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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!
8(44.4%)
Yes! This data is valuable to me for professional reasons!
1(5.6%)
Yes! Information wants to be free!
0(0.0%)
Sure, if you feel like it.
5(27.8%)
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(5.6%)
Oooh, clicky!
3(16.7%)
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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
RA Header 034

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
RA Header 033

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
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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
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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
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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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Subject:No More Games (15/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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It was after one when a yawning Mr. Lavert admitted to weariness and retired with his wife. Nikola and Justin escorted them to their carriage. “And you, Lord Nikola?” Justin asked on the stoop, as the Laverts’ carriage rolled into the night. “The night is young.”

“And I am finally safe from both politics and business.”

Justin steered him back into the main house. “I could give you more pointers on billiards.”

Nik made a face. “I daresay I’ve had my fill of billiards too.”

The black-haired lord raised one dark eyebrow at him. “Is that so?” He opened the door to the house and followed Nik inside. “And here I thought you liked games.”

You curst well know that’s not why I come whenever you crook your finger and beckon, Nik wanted to say, but he couldn’t make the words come out. Articulating it would just make it…even more real, and it was already too real, and Justin didn’t need the words to know anyway. Instead, he leaned against the door after Justin closed it, watching him.

A slow half-smile formed on Justin’s face as he met Nik’s blue eyes. He reached up to cup Nik’s pale cheek with tan fingers; at the contact, the contours of Justin’s mind filled Nik’s senses. “All right,” Justin said, voice low, moving so close that the folds of their neckcloths brushed, faces less than an inch apart. “No more games.” He curled his fingers beneath blond hair to cradle Nik’s head, his other hand on the opposite shoulder, pinning Nik against the door at the same time that he pulled the taller man’s head down enough to kiss. Nik bent willingly, returning the kiss with interest, glorying in the closeness, the power and strength in Justin’s body. Justin shifted his weight to Nik’s right side, hand working down Nik’s chest to unfasten the buttons of his jacket. Nik laced his own fingers through Justin’s thick black hair as they kissed, other arm trying to encircle Justin and pull him closer still. Justin resisted the pull until he’d unfastened enough buttons on the shirt beneath the jacket to slide his hand under the cloth, caressing the muscles of Nik’s upper abdomen before circling over his ribcage to his side. Then Justin pressed against him hard enough that Nik could scarcely breathe, mouth lowering to nibble at the line of Nik’s jaw.

Nik whimpered with pleasure and desire, sagging against the door, uncaring as its inlay dug into his back, tilting back his head to let Justin nuzzle at his throat. Thwarted by the folds of Nik’s jabot, Justin muttered an imprecation and brought both hands to bear in unfastening both it and Nik’s collar. He pushed the cloth roughly aside to expose a fit, fair-skinned chest sprinkled with curly blond hairs. Justin’s darker hands stroked the curve of Nik’s shoulders, still pinning him with his body. He raked his teeth lightly against the sensitive skin of Nik’s throat, and was rewarded with a gasp that melted into another eager moan as Justin bit down, suckling. Enflamed, Justin gave an animal growl and dug his fingers into Nik’s shoulders, biting harder. Gasping for breath, Nik buried his face in Justin’s hair, rumpling the other man’s jacket as his hands gripped Justin’s back.

After a few moments, Justin relented, shifting his weight enough that Nik was no longer trapped against the door, leaning back to watch Nik’s face, a small satisfied smile on his own. Nik dipped forward to brush his lips against Justin’s again. “My lord,” Nik whispered against his mouth, “how I’ve missed you.”

Justin laughed, letting his hands slide down Nik’s bare chest in an intimate caress, then grinned and turned away to start up the stairs. Partway up, he glanced back over his shoulder, then crooked a finger to Nik, beckoning.

As helpless as one enspelled, Nik followed.
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Subject:How the Game Is Played (14/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Nik was an indifferent billiards player at best. He’d had some practice at carom billiards, but in the pocket billiards variant that Justin played, Nik couldn’t even remember which maneuvers scored how many points without a refresher. Justin, Secretary Haskill, and both Laverts were keen to play. “To two hundred points, my lord?” Mrs. Lavert asked, selecting a cue stick.

“Certainly. Ten marks a point as usual?” Justin said, blandly.

The Laverts and Secretary Haskill agreed without hesitation. Nik did his best not to look appalled.

“We’ll just watch,” Lady Dalsterly said firmly, leading her great-granddaughter to seats along the wall. A disappointed Miss Dalsterly whispered something to her elder relation.

“We can play in teams,” Justin offered.

“That’s quite all right, my lord.” Lady Dalsterly answered, polite, firm, and unmoved by her descendant’s pleading look. Mrs. Haskill likewise declined.

“Would you like to alternate games?” Secretary Haskill asked Nik.

“Oh no.” Nik gave an easy smile that belied his relief. “Keeping three lovely ladies company while watching others do all the hard work is far more my style.”

Justin chuckled. “Suit yourself.” The four players divided among Justin’s two billiards tables, winners to play winners and losers to play losers after the first game. Nik amused himself bantering and flirting with the three women, although he reserved his most outrageous lines for the elderly Lady Dalsterly, who took them as seriously as he offered them.

Miss Dalsterly watched the game – or more accurately, Lord Comfrey – with transparent longing. Everyone politely pretended not to notice. Nik wasn’t sure whether he wanted to wish her luck, offer his condolences, or warn her off. It was certainly no hardship to watch Justin move gracefully about the billiard table, extending his tall, powerful frame to full length for the occasional shot. As with everything he put his mind to, Justin played well. Between turns, he would laugh and tease his guests, but his attitude when making a shot was concentrated and intent. He won his first two games, at which point Lady Dalsterly took the opportunity of the hour and the timing to excuse herself and her great-granddaughter, leaving only Nik and Mrs. Haskill remaining on the sidelines.

Mrs. Haskill, a stout fortyish woman with handsome Newlanture features and a pleasantly rounded figure, had consumed enough wine to shed her veneer of stuffy reserve. She proved an attentive companion when she had Nik to herself, full of interested inquiries about how his Blessing worked, as well as cheerfully returning his banter. After a couple more games, her husband begged off from further play to take his wife home.

“But it’s not even eleven-thirty yet,” Mr. Lavert protested. “Surely you can stay for another game?”

“We can’t leave now, while Lord Comfrey still has our marks,” Mrs. Lavert added.

They’re not your marks any more, Nikola thought. They’re his. That’s how it works.

“I don’t mind watching, Brennan,” Mrs. Haskill said diffidently. But Secretary Haskill resisted all entreaties and took his wife’s arm to depart.

You’re not leaving, are you, Lord Nikola?” Justin asked, with a small smile.

Nik could see where this was leading. He could leave, or he could get roped into playing a game he had little skill for at stakes he could not afford. With the other bystanders and their fourth player gone, his excuse for sitting on the sidelines had evaporated. He tried anyway. “I’ll stay for the company, but I don’t care to play.”

“Oh, come now, Lord Nikola,” Mrs. Lavert wheedled. “It’s easy. You don’t want to make one of us sit out while only two can play, do you?”

Yes, I do. “I’m afraid I’ve not the funds on me to match your stakes. If you’d care to play without the wager…?”

“Then how would we recoup our losses?” Mr. Lavert said with a grin.

“It’s no fun if there’s nothing at stake,” Mrs. Lavert added.

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself over that, Lord Nikola,” Justin said airily. “I’ll cover your wagers.”

The Laverts looked pleased by this solution. “Very generous of you, Lord Comfrey,” the husband said.

Nikola gritted his teeth. I don’t need your charity, Justin. But there was no graceful way to escape it after that, so he acquiesced with as much good humor as he could muster.

The following games went much as he’d expected. Nikola tried not to keep track of how much of Justin’s money he was losing, although he had the keen sense that it was more than enough to offset Justin’s own winnings, since they paid by the point instead of the game. Now and again, he would catch Justin watching him as he made a shot. At one point, Justin laid a hand on Nik’s shoulder as he was eyeing his cue ball down the length of the stick. “You’re too tense, Lord Nikola,” he murmured. “Relax.” He loosened the tight grip of Nik’s right hand on the cue stick, and leaned close to reposition Nik’s left hand lightly on the table, before settling the cue’s tip between Nik’s knuckles again, then stepped back. “Breathe.”

Nik closed his eyes and inhaled, the tense line of his mouth relaxing, breathing in the faint musk of Justin’s cologne, feeling the lingering warmth where their bodies had touched. Justin gave his shoulder a reassuring pat. Nik opened his eyes and took the shot. His cue ball struck the red object ball, ricocheted it into a corner pocket at the opposite side, then continued on to glance against Lavert’s cue ball. Lavert’s rolled into the side pocket, while Nikola’s rolled slowly to the far corner. It poised on the brink for a moment, and toppled in. All three balls struck in the correct order and pocketed, for the maximum score on a single shot. “Oh, well done,” Lavert said in appreciation.

“See?” Justin gave Nik a smile as he straightened. “Not so hard.”

“Anyone can get lucky,” Nikola retorted. But he felt better nonetheless.

At midnight, Justin had the servants refill the decanter of wine and bring up a plate of bite-sized pastries for snacks, before dismissing them to their beds: “I’ll show my guests out when they depart.”
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Subject:Business and Politics (13/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Custom dictated that when seating a formal gathering for a meal, men must alternate with women and no one could be seated beside the person with whom they’d arrived. Justin and Nik were placed at the opposite ends of the table; Mrs. Haskill and Mrs. Lavert were placed to either side of Justin, then Lavert and Haskill in the center and with their wives on opposite sides, and then the Lady and Miss Dasterly bracketed Nik. It was a small enough affair that conversation was not strictly confined to one’s neighbors, though the tendency remained.

Miss Dalsterly was an attractive girl of seventeen, brown-skinned and auburn-haired, and with no more than the most minimally polite interest in Nik. Judging by the amount of time the girl spent gazing up the table, Miss Dalsterly would have given much to trade places with Mrs. Lavert and be seated beside Justin. Yes, well, so would I, girl. Live the life you’re born to, Nikola thought.

Lady Dalsterly was ninety-six, short, slim, stooped, and white-haired, with a face like a smiling golden raisin. She also had a ready laugh and a supply of stories about every major event that had happened in Gracehaven in the last ninety years. After a couple of glasses of wine, she could generally be persuaded to share embarrassing stories on almost anyone. Once a few polite efforts determined the extent of Miss Dalsterly’s disinterest, Nik abandoned the great-granddaughter to whatever joy she might glean from straining to catch the conversation of Secretary Haskill, Mrs. Lavert, and Justin. He turned all his attention to the elderly woman at his right instead. “What do you think of the wine, Lady Dalsterly? I understand it’s a splendid vintage.”

“Is it? I would say that fine wine was wasted on my dull old palate, but I believe it was wasted on my sharp young palate seventy years ago too. I’ve never been able to taste all those flavors that are supposed to be in wine: smoky and fruity and nutty and whatever all else. It’s dry, though, I can tell that much, and I like my wine dry.”

“Then it is not wasted on you, m’lady.” Nik moved to refill her glass from the decanter.

“Are you trying to get me drunk, Lord Nikola?” Lady Dalsterly teased, though she held out her glass anyway.

“Of course. How else am I to take advantage of you?” Nik topped off her glass.

Lady Dalsterly laughed merrily. “I must warn you, that if you are looking to add a centenarian to your string of conquests, Lord Nikola, then I still have another four years to go.”

“Then I’d best get started now, hadn’t I? No doubt it will take me at least that long to wear down your virtue.”

She shook her head at him and took another sip. “Now, you scamp, what are you truly after?”

“Well, if you insist on doubting the impurity of my intentions – perhaps I hope for some tale of Lord Comfrey’s wayward childhood, by way of retaliation for letting him trick me into attending one of his business suppers.” At some point during the soup course, Nik had been struck by the unpleasant realization that it was likely he, and not Lady Dalsterly, who’d been invited to make up the numbers. Justin would have had to invite some lady to bring the party from five to six, and he could not have invited either Lady Dalsterly or her young houseguest without including both.

“Mmm.” Lady Dalsterly looked thoughtful. “This Lord Comfrey, I imagine, and not his father or grandfather?”

Nik considered. “As this is but a cover for my nefarious designs upon your person, I don’t suppose it matters. How long have you known the Comfries?”

“Oh, I met Lord Langston Comfrey, saints watch his soul, back when he was Lord Langston and I was still a girl, a year or two younger than Rebecca here. He was a very stern upright gentleman then, and very round too. Pie was his one great vice, you understand.”

“Pie?”

“Any kind, fruit or pudding or savory. There was a little hushed-up scandal between him and his cook, and I am quite convinced it was solely from the poor woman smuggling him late-night pastries against his wife’s wishes. The old lord was never the same after the cook’s dismissal. Wasted away to a mere oval instead of a sphere.”

At Justin’s end of the table, the conversation had turned from the minutiae of customs and tariffs to a more general discussion of policies. Nikola’s attention was caught from Lady Dalsterly when Mr. Lavert spoke his name. “Beg pardon?” Nik said, shifting his gaze from the lady to the gentleman beside her.

“I was just saying, Lord Nikola, that if we’re to discuss the appropriate compensation of Blessings, we ought to ask a man who bears one.” Lavert spoke clearly, the rest of the table falling silent.

Nik gave the group a nonplussed look. “I daresay the Code settles that question.”

“The Code begs that question,” Mrs. Lavert responded, ignoring Mrs. Haskill’s satisfied expression. “‘A gift for a gift’ – it gives no true guidance as to what the recipient ought to pay. And the Code’s insistence that ‘any who may be helped, must be helped’ offers precious little incentive to make the payment adequate.”

“Adequate to what?” Nik asked.

“Adequate to human greed, Lord Nikola. Pay no mind,” Mrs. Haskill interjected, while Mrs. Lavert scowled.

“Adequate as compensation,” Secretary Haskill said. “The Code has already been set aside for those with a Blessing in plants or stone. It’s archaic to insist those Blessed to heal body or mind – priceless skills! – must follow it.”

“‘Priceless’,” Nik repeated. “Rather the point, isn’t it?”

“A figure of speech. It ought to have a price; the existing system is unfair to the Blessed.”

“It’s as the Savior intended, Brennan,” Mrs. Haskill said.

At the head of the table, Justin cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, it’s a system that offers no incentive for a Blessed man to develop his talents. Certainly some—” he inclined his dark head to Nik “—do so anyway. But how many Blessed content themselves with the easy cures they are born to, and never exert themselves to do more? If the Blessed were permitted to charge a realistic fee for their services, they would be far more motivated to expand their powers. Learning to regrow a man’s leg when sailors will repay you in grog… well, it’s not much of a trade.”

Nikola tightened his fingers against the stem of his wineglass, then forced them to relax. “If you were standing on a dock beside a life preserver, and a man was drowning in the water before you, would you throw the life preserver to him?”

Justin’s dark eyes met his across the table. “Lord Nikola, this is not—”

“I ask,” Nik interrupted, “Would you give him the life preserver? Or would you first calculate the value of his life in marks and eighths, and demand that he ransom himself with the appropriate sum? If he were a beggar or an orphan, would you leave him to drown? If he were an old man, would you give him a discount because he didn’t have much life left anyway?”

“It is very well to be moved by a higher calling, but not all men are. Surely you as much as anyone are aware that the Blessed desire shelter, clothing, and to provide for their families?”

“Lord Comfrey.” Nikola leaned forward, raising his voice. “If I were penniless—” and you know how near that is to truth, don’t you? “—and drowning, would you save me?

Justin looked at him as if he were a particularly obstinate pupil. “You know I would. But that is not a fair comparison—”

“It is the only fair comparison.” Nik leaned back in the ornate dining room chair. “The Savior has seen fit to give me an ample supply of life preservers. To hold that supply for ransom, only to be given to those who could meet some arbitrary price, would be an abomination.” Everyone was watching him now, some with pity and some with a shining respect bordering on hero-worship, and Nik felt a bone-grinding weariness at being misunderstood. Enough. I am neither a saint nor a martyr.

He was rescued from the silence that followed by the dessert course of spiced baked pears nestled in pastry and drizzled in chocolate. It was delectable enough to distract the company and restore an amiable mood before they adjourned to the gaming room.
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Subject:Lord Justin Comfrey (12/141)
Time:12:30 pm
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Anthser carried him to Comfrey Manor at a walk so sedate that Nik asked, “Are you worn out from the run earlier? I could ask Jill or Gunther to take me.”

The black warcat shook his head glumly. “No, m’lord.” The smooth stone streets were well-lit by gaslamps in this part of Gracehaven. Tall trees flanked the streets, steelwood and marble buildings large and elegant on well-tended lots, light shining out through myriad wide glass windows.

“What’s the matter? You’re not still upset about the scramble on that roof, are you?”

“Oh, no, m’lord. It’s my life’s ambition to get you killed, y’know. I figure ‘splattered last employer taking stupid risks with his life’ will look great on a letter of recommendation.”

“Don’t be silly, Anthser. That fall wouldn’t kill me. What, forty feet? Nowhere near far enough to die.”

Anthser swiveled an ear. “Rrr. Maybe not.”

“Fracture some bones, sure. Perhaps break my neck or cause serious hemorrhaging. But die? Nonsense.” Nik waved aside the idea. “Almost certainly someone could get me to a man with an efficacious Blessing before the punctured lungs would prove deadly.”

The greatcat wrinkled his muzzle. “Thanks. I think.”

“Any time.” They reached Lord Comfrey’s courtyard – even at a walk, Anthser could outpace a man jogging – and Nik slid down at the top of the front steps. “Anthser.” The black greatcat would not quite meet his eye; Nik circled in front of him to catch it. “Thank you for taking stupid risks with my life to cheer me up. I appreciate it. Also, I did not fall, and I trust your judgment, and it wasn’t stupid.”

Anthser grumbled something about humans who were too foolish to know what was good for them, and bumped his head against Nik’s chest. “You gonna be here until some ridiculous hour like usual?”

“I expect so. Get some sleep at his felishome, or go home if you like – I’m sure I won’t leave before one at the earliest, and likely not until three.”

“Hrrf. Home’s a hundred thirty miles away.” Anthser glanced westward, to distant Fireholt. “I’ll get some catnip at Vendrigar’s and come back by one. Maybe with enough catnip in me, Comfrey’s greatcats will be bearable company.” He gave a mock shudder that made his dark fur ripple. Nik shook his head with a chuckle, and rapped on the door as his warcat strode away into the night.


§



Nikola was early enough that Justin wasn’t ready for visitors when he arrived; the butler showed him to a cozy parlor to wait. Nik selected a book at random from an end table and turned pages without following what he read, his mind elsewhere, until a noise at the door drew his attention.

“Hello, Striker.” Justin smiled as his eyes lit on Nik. “You don’t know how good it is to see you again. Thanks for coming.” He strode forward, clasping Nik’s hand as the other man rose to meet him. “I feel quite the heel, turning down your mother’s last two invitations, but I’ve been swamped. I need to delegate more or something. I don’t suppose you’d be seeking gainful employment?” His dark eyes sparkled.

Nik shook his head, his gloved hand still in Justin’s bare one. “I don’t think so. Just being in Gracehaven stirs up enough trouble for me.” At almost six feet tall, Lord Comfrey was a few inches shorter than Nik, but Justin’s powerful, muscular frame made Nik feel like a reed to his oak. Justin had long, straight black hair, the front section pulled back from his face and gathered in a herringbone braid, the rest left loose to flow down his scarlet jacket to the small of his back. A few silver hairs threaded the black, though at thirty Justin could not be considered to have earned them. His skin was the warm golden brown of Newlanture heritage; thick eyebrows gave his handsome angular face a closed, saturnine look even when he was smiling.

“Hah. Is your mother still trying to fix a wife upon you?” Justin clasped Nik’s shoulder for a moment before releasing him, gesturing to the chair behind him before seating himself.

Nik rolled his eyes and sank back into his chair. “Worse than ever. I daresay Mother set her own agenda back a few days by taking an instant dislike to her latest candidate.”

“Indeed?” Justin smirked as he took the chair opposite. “What did the poor girl do?”

‘I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.’ “She was honest.”

“Ah! An unforgivable failing in any woman. Or man, for that matter. Whatever would we do if people were honest? How would politicians garner votes, or courtiers curry favor, or business deals close? Society would collapse. I can see why such a fault concerned your mother.” Justin kicked up his feet to rest them on an ottoman, legs crossed.

“This must be why you get on with Mother better than I do.”

“No, I get on with her better than you do because I’ve never had to live with her. You know, Striker, you can always stay with me while you’re in Gracehaven. Savior knows I’ve space enough.”

“I know.”

“But you won’t.”

Nikola hesitated. You don’t have time to entertain another houseguest. My petitioners would be an imposition on both you and your staff. I don’t want to be your obligation. “My parents would never let me hear the end of it if I stayed with someone else while visiting the city.”

Justin shrugged. “Suit yourself. Or them, as you please. But you only encourage your parents when you humor them.”

You humor them.”

Justin laughed. “They amuse me. Your problem is you feel some silly obligation to take their whims seriously.”

Easy for you to say, when your parents aren’t around to torment you. That would be unkind to say aloud, so Nik asked instead, “Who else is joining us this evening? I neglected to ask the messenger.”

Justin did not resist the change of subject. “Secretary Haskill and Mrs. Haskill, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lavert – have you met them? – and Lady Dalsterly and her granddaughter, Miss Dalsterly.” He paused. “Great-granddaughter? I think great-granddaughter. Anyway, you understand. To make the genders even.”

Nik laughed. “Did you truly invite Lady Dalsterly to make the numbers?”

“Mrs. Haskill is Very Keen that such things be Done Properly.” Justin’s eyes glinted. “Besides, I figured you’d want someone you could talk to. Other than me.”

“I see. So is this little gathering business or politics?”

“If I admit ‘both’, will you flee?”

“It’s too late for me to make my escape. I already let Anthser go off to intoxicate himself. Have you ever ridden a nipped warcat? He tries to roll over and get me to rub his belly. While I’m on his back.”

Justin grinned at the image. “In that case – both. Sorry. I need to close this contract with Lavert so he can get his ships out of port, and we can’t do that until Customs clears his cargo, which they’re holding under a series of ridiculous pretexts which I suspect amount to ‘some tinpot bureaucrat has taken a dislike to Lavert and/or one of his underlings’. Hence: the hope that Secretary Haskill will expedite the matter.”

“Sounds exciting,” Nik said, dryly.

“It’s not my favorite—” A knock at the parlor door interrupted him, and Justin called, “Yes?”

“Secretary and Mrs. Haskill have arrived, m’lord,” the butler informed them.

Justin sighed. “Thank you. We’ll meet them in the stiff parlor.” He swung his feet off the ottoman and stood. “I promise the evening won’t be all business and politicking, Striker.”
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Subject:Still Uncovered
Time:08:00 am
But inching closer. These are my two contenders at present; I can't quite making up my mind whether I like the nested "A Rational" or not. I think it looks a little more elegant and is a little less readable. Hrmph.

         

alinsa wanted to take a stab at it, so I will see what she comes up with before I make my final decision. But I don't think I'll be making any more significant changes myself. Perhaps fiddling with the teaser text.
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Subject:Old Friends (11/141)
Time:01:46 pm
RA Header 011

The Strikers’ townhome in Gracehaven was a centuries-old edifice. It had been entailed on Nik’s family line ever since Newlant had restored titles and property to the disenfranchised Havenset nobility in the year 576. It had been something of a legal curiosity at that time, since the Anverlee Town Manor had not been part of the Anverlee County entailment when Newlant took Anverleee from Havenset hands and gave it to a Newlanter in the year 484. But since the Newlanter Count of Anverlee had added it to the entailment when he built it, the courts had ruled it part of the estate when it was returned to the Havenset line.

In the four centuries since its original construction, the property had accrued additions, new façades, modernizations, and the occasional subtraction. It had four stories and well over ten thousand square feet of floor space, including a petitioner’s hall, a ballroom, a great dining room, a private dining room, two kitchens, four parlors, a library, two studies, a gaming room, a schoolroom, nursery, eight private suites, seven guest bedrooms, servants’ quarters on the fourth floor, as well as a detached temple and greatcat quarters in the “new” (as of the eighth century) felishome on the grounds behind. Its two acres of surrounding grounds included stands of apple and pear trees, flower beds, and honeybee hives. The property was ringed by a seven foot stone wall that Anthser jumped rather than bothering to open the wrought iron gate.

Between the town manor and the even larger county seat, Anverlee was sliding into bankruptcy.

Newlant’s entailment laws meant that the properties could be neither sold nor mortgaged. They required a small army of servants to maintain in style: one could not have honeybee hives without a beekeeper, or an orchard without groundsmen. Lord Striker insisted on keeping up appearances, and Lady Striker refused to let faithful retainers – some of whose families had served Anverlee for generations – be sent away. Half the rooms were kept locked, their furnishings already stripped and sold for cash. His father had assigned the rents from the county tenants as security on a half-dozen different loans. How that income was to repay loans when it had been insufficient to pay the original expenses, Nikola had no notion. His father could seldom be induced to discuss Anverlee’s finances; Nik had only learned of the rent-secured loans because the last institution Lord Striker tried to borrow from had insisted on the heir’s signature as guarantor. Nik suspected that the full picture of Anverlee’s situation was worse yet; his father’s assurances to the contrary had an unconvincing lack of details, and the rush to find him a rich bride suggested a certain desperation.

Fireholt, Nik’s personal holding, despite or perhaps because of its far more modest dimensions, was in better condition financially. Nik had little more talent for managing money than his parents, but he was better at not spending it. He didn’t care if he wore the same suit twice in one season, or twice in one week for that matter, and he didn’t care for expensive baubles and adornments either. He did not host large house parties, not because he didn’t like them but because he refused to borrow money for the purpose of entertaining. He did maintain the same staff he had inherited from his great-grandmother with the property, but she had not kept a large retinue. The rents from his tenants were thus sufficient to his needs, if not ample. In truth, Anverlee’s problems were the creation of Lord and Lady Striker, and not Nikola’s either to make or resolve. It was perfectly reasonable to behave that way.

All it required was for Nik to be indifferent to the fate of his parents, and the homes he’d grown up in, and the people who had spent their lives in service to Anverlee.

The problem, Nik reflected, as he snuck in through a side entrance, is not that I have no choice. It’s that I have no good choice. On the way to his suite, he stopped a passing footman. “William, would you please find Lord Comfrey’s messenger and bid him tell Lord Comfrey I’ll be very happy to join him tonight? And let my lord and lady know I will be out this evening.” The footman bowed acquiescence. “Also, if you see Jill, please tell her I’d like to speak with her. At her leisure.”

After dressing for supper, Nikola retreated to the unfurnished back parlor on the second floor, where he curled up in the window seat after dusting it off with a handkerchief. He hoped to avoid another confrontation with his parents by not being where anyone would look for him, and reasoned Jill probably wouldn’t try to find him tonight. He’d brought a book, but he didn’t open it: he gazed out the window instead. It faced onto a slope of the backyard, and what view it had once possessed was cut off by the wall around the grounds and the blocky backside of the neighboring manor – the unfortunate view was one of the reasons this parlor had been consigned to disuse. Three greatkittens and two human children – all offspring of Anverlee’s servants – played together despite the additional gloom twilight gave to an already dreary day. Nik watched them tumble down the slope, shrieking with laughter, then race to the top to do it again.

The creak of the door opening caught Nik’s attention, and he turned to see Jill’s big head poke in. “Hey-o, Lord Nik.” The manor predated greatcats by two hundred years, but it had been built on so generous a scale that even Jill didn’t need to duck or squirm to get through doors. She did fill the frame, though.

“Hello, Jill. Please, come in and shut the door.”

She did so, pawing the door closed with a hindleg. “Hiding?”

“Yes. Badly, I gather, but I wasn’t hiding from you in any case.”

“Awww.” She drooped ears and whiskers in a mock-pout. “Here I had my hopes all up. You haven’t wanted me to play hide-and-seek in years.”

A smile flashed over his face. “You always did win.”

Jill padded halfway across the dusty floor before lying down, long blue-gray form comfortably stretched out on the hardwood. “So what’s ruffling your fur today?” she asked. “Girl didn’t take to you?”

Nik barked a laugh. “I have not the least idea, though I’d guess not. Hardly matters: my parents did an about-face and decided they detested her.”

“Mrrph.” Jill rubbed the side of her head against the floorboards, smearing dust on her cheek. “They could’ve figured that out earlier and saved us some trouble.”

Nik shrugged and changed the subject. “Actually, I wanted to ask a favor – I need a message run to 3915 Dale Court. I, er, damaged the building’s roof earlier today and I’d like to compensate the owners for it.”

Jill’s eyebrow whiskers lifted. “What did you do to the roof?”

“Nothing serious. A few shingles need replacing. I’d send Anthser, but I suspect he’d feel guilty—”

“Why would Anthser feel guilty?”

Nik went on without answering the interruption. “—or a footman, but Father rebuked me for asking you to convey a request to one of my people. And I’d rather it didn’t get back to my parents. So I could ask Shelby, but I hate to ask him to walk so far and if he’s going to ride I might as well have a greatcat take the message. Also, I’d prefer the family name was not connected to the incident. Which is why I can’t do it myself either.” He paused. “I’m over-thinking this, aren’t I?”

“You’re human,” Jill said, dismissively. “Why would Anthser feel guilty?”

Nik tugged his ponytail over one shoulder. “Well. He was…involved. But on my orders. My responsibility.”

Jill’s whiskers flared, amused. She licked one broad paw. “How do you know I won’t tell your father? I work for him.”

“Yes… but you’re my friend.”

She rumbled with a purring laugh, rubbing her paw over her face and licking it again as she washed the dust streaks off. “Sure. I’ll take care of it for you. Out of livery. You want to give me money for it now or bring back a bill to settle?”

He produced a wallet from the inner pocket of his jacket. “Now is simpler.” Jill pawed open the magnetic clasp on one of her harness pouches and rose to accept the money. Nik counted out a handful of large bills. “This should cover the damage, and this is for your trouble.”

“Mrrr-hmm.” She swung her big head down to meet his eyes. “You don’t have to bribe me to be your friend, kid.”

“Yes, and you don’t have to run my errands to be mine.”

“Fair nuf.” Jill patted his leg with one broad paw. “Going to see Lord Comfrey tonight?”

He smiled. “Yes.”

“Good. You have fun now. Try not to wreck any buildings on the way over.”

“I’ll try. Good evening, Jill.”

The greatcat nosed at his head affectionately, and padded out.

Nik glanced into his nearly-empty wallet with a sigh before tucking it away and looking out the window again. It was full dark now, and the children had all gone inside. He checked his pocket watch, and decided it was close enough to the time of the invitation that he could leave now and be unfashionably early.
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Subject:May Wrap-Up
Time:01:16 pm
Almost halfway through the year and I am still on track with these posts!

Health/Fitness
May was the month of All The Rain. I probably did less than 150 miles on my bike the entire month, and I was insufficiently motivated to do indoor biking. But this weekend was clear and I got out both days, and this week should be good for biking too. Yay!

My diet is not improved. Weight remains about the same.

Writing
I wrote 5 LJ posts: one wrap-up and four related to publishing serializing RA. This is my life now. Somehow it takes more time to publically serialize my finished novel than when I was simultaneously writing the book and serializing it for my beta readers. How does that even work?

I did write a little original fiction: two short scenes in Birthright. And made some more notes for another scene.

Note to self: keep writing original fiction. You've got a plane ride in June to write during anyway.

The Business of Writing

All the business! I started serializing A Rational Arrangement ij the second week of May, as anyone who is reading this has probably noticed.

I terrycloth came up with a publisher name for me: Delight in Books! So now I can do all that paperwork stuff that alinsa researched for me. I have already begun this, by getting an EIN! Which only took 6 minutes, so didn't hurt at all. The Fictitious Name Registration took a little longer, but still not bad.

Art/Other
I did 23 more headers in May. Officially, I didn't do any headers this weekend. Instead, I worked on cover art. After letting it rest for a while, I decided I liked the papercut-like image of the three dancers after all. Still fiddling with the text.

Gaming
Uhhh ... I think I killed the Elect PBEM again. Dangit, I knew I was forgetting something. >.<

Terrycloth found an adaptation of the boardgame "Small World" for online play. I never liked this game two-player, but I have been playing tons of it (usually making Alinsa and/or Terry play with me) online with additional bot players.

Socializing
I went to LA at the beginning of May, to see alinsa and level_head, and a fantastic Nightwish/Sabaton/Delain concert. We also saw the California Science Museum, which had the space shuttle Enterprise on display. Not as cool as seeing Alinsa or Level Head, but still pretty impressive. n.n

I have done nothing else with friends other than Lut in RL since. Ahhhh, the hermit life.

Happiness
I was more stressed in May than in April. The impossibility of Doing Everything weighs on me more than usual, perhaps because I feel like I've been been actually trying. If I'm frittering half my free time on games or webbrowsing, I can imagine I'd get everything done if I just stopped wasting time. When I actually value all the ways I spend my time, I can no longer say that.

On the bright side, I value all the ways I spend my time. So that's cool.

So, still pretty happy with life, and pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction so far to A Rational Arrangement. Thank you, everyone. ♥
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Subject:Cover Poll, Part 2
Time:07:52 am
The "three figures dancing" was more popular than any of my other choices from the previous poll on the cover for A Rational Arrangement, so I've been working on that one. I fixed the ratio* first, and added a bit of the heretofore unseen dancers on the right and left, and made a few adjustments to the figures. I also fiddled a lot with the background in an effort to make the text would stand out better and to make the whole thing look better when it's shrunk down to thumbnail size. This meant ditching my beloved parchment background, which I've used for all the headers so far**. Oh, and tuftears and archangelbeth both suggested putting the frame at the very edge of the image, so I did that.

Then I tried text layout again, and branched out from Amazone to experiment with some less-script-like and possibly-more-readable fonts. Also a few different layout choices. archangelbeth suggested both making the word "Arrangement" more prominent and putting the author name at the top, so I did samples with those. I think I personally prefer the author name at the bottom. I am not sure about making "Arrangement" the dominant word: I think the significant word in the title is "Rational", myself.

Anyway, I've got four different variants now, I figure I can do a new poll!

You should be able to click on the images to see the full size versions on Flickr. I've thumbnailed them at the size Amazon displays thumbnails on its main page.

Poll #2012821 Cover Layout!

Which of these are your favorites?

Amazone typeface, alternate layout
4(14.8%)
Harrington typeface
8(29.6%)
Amazone typeface, first layout
9(33.3%)
Chisel D typeface
6(22.2%)

Which of the following elements do you prefer?

Author name on top
3(5.8%)
Author name on bottom
13(25.0%)
Nesting "A Rational" into "Arrangement" (e.g., a very large "A" for Arrangement)
11(21.2%)
"Arrangement" as dominant word
5(9.6%)
"Rational" as dominant word
3(5.8%)
Amazone typeface
5(9.6%)
Chisel D typeface
3(5.8%)
Harrington typeface
9(17.3%)


@fullaquirkes on Twitter pointed out that I didn't order the images by typeface, or clearly label them. Ack. The images in the poll are:

1. Amazone
2. Harrington
3. Amazone (again)
4. Chisel D

* Amazon's Kindle site has one ratio in the guidelines for uploading to the site, and a different ratio that they actually display at and that everybody else uses. I dunno what's up with that.

** I am resisting the urge to replace the backdrop for all the existing headers to match the cover. This way lies madness.
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Subject:Just Whistle (10/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 010

Wisteria was in her office at Vasilver Manor, examining inventors’ reports and funding requests. The work engrossed her enough to drive thoughts of Anverlee and the Strikers from her mind. She held a whistle in one hand and was studying a report on it when her brother poked his head through the half-open door. “Teeri? Ah, there you are.” He let himself in, flopping onto the couch. “How’d the Big Meeting go?”

She considered the question without looking up from the paper. “Better than our original negotiations with the Kyr in Southern Vandu.”

“Oh, good. So they’re not going to exile us from the country or take any relations hostage? Top concern of mine.”

“I believe you may rest easy on those counts, yes.”

“Superb. So…a lot better, or a little better?” Her brother rose, hands stuffed in his pockets, and paced. He looked a lot like her, a long-limbed body and a long face, with their father’s Haventure-curly hair and their mother’s darker Newlanture complexion.

“Only a little better. Father thinks it was a disaster.”

“And what do you think it was?”

“How would I know?”

“Seriously, Teeri. You’ve excellent judgement and you know it.”

“Not when it comes to judging emotional reactions. And you know that, Byron.”

Byron stopped pacing and put his hands on her desk. He leaned over it, watching her and waiting. At length, Wisteria set the paper and whistle down and leaned back. “I mortally offended Lady Striker and Lord Striker. Lord Nikola asked to call again. I don’t know if he was serious.”

“Mph. Hope he wasn’t.”

“Your lack-of-support is noted.”

“Father and Mother can be eager to see you wed if they like, but don’t see why I’d want to lose my sister and my company’s best analyst to some ignorant penurious titled twit.” Byron fell into a chair before her massive U-shaped desk and extended one long arm to toy idly with the items atop its return.

“The idea is to gain a brother, not lose a sister. I want to get married, Byron. Not die. And Anverlee is cash-strapped, not penurious. They have considerable wealth in illiquid assets.”

“‘Illiquid’ is just a fancy word for ‘worthless’.” His fingers played over the whistle Wisteria had been examining earlier.

Wisteria tilted her head at him. “Do you doubt my analysis now?”

He made a face at her. “No. Just…grumpy.” He hesitated for a long moment, then added, “Am I allowed to be both insulted that they rejected my beautiful brilliant sister and also relieved you won’t be going anywhere?”

“‘Allowed’? Can anyone stop you?” Wisteria asked, amused.

Byron laughed. “Doubt it.” He turned the whistle over in his hand. “Didn’t have your heart set on this lordling, did you?”

“Of course not. I’d never even been introduced to him before.” All right, so he was tall and lithe and strikingly handsome and took my breath away. That was not ‘having my heart set on him’. I may not be an expert on the subject – more of an unwilling amateur – but I am pretty sure that is engaging another part of my anatomy entirely. Wisteria had done due diligence on both Anverlee and Lord Nikola before suggesting the idea to her father, and had proposed it on the strength of the business alliance. It was a good match; some of Anverlee’s cash problems were the result of shockingly bad money management – the sort that Wisteria could remedy given the opportunity – and Vasilver Trading could make good use of Anverlee and Fireholt’s tangible assets. It wasn’t about Lord Nikola himself. Not…not truly.

Maybe a little. Lord Nikola had an interesting reputation: one part typical lordly dilettante, regarded as a flirt and something of a rake in society. Yet he also held the rarest Blessing: the ability to cure disorders of the mind. More than that, by all accounts he was a scrupulous servant of the Code; he treated to the best of his ability any who asked, and accepted in return any gift they offered, however humble. That was the sort of thing one often heard about the Blessed – ‘How generous they are! How noble!’ – and Wisteria had not given it much credence at first. But further investigation substantiated the claim. There were four Newlant residents whose Blessing treated mental disorders. No Blessing was perfect: there were always people who did not respond to treatment, no matter who the Blessed was. But among the other three mind-healers, Wisteria estimated that they helped between a quarter and half of those who sought treatment.

Lord Nikola succored between three-quarters and four-fifths.

The difference in initial reports was so stark Wisteria had found different individuals to study the subjects and sent them back to take additional samples on different days. It didn’t even reflect the fact that Lord Nikola – by his own command! – saw every newborn in Fireholt, in case they had some defect that might be easier to remedy if caught early. He spent more time with his petitioners, too: the typical treatment time was under a minute for the others with the same Blessing. For Lord Nikola, it was closer to eight minutes. Of course, there were other factors involved – in isolated Fireholt and even in Anverlee, fewer people made the trip to see him than did to, say, the much more populous Gracehaven or Hollinshaven. But even with fewer petitioners, he helped more people total, and spent far more time at it. Wisteria could not tell, of course, if it was that his Blessing was more potent than others, or if he was more skilled, or if others were less inclined to help those of poor means. The estimated value of the gifts received suggested the last was a factor, but Wisteria felt her data on the value of gifts was unreliable. It was a fascinating puzzle, one she wished she could justify more research into.

Of course, being a good mind-healer did not mean he’d make a good husband, or anything like it. His status as a dilettante and flirt said more negative about how he would treat a wife than his use of his Blessing said at all. And yet… Be honest. Had you only wanted a business alliance, you would have proposed that, not engagement. You want more than a household of your own and children to raise. You want a handsome man who’d make love to you, who would sate all those desires you are not supposed to have much less talk about. And you hoped this one would be desperate enough to take you. Well, he’s not. Put it out of your head.

Belatedly, Wisteria realized that she’d ignored her brother’s reply – something to the effect of ‘That’s good’. “Still with me, sis?” he asked now, before he put the whistle to his mouth and blew on it to get her attention. It made no apparent noise apart from the faint sound of his breath. Puzzled, he tried again, with the same result. He shook the item, then peered into it. “Say, what is this?”

“A new kind of whistle. One of our inventors, Mr. Bandersmith, has been working on it.”

“Well, tell him to keep working. Don’t think he’s got the hang of it yet.” Byron blew again, to no evident effect. “What’s it supposed to do?”

“Make a sound that humans can’t hear.”

“A silent whistle! Why, the applications are obvious. Why has no one thought of this before?” Byron laughed and blew it again. “You didn’t deliberately fund development on a whistle that makes no noise, did you?”

A greatcat with grey-tiger coloration and ears flat against her scalp slipped her head into the room. “Miss? Sir? Did you just hear that?”

“No,” Wisteria said to Byron. “It makes a noise. That we can’t hear.” She leaned forward to pluck the whistle from his hand. “Did you mean this, Sally?” Wisteria demonstrated it.

Sally winced, squirming through the door with her tail lashing. “Yes! Saints help us, are you making that awful sound on purpose?”

Wisteria stopped. “Is it very bad?”

“Hideous. I came in from the felishome to see what was causing it. The others were hoping it would stop on its own. You really can’t hear it?”

“Not at all.”

“Lucky you.”

Wisteria looked down at the whistle. “Mr. Bandersmith said it had considerable range. He suggested it be employed to notify greatcat servants when their services were required.”

The black-and-gray greatcat’s ears remained flat. “Can I notify you how I feel about that by sharpening my claws on a chalkboard?”

“It’s truly so unpleasant?”

“If it’s staying, I’m going,” Sally said.

“I expect I’ll tell him it doesn’t appear ready for mass distribution yet.”

“Thank you, Miss Vasilver.” With a slight bow, the greatcat withdrew.

“Guess the applications are obvious.” Byron rubbed the back of his neck.

“Yes. Pity the target market hates it.” Wisteria dropped the whistle and its attendant papers back into a large envelope. She’d confirm Sally’s opinion of it with the other greatcats on staff later.

“Technically, the market’s human employers, not greatcats.”

“Do you know, I was talking about this very subject earlier today?”

“What, silent whistles?”

“No. About how important it is for the long-term health of a business that its transactions benefit all involved parties.”

Byron held up his hands. “All right, all right, I yield. Send him back to his drafting table.”

Wisteria pulled the next report from its package. “Did you come for any particular purpose, Byron? Because if you’re just bored, I’m sure I can find some work for you.”

“No, no, quite enough on my desk already, thank you. Just wanted to see how you were doing.”

“I am well, thank you. But…”

Byron paused, half-risen from his chair. “Yes?”

“If Mother or David or Mitchell wants to know how the meeting went, would you discourage them from asking me?”

He answered with a nod, then took his leave.
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Subject:Company Name Poll, Now with Actually Good Choices
Time:09:59 pm
I checked the suggestions from my name poll (all of which are IMO better than anything I offered) and terrycloth offered the BEST NAME EVER.

Seriously, I love this name. It is a name so good that I actually want to publish books*! I need to write more books JUST SO I CAN PRINT THEM UNDER THIS COMPANY NAME.

It is:

Delight in Books

Is it not nifty?




Okay, so it may be just me who thinks this is the awesome name of awesome. For those of you who don't know, I used to write a World Tree fanfic under delight_in_wt. The title character changed her name frequently (a common trait for members of her species in the World Tree setting), but her names had the general format of "Delight in [Whatever]". The name thus has personal meaning for me. Beyond that, it leads easily to imprint names: I can call the business "Delight in Books" and the imprint for A Rational Arrangement can be "Delight in Romances". ("Delight in Fantasies" might sound too erotica for a fantasy imprint, though. Still!)

But since I had some other new ideas too, and there's some small chance that someone could talk me out of "Delight in Books", I'm doing another poll.

After haikujaguar pointed out that it was not a great idea for the publisher name to be easily mistaken for the first book I'm publishing, it struck me that what I liked about "Rational Romances" was not just the alliteration, but the seeming (not actual) dissonance between the two ideas. So I'm listing some riffs off of that, which have the virtue of not sounding like my book title. But no alliteration. Not sure I like them.

And I'm including the other three suggestions I got from the last poll (thanks also to tuftears for "Vasilver Enterprises", siege for "Comfrey House" and whitefangedwolf for "Greatcat Press"). Because I was serious when I said all the suggestions were better than my original choices.

Poll #2012575 New Improved Publishing Company Name Poll

What should Rowyn name her publishing house and/or imprint?

Delight in Books
16(44.4%)
Practical Romances
1(2.8%)
Sensible Romances
0(0.0%)
Logical Romances
0(0.0%)
Vasilver Enterprises
5(13.9%)
Comfrey House
6(16.7%)
Greatcat Press
8(22.2%)

Assuming I pick "Delight in Books" as my business name, should I use "Delight in Romances" as the imprint name for RA?

Yes! Make an imprint called "Delight in Romances".
9(56.2%)
No, "Delight in Books" is too perfect by itself to be diluted.
7(43.8%)



* The more time I spend on this whole "publishing A Rational Arrangement" thing, the more I am ahhhhh what am I doing why did I think this was a good idea ahhhhhhhhhhh
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Subject:Uncovered
Time:02:56 pm
One of the other things* I need before I can publish is a cover. I started work on this a couple of months ago, found it depressing and overwhelming, and gave up for a while. Friday I decided to take another stab at it. Today I figured I would post about it and see what people think.

My first concept was simple -- black background, white text, three riings to symbolize "polyamorous romance". I was appalled by the first attempt and decided to try a different color scheme.  I'm putting this one up mainly because Lut liked the black & white color scheme better than the one I preferred.  The "three rings" are from a public domain photo.



The brown-and-gold one below is the first one I considered adequate. The ring image is a modified version of this photo by Jeff Belmonte, which is licensed on CC 2.0.



After doing the one above, I spend some time thinking about what image I'd want if I used an illustration instead of a symbol.  I looked at other romance covers for inspiration. This cover, for The Wrong Mr. Wright, made me think of showing the three protagonists dancing, which is even something that happens in the book. And then I gave up for a while, because my art skillz are not remotely qualified to do a realistic painting.

But since I've been doing all the header illustrations, I figured I could try doing the same style for a cover illustration. I spent Friday and today working at it.  It doesn't look like it would take that long, does it?



Also, somehow the ratio on it is different from the others. I am not sure what happened there.

The typeface is Amazone BT (squished and re-kerned here and there). I made a list of 27 different fonts that I already owned and liked for the cover, and then every time I went to actually do the lettering, I used Amazone BT instead of trying one of the others. I dunno what's up with that.

None of these are exactly done; for instance, on the last one I don't like the way the title text interacts with the background arches (I spent a lot of time on those arches! Grrrr backgrounds. Now I have to spend more time on them, or possibly just rip them out. You will see more of these in a future header, and Now You Know Why. Because I am not going to have wasted all that time drawing them.)

Here's a poll if you want to pick your favorite(s):

Which of the three do you think works best as the cover for a polyamorous fantasy romance novel?

Black & white with three rings
0(0.0%)
Brown & gold with three rings
3(18.8%)
Illustration of three protagonists dancing
13(81.2%)


Suggestions welcome! (Though I may not take them, due to time/money/psych lim contraints.)

* There are so many things, you guys. So. Many. THINGS.
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Subject:Publishing!
Time:01:06 pm
[Edit: I've closed this poll because I've made a new poll here with MUCH BETTER options.)

I plan to self-publish A Rational Arrangement in June, and want to have a name for my publishing business. Since I plan to publish under a pseudonym (it's easier to use my existing hand than it is to establish a web presence under my real name), I need to register some name with the state anyway, so I might as well register a publishing company and make it all official-like. I Are a Real Business!

Step one of this (very complicated) process:

Pick a name.

... right.

Since I am not attached to any of the names I've come up with thus far, I figured I would use the time-honored Make It A Poll approach*!

Poll #2012549 Publishing Company Name Poll!
This poll is closed.

What should Rowyn name her publishing house and/or imprint?

Rowyn Press
1(7.7%)
Rational Romance Books
1(7.7%)
Comfrey Press
6(46.2%)
Finally Books
3(23.1%)
Great Unnamed Publishing House
2(15.4%)

Oh no these are all terrible please give me a better alternative /o_o\



I do kinda like "Rational Romance" (which was alinsa's idea), but I am concerned it sounds like "romance for rationalists", which is not what I am writing. (Nothing against rationalists!) Also, only particularly applicable to this one book. On the other hand, I can always make another publisher name, and probably will want to regardless because publishing lines are associated with genre, and I don't only write romances.

* I do not promise to use whichever name gets the most votes.
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Subject:A Nice Run (9/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 009

At last, Nik managed to extricate himself from their well-wishes and headed away with Anthser. “You’re covered in fur, Lord Nik,” the warcat observed. As a member of Nik’s personal retinue, he wore a livery cloak in Fireholt’s colors of black and orange under a riding seat.

“I know. Thank you.”

“And limping.”

“My leg went to sleep.”

“They couldn’t bring her to petitions tomorrow morning?”

“Are you trying to sound like my father, or is that a side benefit?” At the base of the steelwood staircase in front of the building, Nik fished a lint brush from the pocket of his overcoat and scrubbed the top layer of loose fur from his breeches, then slipped off the overcoat to do the same to it. The result was a little unkempt on close inspection, but would not draw the eye of the casual observer.

Anthser waited without further comment until Nik shrugged back into his overcoat and gloves and started down the street. “Are you well, my lord?”

“Yes. I just want to walk some life back into my leg.”

The sleek black warcat paced Nik effortlessly. Anthser was much smaller than Jill, a little over five feet at the shoulder, and his walking stance put his head level with Nik’s shoulder. “Everything all right, then?”

“I wouldn’t go that far. How are my parents?”

Anthser paused. “Like themselves.”

“So. Father is upset because I won’t grow up and act my part, and mother is… how long has it been since I left the carriage?”

“Couple hours?”

“Then mother is blaming everyone but me for my actions and planning some kind of apologetic gesture, in all likelihood for dinner tomorrow.”

The big cat shrugged. “Sounds about right.”

“I suppose I have a few days’ reprieve before they find another wealthy heiress to hurl me at. Do you have any good news, Anthser?”

“Lord Comfrey sent an invitation. Supper and billiards this evening, with his compliments and apologies for the short notice.”

At last! Nik tried to restrain his smile to a tolerable level of reserve. “Splendid. Any note with the invitation?”

“No, m’lord. His messenger is at the manor, awaiting your answer.”

“Well. Let’s not keep him waiting any longer.” Nik stopped and set a hand on the riding seat.

Anthser’s whiskers twitched in amusement as he lay down so Nik could mount. “Yes, m’lord. Would m’lord like a nice run back?”

Nik smirked. “M’lord would.” The cat twisted his head to unhook a bag from the harness beneath his cloak, and raised it to Nik’s hand. The human retrieved a riding helmet, boots, and a padded coat with reinforced elbows, exchanged them for his current outerwear, and mounted. The riding seat cradled him, legs bent and tucked close to the warcat’s flanks, and Nik leaned forward to wrap his hands around the handles in the harness at the base of Anthser’s neck. “Proceed at will, Fel Fireholt.”

Anthser surged to his feet and rocketed forward with a pounce, landing on cat-light bent legs with such smoothness that what shock was transmitted barely jarred Nik. The warcat raced up the street, weaving around carriages pulled by greatcats as well as handwagons and donkey-drawn carts. At one intersection several blocks later, a greatcat was pulling a vegetable cart across as they reached it: rather than slowing, Anthser sped up and leapt over the cart. “Crazy warcat!” the lead greatcat on a coach snarled as Anthser landed mere inches from her. Nik flashed her a grin as the warcat purred, and they flew onward.

“Maybe the streets of Gracehaven are too crowded for a nice run,” Nik said in Anthser’s ear, snug against his back as they zigged through the narrow space between two carriages.

“M’lord has the right of it, no doubt.” Anthser eyed the buildings alongside them before he darted to the gutter, and from there leaped to a second-floor balcony. A few bounds took them across the balcony, where he jumped the rail to land on the roof of the building beside it. Claws skittered against shingles as he ran to the top of the sloped roof and jumped to the flat roof of the three-story building adjacent. They bounced from rooftop to rooftop for a good mile, Anthser vaulting alleyways and narrow streets, Nik laughing aloud from the rush of adrenalin and speed. Anthser cut a sharp corner when the current rooftop ended over a four-lane boulevard, and veered to the right to continue the race.

The jump across a two-lane street from a three-story building to a four-story did not daunt him: Anthser attempted it without pause. His forelegs landed on the far roof and pulled forward, while hindquarters tucked in but did not quite reach the edge. They scrabbled at air for an instant, until his body curled over the roof’s edge and foreclaws sank into shingles, hindclaws digging for purchase on the brick wall. Nik grunted from the impact but made no other sound to distract the warcat, knees and thighs hugging Anther’s sides, hands clenched on the harness. One forepaw began to slip as the shingle it was dug into pulled loose. Anthser released that shingle and threw his paw down fast on another. The claws of one hindpaw sank into old mortar between bricks. With a roar, the warcat hauled himself and his rider onto the rooftop.

Anthser stood with sides heaving, tongue lolling, looking at the deep furrows his claws had left in multiple shingles. “Oops.” He pushed the loose one back into its empty spot and patted at it, as if that would fix it.

Nik took his bearings and made a mental note of the address. “I don’t think that ‘crazy warcat’ was meant as a challenge.” He relaxed his too-tight grip.

“Now you tell me.” Anthser panted, padding to the roof’s opposite side. He eyeballed the drop to the adjacent roof. “…am I crazy, Lord Nik?”

Nikola extracted one hand from the harness and tugged off the glove with his teeth. He burrowed his bare fingers through the overheated fur of Anthser’s neck and felt the contours of the big cat’s mind. “My professional opinion is ‘foolhardy’.”

“Good to know.” Anthser twisted his head to rub his muzzle against Nik’s fingers.

“Walking the rest of the way would be fine, though.”

“Very good, m’lord.” Anthser jumped down to the next roof, and from there to a balcony and finally the ground. Nik sat upright like the lord he was supposed to be, instead of hunched tight against his warcat, and they padded decorously the last few blocks to Anverlee Town Manor.
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Subject:A Blessing Shared (8/141)
Time:12:30 pm
RA Header 008

Within a block, the neighborhood had changed from one of modest human storefronts to blocky former warehouses, converted to apartment housing for greatcats. Downsing’s sister lived in one; they climbed a creaking exterior steelwood staircase and down a walkway on the second level to reach her door. Downsing stuck his head through the doorway first, calling out, “Marie? I brought a guest.” An awkward hallway just inside had entrances leading to three other rooms; Downsing padded to the right. Peeling paint and walls with exposed brick facing gave the apartment a squalid air, despite being meticulously clean. A pair of rambunctious pubescent greatcats wrestling in the main room added to the impression of disorder. Downsing entered the main room. He motioned with his tail for Nik to follow and said, “Quit it, you two,” to the wrestling kittens.

The kittens ignored their uncle, but the strange human caught their attention, and they sprang apart to stare at Nik. One of them smoothed down his askew cloak self-consciously.

A blue-gray panther with a kitten held by the scruff stepped into the room. “Lord Nikola, this s m’ sister, Marie of Brewdon.” Downsing introduced them. “Marie, this s Lord Nikola of Anverlee.” Which made a hash of his actual name and title, but Nikola didn’t trouble himself to correct it.

Fela Brewdon’s eyes went wide with shock, and she set her kitten hastily on the wide couch-bed that was the room’s main furniture, a piece with stubby wooden legs and a low sloped back half-ringing it. Brewdon gave him a deep bow. “You honor my home, lord.” She had a spare sleek build, much smaller than Downsing’s large muscular frame. Odd to think him a clerk. But neither interests nor aptitude necessarily coincided with physique.

“I thought he might see little Belle,” Downsing added.

Belle was scrunched down on the couch-bed, a calico-furred big-headed kitten about the size of a human toddler and an order of magnitude more adorable. She eyed Nik suspiciously. Nik’s heart melted anyway. He narrowly avoided saying ‘awww.’ “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Fela Brewdon. Is it all right if I…?” He gestured to Belle.

“Of course, lord. Thank you.” Fela Brewdon put a paw behind her daughter’s back and nudged her closer to the human.

Nik drew off his gloves and crouched before the couch, extending his hands to the kitten. “Hello, Belle.”

Belle climbed onto unwieldy paws and stretched out her head to sniff at his fingertips, then rub her nose against them. Nik inhaled, eyes unfocusing as he studied the shapes of her mind.

It was a sense he had always had, unlike sight or touch, although those were the terms in which he described his perceptions. No hard-shelled jagged demons were burrowing into her mind or disordering her thoughts, but her mindshapes followed a too-familiar and problematic pattern: the fuzzy orange shape of verbal skills more like a stump than a rope, cool purple-blue instincts swollen and stifling the squishy stub of intellect, oversized strands of muscle control strangling the warm furry threads of reason, and so on – mental skills displaced and malformed, too large or too withered. “How old is she?” Nik asked.

“Six weeks, lord.” The mother watched Nik, worried.

“Mmm. Good.” Nik shifted to perch on the edge of the couch-bed, letting Belle lick his fingers, his other hand cupping the side of her head.

“She’s already walking well. Much better than her brothers at her age.” Fela Brewdon’s tailtip twitched. “That’s not actually good, is it?”

Depends; did you want her to be a sapient greatcat or a throwback to her wildcat ancestors? Nik assayed a more diplomatic phrasing. “Her development so far has been…more wildcat than greatcat. But she’s young enough that this is trivial to rectify, well within the bounds of my Blessing. With your permission and the Savior’s will, I would be happy to remedy it.”

Fela Brewdon’s ears flicked down and to the side, dismayed. “She is… but you can fix her? You will? Oh please, lord – we’ve not much, but we’ll pay anything.” She crouched, pressing her body to the floor, supplicating.

“Please, don’t.” Nik winced inwardly at the thought of the fela and her husband in their drafty three room home trying to scrounge a gift they thought worthy of a lord. “Any token is more than sufficient. It’s the Savior’s work, not mine.” She bowed her head, which Nik took for acquiescence. “It will take a little while – Fel Downsing, my warcat was to meet me at Valience Park. Would you wait for him there and bring him when he arrives? He’ll be in my house’s – Fireholt’s – livery, orange and black.” As heir to Anverlee, Nikola was entitled to use their colors or Fireholt’s, but for his staff he preferred Fireholt’s. It discouraged his parents, slightly, from ordering them about. Downsing looked puzzled by his request, but nodded acceptance and padded out. The two pubescent felis had their ears pricked, staring at Nik and their mother. Their mother was tense with anxiety, still stretched out on the floor. Belle drew back from Nik’s touch, catching the uneasiness in the air.

Nik took a deep breath, relaxing his own posture and attitude. “Ma’am, please, be at ease,” he said, gently. “This is entirely routine.” Much too routine. “I’ve channeled this particular kind of healing dozens of times. It won’t hurt Belle, it’s no trouble to me, and the Savior has never complained of his part.” Fela Brewdon’s whiskers twitched at his words, not sure if he was joking. “Please, sit beside your daughter. Groom her. I need her to trust me, and she will follow your lead. Do you trust me, ma’am?”

Startled out of her nervousness by the question, the greatcat stammered, “Of course, sir. Lord. I’m sorry.” She rose and circled wide to the far side of the couch-bed before hopping up. She settled in a half-curl around her kitten, resting a paw over Belle’s hindquarters and licking her head and neck. Belle crinkled up one eye and squirmed, but made no serious attempt to escape. Nik weighed the merits of preserving his dignity against further rearranging the participants. Well, dignity has never been my strength. He shifted from the couch to sit sideways on the floor, leaning against the couch beside Belle. He put one hand on Belle’s cheek and dipped his forehead to touch hers, improving his perception of her mind.

Her older brothers padded closer to him, curiosity overpowering their reticence about a stranger. “Whatcha doin’?” one asked.

“Lionel, don’t bother the lord,” Fela Brewdon admonished.

“It’s fine. I’m asking the Savior to help your sister,” Nik answered, putting an arm against the couch and half-encircling Belle to make himself more comfortable. “Would you like to watch? I am assured it is extraordinarily dull to observe from the outside.”

The boys crowded nearer anyway. “What’s it like from the inside?” the other asked.

“Mm. Complicated. I’m going to be preoccupied now. If I sound like I’m babbling, just ignore me.” Nik lost the thread of the conversation. Without words or even coherent thought, by an instinct he’d relied on for longer than he could remember, Nik asked for the Savior’s power. The Savior answered in what felt like a waterfall of warm sunlight, flowing through Nik’s mind and over Belle’s. Belle butted her nose against Nik’s. “There, now, little one, be patient with me,” Nik murmured in soothing tones, not paying attention to his own words as he coaxed the sunlit power into a scaffold around Belle’s mindshapes. The gentle flow of power gradually loosened the stranglehold of instincts and muscle coordination to make more space for other mental skills to develop. Reason and speech centers flowered, sending out questing tendrils within the space now reserved for them. “See, that doesn’t hurt. There’s a good girl. Good girl.”

When Nik emerged from the fugue state, Belle had crawled partway onto his shoulder, her head nuzzled against the side of his face and nose burrowed under his collar. She was purring. They were the center of attention for her mother, one brother, her uncle, and Anthser; he had only a vague recollection of the last two arriving. One leg had gone to sleep underneath him and he had a crick in his side from leaning against the front of the couch. His mouth was dry and his throat raw, which probably meant he’d been babbling for the last twenty minutes. He coughed once. “A glass of water, please.”

Fela Brewdon dispatched the boy kitten on the errand, while Nik attempted to regain his feet without dislodging Belle. This proved futile; Fela Brewdon scruffed the kitten and removed her instead, provoking an indignant mewl from Belle. Nik shifted to perch on the couch, stretching his numb leg before him. He resisted the temptation to massage some life back into the limb and generally tried to pretend he was not an embarrassment to his entire class. Minor physical aches aside, he felt refreshed, energized by the exertion rather than drained. Fela Brewdon set Belle down again to ask, “Is it done, m’lord?” Belle promptly crawled back into Nik’s lap.

“Yes, she’s fine.” Nik abandoned dignity and cuddled the kitten. Her older brother returned with a stoppered flask, which Nik drank from gratefully. “She’ll be more vocal from now on, and she may be a trifle clumsier. But she’ll develop normally.”

The mother cat drooped in relief. “Thank you, m’lord.”

“You’re welcome.” Reluctantly, Nik handed Belle back to her mother. “I’m afraid I should be going now. Good day to you.”

“I don’t remember it taking so long, when I was little,” Downsing said, expression curious but not questioning.

“The length of time for treatment depends on the cause of the affliction, not the symptoms.” Nik suppressed a wince as he stood, putting weight on his half-numb leg.

Downsing bobbed his head in understanding, stepping aside as Nik crossed to the entranceway. Anthser backed out through the hallway, pawing the front door open with a hindfoot and stepping out to the landing so Nik didn’t have to get past him. Mother, son, and uncle followed; though Nikola stood a full head taller than them, the far greater length and mass of the greatcats made him feel tiny in comparison. They had an air both hesitant and expectant to them; Nik offered his right hand, not realizing until too late that had hadn’t put his gloves back on yet. Before he could repair the gaffe, Fela Brewdon dropped her head to rub her cheek against his bare fingers, murmuring her thanks again. Downsing and the youngster pushed near to do the same; he caught fleeting impressions of their healthy, normal minds, orderly shapes with well-fitted connections. They touched him as if he were a talisman that would protect them by contact alone. Greatcat superstitions about the capabilities of his Blessing were as ill-founded as the human ones, but at least they were less insulting.
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Subject:Not Otherwise Occupied (7/141)
Time:04:38 pm
RA Header 007

Nikola turned up his collar against the overcast chill of the gray day, long strides carrying him along the sidewalk, beneath the trimmed awnings of small shops. How does my mother always manage to say exactly what will infuriate me most?

For that matter, why had he defended Miss Vasilver? Lady Striker was right: he hadn’t wanted to meet Miss Vasilver, much less marry her, and that farce of an introduction certainly hadn’t changed his mind. The wintry day was not so chilling as Miss Vasilver’s indifferent gaze.

Yet, when he contrasted his parents’ sputtering hypocritical outrage with Miss Vasilver’s calm honesty, it was impossible to claim that he preferred the former. Nikola reached Valience Park, a pleasant garden of branching gravel paths, fruit and nut trees, and berry bushes. Most of the trees were bare, dormant for the winter, but several of the berry bushes were in flower. He peeled off his pale gloves to avoid staining them and gathered a handful of ripe winterberries from among small glossy dark leaves and white blossoms. The berries burst in a splash of tart sweet juice on his tongue, as he took a seat on a weathered wood-and-iron bench beneath the dark tangle of a walnut tree’s branches.

Nik cleaned his hands with a handkerchief, then withdrew the coiled roll of Miss Vasilver’s pre-engagement document and turned to the section on extramarital affairs. It stated: ‘Honesty being a greater virtue than chastity, neither party should attempt to deceive the other on the matter of fidelity’. Miss Vasilver’s opinion appeared to be that, while fidelity was the preferred state, ‘informed infidelity’ was an acceptable alternative, ‘in light of the practical impossibility of determining physical compatibility prior to consummation of marriage’. ‘Informed infidelity’ meant ‘each party will apprise the other of any indiscretions, and aid in maintaining discretion so that neither party will be exposed to unflattering gossip or humiliation’. Is it still an indiscretion if you have to be discreet? Affairs were also to be conducted in such a way as to (a) avoid interference with the conception of legitimate children and (b) avoid the conception of illegitimate children. There were alternative sections suggesting various ways of ensuring equitable infidelity; Miss Vasilver was evidently of the opinion that one party was not entitled to be jealous of the other if said party wasn’t being faithful himself. Or herself. Nik couldn’t tell if she was assuming he would cheat on her or if she was planning to cheat on him. Maybe she already had some lover in mind, some footman or delivery boy she did not dare wed. It was hard to imagine the latter, as it implied a degree of ardor that Miss Vasilver wholly lacked. How could she write about the subject of intimacy in such indifferent language?

Abandoned world, how could she write about it at all? Nikola leaned back, gazing past the walnut tree’s bare branches to the overcast sky. After a moment, he looked down again and turned to the next section, on child-rearing. His mouth twitched in a smile. After procreation. Very orderly. Miss Vasilver had ideas on this, too. Boarding school versus private tutors versus apprenticeship, the advantages and disadvantages of different religious denominations, or of no religious observances. None? ‘None’ is an option? Not even the sacred is sacred to Miss Vasilver. He shook his head, more bewildered than offended.

A burred feline voice spoke to one side of him. “Lord Nikola?”

Nik curled up the papers and tucked them back in his pocket as he looked up at an unfamiliar orange-and-black striped head. “Excuse me?”

The feline form bowed before him, dressed in a patched and many-pocketed brown cloak. “Farrel of Downsing, m’lord. You wouldn’t remember me – I couldn’t learn to read, and ten years ago m’ parents brought me to you for a miracle. Which you provided, m’lord.”

Frowning in thought, Nikola contemplated the greatcat. He’d met tens of thousands of petitioners over the course of his life, and he always left a bigger impression on their lives than they did on his. Rather the point of the Code, that. Still – orange and black, couldn’t read – “You were a kitten then? Seven or eight? Mother had your coloration but a great white splash over her forehead and nose?”

Downsing rocked out of his bow to sit back on his haunches, surprised. “Yes, Lord Nikola.”

The blond man gave him a fond smile. “I remember. A little demon possessed you, turning all the letters around in your head. You were scared to let it go, but your mother said it’d poison you forever if you didn’t.”

The greatcat dropped his mouth open in mimicry of a human smile, folding his forepaws to rest on the ground and put his head below Nik’s again. “And you promised it wouldn’t hurt.”

“And the Savior shooed it right off. I had to tell you it was over twice before you’d believe that was it. And how is your reading now, Fel Downsing?”

Downsing’s whiskers flared with pride. “Just wrote m’ clerk’s exam last week.”

Nik gave a startled laugh. “Did you truly?”

“Yessir. Haven’t been able to get enough of letters ever since they stopped squirming on me.” He paused, then added self-consciously, “Thank you, sir.”

Nik waved off the thanks, smiling. “The hard work was all yours. Well done, Fel Downsing. Well done.” Nik spread his arms over the back of the bench. “I’m surprised you recognized me. I should think I’ve changed a little since I was thirteen.”

The greatcat shrugged, ducking his head. “Scent doesn’t change much, m’lord.”

“I’ll take your word on that.” Nik studied the big cat; it was nice to see people his Blessing had helped, and it wasn’t uncommon for people of whom he had no recollection to stop him with heartfelt thanks. Downsing looked like he wanted something more than to express his gratitude, and Nik wasn’t sure if the greatcat had a specific desire that he was reluctant to speak, or if it was some undefined drive that kept the cat by his feet after conversation flagged. Nik debated internally whether to say ‘good day’ and take out the contract again, by way of dismissal.

Before Nik had decided, Downsing excused himself. “I shouldn’t keep you, m’lord. Was on m’ way to visit m’ new niece. M’ sister lives just a couple blocks north of the park.”

Ah. “Congratulations to your sister. I trust the kitten is healthy?”   

“Oh, sure.” Downsing didn’t sound sure. “She’s a pawful already. Kinda…quiet, for a new kitten. Though. Probably nothing.”

Indeed. And if it’s not, I see petitioners at my residence from nine to noon every day but Sundays. Nik didn’t speak, and Downsing bobbed his head and turned away. With an inward sigh, Nik stood. I’m not busy now anyway. He drew level with the greatcat in a few quick strides. “Do you imagine your sister would object if I joined you?” Nik asked, in the tone of one asking a favor. “I should like to meet this niece of yours.”

Downsing’s eyes lit, his ears pricking forward. “Oh, no, not at all, m’lord, it’d be an honor. Would you?”

“Certainly.”

Downsing slowed his long strides to a man’s pace. “Would you like to ride, m’lord? I’ve no seat but—”

Nik shook his head. “No, I need to stretch my legs anyway.”
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Subject:Fair Use
Time:12:10 pm
The headers I've been putting on A Rational Arrangement posts are all created by me. I am not, in my opinion, a particularly good visual artist. I am trying to make the headers look as professional as I can, which means a lot of accommodations for my various weaknesses as an artist. And, in many cases, shortcuts. For example, for this image:

Header 3

I dug up a 19th century picture of a carriage from a website of public domain images, and traced over it to make the carriage. And then re-did some things, like taking off the coach driver's seat and re-doing the carriage wheels, to make it fit with my image. The teeny fancy scrollwork on the windows was done with a french curve stencil from ArtRage*. I looked up a bunch of pictures of big cats and drew the greatcats freehand based on those. The little human figures I just drew freehand without a reference.

For the next header, of Wisteria's eyes: I photographed my face and traced over the eyes, then modified them some to look more like my concept of her.

This one:

Header 3

was traced over photographs of my own hands (wearing a glove for Nik's gloved hand).

With the broken cup:

Broken teacup

I looked up a bunch of broken-cup images, couldn't find a public domain one I liked, and so drew this freehand. The fringe on the rug is from an ArtRage stencil; so is the rug's border pattern.

For the plates:

Plates!

I drew the simple one (the second plate from the left, with the gold rims). The other three are from public-domain images of plates that I reprocessed to use my palette.

My process can be summed up as: I use my own photographs (or ones taken for me by Lut) and public domain images any way I feel like, including copying, tracing, transforming, etc. I will use images copyrighted by others as inspiration, but I won't trace them or copy them exactly. I might get the idea for how a pose should look from one, or see the places where a cup breaks from another, but I am not going to use the same broken cup or an identical pose.** That's where I draw the line. It's fair use to look at other people's copyrighted*** images for ideas and inspiration, but not to copy, trace, or use photoshopping techniques on them.

So the story of this lousy "artist" who steals people's photos and then sells them for lots of money is deeply aggravating to me. The instagram business is pretty horrible, but I think what really makes me go "SERIOUSLY?" is the example at the bottom. This jerk took somebody else's photo, spent three minutes defacing it and cut-n-pasting a guitar that he probably stole from another party's site. And some judge -- an actual live supposedly-law-enforcing JUDGE -- calls that "fair use"? Are you kidding me? THAT is "fair use"? That is garbage.

What gets me even more is that people with lots of money are actually enabling him. That gallery owner who put his stolen instagram work on display, and that fool who paid $90,000 for one of his stolen photographs? I bet they know what he's done. And they still think he deserves their time and money. GAH. >.<

Anyway. There've been a few points where I was looking at some photo and wondering if my drawing was too similar to the original pose (even though gender/dress/features/build/etc. are different and the pose isn't identical). But after seeing what that jerk gets away with, I'm feeling pretty good about myself. -_-

* ArtRage is a lovely drawing program that octantis recommended to me years ago. It's an inexpensive drawing program designed to mimic the use of real media. I am using it in this project to do an assortment of standard digital tricks. Go figure.

** I do make an exception with pose-reference books. I figure it you are putting out a pose reference book, that indicates permission for artists to imitate the poses in their own work. Same for "How to Draw" books.

*** And "copyrighted" would be "everything that has not explicitly been placed into the public domain or aged into it". You do not have to register to get a copyright. Everything I turn up via Google image search, I assume is still under copyright unless it is explicitly labeled otherwise.
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Subject:The Height of Good Manners (6/141)
Time:01:41 pm
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“Unbelievable! The nerve of that child! Nikki, I am so sorry I subjected you to that – that – creature. I had no idea – I couldn’t imagine – as gauche as a street urchin! Ignorant, unschooled – that her father lets her out in society in such a state!”

Nik gazed out the coach window, reflecting on Miss Vasilver’s behavior as well. ‘I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.’ “Mother, you are an appalling judge of character.”

“Nikki!” Lady Striker tugged her grey velvet wrap tighter about her plump shoulders. “I was never introduced to the girl before, and her parents were unexceptionable—”

“I don’t mean then. I mean now. ‘Ignorant’? ‘Unschooled’? Were you even listening to her? If that gentlewoman is unlearned than I’m a greatcat.”

His mother harumphed. “Was I listening to her? That creature was no gentlewoman!”

“She is undeniably no fit match for a lord.” Lord Striker shook his head, mouth compressed in a thin disapproving line.

“I should think you’d be relieved, Nikki, the way you complained about calling,” his mother went on. “I can scarce imagine a creature with more appalling manners or less good sense.”

“Truly? Because Miss Vasilver isn’t the one who shouted and stormed from a civil meeting.”

“You call that civil? What was I supposed to do, stay to hear such filth?”

“Don’t take that tone with your mother, Nikola.”

‘I prefer a difficult truth’… Nikola took a deep breath. “Of course. Leaving in the middle of a conversation is the height of good manners.” He stood in the coach, swaying with its smooth motion. “I think I’ll do it now.” He banged on the front wall, and slid open a panel in it to call out. “Jill!”

“Nikki, don’t you dare—”

“My name, madam, is Nikola,” Nik said coldly, one hand braced on the rail above the door as the coach came to a halt. “As you might recall, since you gave it to me. Good day, my lord, lady.” With a stiff bow, he opened the coach door and stepped out to the street.

“Nikola—” his father was half-standing, leaning out the door after him. Lord Striker’s hard-edged features took on a weary cast. “Quit being childish and get back in the coach.”

Jill stood before Nik, whiskers flat in the offended look she always wore if he opened the door before she could get out of harness to open it for him. Nik gave the greatcat a cordial nod. “Jill, kindly direct Anthser to retrieve me at—” he took a moment to get his bearings “—Valience Park. At his leisure.”

“With the gig, m’lord?” The giant cat’s whiskers relaxed from their offended posture, ears twitching in suppressed amusement. She fixed her eyes on Nik to avoid looking at his father behind him.

“Afoot will suffice.”

“Very good, m’lord,” Jill dropped her head in a bow.

“Nikola!” his father called after him, as Nik walked beside Jill while she returned to the harness. Her companion greatcat, Gunther, waited with his haunches on the ground, eyes forward, whiskers rippling and ears canted in silent feline laughter. “Don’t imagine that I’ll have my household’s routine interrupted for your tantrum!”

“Then I shall walk, my lord.” Nik crossed the smooth stone street in front of Jill as she slipped back into her position.

“We’ll send someone for you shortly, Lord Nik,” Jill said in an undertone.

He flashed her a smile. “No hurry. Thank you, Jill.”
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Subject:The Logical Way to Decide (5/141)
Time:12:44 pm
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Wisteria sank back to her chair as he left the room, holding her wrist in her opposite hand. He kissed my hand.

That was a signal, an unambiguous signal. A noble only kissed a woman’s hand if they were related, long acquaintances, or…as a token of respect. Lord Nikola had not kissed her hand when they were introduced, so it was not a gesture he used trivially, or done from respect for her position or family. Something had happened during that strange terrible interview that made him…respect…her?

That can’t be right. I must be missing something. Sarcasm? She closed her eyes and leaned back. Yes, probably sarcasm. He was sarcastic when he said he’d call, and kissed my hand. Perhaps even when he said he wasn’t offended. She hadn’t noticed anything about his tone or expression, but she wouldn’t, would she?

“Do you want to be a spinster, Wisteria?” Her father re-entered the parlor. The maid was mopping tea from the expensive Ascension rug.

“No.” Wisteria folded her hands in her lap, not opening her eyes. “But it would probably be for the best if I did.”

Her father sighed. “I know you are not this stupid, Wisteria. By the three thousand, what possessed you to put that in writing? Why would you bring up a thing like that?”

“Mother said it was not a subject to be spoken of: how else might I communicate about it, then?” Wisteria asked, opening her eyes.

Mr. Vasilver put his face in his hands. “You don’t, girl!”

“…but the purpose of this meeting was to explore the possibility of an engagement.”

“An engagement, Wisteria! Between people! We’re not – not talking about breeding dogs here!”

What’s the difference? We all reproduce by the same mechanisms. “Then who does discuss these details? Are they settled through intermediaries?”

“No one! Ever! Reproduction is not a fit topic for a gentlewoman. You know this perfectly well! Even all those articles about business – Wisteria, it’s crass. This simply is not how civilized people handle intimate affairs.”

Wisteria looked at her father, as if she could make this conversation resolve into reason by sheer force of will. It had never worked before. “But these are vital aspects of marriage. If one cannot discuss them, what’s the point in meeting at all? This is like trying to decide what to have for dinner without mentioning food. ‘I know, let’s use the china with the gold rims tonight. And, oh, make sure there’s enough forks for everyone.’ As if that were the key choice.”

“How can someone so intelligent be so stupid? This is not how it’s done!”

“Why not?”

“Because it isn’t! You’re twenty-six, not six! How can you pretend not to know this?”

Wisteria stared at the wall, her ear turned to him as if the problem was with her hearing and not her comprehension. ‘Because it isn’t.’ Because everyone understands that it isn’t. Until the moment that it suddenly is. And to everyone but me, it’s so stupid, so obvious that this is how things work, that they can’t imagine how to explain it. Grief overwhelmed her; she could not bear to try yet again to pass a barrier tangible only to her. With an effort, she rose to her feet, curtsied to her father, and withdrew.
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Subject:A Difficult Truth (4/141)
Time:12:52 pm
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The top sheet looked a lot like a contract, broken into articles and sub-articles and substitute articles. The first page detailed Miss Vasilver’s dowry and terms under which it would be held and could be spent. His father leaned closer to look at it as well. Nik tugged at the fingers of his right glove with a slight gesture to it. “With your permission…?” At Mr. Vasilver’s wave and his daughter’s nod, Nik removed the glove and flipped to the next page.

“My daughter doesn’t intend to be forward, my lord,” Mr. Vasilver said, fingers clutching and releasing the arms of his chair. “There’s no need to discuss such things now, at such an early stage.”

Miss Vasilver said, blandly, “Wouldn’t discussing such things now be the logical way to decide if we’re going to the next stage?”

The second page had alternative terms and conditions – ‘if Anverlee agrees to X, Vasilver will agree to Y’. The document reminded Nik of the woman: cold, calculating, blunt. He should have found it repugnant. Presumptuous, as if she assumed he was interested in marrying her, which he most certainly was not. His parents’ hints about Anverlee’s financial needs and his duty to procure a wife were unsubtle, but this was like a sledgehammer, with not the least attempt to cloak its purpose in courtesy, sentiment or romance.

But he didn’t feel insulted. So what if it was presumptuous? Money and marriage was the point of this charade, and it was almost a relief to have someone call this sorry affair what it was. His parents trying to guilt him into marriage, that was offensive. This was…honest. Unappealing, but honest. “It’s fine, Mr. Vasilver,” Nik answered, vaguely aware that on the opposite side of the couch his mother was sputtering. Lord Striker read over Nik’s shoulder, bemused.

Nik scanned the article headings as he flipped pages, not trying to digest the details. It looked…thorough. Not just the lists of holdings and financial responsibilities, but the alternatives, as if she wished to demonstrate flexibility even in writing. It went on about the specific benefits Anverlee might expect from Vasilver Trading – use of their fleet, warehouses, personnel – and vice versa. There was quite a long section on mineral rights and mining in Fireholt, including minimizing the impact on the land. “Did you say you prepared this document, Miss Vasilver? Or had it prepared?”

“I consulted with my lawyer, father, and other involved parties for various sections pertaining to their interests, but it mainly represents my thinking. It’s only a draft, my lord.”

“Mm.” Pity it involved marrying the icicle-woman before him; he might have found it intriguing if it came attached to a less unappetizing individual. Nik turned to the next page anyway.

Next to him, his father’s teacup crashed to the floor. Lord Striker bit back a curse, diving after it with an inadequate napkin. Miss Vasilver pulled the bellrope to summon the staff; Mr. Vasilver apologized as if it were somehow the fault of his china for falling. Nik barely noticed the uproar, his eyes fixed on the page in front of him. “You have a section on procreation.”

“I would like to have children.” Miss Vasilver answered, unmoved by either the ruckus over the shattered cup or Nik’s choked tone.

His father’s voice hissed in his ear. “By the Ascension, boy, don’t talk about it!”

Nik couldn’t stop himself. “There’s a specified number of marital encounters.”

“My research indicates five to twelve during the fertile period of my cycle would be appropriate. My personal experience is, by necessity, nonexistent, but I will be willing to do whatever is necessary.”

“For the love of – Wisteria, please,” Mr. Vasilver gave his daughter an aghast look.

“What kind of contract is this?” Lady Striker screeched, recovering her voice at last.

“Five to twelve,” Nik repeated, softly.

“…I am open to negotiation, my lord. The necessity of procreation aside, there doesn’t appear to be a suitable way to determine compatibility prior to actual marriage, so the following article is on extramarital affairs and maintaining appropriate discretion.”

WHAT?” Lady Striker rose, stomping one foot.

Nik flicked his eyes down, turning one page, then another. “Ah. So it is.” He returned his attention to Miss Vasilver.

His father gripped Nik’s arm. “What are you thinking, boy?” he hissed as he stood.

“I think I’m in love,” Nik murmured, too low for even his father to hear. Belatedly, he rose alongside his parents; it was impolite for a man to remain seated while a lady stood. Mr. Vasilver stood as well, wringing his hands. Only Miss Vasilver remained seated. She was composed despite the furor their parents were making.

“Please, my lady, my lords, my daughter doesn’t mean it like that—” Mr. Vasilver was saying. A maid slipped into the room; she tried to sidle into position to clean up the spilled tea and broken cup, impossible since Lord Striker was standing over it.

“This is outrageous! Has she no manners at all?” Lady Striker shrieked.

“I believe we need to leave now—” Lord Striker raised his voice over his wife’s.

“How do you mean it, Miss Vasilver?” Nik asked.

The woman tilted her head back to meet his eyes; he had to strain to hear her over his parents’ increasingly strident protests. “I mean to be honest, my lord, and have realistic expectations. I do not expect any husband to be perfect. I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.”

“We are leaving now.” Lady Striker stomped around the couch, lined features red with anger. Lord Striker took his son’s arm and moved to follow.

Nikola shifted out of his way instead, and shook off the hand. Lord Striker snarled. “Come along, boy.”

Nik struggled to imitate Miss Vasilver’s calm, but his voice raised anyway. “In a moment.”

Rukert!” his mother yelled from the hall. Mr. Vasilver fluttered about, making ineffectual placating gestures.

Now, Nikola,” Lord Striker growled.

In a moment.” Nik repeated, fingers clenching about the document.

RUKERT!

Lord Striker shot his son a final glower and followed his wife out to the hall. Mr. Vasilver pursued, offering incoherent apologies.

“I am sorry if I gave offense, Lord Nikola.” Miss Vasilver said, as if she’d only now noticed how upset his parents were. She stood at last, tense but composed.

Nik waved it off. “You did not offend me.” A little tension leached out of her, and Nik wondered if the icicle-woman had feelings after all. He smoothed the sheaf of papers in his hand, then curled them into a neat roll and tucked it into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. He pulled his right glove back on and straightened his jacket. “Thank you for receiving us,” he said, just as if his parents had not stormed off in a fit of pique.

She curtsied politely. “You do my house honor, my lord.”

He answered with a bow. “May I call again, Miss Vasilver?”

“Of course, my lord.” She didn’t sound surprised, though she tilted her head.

“Then I will.” On impulse, he took her light brown hand and bent to kiss the air above it, lips not touching skin. “Good day, miss.”
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Subject:Inching to the Purpose (3/141)
Time:12:31 pm
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Up close, she was even worse than at a distance, Nikola reflected. It was not so much her face or figure, which had little enough to recommend them: too tall, too thin, long chin and nose, high forehead only partly concealed by careful arrangement of thick black curls -- she did have lovely hair, and a clear light golden-brown complexion. No, it was her flat, severe expression that made her repugnant. The way her gaze flicked over her visitors and then away, the thin set line of her mouth that never altered, as if her face might crack if she smiled. The rigid formality of her posture. Everything about Miss Vasilver, from the way she held her teacup and saucer to the way she listened to the conversation, was exact, correct, unnatural. He'd seen marble statues with more life.

His mother commented on the appointments of the parlor, as formal and pristine as Miss Vasilver. "These sculptures are remarkable work, Mr. Vasilver," she said, indicating the marble carvings on display in a glass case.

"Thank you, my lady. They were a find of my mother's, in southern Savorift."

"How lucky for her. Did she have a Blessing for stone?"

"Ah, no." He paused before adding, "I am afraid Blessings do not run in my family line. Or my wife's." Mr. Vasilver spared a glance to his daughter. "It is one area in which we hope our grandchildren will be more gifted."

Then why don't you pay me a stud fee and call it done? Nikola thought with a flash of irrational anger. Although the idea of sleeping with that icicle of a woman even once was profoundly unappealing. At least this interminable conversation was inching to the purpose.

Lord Striker gave a fatuous nod. "My family has been most fortunate in that arena. Particularly my son."

So today it's fortunate, Father? Good to know.

"Indeed," Mr. Vasilver folded broad-fingered hands together. "My house's fortunes have been of a more ... monetary nature."

"Business interests such as yours must afford you many opportunities for travel," Lady Striker said.

"Oh, yes. Vasilver Trading does business across the globe. My children often accompany me -- Wisteria loves to travel."

"Do you, dear?" Nik's mother turned her attention to the icicle-woman.

"Certain parts of it." Miss Vasilver's voice was as formal and cool as her bearing. "Long sea voyages are tedious, but the variation of cultural norms across different societies is amazing, something I did not appreciate until I experienced it firsthand. And of course, I enjoy the opportunity to assist with my father's business."

Of course. "What sort of assistance do you provide, Miss Vasilver?" Nikola found himself asking.

Her father shifted uncomfortably in his chair, but Miss Vasilver looked to neither him nor Nik: her gaze was aimless, directed on the wall beyond him. "Accounting, you might call it. I evaluate business opportunities, assess the profitability and ensure that the mutual benefits of a proposed plan outweigh its costs, not only in resources but opportunity."

Nik raised a blond eyebrow. "Mutual benefits?"

"For all involved parties. Good business cannot be zero-sum, my lord. My grandfather founded Vasilver Trading seventy years ago; it would not have lasted five without providing a service of value to others as well as our family. To do well in the long-term, we must ensure that everyone -- our customers, our suppliers, our partners, ourselves -- profits from the relationship."

One corner of his mouth twitched up. "Are you sure that's not a Blessing, Miss Vasilver? It sounds like magic."

She did not answer his smile. "It isn't magic," she said. "It's a business skill. Anyone can learn it."

Oh, I doubt that. But he wondered if this little meeting had been a plan hatched in the minds of their parents after all. "And is that how you feel about marriage as well, miss?"

"Yes," she answered with equanimity. "At its heart, marriage is a business proposition: a relationship formed for the mutual benefit of not merely the marriage partners but their relatives and their heirs." She tilted her head to one side. "How do you see it, my lord?"

Nik blinked at her. He had expected to fluster her, to crack that impassive face with embarrassment at likening marriage to either a business or a skill. Not to receive this frank admission. How do I see marriage? A graveyard in which to bury individuals, for the protection of the society that buries them. He was aware of his mother's appalled expression from her seat on the other side of the couch, his father's nonplussed look, the nervous clasp of Mr. Vasilver's hands against the arms of his chair. But most of all he was conscious of Miss Vasilver's emotionless gaze, waiting for an answer. He struggled to formulate a polite one that was not wholly insincere. "I am ... less optimistic than you. That is a great many people to please at once."

Miss Vasilver nodded. "One cannot please everyone. Then again, one may be benefited even by things that are not perhaps as pleasant as one might hope."

He didn't know how to disagree with that, and desperately did not want to agree. At his side, his father murmured, "Very true."  Nik shot him a glare.

Miss Vasilver took a folder from the small table beside her. "The mutual advantages of a match between our houses are obvious: the County of Anverlee has vast land holdings, many of which are not fully or optimally exploited. Vasilver Trading has extensive resources to invest in development. Fireholt's mineral rights are of particular interest to our business, as recent discoveries in smelting make utilizing them attractive. And there's the matter of heirs and bloodlines: in this area, the benefit is all on Vasilver's side: even in this age titled relations are of great value to a business empire, while a Blessing by convention has no price. But beyond my dowry, you'll find that the advantages Vasilver can offer as a partner -- marriage being a natural form of partnership -- are considerable.

"But as you say, there are a great many people to please, and it's important to be aware of all the possibilities, the expectations inherent in marriage. I've prepared this document for your perusal."  She removed a sheaf of papers from the folder and, swallowing, offered them to him. Nik reacted before his father could, taking the thick sheaf in his gloved hand. "I used contractual language, but it's intended more as a launching point. For negotiation."
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Subject:The Whole Idea Was Absurd (2/141)
Time:12:31 pm
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Wisteria Vasilver waited in the front parlor for her callers. In the good parlor, with her grandmother's antemarkavian marbles arranged in the glass-fronted cabinet, with the granite-topped occasional tables and beveled bronze-framed mirror over the mantelpiece, with the couch and wingback chairs with their dust covers removed for once, green-and-gold velvet brocade on display. In the parlor they almost never used because it was too good even for company. Her father paced over the tapestry carpet of the Ascension that ran between the chairs and the couch, his hands clasped behind his back in the way that meant he was nervous and worried, not nervous and excited. Wisteria felt much the same, but she simply sat in the wingback chair nearest the door with her hands clasped in her lap. All her documents were in the leather folder on the end table beside her.

Mr. Brigsley rapped unnecessarily at the door before opening it at her father's command. "Lord Striker, Count of Anverlee. Lady Striker, Countess of Anverlee. Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt," the butler announced, with a calculated degree of formality. Wisteria rose as the door opened; her father abandoned his pacing to stand a little ahead of her and greet their guests. She had seen them before, but never in close proximity. The parents were what she had expected: Anverlee County was in the Havenset province of Newlant, and they had the round light-colored eyes, Haventure-pale skin, and narrow prominent noses common to that region. Lord Striker was a tall man, trim despite his years, with a full head of white hair streaked by a few strands of remaining light brown. His wife was short and plump, round face lined and grey hair wrapped in a coil around the crown of her head.

Lord Nikola was ... not what she expected. Wisteria had known he was tall, slender, and handsome, with a long ponytail of wavy dark blond hair. But she was not prepared for the feline grace of his stride and bearing, or the way his presence seemed to fill the room, or the way her attention was drawn to him involuntarily, as if there were no one else in the parlor. Or for the intensity of his round blue eyes, gazing at her face as her father presented her. She curtseyed automatically, her mind churning in a useless attempt to interpret his expression. For a moment, she was struck by the fantasy that his focused gaze was for her -- not for a prospective fiancee, or a potential mother, or a new acquaintance, or a wealthy heiress, but for herself, Wisteria Vasilver. As if his Blessing could reach out through his gaze alone and touch her soul. She couldn't breathe.

He bowed in answer to her curtsey, and she forced the preposterous fantasy away. "Please, have a seat," her father told their guests.

Wisteria lowered herself gratefully back to her chair, forcing her gaze to Lord Striker to avoid staring at his son. Him? Marry him? The whole idea was absurd. Of course it's absurd, she told herself. Everyone does it anyway. So can I. So can he. We each must marry someone, there is no reason it cannot be one another. She stole another glance at Lord Nikola. He was seated on the couch to the right of his father, opposite Wisteria, with his mother on the other end of the couch. She could tell nothing from his expression, a slight smile that could signify anything -- amused, bored, polite, sarcastic, who knew? Everyone in the room but me. His parents were equally undecipherable, naturally. Her father exchanged inconsequential pleasantries with his, while his mother scrutinized Wisteria. Wisteria didn't bother to study her in return -- she'd offend with her stare long before she learned anything useful. Instead, she considered what made Lord Nikola seem so ... so present. It wasn't his clothing, which was elegant but understated and not-quite-current. Eggshell-white cuffs peeked from the edges of a deep blue jacket cut long in back and short in front, spray of lace at the front from a jabot, tan breeches, pale stockings, dark shoes, and ivory gloves: in consideration of his Blessing, no skin was exposed apart from his face. All well-tailored, but the suit was of ivysilk and lacked the subtle gloss of the more expensive angoraflax suits their fathers wore, and it had no fashionable trim or ornate buttons. That would be a signal of some kind, perhaps that Lord Nikola didn't think she merited dressing up. Or that he disliked ornamentation. Or didn't want to pay for expensive extras. Or found current styles unappealing. Another signal like the smile, so fraught with possible meanings it might as well be meaningless. Wisteria abandoned the task of solving impossible enigmas on so little information, and waited for tea to be served and conversation to come to a point that might give her some data.
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