Chapter 22: A Note of Concern

CWs: hyperdevotion/cultlike thought patterns, kidnapping, threatened murder

ABRAMS: How does it feel, being an adult?

COBEN GARROW: Oh, um, I’m not sure. I haven’t been one for very long yet.

ABRAMS: [laughs] That’s fair! I’m sure the tabloids have been on you about betrothals and engagements already.

GARROW: Yes, although I’m afraid to say that’s still a ways in the future.

ABRAMS: But you’re not spoken for.

GARROW: You’re a political commentator. Why are you asking me about girlfriends?

ABRAMS: The truth is, everybody’s very curious about the next three years. You’re eighteen now, but it’s another three years before you can officially take your seat in Parliament. What does the future hold for you?

GARROW: I’m… not sure, actually. I’m not very good at politics, so I guess I have to work on that. Honestly I’m not even sure I’ll do much more than be there and do my best to keep up.

ABRAMS: You’d rather not?

GARROW: Of course I wouldn’t. But every other family gets a choice, right? I don’t know why it surprises anybody that I’m not particularly eager to jump into politics. I’m only the choice because everybody else is dead. I’m needed, so I’ll do it, and I’ll do the best that I can, because my family deserves better than what they got. But if you’re looking for a hotshot you’ll have to ask… I don’t know, are the Vandemeer children looking at politics? [beat] Actually, maybe I should ask for their help.

ABRAMS: [obviously disappointed] So you don’t have any causes you want to support.

GARROW: Oh, I do.

ABRAMS: Ah! Like what?

GARROW: Well, for starters, I think all female soldiers should wear tiny miniskirts —
ABRAMS: This interview is over.

Toltberg Citizen interview with Mick Abrams and Coben Heathsohn Garrow, 1918

It is a bizarre and somewhat troubling fact of history that some of the most well-planned and manipulative schemes are the ones that peter out with hardly a mark on the record of memory, and others — the ones that are seen by others as nefarious conspiracies with no bottom — are simply the results of all-too-human error. In other words, sometimes idiocy makes more impact than malice ever could.

The girl who had been calling herself Mary-Ann Daniels was considering this in a mood bordering on hysterics. It had all seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time. “Come on,” she whispered desperately to the sky, “get back to me.” Five days now, and no word. They were cutting it really close.

She’d ditched both of her uniforms at this point. She knew it wouldn’t be long before Lambert caught on; she’d managed to get out of the conversation with her cover nearly intact, but he wasn’t stupid. Plus, they would find her eventually, if she didn’t do something. So, here she was, hiding in an alleyway, waiting for Kestrel and hoping she’d come up with something good along the way. Exactly how anybody wanted to pull off heavily-politicized kidnappings, really.

A few moments later, a figure approached the alleyway, looking casual as he strolled down among the garbage cans. She exhaled in relief, especially once he lifted his head, face visible under the rim of his cap. Kestrel didn’t look happy with her, but that was fine. Kestrel was only involved with this because she’d begged for help.

“I—”

Kestrel shushed her. Then he lifted his hands. <You’re an idiot.>

<Tell me something I don’t know.>

<The guy at the Centrum just put out a call for a teenage clan girl.>

Oh, great. She thought she’d have a little more time. She tried to still the panicked rush of her heart, but Kestrel grabbed her wrist, yanking her after him and still signing with one hand. <Just let him go, for fuck’s sake. Maybe you’ll get some mercy.>

<I can’t do that now. Not after all of this—>

<You know Abner’s not sending any help.>

<You can’t be sure of that.>

Kestrel rolled his eyes, but Mari ignored him. Kestrel wasn’t Advolk; his opinion of Abner was low at best, which was pretty rich considering that the Advolks were fighting for him just as much as everyone else from the clans. But he seemed to let it lie; he scanned the rooftops, then handed Mari the radio he’d been holding. <You’re lucky I’m not completely deaf.>

<I appreciate it.>

<You’d better. Csindra is going to kill me.>

<Csindra isn’t going to find out.>

<Trust me, if you wind up dead, she’s gonna know why, and it’s gonna be my head on the block.>

Mari scoffed at that, only barely trying to hide her derision. Yeah, right. That would imply that Csindra actually cared enough. Csindra would probably spend the entire funeral complaining about how it was Mari’s own fault for actually wanting to accomplish something. Maybe that was mean, but it was hard to care about the judgment of someone who had all the ambition and drive of a teaspoon.

Mari’s apartment building was a beaten-up, grimy old thing, a building constantly at threat of falling apart in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Den Elessa. The tram didn’t even go through here — it stopped a good fifteen minutes away, which was fine by her, because it meant nobody really thought to check here. It helped that she had a contact in NatSec, although his usefulness was limited; he’d nudged his team closer to the tram and away from here. She had a plan; it just wasn’t quite working out the way she wanted it to. Mostly because she kept having to change it.

At the very least, she hadn’t been stupid enough to keep him in her apartment. With another glance around to make sure they weren’t being followed, she and Kestrel went around to one of the side doors, and she unlocked it, descending down into the darkness until the dim light of the basement greeted her.

Coben gave her an irritated, and very exhausted look from behind the bolt of cloth stuffed into his mouth, the bare lightbulb above him covered in cobwebs.

Mari glanced at Kestrel, who shrugged. <If you want to take the gag out, be my guest, but if he starts yelling I can’t help you.>

<He’s been good so far.>

<Let’s see if that lasts up to him figuring out you’re planning on killing him.>

Mari glared at Kestrel, who was looking just as displeased as ever. <I don’t — I’m sure there’s another way.>

<Whatever you say. You’re claiming you can’t let him go, and you’re the one who joined up with the terrorists.>

<Bootlicker.>

<Kidnapper.>

Maybe Kestrel had been a bad choice. Then again, she’d been short on options, and at least Kestrel was slightly less likely to panic. Bryd would have freaked out and let Coben go on the first day. And doing this on her own… Well, she probably could have managed something, but not well. She knew she probably did have to kill him, but…

Mari sighed and approached Coben where he was tied to the chair, taking the cloth out of his mouth. He blew out his cheeks, rotating his jaw, then glanced up at her, bright blue eyes throwing her off-balance as usual. “I’m starting to take this personally,” he said after a moment, voice raspy.

Don’t laugh, she lectured herself, as she felt her mouth twitch. “Are you thirsty?” she asked instead.

“A little. Mostly I’m hoping I could, ah, prevail upon you to think this through a little more.”

Oh, lovely. Now Coben was starting in on her. “Please don’t,” she mumbled, reaching down to the water flask she’d been carrying. There was a sink down here, but she hadn’t boiled any more of it, and the water filtration in this part of the city was awful. She lifted it to his lips and watched him drink, and despite herself, brushed a few stray hairs out of his face. “There. And I’ll get you some food as well, once I can.”

“That would be nice,” he said so nonchalantly she almost wanted to laugh again, but then his face turned a little more serious. “So who are you working for?”

“Coben—”

“Five days later, I’d like a little bit of a clue. You’re rather good at keeping mum, I’ll give you that. And a whole year without giving it away was… impressive.” He couldn’t quite hide the hurt in his voice, and she managed to steel herself against the way it lanced through her ribcage, the reminder that she’d betrayed him.

“I’m not going to tell you that.”

“So at least I know you’re working for someone. Lovely. And here I was still holding out for the insane lover theory,” he joked, or half-joked. It was hard to tell with him sometimes.

Kestrel rolled his eyes again. Mari silently prayed for Khamlita to intervene and give Kestrel something else to worry about. Frostbite, maybe. The flu. Leprosy, if he kept being this much of an unhelpful prick. “Coben, I… it’s not that simple.”

Coben still didn’t look convinced — but then, he shrugged, as much as the ropes tying him to the wooden chair would allow him to. “It never is, is it?” And he gave her a soft smile, which was the worst thing he could have done, because now she really did want to cry.

<Kestrel, can you watch him for a minute?>

<Sure.> No snark this time.

Mari walked carefully up the stairs — and once she’d gotten outside, she collapsed against the door, hands over her face. God. What was she going to do?

She took a deep breath. It was easier to think straight now that she wasn’t looking Coben in the eye. Being in love was fine. Being in love didn’t change anything. There were more important things. It was easier to remember that when she wasn’t looking at him and thinking about having to kill him.

Breathe, she told herself again. Máfáchá Shézhíwe. Loyalty. Not the one she wanted to think about. Máfáchá Chyeféngázhíwe. Respect. Máfáchá Náfâye. Honor. …Too many questions. What was honor and dishonor in Den Elessa, far from any place that cared for it? Fucking invaders didn’t give one whit for honor. Máfáchá Lékhufâye. Ethics. The mouse.

Mari exhaled. She hadn’t been raised with the Máfáchángâ, but they were more help than the Navónez. Related, sure. But she didn’t have much patience for gods — which, she reflected sourly, was probably the one thing she did have in common with Elessans. Oh, sure, she respected the Shuyengê gods, and she still respected the Navonez. She wasn’t stupid. Whether in the end it was Ozhî or Kesh’lashe she faced, she would do it with a bowed head and a prayer on her lips. But the Máfáchángâ — the precepts — there was nothing like that in Kanet’ culture. Kantanavat’ didn’t deal in heresies or shame, which she was only glad for until it came to the flip side; that there was no duty to each other encoded in stone. Stone was easier to follow. Stone didn’t lie. Stone didn’t flare in rage or make stupid mistakes. Stone was stone.

Stone is stone. That helped. And what else was there? There wasn’t any version of the future where she and Coben had one. Even if she’d been telling the truth about who she was, at best all she would have ever been able to hope for was a position as a concubine or mistress, watching some Elessan manor girl on his arm as he joined the ranks of every other noble. Nothing would change. He was a good one, but his father was supposed to be a good one, too, and where had that gotten them?

Nearly involuntarily, she found herself running through the rest of the precepts. Abner himself had — not taught them to her, but made them laws instead of vague ideas. Máfáchá Kuzhíwe. Generosity. Máfáchá Angzhéyiwe. Bravery. She liked that one. “Only the Lady knows the day of your death,” she whispered. Even in Elessan, it had weight to it. Máfáchá Ongázhíwe. Nobility. Máfáchá Hérézhíwe. Humility. “You are a single piece of the world.” Well, she’d never be one of the Shuyeda’s Pledged, not really, but she could at least try to be one. It was probably her only way out of here alive.

Only the Lady knows the day of your death.

She glanced at the sky again. Plenty of pigeons, plenty of ravens, and none of them with messages. Nothing by Smokework either, and she’d kept her marker. Nothing at all.

——

Coben knew that the appropriate thing to do would have been to cleverly plan or plot his way out of trouble, but to tell the truth, he was too busy being depressed. He’d been trained on how to deal with kidnappings, sure. He’d been working on the ropes for a while, not that either Mari or the other one had noticed, but it was a little hard to keep up the energy for it when his girlfriend had been the one to kidnap him.

He leant his head back on the chair, chewing on his cheek in rueful annoyance as he gazed at the spiderweb cracks on the stone ceiling. Dasta had warned him, a very long time ago, about trusting people too easily; but one would hope that after a year-odd of flirtation and – he’d thought – genuine friendship, one had passed that stage. Being tongue-in-cheek about it was helping it not hit too badly, but that had been part of his training, too. Not explicitly, but this was what worked for him.

Well, at least she wasn’t torturing him. Unless this part was the torture.

He lifted his head, looking at the other figure who’d been helping keep him captive. He hadn’t quite managed to puzzle out whether the man in front of him was deaf or not; he used sign language, and sometimes he seemed to react to sound, while other times he missed things that seemed obvious. At least Mari had decided against the gag.

“Can you hear me?” Coben decided on the direct approach. It made him his share of enemies, but it cut through a lot of ridiculous tiptoeing.

The man glanced at him, then sighed, making a gesture with his hands – one finger around the other. Oh, that one was clear. Repeat.

“Can you hear me?” Coben said again, then — “Well, I guess you sort of answered that.”

“Sometimes,” the man said, and Coben started a little at the sound of his voice. He hadn’t known the man could speak. The voice that came out was a little hoarse, blunted at the edges and muffled, but perfectly understandable. He didn’t seem to enjoy doing it though; he returned to his hands, although Coben couldn’t understand a word, so he imagined the man was mostly doing it for his own benefit.

“Could you explain what’s happening?” Coben asked — slowly, in case that helped.

The man paused, scratching his chin, then sighed again. He shook his head. Then he pressed his palm to his forehead with a look of such pain that it communicated a lot more than words possibly could.

That was interesting. Coben had always imagined that if something did happen to him, it’d be part of some political plot. Maybe it still was, but the man in front of him was — well, not very old, actually. Maybe his age, if not younger. The hooded coat made him look older. “Ah – if it helps —” Coben said hesitantly, “I don’t particularly like getting people executed.”

The man gave him a long-suffering look. “Good for you.”

Oh, lovely, so he spoke when he wanted to be sassy. “Just because I’m upset doesn’t mean I want her dead,” he bristled slightly, although once he’d said it he remembered that men didn’t, largely speaking, have a particularly excellent record on that front. He’d never understood the point of that, but then again, he didn’t understand most things. He was deeply glad that his mother had managed to spin him as aloof and a loner, rather than likely to trip over his own feet or offend someone because he didn’t see the point in some particular ritual of manners that someone had declared Essential. Some Judge’s son he made.

Assuming he didn’t die, though, how was he going to explain this one? If he did get free, he’d have to come up with something. Maybe he’d claim he hit his head and lost his memory for a week. Or an attempted elopement — oh, no, that would probably still end up with someone dead or in jail. He loved his father, but he didn’t entirely trust him to remember that Coben was an adult, not twelve.

Then again, which one of them had followed someone home with the best of intentions, and instead of pretending not to see the stash of knives, ropes and other very scary implements he’d walked in on, had asked, out loud, “Blimey, are you trying to kidnap someone?”

Don’t laugh, he sternly told himself. It’s not funny when you’re the one being kidnapped. Abducted. Whatever. Well, it is a bit. It will be if you don’t die.

“Does talking hurt you?” he asked, trying to distract himself.

The man looked annoyed at that question, too, albeit less so. Then after a moment, he wiggled his hand in a sort of gesture.

“Okay. Okay, that’s — well, not cool. Maybe it’d be better if I couldn’t talk,” Coben added in a low mumble.

There was the ghost of a smile on the other man’s mouth at that, and Coben had the distinct feeling that he was being laughed at, but despite the situation, there didn’t seem to be a lot of malice in it. Besides, talking was stopping Coben’s brain from going anywhere really bad. Surface level silliness was a lot better than anything that would actually make him panic.

Before he kept rambling, though, the man stopped him with a gesture. Mari was coming back down. She probably thought that Coben didn’t notice all the small things that gave her away; the hint of redness around her eyes that said she’d been crying, or the fact that the blue ribbon he’d given her was knotted around her wrist, only slightly hidden by the dark-brown jumper she was wearing.

She signed something to the hooded man, and Coben watched his reaction carefully. He was taken aback — then almost angry when he responded, gestures sharp and stiff. But Mari stood her ground. You could get a lot from a language you didn’t understand, if you paid attention. Then the hooded man disappeared up the stairs, leaving the two of them alone.

Mari reached for the gag, but Coben interrupted her. “So what happened?”

“What do you mean?” She kept her voice level.

“Come on. You’ve got me tied to a chair, and I don’t…” He cocked his head, trying to get a better view of her face. “I don’t get the sense you planned this out particularly well, although I have to say, I don’t have the best view from over here.”

A small smile. At least it was still her. “Aren’t you scared? Even a little bit?”

“Obviously. Just not of you.”

“And why on earth not?” she burst out, wheeling on him with a spark in her eyes that he hadn’t seen since he’d been trapped in this basement. Before he even had time to react, there was a knife in her hand, with the same deftness she’d surprised him with before, and she pointed it at him. “I’m worth being a little scared of, don’t you think?”

“I mean, sure. I just don’t think you’re going to hurt me.”

“I’ve had you as my prisoner for five days.”

“Everybody’s got their flaws—”

“Oh, you think you’re so fucking funny.

Coben couldn’t help the grin. “Hearing you swear is bizarre, I’ve got to say.”

That’s what you find bizarre?” She buried her hands in her hair, knife still in her hand. “Does nothing get to you? Maybe I’ll send you back to your father in pieces, how about that?”

He did flinch, when she touched the flat of the blade to his cheek — but it meant they were making eye contact. Never mind that his heart was vibrating in his chest, feeling like it was going to give out on him at any moment. He was doing a marvelous job of playing it off, but truth be told, he wasn’t entirely convinced that Mari wasn’t going to stab him through the chest; it was just… well… One could hope.

“You kept the ribbon,” he said quietly.

And there it was. The flush across her smoky-brown skin, the freckles that normally were too hard to see popping out against the slight red hue. And he wasn’t tied that tightly. He leaned forward and kissed her — not hard, but enough to feel her heartbeat echoing through her lips.

She broke the kiss after a few seconds. “You really can’t handle the word ‘no’, can you?”

“I would if you had once sounded like you weren’t twisting your arm into saying it,” he replied cheerfully.

“You’re the one who followed me home.”

“When you put it that way, I sound awfully creepy.”

“It was,” Mari complained. “Although you’re so dense you probably didn’t think past your next five steps.”

“I’d be insulted, but that’s about true,” he admitted. “I figured you were hiding something. I just thought it was, you know, something guileless and charming.”

“Proving you don’t know me at all.”

“Oh alright, maybe the secret spy skills aren’t that shocking. I just didn’t think you were out to get me.

Mari was still very close to him. It was one of the joys of being taller than her; even tied up like this, their faces weren’t that far apart while she was standing. “How have you survived this long?” she asked, nearly wondrous.

“…You’ve asked me that before.”

“Yes, and I’m still shocked.”

“That question carries a little more weight when you’re the one with the knife, you know.” Although, to his great pleasure, she had lowered it and seemed to have mostly forgotten it was there. “Er, Dasta helped, when he was around. After that I think my father just stopped letting me have pointy things and hoped natural selection didn’t notice me.”

Mari bit her lip, clearly suppressing another laugh. That did help, actually. He’d been worried that everything had been a put-on, a disguise; but if he could still make her laugh then that clearly wasn’t completely true. It didn’t mean he was in the clear — but it gave him some options.

He just wished he knew what Mari and her friend had been saying to each other — and why the other man had looked so unhappy about it.

——

PALACE VAN DE SAULEN, 1920

If he’d been asked — that is, by anybody other than nosy reporters and other people he had no interest in giving any information to — Coben Garrow would probably have admitted that he didn’t particularly enjoy being the oldest son. He suspected, actually, that most older siblings didn’t take a lot of pleasure in the position. Sure, there was that saying about the grass being greener on the other side. Deirdre hated being the only girl, and Rue — oh, well, he wasn’t sure what Rue thought. Rue probably got annoyed about being too young for everything, but admittedly Coben’s conversations with Rue tended towards adventure novels and games of hopscotch. An eleven-year age difference didn’t leave much room for common interests.

He also suspected that most older siblings didn’t have to go to such extremes to avoid their jobs.

Also, this closet was cramped.

“Note to self,” he muttered to himself. “Next time, acquire an escape plan with a route to the library. And possibly, snacks.” How nightmarish was this? He was turning twenty years old in approximately… He marked out an estimate in his head. Half an hour? And he had managed to trap himself into a storage closet after a single glass of wine because nobody would leave him alone.

It wasn’t his fault. Mama had told him to make an appearance, and he had. He just hadn’t realized that ‘make an appearance’ didn’t mean show up at the top of the stairs and promptly vanish. No, apparently he was expected to dance with people. And that would have been bearable, too, if the girls in question hadn’t then started fluttering their eyelashes in very awkward ways that he… well, bloody hell, he was sure somewhere in the mental map he had of social niceties he had a reasonable response other than asking if there was something in their eyes, but he’d panicked, hadn’t he? And it was come off like a blockhead or make some patchwork, terrible effort to flirt back, which would have been fine if he’d had the remotest interest in getting married, and even if he’d been interested in that, he had to check every single family tree and political vote and allegiance for the last twenty or thirty years to be sure he wasn’t marrying either a second cousin (thankfully unlikely) or a sworn enemy (an unfortunately high risk). And…

And he wanted to go to bed.

The worst part, Coben thought morosely, was that he couldn’t exactly shove it off on somebody else. Deirdre was — well, a girl, which apparently mattered. Not that he understood why. Deirdre was out there having a grand old time doing the foxtrot with the boys from the Bard College and showing off her admittedly-very-pretty dress, and none of them had the faintest clue that she was scoping out the competition for when she finally got around to taking the test. And there was the small matter of any extended family he’d once had being bumped off long before he was born. He only knew his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins from portraits and old letters. It was a lot to think about, even without the pressure of his father trying not to loom while Definitely, Intensely Looming over his shoulder.

Coben was startled out of his grumpy monologuing — he was self-aware to know when he was grumpily monologuing, at least — by… oh, drat. Someone was opening the door. He looked around, scrambled —

The lantern in the doorway brightened a little, flame turning up. “I can see you in there, you know.”

Coben glanced between the shelves he was hiding behind. It was one of the domestic servants — probably one of the laundry girls, since this was one of the linen closets off the main dining hall — but that didn’t mean he was safe. Technically, Miss Damask didn’t have any say over him anymore, but in practice, all of the maids still reported back to her when he was misbehaving, the wretched traitors. It probably didn’t help that Mama encouraged them. Well, maybe she couldn’t see his face. “Yes, just… uh…” He tried to look at what was on the shelf, squinting in the low light. “Counting… threads. Thread count.”

The maid was quiet for a moment. “I see. How’s that going?”

“Careful work. There’s hundreds of the things, you know. And then I have to sort them.”

“Sort them.”

“By thread count. After I’m done counting them.”

The girl stepped into the closet, half-closing the door behind her. Coben could see her a little more clearly now, although still not entirely. She was one of the younger ones, and one he didn’t recognize, although that didn’t mean much. There were hundreds of staff at the Palace, and he had a hard enough time keeping his teachers straight without trying to remember every servant he caught a passing glimpse of. “Hm,” she said thoughtfully. “And here I thought they came with the thread counts already labelled.”

Did they? Honestly, he wasn’t entirely sure what a thread count was. “Oh, the, uh… labels got misplaced.”

“That’s a shame. Well, try not to mix them up. For the high thread count ones, we have to kill twice as many sheep—”

What?” he burst out, sticking his head out from behind the shelves despite himself. “That’s barbaric!

A moment later, when she burst into helpless giggles, Coben felt his ears going red. Well, at least he could see her now, illuminated in the lamplight. She was covering her grin, but she was a bit younger than him, with flyaway black curls badly contained under her white bonnet and chestnut-brown skin that was only visible at her hands and face. She had an armful of sheets, and he realized with faint embarrassment that she wasn’t picking anything up — she was putting laundry away. In fact, he could see the cart just outside the cracked door.

“I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “That was mean. I can help you back to your room, if you want.”

Oh, Coben thought with another flush. She was really new. The reason he didn’t recognize her wasn’t stupidity on his part — it was because she was new enough that she’d never actually met him. She thought — very reasonably, actually — that he was some new arrival or visiting dignitary’s child, hiding because everything was so new. Or, simply, lost.

Because, obviously, who would be hiding from their own birthday party?

“I knew you didn’t actually kill sheep for yarn,” he offered lamely. He did. Usually. He just had a bad habit of taking people at face value. “Or, well, I certainly assume you don’t. You don’t strike me as a sheep murderer.”

“Oh? What makes you say that?”

“Well, for starters, if you were a sheep murderer, I imagine you’d be out looking for sheep. I’m given to believe that there’s not a great amount of sheep wandering the halls of the Palace. At least, I’ve never seen any.”

She was grinning again, shaking her head and stifling another chuckle. “I certainly doubt you’d find them in a linen closet, sir. Why would they be here?”

“By your logic, mourning their fallen brethren. Perhaps stealing them back home for appropriate burials. I don’t know how sheep think.”

That seemed to do it; she nearly collapsed giggling. He felt inordinately proud of himself. Usually he got annoyed looks when his mouth got ahead of him. “Do you spend a lot of time considering these things?”

“More than I should. It’s a good deal more interesting than keeping track of who wants me dead.” A second later he realized what he’d said. Oops.

The girl frowned, then got a little closer to him, lifting the lamp to his face — and more importantly, to the Garrow silver-and-blue waistcoat he had on, their crest design all over it, although he apparently did look an unfortunate amount like his father. Then she blinked, nearly quailing. “Oh, f— goodness.”

“You were going to swear.”

“I was not.”

“I don’t care, I just thought it was funny.”

“Master Coben?”

“Don’t call me that,” he said weakly. “I thought you were new. No, please. You can call Rue that. Master Coben makes me sound like I’m either hideously old or hideously pretentious.”

What are you doing in a linen closet?

“I’ll tell you what I’m not doing. I’m not murdering any sheep.”

She looked over her shoulder, then back at him. “Does your father know where you are?”

“Oh, it’s not particularly important. He probably thinks I’m either off stargazing or in the library. Which is where I intended to be, but then one of those Schmidt harridans blocked my exit. Are they gone, by the way?”

“Schmi—” Then she stared up at him with a look of consternation. “Are you hiding?

“Look, if you’d like to go dance the foxtrot with women who keep making loaded suggestions about their child-bearing hips, be my guest. Actually, do you? I could use a diversion. No, you’d never pass for me, never mind.”

She closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose, and Coben tried — and failed — not to be charmed. Not only was she new, he suspected she was actually rather new to the whole domestic servant business. Most of the servants were very no-nonsense or, too far the other way, capitulated to whatever he said or did. He’d gotten better about not abusing that over the years, especially with influence from the former group, but it was refreshing to run into someone who seemed to know how to act like, well… A person.

And if she doesn’t get fired, he sighed, Miss Damask will train it out of her within the next month. Depressing.

There was a twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth that she was clearly valiantly trying to suppress. “Coben. Sir. I…” Then she paused, smile fading a little more as she looked confused.

Coben tried not to smirk at her.

“Uh…” she hesitated.

“Let me guess,” he offered. “This wasn’t covered in orientation.”

“What, having to gently urge the Judge’s son back to his own birthday celebration? Of course it wasn’t!” Then she grimaced a little, cocking her head. “…You really don’t want to be there?”

Coben shrugged, feeling a little helpless. “I — well. It’s not really for me. It’s for everybody else and an excuse to get all the eligible bachelorettes into one room. Thankfully Father’s not jumping that hard to marry me off just yet. Probably because he doesn’t entirely trust me not to trip over my own feet yet.”

“I can see why,” she mumbled — then covered her mouth in horror when she realized she’d just insulted him. “I — I mean —” Then she scowled at him. “Stop smiling at me.”

“I can’t help it. You’re so bad at your job.”

“I am not. My job is putting away laundry, not — not herding socially awkward young men back where they’re supposed to be!”

“Exactly.” He took the sheets out of her hands. “Where do these go?”

She looked ready to crack the lantern over his head. It was probably the best thing he’d seen all night. “…Right at the top,” she mumbled.

“Oh, I see, so you were going to need the steps anyway.”

“Not everybody gets to be six feet tall.”

“I’m not six feet tall,” he shot back, carefully peering at the top of the shelf and trying to assess which pile they belonged on. “I’m five feet and ten inches. The shoes add an extra inch. Is this the right place?”

“Is it to the left near the wall?”

“Yyyy — yes.”

“Then it’s in the right place. Why are you helping me with laundry?”

“I’m hoping to trick you into telling me your name.”

She rolled her eyes. “You could just ask.”

“Okay. What’s your name?”

“Mary-Ann —.” She grimaced slightly. “Well, Mariana. Gilbertadocht Daniels.”

“Mariana,” he repeated, and felt — to his embarrassment — a bit of a blush coming to his face. Thank god for the low light. “Uh — nice to meet you.” He made a quick escape before she could ask why he’d changed his mind, slipping out of the closet door and putting his back against the wall a few doors down. He touched his face. Oh, lord. He actually was blushing. It wasn’t that he’d never blushed before. It was a perfectly normal experience. It was just that, well…

Oh, hell. He’d never actually been attracted to anybody before.

Option one, pretend it never happened. Reasonable enough. That would save him a lot of headaches, and it wasn’t like it’d never happen again. Although… Coben chewed on his lip, reminding himself that it still probably would, but what did it say when he’d never actually gotten a crush before? He was twenty years old once the clock started striking, and this was the first time. Ever. Sure, he’d made up a few when Wolfie had jostled him about it, and he’d thought maybe his friendship with ‘Phania was what other people were talking about, but it hadn’t felt any different than his other friendships. This was different.

Option two, take it as a data point. Like that was any help. What was he supposed to do with a single data point? All he knew now was that he was perfectly capable of getting idiotic and red-faced around a woman, and that he just had the bad luck to be choosy about it. Besides, it was the exact opposite of helpful that he’d discovered that he wasn’t, in fact, made of stone… about one of the help, instead of the manor family ladies he was supposed to be so enthralled with. Certainly it didn’t solve any of his problems.

Option three

was not an option, even though just thinking about it had his heart leaping into his throat. He wanted… something. Perhaps not even a relationship or a courtship or whatever it was that he was supposed to want here. He just…

Coben stared at his feet, feeling almost as miserable as he was elated to realize that he hadn’t had to double-check or smooth over anything he’d said. Normally he had to pick his statements over at least three or four times. It was what had gotten him the reputation for being quiet; it was that or, well, saying whatever stray thought popped into his head. But he hadn’t even thought to do it. Maybe it was just that little bit of wine he’d had. Maybe it was just one moment, a perfect intersection that wouldn’t happen again.

Option three, act like an adult for the first time in your life and take a chance.

It couldn’t hurt. Could it?

Mariana was exiting the linen closet; she glanced up, realized he was standing just a little bit down the hall, and stared for a moment before shaking her head with a small sigh. Coben straightened his waistcoat, and joined her on her way back down the hallway — away from the ballroom.

“Do you want something, sir?” she asked, but she was happy to see him; she couldn’t hide that, and Coben wasn’t sure she was trying to.

“One, stop calling me sir. Two…”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Do you like chess?”

Comments

And thus the full truth comes out! Also, I’m intensely proud of the dialogue in the flashback part of this – I was cackling while writing it. Fully blame Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce for that dynamic. Coben is, btw, absolutely autistic. I don’t have any interest in leaving that vague, the term just – again – literally doesn’t exist.

I couldn’t resist the reference in the chapter quote either. It was just… right there. How could I possibly say no?

Kestrel is me bein self-indulgent – which certainly isn’t a bad thing by any means! But one of the things I’ve been trying to let myself do more is write deaf characters. It’s probably struck people as strange before how I don’t have that many, considering I’m deaf, but it’s one of the places where the lack of representation has really had an effect. I have a WIP on the backburner with a deaf main character, but for now Kestrel is my first little foray into it. He’s partially deaf and can speak, but it really is not his preferred way of communicating. (I find it odd that when there are signing characters in fiction, they tend to be mute and not deaf.)

Song: Bigger Than Us – White Lies

Bell, Clock and Candle is free to read online and I don’t plan on changing that; however, if you like it and want to support its author, please consider supporting me with a Patreon pledge or a Ko-fi donation! For bonus goodies, Patreon readers get every chapter a week early, and pledging to the Elementals tier ($5+) gets you access to deleted scenes and conlang progress posts.

One thought on “Chapter 22: A Note of Concern

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