A Nice Run (9/141)

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At last, Nik managed to extricate himself from their well-wishes and headed away with Anthser. “You’re covered in fur, Lord Nik,” the warcat observed. As a member of Nik’s personal retinue, he wore a livery cloak in Fireholt’s colors of black and orange under a riding seat.

“I know. Thank you.”

“And limping.”

“My leg went to sleep.”

“They couldn’t bring her to petitions tomorrow morning?”

“Are you trying to sound like my father, or is that a side benefit?” At the base of the steelwood staircase in front of the building, Nik fished a lint brush from the pocket of his overcoat and scrubbed the top layer of loose fur from his breeches, then slipped off the overcoat to do the same to it. The result was a little unkempt on close inspection, but would not draw the eye of the casual observer.

Anthser waited without further comment until Nik shrugged back into his overcoat and gloves and started down the street. “Are you well, my lord?”

“Yes. I just want to walk some life back into my leg.”

The sleek black warcat paced Nik effortlessly. Anthser was much smaller than Jill, a little over five feet at the shoulder, and his walking stance put his head level with Nik’s shoulder. “Everything all right, then?”

“I wouldn’t go that far. How are my parents?”

Anthser paused. “Like themselves.”

“So. Father is upset because I won’t grow up and act my part, and mother is… how long has it been since I left the carriage?”

“Couple hours?”

“Then mother is blaming everyone but me for my actions and planning some kind of apologetic gesture, in all likelihood for dinner tomorrow.”

The big cat shrugged. “Sounds about right.”

“I suppose I have a few days’ reprieve before they find another wealthy heiress to hurl me at. Do you have any good news, Anthser?”

“Lord Comfrey sent an invitation. Supper and billiards this evening, with his compliments and apologies for the short notice.”

At last! Nik tried to restrain his smile to a tolerable level of reserve. “Splendid. Any note with the invitation?”

“No, m’lord. His messenger is at the manor, awaiting your answer.”

“Well. Let’s not keep him waiting any longer.” Nik stopped and set a hand on the riding seat.

Anthser’s whiskers twitched in amusement as he lay down so Nik could mount. “Yes, m’lord. Would m’lord like a nice run back?”

Nik smirked. “M’lord would.” The cat twisted his head to unhook a bag from the harness beneath his cloak, and raised it to Nik’s hand. The human retrieved a riding helmet, boots, and a padded coat with reinforced elbows, exchanged them for his current outerwear, and mounted. The riding seat cradled him, legs bent and tucked close to the warcat’s flanks, and Nik leaned forward to wrap his hands around the handles in the harness at the base of Anthser’s neck. “Proceed at will, Fel Fireholt.”

Anthser surged to his feet and rocketed forward with a pounce, landing on cat-light bent legs with such smoothness that what shock was transmitted barely jarred Nik. The warcat raced up the street, weaving around carriages pulled by greatcats as well as handwagons and donkey-drawn carts. At one intersection several blocks later, a greatcat was pulling a vegetable cart across as they reached it: rather than slowing, Anthser sped up and leapt over the cart. “Crazy warcat!” the lead greatcat on a coach snarled as Anthser landed mere inches from her. Nik flashed her a grin as the warcat purred, and they flew onward.

“Maybe the streets of Gracehaven are too crowded for a nice run,” Nik said in Anthser’s ear, snug against his back as they zigged through the narrow space between two carriages.

“M’lord has the right of it, no doubt.” Anthser eyed the buildings alongside them before he darted to the gutter, and from there leaped to a second-floor balcony. A few bounds took them across the balcony, where he jumped the rail to land on the roof of the building beside it. Claws skittered against shingles as he ran to the top of the sloped roof and jumped to the flat roof of the three-story building adjacent. They bounced from rooftop to rooftop for a good mile, Anthser vaulting alleyways and narrow streets, Nik laughing aloud from the rush of adrenalin and speed. Anthser cut a sharp corner when the current rooftop ended over a four-lane boulevard, and veered to the right to continue the race.

The jump across a two-lane street from a three-story building to a four-story did not daunt him: Anthser attempted it without pause. His forelegs landed on the far roof and pulled forward, while hindquarters tucked in but did not quite reach the edge. They scrabbled at air for an instant, until his body curled over the roof’s edge and foreclaws sank into shingles, hindclaws digging for purchase on the brick wall. Nik grunted from the impact but made no other sound to distract the warcat, knees and thighs hugging Anther’s sides, hands clenched on the harness. One forepaw began to slip as the shingle it was dug into pulled loose. Anthser released that shingle and threw his paw down fast on another. The claws of one hindpaw sank into old mortar between bricks. With a roar, the warcat hauled himself and his rider onto the rooftop.

Anthser stood with sides heaving, tongue lolling, looking at the deep furrows his claws had left in multiple shingles. “Oops.” He pushed the loose one back into its empty spot and patted at it, as if that would fix it.

Nik took his bearings and made a mental note of the address. “I don’t think that ‘crazy warcat’ was meant as a challenge.” He relaxed his too-tight grip.

“Now you tell me.” Anthser panted, padding to the roof’s opposite side. He eyeballed the drop to the adjacent roof. “…am I crazy, Lord Nik?”

Nikola extracted one hand from the harness and tugged off the glove with his teeth. He burrowed his bare fingers through the overheated fur of Anthser’s neck and felt the contours of the big cat’s mind. “My professional opinion is ‘foolhardy’.”

“Good to know.” Anthser twisted his head to rub his muzzle against Nik’s fingers.

“Walking the rest of the way would be fine, though.”

“Very good, m’lord.” Anthser jumped down to the next roof, and from there to a balcony and finally the ground. Nik sat upright like the lord he was supposed to be, instead of hunched tight against his warcat, and they padded decorously the last few blocks to Anverlee Town Manor.

A Blessing Shared (8/141)

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Within a block, the neighborhood had changed from one of modest human storefronts to blocky former warehouses, converted to apartment housing for greatcats. Downsing’s sister lived in one; they climbed a creaking exterior steelwood staircase and down a walkway on the second level to reach her door. Downsing stuck his head through the doorway first, calling out, “Marie? I brought a guest.” An awkward hallway just inside had entrances leading to three other rooms; Downsing padded to the right. Peeling paint and walls with exposed brick facing gave the apartment a squalid air, despite being meticulously clean. A pair of rambunctious pubescent greatcats wrestling in the main room added to the impression of disorder. Downsing entered the main room. He motioned with his tail for Nik to follow and said, “Quit it, you two,” to the wrestling kittens.

The kittens ignored their uncle, but the strange human caught their attention, and they sprung apart to stare at Nik. One of them smoothed down his askew cloak self-consciously.

A blue-gray panther with a kitten held by the scruff stepped into the room. “Lord Nikola, this s m’ sister, Marie of Brewdon.” Downsing introduced them. “Marie, this s Lord Nikola of Anverlee.” Which made a hash of his actual name and title, but Nikola didn’t trouble himself to correct it.

Fela Brewdon’s eyes went wide with shock, and she set her kitten hastily on the wide couch-bed that was the room’s main furniture, a piece with stubby wooden legs and a low sloped back half-ringing it. Brewdon gave him a deep bow. “You honor my home, lord.” She had a spare sleek build, much smaller than Downsing’s large muscular frame. Odd to think him a clerk. But neither interests nor aptitude necessarily coincided with physique.

“I thought he might see little Belle,” Downsing added.

Belle was scrunched down on the couch-bed, a calico-furred big-headed kitten about the size of a human toddler and an order of magnitude more adorable. She eyed Nik suspiciously. Nik’s heart melted anyway. He narrowly avoided saying ‘awww.’ “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Fela Brewdon. Is it all right if I…?” He gestured to Belle.

“Of course, lord. Thank you.” Fela Brewdon put a paw behind her daughter’s back and nudged her closer to the human.

Nik drew off his gloves and crouched before the couch, extending his hands to the kitten. “Hello, Belle.”

Belle climbed onto unwieldy paws and stretched out her head to sniff at his fingertips, then rub her nose against them. Nik inhaled, eyes unfocusing as he studied the shapes of her mind.

It was a sense he had always had, unlike sight or touch, although those were the terms in which he described his perceptions. No hard-shelled jagged demons were burrowing into her mind or disordering her thoughts, but her mindshapes followed a too-familiar and problematic pattern: the fuzzy orange shape of verbal skills more like a stump than a rope, cool purple-blue instincts swollen and stifling the squishy stub of intellect, oversized strands of muscle control strangling the warm furry threads of reason, and so on – mental skills displaced and malformed, too large or too withered. “How old is she?” Nik asked.

“Six weeks, lord.” The mother watched Nik, worried.

“Mmm. Good.” Nik shifted to perch on the edge of the couch-bed, letting Belle lick his fingers, his other hand cupping the side of her head.

“She’s already walking well. Much better than her brothers at her age.” Fela Brewdon’s tailtip twitched. “That’s not actually good, is it?”

Depends; did you want her to be a sapient greatcat or a throwback to her wildcat ancestors? Nik assayed a more diplomatic phrasing. “Her development so far has been…more wildcat than greatcat. But she’s young enough that this is trivial to rectify, well within the bounds of my Blessing. With your permission and the Savior’s will, I would be happy to remedy it.”

Fela Brewdon’s ears flicked down and to the side, dismayed. “She is… but you can fix her? You will? Oh please, lord – we’ve not much, but we’ll pay anything.” She crouched, pressing her body to the floor, supplicating.

“Please, don’t.” Nik winced inwardly at the thought of the fela and her husband in their drafty three room home trying to scrounge a gift they thought worthy of a lord. “Any token is more than sufficient. It’s the Savior’s work, not mine.” She bowed her head, which Nik took for acquiescence. “It will take a little while – Fel Downsing, my warcat was to meet me at Valience Park. Would you wait for him there and bring him when he arrives? He’ll be in my house’s – Fireholt’s – livery, orange and black.” As heir to Anverlee, Nikola was entitled to use their colors or Fireholt’s, but for his staff he preferred Fireholt’s. It discouraged his parents, slightly, from ordering them about. Downsing looked puzzled by his request, but nodded acceptance and padded out. The two pubescent felis had their ears pricked, staring at Nik and their mother. Their mother was tense with anxiety, still stretched out on the floor. Belle drew back from Nik’s touch, catching the uneasiness in the air.

Nik took a deep breath, relaxing his own posture and attitude. “Ma’am, please, be at ease,” he said, gently. “This is entirely routine.” Much too routine. “I’ve channeled this particular kind of healing dozens of times. It won’t hurt Belle, it’s no trouble to me, and the Savior has never complained of his part.” Fela Brewdon’s whiskers twitched at his words, not sure if he was joking. “Please, sit beside your daughter. Groom her. I need her to trust me, and she will follow your lead. Do you trust me, ma’am?”

Startled out of her nervousness by the question, the greatcat stammered, “Of course, sir. Lord. I’m sorry.” She rose and circled wide to the far side of the couch-bed before hopping up. She settled in a half-curl around her kitten, resting a paw over Belle’s hindquarters and licking her head and neck. Belle crinkled up one eye and squirmed, but made no serious attempt to escape. Nik weighed the merits of preserving his dignity against further rearranging the participants. Well, dignity has never been my strength. He shifted from the couch to sit sideways on the floor, leaning against the couch beside Belle. He put one hand on Belle’s cheek and dipped his forehead to touch hers, improving his perception of her mind.

Her older brothers padded closer to him, curiosity overpowering their reticence about a stranger. “Whatcha doin’?” one asked.

“Lionel, don’t bother the lord,” Fela Brewdon admonished.

“It’s fine. I’m asking the Savior to help your sister,” Nik answered, putting an arm against the couch and half-encircling Belle to make himself more comfortable. “Would you like to watch? I am assured it is extraordinarily dull to observe from the outside.”

The boys crowded nearer anyway. “What’s it like from the inside?” the other asked.

“Mm. Complicated. I’m going to be preoccupied now. If I sound like I’m babbling, just ignore me.” Nik lost the thread of the conversation. Without words or even coherent thought, by an instinct he’d relied on for longer than he could remember, Nik asked for the Savior’s power. The Savior answered in what felt like a waterfall of warm sunlight, flowing through Nik’s mind and over Belle’s. Belle butted her nose against Nik’s. “There, now, little one, be patient with me,” Nik murmured in soothing tones, not paying attention to his own words as he coaxed the sunlit power into a scaffold around Belle’s mindshapes. The gentle flow of power gradually loosened the stranglehold of instincts and muscle coordination to make more space for other mental skills to develop. Reason and speech centers flowered, sending out questing tendrils within the space now reserved for them. “See, that doesn’t hurt. There’s a good girl. Good girl.”

When Nik emerged from the fugue state, Belle had crawled partway onto his shoulder, her head nuzzled against the side of his face and nose burrowed under his collar. She was purring. They were the center of attention for her mother, one brother, her uncle, and Anthser; he had only a vague recollection of the last two arriving. One leg had gone to sleep underneath him and he had a crick in his side from leaning against the front of the couch. His mouth was dry and his throat raw, which probably meant he’d been babbling for the last twenty minutes. He coughed once. “A glass of water, please.”

Fela Brewdon dispatched the boy kitten on the errand, while Nik attempted to regain his feet without dislodging Belle. This proved futile; Fela Brewdon scruffed the kitten and removed her instead, provoking an indignant mewl from Belle. Nik shifted to perch on the couch, stretching his numb leg before him. He resisted the temptation to massage some life back into the limb and generally tried to pretend he was not an embarrassment to his entire class. Minor physical aches aside, he felt refreshed, energized by the exertion rather than drained. Fela Brewdon set Belle down again to ask, “Is it done, m’lord?” Belle promptly crawled back into Nik’s lap.

“Yes, she’s fine.” Nik abandoned dignity and cuddled the kitten. Her older brother returned with a stoppered flask, which Nik drank from gratefully. “She’ll be more vocal from now on, and she may be a trifle clumsier. But she’ll develop normally.”

The mother cat drooped in relief. “Thank you, m’lord.”

“You’re welcome.” Reluctantly, Nik handed Belle back to her mother. “I’m afraid I should be going now. Good day to you.”

“I don’t remember it taking so long, when I was little,” Downsing said, expression curious but not questioning.

“The length of time for treatment depends on the cause of the affliction, not the symptoms.” Nik suppressed a wince as he stood, putting weight on his half-numb leg.

Downsing bobbed his head in understanding, stepping aside as Nik crossed to the entranceway. Anthser backed out through the hallway, pawing the front door open with a hindfoot and stepping out to the landing so Nik didn’t have to get past him. Mother, son, and uncle followed; though Nikola stood a full head taller than them, the far greater length and mass of the greatcats made him feel tiny in comparison. They had an air both hesitant and expectant to them; Nik offered his right hand, not realizing until too late that had hadn’t put his gloves back on yet. Before he could repair the gaffe, Fela Brewdon dropped her head to rub her cheek against his bare fingers, murmuring her thanks again. Downsing and the youngster pushed near to do the same; he caught fleeting impressions of their healthy, normal minds, orderly shapes with well-fitted connections. They touched him as if he were a talisman that would protect them by contact alone. Greatcat superstitions about the capabilities of his Blessing were as ill-founded as the human ones, but at least they were less insulting.

Not Otherwise Occupied (7/141)

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Nikola turned up his collar against the overcast chill of the gray day, long strides carrying him along the sidewalk, beneath the trimmed awnings of small shops. How does my mother always manage to say exactly what will infuriate me most?

For that matter, why had he defended Miss Vasilver? Lady Striker was right: he hadn’t wanted to meet Miss Vasilver, much less marry her, and that farce of an introduction certainly hadn’t changed his mind. The wintery day was not so chilling as Miss Vasilver’s indifferent gaze.

Yet, when he contrasted his parents’ sputtering hypocritical outrage with Miss Vasilver’s calm honesty, it was impossible to claim that he preferred the former. Nikola reached Valience Park, a pleasant garden of branching gravel paths, fruit and nut trees, and berry bushes. Most of the trees were bare, dormant for the winter, but several of the berry bushes were in flower. He peeled off his pale gloves to avoid staining them and gathered a handful of ripe winterberries from among small glossy dark leaves and white blossoms. The berries burst in a splash of tart sweet juice on his tongue, as he took a seat on a weathered wood-and-iron bench beneath the dark tangle of a walnut tree’s branches.

Nik cleaned his hands with a handkerchief, then withdrew the coiled roll of Miss Vasilver’s pre-engagement document and turned to the section on extramarital affairs. It stated: ‘Honesty being a greater virtue than chastity, neither party should attempt to deceive the other on the matter of fidelity’. Miss Vasilver’s opinion appeared to be that, while fidelity was the preferred state, ‘informed infidelity’ was an acceptable alternative, ‘in light of the practical impossibility of determining physical compatibility prior to consummation of marriage’. ‘Informed infidelity’ meant ‘each party will apprise the other of any indiscretions, and aid in maintaining discretion so that neither party will be exposed to unflattering gossip or humiliation’. Is it still an indiscretion if you have to be discreet? Affairs were also to be conducted in such a way as to (a) avoid interference with the conception of legitimate children and (b) avoid the conception of illegitimate children. There were alternative sections suggesting various ways of ensuring equitable infidelity; Miss Vasilver was evidently of the opinion that one party was not entitled to be jealous of the other if said party wasn’t being faithful himself. Or herself. Nik couldn’t tell if she was assuming he would cheat on her or if she was planning to cheat on him. Maybe she already had some lover in mind, some footman or delivery boy she did not dare wed. It was hard to imagine the latter, as it implied a degree of ardor that Miss Vasilver wholly lacked. How could she write about the subject of intimacy in such indifferent language?

Abandoned world, how could she write about it at all? Nikola leaned back, gazing past the walnut tree’s bare branches to the overcast sky. After a moment, he looked down again and turned to the next section, on child-rearing. His mouth twitched in a smile. After procreation. Very orderly. Miss Vasilver had ideas on this, too. Boarding school versus private tutors versus apprenticeship, the advantages and disadvantages of different religious denominations, or of no religious observances. None? ‘None’ is an option? Not even the sacred is sacred to Miss Vasilver. He shook his head, more bewildered than offended.

A burred feline voice spoke to one side of him. “Lord Nikola?”

Nik curled up the papers and tucked them back in his pocket as he looked up at an unfamiliar orange-and-black striped head. “Excuse me?”

The feline form bowed before him, dressed in a patched and many-pocketed brown cloak. “Farrel of Downsing, m’lord. You wouldn’t remember me – I couldn’t learn to read, and ten years ago m’ parents brought me to you for a miracle. Which you provided, m’lord.”

Frowning in thought, Nikola contemplated the greatcat. He’d met tens of thousands of petitioners over the course of his life, and he always left a bigger impression on their lives than they did on his. Rather the point of the Code, that. Still – orange and black, couldn’t read – “You were a kitten then? Seven or eight? Mother had your coloration but a great white splash over her forehead and nose?”

Downsing rocked out of his bow to sit back on his haunches, surprised. “Yes, Lord Nikola.”

The blond man gave him a fond smile. “I remember. A little demon possessed you, turning all the letters around in your head. You were scared to let it go, but your mother said it’d poison you forever if you didn’t.”

The greatcat dropped his mouth open in mimicry of a human smile, folding his forepaws to rest on the ground and put his head below Nik’s again. “And you promised it wouldn’t hurt.”

“And the Savior shooed it right off. I had to tell you it was over twice before you’d believe that was it. And how is your reading now, Fel Downsing?”

Downsing’s whiskers flared with pride. “Just wrote m’ clerk’s exam last week.”

Nik gave a startled laugh. “Did you truly?”

“Yessir. Haven’t been able to get enough of letters ever since they stopped squirming on me.” He paused, then added self-consciously, “Thank you, sir.”

Nik waved off the thanks, smiling. “The hard work was all yours. Well done, Fel Downsing. Well done.” Nik spread his arms over the back of the bench. “I’m surprised you recognized me. I should think I’ve changed a little since I was thirteen.”

The greatcat shrugged, ducking his head. “Scent doesn’t change much, m’lord.”

“I’ll take your word on that.” Nik studied the big cat; it was nice to see people his Blessing had helped, and it wasn’t uncommon for people of whom he had no recollection to stop him with heartfelt thanks. Downsing looked like he wanted something more than to express his gratitude, and Nik wasn’t sure if the greatcat had a specific desire that he was reluctant to speak, or if it was some undefined drive that kept the cat by his feet after conversation flagged. Nik debated internally whether to say ‘good day’ and take out the contract again, by way of dismissal.

Before Nik had decided, Downsing excused himself. “I shouldn’t keep you, m’lord. Was on m’ way to visit m’ new niece. M’ sister lives just a couple blocks north of the park.”

Ah. “Congratulations to your sister. I trust the kitten is healthy?”

“Oh, sure.” Downsing didn’t sound sure. “She’s a pawful already. Kinda…quiet, for a new kitten. Though. Probably nothing.”

Indeed. And if it’s not, I see petitioners at my residence from nine to noon every day but Sundays. Nik didn’t speak, and Downsing bobbed his head and turned away. With an inward sigh, Nik stood. I’m not busy now anyway. He drew level with the greatcat in a few quick strides. “Do you imagine your sister would object if I joined you?” Nik asked, in the tone of one asking a favor. “I should like to meet this niece of yours.”

Downsing’s eyes lit, his ears pricking forward. “Oh, no, not at all, m’lord, it’d be an honor. Would you?”


Downsing slowed his long strides to a man’s pace. “Would you like to ride, m’lord? I’ve no seat but—”

Nik shook his head. “No, I need to stretch my legs anyway.”

The Height of Good Manners (6/141)

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“Unbelievable! The nerve of that child! Nikki, I am so sorry I subjected you to that – that – creature. I had no idea – I couldn’t imagine – as gauche as a street urchin! Ignorant, unschooled – that her father lets her out in society in such a state!”

Nik gazed out the coach window, reflecting on Miss Vasilver’s behavior as well. ‘I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.’ “Mother, you are an appalling judge of character.”

“Nikki!” Lady Striker tugged her grey velvet wrap tighter about her plump shoulders. “I was never introduced to the girl before, and her parents were unexceptionable—”

“I don’t mean then. I mean now. ‘Ignorant’? ‘Unschooled’? Were you even listening to her? If that gentlewoman is unlearned than I’m a greatcat.”

His mother harumphed. “Was I listening to her? That creature was no gentlewoman!”

“She is undeniably no fit match for a lord.” Lord Striker shook his head, mouth compressed in a thin disapproving line.

“I should think you’d be relieved, Nikki, the way you complained about calling,” his mother went on. “I can scarce imagine a creature with more appalling manners or less good sense.”

“Truly? Because Miss Vasilver isn’t the one who shouted and stormed from a civil meeting.”

“You call that civil? What was I supposed to do, stay to hear such filth?”

“Don’t take that tone with your mother, Nikola.”

‘I prefer a difficult truth’… Nikola took a deep breath. “Of course. Leaving in the middle of a conversation is the height of good manners.” He stood in the coach, swaying with its smooth motion. “I think I’ll do it now.” He banged on the front wall, and slid open a panel in it to call out. “Jill!”

“Nikki, don’t you dare—”

“My name, madam, is Nikola,” Nik said coldly, one hand braced on the rail above the door as the coach came to a halt. “As you might recall, since you gave it to me. Good day, my lord, lady.” With a stiff bow, he opened the coach door and stepped out to the street.

“Nikola—” his father was half-standing, leaning out the door after him. Lord Striker’s hard-edged features took on a weary cast. “Quit being childish and get back in the coach.”

Jill stood before Nik, whiskers flat in the offended look she always wore if he opened the door before she could get out of harness to open it for him. Nik gave the greatcat a cordial nod. “Jill, kindly direct Anthser to retrieve me at—” he took a moment to get his bearings “—Valience Park. At his leisure.”

“With the gig, m’lord?” The giant cat’s whiskers relaxed from their offended posture, ears twitching in suppressed amusement. She fixed her eyes on Nik to avoid looking at his father behind him.

“Afoot will suffice.”

“Very good, m’lord,” Jill dropped her head in a bow.

“Nikola!” his father called after him, as Nik walked beside Jill while she returned to the harness. Her companion greatcat, Gunther, waited with his haunches on the ground, eyes forward, whiskers rippling and ears canted in silent feline laughter. “Don’t imagine that I’ll have my household’s routine interrupted for your tantrum!”

“Then I shall walk, my lord.” Nik crossed the smooth stone street in front of Jill as she slipped back into her position.

“We’ll send someone for you shortly, Lord Nik,” Jill said in an undertone.

He flashed her a smile. “No hurry. Thank you, Jill.”

The Logical Way to Decide (5/141)

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Wisteria sank back to her chair as he left the room, holding her wrist in her opposite hand. He kissed my hand.

That was a signal, an unambiguous signal. A noble only kissed a woman’s hand if they were related, long acquaintances, or…as a token of respect. Lord Nikola had not kissed her hand when they were introduced, so it was not a gesture he used trivially, or done from respect for her position or family. Something had happened during that strange terrible interview that made him…respect…her?

That can’t be right. I must be missing something. Sarcasm? She closed her eyes and leaned back. Yes, probably sarcasm. He was sarcastic when he said he’d call, and kissed my hand. Perhaps even when he said he wasn’t offended. She hadn’t noticed anything about his tone or expression, but she wouldn’t, would she?

“Do you want to be a spinster, Wisteria?” Her father re-entered the parlor. The maid was mopping tea from the expensive Ascension rug.

“No.” Wisteria folded her hands in her lap, not opening her eyes. “But it would probably be for the best if I did.”

Her father sighed. “I know you are not this stupid, Wisteria. By the three thousand, what possessed you to put that in writing? Why would you bring up a thing like that?”

“Mother said it was not a subject to be spoken of: how else might I communicate about it, then?” Wisteria asked, opening her eyes.

Mr. Vasilver put his face in his hands. “You don’t, girl!”

“…but the purpose of this meeting was to explore the possibility of an engagement.”

“An engagement, Wisteria! Between people! We’re not – not talking about breeding dogs here!”

What’s the difference? We all reproduce by the same mechanisms. “Then who does discuss these details? Are they settled through intermediaries?”

“No one! Ever! Reproduction is not a fit topic for a gentlewoman. You know this perfectly well! Even all those articles about business – Wisteria, it’s crass. This simply is not how civilized people handle intimate affairs.”

Wisteria looked at her father, as if she could make this conversation resolve into reason by sheer force of will. It had never worked before. “But these are vital aspects of marriage. If one cannot discuss them, what’s the point in meeting at all? This is like trying to decide what to have for dinner without mentioning food. ‘I know, let’s use the china with the gold rims tonight. And, oh, make sure there’s enough forks for everyone.’ As if that were the key choice.”

“How can someone so intelligent be so stupid? This is not how it’s done!”

“Why not?”

“Because it isn’t! You’re twenty-six, not six! How can you pretend not to know this?”

Wisteria stared at the wall, her ear turned to him as if the problem was with her hearing and not her comprehension. ‘Because it isn’t.’ Because everyone understands that it isn’t. Until the moment that it suddenly is. And to everyone but me, it’s so stupid, so obvious that this is how things work, that they can’t imagine how to explain it. Grief overwhelmed her; she could not bear to try yet again to pass a barrier tangible only to her. With an effort, she rose to her feet, curtsied to her father, and withdrew.

A Difficult Truth (4/141)

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The top sheet looked a lot like a contract, broken into articles and sub-articles and substitute articles. The first page detailed Miss Vasilver’s dowry and terms under which it would be held and could be spent. His father leaned closer to look at it as well. Nik tugged at the fingers of his right glove with a slight gesture to it. “With your permission…?” At Mr. Vasilver’s wave and his daughter’s nod, Nik removed the glove and flipped to the next page.

“My daughter doesn’t intend to be forward, my lord,” Mr. Vasilver said, fingers clutching and releasing the arms of his chair. “There’s no need to discuss such things now, at such an early stage.”

Miss Vasilver said, blandly, “Wouldn’t discussing such things now be the logical way to decide if we’re going to the next stage?”

The second page had alternative terms and conditions – ‘if Anverlee agrees to X, Vasilver will agree to Y’. The document reminded Nik of the woman: cold, calculating, blunt. He should have found it repugnant. Presumptuous, as if she assumed he was interested in marrying her, which he most certainly was not. His parents’ hints about Anverlee’s financial needs and his duty to procure a wife were unsubtle, but this was like a sledgehammer, with not the least attempt to cloak its purpose in courtesy, sentiment or romance.

But he didn’t feel insulted. So what if it was presumptuous? Money and marriage was the point of this charade, and it was almost a relief to have someone call this sorry affair what it was. His parents trying to guilt him into marriage, that was offensive. This was…honest. Unappealing, but honest. “It’s fine, Mr. Vasilver,” Nik answered, vaguely aware that on the opposite side of the couch his mother was sputtering. Lord Striker read over Nik’s shoulder, bemused.

Nik scanned the article headings as he flipped pages, not trying to digest the details. It looked…thorough. Not just the lists of holdings and financial responsibilities, but the alternatives, as if she wished to demonstrate flexibility even in writing. It went on about the specific benefits Anverlee might expect from Vasilver Trading – use of their fleet, warehouses, personnel – and vice versa. There was quite a long section on mineral rights and mining in Fireholt, including minimizing the impact on the land. “Did you say you prepared this document, Miss Vasilver? Or had it prepared?”

“I consulted with my lawyer, father, and other involved parties for various sections pertaining to their interests, but it mainly represents my thinking. It’s only a draft, my lord.”

“Mm.” Pity it involved marrying the icicle-woman before him; he might have found it intriguing if it came attached to a less unappetizing individual. Nik turned to the next page anyway.

Next to him, his father’s teacup crashed to the floor. Lord Striker bit back a curse, diving after it with an inadequate napkin. Miss Vasilver pulled the bellrope to summon the staff; Mr. Vasilver apologized as if it were somehow the fault of his china for falling. Nik barely noticed the uproar, his eyes fixed on the page in front of him. “You have a section on procreation.”

“I would like to have children.” Miss Vasilver answered, unmoved by either the ruckus over the shattered cup or Nik’s choked tone.

His father’s voice hissed in his ear. “By the Ascension, boy, don’t talk about it!”

Nik couldn’t stop himself. “There’s a specified number of marital encounters.”

“My research indicates five to twelve during the fertile period of my cycle would be appropriate. My personal experience is, by necessity, nonexistent, but I will be willing to do whatever is necessary.”

“For the love of – Wisteria, please,” Mr. Vasilver gave his daughter an aghast look.

“What kind of contract is this?” Lady Striker screeched, recovering her voice at last.

“Five to twelve,” Nik repeated, softly.

“…I am open to negotiation, my lord. The necessity of procreation aside, there doesn’t appear to be a suitable way to determine compatibility prior to actual marriage, so the following article is on extramarital affairs and maintaining appropriate discretion.”

WHAT?” Lady Striker rose, stomping one foot.

Nik flicked his eyes down, turning one page, then another. “Ah. So it is.” He returned his attention to Miss Vasilver.

His father gripped Nik’s arm. “What are you thinking, boy?” he hissed as he stood.

“I think I’m in love,” Nik murmured, too low for even his father to hear. Belatedly, he rose alongside his parents; it was impolite for a man to remain seated while a lady stood. Mr. Vasilver stood as well, wringing his hands. Only Miss Vasilver remained seated. She was composed despite the furor their parents were making.

“Please, my lady, my lords, my daughter doesn’t mean it like that—” Mr. Vasilver was saying. A maid slipped into the room; she tried to sidle into position to clean up the spilled tea and broken cup, impossible since Lord Striker was standing over it.

“This is outrageous! Has she no manners at all?” Lady Striker shrieked.

“I believe we need to leave now—” Lord Striker raised his voice over his wife’s.

“How do you mean it, Miss Vasilver?” Nik asked.

The woman tilted her head back to meet his eyes; he had to strain to hear her over his parents’ increasingly strident protests. “I mean to be honest, my lord, and have realistic expectations. I do not expect any husband to be perfect. I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.”

“We are leaving now.” Lady Striker stomped around the couch, lined features red with anger. Lord Striker took his son’s arm and moved to follow.

Nikola shifted out of his way instead, and shook off the hand. Lord Striker snarled. “Come along, boy.”

Nik struggled to imitate Miss Vasilver’s calm, but his voice raised anyway. “In a moment.”

Rukert!” his mother yelled from the hall. Mr. Vasilver fluttered about, making ineffectual placating gestures.

Now, Nikola,” Lord Striker growled.

In a moment.” Nik repeated, fingers clenching about the document.


Lord Striker shot his son a final glower and followed his wife out to the hall. Mr. Vasilver pursued, offering incoherent apologies.

“I am sorry if I gave offense, Lord Nikola.” Miss Vasilver said, as if she’d only now noticed how upset his parents were. She stood at last, tense but composed.

Nik waved it off. “You did not offend me.” A little tension leached out of her, and Nik wondered if the icicle-woman had feelings after all. He smoothed the sheaf of papers in his hand, then curled them into a neat roll and tucked it into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. He pulled his right glove back on and straightened his jacket. “Thank you for receiving us,” he said, just as if his parents had not stormed off in a fit of pique.

She curtsied politely. “You do my house honor, my lord.”

He answered with a bow. “May I call again, Miss Vasilver?”

“Of course, my lord.” She didn’t sound surprised, though she tilted her head.

“Then I will.” On impulse, he took her light brown hand and bent to kiss the air above it, lips not touching skin. “Good day, miss.”

Inching to the Purpose (3/141)

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Up close, she was even worse than at a distance, Nikola reflected. It was not so much her face or figure, which had little enough to recommend them: too tall, too thin, long chin and nose, high forehead only partly concealed by careful arrangement of thick black curls — she did have lovely hair, and a clear light golden-brown complexion. No, it was her flat, severe expression that made her repugnant. The way her gaze flicked over her visitors and then away, the thin set line of her mouth that never altered, as if her face might crack if she smiled. The rigid formality of her posture. Everything about Miss Vasilver, from the way she held her teacup and saucer to the way she listened to the conversation, was exact, correct, unnatural. He’d seen marble statues with more life.

His mother commented on the appointments of the parlor, as formal and pristine as Miss Vasilver. “These sculptures are remarkable work, Mr. Vasilver,” she said, indicating the marble carvings on display in a glass case.

“Thank you, my lady. They were a find of my mother’s, in southern Savorift.”

“How lucky for her. Did she have a Blessing for stone?”

“Ah, no.” He paused before adding, “I am afraid Blessings do not run in my family line. Or my wife’s.” Mr. Vasilver spared a glance to his daughter. “It is one area in which we hope our grandchildren will be more gifted.”

Then why don’t you pay me a stud fee and call it done? Nikola thought with a flash of irrational anger. Although the idea of sleeping with that icicle of a woman even once was profoundly unappealing. At least this interminable conversation was inching to the purpose.

Lord Striker gave a fatuous nod. “My family has been most fortunate in that arena. Particularly my son.”

So today it’s fortunate, Father? Good to know.

“Indeed,” Mr. Vasilver folded broad-fingered hands together. “My house’s fortunes have been of a more … monetary nature.”

“Business interests such as yours must afford you many opportunities for travel,” Lady Striker said.

“Oh, yes. Vasilver Trading does business across the globe. My children often accompany me — Wisteria loves to travel.”

“Do you, dear?” Nik’s mother turned her attention to the icicle-woman.

“Certain parts of it.” Miss Vasilver’s voice was as formal and cool as her bearing. “Long sea voyages are tedious, but the variation of cultural norms across different societies is amazing, something I did not appreciate until I experienced it firsthand. And of course, I enjoy the opportunity to assist with my father’s business.”

Of course. “What sort of assistance do you provide, Miss Vasilver?” Nikola found himself asking.

Her father shifted uncomfortably in his chair, but Miss Vasilver looked to neither him nor Nik: her gaze was aimless, directed on the wall beyond him. “Accounting, you might call it. I evaluate business opportunities, assess the profitability and ensure that the mutual benefits of a proposed plan outweigh its costs, not only in resources but opportunity.”

Nik raised a blond eyebrow. “Mutual benefits?”

“For all involved parties. Good business cannot be zero-sum, my lord. My grandfather founded Vasilver Trading seventy years ago; it would not have lasted five without providing a service of value to others as well as our family. To do well in the long-term, we must ensure that everyone — our customers, our suppliers, our partners, ourselves — profits from the relationship.”

One corner of his mouth twitched up. “Are you sure that’s not a Blessing, Miss Vasilver? It sounds like magic.”

She did not answer his smile. “It isn’t magic,” she said. “It’s a business skill. Anyone can learn it.”

Oh, I doubt that. But he wondered if this little meeting had been a plan hatched in the minds of their parents after all. “And is that how you feel about marriage as well, miss?”

“Yes,” she answered with equanimity. “At its heart, marriage is a business proposition: a relationship formed for the mutual benefit of not merely the marriage partners but their relatives and their heirs.” She tilted her head to one side. “How do you see it, my lord?”

Nik blinked at her. He had expected to fluster her, to crack that impassive face with embarrassment at likening marriage to either a business or a skill. Not to receive this frank admission. How do I see marriage? A graveyard in which to bury individuals, for the protection of the society that buries them. He was aware of his mother’s appalled expression from her seat on the other side of the couch, his father’s nonplussed look, the nervous clasp of Mr. Vasilver’s hands against the arms of his chair. But most of all he was conscious of Miss Vasilver’s emotionless gaze, waiting for an answer. He struggled to formulate a polite one that was not wholly insincere. “I am … less optimistic than you. That is a great many people to please at once.”

Miss Vasilver nodded. “One cannot please everyone. Then again, one may be benefited even by things that are not perhaps as pleasant as one might hope.”

He didn’t know how to disagree with that, and desperately did not want to agree. At his side, his father murmured, “Very true.”  Nik shot him a glare.

Miss Vasilver took a folder from the small table beside her. “The mutual advantages of a match between our houses are obvious: the County of Anverlee has vast land holdings, many of which are not fully or optimally exploited. Vasilver Trading has extensive resources to invest in development. Fireholt’s mineral rights are of particular interest to our business, as recent discoveries in smelting make utilizing them attractive. And there’s the matter of heirs and bloodlines: in this area, the benefit is all on Vasilver’s side: even in this age titled relations are of great value to a business empire, while a Blessing by convention has no price. But beyond my dowry, you’ll find that the advantages Vasilver can offer as a partner — marriage being a natural form of partnership — are considerable.

“But as you say, there are a great many people to please, and it’s important to be aware of all the possibilities, the expectations inherent in marriage. I’ve prepared this document for your perusal.”  She removed a sheaf of papers from the folder and, swallowing, offered them to him. Nik reacted before his father could, taking the thick sheaf in his gloved hand. “I used contractual language, but it’s intended more as a launching point. For negotiation.”

The Whole Idea Was Absurd (2/141)

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Wisteria Vasilver waited in the front parlor for her callers. In the good parlor, with her grandmother’s antemarkavian marbles arranged in the glass-fronted cabinet, with the granite-topped occasional tables and beveled bronze-framed mirror over the mantelpiece, with the couch and wingback chairs with their dust covers removed for once, green-and-gold velvet brocade on display. In the parlor they almost never used because it was too good even for company. Her father paced over the tapestry carpet of the Ascension that ran between the chairs and the couch, his hands clasped behind his back in the way that meant he was nervous and worried, not nervous and excited. Wisteria felt much the same, but she simply sat in the wingback chair nearest the door with her hands clasped in her lap. All her documents were in the leather folder on the end table beside her.

Mr. Brigsley rapped unnecessarily at the door before opening it at her father’s command. “Lord Striker, Count of Anverlee. Lady Striker, Countess of Anverlee. Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt,” the butler announced, with a calculated degree of formality. Wisteria rose as the door opened; her father abandoned his pacing to stand a little ahead of her and greet their guests. She had seen them before, but never in close proximity. The parents were what she had expected: Anverlee County was in the Havenset province of Newlant, and they had the round light-colored eyes, Haventure-pale skin, and narrow prominent noses common to that region. Lord Striker was a tall man, trim despite his years, with a full head of white hair streaked by a few strands of remaining light brown. His wife was short and plump, round face lined and grey hair wrapped in a coil around the crown of her head.

Lord Nikola was … not what she expected. Wisteria had known he was tall, slender, and handsome, with a long ponytail of wavy dark blond hair. But she was not prepared for the feline grace of his stride and bearing, or the way his presence seemed to fill the room, or the way her attention was drawn to him involuntarily, as if there were no one else in the parlor. Or for the intensity of his round blue eyes, gazing at her face as her father presented her. She curtseyed automatically, her mind churning in a useless attempt to interpret his expression. For a moment, she was struck by the fantasy that his focused gaze was for her — not for a prospective fiancee, or a potential mother, or a new acquaintance, or a wealthy heiress, but for herself, Wisteria Vasilver. As if his Blessing could reach out through his gaze alone and touch her soul. She couldn’t breathe.

He bowed in answer to her curtsey, and she forced the preposterous fantasy away. “Please, have a seat,” her father told their guests.

Wisteria lowered herself gratefully back to her chair, forcing her gaze to Lord Striker to avoid staring at his son. Him? Marry him? The whole idea was absurd. Of course it’s absurd, she told herself. Everyone does it anyway. So can I. So can he. We each must marry someone, there is no reason it cannot be one another. She stole another glance at Lord Nikola. He was seated on the couch to the right of his father, opposite Wisteria, with his mother on the other end of the couch. She could tell nothing from his expression, a slight smile that could signify anything — amused, bored, polite, sarcastic, who knew? Everyone in the room but me. His parents were equally undecipherable, naturally. Her father exchanged inconsequential pleasantries with his, while his mother scrutinized Wisteria. Wisteria didn’t bother to study her in return — she’d offend with her stare long before she learned anything useful. Instead, she considered what made Lord Nikola seem so … so present. It wasn’t his clothing, which was elegant but understated and not-quite-current. Eggshell-white cuffs peeked from the edges of a deep blue jacket cut long in back and short in front, spray of lace at the front from a jabot, tan breeches, pale stockings, dark shoes, and ivory gloves: in consideration of his Blessing, no skin was exposed apart from his face. All well-tailored, but the suit was of ivysilk and lacked the subtle gloss of the more expensive angoraflax suits their fathers wore, and it had no fashionable trim or ornate buttons. That would be a signal of some kind, perhaps that Lord Nikola didn’t think she merited dressing up. Or that he disliked ornamentation. Or didn’t want to pay for expensive extras. Or found current styles unappealing. Another signal like the smile, so fraught with possible meanings it might as well be meaningless. Wisteria abandoned the task of solving impossible enigmas on so little information, and waited for tea to be served and conversation to come to a point that might give her some data.

A Suitably Rich Match (1/141)

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The Lord of Fireholt had no intention of marrying, and certainly not of marrying Miss Wisteria Vasilver. They’d not yet been introduced, but he had seen her at social events: a tall dark-haired woman whose fashionable attire could not disguise her boyish figure. Nor did it mask the severe expression that added ten years to a long face that had already lost the bloom of youth, assuming she ever had it. It was hard to imagine a less appealing companion for a lifetime. “I’d sooner marry Lady Dalsterly,” he remarked, gaze fixed out the carriage window.

His mother, Lady Striker, Countess of Anverlee, gasped from the seat opposite his. “Nikola Striker! Lady Dalsterly is ninety-six!”

“What does that matter? She’s rich, isn’t she? If old men can marry a destitute girl for her beauty, youth and title, I don’t see why old women can’t do the same. At least I wouldn’t be married to her for long,” he added, purely to spite his mother: Lady Dalsterly would live another twenty years at least.

His mother gave a second horrified gasp.

“That’s enough, Nikola,” his father said. “We are not destitute. This is about finding you a suitable match and a mother for your future heirs. Which Lady Dalsterly most certainly would not be.”

“A suitably rich match, you mean, and let’s kill two birds with one stone as long as you’re going to the trouble of dragging me to the wedding circle,” Nik said, expression sour.

“Don’t be melodramatic. Everyone marries, boy. What else do you intend to do? Install one of your whores as Lady of Fireholt?” Lord Striker said, earning himself a glare and a ‘Rukert!’ from his wife.

Nikola clamped his jaw closed, biting off a reply. It was hard to pick out the worst part from so many bad parts of the situation, but the way his parents made him not only feel but act like a child was high on the list. I am a grown man. My parents cannot compel me to wed. All I’ve agreed to do is be polite to a few strangers for an hour. Then I can tell Mother, ‘There, I’ve met the girl, I’m still not marrying her, I’m going home to Fireholt now’. The opportunity to see Justin is not worth all this. Last week, agreeing to the meeting to end his mother’s nagging had seemed reasonable. Today, he wasn’t so sure. His occasional compliance in meeting his mother’s idea of eligible women had only made Lady Striker more strident in her demands. Well, there was no graceful way to escape it now. The pair of big greatcats padded onwards, pulling the carriage inevitably closer to Vasilver Manor. The carriage wheels moved quietly over the broad paved streets; a clever arrangement of levers, pistons and valves where axle met cab ensured a smooth ride. The sky over Gracehaven was leaden, three- and four-story buildings of brick, steelwood, and stone turned to shades of gray by the colorless light. I might as well be going to my funeral. Savior, get me out of here.

Divine intervention was not forthcoming: too soon the carriage stopped before a modern five-story edifice of stone and glass, its fixtures, floors and corners trimmed by darker stone carved in elegant abstract patterns. One of Vasilver’s footmen opened the carriage door before the lead greatcat could extricate herself from her harness to do it. She padded to loom over the footman from a yard behind him, ears pricked as she watched her three human passengers disembark. Like the other greatcat, she wore a livery cloak in Anverlee’s blue-and-silver. “There’s a carriage house and felishome behind the manor, my lord,” the footman said to Lord Striker.

Nik’s father nodded. “Stow the carriage and wait for us in the felishome, Jill,” he told the waiting greatcat.

She dropped her head, blue-gray fur grizzled with white along her muzzle and ears, one leg bent and the other outstretched in a feline bow. “Yes, m’lord.” Lord and Lady Striker ascended the steps to the front door while Nik lingered by the carriage to put off the inevitable a moment longer. He felt a nudge against his back, and turned to see Jill’s lowered head. She gave him a broad wink. “Knock ’em dead, Lord Nik,” she murmured.

He gave her a lopsided grin and made a shooing motion. “Mother will kill you if you’ve shed on my jacket,” he whispered back.

Jill nosed his hand, unrepentant, and padded back into her harness to help her companion greatcat pull the vehicle from the street. Nik inhaled one last deep breath of freedom, then followed his parents into Vasilver Manor.