After the drama and terror of Sunday, the next few days were so ordinary they did not seem real to Wisteria.
On Sunday evening her father scolded her for half an hour on everything from taking stupid risks to the merits of leaving a job to a paid professional (“you of all people should know better!”) to the inexcusable crudeness of using a greatcat’s superior strength to make sure she got her way. Her mother sat at his side and listened along with her through the entire diatribe, until at the thirty-minute mark she said, “I think that’s enough, dear, Wisteria needs some rest after her ordeal.”
Her father grumbled to himself but departed. Her mother lingered, taking Wisteria’s hand and squeezing.
“I’m fine, mother. I don’t need any extra rest.”
“I know, dear.” Her mother watched her then. Wisteria wished she understood how to read her expression. “I don’t know where you got the courage to do all that, Wisteria.”
“I didn’t do very much, Mother. I let a bunch of criminals abduct me and then waited for Lord Comfrey to rescue me.”
“You let,” her mother said, and then stopped, as if that were enough by itself. “I don’t know where you got the courage,” she repeated, “but I’m very proud of you.” She leaned over and hugged Wisteria tightly, then withdrew from the room.
In the days following, family members kept asking if she was well, as if at any moment she might produce a broken limb or gaping wound that the healer who’d treated her had overlooked. Only her youngest brother David was close to his usual self.
On Monday, an investigator from the Watch called on Wisteria to get some additional details. While he was there, Wisteria questioned him in return to see what else had been uncovered. Captain Brogan’s sloop, Gentle Marie, was registered as a merchant vessel, but he had long been suspected as a smuggler. His crew was a motley assemblage of men from various ports and shady backgrounds: most of those who’d been on leave for Ascension had vanished like rats after Sunday’s events. There was no reason to believe the absent ones were involved in the kidnapping plot. Wisteria suspected even those involved in the actual abduction were not aware of the extent of Brogan’s evil. Only Crit had obviously known his captain was trying to force the impossible out of Lord Nikola. In all likelihood, the others had thought it was a straightforward abduction-and-ransom plan. Which was still a capital crime, but some of the more cooperative men might escape hanging and be put into servitude in exile instead.
The Watch had enlisted Lady Beatrice to confirm that Brogan was possessed. Lady Beatrice did not believe possession was exculpatory in his case, however: she said that Brogan’s demon forced him to believe Lord Nikola capable of curing his mother against all sense and reason, but it did not cause him to believe that abduction, violence, or torture were right or virtuous actions. Or, as the investigator put it, “It’s only exculpatory if you think it’s all right to torture a Blessed for refusing to treat a petitioner. And it most certainly is not.”
But the investigator could not tell Wisteria what she most wished to know: how Lord Nikola and Lord Comfrey were faring.
For reasons Wisteria could not begin to understand, the rules of etiquette forbade an unmarried gentlewoman to call upon or even write to an unrelated gentleman. Business reasons, such as contracting with an attorney or an accountant or such like, might provide an exception for this – although her mother felt that even then a woman ought to have some male relation do it for her. The whole nonsense struck Wisteria as every bit as ridiculous as Vandese concerns over the dangers posed by foreign men. Irritatingly, no one else appeared to see the similarity or the absurdity.
But it meant she couldn’t call on Lord Nikola – even though he was an invalid and could not possibly be expected to call on her. Or send him a note asking after his welfare. Nor could she call on Lord Comfrey. She could call on Lady Striker, and arguably doing so was good manners since technically Lady Striker had called on her, on Sunday. But Sunday’s circumstances had been so tangled and unusual that Wisteria could not tell herself that had been a social call. Perhaps Lady Striker had forgotten her earlier animosity now, and perhaps she hadn’t; who knew? Wisteria did not want to presume she’d be welcome at Anverlee Manor.
By Tuesday, Wisteria was contemplating such avenues as calling on Lysandra Warwick, Lord Nikola’s sister, who had sent a delightful note a couple of days before Ascension. Or badgering Byron into calling on Lord Comfrey, although Byron’s acquaintance with Lord Comfrey was trifling. When she submitted these notions to her mother at the dinner table, her mother answered, “Wisteria, love, it’s been not even two whole days. Just be patient. When they’ve time and if they wish to see you, they’ll call. They know it’s their responsibility. They are not expecting you to act first. It is unseemly for you to show too much interest.”
Wisteria submitted to this restraint with some resentment but without argument. However inane she thought it was to expect men to take the initiative regardless of the circumstances (and words could not easily encompass this level of inanity), it had only been two days.
The Vasilvers were hosting a supper party on Tuesday evening, a small affair that was mostly family plus a few acquaintances of Byron’s and her parents’. To her pleasure, Wisteria discovered that the subject of being abducted and rescued could substitute for small talk. Indeed, she could scarcely have spoken of anything else. All the questions and comments directed to her were on the topic. She avoided certain parts of the story. Even she did not need her parents to tell her not to speak of torture in polite company, and it wasn’t her place to describe what had been done to Lord Nikola in any case. Divulging anything about his state when they’d found him would be an additional violation to a man who had already suffered far too much.
In the drawing room after the meal, her Aunt Clara cornered her by the bookshelves to say, “How awfully romantic, Teeri!” She lowered her voice and added, “You must be very enamored of Lord Nikola, to have risked everything for him. But that Lord Comfrey, now he’s quite the hero, isn’t he? Leaping all alone into the midst of a shipful of armed criminals for you!”
“He wasn’t alone; Fel Fireholt, a trained warcat, was with him. And the sloop was comparatively deserted,” Wisteria clarified for what felt like the hundredth time. “He said afterwards there were four men on deck. You know, it doesn’t need exaggeration; it was extraordinarily brave of them both. For me, it was more like naivete. I didn’t think the possibilities through and had little choice in the matter by the time the situation was plain.”
Aunt Clara waved her words aside. “You knew how dangerous it might be, or you’d not have had the foresight to bring that whistle.” She lowered her voice again; Wisteria had to strain to hear her. “What I should really like to know, Teeri, is which of them is it going to be?”
Wisteria was sure she was missing some context here. “Which of who is going to be what?”
“You know,” her aunt murmured, glancing about them.
“If I knew I wouldn’t be asking?” Wisteria was quite fond of Aunt Clara, who had been kind enough to accompany Byron and Kilroy on multiple visits to Wisteria in Southern Vandu. Still, she and Aunt Clara never seemed to be speaking quite the same language.
“You know,” Aunt Clara repeated. “There’s talk of you betrothing to that Lord Nikola, but with Lord Comfrey going to such lengths to save you, I thought, well…”
Wisteria tried to imagine what possible connection there could be between abduction, torture, and marriage. “…what?”
“You must have given it some thought!”
Well, that was true. “Neither of them wants to marry me, Aunt Clara.” Granted, Lord Comfrey didn’t explicitly say he was uninterested in marriage. But he was undressing me in his carriage and I understand that if marriage was on his mind that was a good time to say so. If the girls I went to school with are to be believed, it’s the time men would be lying about it. The night of the Ascension ball was unreal to Wisteria now, something that had happened a lifetime ago to a different person. It stood in such opposition to Sunday’s ordeal that it seemed impossible the same people were involved in both.
Her aunt was making some sort of noise about Wisteria being ridiculous and of course the gentlemen could not be indifferent to her. No, I don’t believe they’re indifferent to me, I just think they don’t want to marry me, Wisteria wanted to tell her. Because Lord Nikola already told me he didn’t, and Lord Comfrey has title and wealth enough to make a far better match than I can offer. And I am not a woman of virtue and modesty and they both know it even if they don’t know that it extends to being on the brink of giving myself up to two different men on the same night. At this point, Wisteria had serious doubts about her own fitness for marriage even if anyone had wanted to marry her. She’d been aware, intellectually, that she might not be suited to the ideal of fidelity, but her behavior on Ascension night was nonetheless a shock even to her. Her prior thought had been “might not be romantically compatible with whomever I can arrange a match” and not “might be unable to keep my hands off whomever gives me the slightest encouragement”. Oh look, a new way that I don’t fit in my society. How delightful.
But while Wisteria knew of no good candidate with whom to discuss this, she did know that Aunt Clara was definitely a bad one. So Wisteria confined her response to repeating her affirmation that, to the best of her knowledge, neither man intended betrothal, and the rescue plans were motivated by common decency and not romantic attachment. “Lord Comfrey was there to rescue Lord Nikola at least as much as for my benefit,” Wisteria added, when her aunt would not let the topic go. “Are you going to conclude they must be in love as well?”
Aunt Clara frowned. “Why, men of Newlant would never – how absurd you are, Teeri! Such a thing to say! Perhaps your mother was right about you spending too much time abroad,” she finished, before withdrawing to find someone else to gossip at.
Wisteria had chosen that example precisely because it was ridiculous, but now that it had crossed her mind, she found the idea entrancing. The mental image of those two magnificent, handsome men locked in an amorous embrace was – well – improbable, of course, insulting even, but not at all comical. It was…erotic. She found herself imagining Lord Comfrey and Lord Nikola undressing each other in Comfrey’s curtained carriage. And two men would never have to worry about dodging chaperones and avoiding suspicion; no one in Newlant ever even thinks of men as desiring one another. Doubtless because they don’t in this country. She felt guilty even thinking about it, remembering how offended Lord Comfrey had been when she’d implied a slight against herself. How infuriated would he be if he knew what she was picturing himself and his friend doing? With an effort, she cleared her head of the notion and drifted over to talk to Byron and one of his friends.
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