"The Gift of Silence" by Arwensong Chapter I (of III)

(dedicated to Astraplain, who has been requesting "a black swan" story for a couple years now; and written for the Moonshadow Tribe 2011 Valentine's Day Challenge, "The One Who Got Away" Theme).

I gave my first love laughter, I gave my second tears,

I gave my third love silence, through all the years,

My first love gave me singing, my second eyes to see,

But oh it was my third love, who gave my soul to me.

"Gifts" by Sara Teasdale

"What do you mean he can't be found anywhere? There must be some trace of him! You just haven't looked in the right places!"

The crash of a valuable vase being thrown against the fireplace punctuated Florian's statement. Solomon and Laila stared at the shards with varied expressions of surprise–Laila because she felt it was unlike of Florian to become violent and lose control like that and Solomon Sugar because he felt it was uncharacteristic of the young du Rochefort to destroy something both rare and beautiful in his anger.

It was because it was Ray, they both decided when they were discussing it later in the kitchen. Love can make people act out of character. Of course, Laila was thinking it wasn't like Florian to show that much spirit, while Solomon was reflecting that it was unlike him to act thoughtlessly, to destroy something of beauty no matter how upset he was.

"Ray throws far more expensive items all the time," Laila pointed out as she placed a cup of coffee in front of the former detective. After a pause, she reached for the bottle of whiskey she kept behind the tea tin and placed it on the table within easy reach for both of them. Solomon nodded his thanks before adding a generous dollop of the spirits to his coffee. Laila skipped the coffee.

"Men can behave in uncharacteristic ways when someone they love is in danger," Solomon mused after taking a sip from his cup. "A gentle man can turn violent and a violent man can become shockingly tender. It is human nature."

"Human nature to get turned upside down by love? Then I want nothing to do with it!" Laila proclaimed.

"I share your distaste but suspect Detective Sugar has, with his usual perspicuity, identified a fundamental trait of the human animal," a drawling voice added. "I find I am not immune to it myself, not completely."

Solomon and Laila froze. Azura Romwell, forward from the doorway that led in from the garden. Solomon knew it would be pointless to reach for his gun–Romwell Junior held a gun in his left hand, loosely to be sure, but the man was a deadly accurate, fast shot and there was no doubt in Solomon's mind that he'd be dead on the floor before he ever had his own gun out of his pocket. The slight smile and knowing look in Romwell Junior's eyes told him that the man had deduced his thoughts. His next words said as much.

"Exactly so, Detective Sugar. But not to fear, I have no intention of harming you or my Noir's aide de camp, Miss Laila. Is young du Rochefort available for a ...chat?"

Laila looked ready to explode but remained quiet when Solomon kicked her. Gently, of course. "Laila, why don't you see if Florian will see Romwell Junior while I entertain our unexpected guest."

"Oh no, I think we will all go to see Roquefort," Azura smoothly interjected, waving his gun negligently. "After all, I wouldn't want my trip here to be a waste of time and that young man is so prone to misunderstanding me."

"A flaw of mine that I must strive to overcome, I am sure," a quiet voice said. They all turned, startled. Florian stood facing Azura, a determined expression on his face, a deadly pistol in his hand, aimed at his enemy's heart.

Azura smiled at the gun. "You've grown up, I see. Noir's influence."

"And yours."

"No doubt. We need to talk."

"Do you have Ray?"

"No, but I know who does. May I suggest a truce so that he can be saved? It is going to take both of our camps to pull it off–my knowledge and resources and your little group's ...special talents."

Florian looked closely at the man who had been Ray's closest friend and protector during his childhood, and his greatest enemy and tormentor in adulthood. Could he be trusted now? Desperate for any word of Ray's whereabouts, Florian glanced at Solomon for guidance. At the detective's subtle nod, Florian gestured for Azura to precede him to the study.

"Please bring the whiskey, Laila."

Which was a shocking request in itself, Laila thought, as she put a tray together, adding a bottle of Florian's favorite wine to the requested whiskey. Upside down as he was, it was downright weird for his highness to go totally off his rocker and start drinking the hard stuff.

After they were all settled in the study, drinks of choice in hand, Azura began to talk. Solomon watched closely as the long thin hands toyed with stem of his wine glass; the gun had been set aside. His one blue eye gazed intently at the fireplace where the shards of the expensive vase still remained but Solomon doubted he saw them. Their unexpected guest was focused inward and seemed oblivious to their presence, as oblivious as a man like Romwell Junior ever was to his surroundings.

"I was in Vienna on a ...business trip. I encountered an old ...we'll call him a friend for want of a better word. Vlad Romanov. Russian on his paternal side, pure Romany on the maternal. We have had a friendly competition over the years. One that has had its more...intense times. But what until now has been a friendly rivalry in our passion for acquiring rare objects of art and beauty. A few days ago, he issued an invitation to me, a summons of the sort we had grown accustomed to sending one another when we felt we had triumphed spectacularly in a way that we hoped would make the other grind his teeth in envy."

Azura raised his one-eyed gaze to Florian and said flatly. "Envy was not the reaction his new 'treasure' raised in my breast– I swear it to you."

"I believe you," Florian said. "Tell me exactly what transpired between you. And what he did to Ray."

Laila gasped in surprise and Florian quelled her with a glance. "Not a word until Azura has finished his tale–please."

"Ironic choice of words you will find," Azura murmured, and Solomon was tempted to ask a question but with Florian sending him a warning look, he too subsided. They all listened as Azura told them his incredible story.

"Tell me, Azura, my good friend, did you enjoy the food, the wine? Was it up to the standards of your fine palate?"

Azura smiled in his feline way and leaned back. "The meal was quite...adequate. I would not want to be tempted to over-indulge so it is a relief that you have not invited me to your palace to sample the genius of a culinary wizard. Your good Francoise labors still for you, my fine palate tells me." Azura smirked at the chagrin that passed over Romanov's feature's fleetingly. He had stolen his host's prior chef from him and it apparently still rankled. Not because Azura had broken any of the unwritten rules of their particular competition, but because the simple fact of the matter was, Azura did not much care what he ate, discriminating though his educated palate might be. Romanov loved good food and the loss of the artist who had previously graced his kitchen was painful to him on a level Azura had not fully appreciated. Romanov forced a smile as Azura lazily taunted, "I must assume you have something else to show me?"

"Ah, yes, my friend, I have something else entirely to show you. Come...let us take a walk around the lake. It is almost sundown and you will learn the reason for our dining so early."

His curiosity sparked, but determined not to show it, Azura rose to his feet in a leisurely fashion and followed his host outside to the lake. Swimming upon it were several beautiful swans, their long graceful necks held regally above their glossy white bodies as they glided effortlessly over the water. Azura found himself moved by the simple sight, not that he'd ever admit as much.

But then he saw him. The black swan. Something was different about it, he sensed it at once, and, careless of his fine leather boots and tailored silk pants, he strode swiftly down to the edge of the lake itself, and even a few feet into the water. The black swan turned to look at him, its green eyes haunted, desperate...

"Noir..." Azura breathed the word. The swan looked past him and swam further away, fear in its eyes. Azura drew in his breath and tried to compose himself even as he heard Romanov's hearty laughter from the edge of the lake.

"I can see I have finally managed to amaze the great Azura Romwell! You can see it, can't you, Azura? That is not an ordinary swan! It is that jewel thief, Noir, of all creatures! You've had your share of run-ins with him, have you not? You'll enjoy what comes next then! Come back out of the water, my friend, and see what happens at sunset!"

Schooling his features to their usual bored appearance, Azura drawled, "I presumed that you did not drag me out here to look at birds, but to see what had been done to Noir. Let me hazard a guess-does he turn back into a man at sunset?"

Once again, Romanov allowed himself to be disappointed by Azura's apparent failure to be impressed, but then he looked at the tycoon's ruined boots and pants. His rival was not as unaffected as he was pretending to be, Romanov decided, satisfaction making him jovial.

"Ah yes, you are so astute. A man again– such a clever thing. But let us watch the transformation before I explain further."

In horrified, pitying fascination–none of which emotions did he reveal– Azura watched as the final rays of the sun left the lake, and the black swan began to writhe in agony. The large bird thrashed in the water, rolling over and over until Azura feared the long neck would break. But slowly, the black feathers disappeared, long black hair appearing in their place, and long limbs taking the place of wings, the body elongating, muscles taking shape. But just as the process finished and the very identifiable form of Noir appeared before him, Azura realized that he was unconscious and sinking below the surface of the water.

Not caring what Romanov thought, Azura strode into the lake a second time, and picked up Noir's unconscious naked body. He held him close to his chest, shocked by how cold he felt. How still he was.

"You killed him," he said to Romanov. His tone was flat; it was a statement more than a question but the meaning was clear. If Noir was dead, Romanov soon would be too. One of the unwritten rules of the game would have been broken.

Romanov shrugged and held out his hands in a placating gesture. "He is not dead, my friend. He is just...cold. And disoriented. He is like this every night."

Azura had knelt in order to shrug off his dinner jacket and wrap it around Noir. That remark made him look up with a narrowed eye. Every night?

"How many times has he gone through this?" Romanov shrugged.

"A few. He was caught stealing from me, I remind you." The cold-blooded killer in Romanov looked at Azura, his expression the colder one now.

"He lives now only because I remembered that you and he had a past. And I thought I would provide us with some entertainment during your visit. I did not expect to see you weep over him. A spell was cast. It cannot be uncast even to please you, my friend, it can only be broken."

Azura knew it would do no good to protest that he was not weeping over Noir. He had played this badly and now Romanov had all the power. Especially over Noir, but over him as well it would seem. He would need to retrench. He stood up, leaving Noir on the ground.

"You misunderstand. I reserve to myself the right to torment Noir and his friends. I confess that you have quite outdone me in this– I have trapped him, kidnapped and tortured him and his friends, but I have never turned any of them into another kind of creature. And a swan, no less! He would hate it! A masterful stroke. I am intrigued by your spell. Will you tell me more?"

Romanov was placated, for the moment. He motioned for a serving man to carry Noir up to the palace. If the servant received a particularly threatening look from Azura that alerted him to the need to treat his burden with extra care–well, what Romanov didn't see was not his concern.

The two men were settled before the fire in Romanov's den with brandy when Azura again brought up the subject of the spell. After first ensuring that Romanov drank three snifters of brandy for every one that he did.

"You were careful to protect yourself, I hope. Noir can be quite devious and I would not count on his being in the form of a swan half the time to place revenge beyond his reach. He could kill you while he is in his man form."

Romanov chuckled. "It would be the end of him to do so. If I die, he remains a swan to the end of his days–no chance for the spell to be broken. A safety for me, yes?"

Azura swore inwardly. He asked as casually as he could, "But there is a way for the spell to be broken then."

Romanov smirked at him. "For some men, yes. For you? I hardly think so. So I do not fear to tell you. To break this spell, which is a very old, very powerful one, that has been in my family ages beyond ages, there must be one who is pure of heart, who is willing to sacrifice, yes?"

"They must sacrifice themself?" Azura felt the familiar pain of his headache coming–the one that had plagued him since boyhood, since he lost his eye. His adoptive father had taken him to the best specialists in the world but none could cure them. Migraines, they said. Lucky he didn't lose more than an eye, they said, shaking their heads in wonder.

Azura knew about sacrifice. He stared Romanov down but the half drunk man just giggled into his brandy snifter.

"You have a courage of a sort, my friend, but the type of courage that is needed for this sacrifice, you lack. To break this spell–ah, my black swan has joined us. He is in chains, you see, because he tends to run away otherwise."

Azura again had to force himself to remain expressionless while a guard led Noir in, his wrists and ankles shackled, a collar around his neck, and a gag around his mouth. Lowslung silken harem pants were the only clothing he was permitted and Azura carefully inventoried the many bruises on the leanly muscled body. Somehow, someway, he would make Romanov pay. The man knew that Noir was Azura's and yet he'd dared to touch him, to mark him in this way?

Noir kept his eyes averted from Azura. They were intent on blazing hatred at Romanov, who was reveling in this moment of perceived triumph.

"So fiery in his hatred. Look at him, Azura. See how passionate he is? He makes a fine plaything. He hopes to escape but the trick of that is, he is not sure if that will curse him to remain forever a swan. You see, I have not given him the secret of how to break the spell. He is not my good friend as you are. You, I will give the secret to because you are my friend. And because it will not do you any good."

Azura ground his teeth. He didn't see Noir glance over at him but Romanov, who could ingest a great deal of brandy without becoming as impaired as he was pretending to be, he did notice. And he smiled. He looked directly at Noir.

"Any spell can be broken–as can any man. You need only the patience and the right person. Patience is not a strong suit of either of you former street rats, is it? So it follows that you have not the right person in your childhood buddy and adulthood enemy, do you, Noir, master thief? A man like you, who does nothing but take the treasures that belong to other people, where will you ever find someone to sacrifice to save you? To give up a part of their life for you and risk all to save you?"

Noir stood proudly aloof. He did not need to defend himself to this man–not that he could with the gag in his mouth. Azura found himself proud of his former friend, and wishing that he could rescue him. Realizing that Romanov was nowhere near as drunk as he had thought, he took matters into his own hands, smoothly adding a drug to his host's glass when he leaned forward to replenish both their glasses. The flicker of Noir's eyes told him that he did not miss the sleight of hand–there were some things the two of them learned together and how to drug a glass so that the drinker could not detect it was one of them. Azura was glad to see the faint lift of Noir's lips. Romanov was torturing his old friend's body but he would never be the one to break that spirit.

"So...the way to break the spell is beyond me. Clever of you. What does it take then? A virgin's blood?" Azura curled his lip in disdain.

Romanov laughed and then drank deeply from his glass. Good, Azura and Noir both thought. After a moment, Romanov told them what they wanted to know.

"To break the spell, it takes only that the one who undertakes the task remain silent for seven months. He, or she, must not say any word, nor may writing of words be done. Nothing more than a nod of the head to say yes or shaking the head no. The simplest gestures as are needed to survive. Added to that is one more thing only–the one wishful of breaking the spell must weave a cloth from a special plant, large enough to cover Noir and make a shirt for him from it."

"A shirt?" Azura asked, the words out before he could retrieve them. Romanov grinned and shrugged.

"These old Romany spells, who is to know what is in their heads, yes? And the plant that the cloth for the shirt is to be made of? Nettles! Make a person's fingers burn! At least, I am told it looks as though it looks like they are burning. The person cannot say they are burning or they fail in their task. And of course they must, well, let me just say ...there are so many ways to fail!"

"And what happens if they do?"

"They die. And the man/swan stays a swan forever."

Knowing was not the relief that Azura had believed it would be. Allied as they had not been since childhood, Azura and Noir exchanged stricken looks while Romanov laughed.

Azura's expression hardened. Romanov was right–he would never be able to complete the tasks necessary to break the spell. Keeping quiet for the amount of time it would take to make the shirt–he could not do it. But he knew someone who could–and who would willingly do it for Noir.

"So, that is what brought me here. I cannot do this thing. I do not have the temperament, but..."

"I will do it." Florian spoke firmly.

"Florian! You cannot trust him! He wants to see you dead!" Laila was unable to remain silent any longer. Azura looked at her mockingly.

"And thus we see why she is not suitable to undertake to rescue her beloved Noir, limitless though her devotion is" Azura told the group.

"Laila has nothing to feel ashamed of in that, since you have already conceded that you would not be able to do the tasks either," Sugar pointed out calmly. "How long has it been since you were there and in that time have you determined what else is required to break the spell?"

"I would like to know that also but understand, Solomon, I will be the one to undertake the task." Florian's gentle voice

"I believe that must be so," Azura said reflectively. "Do not misunderstand me, Sugar. You have a great deal of self-control, and I am well aware of your affection for Noir also, but Rochefort has the type of strength that lies in humility."

"I would do anything for Noir!" Laila said hotly. Florian reached over and placed his hand on hers.

"No one doubts that, Laila. Azura is saying that what he sees as my lack of self-esteem and spirit, which all of the rest of you have in abundance, is what is needed to complete this task. I may not agree with his assessment of me but I do agree that I am the right one to break this spell as I will not let myself fail. For all that Ray has done for me–not least for saving me from your hands, Azura– I owe it to him to save him from this horrible spell. I appreciate that you came to us, Azura. And to answer your initial question, which I can see is a concern of Solomon's also, I do not trust Azura but I do not see that we have a choice. Ray has been missing too long. If he could have gotten free on his own, he would have by now. I know of Count Romanov. I can get an invitation to his palace. I imagine matters will progress from there."

"I want to come with you," Solomon said. "There must be some way we can protect you while you undertake this task."

"I want to go too–assuming this story is true, I can brew potions to sooth your hands from the nettles–surely that isn't forbidden," Laila announced.

Azura nodded, satisfied. He had not expected anything less. He would take what steps he could to ensure that Romanov played the game fairly.

"Your Grace! Welcome! It is an honor to have you visit my humble abode! I am so pleased to see that the nobility of Europe has not completely lost its lustre."

Romanov bowed low over Florian's hand. Laila managed to refrain from comment–barely–as she watched Florian play the part of the titled aristocrat to perfection. Which, Solomon reminded her later, should not have been a surprise as he was not playing a part at all. Florian was a titled aristocrat and indeed "to the manner born."

Sugar was acting as Florian's secretary/valet while Laila, garbed as a boy, made a convincing page. Florian was charming to their host, offering mild compliments to the decor and various objects of art. The mild compliments were nicely calculated to get Romanov to show Florian his better treasures, the items that were sure to impress a Duke.

It worked. After tea, frustrated in his efforts to impress the mild young nobleman, Romanov invited him to walk down to the lake with him. Solomon and Laila were left behind to unpack Florian's bags.

"Why can't we go down too?" Laila demanded, complaining even as she worked industriously, folding shirts and placing them neatly in the wardrobe, hanging up his dress jackets and slacks. Solomon admired her ability to keep her hands busy while her mind and mouth were engaged in another task.

"We are going to find out what we can here while Florian keeps the Count down by the lake and learns what he can from him–and tries to see Ray. I'm going to go down belowstairs, check out the chef and kitchen staff. See if you can snoop around up here–but be careful."

"Always," Laila said, happy now that she'd been given something useful to do.

Meanwhile, Florian was strolling with Romanov, giving no indication that he hated the man walking next to him. He yawned delicately as the swan filled lake came into view.

"Very pretty. Many of the great houses in England are importing peacocks now. Quite pretty." Laila would have stared could she have seen the way Florian curled his upper lip and infused the word with such contempt.

Romanov was about to order the killing of the entire swan population for the sin of being deemed "pretty" when the young Duke stopped dead in his tracks and grabbed at his host's arm with a cry of delight.

"But what is that? Is it a ...a black swan? How truly beautiful! I must get a closer look! Remarkable, Vlad, truly a treasure! May I?"

Pleased not only by such effusive admiration but also by Florian's deference in asking permission to approach his prized treasure instead of just wading right up to him, as that arrogant Azura had. He grandly indicated his permission, waving Florian on with a flourish.

Florian walked forward, forcing himself not to rush, to go slowly so that Romanov would not guess how very important this moment was to him. Azura had said the black swan was Ray but he needed to be sure. He would not put it past Azura to play a vicious trick on him, have him spend months in a painful, difficult task, only to...

The beautiful creature turned and its brilliant green eyes met Florian's amethyst colored ones, and it was all he could do not to run into the water and wrap his arms around the animal.

The black swan was Ray.

Florian crouched to bring himself closer to eye level. For a long moment, they just looked into each others eyes. A promise was made and while the swan was not happy to see his mate place himself in such danger, it knew on a primitive level that Ray the man would not that there was no choice for either of them. Without Ray, Florian could not live, any more than Ray could survive this life for long.

The attempt had to be made and Florian was the only one who could do it.

Rising, Florian turned to Romanov again, his beautiful eyes bright with what Romanov mistook for excitement.

"I must have that beautiful creature! What do you want for it? Anything up to the Rochefort Diamond itself!"

Romanov's black eyes gleamed. "The Rochefort Diamond," he breathed. "Then it does exist?"

"Of course," Florian said negligently. "Do you want it in exchange for your swan?"

This was a ruse at Azura's suggestion. If Romanov were willing to sell the swan, then it negated all his talk of the spell tying Noir to the palace grounds, that he had to remain there while the breaking of the spell was attempted, as well as the threat that if the spell were attempted and failed, Noir would be locked in the swan form forever.

A cagey expression passed over Romanov's face. "We could work out an arrangement but there is more for you to know about this treasure. Let us go back to the palace and we will return to the lake at sundown."

Florian left the lake reluctantly.

Shortly before sunset, Florian, Solomon and Laila met in the sitting room of the suite of rooms that had been given to Florian by the Count. Florian sat down after dressing in just slacks and shirtsleeves and got right to business.

"We do not have long. Ray is suffering. I can see it. He is in there but there is a wild , feral look in his eyes too. I do not believe we can wait. I must undertake this task at once. If we wait too long, we may lose him anyway."

"I worry about that too," Solomon admitted. "Which is why we did some research on how long, or rather, or how quickly, the spell can be completed."

"Well done," Florian praised them. "Where were you able to research the spells?"

"Laila found a library. Fortunately she is able to read the old Romany language and script that the spells are recorded in. The swan spell is complex and...but she should tell you."

Laila blushed. Then began talking. "The spell is a very old one, a variation on the one that gave rise to the fable about the seven swans, a Celtic myth. This spell, or curse, is much the same. It requires the person who seeks to break the spell to work in silence while weaving a cloth from nettles. In the usual telling of the story, the beautiful sister of seven brothers who have been cursed by a wicked stepmother is the one who labors to free them from their half-life as swans. She succeeds but is interrupted with the final shirt and the seventh brother's shirt lacks one sleeve, so he is left with one wing instead of an arm where the missing sleeve was, which is a warning to not stop too soon in the making of the shirt. She is rewarded in the traditional way, by marriage to a king who honors her for her faithfulness and courage, falling for her despite her silence, which must be unexplained, and which makes her seem untrustworthy to many."

"In spite of, I would think it would be an added attraction," Solomon said under his breath, impatient for Laila to get to the point of this particular spell. She glared at him and continued. "This version of the spell, favored by Romanov's family, has an outer time limit but no real limit on how quickly you can do it. Also, the spell specifies that the one who does the task may not be assisted directly–for example, Florian would have to gather the nettles on his own, and weave the cloth, sew the shirt, and so on. But...," she looked triumphantly at the other two. "We can help him find the nettles and I can help heal his hands so he can work more quickly. We can anticipate his needs so that he will have less need to talk, less temptation. But, it will not be easy. While Romanov cannot actively interfere with Florian, he can do whatever he wants to make his life miserable."

"Explain," Florian ordered.

"He cannot destroy the shirts you make, or destroy all nettle fields on the grounds–but he can beat you to make you cry out. Crying out in pain counts as making a sound. Shouting or yelling do too. He cannot kill you but he can come close, Florian."

"That is where we will need to protect him," Solomon said grimly.

"That is where we will need to keep Azura on call," Florian said, his lips quirking upward. Seeing the rebellious looks on their faces, he shook his head. "I know how you feel about him, I feel the same, but he has more leverage over Romanov that either of you do. I do not want him killing you to make up for the fact that he can't kill me, which I suspect he would do in a second if he thought you were aiding me."

"But we have to help, Florian!" Laila protested.

"And you have. I have every expectation that you will continue to do so," he told her. "But you will do it from somewhere off these grounds and outside this evil man's control. Once I begin, I will find a reason to send you both away and you will find a place nearby to set up operations. Close enough to help but not so close that you will fall under Romanov's power."

They argued until it was time for Florian to finish dressing. Somehow, when all was said and done, Florian got his way. He smiled his gentle smile and held out his hands to his two friends, clasping one of their hands in each of his.

"Soon, I will not be able to talk to you for some time so let me say this now. You are two of the best friends any man could have–Ray has been fortunate to have that friendship and I feel blessed that you have shared your friendship with me as well. However this turns out, please know that your friendship has meant the world to me and I care very much for both of you."

Florian leaned down and kissed Laila on the cheek before she could resist and then hugged her. He did the same to Solomon. He then left the room before either of them could react. He did not want the scene to get too maudlin. And he really didn't want to miss sunset.

The transformation was as painful to watch as Azura had led him to expect. He wore a cloak in anticipation of Ray needing the warmth. Solomon and Laila had followed Romanov and him to the lake and the plan had been for him to send his "servants" to retrieve the man from the lake. But he could not stop himself, he moved forward to do it himself. Laila stopped him, holding him firmly under pretext of helping him on the damp ground while Solomon moved quickly into the water to help the struggling Ray.

Once Solomon had lifted Ray out of the water, Laila allowed Florian to go to him. Intent on helping their friend, the three of them failed to watch Romanov. The Count was watching Florian with the avid gleam of a collector in his greedy eyes.

The evening breeze was lifting Florian's fair hair back from his face. The tenderness on his face as he held Ray while he completed the return to human sentience was truly beautiful, as was the way the two men clung to each other afterward. A better man than Romanov might have been touched, so touched that he would try to help these two lovers.

But Romanov was not a better man. He vowed to find a way to keep both men. Noir might be the man who got away from Azura but they would not be the ones who got away from him. He vowed that they would both remain in his collection–as swans or men. It made no real difference. Though come to think of it, a golden swan with those amethyst eyes would be the crowning jewel of his lake.

Romanov smiled as Florian helped Noir walk slowly back to the house. He found the servant, "Lailan"staring at him. The odd lad made the sign of protection, his hand movements encompassing the Duke and Noir. In the language of the Count's homeland, he said in a gruff voice, "no tricks. One spell is all, Azura said to tell you."

Romanov frowned. Damned Azura. He must have planted a Romany spy among the Duke's people. Still, the spell was a difficult one to break, and there were many ways to enjoy the spellbreaker in the meantime.

The deal was struck after dinner. Romanov had Noir brought in to watch. He was garbed as Azura had described but Florian insisted, in his gentle way, that the gag be removed and that he be permitted food.

"If I am to undertake this onerous task to win your man swan from you, my dear Vlad, I must see that you are not injuring him more than he has already been harmed."

Vlad made a show of being hurt. "I am shocked my dear du Rochefort...or may I call you Florian? If you are to undertake this task, every consideration will be given to you and Noir. I had wished only to teach him a lesson, which I believe he has now learned. If it were in my power to remove the spell to indulge you, I would but you understand how these things work, the spell must be satisfied. I can only endeavor to make you both as comfortable as possible while you complete your labors...in silence."

Florian and Noir exchanged glances. They did not believe him for a second; they were just not sure how bad it would be.

They learned soon enough. Without further ado, Romanov spoke some words in a foreign language and Florian felt a tingling sensation on his tongue. He raised a hand to his lips and looked inquiringly at Romanov.

"Oh yes, it has begun already. You did seem eager to begin. From this point on, you may not make a sound. You must weave a cloth from nettles –not to worry, they grow right here on the estate–and you must then sew a shirt for Noir. Simple really. So long as you have the discipline not to talk. Is that something you are capable of, Florian?"

Romanov walked closer to Florian and placed his hand on his shoulder, the touch far more familiar than the Count had previously attempted. Noir was weakened by his near starved state, and he was still chained, but he bristled at the gesture.

"You are already showing your true colors, Romanov. I swear, you lay a hand on Florian and..."

Too late, Noir realized that he had fallen into Romanov's trap by revealing that he cared for Florian–and that they obviously knew each other already. He cursed himself–he'd been a swan too long, he thought with disgust.

Florian removed Romanov's hand from his shoulder. He was not able to speak but his fine eyes communicated volumes. He had endured such familiarities from strange men, and those well known to him, in well-bred silence for many years in his mother's house . It was not difficult to do so now. He knew to a nicety how to chastise with a mere lift of his eyebrow, and he knew how to make a man like Romanov back down. When he still would back down.

This was one of those times when his instincts told him that any retreat would be temporary and he steeled his nerve against whatever trials were to come. The important thing was to get to work on finding the nettles. He trusted to Laila and Solomon to know exactly where he should go to do that when dawn saw Ray turned into a swan again. In the meantime, he took pleasure simply in being in the same room with his love. From the way Ray's eyes hungrily gazed upon him, the feeling was mutual.

Perhaps that was how Romanov took them so completely by surprise, not that there was much either of them could have done to stop him, Florian later reflected, when he found himself bound and in a carriage. Ray, similarly restrained, was on the seat next to him while Romanov rode opposite them. The Count smiled broadly when he noticed that Florian was awake.

"You rejoin me! I began to fear my serving man Ivan hit you a bit too hard! I hoped you would awaken before your dear Noir turned into a swan again. It would be a shame for you not to have the chance to share a fond embrace before I must separate you so as to crate him. A swan does not make a suitable travel companion in a carriage."

Florian looked around the carriage, his bewilderment plain. Romanov laughed heartily.

"Oh, I felt, your Grace, that you had arranged for a bit too much help at my Austrian palace. So we are en route to my Bavarian property. There are plenty of nettles so I am honoring the requirements of the spell, never fear. You just might not have the aid of your comrades. But, you do not need more than your own two hands and your wits, do you? And your black swan, of course."

Florian felt Ray's arm come around him comfortingly. He leaned back against him, grateful for the moment of contact, fleeting though it was. He hoped Solomon and Laila were safe. This certainly threw a wrench in their plans...but it did not change his determination. He turned his head and throwing caution to the winds, kissed Noir passionately. It took Noir only a moment to return the kiss, his arms tightening their hold on Florian as he wove his fingers through the long blond hair he loved so much.

Noir moved his lips to Florian's neck, murmuring in French into Florian's ear, "Be careful, he will trick you if he can,"

Florian could not respond so he pressed his forehead to Ray's. Sensing that Romanov was enjoying the show, he pressed his body closer to Ray's. He could not talk to Ray but some things did not require words. And if their lovemaking entertained Romanov, so be it–it kept him from thinking up more painful ways of entertaining himself, Florian reasoned. Ways that left bruises on Noir's battered body.

He had to get through the next several months any way he could. And he would. They would get away from this madman.

TBC in Part Two.