"Canary In A Coal Mine"

OFF: not a challenge post, just a continuance of the story.

ON:

Timeline: Two nights after the happenings in "Strange Things Did Happen Here" parts 1 and 2.

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Playing games of intrigue had never been Vanaaras strong suit. They bored her more than anything, but in this case such a game came with a price and a prize. It was the prize she most readily desired; a chance to be away with worry and concern, a chance to know and appreciate love like she’d been so brutally denied for the vast majority of her life. So when it came time to play these games of intrigue, she simply chose to swallow her derision and do what it was that had to be done. The ends, she decided, most certainly justified the means.

For instance, through whispers along society’s grapevine she knew that the owner of the HMS Endeavour, Lord Reuben Williams, had been engaged in a game of proverbial subterfuge of his own… Albeit with the very married Lady Rose Smith; Dutchess of Westchester, for what felt like months but was in fact only three weeks, and even more conjecture decreed that he felt it was meant to come to a head that night at Sir Thaddeus Lewis' wedding to Adelina Hughes, a supposedly respectable young woman from of solid Welsh breeding. Vaanaras had made sure that one of her own servants worked the wedding on ‘lease’, and made perfectly clear that, on the good Lord Williams’s dinner plate, hidden in the folds of his napkin, there was to be found an unsigned note that implored him to meet dear Rose in the east garden at seven in her unmistakable penmanship, and while she had not looked to see whether he had read it, she did see him slip away.

Adelina Jones's hand was in every last detail of her nuptials - it was clear she had spent a great deal of time ensuring that everyone who was anyone would have an obvious preview of how rich she was going to be. But those overtures of obtuse decadence and thickly layered opulence made it that much easier for Reuben’s desires to be roused and sated, with everyone preoccupied with dancing and dessert and everyone else there, and so at five past seven, Vaanaras had watched as he extricated himself from a conversation with Henry Apperson, and spirited away to the east garden in pursuit of his lover unknowing of just who and what it was that had left the room at precisely the same time, but followed a far more direct line.

You see, there was a bench in the back corner of the garden by what would have been yellow roses had the wedding been held in seasonable summer instead of the beginning of winter - a point that made some whisper that dearest Adelina may have been with child following premature celebrations of her wedding vows, not that it mattered to Vaanaras at all. What mattered was that such a location was a place her scullery maid had insisted that Reuben and Rose had visited thrice, and he knew it well indeed.

However, upon approach, Lord Williams found it was occupied and not by the woman he had expected. Instead he found Lady Vaanaras Vatterott, hardly the girl he'd presume to find at the outskirts of the festivities - she always seemed to be in the thick of the revelry, if not in some way creating it herself. And yet there she was in place of his darling Rose.

She'd made an auspicious debut after the death of her husband two years ago - Reuben had not been there - but he had heard tell after the fact. She was marvelous, everyone said, not simply because her looks were exquisite - although they were - but because she was charming, and an excellent conversationalist. He had not had a chance to be formally introduced to her, though, but when he had been acquainted through general chatter, she had never been anything but polite to him even if she never had more than a few cordial words to bestow on him at various social engagements.

He understood, of course; he had been around society long enough to know her type. There were an endless supply of beautiful charmers on the hunt for a wealthy husband, waiting to attach themselves to the first bland millionaire more than willing to exchange jewels and gowns for a woman who would grace him with her attentions. The same was to be said of cads looking to hook themselves to a woman boasting a formidable title and the wealth to back it up. Little did they seem to realize that such women and men were hardly the types to continue to lavish them with attention when the nuptials were over. He wondered, for example, how Sir Lewis's new bride would think of him after a year of daily eating at the same table with an endless monologue of "could this possibly be paprika?".

From the angle at which he approached, though, he could see that a paper Lady Vatterott held in her hand was indeed a letter of some sort, one with the telltale breaks of handwritten poetry. Verses of love, no doubt, copied down by a besotted admirer. She seemed to have a fathomless pool of those, and - if he read the casual set of her mouth as she creased the letter solidly closed correctly - indeed she must not have returned her belletristic beau's sensibilities.

It was almost too perfect. Had he known that she could feel his eyes upon her and hear the steady thrumming beat of his heart in his chest, he’d likely have quailed and returned back to the party - or excused himself completely. Regardless, Lady Vatterott gave him no chance to escape now that she had him where she needed him, "Lord Williams," she said with a smile that admitted recognition.

Her expression appeared to be genuine enough, but a woman of her stature knew nothing if not calculated sincerity… She simply seemed to have mastered it best of all and, if he was asked, he’d have stated it was the secret to her genius, her triumph over all the other beauties. She was perhaps not inherently cruel, but there was a manipulative edge to everything she did, and sometimes he wondered if it was not in fact more cruel to seem so easy, fresh, and honest when in fact every action she took was just as thoughtfully premeditated as any of the casual shrews. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Please, sit."

Not entirely sure how else to respond, he obeyed, but did not speak.

"Lady Smith was here earlier, but she left in a hurry," Vaanaras remarked after a small period of silence. His companion, it seemed, was perfectly capable of carrying on an entire conversation by herself. "Is she perhaps the reason you're here so far from the festivities?"

"Actually, yes," he said awkwardly, not particularly inclined to elaborate but not sure he was in a position not to.

She saved him the trouble of speaking, "We are quite out of sight here." A statement of fact, and yet an insinuation. And indeed, as if to emphasize her point, the orchestra struck up, sounding oddly spectral from this distance. "Do you make a habit of consorting with married women, Lord Williams?"

Immediately, her tone had him on the defensive. Oh, he knew the circumstances were suspect - Lady Smith was undeniable legally coupled, and although neither party had ever breathed a word about their untoward planned encounter, there was something unavoidably thorny about being caught having planned private conversation so distant from the actual reception. It would have meant nothing if it had gone off as planned, but it was especially vexing to have been caught by a fluttering socialite like the Lady Vatterott. Part of him doubted she would speak of it, but in that silent assurance he was indebted to her, which made him uncomfortable.

"'Consorting' is rather an insinuating word, Lady Vatterott."

The wordless smile she responded with was coy and the shadow of her face luminous in the gathering darkness - the topic at hand was much easier for her. For some reason that made him immediately angry, and he demanded, "Do you ever take anything seriously, Madame?"

"You do me an injustice to say that," said Vaanaras after a moment.

"Do I? You seem as unconcerned about insulting a man you hardly know as you are about any bachelor who crosses your path. You have a reputation for disregard, Countess. You are too aloof, too quick to dismiss your cavaliers. It will be your undoing."

"No," she said, and he was suddenly aware of her breath and the way it slid through her, even though she was shrouded in shadow and sitting a full foot away from him, "I fear it will be the opposite. But you are reacting over zealously, Lord, and it is dreadfully unbecoming. You cannot presume to know me well."

"It isn't too difficult to know you well," he said after a moment. "You were a poor highland girl who had been taken in by a pompous fool who demanded only the finest and you inherited his title, his position, and his wealth the moment he ceased to breathe.” He snapped, regarding her and tugging on the collar of his high jacket, “You are quite lovely - and yet you blush when I say that, although you must know it to be true. That is a talent... How you are in perfect control of your charm, I would say. At twenty-five, you are hardly the ingénue you have occasionally been described as, and yet neither are you so scandalous as to be indecent.” Reuben tutted, fingering the air in her direction with an accusation wrought in his index, “There is a tenacity to you too, and an underlying cunning. You hide it better than most other women, though, you'd hardly know it to look at you."

"This is a peculiar conversation," Vaanaras remarked, pulling her eyes up from the stony edges of the walkway and back to his face. "You seem to know so much about me when I, circumspectly, know almost nothing about you. Are you in love with me?"

"No," he said shortly in a scoff, although at her words he wondered, briefly, what it might be like to be entangled in a romance with a girl who spoke of love with such casual disinterest.

"No," she repeated to herself in an undertone. "No, I didn't think so. Still, you seem to have considered me a great deal, and I cannot deny my curiosity as to why. We have not, until now, conversed for any particular length of time."

"That is an overstatement," said Reuben. "I am an observer. And I cannot truly confess to knowing you."

"No, you cannot," she said carefully, before abruptly changing the subject. "I am quite glad for Adelina and Thaddeus today."

He thought, for a half second that she was too small and too fresh to think on this too long, to worry about the intricacies of her own behavior, but she was always the illusionist. He doubted he could ever be sure of what she said versus what she meant and he certainly found himself suffering a degree of mental whiplash when the attention and topic shifted to the married couple being celebrated.

"They've both gotten exactly what they set out to get," he said after a pause.

"Yes," she said, her voice suddenly three thousand miles away. "Funny how that works. Thaddeus is exactly as rich and simple a man as Adelina ever needed, and Adelina is exactly the sort of social waif Thaddeus has always expected to win himself, but don't you think they will make each other miserable?"

Reuben chuckled at that, bringing his hand round to his mouth to catch the sound, his fingers working the contours of his cheeks for a few brief seconds afterwards. "What couple doesn't? Do you expect any more of your future husband?"

"Yes," said Vaanaras after a moment. "Yes, I find most rich men to be dreadfully boring. Most are preoccupied with some terribly tedious hobby, like metalwork on weaponry or cataloging the species of bird they have spotted on their property. I expect better of any man I choose to wed in the future." Of course her mind drifted briefly to the fact that Avakhon Khinsharri was none of the dreadful things she’d mentioned.

"You speak quickly," said Reuben. "You must be acquainted with a great deal of wearisome bachelors."

"I have long ago learned to endure."

Something about the way she said that, the demure purse of her lips, made him uncomfortable. Somewhere in the last minute she had charmed him into enjoying a conversation with her, and he suddenly wondered if he was mistaking his companion's practiced politeness for legitimate interest in his words. He stood slowly, shifting his weight carefully before turning back to her, intending to say nothing but a farewell.

"How is it you ended up out here?"

The expression that crossed her face had the barest ghost of a smile, but it disappeared after only a moment and he was left staring at her vivid and yet unreadable eyes. "Sometimes it does a person well to spend a little time away from scrutiny. Although your company has made that more difficult.”

He smiled, lightly chastened, and turned to leave.

"Lord Williams," she said, "You are an engaging man. I am glad to have had this chance to chat with you, but you know I cannot simply let you walk away a free man now that I know for absolute certain that you are, indeed, bedding the Duke of Westchester’s wife."

"Yes," he said, frozen to the spot, his blood chilling in his veins, "I had thought as much, that I may owe you a favor or token in exchange for your discretion on the matter." Reuben was slow as he turned to face her, his hand gripping the jeweled hilt of his cane, pressing it sharply against the frozen flagstone of the walkway beneath him. “What is it that you want, precisely?”

Vaanaras smoothed the heavy winter wool of her outer-pinings and rose to her full, though unimpressive height. A gentle sweep of her hand brushed a raven curl from pestering her face as she executed the distance between them with a graceful saunter, “The deed and charter to the HMS Endeavour. I know you own her, that you leased her, indefinitely, to Tulde. I want her Reuben and you will give her to me.”

“A rotting ship?” He questioned, his voice high and nasally with surprise, “Of all things…” He scoffed and rolled his eyes, lifting his gaze to the sight of the party continuing on through distant frosted panes of glass.

“No. Not just any rotting ship, Reuben, the Endeavour. Her deed and charter are to be signed off on and presented to me at my home this evening before the stroke of midnight.” She replied, folding her fingers together and resting her hands before her, “Do we have an accord? The Endeavour in exchange for my silence on the matter of your dalliance with the Dutchess?”

“It’ll be on your desk well before midnight and we will speak of this no more.” Lord Williams tipped his hat to the strange, through shrewd little woman. As he stepped away from her, he realized there wasn't a way to be sure if he had - in his earlier assumptions of her character - misjudged her entirely or captured her precisely.

And had she known of his thoughts, she simply would have laughed. The Endeavour was hers now and with it the secrets locked away and hidden within her holds. To find the emerald was to lure out the killer. To lure out the killer was to end the mystery and with it free Avakhon from his burden and that… That was what mattered most.

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