Justin woke too early the next day, or “later that morning”, to be accurate. He felt refreshed despite having slept little, and basked in the remnants of an impossible but delightful dream involving a nude Nikola and Wisteria disporting with him in an enclosed coach that was somehow also a sizable canopy bed. He spent some minutes daydreaming a continuation of the theme before conceding that neither sleep nor the actual dream was going to return. He hauled himself from bed and went downstairs to perform his usual morning routine of calisthenics and weightlifting. Justin lacked his usual focus, distracted by the memory of Wisteria half-naked beneath him in the carriage. Mmm. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fantasized about a woman.
Justin was still thinking of her after washing off and breakfasting. As he dawdled at the dining room table with a disregarded newspaper at his side, he knew he wanted to see her again. Today. Now was good. This was a terrible idea. For one, they’d parted just seven hours ago. For another, dancing half the night with one woman and then calling on her the next day was sure to excite hopes and gossip.
…Do I care if I excite hopes and gossip, here? Some gossip that he was serious about a girl would do his reputation good, at this stage of his life. He’d so studiously avoided anything that would appear to oblige him to a girl that his reluctance itself was a topic of gossip. That would make a break in the pattern juicy to gossipmongers, but even so it would be more normal than his current habits. Not a bad thing, for a man with secrets such as his. As for hopes—
—well, if undressing her in my carriage did not excite any hopes in Wisteria, I can’t imagine what would. Unless she’s one of those who believe that men despise any sign of sexual interest in a prospective bride, and so assumes that her complaisance puts her outside the bounds of such a possibility. Which, given her remarks last night, she might well think.
That Wisteria might regard herself as unfit for marriage was an oddly unpalatable thought. Justin rose and rang for his valet. Screw this. I’d rather she think I am courting her than that I find her unsuitable for such, and no one else’s opinion matters.
When Justin arrived at the Vasilver residence, he wasn’t surprised to see the Anverlee gig there. Nikola must be here to apologize for his inability to return last night.
He was surprised, however, when Anverlee’s greatcat stepped out of harness to call out to him. “Lord Comfrey!”
Justin blinked; the individual was vaguely familiar – a very large specimen, with blue-gray fur turning white about the muzzle – but he could not place the gender, much less name. “Yes?” He glanced over his shoulder but continued up the steps to knock at Vasilver’s door.
“Begging your pardon, Lord Comfrey, but did Lord Nik stay at Comfrey Manor last night?” The impertinent draycat followed him, head raised almost to his level as the greatcat stood with forepaws on the lower step.
What? “No, he did not. Did he never come home?”
The greatcat shook his head.
“That’s odd. He left the ball early for some sort of medical emergency; perhaps it’s still keeping him?” Justin hazarded. Twelve hours later?
But the greatcat was shaking his head again. “No. The emergency was at Anverlee and he finished with it not long after midnight. He went back to the ball.”
A chill stole over Justin. “No, he didn’t.” Vasilver’s footman opened the door and Justin entered mechanically, waving the Anverlee greatcat to follow and nevermind propriety.
“You’re sure of that?” the draycat asked.
He could hear Lady Striker in the Vasilver parlor, and caught the end of her question: “—did you last see him?”
“Shortly before midnight, my lady,” Wisteria answered in her calm way. “I stayed until around five. He did not return. I’d assumed the emergency took longer than he anticipated.”
“It’s not – did you by chance quarrel or anything, any reason that he might not have wanted to see you?” Lady Striker asked. Justin entered the parlor without waiting for the footman to present him. Lady Striker stood before Wisteria, stout and round beside Wisteria’s graceful slim height. Lady Striker looked older and grayer than Justin had ever seen her, the lines in her face engraved by worry. Wisteria didn’t answer her question at once, and Lady Striker placed one hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean that you would have, it’s only—”
“I did not see Lord Nikola after midnight, either,” Justin interrupted. “He would not have been avoiding both of us.”
“Oh! Lord Comfrey!” Lady Striker turned to him, arms extended in a beseeching motion. “He did not stay with you last night either? I know he was avoiding us at the ball, but he would be, yet I was sure he’d be home by now. Rukert says he was probably dodging – everything, because with the Blessing over he could, and that he was out all night doing – well – and I am a silly old woman for expecting my grown son to answer to me. But I…” She ran out of words, blinking, then added, “Am I a silly old woman?” As if hoping she was.
Justin looked to Wisteria. “Lord Nikola told you he’d be back last night? If he could.”
“Yes, my lord, if he wasn’t kept too long. But perhaps he was only being polite?”
“No.” I might excuse myself thus, but Nikola never would. “Something must have prevented him from returning. Which greatcat was taking him back?” Justin asked Lady Striker.
“I don’t know.” Lady Striker wrung her hands.
From the parlor entrance behind him, the greatcat answered, “He told the night footman he’d get a cab. There were no greatcats at Anverlee last night.”
Justin turned to stare incredulously at the greatcat. “He went to get his own cab?”
“He always does that sort of thing,” Lady Striker said. “Too impatient to wait.”
Wisteria asked the greatcat, “Then the last anyone saw him was when he left Anverlee Manor at half-past midnight? Have you sent runners to check the Gracehaven infirmaries?”
“Gunther, Meredith, and Kevin are checking the infirmaries. Anthser is trying to track him by scent, but none of us expect that to work,” the greatcat answered. “His scent’s all over Anverlee anyway, and once you get to the street there’s been too much other traffic to cover it.”
“Have you reported his disappearance to the authorities?” Wisteria asked.
“Not yet,” Lady Striker said, at the same time as the greatcat said, “I sent Kathy to tell the Watch, but without the Strikers making it official they won’t do much of anything, unless he ended in lockup somehow.”
Lady Striker stared at her greatcat. “Jill! I gave no such order.”
“You sure didn’t, m’lady.” The greatcat sat on her haunches, green eyes unblinking. “Kathy doesn’t work for you, neither.”
“Well, I – he’s my son! How dare you! Think of our reputation if this turns out to be nothing!”
“With all due respect—” and her insubordinate tone made it clear Jill did not consider much respect due at the moment “—I am thinking of Lord Nik’s well-being, and whatever happened to him is definitely something.” She snarled the last word, and glanced back to Wisteria. “Meredith’s gone to my son’s place with a message asking him to get the neighbor greatcats together. They’ll start searching the streets.”
Justin was not in the habit of involving himself in other people’s disputes with their servants and had little tolerance for backtalking himself, but in this case his sympathies lay with Jill. He ignored the squabble, thinking about what they might be overlooking. What were the possibilities? An accident was most likely, which would leave Nikola at an infirmary if he were lucky, or on the street somewhere between Anverlee and Dawnfell if he were not. “That’s something. I’ll send one of my draycats to mobilize my own people,” Justin found himself saying. Mechanically, he stepped outside to give the instructions. Lady Striker made some confused noises combining appreciation and objection, which he ignored. If Nikola hadn’t been in an accident, then he’d been assaulted. If he’d been murdered—
Don’t think that. You don’t need to think of that. If he’s dead nothing matters. Therefore, he cannot be dead.
Wisteria cleared her throat. “I am sure we have some people who could be spared, as well. It would be best if we coordinated our efforts. Preferably from Anverlee Manor, as that’s closest both to where he was last seen and where he was last headed.”
Justin nodded agreement; that was sensible. If Nikola’d been injured or knocked unconscious (not killed he can’t be dead) during a robbery, he might have been left in some out-of-the-way place by the robbers. It’d be worth broadening the search from the most probable routes between Anverlee and Dawnfell. Focus on the sketchiest neighborhoods? There were only a couple of miles between the two, and the area as a whole had historically been the best in the city, but some of those old entailed estates were in the hands of other impoverished nobles like the Strikers. Those ill-tended grounds could make for good hiding places. Searching private property was best done by the law – “Lady Striker. You are his next of kin. You must give the Watch official notice that Lord Nikola is missing and ask them to assist in the search.”
“But…Rukert thought…” Lady Striker quavered under Justin’s stare. “…do you think it best, Lord Comfrey?”
“Very well,” Lady Striker agreed meekly. From the doorway, Jill gave an un-servant-like snort.
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