Solomon had heard the rumors – practically half of Paris had heard them - but he preferred proof. Now he had it, in the form of a thin blond man sneaking out of Ray Balzac Courland's house.
Solomon appreciated the novelty of someone sneaking _out_ for a change, and settled in to watch.
The blond glanced quickly in his direction, but Solomon was well hidden in the shade of a large oak tree. The man hurried off in the opposite direction, reaching the far corner and glancing back once before turning right. Solomon slid out of his hiding place and was about to follow when a commotion at the front door of Ray's house stopped him. He faded back into the shadows and watched.
The dark haired girl, Laila, ran down the drive and onto the sidewalk, looking left and right before choosing the same direction that the blond had taken. There were a few people around so she slowed to a rapid walk, clearly impatient to move faster.
Curious, Solomon eased out of his hiding place and followed at a discrete distance. He turned the corner just in time to see Laila catch up to the man. For all his effort to sneak out of Ray's house he didn't seem to be going very fast; it was almost as if he had nowhere to go.
Solomon took advantage of the couple's distraction to get close enough to hear some of what they were saying. A convenient tree provided cover once again and he added one more thing to his running list of the advantages of spying on the rich.
"If you'd stop being so stubborn," Laila was saying. She had a hand on the man's arm, tugging it as if she could physically drag him back to Ray's house. The man didn't even seem to notice.
"I'm not some gemstone he can lock away when he's tired of looking at it. I haven't been out of the house in days."
"You were… ill." Laila looked around, seeing that they'd drawn unwanted attention from passersby. She lowered her voice and Solomon had to strain to hear her. "He's not punishing you, he's just concerned. It's only been a week."
"Yes, I know."
Solomon was fascinated to see how quickly the man masked his emotions with a bland smile. A week… then surely the rumors were true. It would have been about a week ago that Ray had taken in the unfortunate Florian du Rochefort - just before the man's mother and home were lost. If the rest of the rumors were true, then Florian was now deeply in debt to his distant cousin, Ray. Florian certainly didn't appear to be happy with the arrangement.
Solomon leaned back, fighting back a triumphant grin. He wasn't above using any advantage to get under his dear black cat's skin and from the look of things, Florian could be just such an advantage.
"Fine!" Laila said, throwing her hands up in defeat. "Just don't expect any help from me when he whips you senseless and leaves you chained up in the basement." She turned and stomped away, too irritated to notice Solomon as she passed his hiding place.
Solomon watched her go before turning his attention back to Florian. The man had moved off the sidewalk into the shade near the fence separating the public from yet another grand mansion. He seemed to be unable to decide what to do next. People walked past, some ignoring him, some eyeing him curiously before turning their heads. No one spoke to him, and Florian didn't seem to notice.
After a few minutes, Solomon was just about to reveal himself when Florian turned towards him and spoke.
"I hope you're not watching me. I can't imagine anything less interesting."
"I can," Solomon confessed after a moment's consideration. He wondered how long Florian had been aware of his presence.
"So you've been to one of Lord Northingham's dinners. My condolences." There was a slight shifting of cloth, as if Florian was moving closer to the tree – perhaps seeking his own concealment.
"I can't say I've had the pleasure," Solomon countered easily, "but I've been to the Lord Mayor's speeches."
"The less desirable option of the two," Florian assured him. There was a rustling again and Solomon imagined he could almost hear the man breathing he was so close. If either one leaned back the slightest bit, they could reach out and touch the other. Neither man moved.
"Tell me, sir, is it boredom that compels you to lurk in the shadows of trees, or just an extreme fondness for flora?" There was a hint of amusement in Florian's voice and Solomon found himself smiling.
"I'm fond of many things; I don't like to limit myself."
"Wise man." There was a pause, and then a sigh. "Perhaps you might give me advice then –" Another pause, this one longer, before he continued. "There are men who would give a king's ransom for a chance to start fresh – to reinvent themselves. I suddenly find myself with that opportunity and would give anything not to have it. I wonder – is the flaw theirs, or my own?"
"Perhaps it's not a flaw at all," Solomon replied slowly, weighing his words carefully before speaking. Despair was a cruel thing, and one wrong word could be enough to render it fatal. "I stood in a place similar to yours once, wondering much the same thing. In the end I found a compromise, but it was difficult."
It was Solomon's turn to hesitate before adding one last thought: "You don't have to stop being yourself just because you have a new address."
Florian laughed at that, a quick, too-bright sound. There was a whisper of fabric and then a hand reached out, offering a single acorn.
"A dear old friend saw these as symbols of great potential. He always carried one in his pocket." Florian gave the acorn away easily, with just the slightest brush of hands. The arm was withdrawn and after a moment, Solomon heard footsteps walking away. He waited in the shadows several minutes longer, holding the acorn, Before he stepped out onto the sidewalk, he slid the acorn into the pocket of his jacket.
"You're up late," Florian scolded fondly, leaning down to see what Solomon was doing. He had several maps and a notebook spread out across his desk. "Can't this wait until morning?"
"I suppose you'll keep asking me that until I say yes." Solomon replied with a long-suffering sigh. He started to clean up. It was an adjustment, learning to live here in the rooms Ray had given him after Solomon's apartment had been lost in a fire.
Living here did make his frequent work for Ray more convenient, and the food was excellent thanks to Ray's new cook. Of course the downside was Florian's tendency to fuss. Like now, with him picking up Solomon's coat from the chair where it had been abandoned several hours earlier and smoothing away the wrinkles before handing it over.
Solomon accepted the coat with good humor, walking alongside the man until they reached the top of the stairs and separated – Florian retiring to the right where his rooms were conveniently located next to Ray's, and Solomon to the left at the far end of the hall, where he had plenty of windows.
It had only been a week, he realized as he stepped into his rooms. Ray, Laila, and especially Florian had made every effort to be welcoming, but Solomon still felt a vague sense of unease. With a sigh he set about changing for bed, taking care as he removed his clothes – he'd lost almost everything in the fire.
Hanging up his jacket, he took a moment to smooth the fabric, although Florian had done that just a few minutes before. Solomon was so lost in thought he almost missed the small lump in the right-hand pocket. He drew the item out slowly, although he'd known what it was as soon as he'd touched it – an acorn.
Smiling in spite of himself, Solomon placed the acorn on the bedside table and got into bed. He'd carried the first one Florian gave him around for a few days before discarding it. Perhaps he wouldn't be so quick to let this one go.