I found myself ensconced in a carriage riding to Virsus Court the next morning. If it hadn’t been completely inappropriate, I would have gone straight there from the Lantern late the evening before. As it was, I hadn’t slept at all and was blinking groggily into the sunlight as my driver opened the carriage door.
The view of the Virsus’ Estate was, in a word, imposing. I knew it was upheld as the pinnacle of post-war Benzarian architecture, but I’d never warmed to it. Now, looking up at the three-story pale rose building, with its gilded window frames and grand arched entryway, it was just as daunting as it had been when I’d first visited as a small boy. Steeling myself, I walked up the shallow front stairs until I was beneath the shadow of the intrados outside the doors.
My fingers held the rope bell and paused. I needed to push Nicolas to open up to me. Usually, that wouldn’t have been hard, but after all that had happened at the Jewel House? I had no idea where we stood with one another. Moreover, the fact he’d kept from me the fact his family was moving flared my temper like gas on a flame. He’d blindsided me, used me, ignored me! Yet I had to tamp down my anger if I was going to get answers from him. Steadying myself with a deep breath in, I pulled the rope. The familiar jingle echoed around me, but something felt, well, off. Typically, there was more bustle happening about the Court. Gardeners tending the flowerbeds, guardsmen making rounds, today there was nothing but quiet.
When the head matron opened the tall doors, she did not look pleased. She never looked pleased; today, however, there was a new glint in her pale eyes.
“No visitors,” she announced in a clipped tone.
“I’m just here to see Nicolas.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No visitors.”
I glanced over her shoulder, blinking when I noticed the bare spaces of wall in the entry hall, where there had once been portraits. The floors were bare where there had once been hand-woven rugs from countries across the sea.
“Young sir doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”
“Please. I have to see him.” Even more so if something was deeply wrong—which it obviously was.
She eyed me with such scrutiny I felt she was looking through layers of skin and bone to my thoughts. “I don’t know where he is on the grounds.”
“I’ll find him,” I said with a polite nod as I bypassed her.
With every step, I knew Anthony’s rumors had been true. I was only amazed more people weren’t talking. The number of stocking carts and carriages necessary to move all the furniture, art, and luxuries within the estate had to be significant, because nothing was left. Leave it to Nicolas’ mother to do so much with so little rumor. But what was the truth behind it? This was more than simply moving to a country estate for the summer. What the hell was happening?
The more empty rooms I searched, the further my anxiety increased. Nicolas wasn’t in any of his usual haunts, not within the kitchens or courtyards or stables—all of which held not one other soul. The estate had become as quiet as a tomb.
“Nicolas!” I began to shout, rushing along the residential hallways. “Nicolas!”
At last I found his formal apartments, the ones he staunchly avoided, as they were adjacent to his mother’s rooms. Slowly, I creaked open one of the ceiling-high doors. “Nicolas?” I asked hesitantly, though I didn’t know why.
There he was, standing at the windows and staring down to the central garden. He turned to glare. “I paid Ms. Shunick a bonus to do the exact opposite of what she has just done.”
I gave a helpless grin. “Keep out visitors?”
“Specifically, keep you out.”
A silence drew out between us; I could hardly bare it. For half my life he’d been the person I could say anything—almost anything—to and I had thought it was the same for him. I’d thought there was very little unsaid between us. Now the short distance of the room seemed to stretch out like a continent. How long had it been since we’d been honest with one another?
“What’s happened, Nicolas?”
With a heavy sigh, he sank into a simple wooden chair near the window. His head bent to settle in his hands.
“Nicolas…” I took a step, reached out a hand, but stopped myself. It was a physical pain not to comfort him, but I didn’t know what he needed right now, or what he wanted. “I…”
“Just give me a moment, Sage.”
I nodded, though he wasn’t looking at me. He was breathing deeply, obviously trying to collect himself, so I sat cross-legged on the floor and waited.
“It’s all gone,” he said finally.
He waved a hand, “Everything. I’ve been helping them sell it off all our assets.” The sunlight through the window put one side of his face in high relief, and I could see all the strain and stress he’d been concealing from me, and everyone, for so long.
I knew he’d sold things here and there for his parents, but this was quite different. “How long since the purge began?”
“Not long after the new year.”
“But that-that was nearly half a year ago!”
“Holy hell, Nici. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was dealing with it…and my own issues.”
Well, dammit, I didn’t really want to pursue that. Not yet.
“What now?” I asked tentatively. He looked so drained.
“Mother already went with Father back to his family in Lassar.”
“Wait, what? That’s across the sea!”
Stretching his long legs before him, he stared at his hands in his lap. “Oh, they left months ago, when all the servants were still here. So it wouldn't look improper. So I could take more time selling everything off without raising any eyebrows.”
I stood up then. “They just left you here to deal with it alone? For appearances sake? That’s ridiculous!” Clenching my fists, I was unable to even find words awful enough to describe what I was feeling.
“My mother is a proud woman,” Nicolas continued. “She was practically shunned when she married my Father. I think that make her cling even more to the Benzarian ideal of appearances, of saving face; she wanted to prove everyone wrong.” He sighed. “In all honesty I think she’ll be happier in Lassar, without all that weight on her shoulders. Sometimes I wonder if she shouldn’t have done it years ago, when they first married.”
Why did they even have a child if they were such selfish people? I wanted to yell, but of course I said no such thing.
Then something warbled within the room and I nearly jumped. “Oh! Orchid is still here?” I walked over to the birdcage and whistled at the little green bird. He’d always reminded me of leaves in the spring sunshine. “They didn’t take him?”
“No! I’m the one who taught him his songs, so he’s mine.” His eyes locked to mine as he spoke his last words.
Clearing my throat, I asked, “So, what now? Did they leave you behind just to see to the sales then you’re to find your own way to Lassar?”
Nicolas shook his head, “I refused to leave. My life is here and I know now how to make my own way.” He shrugged, “I can always join them later, if it comes to that.” I knelt before him and took his hand. “Of course. But, please, whatever I can do, ask me. I’m here for you.”
He took my hand from his and stood to stare outside. “I know you mean it. Truly I do. But Sage, I can’t have you near me.”
“You’re trying to be a true friend, but I don’t want your friendship,” his eyes finally turned to me, “I want you. Don’t you see? My secret is out. You know how I feel. And with my family ousted from Society, I don’t have any reason to hide. It’s different for you. Your future in Society and in your family is still secure. Being with me could…endanger that. Maybe if we just spoke in places like The Lantern, our friendship would be ignored.” He shook his head. “But I can’t go back to that, not after having you once—taking you, tasting you…” He shut his eyes as if in pain. “I can’t. I can not simply be your friend now.”
It was my turn to stand. Though Nicolas’ eyes remained at his feet, I stepped in close. “I didn’t ask you to.”
Nicolas huffed. “Not in words, but your silence and absence was enough.”
“My silence and absence? You can’t be serious!” I stepped back from in my anger.
“Fine! You are not the only one at fault. But after the House, did you try to contact me? Write a letter? Anything?”
I was going to pummel him. “Excuse me, but,” I hissed the words low, “you are the one who fucked me and left without even a look! And somehow I am the one to blame for not coming crawling to you?” I raked my hands through my hair and yanked at the strands to keep from throttling him. “Tits of the mother, Nici! I love you but I want to kill you right now!”
All he did was blink at me for a long moment. His mouth opened then shut. “I was an idiot. All right? I was confused. I won’t make excuses, but it’s the truth. I didn’t know what to think- or how you really felt.” His eyes searched mine, locked on them and held. “You love me?”
“Nicolas, that is hardly a secret. Yes, I love you! We grew up together. We have always been together.”
The light in his eyes died as he turned away. “Like brothers then, you mean?”
Oh, he was really going to milk this, wasn’t he? Squeeze me for every blasted word!
“You are an idiot. No, nothing like brothers!”
“But you never…?”
I threw up my hands. “Of course I’ve been attracted to you! How could I not be? But—” I tried to collect my thoughts. “Attraction is one thing, and friendship another. I valued that more. Sex, fun,” I shrugged, “I could find that elsewhere.” I took a deep breath; this was not easy. “That night at the Jewel House, though…that was more than sex.”
Nicolas dared look at me, and there was so much vulnerability in his eyes I nearly flinched. I could see he was wondering where this was going.
“I had intended to purchase your contract that night simply to keep you away from anyone else,” he admitted. “I didn’t plan on…exploiting it.”
I wanted to ask what had tipped the scales, instead I heard myself saying, “That was a large price to pay.”
“It was just as well. At first, I didn’t know the extent of our household debts—heaven knows my parents never told me the details of their fiancés—but I could sense it was narrowing to the brink, that the fall was coming. My account was still in my Mother’s name at the bank. She simply turned the other way when I made my own deposits. But I knew she’d take the money when things finally crumpled.” He sighed. “I didn’t want to hand that over, and it’s not as if I could get my own account without her. So I wanted to spend it.” He shrugged again.
“The timing was right, so…” he faltered, “I took it and used it.”
“For one night with me. All your savings?”
His honesty struck me hard in the chest. I felt as if I handled a fragile bird in my hands. He’d given me all he had.
But it left me with so many questions, and I couldn’t hold them in. “Why did you leave the way you did then? Why didn’t you seduce me the whole damn night?” I may have growled. “Why didn’t you try to win me over or something?”
I’d never seen Nici shamed or chagrined, but he looked both in that moment. His cheeks flared pink as he studied the floor. “Well, for one, I’d convinced myself that was all I could have: that one night. Hell, I told you I wasn’t even planning to have sex with you at first. I knew I couldn’t have you in the long run anyhow, but…I couldn’t help myself.” He moved toward me. “You have no idea what it did to me to see you that way. Naked, collared and jeweled like a pet. And erect.” His eyes briefly shut. “I was sprung in a heartbeat. You were glorious.”
“And now?” I asked with a smirk, because who knew Nici was such a sap? And who knew I’d love it? “Am I still glorious with my clothes on?”
He met my smirk with his own. “Almost. Not quite.”
“In that case…” I moved to shrug my jacket off and he stopped me.
“I’ve let my senses run away again. I’m sorry.” He grit his teeth. “We’re both forgetting you still have a reputation and position to protect. Do you have any idea what would happen if we were found together?”
I wrapped my arms about his neck and leaned in to breath in his ear, “Yes, and I’d still have everything I could want.”
“Sage, you’re not thinking clearly. This is your entire future at stake!”
“Yes, and you are what I want. So will you shut up and take what you want already?” When he still hesitated—despite the evidence in his trousers that he wanted to pin me to the wall—I told him, “Listen, you have the knowledge and wits to make your own way in the city; I trust you can do that even better with me at your side.”
“I don’t think you realize what you’ll be giving up.”
With a snort, I grabbed him through his pants and chuckled. “I’ll be gaining this. I think I’ll be able to live with the trade.”
“Sage,” he chuckled and rested his forehead to mine. “You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?”
“Only if you want me to…Master.”
We laughed together and finally made good use of the wall. I wasn’t completely green, I knew we had challenges before us, but it was worth it. Oh yes, based on the sex, most definitely worth it. Not to mention he was my closest friend well beyond the bed.
In the aftermath, as we lay in a panting, sticky mess on the one remaining rug, Nicolas twined our fingers together. Nothing had ever felt so right in my life. A sudden burst of emotion caught me off guard, because I never I thought I’d be allowed this: to want him, to have him. And I’d do whatever it took to keep him.
“I forgot to mention, I love you too,” Nicolas said with a grin, and I had to laugh.
“I know you well enough to know that, Nici.”
“It’s not going to be easy, you know.”
“Truly good things rarely are,” I told him, but I couldn’t let the heaviness last. I was too happy. “Except for me,” I added, rolling atop him, “I’m very easy. Just keep me fed and well-pet and I’ll spread for you anytime you ask!”
“Haha. You idiot! I’ll hold you to that!”
That began a wrestling match we both one.
(Continue onto to Part 2 of the Jewel House world in 'Ruby', Ch1, posting here Ast 1st or read now on our Patreon.)