great trial on the staff and on your mother.”

And on your sensibilities. “I’ll be sure to tell the demons you would appreciate it if they left the poor alone and only infested the nobility, Father. Perhaps you should ask your friends to volunteer as victims.” Nikola nodded to Robert, the Anverlee footman standing by the hall doors.

Lord Striker set his jaw. “We’ll speak of this later,” he growled, and stalked off as the footman opened the doors.

The petitioner’s hall was a great granite-floored chamber lit by tall windows along the south facing. It had not been fitted with gaslight fixtures, so its three crystal chandeliers were designed for candles, unlit given the daylight hour. A sharp eye would note that many of the candle holders stood empty; Nik couldn’t remember the last time the chandeliers had been lit. The runner down the center of the room was in Anverlee blue with a simple silver trim, and threadbare. They owned a good one but Lady Striker declined to set it out for petitioners, for which Nik did not fault her. They came to be cured, not impressed. The passage of time had been kinder to the cartouches carved into the walls – one of Nikola’s distant ancestors had in fact possessed a Blessing for stone – and the ornate moldings around the windows. Paintings of previous Lords and Ladies of Anverlee hung between the cartouches. The hall had little in the way of furniture, in deference to tradition. Just as well. We’d have sold the furniture if there had been any, and then Father would be even more offended that I use the place for its intended purpose.

At present, the hall was full of life; Nikola guessed something like seventy humans and thirty greatcats. Not enough to make the chamber crowded, but enough to line both sides. Of those, forty or fifty were petitioners. Nikola’s staff had arranged the petitioners in accordance with tradition, kneeling close together at the edge of the carpet. The healthy people who had accompanied them were ranged against the wall behind the petitioners with a few exceptions. Petitioners of both species varied in age, from a greatkitten a year or two older than Belle to a frail wrinkled man who looked older than Lady Dalsterly. The majority were elderly humans, however. Race and skin color also varied: most were the golden-brown Newlanture or pale-peach Haventure hues common in Newlant, but there were several humans in shades of brown and near-black that were rare in this country. Judging by their dress, most of those gathered were poor but prepared as if for temple, faces and hands freshly scrubbed, clothing neat and formal.

Robert, the Anverlee footman who’d opened the door, announced him: “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, Blessed by the Savior, Healer of Minds.” The assembly looked to him; his head-of-staff broke off her conversation to hurry over, leaving Anthser beside the petitioners near the far end of the line. Most of the people in the hall bowed their heads respectfully, though some of the petitioners continued to stare. Nik was untroubled by this; some dementia sufferers were no more capable of following protocol than a legless man was capable of standing.

Mrs. Linden, his chief-of-staff, greeted him with a curtsey. She was a tall heavy-set round-faced woman with golden-brown skin and grey-streaked dark hair pinned to the crown of her head. “My lord.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Linden. Any problems I should be aware of?”

She pursed her lips. “It’s mostly the usual cases today, senility and the like. But there are two feral greatkittens; one’s nearly four already.” She shook her head, and Nik winced. “And there’s…this girl.” She glanced down the line.

Nikola followed her gaze to a little girl, at the end. Anthser lay on his stomach near her. She wasn’t kneeling: she was bound as if she were a dangerous criminal, arms together behind her back, feet hobbled, mouth gagged, eyes darting like a wild animal. A broad-shouldered man stood directly behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. Saints help us. “What – she can’t be more than six. Is she so dangerous?”

“Her parents say so.” Mrs. Linden shrugged helplessly.

Nik averted his eyes to keep from staring. “There’s no way she’ll consent, not if they need to restrain her like that.”

“I know.” Mrs. Linden bit her lip. “Do you want her removed, my lord?”

“No.” Nik inhaled. “Maybe we’ll get a miracle. Let’s get started.”
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Subject:Risks Taken (18/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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The master bath had a great clawfooted porcelain tub on a fanciful carved marble pedestal of twining dragons, scales detailed and anatomy realistic in the Markavian style. Nik filled it with a few inches of hot water from the gleaming brass tap and bathed quickly. He avoided getting his hair wet – it would look peculiar to arrive home on a dry night with soaked hair – but scrubbed hard at the rest of him. The greatcats would smell Justin on him otherwise, and while he trusted Anthser and the Anverlee greatcats, there was no reason to take risks.

And at the moment, he wanted Justin’s scent off of him anyway.

He felt cheap and dirty and angry, and not even sure Justin had meant any of it. ‘Debt repaid’. Is that why you think I’m here, prostituting myself in return for your largess? I didn’t come to lose money at some cursed game, I came for you. For this. Do you even care, old man?

How could an event so joyful in the moment become so humiliating in recollection?

Nik’s skin was pink and raw by the time he was done, and he still didn’t feel clean. Bruises ringed his neck where Justin had sucked and nibbled, not painful but already livid. His neckcloth would hide them. Justin was clothed when Nik emerged, and helped him dress – considerate given the complexity of a lord’s attire, but Nik almost wished he hadn’t. They barely spoke; Justin buttoned Nik’s cuffs and Nik arranged the folds of Justin’s neckcloth in silence. While Nik put on his shoes, Justin stepped out to pull the felishome bellrope to summon Anthser to the door. He returned and lounged in the doorway, watching Nik buckle his shoes. Justin looked every inch the lord, respectable and immaculate in gold-trimmed scarlet jacket and black breeches. Nik put on his gloves last, as he was walking to the door. Justin caught Nik’s bare right hand before he pulled its glove on, and kissed Nik’s palm. He cupped Nik’s hand to his face, then pulled Nik into his embrace. For a moment, Nik remained stiff and awkward, then he relented, relaxing to hug Justin close in return. He wanted to say…something. Do you truly think I care about your money? But he was afraid to ask. Not of a simple ‘yes’, but of another evasive, witty non-answer, like the response to Nik’s question about matchmaking. I wish I knew if I mattered to you.

Justin took a deep breath before pulling back. He tucked the lace of Nik’s jabot beneath the lapel of his jacket. “How do I look?” Nik asked.

“Edible.” Justin half-smiled. “Best make your escape before I devour you. My lord.” He made a sweeping half-bow to the door, sardonic yet graceful.

With his best regal nod, Nik proceeded to the hall.

§


Anthser lay draped over the front steps of Comfrey Manor. He looked unexpectedly content, especially for someone who’d been roused after three in the morning to cart his ne’er-do-well master to bed. Justin leaned against the doorjamb as Nik mounted. “Thanks for joining us, Striker. It’s always a pleasure to have your company.”

“And thank you for the invitation, my lord,” Nikola replied in the same easy manner, performing for their audience of one. As if Anthser cares one whit.

“You know you’re always welcome. Give my regards to the Count your father and your lady mother. Safe travels to you.”

Anthser laid back his ears at that last sentence. Nikola took his leave, and Anthser bore him away. Nik’s mind was cluttered and weary. Shelby would notice the bruising on his neck, of course – he could not hide it from his valet. Nik often covered for his indiscretions with Justin by engaging in less dangerous indiscretions with women. Extramarital relations between a man and a woman were technically illegal, but such laws were rarely enforced, and for the man it barely qualified as a social failing. Such behavior irritated his parents – his mother feigned ignorance and his father scolded him – but no one else cared as long as he wasn’t despoiling virgins or their own wives. Sexual congress between two men, however, was another matter: those laws were enforced with exorbitant fines, pillorying, and probable exile. Even if one escaped the legal consequences, the social costs of discovery were ruinous. The scandal would destroy Comfrey and Fireholt, and Nik’s father would likely disinherit him to preserve the shreds of Anverlee’s dignity.

All of which should have been sufficient motivation for Nik to conceal his crimes further. Madame Julietta and her girls would make him welcome at any hour, but he’d lost his taste for paid companionship years ago. The erstwhile widow Mrs. Pierce was Mrs. Hampton now, after remarrying last year, and while she’d intimated that this need put no constraints on their relationship, Nik had little interest in cuckolding any man.

Lost in these thoughts, he almost missed Anthser’s question: “Did you tell him?”

For a wild moment, he thought Tell Mr. Hampton? Are you mad? before he realized Ansther could not possibly know his train of thought. “Tell who?”

“Lord Comfrey.”

Surely this can’t be about what I think it’s about. Nik decided to feign ignorance. “I’m sorry, what are we talking about?”

“You know. The incident.” Anthser scuffed at the pavement. “With that rooftop.”

Nik laughed, half-amused and half-relieved. “No, of course not.”

Anthser relaxed, his sides vibrating with a contented purr. “Are you going back to see Lord Comfrey soon?”

“I don’t know. He’ll be at the Ascension Ball, of course, so I’ll see him then if not sooner.”

“But not at Comfrey Manor?” Anthser sounded disappointed.

Nik glanced askance at his warcat. “Is there some reason you’re in a hurry to get back there? What happened to ‘only catnip can make the company bearable’?”

Anthser ducked his big black head, scuffing the pavement again. “Well. He hired a new riding cat.”

“Yes?”

“For bowracing. She’s beautiful. We spent the last three hours talking. And she groomed my ears.” Anthser sighed dreamily. “Champion racer, too. Wall full of medals. Hey, you should invite Lord Comfrey bowracing.” The greatcat’s ears pricked up in interest.

Nik laughed again. “I’ll think about it. In the meantime, you know you don’t need my permission to call at Comfrey’s felishome.”

Anthser canted his ears to the side, embarrassed. “I know. It’s just…a good excuse, you know?”

“I suppose I do.” Nik reflected on all the excuses he and Justin had contrived to obtain time alone together. Surely he must care. This is far too much risk and trouble otherwise. Isn’t it? “Don’t worry, Anthser, I’m sure we’ll be back.”

§
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Subject:Repaid (17/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Afterwards, as Nikola lay spent and half-dozing in Justin’s broad bed, Justin extricated himself from the tangled sheets and withdrew to the washroom to clean up. He returned a few minutes later, wrapped in a long silk dressing gown, and tossed Nikola a soapy washcloth and a dry towel, balancing a half-full basin on the bed. Nikola cleaned himself off. “Tidy as always.” He held out his arms in a silent plea.

Justin left the washcloth floating in the bowl and slid back into Nikola’s waiting arms. He was silently gratified by Nikola’s craving for contact even after physical desire was slaked. Dark hair spilled across the pillows as Justin sat propped against them, sliding an arm around Nikola to snuggle his tall slender frame to his side. His friend curled an arm over Justin’s chest and one leg over his. Justin felt deliciously comfortable with him there, and an unwanted pang of regret that they could not stay like this forever. “One must be discreet. Though my guests use the same linens, so the laundress might blame any peculiarities on one of the married couples who’ve stayed lately. Or perhaps think I seduced poor Miss Dalsterly.”

“Poor Miss Dalsterly indeed. She’s thoroughly fixated on you, you know.”

Justin gave a dry chuckle. “I noticed, although I hadn’t realized the extent until this evening.”

“I suppose her reputation is safe at least, with Lady Dalsterly having escorted her off when the servants were about to bear witness.” Nikola nuzzled his cheek against Justin’s silk-clad shoulder. After a moment, he asked, “Are you courting her?”

“Saints, no. That child? Please.”

“She’s a year older than I was when you and I first met.”

Justin suppressed a shudder, tapping a finger against Nikola’s nose. “Yes, and one child in my life is sufficient, boy.”

Nikola chuckled. “Did you do nothing to encourage her?”

“Hardly anything. I stood up with her once or twice at Society balls, and made some meaningless chitchat a few times.”

“And invited her tonight.”

Justin sighed. “And invited her tonight. You’ll note I didn’t seat her by me.”

Nikola was silent for a long moment. “You’re not matchmaking for me too, are you?”

Justin tightened his arm around Nikola. How could you imagine I’d willingly help some addle-brained girl take you from me, Nikola? “Well,” he drawled, “I know how fond you are of Lady Dalsterly…”

His efforts were rewarded with a laugh. “I swear, if I thought she’d have me, I’d be tempted to ask. I was threatening my parents with her this morning. You should have seen my mother’s expression.”

“Savior’s blessings, did you in truth? Ha!”

“She’s quick-witted, wealthy, titled, kind, and laughs at my jokes. What more could a man ask for?”

“Youth? Beauty? Fertility? A body that doesn’t resemble driftwood?”

Nikola dismissed these objections with an airy wave. “She has great-grandchildren! Her fertility is surely proven by that. Besides—” he reached up to snag a lock of Justin’s dark hair and plucked a single silver strand out of it “—we both know I prefer mature lovers. Old man.” He pulled the gray hair to dangle before Justin’s eyes.
Cut for sex!Collapse )Justin pressed his cheek against Nikola’s shoulder, closing his eyes and breathing. I love you. Don’t leave me.

He wished Nikola would accept his invitation and stay at Comfrey Manor instead of insisting on going back to his parents. But he won’t stay. He will never stay, old man. Accept it. He is not yours and never can be. To cover the unpleasant emotions this reflection brought out, Justin rose and washed off again.

As he returned, Nikola watched him, those round Haventure eyes hooded. “I suppose I ought to be leaving.”

Condemn it. Already? “You could sleep in one of the guest suites if you like. No one would remark on it. I often have overnight guests who’ve succumbed to drink or weariness the night before.”

But Nikola shook his head. “No, I’d have to fly home in the morning in any case. Petitioners.” He threw his legs over the side of the bed to sit upright, and wrapped his arms about Justin’s waist to pull him close.

Justin exhaled, stroking blond hairs away from Nikola’s face. “Suit yourself.”

They lingered so for a moment, before Nikola released him and stood. “But I’m obliged to you for the offer, Justin. Thank you.” He gave a slight courteous bow, dignified despite his nude state.

Justin smirked. “Hmph. As for obligations—” he swatted Nikola’s rear “—I daresay you can consider your debt to me amply repaid.”

Nikola stiffened, and retreated to the washroom.
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Subject:Cliff Notes for skipping the sex scenes in A Rational Arrangement
Time:07:19 am
There aren't a lot of sex scenes in the book, relative to its length, but what sex scenes I did write generally establish some points about the characters and the nature of their relationship. For readers who want to skip them, the relevant points are behind the cut-tag in this entry. This bit is cut-tagged because it's implied rather than spelled out in the erotica scenes, and some readers may prefer figuring it out on their own. :)
Plot-relevant details without the explicit content!Collapse )
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Subject:Speechless (16/141)
Time:12:30 pm
( You are about to view content that may only be appropriate for adults. )
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Subject:Final Cover Art Poll!
Time:04:01 pm
I have three finalists! You should be able to click to enlarge any of 'em. They're shown in the poll at the thumbnail size used on Amazon.

Poll #2013914 The Final Cover Poll (I Promise)

Which do you like best?

Bernhard
16(55.2%)
Harrington Nested
7(24.1%)
Harrington Semi-Nested
6(20.7%)


This poll is only about the typeface/text style used for the title & author. Please disregard the slight differences in the background (the final text is all going to be slapped on the same background.)

Thanks, everyone!
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Subject:An Open Letter to Enterprise Rent-a-Car
Time:01:34 pm
I made a car rental reservation for noon today with Enterprise. I tried to reach the local branch to schedule a pickup starting at 11:40AM. I spent twenty minutes on hold, tried calling on a different phone, spent another few minutes on hold, gave up for 20 minutes, called back, spent another 15-20 minutes on hold, and finally gave up entirely. I was placed on hold via automated voice system. I never spoke to a human. I finally went back to the website to cancel my reservation, since there's no indication that I will ever get a pickup, or that the branch is even actually staffed today.

I tried calling Enterprise's national line, but they don't appear to have an option for "speak to a person" or "Press [X] if you are experiencing a problem contacting your local branch".

I have been using Enterprise for all of my rental cars, business or leisure, for many years. I have never before today had a problem with the local branch. The thing that really gets me most this experience isn't that I was unable to speak to a human or that I was on hold for over an hour, but that they have a 20-30 second commercial loop as their hold message. This is annoying and unpleasant to listen to ONCE. Listening to it endlessly repeated dozens of times is MADDENING. At this point in time, I am seriously considering never renting from Enterprise again, and that is solely because of the 30-second commercial loop, which turned a bad customer experience into a nightmarish one, where not only couldn't I get what I wanted, but I was unable to accomplish anything else because the horrible aggravating commercial loop destroyed my concentration.

Free advice to all companies: PLEASE DO NOT PLAY COMMERCIALS AT YOUR CUSTOMERS ON HOLD.

When I call you, I am already using your company. You have sold me! By playing a never-ending commercial at me, you are not making me more likely to use your company: you are making me MUCH LESS LIKELY. You are making the bad experience of "being on hold" into a painful and miserable one that I never want to endure again. You are alienating me. In the case of Enterprise, probably forever. Not by having some kind of staffing catastrophe for an hour, which I could forgive, but because I don't want to risk being stuck listening to that awful commercial again.

Also, I am posting this as an Open Letter because when I went to their website to complain, it let me input this whole rant but never got past telling me "please wait, submitting", until it finally timed out. So, congratulations, Enterprise, you have not only alienated me but you won't even let me tell you what you did wrong. I hope this unusual business strategy is working out for you. Sadly, it is not working out for me.
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