"The Gift of Silence–Part III" by Arwensong

(Dedicated to Astraplain, and with my gratitude to both Astra and Thyme, for their help and encouragement)

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

Laila was brought before Azura under the watchful eyes of four large guards, a precaution that made her curl her lip disdainfully, and sent the one-eyed arch-criminal into paroxysms of laughter. Laila's expression changed to one of blank astonishment, which made Azura laugh even harder. Laila glared at the guards until they moved away from her. She would have liked to think they did so because she intimidated them but out of the corner of her eye, she saw Azura wave them off. She folded her arms over her chest and turned her glare upon him.

Azura lifted his hands in a placating gesture. "Please, don't. Your fierceness–especially in the presence of my obviously useless guards, will start me laughing again and much as I enjoyed laughing such as I haven't done since I was a boy, it wouldn't do to get in the habit again. We have serious business to discuss, yes?"

Laila nodded, relieved that Azura had not turned insane in the weeks since she had last seen him. Well, not any more insane than he'd been for years. They needed him to deal with the crazy Count while Noir was, well, unavailable due to his unfortunate condition. Laila decided to get right to business.

"The Count isn't playing by the rules–he's taken off with Noir and Florian."

Azura stilled. With a sharp gesture of his hand the room emptied. He left his throne-like chair and took Laila by the arm, leading her to a small anteroom. A silent servant entered to bring a heavily laden tray of food and drinks and then left quickly. Azura pulled out a chair for Laila from the small table where the food had been placed and after she was seated, he took a seat nearby. When Laila hesitated to serve herself, seeing that he was apparently not going to join her, he gestured for her to start.

"You are no doubt famished. To the extent you can eat and talk, please do so. I wish to know exactly what happened since I left you and du Rochefort in France."

Laila was very good at talking and eating so it was no time at all before Azura was fully updated on Romanov's perfidy, Florian's courage, and what had happened to Solomon and her efforts to provide support.

"So, we decided the best thing we could do after Romanov took off with Noir and Florian was to split up. You can tell who got the short straw," she said dryly.

Azura raised the eyebrow over his good eye. "No doubt, but perhaps the food is better than what Detective Sugar is presently enjoying. And I can promise you that I will not be trying to kill you–at least not while this escapade is ongoing." His voice showed her that a tone could be as dry as the Moroccan desert. She was green with envy, or at least, she would be if that killing comment hadn't been slightly disconcerting. She chewed the very good pastry a little more slowly.

Azura hid his smile and continued. "I am sure you will be ready to leave as soon as I can pack the few things I will need. I will travel without my usual entourage so that we can move quickly. I trust that you will have no objection?"

Laila had no objection, despite her weariness. She just hoped that Azura's packing included some more of these delicious pastries, but just in case it didn't...she slipped a few into her bag when he turned to summon his manservant.

Solomon sat at the wooden kitchen table and watched Florian work at his task. He had been staying with him during the daylight hours for the ten days since he'd arrived. In the evenings, he left–after sharing supper with Ray and Florian.

It was odd at first, getting used to Florian's silence, but not as strange, he thought, as growing accustomed to a more talkative Ray. Florian had always had a core of peacefulness to him, an inner place to which he could retreat when he needed to get away from the uproar that often surrounded Noir.

Noir...Ray...enjoyed the uproar, but what he enjoyed most was to instigate it and then sit back and watch it erupt around him, often with hands folded behind his head, legs up on his desk or the dining room table, an insouciant grin on his face. He'd do much the same whether it was his own household he'd set in an uproar or the highest levels of Parisian society. What he didn't do was permit entree into his real nature–not if he could avoid it. Few knew the incredibly loyal and warm-hearted friend that Ray could be. Solomon counted it as one of the best bits of good fortune that fate had bestowed upon him that he had gotten to know the real man behind the infamous cat burglar he'd once vowed to capture and send to jail.

Florian's loom had stopped. The young man was flexing his swollen fingers. Solomon winced in sympathy at the sight of the red, misshapen joints. He stood up and walked over to the fireplace where the pot of soothing salve Laila had sent with him was kept warm. He scooped some into a dish and took it over to Florian, kneeling down next to him.

"Take a break for a bit and let me massage some more of this into your hands, Florian. While it seeps in, I will prepare something for you to eat."

Florian paused, looking at the length of cloth he was working on as though staring at it would make it grow.

"You will make more progress if you are in less pain and if you allow yourself time to take some nourishment," Solomon said calmly.

Nodding his agreement with the good sense of that statement, Florian smiled gratefully as Solomon worked the warm balm into the broken, sore skin of his abused hands.

Florian watched Solomon's face as he concentrated on his task. It was interesting how differently each person responded to him now, he reflected. Solomon, who had been a close friend to him before this, someone he could talk to for hours, was as comfortable with his silence as he'd been with his chatter. Sometimes he would return from one of his nightly forays into the village or beyond with a book or a newspaper, and he would read to Florian in his pleasant, well-modulated voice. Sometimes he slept, dozing with his pistol at the ready in case trouble came. But most of the time, he was content to sit quietly while Florian worked.

The women Florian had befriended, or rather, who had befriended him, visited often, but they were careful to do so in secret, only one or two at a time, taking care not to be seen. The experience by the river had taught them all to be more cautious. It had been a close call. Florian could not ask about those injured by the men, especially the brave Gisela, but her eldest daughter volunteered the information when she came to see him. Florian wept tears of relief and thankfulness when he learned that his friend had survived the brutal attack; he had feared the worst.

The inability to ask questions, that was one of the hardest parts of this trial. He missed talking to Ray, telling him he loved him, even arguing with him, but in the every day moments, it was his curiosity that was like an itch that never went away. He was nervous about revealing his questions too obviously in non-verbal ways, but as the weeks went by, Ray had become good at sensing when Florian wanted to know something and was much better about answering than he used to be.

Still, many of the questions that filled his mind could not be guessed by even one so clever at deduction as Ray so they swirled around his head. Florian found himself spending hours just thinking. Thinking about his childhood, about what his mother had done to him, selling him to the highest bidder essentially; for all that the changed circumstances had worked out, it was not an easy adjustment to make. He went from being the heir to one of the highest titles in the land, raised to believe he was better than others merely by virtue of his blood, to discovering that he was worth less than the embossed serving pieces to his mother when times got tough. Noel was not flesh of his flesh but he could not conceive of ever valuing any material object over him.

After all, the serving pieces had been in the family for many generations, the same was not true of Florian .

And then there was Ray. They had gone through bad times–without a doubt the worst episodes of Florian's life directly involved Ray in one way or another– but the good times, the beyond fantastic times, far exceeded the bad. Florian spent many hours thinking about the good times.

Florian learned that he liked to work with his hands, though he could do without the pain. He also found himself enjoying the company of women for the first time in his life, but he thought that might have something to do with the fact that these women were natural, down to earth people. Solomon called them salt of the earth and he was right. There was no similarity between them and the painted, tittering females who populated most of Paris' high society. There were exceptions, of course there were, but they were few. His new friends had busy lives, caring for their families, but they enjoyed what they had–finding much to laugh about in the simple pleasures of life. Even sad events–the loss of a beloved parent, a frail child's illness –were lessened when shared.

His family's change in fortunes had shown him that many of his former friends among the higher bred of society were neither friends nor particularly well bred. This experience was revealing to him that these people who were from a class he'd been taught were beneath his notice– barely even people according to his mother and her friends– were kinder, better...braver too. So many of his beliefs about what made a person noble and true were challenged when he was left to the mercy of a total stranger, the enigmatic Ray Balzac Courland; now his remaining prejudices about the so-called lower class were crumbling as the villagers put their lives at risk to shelter and protect Ray and him. The money Romanov was offering as a reward for information would be enough to tempt anyone, much less people with so little. Of course, Ray planned to reward them far more when they finally returned to their "real" lives, but no one knew that the Black Swan was a wealthy man or that the silent blond man was a Duke–all they knew was that Ray and Florian were victims to the Count's evil and as such, they were family.

Solomon's voice startled him from his reverie.

"It's nearing sunset. I should start..."

He never finished his sentence. A loud pounding on the door was swiftly followed by a woman's voice calling for Florian. She was calling him by the name the women of the woods used for him, Wuhho Prala, "pure brother", Pra for short.

It sounded like Marta, one of Gisela's younger daughters. And she sounded distraught.

Sugar went to the door, his gun drawn but hidden from view. The frantic woman came in and fell against him, the tears flowing so strong she couldn't see where she was going. Indeed, her sobs made it difficult for them to understand what she was trying to tell them but finally she managed to compose herself enough to get it out.

The Count had taken Gisela and several of their men, threatening to kill them if Florian and Ray did not turn themselves in to him.

"We do not ask you to give yourselves up to his evil, our dear Buba would not allow that, but we beg you, please leave these woods before he does more. If we can show him that you were here but left, he might release our loved ones, or at least not take any more."

Florian's eyes were stricken. He looked at Solomon, hands spread out in defeat. The detective shook his head. Before he could speak though, another voice spoke up, hoarse but achingly familiar, and it made fresh tears come to Florian's eyes. Ray walked close to him, close enough to wrap his arms around him.

"I do not think giving ourselves up is the answer, Florian, though I would do so in a moment if it would save you, and free Gisela. Marta is right. Romanov is counting on you to be noble, but these people will be punished even if you do give yourself up. The only hold he has on you is them. Once he has you, his punishment will rain down upon them for daring to help you in the first place. And he will continue to steal their young men and maidens, and his son in his place and on through the generations. Some day it must stop." Ray turned to Marta. Solomon had a supportive arm around the girl, to whom he'd given a glass of wine to further sooth her distress.

"Did he give a time frame? How long before he carries out his threat?"

"He did not say," she whispered, hope appearing. "You have a plan, Black Swan?" She looked at Ray, hope reborn. Florian always looked at Ray with confidence in his ability to solve their problems.

"Of course," Ray answered. He looked at the loom. "Florian, I know you cannot answer me but I'm going to make my own estimate that your work is nearing its conclusion. You have enough cloth for a shirt. You are not making one fit for a Duke, remember, or even necessarily a billowing peasant shirt. It need only cover my torso and have something that serves as sleeves. So, considering that I am thinner than I used to be, which was thin enough, and I am not all that tall and the shirt need only come to my waist..."

Ray lifted the part of the cloth that hung free and held it up to his chest.

"See, you've got almost twice as much as you're going to need," Ray announced brightly.

Florian and Marta's expressions were less hopeful; they clearly were unsure how to respond–not that Florian could respond. Aloud, at least.

Solomon did it for them.

"My dear black cat, or rather, black swan, the reason Florian has almost twice as much is because it is customary for shirts to cover the back of a gentleman and not just his front."

If the situation were not so dire, Ray's chagrin would have been pricelessly funny. Though I do believe your point has merit. It will be tight but there may well be enough cloth for a very small, snug shirt."

Marta and Florian moved to the loom as Ray continued. "I think that Florian must go into deeper hiding. Sugar, I will ask you to accompany him if you will and lend what protection you can."

Florian looked up dismayed.

Ray reached out and stroked Florian's hair back from his face. "One of us must stay behind, insist that he free Gisela and her family. He will not harm me. You must finish your work. He will try to keep you from reaching me to get the shirt to me but if Azura gets here, and I am sure Laila will bring him, then he will make sure the Count allows it, so it is imperative that you finish the shirt. If you can do without the loom, you can get to the spot I have found and finish your task. I hate to separate from you, but I know you will not be happy allowing these fine people to suffer for our sake. Nor would I, but I see no benefit to allowing them to continue under the dominion of Romanov when they've made such a fine start toward throwing off his yoke of tyranny."

Florian pressed his head against Ray's chest. Ray looked at Solomon Sugar meaningfully. Picking up the cue, their friend spoke quietly to Marta and led her outside the small hut. He would explain to her what she should tell her family. Ray would be going to the Count, so they need only wait a little longer. As confidently as Ray spoke, not one of them, least of all Marta, trusted the Count in the least respect, so while he may not want to harm Ray irreparably, not until he had his way with him and tired of doing so, his temper was uncertain and unreliable. Moreover, his tastes were...twisted and cruel. If he gained control over either of the men he had been seeking for so long, he would be merciless.

It was telling, after all, Solomon Sugar reflected, as he walked young Marta part of the way home, that they had gone to such a cruel villain as Azura for help. Yet by comparison with Romanov, Azura was honorable. To think that their lives might well rely on his arriving in time to save Ray from sacrificing himself, Solomon thought. He had doubts as to how long Ray would last if he turned himself over to Romanov, but like Florian, he felt they had to do something. He hoped he would be able to keep Florian safe while he finished the shirt, but worried that the young man was nearing the limits of his physical endurance. In the snug little hut, with regular visits from Ray to keep up his spirits, and regular meals, he was managing, but barely. In the deep woods, living in the wild, with the city bred Sugar, who was resourceful but far from an outdoorsman–well, the best he could hope for was survival.

In the hut, Ray held Florian close.

"I wish we could talk about this, Florian. Or, more realistically, argue about it. You would tell me all the reasons why my plan won't work, is too dangerous, or crazy, or why you won't leave me because you...you love me," Ray tightened his hold on Florian, pressing his lips to the pale hair.

He could feel the moisture from Florian's tears through the coarse linen of his shirt, and the slight shaking of the slim body told him that his lover was not taking their impending departure well–but he was accepting it. Florian was tender hearted and would be upset at the news of Gisela's capture but this level of distress was due to his fear for Ray. And Ray was finally willing to acknowledge that, to Florian, and what was harder, to himself. Which is why he forced himself to continue speaking. It was important that he speak these words, for both their sakes.

"You are the bravest man I know, Florian, and I know your are not afraid for yourself. I know how you feel about me, and means the world to me. But I don't know if you realize that I love you every bit as much."

Ray touched Florian's face, gently urging him to look up so that he could look into his eyes as he spoke his next words.

"I love you. Do you hear me? I love you. There is nothing in this world, not gems, masterpieces, the greatest adventure you could name, none of it means as much to me as you do. I am not going to let that tyrant in his palace filled with cheap imitations of treasure, steal what we have built together, the life we have shared, and which we will have again. You will finish your task, while I go free the hostages he has taken to force our hand."

Florian never felt more frustrated by the strictures of this curse than at this moment–there was so much he wanted to say in response to Ray's declaration. But where Ray had been the man of action previously, now it was Florian who had learned to make deeds take the place of the words he could not speak. He pulled Ray's head down so he could kiss him fiercely, all the passion he felt for the dark-haired man who'd bought him once with mere money and time and again with acts of deepest courage and devotion. Florian did know Ray loved him, but it meant the world that Ray could bring himself to say the words out loud, because loving actually came easily to Ray, he had one of the most loving, generous hearts Florian had ever known. Talking about his feelings–that was another matter altogether– and it was a gift that Florian did not take lightly.

Despite being conscious of a need to leave the hut that had been their refuge...and of Sugar's imminent return...Ray could not resist Florian when he tugged him toward the bed. As the swollen fingers began to unfasten his buttons, struggling with them, Ray moved his hands over the cracked, misshapen hands. The amethyst eyes looked up as though to protest and Ray quickly told him with a flash of his old grin, "I'm not objecting, I'm only helping to speed this along."

Florian's smiled and took a step back, gesturing that Ray could continue. Florian turned his efforts to his own clothes, making quick work of removing them despite his damaged hands. Ray almost forgot what he was doing, he was so lost in admiration of Florian's nude form as his lover stood before him. The work in the sun over the past weeks had given Florian a healthy glow, and while he was still slender, there was a new muscular tone to his form that was even more pleasing to the eye. Though, in truth, this was Florian, and all it took was a look from those gleaming amethyst eyes to arouse Ray. He quickly removed the simple shirt and pants he donned each evening when he resumed his natural form and fell back onto the bed, pulling Florian with him.

If he were never to enjoy being a man again, Ray thought, there could be no better way to spend his last night in his true body than in the arms of the man he loved.

Count Romanov was eating breakfast when the large black swan flew into the room. A swan is a very large creature, and this one was unusually large, with an extraordinary wingspan. There was no doubt, it was the one Romanov had sought for so many weeks. It did not take the creature knocking over his priceless Ming vase for it to be clear.

"Noir!" Romanov breathed. Then, to his guards, he called, "well, do not just stand there, close off the doors, you imbeciles! Do not let it get away!"

Noir, of course, had not come in through a door. He entered through the window. And that is how he left. But not before leaving a note on the table.

As well as a more personal deposit on the Count's breakfast plate. It was childish, perhaps, but satisfying, Ray found. He wished Laila were there to see it.

The Count read the note after yelling furiously for someone to clean up the broken vase, bring him a new breakfast, and kill the guards who allowed the swan to escape. The note did not improve his mood.

It was an ugly vase, Romanov. I will break the nicer ones next. One more for each hour you keep the villagers. Release them unharmed or suffer damage to your collection. Break the rules of the game any more and I break your toys.

And by the way, Azura is coming.

To the surprise of his staff, Count Romanov canceled the order to kill the guards–he thought he might need all that he had and could not afford to spend any more on temper. This was not good. He was used to victims who begged for mercy, who pleaded, who at most fought impotently.

Ray Balzac Courland was fighting back–and he was hitting him where it hurt.

Romanov ran to the room where he was holding the old woman. He held out his pistol, waving it wildly in the air. Gisela looked at him from chair where she sat. Romanov's staff had provided her with a soft chair and medical care despite his orders; fortunately he was too caught up in his anger to realize that she looked more comfortable than a peasant prisoner should.

"Where is the blond, du Rochefort? Tell me now or I will end your miserable life."

She looked at him calmly. "You were a bad-tempered little boy and you are no better as a man. If you kill me, it will not give you what you want. But it will hasten your end. The black swan will kill you, I can see that in your eyes."

"You see nothing old woman," Romanov shrieked, though he feared her words. "I will kill you and your sons and grandsons."

"No you will not because the black swan is cursing you even now. You have kept honor with your own black spell so you will pay the price for your treachery," Gisela told him, sensing his fear and building on it. In truth, she knew she had been badly injured and her own time was limited, but she hoped to see Florian and Ray restored before her days ended. And if were granted to her to see the end of the evil Romanovs, she would consider herself blessed indeed.

"You are wrong," Romanov's cries had died to a whisper, and his face was ashen. Alas, Gisela, feeling emboldened by the fear she saw in the face of the man who had terrorized her family for so long, forgot that the cornered animal can be the most dangerous. She continued to taunt him.

"You will lose everything," she told him. "The black swan will drive you from our land and free our people from your evil spells."

"Be quiet!"

The blow from the pistol to the head would have been hard for anyone to survive much less a woman of Gisela's years. Laila, watching from the small window to the third floor room, held in a gasp as she watched the old woman crumple to the ground. There was nothing she could have done but it did not make her feel any better to tell herself that. She withdrew from her tenuous perch on the tiny balcony that was little more than an ornamental facade, and considered her next step.

It had been a tough trip with Azura. They'd been delayed numerous times by man and nature. The man-made delays had been dealt with by Azura without mercy–footpads soon regretted thinking the tall man with the seemingly small youth companion easy prey but it was their last thought on this earth as the former desert rat was swift in his deadly retaliation. Laila had thought Noir could be harsh as a consequence of his childhood on the streets of Morocco–having the chance to travel with Azura and the casual way he took life, she revised her opinion. There was a world of difference between the two men. Noir was tough when he had to be, when it was necessary. Azura truly did not care about other people. They were no different than...than...the pieces of kindling she gathered for their fire.

No, that was not accurate. The kindling was of use to Azura.

So too, was Laila. And for so long as she remained useful, she existed in the man's consciousness. He had no use for people otherwise. Azura liked things. Beautiful things. To the extent that he saw people as things, then they had value. She tried, as subtly as she was capable of being, to figure out where Noir fell in Azura's strange way of viewing the world. But he saw right through her questioning.

"I suggest you accept that it suits me to be on your side at this time. Romanov has angered me by his actions. You chose wisely, you and the French detective, by soliciting my aid. There is that saying about the enemy of my enemy? I am sure you know it? Let that suffice for you for this game. Tomorrow's game? Who knows? Noir could tell you, I play by the rules and expect others to do so as well."

Azura reached up and touched the spot where his eye had been. Laila did not think he was aware of it. What rule had been broken, she had wondered, that he could not forget?

Despite Azura's best efforts, and his money, the Count's castle was so remote that getting there required travel over difficult territory. Rough weather took out bridges and roads and at times they were forced to camp when even Azura's money could not get them where they wanted to go until the next day, or they had to walk to the next town to save time. As they neared their destination, Laila heard Azura mutter about dark spells and she wondered about the type of man they were going to confront. After all, Romanov had cast a spell to turn Noir into another form! He had dark power and that was not to be taken lightly.

Still, as she climbed back to the ground after her spying trip, and looked at the tall, powerful form of the man she'd traveled with, and compared it to the out of control maniac she'd just seen kill an old woman in the room above, she thought, that Count will get what he deserves.

"Report," Azura said, his demeanor serious now that they'd finally reached their destination. He had already learned from listening on the first level of the disruption the black swan had caused. He and Laila had arrived that morning and split up to reconnoiter but while Azura had retained much of his old skills as a street rat, there were limits to how stealthy a six foot three man with white hair and one startling blue eye could be, even if dressed in the manner of the natives.

Given that, he had somehow managed to learn most of what had transpired with Noir and Florian, so once Laila told him of the conversation between Gisela and Romanov, and he told her what he had learned–along with the contents of the purloined note– they were able to piece together an accurate picture of what had transpired.

"So, what do we do next?"Laila looked at him expectantly.

"I think it is time that I speak to my friend, Romanov," Azura said grimly.

"But you can't kill him," Laila protested. "Not yet! If you do, the spell will not be able to be broken."

Azura paused. "I fully realize that. But does he? We must intervene to keep him under control. In his current mood, he might do harm to Noir that would prevent the spell from being broken."

"That is a good idea," Laila agreed.

"So gratified that you approve," Azura said dryly. Looking down at his travel stained clothes, he made a face. "Once we secure the madman, we will be able to enjoy the comforts of his palace while we await Noir's return to inform him that he and du Rochefort may return to complete their task in comfort. I confess that as entertaining as our little adventure has been, madam, I look forward to...bathing."

Laila grinned. "I look forward to your bathing as well. You've been getting a bit ripe, Azura."

The blue eye blinked in surprise. Then, for the third time in a month, Azura laughed.

Solomon and Florian traveled deep into the thick forest. Solomon had a rifle and what he had thought was plenty of ammunition for shooting game, but he was not the best of marksmen with a rifle–he wished it were considered sporting to shoot a rabbit or deer with a pistol. He was very good with a pistol. He feared they would starve, and wished he had thought to ask Ray to give them some food that he had caught for them. How like Ray to hand him a rifle and bullets and assume that it would be a simple matter to turn those tools into dinner for two!

Florian was focused on his task and food was the least of his concerns. It was hard enough to get him to stop and take a drink of water or rest; all he wanted to do was get the shirt done and return to Ray. Solomon could no longer convince him to pause to permit the balm to be administered to his hands, and the shirt was liberally stained with Florian's blood.

They had been on their own for ten days, ten very difficult days. Solomon had given up on the place Ray had found for them when a band of gypsies ventured too near and they moved even deeper into the forest. He had abandoned the rifle when they fled that place, and, honor or not, was using his gun for what hunting he did, the end result being that he ran out of ammunition. The gun was good for a threat against humans but animals were not impressed when he waved it at them. So he was reduced to foraging for food–a skill that detective work had not prepared him for as well as one might think.

What type of world was this, Solomon found himself wondering. He sat by the crude fire he had made, and watched Florian, the son of generations of dukes, force a thick needle through stiff, unyielding, cloth that he had woven with his own hands, hands that bore no resemblance to the fine, delicate hands of a gentleman they had once been, but now looked like misshapen, scarred, peasant's hands. It was not only Florian's hands that had suffered. His fair skin had burned and his hair was tangled and wild. It was difficult to recognize the gentle Duke in the man who now sat working feverishly on the blood-stained garment in his lap.

How could one man do this to another, and by what evil was he able to do it?

The shirt was almost done. Florian's expression as he held it up was...indescribable. He took off his own shirt and Solomon, watching, winced to see how his ribs stood out in sharp relief.

"Florian, what are you...?" Before he could get the question out, the answer became clear–Florian was trying on the shirt to be sure that it was large enough, Solomon assumed, and perhaps also that it would hold together.

It was and it did. Before he could congratulate his friend, Solomon was startled by the sound of men approaching–quickly and loudly. He looked around. They had just moved to this spot and had intended to move on so they had not yet chosen a hiding place. Before he had time to issue instructions to Florian, the men were upon them.

"Here they are, right here! The witch and her man."

Witch? Solomon and Florian looked at each other in consternation. Five large, rough looking men were upon them. Florian had quickly donned his own shirt over the precious nettle shirt, his sharp hearing had told him someone was coming scant moments before Solomon had spoken–if he had not been caught up in his thoughts about the shirt he would have heard them sooner. His mind raced now–how to save them. He knew that his friend would lay down his life for him, and was determined that he not do that. His eyes narrowed. What would Ray do?

Taking note of how the men were avoiding touching either of them so far–and the absence of guns, thank God–Florian made a hand gesture that looked similar to one of the many hand signs these people made. He trusted to the fact that it was totally meaningless to protect him from violating the spell's restrictions–if he was not truly communicating something, it could not count, could it? He hoped not, as fate would be too cruel to throw yet another obstacle in his way, and now, when he had finally completed the shirt and could return to put it on Ray and end this torment! But if these men were so stupid as to mistake him for a witch–and did that not tell him as nothing else did how truly terrible he looked now–then he must use that to their advantage to save himself and Solomon Sugar!

It worked, the men stepped back. Never slow to grasp a situation, Solomon spoke up.

"If you go not leave us at once, my...witch...companion will cast a spell that you will regret. If you survive, that is. Be gone."

To their relief, the men turned and ran off. Florian fell against Solomon and shook silently, whether in laughter or tears, Solomon could not tell. All he knew was that he was happy beyond measure that they could head back to Ray, and he hoped that Laila had arrived with Azura. He suspected that reinforcements would be needed.

"Where could he be?" Ray paced up and down the study that had once been Romanov's. Azura sat in a comfortable chair, with a sixty year old scotch in one hand and a hundred dollar cigar in the other, both courtesy of their missing host, and watched. Laila had gone to bed many hours before. They had been there for two weeks now but they had not been restful days. Romanov had disappeared after killing Gisela. Despite Azura's best efforts at terrorizing the staff, he could not find where the evil count had gone and he'd finally concluded that none of them knew.

"I really believe," he'd said in his slow draw, "that they are not protecting him. On the contrary, they wish they could tell me how to find him so that I can torture him–preferably where they can watch. What a delightful country. I do believe I may keep this castle after Romanov's demise. His family will find it too painful to remain, I believe."

Ray shot him an impatient look. "I was referring to Florian. And you cannot kill Romanov–not until the spell is broken! That will trap me as a swan, remember? "

Azura raised an eyebrow. "One, until we find the crazed Count, Florian is wise to remain hidden. Two, we can protect you–though I cannot stop you from making your flights in search of him and you have a certain measure of safety when high in the sky. A certain measure. You cannot forget his power as a sorcerer. He sees that he has little to lose at this point and a cornered animal is most dangerous, as the foolish woman Gisela forgot. I have people from her family, people you said were trustworthy despite her loss, to look for du Rochefort. Three, since when have I needed to kill when torture is so much more satisfying? I am quite capable of keeping Romanov alive for as long as need be, no worries on that head my dear Noir. As pretty as you are as a swan, I prefer you as a man."

Their gazes locked. Two lifetimes of history were contained in that shared look, and it was not necessary for any words to be spoken. Noir knew that he could trust Azura to do all that was necessary to bring him out of this trouble, and yes, to bring Florian out of it too, because Florian was such an essential part of the solution and his help had been solicited by Azura. As Azura had told Laila, he believed in playing by the rules. Once this was over, it was very likely that they would return to their old adversarial state–but, perhaps not. There was something else in that look, as Azura considered the half wild man in the room before him and tried to calm him. He was perhaps remembering the wild child he first found on the streets of Morocco, already more feral than civilized, and yet possessed of an unearthly beauty that attracted too much attention. If it were not for Azura's protection, Noir would have been dead by the age of ten. A child prostitute does not last long, not without a protector who cares if he lasts long.

A thief has a much better life expectancy than a prostitute.

"Noir, you are a man," Azura's calm voice reminded him now. "You need to stay focused now because your partner will be in need of your strength when he returns to you. He has inner strength but neither he nor the French detective are used to surviving in the rough. They will need to recover from what is no doubt an ordeal and..."

"If this is your way or reassuring me it is not working," Ray snapped. He picked up the matching chair to the one Azura sat in and threw it toward the fireplace. It broke rather spectacularly, with pieces of wood catching fire, some within the fireplace and others falling out onto the hearth. Ray stood and stared, the animal within him transfixed.

Azura rang for servants.

"Clean that up–after extinguishing the fire. Have someone summon the Lady Laila please, and ask her to prepare tea for Count Courland."

The lead servant nodded and hastened to do as ordered. Azura was always courteous in making his requests, which was a pleasant change for the Romanov servants, but they had learned from his prior visits that he was no less deadly than their former master. Still, they preferred his way–you knew where you stood with Azura. He told you what he wanted and what the punishment would be for failure. And he did not seem to have any interest in stealing villagers and turning people into unnatural things.

So, even if he was into torture, two out of three was a big improvement.

Before Laila could arrive with the tea, but after the fire was put out and Ray convinced to sit down and have a glass of wine, there was a new commotion. One of the guards came into the room with one of Gisela's younger grandsons, the boy struggling to get free of the guard's grasp.

"I need to talk to the black swan, let me go! Let me go!"

Ray jumped up and barked a sharp order at the man to release the boy; behind his back Azura waved a lazy hand, affirming that the boy be let go. The guard relinquished his young quarry. "There is a disturbance in the village, My Lords."

"You need to hurry! They are going to burn Wuhho Prala! They are calling him a witch! It is the Count's doing! Marta says so!"

"What is going on?" Azura asked.

"No time," Ray told him. "Come, let us go with the boy and he can tell us what else he knows on the way! Laila!"

They ran for a carriage but it would take too long to get ready so they swiftly saddled two horses and headed for the village, the boy, Lars, riding behind Noir, and Laila, surprisingly, agreeing to get behind Azura rather than wait for the carriage or her own horse. A team of guards were ordered to follow.

Noir's heart was racing as he urged the stallion to move faster. How could their lives have come to this? All the pain and sacrifice Florian had suffered and now, for it to come down to...

Laila screamed as they came into view of the village square, such as it was. A large clearing before the tavern and inn. Two tall posts had been erected and Florian and Solomon Sugar were tied to them; thankfully there was a small platform built on each for their feet to rest on. Beneath each was a large pile of brush and wood piled up to the platforms and it was already alight beneath Florian's! Solomon was shouting at them, arguing fiercely with the villagers to stop their madness but Florian, dear Florian, was silent as the flames licked at his feet.

An old woman was shouting above the murmurs and cries of the crowd.

"If the witch is innocent, let her speak the name of God and beg for his mercy! Only a witch would remain silent at a time like this and trust to the black devil to save her."

Azura look closely at the woman while Noir leaped from his horse and tried to make his way through the crowd, which pushed back at him. He fought harder, no longer caring if he hurt some of them. The flames were getting close to Florian's unshod feet and would soon burn him alive if Ray did not rescue him!

"Noir!" It was Laila. She pointed to the sky. Another danger approached. Dawn, and with it, the loss of his human form. Ray fought with renewed desperation, knowing he had only moments to reach his love.

Azura was fighting to get to the old woman, his instincts telling him that she was both the ringleader of this travesty–and no woman. Romanov in disguise, and making mischief. The villagers would never have listened to him in his true form but as one of them and playing upon their superstitions–it was a clever ruse.

Florian was probably the only calm one in the whole area. His beautiful amethyst eyes shone as he saw Ray ride up, looking just like a hero from a fairytale, and he struggled to free one of his hands from his bindings. He'd managed to keep the precious shirt safe underneath his clothing, and had removed it from underneath his own shirt when they were captured on their way to the castle and folded it up small so he could hide it next to his heart. Now, he waited for the opportune moment, trusting that there would be one.

Ray was only a few yards away when his transformation hit him. The villagers fell back, many gasping in awe as the tall handsome man turned into a beautiful black swan. After so many months, the change was swifter, less disorienting, and Noir took to the wing almost immediately, leaving his discarded clothing behind as he flew to Florian.

Florian withdrew the nettle shirt from beneath his own, and tossed it, unerringly, over the long graceful neck of the black swan as it circled the stake where he was tied.

Be free, my Noir," Florian thought; and his wish was echoed by the loyal friends...and one frequent enemy...who watched anxiously as the shirt billowed in the wind before settling around the flying swan.

The flying swan who then transformed back into a handsome man wearing only a blood-stained shirt. Falling from the sky, Noir quickly grabbed onto the post that held Florian captive, and untied the ropes that secured him. Laila, always good at making her way through a crowd by stealth where brute force didn't work, was already at the foot of the post, offering up a knife, and they made short work of getting first Florian and then Solomon freed.

Azura was found over the dead body of the Count.

"You didn't save him to torture?" Laila was the first one to ask the question, surprise making her voice squeak.

Azura looked down at her and she would have sworn he looked sheepish. "I found that I was...too annoyed with him to wait. Or to take any chances with him escaping. Once the spell was broken it was best to end his life. Plus, my research informed me that it was him keeping those other swans ensorcelled. With the Romanov line ended, there is hope that they might be restored, so..."

He shrugged.

Ray nodded. "We need to get Florian a doctor. He..."

"No. No doctor."

The voice was rough and low, and so quiet he had to bend his head very close to hear it, but it was unmistakably Florian's voice, and Ray's were not the only eyes to tear up at the sound. Laila and Solomon Sugar found themselves blinking hard. While Azura did not cry, he doubted he was capable of it any longer, he found himself...wistful for a moment as he looked at Noir holding the battered body of his lover, so damaged, yet he doubted that Noir saw any of the damage, except in terms of du Rochefort needing help. He would never be less than beautiful to him.

Suddenly, Azura was weary of being on the outside, of having neither laughter nor beauty nor the kind of friend who could be counted on to come to his aid no matter the cost. Looking at the friends who had given their all to help Noir, unconscious of the hand that crept once more to the eye that was no more on his own face, Azura wondered if he was capable of change. He would not be able to value people like these villagers as Noir did, but he could perhaps refrain from needlessly killing them. And when he could end suffering by denying himself the pleasure of torture, as in the case of those swan girls, well, he supposed that was a step in the right direction.

By the look the woman Laila had given him, she at least had thought so.

Epilogue

"So, we head back to Paris tomorrow," Ray announced, entering the Count's drawing room. Laila and Solomon cheered. Florian smiled. He was ensconced in a lounge by the fire, his hands and feet bandaged, his face covered with an ointment that Laila swore would have his skin back to its usual porcelain perfection in a matter of days. Already it was looking much improved. She'd spent hours shampooing his hair but eventually she had to cut it much shorter to get the snarls out. Florian had laughed and said he might keep it this length but Solomon and Laila didn't believe him–all it took was Ray's murmured comment that as handsome as he looked, he missed his long hair for Florian to be promising to grow it back.

What was going to take longer to come back was Florian's old habit of leading the conversation when they all gathered, Solomon thought, watching the interactions between the various members of the group. Laila and Ray chattered much more than previously, both of them vying to get Florian to talk, whereas before it would have been Florian and Laila who competed for Ray's attention and Florian who did the most talking. One might have thought that Florian would have been eager to make up for all his weeks of silence, but instead it was Ray who seemed to have been frustrated by the time he spent as an animal and unable to communicate freely. The new Ray was quicker to share his feelings and while still more volatile, he was quick to express remorse when his temper got the better of him. All it took was a calming word from Florian to settle him down when he grew too restless.

Azura and Florian seemed to have reached a new understanding as well, which was a remarkable consequence of their ordeal, Solomon reflected. Azura was almost...gentle...with Florian, and cooperated with Laila in developing treatments for his various injuries.

The other odd development was the connection between Azura and Laila. Concerned, Noir had confronted his old friend–and more recent nemesis- and bluntly asked him what was going on.

Azura tilted his head and considered Noir.

"I do believe you are asking me my intentions. How droll."

"I am serious, Azura. Why are you spending so much time with Laila?"

"I am not quite sure, my dear Noir, but I believe it is because she does not bore me. Will you be content with that, and my assurance that I mean her no harm? I do not, you know. Or, I suppose you did not, which is why you asked. But now you do know. I mean her no harm."

Ray believed him.

Solomon looked around the room at his friends. Ray had gently nudged Florian over so that he could sit next to him on the lounge chair and run his fingers through the short fair hair. Laila was arguing with Azura over the best way to travel back from Budapest to Paris and he could tell from the amusement in Azura's eye that the man who was known to be a brilliant criminal mastermind was deliberately being obtuse just to drive Laila crazy.

It was such a normal scene–no one watching would ever guess that they had been sitting like this a few months ago before a madman had turned their lives upside down with a dark spell. He wondered for a moment if he had dreamed the whole thing.

"I must be crazy," Solomon said, feeling the need to speak his thought aloud. "Men do not turn into swans–and Counts do not cast spells! Someone, quick, tell me this was all a dream."

Noir, Laila and Azura looked at him, and then, as one, they said, "What spell?" Noir added, "What nonsense are you babbling about Sugar? Too much wine already?"

But Florian, taking pity on him, stuck his tongue out at the others, and the gleam of the firelight shone on the emerald stud on his tongue.

"It was a nightmare, dear friend," Florian said quietly, "but it is over now and the good side won. Let us drink a toast, to the good...and love... always winning." With that, Florian lifted his glass in a toast; the others all joined him, Noir entwining arms as they drank deeply from each other's glasses.

"To love," Laila sighed happily watching them.

"To winning," Azura murmured.

"To getting back to Paris as quickly as possible," Solomon Sugar muttered under his breath. This nightmare was over but you never knew when another might begin.