Thursday, July 12, 2012

Choices Chapter Nine

(Previous chapters can be found here.)


The next few days passed peaceably enough. Liam avoided me, which I suppose was part of the reason. When he did finally deign to pass his time with me once more, it was limited to taking meals with me and to making polite conversation about our days. His demeanor towards me was only marginally cooler than it had ever been. I could not say if I was more relieved or saddened by that.

I continued to spend most of my time in the woods on the estate. I was still accompanied by my personal guard wherever I went, although after the ball at the House of Obsidian Roslyn seemed to have come to the decision that one would suffice. Doubtless because of his knowledge of the truth about my abduction Ballard was the man chosen to serve as my permanent personal guard. While the brief announcement Roslyn made regarding this change one afternoon at lunch enforced that I had no real say in the matter, I did not mind so much as I might have before. Now that I knew Ballard to be my "rescuer" I found myself quite curious about him. When I pulled out my drawing supplies, I sometimes found the lines on the page forming his face entirely of their own volition.

After Liam had once more resumed dining with me, we were having lunch with his mother when an invitation arrived. Madge had asked me to tea for the next afternoon. Liam scowled when I answered Roslyn’s query about the missive, but Roslyn’s response rather surprised me.

“Oh, do go, Laren dear. What a wonderful opportunity!” Noting Liam’s deepened scowl and my look of surprise she smiled benignly. “There is no official quarrel between the Stag and Blades, although unofficially,” she glanced at Liam, “we have been on the outs for some time. With their recent alliance to the Bull, the House of Blades is rising in influence. I will be quite glad to have the air cleared between us.” She winked at me conspiratorially. “Sometimes it takes a woman to put right what a man is too stubborn to admit he has blundered. Also, I will be glad to see you getting out on your own a bit more again.”

I was not na├»ve enough to assume Roslyn’s intentions were so benevolent, of course. Even with an alliance to the Bull, Blades still ranked lower among the nobility than the Stag. She likely wanted to drive a point home with Liam, as well as to keep me happy enough to prevent foolish action on my part in light of Liam’s affair. I had no doubt she knew of our argument the night of the party, she and Liam had quite the row themselves the morning after, and I am certain that her disapproval of the affair and my knowledge of it came up. Besides, I am quite convinced that very little happens in the House of the Stag that Roslyn does not know about. She likely also hoped that steering me towards less solitary pastimes would prevent me from dwelling too much on the loss of my child and just how convenient it was for the Stag. I was not about to question her true motives however, as I very much wanted to attend to Madge. I quickly wrote a response accepting her invitation, and the next day I found myself quite excited to be off.

Ballard was, of course, escorted me to the House of Blades. Instead of accompanying the carriage on horseback, as was usual, this time he rode with me in the carriage. I noted that he once more wore the uniform of a manservant as opposed to his guard’s attire. Roslyn’s definition of “on my own” clearly did not actually include me leaving the premises without protection, nor entering the House of known rivals of her son unaccompanied, despite what she might tell Liam. I was quite certain by now it was at her insistence rather than my husband's that I continued to have a personal guard.

As we traveled toward our destination my mind flashed back to the last time we had been alone together in a carriage. I was suddenly very uncomfortable, embarrassed to remember what I had been like on that ride.

“My lady? Are you alright?” The question was soft, concerned. Perhaps spending so much time watching over me had made him attuned to my shifting emotions.

“I am fine Ballard, thank you.” I told him. “I was just overcome by a memory.” He turned away, glancing out the window, his face completely unreadable for a moment. I was sure he had realized the nature of my memory.

“You really didn’t realize until the other night, did you?” The question surprised me. “You didn’t know that I was the one who brought you back.” This time it was a statement. His tone was neutral, unlike his uncanny ability to see into me, I had no idea what was going on in his mind.

“I did not,” I answered. He nodded thoughtfully. “I was not exactly in my normal state of mind that day,” I tried to explain, “I am sorry.” Had he all this time thought I just couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge what he had done for me? “I owe you my thanks, Ballard, and likely more than that. If you hadn’t found me—“ He held up a hand and I stopped.

“Think on it no more, my lady.” He turned back and faced me, his face somber, but certainly not angry. “I hardly expected you to remember me,” he smiled in a self-depreciative way, “it is, after all, my job not to be noticed. I would have expected my lady Roslyn to have told you, though, when she made me your personal guard.” He shrugged. “I can imagine that my presence might be uncomfortable to you, in light of the circumstances.” I could not help it, I laughed. Seeing the puzzled look on his face, I felt I owed him more than just the understandably strange reaction.

“You expected Roslyn to disclose information to someone else for the sake of their own comfort? Roslyn? She wants to keep the knowledge of what actually happened to me limited to as few people as possible. A guard who didn’t already know would likely be curious as to why he suddenly found himself guarding me while on the estate grounds after I had simply been ill.” He sat back and nodded again. “I am sure she didn’t tell me who you were exactly for the reasons you expected her to do so,” I finished.

“I…I see your point, my lady.”

“If anything, I should have realized that her desire to keep the situation under wraps would mean one of my guards was likely to be, well, you.”

“As you said, my lady, you have not quite been yourself of late,” he replied. I thought I detected a hint of sadness in his voice, but perhaps I just imagined it. “At any rate, now that my role in the events has been made clear to you, I will understand if you prefer I not remain in your service in this capacity. I can request another assignment.” I was almost overwhelmed again, this time by vehement rejection of the suggestion. I blinked, surprised at myself.

“That will not be necessary,” I managed to say after a moment of internal struggle with myself. I did not imagine the visible relaxation of his shoulders at that. “Perhaps if I had been given the choice from the start I would have preferred another guard, I can admit that. But now I find I’ve rather grown used to you, Ballard.” I smiled at him softly. “I have no doubt of my safety under your watch.”

“You honor me, my lady,” he said, bowing his head. I reached out and touched his hand lightly.

“I give you nothing you have not earned, Ballard.”

Before he could respond the carriage came to a halt. We had arrived at the House of Blades.

~*~*~

The tea with Madge went quite splendidly. She turned out to be quite well read and we spent most of the afternoon discussing various books we had enjoyed.

"Where in the world do you manage to find such a wide variety of books?!" Madge exclaimed upon hearing of my rather eclectic range of reading materials.

"There is a shop in the Quarter of Trade owned by a merchant named Renard," I told her. "I believe he stocks at least one edition of every book he ever comes across! He also trades previously owned books so sometimes older tomes that are no longer in print appear in his inventory as well. I have been frequenting his shop since I first learned to read it seems." With a dawning sense of surprise I realized I had not visited it in almost half a cycle.

"Oh that sounds like a splendid place." Madge sighed into her teacup.

"It truly is," I agreed with a smile. "I have not been there in quite some time, perhaps you and I might visit together soon?" She beamed back at me and nodded. That reminded me of another shy girl I had recently met and I added, "You know Madge, I am to meet with Beryl of Obsidian later this week. I believe the two of you would get on quite famously. I would be delighted if you could accompany me." Madge seemed truly taken aback by the second invitation but hesitated only briefly before accepting. I was heartened when she did. Perhaps if we shy girls stick together we can work toward overcoming the disadvantage a bit.

Nathaniel and Sebastian made themselves scarce during my visit, though they did stop by shortly after I arrived to make their greetings before heading out on a hunting party with their father and elder brother. They greeted me warmly, but I had to repress a sigh as Sebastian shot a questioning look at me upon noticing Ballard. He clearly had not forgotten my promise of an explanation. I had no idea when an opportunity might present itself for that, but I did not think he would let the matter drop.

On the way back to the House of the Stag, Ballard surprised me by asking about one of the books I had mentioned to Madge over tea. He had never seen it in the House library and was intrigued by its premise. I offered him the loan of my own copy. He tried to decline but I refused to let him, and retrieved it for him as soon as we returned to the manor.

~*~*~

One week passed into the next and I found myself submitting to yet another examination by Doctor Carson. This time he happily declared me fully recovered, and he seemed delighted to learn of how busy I had been keeping myself lately. He was especially pleased to hear I had been so often getting out with other people, and not just retreating to the woods. I was given clearance to resume all regular normal activity. I celebrated by going riding with Roslyn that day.

“I am very glad to see you so fully recovered Laren,” she told me. A puzzled frown crossed her face momentarily, and she added. “I must confess, you seem to be much happier now than you were before the…incident. This despite the fact that you and my son seem to have drifted apart, especially in the last few weeks.”

I sighed, trying to determine how best to answer the unasked question. I had no desire to offend her, for many reasons. Despite what she had ordered done to my child, I could not help but understand why she had done it. I knew that in her own mind she truly believed she had been protecting me. I still wasn’t sure if she was right or wrong. I could not rationally explain it, but I still liked her very much, even though I was now also more than a little afraid of her. Still, it would be best to nip any speculation in the bud, rather than let her come up with her own theories.

“I was never Liam’s first choice for a wife, Roslyn. I had hoped we might grow to love each other eventually.” I paused for a moment, remembering that early optimism. “I suppose we might have, given the right sort of circumstances. Even after Kara returned to Pelos, I might have still had a chance to secure his affections, if I had acted quickly enough. If it hadn’t been for…” I drifted off and then shrugged at her wistful expression. “What’s done is done, however, and I have simply accepted what I am to him. That acceptance allowed me to reflect on what I want for myself out of this life. I was willing to change to please him, but in the end I still wasn’t what he wanted, so now I have decided I will be myself once more. That is why I am happy.”

She mulled over that for a while as we rode.

“I can respect that, Laren,” she said at last, “as long as your actions continue to reflect well on the House and you do not try to seek some sort of petty revenge on my son. His infatuation with Kara of Stars is unfortunate, we both agree on that, but he is given much more leeway in his actions than you will be. It is simply a fact of the world in which we live. If you begin to show too much open disregard for him or...”

“I know, Roslyn,” I told her. “I truly do.”

“Very well then,” she replied, and we rode on. She seemed satisfied and I breathed a sigh of relief at having crossed this particular bridge. Having Roslyn’s understanding would go a long way toward keeping conflict with Liam to a minimum.

That evening Liam requested that we dine privately in my rooms. I was surprised at first, until I remembered Doctor Carson’s earlier approval for resumption of all “normal” activity. It seemed he meant to reclaim what was his. I winced, remembering our couplings on evenings where he felt he needed confirm to himself that I was indeed his and no other man's. He was never gentle at those times, and I worried a little that this night might bring an even fiercer Liam. He had been quiet about my defiance in befriending Madge, and by extension the twins, but I knew him to be capable of great patience. Perhaps he had only been biding his time until he could more effectively express his displeasure.

It was with no little trepidation that I greeted him in my rooms when dinner time came around. Throughout the meal he maintained the cool mask of politeness that was his standard air around me of late. We talked enough to keep the silence from filling the room, but only just. Once the sun had set and the last remnants of our meal removed by the servants, he got up and walked to the main door of my rooms, throwing the bolt. He then turned and walked into my bedroom.

"Laren," he said, stopping in the doorway and turning his head to look back at me. It was not a request, it was a command. Annoyance warred with fear inside of me for a moment and won. After all, what had I to truly fear from him in this? We had been together before, and often. I knew his ways. That left me with a growing frustration that he couldn't even be bothered to uphold some pretense of passion for the evening.

I bit back the annoyance and stood, following him into my bedroom. He was already half undressed when I entered. He barely looked at me as he removed his trousers and pulled back the covers, climbing into the bed. I followed suit and removed my own clothing. Feeling no sense of urgency from Liam, I took my time. I was slightly unnerved by the way he watched me. Before, there had been lust in his eyes when he viewed my naked body. There was none of that now, no appreciation, just cool assessment.

It was brief, and not at all pleasant. I don't mean to say that it was unpleasant, just that I took no real joy in it. He touched me enough to coax my body to readiness, and then he entered me and simply got on with it, as if he was merely performing some menial task that must be done before he could move on with his day. He took enough care that I did not hurt. I had that, at least, for which to be grateful. He did not try to kiss me even once, where always before he had seemed to take real pleasure in the simple act. When he was done he withdrew and rolled over, breathing heavily for a few moments. Then he slid out of my bed and put on his clothes.

"Good evening," he said, hardly looking back as he left.

I sat up in my bed and pulled my knees to my chest, staring after him for some time after he had gone. I felt a few moments of real grief that our relationship had been so badly broken as to come to this point. But he had Kara now, I supposed. What need had he of me anymore, beyond producing him a child? I suspected that once I had done that, he would likely stop visiting my bed altogether. Despite my inclinations toward solitude, I did not relish the thought of a future so devoid of intimacy. After a while I got out of bed and cleaned myself up, dressing in my sleeping clothes and putting out the lights in my rooms before turning in for the night. Sleep was slow in coming, but eventually it found me.

~*~*~

Summer gave way to fall and my life fell into something of a routine. Each morning I would wake, bathing and dressing before joining Roslyn and (on most days) Liam for breakfast. Then I would have the day more or less to myself. If the weather permitted, I would go riding, taking lunch in the woods and spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing in one of my clearings. If the weather was less cooperative, I would curl up in the library or in my rooms, reading, drawing, or knitting. At least one or two days a week I would get out for a visit with Madge, either at her home or in the Quarter of Trade. Dinner varied. Most evenings I would dine alone in my rooms or with Roslyn in one of the small private dining rooms, but often we were invited to dinner parties. I even hosted a few of my own, at Roslyn's insistence. Liam visited me every evening without fail, excepted only by those few nights a moon on which I was inflicted with my womanly burden. He did not bother to dine with me first anymore. He showed up shortly before I would normally turn in and once he had completed his husbandly duty, he would be off once more. I sometimes missed the warmth of another body sleeping beside me, but I would not have expected as much from my husband any longer. Warmth from Liam was almost nonexistent these days.

As I grew used to the new pattern into which my life had settled, I was surprised to realize I had managed to somehow develop a ragtag little band of friends, unlike any I had ever had before moving to the House of the Stag. Madge and I got along quite well, of course, and Nathaniel was always a pleasure to speak with, displaying a well-hidden but impressively developed sense of humor. Despite the calculated manner of my resolve to befriend the twins, I was rather amazed at how quickly I really did count them as true friends. Sebastian in particular became very dear to me, and I came to view him very much as a brother. I was quite thankful that he seemed to understand this. His prowess as a ladies' man amused me greatly, but only because I was never the recipient of that part of his charm. We both knew it would not do to give anyone the impression that we were more than just friends, and despite his determination to rankle Liam, he kept his promise to leave me out of it. He still did not seem to approve of the fact that I was constantly guarded when out of the manor, and very much wanted to know why it was considered necessary. I had not yet been given a chance to explain the circumstances to him, however. Finding a time and place to speak to him privately without provoking unwarranted suspicions was proving extremely difficult.

Then there was Ballard. He no longer escorted me within the manor or inner courtyard, but I spent enough time outside of both that I was still with him quite often. Though initially hesitant to do more than just follow and observe, I finally managed to get him to actually talk to me when we would ride through the woods or take a carriage elsewhere in the city, usually under the premise of discussing the books we had read in common. He admitted to being an avid reader and I would often loan him recommended volumes from my collection. Though he professed he had little time to read them, he still managed to do so.

He was actually surprisingly shy, and I think he was befuddled that I should want to take the time to actually get to know him. But I had not been brought up to see servants and guards as invisible parts of the household as seemed the rule in the House of the Stag. As much time as I spent in his company, I felt it only right that I know something of who he was, beyond just a guard in the employ of the Stag. Still, while I had cracked his shell a bit, he was more often than not happy to keep his watch over me in silence. I found I was not so fond of silence as I had been in the days of my recovery, but with Ballard I did not mind so much. While I enjoyed speaking with him, I often found the silences comfortable enough.

"What do you do Ballard?" I asked him one day when we were resting in a clearing after a brisk ride. I had pulled out my drawing materials and was sketching him leaning against a tree, scanning the woods for any sign of threat. He turned at the question.

"My lady?"

"What do you do on the days when I do not leave the manor? I can't imagine you just sit in your room and read all day, as much as I am sure you would like to." It was a question I had been pondering for some time. I had no specific schedule, yet every time I would go to the stables to saddle my horse or cross the courtyard to leave through one of the tunnels he was there waiting to escort me. I wondered how he knew I would be going out when I did, and hoped he didn't have to just wait around to see.

"I have a few other duties, my lady," he answered, tilting his head in thought. "My day starts much earlier than yours, and before your breakfast I lead the other guards in their drills. There is also quite a bit of paperwork for which I am responsible." His look as he mentioned it told me it was not his favorite duty. He indicated my picnic basket and added, "When you request a basket to be made up for a day on the grounds, the cook sends a page to tell me and I come to meet you. I am also informed when you request a carriage." He shrugged, "I am your personal guard, my lady. My first duty is to make sure you are safe." I frowned slightly. I did not like the idea that he was at my beck and call, that was hardly the way to live a life. He did not seem to notice. "If there is a day that you do not have need of me, I finish my other duties, I train, I help the other guards with their duties, and sometimes I even do get to sneak off and read," he added at the last, smiling rather impishly.

"But, no one else in the House has a personal guard," I said. "I can't imagine this endears you to the others." He tilted his head, a curious expression playing across his face. "Surely you didn't join the House guard just to follow a silly girl around all day." His eyebrows shot up at that.

"You are hardly silly, my lady," he replied, his voice low and intense. He sat back and took a breath. When he went on his tone was more pensive, "It has not always been the case that so few in the House had personal guards. Roslyn does not maintain one, true, but as you know she does usually require an escort of two or three when she ventures out. Your lord husband refuses a guard for himself because he claims he has no need of the protection," he hesitated a moment before adding, "I believe he sees a personal guard something of an invasion of his privacy. He has always been highly jealous of that." Well, that I could certainly believe. Even when we had been getting along well, Liam had always kept most things to himself unless he had a pressing reason to share them. It dawned on me how intimately familiar Ballard was with my routine and my habits. He probably had a better sense of me than my own husband ever had. It had never really occurred to me to consider my guards an invasion of privacy. Being able to retreat to my rooms allowed me all of the privacy I ever felt the need for, and I hardly had any secrets. At least, I had none that Ballard did not already know. My mind had wandered off on that trail of thoughts and I started when Ballard spoke up again.

"I joined the guard because my family has served the House of the Stag in this capacity for generations and I was eager to follow in their footsteps," I blinked at the fervor in his voice, but he continued, "I have been assigned to keep you safe, and that is a duty I will gladly fulfill. Every guard accepts the duty he is given, but I wish for no other assignment." I had no reply to that. I just sat in stunned silence, staring at him, my eyes locked with his. After a few moments he turned his head and I heard him quietly add, "I only wish they would have thought to give me the assignment sooner."

"You...you think you could have prevented my abduction?" I asked quietly, frowning in thought. He winced and closed his eyes, then nodded, turning to face me again, his face now set in a blank mask.

"The new wife of the future Head of the House of the Stag? A solstice bride, no less? As much as you keep to yourself, my lady, surely you have noticed that you are something of a high-profile member of society. The Stag's influence has always been high but in the past cycles it has risen quite sharply. It should have been more than clear to Roslyn that you were a prime target for kidnapping. She would obviously have paid any price to get you back--she did pay as soon as the ransom was requested." He shook his head, frowning in anger. I think he was affronted that I had been taken because he truly believed it could, no, should have been easily preventable. "As it was, you were left unprotected, and some degenerate seized the opportunity to take you when he saw it. If you had been guarded, I--" He stopped short, shaking his head and looking down at the ground. "You would have been safe, my lady."

After a few moments, I sat down my drawing pad and got up, walking over to where he sat. I knelt beside him and placed a hand on his knee, causing him to jump, but he did not look up.

"Ballard," I said softly, "I am sure that you or any guard would have done everything in your power to prevent me from being taken. You may even be right in that your presence could have stopped my abduction from happening on that night. But...I am not sure that it would not have just happened at a later date." I gave his knee a brief squeeze, "The men who took me weren't just simple opportunists after a ransom, Ballard. They were using me to send a message to someone. I heard enough while in their custody to know they had been watching me for quite some time, waiting...they would have found a way to get what they wanted." His head snapped up and my breath caught as our eyes locked once more. How had I not noticed before that he had such amazing eyes?

"What?" He asked me, his eyes narrowing in thought. I fumbled for a moment to get back to the conversation. What was he asking me? Oh, yes.... I sat back, putting a little distance between us. It seemed to help my head clear a little.

"The men who took me, they had some purpose in mind. They said they were holding me hostage as leverage over someone in order to get a message across. The ransom was incidental. From what I gather they were told they could do whatever they wished with me after their mission had been accomplished, so long as I was left alive..." I turned away, embarrassment flushing my cheeks. I remembered all too well how that order had been interpreted. I had almost forgotten my hand rested on his knee, I glanced down in surprise when he grasped it within his own, jolted by the shock that coursed through me at the contact.

"Are you sure, my lady? They did not kidnap you for ransom? Did you tell Roslyn this?"

"I...no. I mean, yes, I am sure. I never told Roslyn though." I frowned, remembering back. "She never actually asked me for any of the details. I thought that odd, I suppose, but I just assumed she considered the matter closed once the ransom had been paid and I had been retrieved." I blushed again, avoiding his gaze. "She didn't really need to know, did she? Doctor Carson was able to tell her enough, and she wanted it kept secret. If she wanted to seek retribution she would have risked it becoming known what had happened to me."

"Humph. Yes. She forbade the guards from trying to apprehend the culprit when the ransom was picked up. She increased the detail on the manor and she let me pick a small team to go to the location where we had been told we would find you." I chanced a glance up at him, his face was a storm cloud, his gold-green eyes full of electricity as he went over the events again. I told myself I should pull my hand back, but couldn't quite bring myself to do it. "It made some sense, given the way in which they delivered their demands. We weren't told where you were until they had received the ransom. They used random children from the docks in the Quarter of Industry to deliver the messages. I assumed she didn't want to risk them killing you if they knew they had been followed." He looked off into the distance, obviously troubled.

"She didn't try to find out who took me at all then, did she?" I tried to keep the sadness out of my voice, but I didn't succeed. In so many ways, Roslyn was the mother figure I had been missing since my own mother had given up trying to connect with me. It was easy to let myself forget that no matter how kind she might be to me, she had her own agenda, and I was merely a tool to be used in achieving her own ends. She might act like she cared for me, she might even mean it some of the time, but I would do well to remember that I was not her blood, and her regard for me only went so far.

"No," Ballard answered, and that one word was imbued with so much anger and frustration I couldn't help but meet his eyes again. "I requested permission to investigate your abductor once you had returned home, but she told me no further action was required, other than increasing the guard. I don't know how she could see what was done to you and not want vengeance, my lady. I wish I could have found them for you." It was too much. I felt like a creature paralyzed by bright lights in the night. Unable to deal with his intensity at such close proximity, I pulled my hand from his under the guise of getting up and walking to my picnic basket.

"I survived, Ballard," I said softly as I pretended to rummage through the basket. "I suspect I am even the stronger for it. Here," I turned back and handed him a small loaf of bread. I always asked the cook to pack enough for two. "You should eat something, we both should. I had not realized how far the day had gotten away from us." He had been contemplating his hand and his neck was flushed slightly. When he took the bread something flashed through his eyes, but it was gone quickly and his face hastily resumed its usual stoic expression.

"As my lady wishes," he said, dipping his head briefly. I carried the basket over and sat down by him, though not so close as before. We ate in silence for a while. I mulled over what had been said. I had not spoken to anybody about what had happened to me, save for answering a few quick questions from Doctor Carson during examinations. I felt a little lighter to have shared that knowledge. But doing so had also stirred up feelings that had been forgotten. I had been so sure that Roslyn would want to hunt down the perpetrators for daring to touch a member of her House. I suppose she feared that such an investigation would attract undue attention and bring to light the truth about my "illness." In her mind all had ended well enough and so it was more important to avoid a scandal than to bring my attackers to justice. At the very least, it did not sit well to know I had been a pawn in some unknown man's scheming against some other unknown party. Ballard's thoughts seemed to be running parallel to my own.

"If they truly were not only after your ransom, my lady," he said after some time, "then this may not be over." I jerked and my eyes widened. "You are not such easy prey now," he sat up a little straighter as he said that, "but if you are correct in your belief that they would have found a way to take you regardless, then who is to say they may not want you for leverage again." He frowned, as disturbed by that epiphany as I. "Did you hear anything else, or see anything, to say who it was that took you?"

"Only a very little," I sighed. "I am afraid they drugged me when I was taken, and I wasn't entirely in my right mind during my...captivity. I overheard a few things though." I frowned and tried to recall everything I had heard the two men say. "There were two of them, the one in charge was named Jonah, though I never heard the other's name." Ballard nodded, standing up to pace as he listened. It was unusual to me to see him so restless. "They were definitely working for someone else," I continued, "a man by the sound of things. His name was never mentioned but from the way they spoke of him, I suspect he is a noble, or at least an extremely influential merchant. It seemed clear enough he is the kind of man go who can give orders and expect them to be followed without question."

"You said they took you as leverage? Leverage over whom, I wonder?"

"I don't know," I shrugged. "That part made very little sense to me. They kept talking about making sure someone got the message. The 'message' seemed to be that they could get to me when they wanted, although I don't know who that would sway..." I trailed off, mulling it over. I had never really considered the matter. Once I had returned home, my mind had been otherwise occupied.

"Your father, do you think?" Ballard asked, pausing his strides across the clearing. I shrugged and then shook my head.

"I don't think so. Maybe if he had still been in debt, but the marriage agreement took care of all of that, and he definitely would have alerted the authorities, or demanded that Roslyn increase security." I looked at Ballard in question.

"No," he told me, shaking his head, "he has made no demands on Roslyn that I know of, and I believe I would have heard about that, being in charge of your security as I am now. Besides, now that I think on it, Roslyn was quite determined he not find out about what occurred. That would be a moot point if the message was for him, I suppose." I nodded my head. I had thought as much, too. Ballard resumed his pacing, stopping again after a moment. "Maybe..." he turned his head and I noted with some curiosity that he was blushing again. "Forgive me for asking, my lady, but perhaps a former lover? Someone who might still care enough that holding you would be a sufficient threat?"

"Oh, goodness, no!"I laughed, amused when he seemed to relax at my answer. It seemed an odd thing to discuss with him, but if he was going to help me I supposed he needed to know. And he was going to help me track down my abductor, or at least do his best to try, I was sure of that now. I don't know why I was suddenly determined to solve the mystery when so much time had passed, but our conversation seemed to have spurred me to a decision and it was one I could not turn back from. "I have been a properly well-behaved lady, there was no one until Liam, and then...well." The laughter died in my throat. Ballard looked at me, a mixture of concern and something I could not quite name on his face. Eager to change the subject, he started moving again, this time striding over to pick up my drawing pad.

"Well, we have one name, and we know they were two men working together under the command of another, higher placed man. That is a place to start I suppose." He leaned down to pick up the pad. "Did you get any idea of their appearances at all? Maybe if you could draw them, it would help..."He trailed off as he looked at the pad. I remembered too late what I had been drawing before our conversation began and it was my turn to flush with embarrassment.

"I'm afraid I did not get a very good look at them," I said, reaching up to take the pad from him. He looked at me intently for a moment before I glanced away and continued. "They kept it very dark in the warehouse, and they were careful to stand in the shadows. The only reason I overheard Jonah's name was that he and his cohort thought I was still unconscious when they were speaking." He remained where he was, still staring down at me with an odd look on his face. I looked around me and saw that the sun was making its way down over the tops of the trees. "We should be getting back," I said softly.

"Of course, my lady." He helped me stand and we gathered up what we had brought to the clearing, then Ballard went to retrieve our horses from where they had been grazing. He helped me up onto my mare and then mounted his own horse and we headed back. Before we broke out of the woods he slowed and I followed suit, looking at him expectantly. "We don't have much, perhaps, my lady, but a name and a location are certainly a place to start. With your leave, I will look into the warehouse and see if any of my contacts in the Quarter of Industry know of a man called Jonah."

"Thank you, Ballard," I said. "Perhaps it will be a futile search, but knowing that an attempt has at least been made to track them down...it will be a great relief, I believe."

"I will see to it immediately, my lady." He bowed his head deeply and then we were out of the woods, the manor looming above us as we approached it. For the first time in moons I found myself reluctant to reenter the House of the Stag.

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