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Villain Courtier

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            With a final upward jerk of his blade, Calvin, Lord Cunningham, watched the light fade from his opponent’s eyes, feeling the body slump onto the sword as the man’s legs lost the capacity to support him. Grimacing slightly, Cal put his foot on the man’s chest and rudely shoved him off the sword, leaving him in a heap on the dusty ground. Then he nonchalantly handed his sword to his attending servant to be cleaned.

            “I trust that will be the final judgment on these… accusations?” he asked snidely, glancing first at the magistrate present and then at the sobbing woman who had rushed to her late husband’s side on the ground.

            “The law is the law, milord,” the magistrate answered, though it was clear he wished there had been some other outcome to the dispute.

            Not that Cal cared much what he thought, of course. He snapped his fingers impatiently as another servant hurried over with his ornate jacket, slipping it on him and even buttoning it so that Cal had to do as little work as possible. “Then I take my leave,” he announced, as usual paying mere lip service to the rules of politeness. “This petty inconvenience has sapped enough of my time.”

            “Surely… surely, milord,” the magistrate ventured, and Cal slowly pivoted back around to face the man, “you do not consider the taking of a man’s life in the pursuit of justice to be a ‘petty convenience’?” His tone was slightly hopeful, as if he thought he had just misheard Cal.

            “I do, actually,” Cal shot back. “Particularly when the man in question can’t even make a proper sport of it.” He adjusted the elaborate wig and feathered hat his servants had also retrieved for him and prepared to leave once again.

            “Justice? There is no justice in this,” hissed the new widow, and Cal just rolled his eyes and kept walking. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Any second she would probably unsheathe a hidden dagger and try to stab him in the back. As if on cue, a sudden commotion erupted behind him that sounded very much like a grief-stricken, desperate woman being restrained by the authorities, who urged her to think of her now-fatherless children.

            “Oh, and that reminds me,” Cal added, turning back around. “Since you have no means of paying the rent in your husband’s stead”—actually there were alternate forms of payment that Cal accepted, at least in the case of fairly pretty women, but that was what had gotten him into this petty inconvenience in the first place—“I expect you to be out of the cottage by sundown today.” No need to add a vague threat about what would happen if she didn’t comply. That part was, he felt, clearly understood.

            “But where are we to go?!” the woman wailed to his back as he headed off to his waiting carriage.

            Why did people ask that question. “Don’t know, don’t care,” he tossed off dismissively, settling into the richly-decorated conveyance. He thumped his carved walking stick on the floor and the coachman spurred the team of horses on, away from the site of the duel. Where justice had, according to the magistrate, been properly served.

 

***

 

            “—and then the cannonball dropped right out of the sky onto his tent! I tell you, I thought he was done for, absolutely done for!” Cal smirked and waited patiently for the King to come to the punch line of the story. Everyone else within earshot did the same—they all knew the story, and they all knew it was best not to remind the King of that. “But then, out of the wreckage comes Lord Cunningham here, covered in soot, and he looks right at me and says, ‘By G-d, Your Majesty, if you’d wanted me up, you could’ve just blown a bugle!’”

            The table roared with appreciative laughter, the loudest being the King’s, who slapped his palm down on the surface hard enough to make the fine crystal dishes rattle. Since the story was about him, Cal didn’t laugh too heartily but rather smiled modestly, as though he were just glad he could amuse His Majesty with his exploits. Of course, on him, such expressions often came out a bit curdled.

            “I was lucky to be alive,” he agreed, once things had quieted down a bit. “I would have been quite disappointed to miss His Majesty’s victory over the French that day.” Another hearty round of cheers met this reminder of battlefield success, along with toasts to the military prowess of the King, whom everyone also knew had nothing to do with the win at all.

            “I hear you have recently vanquished another foe, Lord Cunningham,” said Lady Beatrice from across the table, her tone just slightly pointed. “A tenant of yours? In a duel?”

            “Ah, yes,” Cal replied off-hand. “I had almost forgotten. A minor dispute,” he assured the King dismissively. “Some people seem to think they should be able to live on our land for free.”

            The King nodded knowingly and might have moved on, but Lady Beatrice was an intelligent and persistent woman, exactly the kind Cal hated. Unfortunately she was also the King’s mistress and was thus allowed a certain extra latitude. “I had heard, Lord Cunningham, that the dispute was over you trading the man’s wife for the rent payments,” she remarked coolly.

            Cal blinked at her in some confusion. “I’m sorry, milady, did you speak?” he asked solicitously. “Would you perhaps like another sweetmeat, or some more wine?”

            The lady’s face darkened in fury while the King attempted to look like he hadn’t heard the comment and wasn’t amused by it in any case. “Your Majesty,” she began sweetly after a moment spent reining in her temper, “surely it is unfair for the heroic Lord Cunningham to be without a wife still.” Cal allowed the woman the small satisfaction of seeing his narrowed gaze; he was not fond of the institution of marriage, as well she knew. “A suitable match must be found for him.”

            “Can you possibly hate any woman so much, my dear, as to make her Lady Cunningham?” the King guffawed, as only a monarch could.

            Cal didn’t take offense, though. “It’s true, I am rather careless with my wives,” he admitted glibly. He’d been through three already, and he wasn’t a particularly old man by the standards of the time.

            “No, no, we must find him another one,” Lady Beatrice insisted poisonously. “It has been over a year, hasn’t it? Since Lady Anne ran off to Italy? One must do these things with the proper timing, of course.” She blithely ignored the signals the King was giving her to drop it, as only a royal mistress could. “Do you ever hear from her, sir?”

            Cal grinned slowly. “I hear she is living quite happily with the embrace of her laundress,” he replied dryly, starting his own rumor before Lady Beatrice could. “I can’t really blame her, I quite enjoyed her laundress myself.”

            At this the King laughed heartily once more, then cut Lady Beatrice off when she started to speak again, putting her back in her proper place as a beautiful adornment at his side. Cal wouldn’t forget her behavior, however, and made a mental note to avoid her for the next few weeks, if at all possible. Lady Beatrice was the sort to make good on her threats by concocting an unpleasant scheme if she were given too much ammunition. And after the legal wrangling he’d endured to rid himself of his last wife, he didn’t need any new entanglements any time soon. Although, to be honest, at least the entanglements made this rather dull era somewhat more interesting.

 

***

 

            Enough of this stilted conversation, Cal thought. It was time to get to the important part. “I would speak with the lady alone,” he announced.

            Lady Catherine looked up in some alarm. Clearly she didn’t think this was a good idea. “Milord, surely a chaperon would be more appro—“

            Cal stopped her with a chilling gaze and let the silence drag out for a moment. “If you are so concerned about propriety, madam, it would surely be better if I left. Immediately.”

            The threat had the desired effect and Lady Catherine stood stiffly. Cal and the girl sprang up as well, oh so respectfully. “I must consult my husband about an urgent matter,” she said formally, which was probably in fact true. “Excuse me.” Cal made her a little bow as she bustled out of the room, shutting the door behind them.

            He sat back down while Lady Lily still stood, looking back at the door with some consternation. He didn’t mind the view this afforded him, despite the convoluted fashions of the time. “She’s gone, don’t worry,” he assured the girl after a moment. “There’s no one listening at the keyholes.” His tone was familiar and relaxed, such a startling contrast to what she was expecting that the girl turned back to him in surprise. This, in turn, surprised him. He was even more surprised when she sat back down on the couch and stared at her clasped hands silently. “Come on, nothing to say?” he encouraged. “Please, you can’t be that angry at me.”

            Lady Lily seemed startled by this remark. “Sir?”

            Cal rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s taken me long enough to find you. Fortunately, you’ve caught me between wives, so there won’t be any difficulty there.”

            “Yes, yes, it is fortunate that you are unmarried,” Lady Lily replied slowly, straining for politeness, “as you have come courting.”

            “Right,” Cal agreed with some unease. Well, perhaps her sense of humor hadn’t come through this time. He glanced around suddenly. “There isn’t anyone listening in, is there?” That would explain her odd behavior. “I don’t think so, but you were always better at detecting that than I.”

            “No one that I know of, milord,” Lily replied smoothly.

            “I do like the ‘milord,’ but there’s really no need to be so formal,” he tried, watching her reaction closely.

            “As you like, mi—um… What would you prefer that I call you?” Lily questioned gamely.

            Cal blinked at her. “Don’t you know who I am?”

            “Of course,” she answered promptly. “You are Calvin, Lord Cunningham, Duke of Westmoreland.”

            “No, I mean my real name.”

            Her face was blank. “I’m sorry, milord, I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

            He leaned forward impatiently. “Stop toying with me, Susannah.”

            Lily dared looking away from him for a moment to glance behind her. “Susannah?” she asked in utter confusion.

            He flopped back against the couch, staring at her hard. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

            “Milord?” she responded, painfully bemused and perhaps even a little frightened.

            Cal’s mind raced as he sat there. She was young, yes, but to have no idea whatsoever—no, that wasn’t possible—unless of course—Abruptly he stood and strode out of the room by a lesser door that led to the servants’ hall. Bailey popped up from the table he’d been waiting at when he saw his master and hurried over to him.

            “I want Lady Lily’s complete medical history,” he hissed at his servant, glancing around to make sure they weren’t overheard. “Every bump, every illness. See to it.”

            “Yes, milord,” the man agreed, far too experienced to question the orders. Then Cal turned and walked back into the parlor, where Lady Lily was still sitting on her uncomfortable couch, awkwardly alone.

            He tried to smile ingratiatingly as he sat back down, though he hadn’t had much practice at it. “I do apologize, milady,” he began. “I must have sounded quite odd for a few moments there.”

            “I am not much experienced in conversing with people of rank,” Lily allowed, still clearly wary of his unusual behavior.

            “No, that much is obvious,” he agreed. “Tell me, milady, have you ever experienced a traumatic injury? Particularly to the head?”

            Lily blinked. “Sir?”

            “Something quite serious, when you were very young,” Cal clarified, if it could be called clarification. “People didn’t expect you to survive, and so forth.”

            “I, um… I was kicked by a horse once, when I was a child,” Lily offered uncertainly. “An infant, really.”

            “In the head?”

            “Yes, so I’m told.”

            “I don’t think so,” Cal contradicted, shaking his head.

            “Sir?” She really looked quite frightened by his conversation, which he guessed he could understand.

            “I mean, you weren’t kicked by a horse,” he said, with great authority. “It must have been by a person. A vengeful governess, perhaps. Psychotic stable boy? Or maybe,” he added thoughtfully, “your father?”

            Her spine stiffened. “He’s my stepfather.”

            Bingo, as they would say someday. “Well then, that explains everything,” he decided.

            “It does?” she asked, when he didn’t continue.

            “Of course. Head trauma at an early age can lead to a marked lack of understanding and knowledge later in life,” Cal explained. “It’s happened before. Oh don’t worry, you’ll catch up eventually, I’m sure,” he added, seeing her expression darken. “It’s a good thing I found you when I did, though. You could’ve been married to some tavern owner or stable master when you woke up one day and realized what a repulsive state you were in.”

            Lady Lily shot up from her seat, fairly trembling. “Excuse me, sir,” she mumbled, starting to make her escape from this babbling madman.

            Cal jerked forward with inhuman speed and grabbed her arm. “Sit,” he ordered, cajoling at first, then more forcefully when she resisted. “Sit down!” She sat. He sat down beside her and had to lift her chin up to meet his gaze, sighing when he saw her blue eyes full of tears. No doubt she was considering her future with him, based on the stories she’d heard and the bizarre behavior she’d just witnessed, and it looked more than a little bleak. Nothing he could say to her by way of explanation would actually make sense, however, and it wasn’t currently in his character to allay her fears with soothing platitudes. “We shall be married as soon as possible,” he informed her. “Your father will be hearing from me shortly. Milady.” With that he stood and swept from the room, undoubtedly to the girl’s infinite relief.

            Lady Catherine was hovering farther down the corridor outside the parlor and swooped down upon Cal the instant he emerged. She looked nervously through the doorway at her daughter’s stiff posture on the couch—she did not look like the overjoyed fiancée of one of the wealthiest men in England, that much was certain. “Has everything proceeded smoothly, Lord Cunningham?” she asked with concern.

            “Absolutely,” he replied. He started to brush past her, headed for the study he had seen Sir Richard duck into.

            “Lily is the youngest, and not much acquainted with society,” Lady Catherine went on, forcing Cal to stop and turn back to her. “I do have two older daughters, Cordelia and Regina, both of whom are very beautiful and much more—“

            “No, I want that one,” Cal insisted, pointing towards Lily in a very ungentlemanly way. But obviously this woman had not fully grasped his point before. “Sir Richard!”

            Lily’s father sprang from his study, no doubt having been standing by the door awaiting his cue. “Lord Cunningham! I trust you are quite… enamored?”

            He was enamored. But the whole pretext of socially convenient marriages being based on instant yet abiding love was more than a little ridiculous to him. “Well, not enamored yet, I hardly know her,” he pointed out. “But I think I can make something of her. I’ll send the contract ‘round tomorrow. For Lily,” he added, glancing pointedly at Lady Catherine.

            “Er, yes, of course,” Sir Richard stammered, thrown off by his answer. “Uh, quite the honor to have you—“

            “Yes, I know,” Cal replied off-hand. Then he swept from the house into his waiting carriage, which had probably cost more than the entire house he’d just left, leaving his hosts staring after him.

 

***

 

            Cal wrote up the contract that night and had it delivered after midnight, with instructions that the messenger was to hand it only to the master of the house. The fact that the master of the house would have to be roused from bed for this would, Cal felt, impress upon them the seriousness with which he was taking this matter. And it would also show that he didn’t care about inconveniencing them, being as they were far less important in society than he was.

            He gave the man the next day to thoroughly read the document, though his impatience made him even less pleasant to be around, and finally, quite early the next morning, he stood on the doorstep while his man rang their doorbell relentlessly. The delay before a bleary-eyed, half-dressed servant finally opened the door gave Cal enough time to snatch a small bouquet from a passing flower seller, leaving his man to haggle with her over the price as he was admitted into the house.

            He was still forced to wait ten minutes in a cold parlor before Sir Richard showed up, clearly having dressed in a hurry. “Shall we sign the contract, then?” Cal suggested immediately, during their bow of greeting. No need to waste time.

            Sir Richard didn’t seem to feel the same. “Er, well—“

            “What’s the problem?” Cal demanded coldly.

            “It just seems so sudden, milord,” Sir Richard replied. “I’ve hardly had a chance to go over the details—“

            “What could possibly have been of more importance, Sir Richard?” Cal asked him. “You’re a minor landowner whose only assets are his three marginally-attractive daughters. You’ve brought them to London to sell and I’m sure the price I’ve offered is more than you could have dreamed you’d get for Lily. So what, may I ask, could possibly be your problem?” He punctuated his threatening remark with an unnerving, shark-like grin.

            Sir Richard paled slightly and tried to smile back, as though he hoped Cal were just joking. There was an awkward silence as Cal waited expectantly. Finally the other man cleared his throat and said, “Er… what about the, uh, permission from the King? I was under the impression that nobility had to—“

            Cal waved him off dismissively. “I’ve already taken care of that.” The ability to cheat at cards using undetectable, supernatural means could be very useful, especially with an inveterate gambler like the King. For example, it allowed Cal to exchange a rather large gambling debt for an official decree to marry whomever he wanted without going through the time-consuming process of obtaining the King’s specific permission.

            “How efficient of you,” Sir Richard decided. “Perhaps I’ll just go take another look at the contract, if you would care to wait, Lord Cunningham?”

            “Don’t make me wait long,” Cal warned. “I’m taking off a thousand pounds for every half-hour I sit here.” He settled onto the couch with a familiar air. “Have some tea sent in,” he ordered as Sir Richard began to slink out. “And Lily as well.”

            At this Sir Richard paused. “I’m so sorry, Lord Cunningham,” he began, though at this point he was starting to sound more sorry that he’d gotten involved in the whole thing, “but Lady Lily is indisposed today.”

            Cal gave him a narrow look and stood. “Then I’ll go up to see her,” he announced. “And bring her a gift.” He indicated the flowers he had carried in.

            “Uh, no, no, milord,” Sir Richard backtracked hastily. “I’ll, um, I’ll have her dress and come down as soon as possible.”

            “Well, if it’s going to be inconvenient,” Cal allowed, sitting back down, “don’t bother having her dress first.” With that, Sir Richard escaped, unsure what response he could make.

            The tea arrived quickly, but Lily took a while longer, although her appearance was fairly swift considering how long it usually took women to dress and otherwise prepare for visitors. She certainly looked like she was indisposed when she entered the parlor, her eyes dull and her movements less graceful than he remembered. Of course, he knew she couldn’t get sick, so the reason behind her indisposition had to be something else. “Milady,” he greeted properly, bowing. “Lovely to see you today. Here.” He handed her the rather paltry bouquet.

            “Thank you, milord,” she replied graciously, not meeting his eye. She sat down on the couch on the other side of the tea table, letting the silence grow while he looked her over. She picked at the flowers aimlessly. “These are very pretty, milord,” she finally said.

            “I hope you’re not upset that I haven’t showered you with, oh, emeralds the size of hen’s eggs,” he tried, watching her reaction. “I could have, I suppose, but I don’t know what you’d do with them. They’d look a bit ridiculous with your current wardrobe.”

            “Yes, milord, you’re quite correct,” she replied tonelessly.

            “Have you ever been to the West Counties, milady?” he asked.

            “No, milord.”

            “It’s quite rugged. Tiny villages, not much culture, wild wolves roaming about, that sort of thing,” he described, exaggerating only a little. “We’ll be living at my estate there. It’s quite isolated and drafty. Um, there’s a graveyard next door. For lepers.”

            “It sounds lovely, milord,” Lily murmured, at which point he knew she wasn’t really paying attention to him.

            “Come here.” She finally looked up at him with mild alarm and he gave her a look in return that said he had no intention of repeating himself. Dutifully she stood, walked around the table, and sat on the couch next to him. “You wear too much face powder,” he decided. “Wipe it off.”

            “Milord, I—“

            “Now.”

            Her face might have flushed bright red at the indignity of spitting on an embroidered handkerchief and using it wipe her face, but she was wearing too much concealing powder for the blush to be seen. There were tears in her eyes when she finally got down to some skin and he lifted her chin again for a better look.

            “Now… who’s been beating you?” he asked critically, having guessed the reason for the heavy cosmetics. A dark bruise bloomed across her cheek. “Your stepfather? For what reason? Perhaps you foolishly declared you would rather drown yourself in the Thames than marry me?” She refused to meet his gaze and he let her go. Promptly she moved back to the other couch, sitting so that the bruised side of her face was turned away.

            There were so many things he wanted to tell her, assurances he wanted to give her, but even as he thought them he realized how hollow and ridiculous they would sound. “I have been known to beat my servants on occasion,” was what he finally decided to say, in a conversational tone. “Wives, too, sometimes, but that was in self-defense. More or less.” It occurred to him suddenly that he’d spent most of this life socializing with people who were as nasty as he was, to the point that he wasn’t entirely certain what to say to someone of a different temperament.

            “You’ll not be allowed to keep firearms in your chamber,” he warned, having learned that one the hard way. “Um, I’ve never beaten an animal, though.” That seemed like something to recommend him to her. “I do shoot them sometimes, of course. Hunting, you know.” Lily sat wordlessly on the couch, her head drooping ever further. Hey, he was trying here. “Do you know how to read at all?” he finally asked, wondering if it was a hobby of hers.

            Unfortunately that seemed to be the last straw for the lady, who rushed suddenly from the room, choking back a sob. Cal winced. Well, the women he usually associated with always laughed at the “self-defense” bit, or pretended to, anyway. Maybe an emerald the size of a hen’s egg wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.

            The time had almost come when Cal was going to remove a thousand pounds from the wedding price he’d offered when Sir Richard reappeared in the parlor, contract in hand. He had a hard look in his eye, like someone who was bound and determined to negotiate. Why oh why did people bother, Cal wondered, then he decided that maybe everyone was as bored as he was, and this was what they did to alleviate it.

            “I’ve been looking over this contract, Lord Cunningham,” Sir Richard began, “and while it is very generous, I can’t help thinking that perhaps there are a few points we could discuss.”

            “Those points being?”

            “Well, the ten thousand pounds upfront seems quite fair,” Sir Richard decided, “given what an extraordinary individual my youngest daughter is. I’m sure she’ll bring you happiness for many years, and a large number of healthy children, as well.” She wouldn’t, actually—bring him children, that is—but Cal merely indicated the man should continue. “Surely this lengthy companionship should be taken into account,” Sir Richard hinted. “After all, she’s quite young, and very healthy herself, and her mother and I have worked hard to bring her up as an obedient, kind-hearted young woman—“

            “You want cash upfront and, what, an additional thousand pounds for every year of marriage?” Cal guessed. “With perhaps a bonus thrown in for every healthy child?” Sir Richard indicated that was what he had in mind. “Hmm,” Cal replied thoughtfully. “How about… nine thousand, five hundred pounds upfront, and nothing else, ever?”

            Sir Richard blanched slightly as he realized Cal’s offer had just gotten less advantageous to him. “Now, Lord Cunningham, I understand that you are a very powerful man, and—“

            “Oh, do you?” Cal interrupted boredly. “That’s comforting.”

            “—but I think in this particular case, there’s room for us to work together,” Sir Richard insisted. Cal blinked at him. The man had guts, at least. “I mean, if you don’t like the price charged for your wig, you can always go to another wigmaker, can’t you? But where else would you go to get Lady Lily, hmm?”

            Cal had to stop himself from laughing in the man’s face. It would have been suitably rude, but not terribly menacing. “Sir Richard, I can think of at least five ways I could get Lady Lily without paying you a penny,” he stated calmly. “And since you brought it up, the last time I didn’t like the price charged for a wig, I cut off the wigmaker’s nose. Nine thousand upfront.”

            Sir Richard could see his options weren’t looking so good. “Would you pay for the wedding festivities?” he asked hopefully.

            “Of course,” Cal agreed. “Shall we sign, then?”

            Slightly less enthused, since he had lost a thousand pounds from the original offer, Sir Richard fetched the pens and ink. “Were you thinking of any particular time for the wedding, milord?”

            Cal glanced at the clock above the mantle. “Did you have something planned for this afternoon?”

            Sir Richard’s eyes widened. “You can’t—you’re not serious, milord?”

            “Why not?”

            “Well, to have a wedding—today—with no preparation—I—“

            “Why wait?” Cal asked sensibly. “Having a grand wedding won’t make her feel any better about it.” Besides, the faster he could get her out from under this man’s roof, the better. He hadn’t forgotten who was responsible for Lily not remembering her true identity in the first place.

            “Er—but—the priest—“

            “This is London,” Cal reminded him. “There are dozens of priests lolling about with nothing better to do. Bailey!” he shouted, loud enough for his man stationed in the hall to hear him.

            “Yes, milord?” the servant asked, poking his head into the room.

            “Round up a priest somewhere. I’m getting married today.”

            “Right away, milord.”

            “Um—but—“ Sir Richard still tried to protest. “The—the haste is a bit unseemly, don’t you think, Lord Cunningham? I mean, what will people say—“

            Cal pinned him with a sudden, dangerous gaze. “What do you mean, Sir Richard?”

            “Well, I mean—this rapid courtship, hasty marriage—“ the man stammered. “Mightn’t people think there was some—some indelicate reason for the speed—“

            “You mean, they might think that perhaps I had compromised Lady Lily’s honor, and wanted to be married before the fruits of said compromise were visible?” Cal suggested coldly.

            “Yes, exactly.”

            Cal gave him a long, dark look. “At the moment, you are Lady Lily’s father and thus the guardian of her valuable virtue,” he decided, “so I forgive you for making such an insulting suggestion. If the occasion arises, you may let it be known that I will duel with anyone who makes such a suggestion after the wedding. Your signature, sir.”

            Sir Richard swallowed hard and, knowing what was good for him, signed the contract.

 

***

 

            This had not been the best day of Lady Lily’s life. Cal was aware of that, and that he was seen as the primary cause of her troubles. But now that she was legally bound to him, he was determined to ensure that tonight was the best night of her life—and that would have to count for something in his favor. Fortunately, this was an area in which he had considerable experience and expertise.

            Though perhaps he was lacking in a certain delicacy.

            Cal burst unceremoniously into Lady Lily’s chambers, the traditional suite of the lady of the house which had been hastily cleared of Cal’s excess wardrobe and books in his London townhome. Lily and her maid gasped in surprise. “Ready for bed? Good,” he noted, seeing her in her nightdress. There was an awkward pause and he turned his gaze on the maid, the one he had allowed Lily to bring from her father’s home. Lily clutched her hands desperately, clearly not wanting her to leave. “You may go,” he allowed pointedly. “Or you can stay, and make the night even more interesting.” The maid wasn’t bad-looking, not at all. That finally sent her scurrying from the room and Lily clutched a bedpost instead, keeping it between her and her new husband.

            He tried to approach slowly. “Your face looks better,” he observed, indicating the bruise. “You heal quickly, don’t you?” She had apparently given up entirely on trying to speak to him, it seemed, being rather preoccupied with contemplating her impending doom. He drifted a bit closer. “I’d give you some wine, but I think—“ Lily clapped her hand to her mouth suddenly, as if trying not to vomit. Cal grimaced a little. “I think you’ve had enough today.” Her mother had apparently plied her with a few large glasses to fortify her on her march up the aisle. Unfortunately the intoxicating effect seemed to have largely worn off.

            “Look, Lily,” he began forthrightly, “I wish you would try to relax. This is going to be very pleasant for you, really. For the most part, I mean. Well, I don’t really have much experience with virgins, to be honest, but I’ve been consulting some associates lately and—Are you a virgin?” he asked suddenly.

            She looked up at him with flushed cheeks. “Of course, milord!”

            “Oh,” he replied with some disappointment. “Well, that’s good, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t have minded otherwise, might’ve made things easier.” She appeared to be increasingly scandalized by his conversation. “Still, you only get one chance to do it for the first time, huh?” Lily stared at him stonily, and he sighed. It was a little joke the two of them had, because they actually had many chances to do it for the first time, every time they landed in a different world. The first time, and yet not—something was always a little new, a little different, yet also comfortingly familiar. It was part of what made her so enticing to him. Even as these blue eyes glared at him with loathing, he could recall the same eyes—in a manner of speaking—looking at him with affection, desire, satisfaction. He remembered it so clearly, and he wanted her to remember, too—he wasn’t good at these courtly charades, he never had been, it simply wasn’t in his nature, not when she was standing there, so close and completely his own under the law.

            “G‑‑‑‑‑n your stepfather!” Cal cursed suddenly, knocking over a stack of books that hadn’t been moved.

            No doubt fearing he had truly lost his mind, Lily made a run for it and Cal moved with unexpected speed to block her. “No, I’m not going to hurt you—just—“

            “Let me go!” she demanded, struggling in his grip. “Please! Just let me go!”

            Cal hauled her back towards the bed, trying not to hold her too tightly. He was much stronger and could injure her if he wasn’t careful. “Lily! Calm down! Just let me—“

            “Let me go!” she screamed, shoving at him hard.

            Cal had left orders with his man Bailey that no matter what noises were heard from the marital chamber that night, they were not to be disturbed; so Lily could scream all she wanted and no help would arrive. He didn’t want her screaming, though, at least not for help. Although he was starting to get rather irritated himself.

            “Listen to me! You’re going to—Ow!—you’re going to enjoy—Stop it! Be still!” Forget the bed. The wall was closer and he shoved her up against it. “Lily! Calm down and—“ She slapped him across the face, quite hard actually, and he applied a little more force to hold her back while he shook his head clear. The look he turned on her made the blood drain from her face. A growl rose in his throat. Those blue eyes had occasionally been adversarial as well—and sometimes that was even more enticing. Equal opponents, fighting for control, neither terribly upset to be the one who lost—

            But this girl was not his equal. And her eyes were terrified.

            “If you were anyone else,” he hissed low in her ear, “I would not stand for this.” And then he let her go and stepped back. She stayed frozen against the wall, as though stuck to it, waiting for his next trick. He couldn’t stand looking at her and spun around, striding towards the door to his own chamber. “You sleep alone tonight, madam!” he yelled after her, slamming the door between them. It wasn’t too long before he heard the bolt being shoved into place on her side.

 

***

 

            Normally when Cal rode through the gates of his estate, there was a certain amount of ceremony that occurred—nothing elaborate, just that the servants stopped their work and raced from all parts of the house and immediate grounds to line his path to the front door, ready to take his horse, his hat, his bags, and his orders for a hot bath or a meal. Well, perhaps that was a bit elaborate. But he was the master of the place, after all, and not a particularly easy-going master either, so generally they did whatever seemed to least displease him. The lack of scurrying underlings when he appeared, then, gave Cal a big clue that something was going on.

            Bailey didn’t know, of course, since he’d been with Cal the whole time. The whole “what the f—k” comment was really more rhetorical, though he repeated it more loudly when they rode around to the stable yard and saw the majority of the household servants, scurrying yes but seemingly in a frenzy. Twenty-four hours he was gone and chaos had erupted, apparently.

            Cal swung down from his horse and grabbed the first unlucky servant who scrambled within his reach, like a fly snagged in a spider’s web. “Watkins! What’s going on?”

            The pink-cheeked but not very bright lad could barely spit the words out, though whether from emotion at the event or simply his master’s chokehold couldn’t be determined. “L-lady Lily, sir!”

            Cal’s gaze intensified exponentially. “What about her?!” If anything had happened to Lily—but nothing could happen to Lily—well, it could, really—

            “He ran right out, sir!” the boy sputtered incoherently. “Just shot out!”

            Cal gave him a head-snapping shake that probably didn’t help anything. “Who are you talking about? What about Lily?”

            “The dog, sir,” Watkins told him. “Her Ladyship’s little dog. Coach didn’t see him, goin’ so fast and-and so little, sir. Didn’t see him at all.”

            The pieces fell together for Cal. “Lily’s dog was hit by a coach,” he summarized, sounding perhaps too relieved.

            “Her Ladyship is upset something awful,” Watkins went on, perhaps a bit too pointedly, and Cal let him go with a shove. “Cryin’ and carryin’ on—poor little thing—dog, sir, I mean,” he added quickly, in case Cal thought he was getting too familiar about his mistress.

            “I suppose there’s no chance the mongrel is still alive,” he remarked, beginning to pull off his traveling gloves per his usual routine. Lily was excessively devoted to the cocker spaniel he’d gotten her, showering it with the affection denied him, so Cal wasn’t exactly sorry to see the creature go. Although Lily was going to be devastated, now that he thought of it.

            “Just barely, sir,” Watkins revealed, much to Cal’s surprise. “Thompson, he says, reckon we ought to shoot it, sir, bein’ in pain and all…”

            A sudden possibility bloomed in Cal’s mind. “No! No one shoots the dog!” he declared fervently. “No one touches the dog! Run and tell them!” he insisted, giving Watkins a push in some direction. “Where is it!”

            “The stables, sir,” Watkins called back, nearly tripping over his feet in his frantic rush to somewhere else.

            “G-----n dog,” Cal muttered, striding off to the stables. Although maybe this could turn into a stroke of good luck for him. Well, he shouldn’t pin too many hopes on it, he told himself. It was enough that he could do something to make Lily happier, even if she didn’t express her appreciation the way he would like.

            He burst into the stables, where several of the servants with stronger stomachs were gathered around a lump on the straw. “Out,” he ordered sharply. “I said, get out!” he reiterated emphatically when they all just stared at him. He didn’t have much time; the dog could kick at any moment, and there went his plan. “Watch the door,” he snapped at Bailey as the servants scuttled away. “No one comes in.”

            Once satisfied he was alone, at least in terms of humans, Cal quickly stripped off his elaborate coat and wig—he didn’t need to get dog guts on them, they were rather expensive. He grimaced at the vaguely dog-shaped mess oozing and panting on a horse blanket and tried to find a clean-ish spot to touch. The stubby little tail, maybe. The dog whimpered when he came near—it had never really liked him. Or rather, it had never really liked Calvin, Lord Cunningham, and who could blame it? But maybe it would like Wayland better. Wayland could certainly do more for it.

            “Relax,” Wayland murmured to the dog. “Just relax. Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.” As Lord Cunningham he wasn’t opposed to using his supernatural gifts to his own advantage; some things, like the greater stamina and non-necessity of sleep, were so much a part of his daily existence he didn’t even think about them. But this was different. This was like taking off a costume in a play, stripping off a coat of paint, slicing down through a layer of sod to reveal the bedrock beneath. He wondered sometimes if anyone would actually see anything different if they were looking at him at the time; Susannah was the only one who was supposed to witness such a transformation, and her perspective was slightly skewed.

            In a moment it was done. It wasn’t particularly arduous, though slipping back into the role of Lord Cunningham was somewhat like putting on an old suit of clothes that fit self-consciously at first. He washed his hands in a bucket nearby and had just finished readjusting his wig when there was screaming outside the stable door and Lily burst in, tears streaming down her face, Bailey wanting to grab her but knowing he dared not. “Leave him alone, stop it! Stop what you’re doing!” she demanded hysterically.

            Cal caught her and held her fast. “What am I doing, hmm? What am I doing to the dog? You’re the one scaring him with that noise,” he pointed out sharply. “Stop screaming or you’re going to get yourself slapped.” She stopped screaming, started sobbing, and collapsed in a heap in the straw, nearly pulling Cal down with her. He had no intention of ending up rolling in the hay, however, unless it was for a recreational purpose. “Lily,” he tried to begin sensibly. “Lily, would you—Come on, stop crying. Stop it.” He tried to drag her back up but she was as limp as a rag doll; he was afraid he might hurt her. “The dog is fine.”

            “No, he’s not!” she wailed.

            “Yes, he is,” Cal countered. “Well, perhaps ‘fine’ is a bit of an overstatement at this point, but he’ll be fine in a couple days.”

            “He won’t!” she shrieked, cuffing him sharply on the arm as he reached for her, furious at what she obviously considered a very poor lie.

            “Thompson, go check the dog,” Cal ordered the stable master, who hovered at the doorway. “Now get up. Look, you’ve got straw all over you. That’s not very dignified, is it? It’s really quite embarrassing to come home to. The Duchess of Westmoreland, rolling about in the muck like a dairy maid. Honestly, get up.”

            “He-he looks much better, milady,” Thompson reported, sounding more than a little stunned. “His eyes are clear, and he’s breathing normal.”

            Lily scrambled across the dirt floor of the stables to the dog’s side, while Cal rolled his eyes. “Moss? Mossy? Are you alright? Oh, my little darling… I’m right here.” She gingerly brushed the dog’s muzzle and his tongue darted out to lick her fingers. Immediately she dissolved into a fresh round of tears—and looking around at the disgustingly soft-hearted servants, Cal saw she wasn’t the only one.

            “Good G-d,” he muttered, finally just grabbing her arm. “Come on.”

            “I’m going to stay with him!” she insisted, tugging futilely at Cal’s grasp.

            “No, you’re not,” he countered, and he was winning. “Watkins! You can sit with the dog,” he declared, dragging Lily outside. She didn’t have enough strength left to resist him anyway.

            “Come immediately if something happens!” she shouted back over her shoulder. “No matter what time!”

            “Up the stairs, let’s go,” Cal encouraged with a certain lack of tenderness, pushing her up to her bedroom.

            “My baby, my little Mossy…” Lily mumbled tearfully, close to being in clinical shock. Not that they would know what that looked like here.

            “Shall I get Her Ladyship—“ began one of the maids.

            “No,” Cal interrupted forcefully, shutting the bedroom door in the woman’s face. He locked it for good measure. “Alright, come here,” he told Lily, pulling her closer to the fire. He started loosening the stays of her corset and she made a vague protest. “No, it’s just to help you breathe,” he assured her. “Take a deep breath. Hold it. Now let it out. Come on, deep breath. Let it out. Okay, come on, sit down.”

            They dropped to the floor beside the fire and Lily clutched at him desperately, like she was drowning in a stormy sea and he was the rope thrown by a passing ship. Even though she was miserable the reaction gratified him somewhat; but probably she didn’t even realize that it was him, not really. Her tears were no longer hysterical, but they were free-flowing, and probably had moved beyond the dog and into the realm of everything else unpleasant that had happened in her short life. Cal imagined he figured prominently in that count.

            “Shh, shh, it’s okay,” he whispered to her, trying to push aside the cold and barbed reactions he’d cultivated as Lord Cunningham. He needed them to survive in this world, but this—this was Lily, Susannah, and there was no one else here, and her pain was real to her, no matter how fleeting or artificial he knew it to be. “Shh, you’re all right.”

            She cried herself into exhaustion eventually and he put her to bed. He didn’t sleep himself, of course, but he sat in a chair at the foot of the bed, eyes closed while he processed everything from the day, including the business that had taken him away from the estate. It had been a bold move to save the dog, but with the state of medicine here, it wasn’t as if they had X‑rays showing broken bones that had mysteriously healed in an instant or anything like that. As much as he sometimes loathed these more primitive societies, he had to admit that they had a lot more leeway for unexplainable happenings.

            He heard Lily tossing around in bed and finally she got up. He kept his eyes closed as though asleep, listening to her movements and trying to decide when she was being loud enough that he ought to ‘wake.’ She stopped quite near him and touched his shoulder lightly, and Cal fluttered his eyes open.

            “Milady,” he murmured, straightening up in his chair. Her hair was mussed, her face streaked with dried tears, and her gown was loose and covered in straw from the barn. She was beautiful, though, even if her eyes were still damp.

            “Perhaps”—she cleared her throat which was scratchy from crying—“perhaps you would be more comfortable in bed, milord.” She made the suggestion haltingly.

            “Whose bed?” he asked, out of curiosity.

            “Mine, milord,” Lily admitted tentatively.

            The corner of his mouth turned up a bit. Although it seemed like a major breakthrough, in reality he knew she was still expecting him to act as a gentleman, despite all evidence to the contrary. It was a step, though.

            “I don’t think I would be more comfortable in your bed, milady,” he answered, with some regret. “Because you need to sleep.” He pushed himself out of the chair and headed for the door. “I’ll send in your maid. She can put you to bed properly.”

            Lily reached out to touch his arm and he stopped instantly to look back at her. “Could you—must you go, milord?” She looked as though she couldn’t quite believe she was interested in maintaining his presence in her room.

            “I’ll come back later,” he promised. Probably as soon as he left, and the maid came in, Lily would be drawn back to reality and remember the 90% of his behavior that wasn’t very pleasant. “If you want me to.”

            She nodded, staring at the floor. “Thank you, milord.” What exactly she meant by that, he wasn’t sure. Obviously it couldn’t be ‘thank you for saving my dog,’ as she couldn’t realize he’d done that. Perhaps it was more along the lines of ‘thank you for comforting me and not beating me as I expected you to.’ If so, he would take it. He nodded and left.

 

***

 

            Cal insisted that Lily have breakfast with him every day. If she claimed to be indisposed, he would march up to her chamber and messily eat his sausage and eggs on the bed beside her, so she had learned to always dress and come down to the table. At least then she could sit a few chairs away from him. She had been sitting one chair closer lately, however, which Cal took as a good sign.

            One of the servants brought in the mail on a silver platter—the mail just wasn’t the mail if it wasn’t delivered on a silver platter, after all—and presented a letter to Lily, who opened it less eagerly once she saw the address. From her parents or sisters, then, Cal surmised. He liked to watch her read her mail; the letters from her friends in her former village tended to make her happier than those from her ambitious family in London.

            “Well?” he asked after a moment, startling her in the silence. “What’s wrong? One of your sisters isn’t marrying someone wealthier than me, is she?” That was a short list, of course, even shorter if one included only marriageable men, but if one expanded it to the Continent, as well…

            “My mother wants to come for a visit,” Lily intoned instead. Her tone was one of barely-concealed dread.

            Cal grimaced. Here was something they could agree on, at least. “Do you want her to come?” he checked.

            The dutiful daughter warred with the independent mind; he could see the battle rage on her face. “It’s—it’s just such a long way, and the poor roads wouldn’t do her health a favor…” Lily ventured guiltily.

            “Well, tell her she can’t come, then,” Cal suggested. Her expression said she had never, in her entire life, thought of telling her mother no. “Bad roads and rain and leper graveyards and all. Ooh, tell her that your husband is a tyrant who refuses to let you have any visitors,” he added eagerly. “Have you been building me up as horrible in your letters? It won’t be as convincing if you haven’t.”

            To her credit Lily was learning to be less scandalized by some of the things Cal said to her. “Are you—quite serious, milord?” she asked cautiously. “Shall I—put her off?”

            “Absolutely,” Cal insisted. He wanted to add something about him not wanting the old bat around anymore than she did, but he feared that might be crossing the line. He didn’t want to make her defensive and actually hurry her mother out here instead. “I’ll do it, if you like.”

            He might have sounded like he would relish the task too much. “Thank you, milord, but I’ll take care of it,” she assured him.

            Later. Cal looked distastefully down at the little dogs snuffling their breakfasts out of fine china on the floor. He had given Lily a second cocker spaniel, hoping that its brains combined with the first one’s might be enough to keep the pair out of trouble; instead Lily just coddled both of them. They couldn’t possibly have their breakfasts in the stable yard, after all. It was much too muddy. Or there might be sticks or insects to bother them. Dogs and nature didn’t get along, after all. The new one looked up at Cal innocently and he glared at it, sending the creature whimpering to Lily’s side. “Oh, Flossy,” she cooed happily, rubbing its silken ears, and Cal felt vaguely nauseous. Had anyone ever been so envious of a d—n dog before?

            At least there was the mail to distract him. “G-----n, your stepfather has b—ls,” he remarked vulgarly.

            “What?” Lily asked in surprise, hoping she’d misheard him.

            He indicated the letter he’d just opened. “You turned your mother down for a visit, now your stepfather is writing directly to me.” He read on a little further and snorted at the politely, obsequiously, odiously insistent language. “Well, what do you think? Shall I give in and have them over for a couple of months?” He meant it as a joke; but her expression was one of quiet horror. “Kidding,” he explained, tossing the letter dismissively over his shoulder. The two little dogs pounced on it and began to shred it gleefully, the first useful thing they’d done in his opinion. “I assume you haven’t changed your mind,” he pressed when she said nothing.

            “No, milord,” she agreed, picking aimlessly at her breakfast. “It would… not be my preference for them to visit.”

            “Then they won’t,” he assured her, watching her closely. “Any particular reason, or just the usual generation gap?”

            “Milord?” she questioned, without much interest. Her mind was obviously on other things. Things that he probably wanted to know about.

            “Never mind.” Things he would probably have to discover by some other means.

 

***

 

            It didn’t take long to get a clue. Since Cal didn’t actually sleep, he used the quiet time at night to catch up on the household accounts, in his room of course with the door closed. It wouldn’t do for the servants to realize that he didn’t sleep. Lily’s room was adjacent to his and, in the silence of the country night, his keen senses picked up the moan through the door easily. It wasn’t the good kind of moan, either. He walked to the connecting door and listened more closely, debating whether he should go in and wake her. Him looming over her as she emerged from a nightmare might not be the most comforting specter; on the other hand, he might look pretty d—n good compared to whatever she was dreaming about, and he could use that to his advantage.

            Before he could decide what to do—which wasn’t a very long time anyway—the moans stopped and he heard motion through the door. Lily must have awoken on her own—she was probably going to call her maid or something. No, Lily wouldn’t wake anyone up in the middle of the night like he would—Suddenly he realized she was coming in his direction and dove for the couch, picking up a random book.

            There was a soft knock on the connecting door, not nearly loud enough to wake anyone, then the door opened slightly and Lily gingerly slipped in, her nightdress ghostly white in the darkness. She looked first at the bed, which he liked to muss to give the impression he’d been sleeping. Cal cleared his throat quietly, which nonetheless startled her, and she finally turned to see him reclining on the couch, apparently reading a book.

 

[Sorry, this scene is unfinished.]

 

***

 

            “F—k,” Cal swore colorfully as he opened the letter.

            “What’s wrong?” Lily asked as she cut into her eggs.

            Cal skimmed the contents quickly, having guessed its intent when he saw the royal seal on the front. “It’s a summons from the King,” he reported unpleasantly. “He wants us to come to court.”

            Lily’s face fell. “Oh.” She set her fork down, suddenly not hungry for the breakfast in front of her. Cal continued to read the letter, looking for some kind of loophole, and she tried to find a bright side to the situation. “Well, they say court is—“

            “You’ll loathe it,” he interrupted authoritatively. “Bailey! Send for a seamstress from London. Her Ladyship needs a wardrobe that’s actually fashionable.” He looked over at his wife awkwardly trying to figure out what was wrong with her dress. “And an etiquette instructor. You’ll have to learn how to dance and curtsy properly.”

            Bailey hurried off to fulfill his orders and Cal tossed the letter aside, wishing he could toss the ‘invitation’ aside as well. “Court is entirely full of people like me, only they don’t even like you the slightest bit,” he informed his wife.

            “Oh,” she repeated, crestfallen.

            “And we’ll have to see your parents as well,” he reminded her.

            “Oh.”

            “But don’t worry, we’ll make that visit as brief as possible,” he promised. His mind worked rapidly, trying to plan what else they would need for their presentation. “You’re the reason we’ve been summoned,” he pointed out, munching on a piece of bacon. Lily looked up in surprise. “People want to see the woman I’ve married and gone to the country with. They want to see what I’ve done to you. Or perhaps, what you’ve done to me.” The statement could have been somewhat romantic, but Cal managed to say it in that slightly menacing way that he had.

            “Perhaps there will be some very fine music,” Lily struggled to suggest. “They say the King is a lover of music…” She trailed off when she saw Cal’s expression.

            “The King is a lover of music loud enough to cover his farts,” her husband pointed out knowledgeably. “Everyone at court is well-educated and completely ignorant. They have nothing better to do than to watch new people make mistakes, and ridicule them for it. I know; that’s what I always do there.”

            “I suppose there’s no reason we can give for not going,” Lily sighed despondently.

            “None whatsoever.” Lily toyed with her silverware for a moment, then allowed a servant to take her plate away, waving aside the next course. Cal knew how she felt. “Frankly I would like to stay here with you,” he told her, which seemed to surprise her. “But I’d rather we both kept our heads more.” Great job, the threat of execution really cheered her up.

            It had taken a while for Lily to warm to him; and even now she was still prone to being upset at something he said or did. But Cal felt she was getting used him. Being lifted to the heights of pleasure every night, and occasionally during the day as well, probably went a long way towards making their relationship more cordial, he felt. It seemed like she was just beginning to settle into a pleasant routine here. Court was an entirely different beast, one that his sweet-natured, sheltered wife was ill-equipped to handle.

            “Have you been working on what I’ve told you about?” he asked her.

            “Yes, milord,” she assured him. “I do try to sit and think as you said, but—I haven’t come up with anything yet.”

            “Court is a viper’s nest,” Cal pointed out to her. “It would greatly increase your chances of survival if you could remember your true identity and power.”

            “Yes, milord,” she replied dutifully, eyes downcast. Cal had been trying to work with her on awakening the memories and knowledge he knew were locked within her head, but it hadn’t been easy—mostly she looked at him like he was crazy, and did as she was told only because she had been raised to be obedient.

            “Well, it’s not your fault,” he conceded. “You’ll just have learn everything the old-fashioned way. You’re a good girl, I know you’ll work hard.”

            “Yes, milord.”