The Association for Investment and Commerce (49/141)

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By tradition, the last meeting of the Association for Investment and Commerce each year was held the Saturday before the Ascension Ball: another marker for the end of the business year and the start of the social season. Not that the one ever stopped for the other, but there was a distinct shift in emphasis after the Ascension Ball that carried through winter recess, until government reconvened in the spring.   

Justin had almost skipped the meeting, as he’d been engrossed in the process of assembling the reward for Nikola. The constraints involved made it a challenge. For the sake of Nikola’s pride, Justin wanted the gift to go unnoticed by anyone else. It also had to be cash or the equivalent – Justin didn’t want to burden his friend with investments or property that needed to be managed. The wealth needed to be transferred all at once; there was no possible way Nikola would agree to more than a single transaction. Last, he wanted the transaction complete before the Ascension Ball, because the kind of work required to convert a sizable fraction of Justin’s wealth into currency would be all but impossible during the season itself. The chief trouble was that – even setting aside the untouchable entailed property – Justin kept relatively little of his wealth in cash or the equivalent. There was no giant vault in Comfrey Manor filled with gold bricks or stacks of currency. He did have a wall safe for documents and ordinary expenses, which held fifty thousand marks or so because Justin had a generous definition of what might comprise an ‘ordinary expense’. Accounts at various different banking institutions totalled close to a million. The rest was scattered among investments of lesser degrees of liquidity: stock holdings in a number of businesses, promissory notes pledged by others, unentailed real estate, profit-shares in shipping ventures, patents, lease assignments, not to mention his personal property or the inventory and equipment of his wholly-owned businesses. All of which added up to staggering sums in the Comfrey ledger book, but converting a significant part of it to spendable funds on little more than a week’s notice was impractical.

After considerable time going over the figures and underlying assets, Justin concluded the best way to get this done in a timely fashion was to establish a line of credit at one of his banks and draw funds from it. He could then repay the line through an unhurried sale of assets, which would both lead to a better price and excite less comment. But that made it even more important that the transactions be kept in strictest confidence. Nikola had a horror of debt – understandable given Lord Striker’s foolish use of it, but still unfortunate. Justin didn’t want to think about Nik’s reaction if he found out Justin had funded the reward via such. It wouldn’t be half or even a quarter of Comfrey’s net worth – that much was out of the question without six months or more in lead time. But with minimally adequate management, it would be more than adequate not only for Nikola’s needs but to put Anverlee back on solid footing.

By Saturday morning, Justin had set in motion every wheel that he could, and was assured that the deal would close and fund by Thursday at the latest. It was all carried out with the utmost discretion. The bank extending the loan did not know his intended purpose for the funds – Justin had stated it was for a delicate negotiation that required great secrecy lest his competitors get wind of it, and since the line was secured by existing assets the bank did not need details. Once funded, the proceeds would go to a second bank, and from there to a separate account in Nikola’s name. No one at the second bank knew of the line at the first, and only two people knew that the money for the deposit would come from Justin. In any event, there was little to be done on Justin’s end now apart from wait, so he attended the AIC’s meeting as usual.

The Association for Investment and Commerce held its meetings in the Gracehaven Exchange building, a sixth-century edifice of limestone. Its grand Exchange Hall had an arched roof sixty feet high and glass windows set in narrow steel-framed slits. The Exchange itself was closed on Saturdays and Sundays, but the building was busy with workers catching up on accounting and paperwork generated during the week, and drafting clear copies from crabbed shorthand notes. The AIC met in a vaulted chamber on the far side of the building, where expensive uncomfortable chairs and tables were arrayed in a semicircle of tiers around the central speaker’s platform at the base. The last meeting of the year was usually a full one, as men jockeyed to seal deals and finalize terms. This one was no exception, packed full of wrinkled old men, many grey-haired or balding, most portly if not fat, with complexions that ranged from the predominant Newlanture golden browns to Haventure pale pinks. Justin was one of the youngest in the room, and he was the youngest not attending in tow of some elder relation or superior. Unlike the Markavian, the AIC was not exclusively human men: a handful of woman dotted the crowd – wives and daughters of male attendees. Greatcats were rarer still: Lord Walther, orange with black spots, and Fela Jonaston, a grey tiger, were the only members of their species in attendance.

Justin made the rounds of the chamber before the meeting began. He spoke with Mrs. Lavert and confirmed that the Lavert convoy had sailed on Wednesday. She thanked him effusively for his help with customs, one hand on his arm in her earnestness; he waved it off as a trifle, which it was. Thoughts of that supper party made him think of the night with Nikola afterwards and triggered an ache of desire. I need to send him another invitation. Maybe a shooting party. I wonder if I can get away with a party of two?

He fended off a couple of pitches from gentlemen hungry for venture capital, and listened to a third by an enthusiastic Mr. Lonsen, not entirely because Lonsen was a trim, attractive young man. Privately, he had to admit it didn’t hurt. When Mr. Colridge, a vigorish man who looked decades younger than his fifty-odd years, paused to chat, Justin exchanged civil but cool and unencouraging courtesies with him. Justin had made the mistake of screwing Colridge once and the man had tried to make a pet of him afterwards. Presumptuous git.   

Justin had always been drawn to men, from his first schoolboy crush on a handsome curly-haired geography teacher. His earliest sexual experiments had been furtive gropings with other teenage boys at his all-boys school. He suspected most of his partners from that time had been driven more by sexual frustration and a lack of available females than reciprocal attraction. It hardly mattered: at that age he’d been driven by pure need and was often revolted by the personalities attached to the bodies he used to slake his lust. Avoiding the other participant in all public situations was the most desirable outcome. As an adult, he’d had more liaisons with tolerable men, but for the most part he preferred limited or no social contact with his sexual partners. It was safer to confine relations to secretive and even anonymous assignations, to avoid any attachment that might arouse suspicion. Besides, getting lovesick looks from grown men who ought to know better was repugnant. Apart from Nikola.

Nikola. Who broke all the unwritten, unspoken rules Justin held about sexual intercourse. Nikola, who could be his closest friend and yet still be so discreet that no one would think to accuse them, with never an untoward glance, a private smile, or a guilty look. A true friend, not merely an amiable companion but a man with standards and a willingness to stand up for them. Justin doubted he knew even one other individual who would have called him to account over his treatment of Southing. Everyone else would have been too intimidated by Justin’s rank and wealth to risk offense, or considered a viscount above reproach, or that Southing had deserved it, or that one could expect nothing else from a lord. Only Nikola would be unafraid, would believe not only that Justin should but would live up to his ideals. It was maddening and humiliating and somehow touching, that Nikola had so much faith that he could deliver such a reprimand yet never for a moment stop loving Justin.

Justin had never figured out why Nikola put up with him, never mind cared for him as much as he clearly did. Nor why Nikola, who plainly found women desirable, would choose any man for a lover. For Justin, women were a shabby second choice at best. If he was horny enough, a woman would suffice and he’d slept with the occasional prostitute or courtesan in preference to a lonely bed and his hand. But even if the example of his parents’ marriage had not been enough to alienate him from the institution, the idea of committing to a woman for the rest of his life was laughable.

Justin had no illusions that the same applied to Nikola, or that the state of affairs between them could continue indefinitely. One day Nikola would wed, and Justin doubted he would prove the sort of man to betray his marriage vows. Those curst standards of his, again. Though they were flexible enough to admit me as bedmate in the first place, so perhaps…No. Accept the Paradise the Savior gave you, Justin told himself. You’ve had his love for six years, and with fortune you may keep it a little longer. But you will not have a lifetime. Do not pine for what cannot be.

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So Very Little of You (48/141)

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Nik grinned, charmed by her plainspoken self-analysis. “Does this mean your preference for honesty does not extend to expecting answers to direct questions, Miss Vasilver?”

“Not when the question is nothing of my concern.” Miss Vasilver paused, then added, “Although I don’t have at all the right notion of what ought to concern me, I’m afraid. In truth, I would prefer a social order where one might ask whatever one liked, but where a response of ‘I prefer not to answer that’ was in no way remarkable. I am perplexed by why that response is seldom offered and poorly received when it is…I don’t suppose you know, my lord?”

Nik gave the question due consideration. “It interrupts the flow of conversation, forcing a new topic to be chosen and suggesting that the questioner is prying into something he should not.”

“But is this such a hardship as to justify animosity? I understand that sometimes one might not want to talk about a given topic, regardless of what that topic is or what one’s reasons are – it hardly matters, does it? But to be offended that it is brought up at all? Or to flee the room because it goes unanswered? Wouldn’t it be simpler to pick a new topic and not fret over it?”

“It would.” Nik smiled. “I’m afraid it would not be very like a human to do so, however. I daresay being affronted is one of our primary pastimes.”

“Why? It’s not an enjoyable one so far as I can tell.”

“Isn’t it?”

“My lord?” She tilted her head, inviting him to elaborate.

“It’s natural, would you not agree, to take a certain satisfaction in being correct? In doing what is right, or for that matter in simply knowing the proper answer or solution to a conundrum?” Nik waited for her nod before continuing, “Affrontery is a variant on that feeling. When I take offense at another’s actions, I stimulate the part of my mind that believes I am right, superior to whomever has offended me. It’s a different route to a similar sort of pleasure to what one might derive from a more concrete form of mastery. It has the disadvantage of being connected to other unpleasant emotions too, but it’s nonetheless much easier to find something to be offended by than to go to the trouble of, say, actual learning.”

“Oh!” Miss Vasilver leaned towards him, the fingers of one hand fluttering. “So there is a reason! I have always wondered. It’s…a rather awful reason, though. Are people truly supposed to be that way? Have you observed this from your study of minds, my lord?”

Her calm curiosity – not awed, intimidated, or impressed by his Blessing, but merely inquiring as a matter of fact – impressed Nik. “In a sense,” he answered, after reflection. “It’s…speculation on my part, based on observation. The parts of the mind do not come with tidy labels or unambiguous connections. My great-grandmother taught me to interpret what I experience, and my practice since then has suggested that my interpretations are mostly-but-not-always right. So – yes, my observation of the human mind is that, in most but not all humans, the mindshapes that produce outrage feed into those for satisfaction just as the mindshapes for conscience, curiosity, intellect and other skills do…much of what the mind does, whether we deem it positive or not, is capable of leading to satisfaction. Offense and outrage are part of how humans bond with their own class: one shares the sense of repulsion with others of one’s class to prove that one belongs. That one has to make an example of another for not belonging is, perhaps, incidental. Or…I don’t know, perhaps that’s essential, that there can be no ‘us’ without a ‘them’? Or as a way of establishing one’s place in the hierarchy.” Nik shook his head. “I apologize, Miss Vasilver. I fear I sound as if I possess more information or certainty than I do. Being able to perceive certain qualities doesn’t mean I truly understand how they work, much less why. As for how people are supposed to work – allow me to say that what I describe are attributes of personality, not pathology. A man whose mindshapes connect outrage and pleasure is not ill – and neither is one whose mind does not interrelate the two.”

“How very fascinating. Is the same effect observable among greatcats as well?” Miss Vasilver had shifted to the edge of her seat, head turned to put her ear towards him, light brown eyes fixed on some distant point.

“Yes…perhaps to a lesser degree than among humans. At least Newlant humans. Greatcats value hierarchy less than we do. Less than most humans do,” he amended, out of loyalty to accuracy.

“Most, my lord?”

“There’s a great deal of variance among individuals of all nations and species, but nationality, gender and culture all play a part, such that a Newlant gentlewoman will tend towards different traits than those of a Kinder laborer. And there are always exceptions.” Nikola looked down, started to fold his gloved hands together and stopped, wincing at the twinge of pain from his injured hand. “In truth, Miss Vasilver, I am not much for hierarchy myself.”

“How do you mean, Lord Nikola?” Her attitude, with her face in profile and head tilted, made her look as if she were not attending, but Nik had the clear sense that she was listening intently. It was almost easier to continue than if her eyes had been upon him.

That. ‘Lord’ Nikola. I’ve had that title my whole life and I still don’t manage to live up to it. I hate being responsible for the livelihoods of other people. I don’t want to tell them what to do, nor do I wish for others to command me. As for the dignity of my rank – I’m more or less an embarrassment to the whole peerage. I’d sooner curl up on a greatcat couchbed than sit in one of these chairs, or race across town on catback and have fur shed all over my clothes than travel with propriety in a carriage. I am the despair of both my parents and even my friends mock me for it. Half the reason I don’t want to marry is because that will give me one more thing I am supposed to be in command of and I am doing a miserable job mastering my existing responsibilities.” The words spilled out of him in a low, urgent rush, unstoppable once he’d begun.

“I cannot agree,” Miss Vasilver said as he paused for breath. Nik blinked at her. She still didn’t look at him, as if too intent on the meaning of the words to spare any concentration for the flesh producing them. “That is – of course I do not dispute your feelings on the subject, upon which you must necessarily be sole expert. But that you do a ‘miserable job’ is factually inaccurate. You still employ all the servants you inherited with Fireholt, save those you’ve pensioned who were no longer capable of work. You guarantee them one day off each week, more than most employers do. You live within your means, adjust your expenditures downwards as necessary, and do not indulge in expensive hobbies. Your tenants’ homes are properly maintained, as is Fireholt itself. I do not say that you have taken all possible measures to maximize the wealth of your holding, but certainly your execution of your duties has been unexceptionable.”

“Oh,” he said, faintly.

Miss Vasilver turned to him at last. “…due diligence.”

“Yes, I…you know, I had planned a digression on how greatcats are different from humans in this respect, but now it strikes me that you know everything about me and I know so little about you, Miss Vasilver. Do you perhaps have a dossier on yourself I might peruse?”

“I fear I do not, my lord. I could have one prepared if you like,” Miss Vasilver offered in her usual grave manner. “I am sure Byron could be persuaded to write a character reference for me.”

“My word, did you accumulate character references on me? I am surprised your father didn’t have to haul you to that first meeting in chains.”

“My lord is much too hard on himself.”

“And still woefully uninformed about you, Miss Vasilver. Since you do not have a dossier at hand, will you do me the kindness of telling me more about yourself now? Or shall I be forced to interrogate my sister for information – ah, I nearly forgot: Lysandra sends her love.”

“Miss Striker? Oh, but she is married now – Mrs…Warren?”


“Of course. How kind of her to remember me after all these years. Is she visiting your parents as well?”

“Yes, with her husband and all five of their children. She recalls you with great fondness, I must say.”

“She does? Please give her my best compliments, my lord. I should very much like to see her again…do you think – no, I don’t suppose I ought call on her at Anverlee Manor.”

“If you wish to write out a message or an invitation for her, miss, I should be happy to convey it.”

“Oh, thank you, my lord, I will do that before you go.” Miss Vasilver rang for a servant for writing materials. She glanced to the clock. “Did you wish to stay for dinner, my lord?”

“Is it so late already?” Nik frowned at the clock as if it offended him. “No, I shouldn’t impose—”

“—it’s no imposition, my lord.”

But he was steadfast. Accepting a dinner invitation obliged him to offer one in return and he could not invite her to dine at Anverlee, or afford private dining elsewhere. Except you will be able to, with Justin’s money. Whatever appetite he possessed evaporated. “No, thank you,” he repeated, watching as she wrote out a note for Lysandra. He was acutely aware that his effort to learn more about Miss Vasilver had been entirely deflected, and was unsure if that was intentional on her part or accidental on his own. But I still don’t know anything about her. Except that she’s brilliant and inquisitive and honest and easier to talk to about anything than anyone I have ever known, and I want to see her again and know more. He rose to take the folded note from her hand when she offered it, and took her hand in his gloved ones at the same time. On impulse, Nikola asked, “Miss Vasilver, would you be so kind as to accompany me to the Ascension Ball Saturday next?”

She did not answer at once; her eyes glanced from his hands around hers to his face and away again. Ah, someone has already asked her, he thought, disappointed. But then she answered, cool and decisive, “You honor me, my lord. I would be very happy to join you.”   

“Thank you, my lady.” He gave her a dazzling smile, forgetting her proper honorific in the startling rush of elation that followed her answer. “Good day to you.”

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Are You Supposed to Ask That? (47/141)

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“I thought that was just in the mornings?”

Nik grimaced. “The petitioner’s hall hours are in the morning. For the more complex cases, I take appointments in the afternoon. And evening.” And night. “With Gracehaven so much more populous and well-travelled than Fireholt, I always see more petitioners when I’m in town. This season has been especially busy.”

“Why does it take so long to help them?” Mrs. Vasilver asked. “I thought the Blessed need but touch the afflicted to cure them.”

“Some are that easy, but with most the Savior needs time to affect treatment. For example, a child whose mental development has been badly stunted may require a half-hour to restore her mindshapes to their proper structure.”

Miss Vasilver tilted her head, listening. “Is that typical of the Blessed?”

Nik started to nod, then paused to give the question real consideration. “In truth, I don’t know. It seems to vary by individual and by Blessing. Blessings for stone and plants strike me as very different from those for minds or bodies; I don’t know how to compare it, since they do not hear petitions or work cures on men. Those for bodies are more akin to minds, although the recovery process for bodies is…not necessarily slower, but more obvious. People overestimate the ‘instantaneous’ effect of treatment, because they go from feeling sick to feeling healthy and don’t realize that there’s still an adjustment process involved. Er…” Nik chased the thread of his point. “At any rate, my great-grandmother, who had the same Blessing I do, spent a fair amount of time with a number of her petitioners when curing their ailments, but I cannot say I know the proportions involved – it’s been too many years. And I suppose it depends on whether one classifies those I cannot cure as ‘more complex’ or leaves them out of the calculation.”

“And how would you classify those?” Miss Vasilver asked.

“Oh, as more complex,” Nik said at once. “A few of them may be untreatable for various reasons. But there’s such a wealth of detail in every mind, and each one so different, that when I cannot make a diagnosis I usually feel as if I just don’t know enough yet.”

Mrs. Vasilver furrowed her brow. “But how can it be a learned skill? Even infants who carry a Blessing will cure the ill.”

“Yes: casting out demons is so obvious it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a reflex. But most ailments aren’t caused by demons. Or if they are, it’s a demon so subtle that it cannot be sensed as such. That manifests as a malformation in one of the hundreds of facets of the mind which have thousands of distinct but healthy shapes. It’s…complex. I learned a great deal from my great-grandmother and the notes from her and her grandfather, and, well, I try to learn more by studying the minds of the sick and the healthy.”

Mrs. Vasilver gave a delicate shudder. “It must be harrowing, seeing the thoughts of strangers all the time. What secrets you must be forced to keep, Lord Nikola.”

“Mother, he doesn’t read thoughts,” her daughter said before Nik could respond. “The Savior’s Blessing lets him see something of the ways in which minds work, not what the person is thinking now. It would be as if – oh – you showed me a blueprint of a house and then asked me to tell you what the inhabitants are doing at the current moment. The one does not give much information at all about the other.”

Nik flashed her a surprised, grateful smile. “That is an excellent analogy, Miss Vasilver. Do you mind if I steal it?”

“I do,” she said gravely. “You must accept it as a gift freely given instead, to do with as you please.”

“If I must.” He rose to give her a bow as solemn as her expression. “Thank you, miss.”

Miss Vasilver inclined her head in acknowledgement. “Is that why this season is busier for you, then?”

Resuming his seat, Nik tried to see the connection and couldn’t. “Beg pardon?”

“If you’ve learned to diagnosis new conditions, that means that people you would have once turned away now take more time, doesn’t it? And your average time per person must increase, because the number of simple treatments would not change but the number of complex ones will rise.”

Nik blinked at her. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. I always thought I was putting myself out of work, because once I’d cured someone they would not need to petition again. But for those who don’t have demons, it is technically faster to turn them away than to treat them. Still.” He shrugged, self-conscious. “It’s so little of my time, relative to their benefit. It would be a shattering waste of the Blessing, not to do all I may.”

“Very much to your credit, my lord,” Mrs. Vasilver said, with an awed look that made him sorry he’d said anything. Nik took some comfort from Miss Vasilver’s bland, unimpressed expression.

“It’s no sacrifice,” Nik said quickly. “And I’m not that diligent about it. I cancelled all my appointments today, for example.”

“Did you in truth, my lord? Just to call on my daughter?” The older woman’s dark eyes took on a speculative cast.

Nik wondered how he’d gotten himself into this subject and, more importantly, how to get out again. “Er…”

“Are you supposed to ask questions like that, Mother?”

Mrs. Vasilver blinked at her daughter, diverted. “I beg your pardon?”

“It’s fishing for a compliment, isn’t it? I suppose it’s fishing for one for me and not you, but it puts Lord Nikola in an awkward position if that’s not what he intended, doesn’t it? Or if he didn’t wish to give his reasons for cancelling the appointments. I thought that was the sort of thing I wasn’t supposed to do,” Miss Vasilver observed in uninflected, analytical tones. “Is this one of those areas where there are different rules for you?”

“Wisteria – I – you—” The older woman’s tan face flushed, highlighting the soft wrinkles in her skin, and she directed flustered looks between her daughter and her guest. Nik offered no rescue to her. “It’s—” Miss Vasilver watched her mother, awaiting enlightenment. Mrs. Vasilver coughed. “I have just recollected that I have some papers to attend to upstairs. Do excuse me, Lord Nikola, Wisteria.” Nikola rose with her and offered her a bow, then reseated himself after she completed her retreat.

“That was peculiar,” Miss Vasilver said, eyes on the open door her mother had left through. “Usually she answers my questions first.”

Nik laughed. “I believe that was an answer.”

“It was?” She turned her attention to him.

“Oh yes. Roughly translating to ‘You are correct and only by abandoning the entire engagement can I save face now’.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean to embarrass her. Should I go apologize, do you think?”

“Not at all. She embarrassed herself, Miss Vasilver. It was an awkward question and you rescued me from it, which I appreciate.”   

Miss Vasilver digested this. “I am glad to have been of assistance, my lord, though I admit this is a novel position for me. Usually my parents are the ones who tell me I have done something unacceptable. I didn’t even mean to tell my mother she had; I assumed there was some nuance I had not perceived. There normally is.”

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The Usual Courtesies (46/141)

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It was half-past noon when Nikola arrived at Vasilver House, in his third-best morning jacket and the sole one that he hadn’t already worn for a call to Miss Vasilver: a dark grey ivytweed with blue piping. Shelby had put his Fireholt monogrammed lapel pin on it, and Nik had taken it off again. He was not courting Miss Vasilver and had no need to impress her with pretensions to wealth, and moreover the pin had been a gift from Justin. It was one of the very few pieces of jewelry Nik had received and kept – wealthy petitioners often donated jewels – rather than sell for the maintenance of his household.

Mrs. Vasilver received him in their overly-formal parlor, its too-cluttered look restored by the return of the Ascension tapestry rug, no worse for his father’s spilled tea. The room reminded Nikola of what Justin called his ‘stiff parlor’, full of pretentious ornaments and uncomfortable furniture, trotted out to impress visitors who might care about such things. Five minutes, Nik told his brain. Can you not go five minutes without thinking of him?

Miss Vasilver’s mother was a softer, shorter, darker-complected version of her daughter, but plump and rounded instead of slim and straight, dark hair streaked by silver a little like Justin’s (enough already!) piled on her head and secured by a fashionable net of silver chain and green stones. Fine lines marked a long face with a high forehead, but unlike her daughter, Mrs. Vasilver had a kind, welcoming smile. Nik had a sudden strong urge to see that smile on her daughter’s lips. What would it be like, if she looked at me just once that way?

They exchanged the standard meaningless courtesies for some minutes. Mrs. Vasilver was a bit worn and melancholy under her gentle kindness: not insincere, but as if her life had held one too many recent disappointments and cheerfulness could not be mustered. Nik sympathized.

When Miss Vasilver arrived, Nikola felt his own mood lighten as he rose to greet her with a smile. She had her hair down and swept to one side again, and wore a vivid blue daydress trimmed in pale blue lace, with a striking jacket entirely of matched lace. She dropped a curtsey to him and offered her hand when he extended his. He kissed the air over her fingers and enjoyed her unaffected air: no simpering or blushing. “Lord Nikola, it’s delightful to see you again. How do you do?”

“The better for seeing you, Miss Vasilver.” Nikola said, because it was true. Her words warmed him even if her cool voice did not sound delighted; in light of their last conversation, he considered she was not the type to utter false pleasantries. Maybe she’s just not the sort of person who smiles. He realized he still held her hand and released it, taking the chair opposite her as she sat.

“Am I to sit quietly and be admired then, my lord? One of my brothers says that nothing spoils a woman’s looks like her open mouth,” Miss Vasilver said, deadpan.

“Oh my goodness, who said that?” Mrs. Vasilver asked. “Mitchell? I’ll have his father beat some manners into that boy yet.”

“Stephen, actually, and I am afraid it is many years too late to beat anything into him, Mother. Perhaps if you could convince Father to withhold his share, but I do not think I could countenance such a move myself.” To Nikola, she added, “Stephen is one of my older brothers, my lord, and captain of Bright Angel, one of our trading vessels.”

“I trust he is a better seamen than wit.” Nik smiled. “Nothing against your looks, Miss Vasilver—” indeed, she looked better today than she had at either of their previous meetings; perhaps the lace had a softening effect on her features “—but I came more to admire your conversation than your person. I would be disappointed indeed if you were to remain silent.”

“I would not disappoint you for anything, my lord.” Her uninflected delivery gave the words a sincerity that the coy flirtatious smile of another woman would have stripped away; Nik found himself touched. “Did my lord have a topic in mind?”

“Not as such. I thought we’d flounder through the usual pleasantries until we stumbled upon something of mutual interest. How do you do, Miss Vasilver?”

“The better for seeing you, Lord Nikola. Am I allowed to steal your lines? I never have been good at the usual pleasantries.”

“Not a bit! I absolutely forbid you to steal my lines. I have given them to you freely, so any use you find for them thereafter is entirely legitimate.”

“In that case – wait, I already asked how you did. How is your family, then? Is that my next courtesy?”

“I believe it is, and they are all well, as well as jammed into every nook and cranny of Anverlee Manor. The place was a great deal larger a week ago before they all descended in force upon it. Alas, I have already asked your mother after the health of your family, so it would be redundant to ask you now.” Nik inclined his head to Mrs. Vasilver. The older woman offered her kindly smile, her expression otherwise bemused.

“Oh dear. We are not yet reduced to the weather, are we? You will be sadly disappointed in my conversation after all, if it comes to that.”

“Now, why would you think that?” Nik smiled at Miss Vasilver, but her long face remained grave. She had lovely skin, clear and flawless, color halfway between the pale-peach from her Haventure heritage on her father’s side, and the warm Newlanture brown of her mother’s.

“Well, for one, I have not set foot outside these last two days, so I do not know what the weather is. I assume we still have some?”

“I daresay we do.” The day was cold, rainy, and dreary; if it had been at all tolerable Nikola would have suggested another walk to Miss Vasilver to get out from under the eye of her mother. “So what has kept you cooped up for two days?”

“I would not say ‘cooped up’. I’ve not had anything I wanted to leave to do, and plenty of work at home. Checking accounts for Vasilver Trading to ensure all is in order for when we close the books at year-end.”

“My daughter works far too much, Lord Nikola.” Mrs. Vasilver gave her daughter a fond smile but there was a hint of steel beneath the words. “I imagine you have been more in the spirit of the Season? Dinner engagements every day and supper engagements every evening?”

“Only if one counts dinner with my family. In fact, I’ve been busy with work myself. Seeing petitioners, I mean.”

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Trauma (45/141)

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Halfway through the petitioning assembly, Nikola already felt flayed to the bone. He’d lost track of numbers cured and those sorted, but several of those he had not been able to cure were wailing, crying, or screaming, despite the best efforts of their family or friends to calm them. Desperate petitioners clutched at him instead of following instructions, as if holding onto him hard enough would force the Savior to fix them at once.

At one end of the hall, his footman Bill and Anthser wrested apart a pair of belligerent petitioners; at the other Mrs. Linden spoke in a low voice with one of the Anverlee staff about cleaning the mess created by one agitated woman. Shelby was straightening out someone who insisted he had an appointment, even though it was 10:30 and Shelby never scheduled appointments before noon. It took an effort of will for Nik to keep moving down the endless line alone. A traitorous voice in his head whispered, Think how much easier this will be with more people, enough to handle the mob, enough to work in proper shifts, perhaps with expertise at handling those with impaired faculties. With Justin’s money you can do all that… Nik hated himself even more for that thought. Has all my resolve been nothing but coy, missish objections that I wanted him to overpower? Is it his money I’ve been after all this time in truth, like some gold-digging mistress? He forced his attention to the mind before him instead: no demon, and he struggled to focus enough to diagnose any other problem. After half a minute, he discerned that the mindshape for anxiety was grossly overinflated (that should have been obvious) and directed her to go to the section for the treatable. He turned to give Shelby a time estimate for her appointment, and realized the valet wasn’t back yet.

Sighing, Nik continued on to the next petitioner, a big twentyish man who knelt with eyes downcast. He touched the man’s cheek and saw the demon in his mind at the same time the petitioner turned his head and sunk his teeth into Nik’s hand. Nik screamed, as much from surprise as pain. Savior! He invoked the god by reflex to cast out the demon. A large shape flashed in his peripheral vision, accompanied by a deep roar, then a greatcat – tawny, not Anthser – knocked him aside and pushed the petitioner to the floor. Nikola staggered and winced as his hand ripped free of his assailant’s mouth. He clutched at his wrist as the hall around him erupted in noise. Anthser was upon them before the strange greatcat had time to finish asking, “Are you all right, m’lord?”

“What happened?” Anthser snarled at the unfamiliar greatcat as he curled his body around Nikola protectively. A half-dozen other greatcats – relations of petitioning kittens – had crossed the hall to gather around him, though they stayed back to give him and Anthser space.

“Man attacked Lord Nikola,” the golden greatcat answered, one paw pinning the unresisting assailant to the floor.

“I’m so sorry, my lord!” the youthful petitioner said, wide-eyed. He looked stunned but not hurt. “I don’t know why I did that!”

“I’m fine,” Nikola said automatically, although he did not feel fine at all. The physical injury was minor, however. Blood welled from torn skin on the back of his hand; deep tooth marks marred the palm, back of the hand, and the first joint of the index finger. Nik pushed on Anthser, and the great dark form shifted aside enough for Nik to move forward and crouch to touch the petitioner’s bare hand. “Let him up.”

“My lord?” the strange greatcat said.

“Demon’s gone. Let him go.” The rest of Nikola’s staff materialized around him as he stood; the barricade of greatcats had stepped aside for them. Nik felt suddenly claustrophobic, smothered by the expectations and even the goodwill of all the people crowding him. “He’s not a criminal.” If the man had been a prisoner brought for treatment, his guards would have warned Nik first. Mrs. Linden tried to take Nik’s hand, but he shook her off. “It’s nothing. I…” Nik pictured continuing the petitioning hours, trying to restore order, spending hours with his appointments for the day, and shuddered. He tried to move, just to see who was next, and his legs would not respond. I can’t do this. “Clear the hall,” he told Mrs. Linden. He wanted to sag against Anthser but forced himself upright. Curse you, you’re a man and a noble, act like it for five minutes, he told himself.

“My lord?” Mrs. Linden looked surprised.

“Clear the hall,” he repeated. He looked at the faces around him. “Shelby, cancel all my appointments for the rest of the day. Anthser, with me.” Nikola started towards his office at the back of the hall; Anthser paced alongside, long black tail lashing a warning. Five minutes, Nik told himself. The office door seemed impossibly distant.

“But…what do we tell them?” Bill Coxsleigh asked, trailing behind.   

Find another miracle worker. There’s three others in the country. “They may come back tomorrow.” Nik closed on the office with slow, deliberate strides, not looking to either side, afraid if he moved any faster he would start to shake. Or perhaps run. Anthser put a paw on the door handle and pulled it open for him. “Thank you. Please wait outside and see that I am not disturbed.” Nikola stepped inside and Anthser closed the door behind him. He made it halfway across the room before the shaking started. Useless, pointless tears that had nothing to do with pain trickled down his cheeks as he washed the injury in the room’s basin and wrapped a clean handkerchief around it with trembling fingers. Nik sprawled over the couchbed, eyes directed sightlessly at the gift mural for some time, until his body started behaving properly under his conscious control again. At that point, he took a long close look at his mind in an effort to figure out what his problem was now.

No demons, of course – those were so obvious he would not have had to make a special check to find them. His mindscape looked much the same as it had for the last few months. There were minor developmental changes: nothing as dramatic as watching his mind alter while growing up, where it was as obvious as his physical growth, but the process was still ongoing. His great-grandmother had told him that in some people, their mindshapes became rigid in their teens or twenties, but in many the mindshapes continued to shift, change and sometimes grow. It wasn’t unhealthy either way. Nik’s hadn’t settled down, but his great-grandmother’s never had either. Even in the last year of her life, when she was a hundred twenty-seven, he could still notice the little alterations from month to month.

Nik wished she was here now, to tell him he wasn’t crazy.

He found the most probable source of trouble: little burrs of recent trauma, positioned so it was easy for them to scrape other parts of his psyche. What caused that? Don’t tell me I was traumatized by watching Justin nearly die. Or by being bought. Am I so fragile? Nik sighed and washed his blotched face in the basin. Apparently so.

He didn’t ask the Savior to fix them: he could tell they were too recent for a miraculous cure. Trauma was a part of life: the mind needed time to learn from events, including difficult ones, and could recover naturally in good time from most. If his mind could not cope long-term and they were still a problem – or had grown more severe – in a week or two, the Savior would intervene then. Until that time, he had to manage on his own. And manage better than pitching a fit and throwing out my petitioners after a minor incident. Not to mention alarming my staff.

After drying his face and hands, Nik straightened his attire and hair. Hoping he looked presentable or at least not disgraceful, he left his makeshift sanctuary. Anthser, sitting on his haunches on the marble floor by the door, turned to look at him. Shelby stood from a chair next to the warcat, a basic treatment case at hand. “Your lady mother and the count asked after you,” Anthser said.

Nik almost returned to the office. The thought of facing his family, the eager questions about why he’d dismissed his petitioners early, concern for his health, his father’s now-justified objections to petitioners being in the house at all – it was nearly enough to destroy his fragile façade of normalcy. “Thank you, Anthser.”

Shelby cleared his throat. “Does m’lord wish to see a healer?”

“No. It’s nothing.” No one can fix what’s truly wrong with me, anyway.

“May I, m’lord?” The thin, white-haired valet gestured to the treatment case.

“Very well.” Nik sat and allowed Shelby to clean and dress the bite marks.

Anthser loomed nearby, watching, tail lashing again. “Maybe we should have em all tied up before letting em in,” he growled.

Nikola sighed. “I have to touch them to treat them, Anthser. And bound hands wouldn’t stop a man from biting me.”

“Gagged too, then.”

“No, Anthser. It’s nothing.”

“Then why—” Anthser cut off as Nik looked at him, and dropped his massive dark head, ears drooping. “Sorry, Lord Nik.”

Proper bandages were almost invisible beneath Nik’s habitual gloves. Nik tried to imagine facing whatever his parents had to say to him without screaming, weeping, collapsing, or otherwise humiliating himself. Justin would never be this shamefully weak.

Curse you, Justin.

He wanted to escape, to go somewhere safe, where he wouldn’t have to deal with family or Justin or even be reminded that Justin existed. To talk to someone sensible, someone who would not try to manipulate or control him. “Shelby, please give my parents my best compliments and inform them that I have gone out. My regrets but I will not be available for dinner today. Anthser, kindly bring the gig around to the front. I will call on Miss Vasilver.”

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Cowardice (44/141)

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On Thursday morning, Nik awoke disoriented, too early, depressed and nauseated and unable at first to remember what was wrong. Then it came to him in a sickening rush of anger, fear, betrayal. Justin, grinning like it was a joke, as if he would actually consent to alter his personality just to force Nik into his debt. Demons take you, Justin. How dare you. I should have called your bluff. I should have trusted that the Savior would not allow you to be greatly changed, perhaps not allow a change at all.

But what if Justin hadn’t been bluffing? What if changing the way he reacted to fear did make him more cautious? Made him reconsider the foolish risks we take when we…

Then that would be the Savior’s will. And who could fault it? Is this not the definition of madness, in violation of law, custom, nature? Shouldn’t I trust the Savior to do what is right? Nik had never had any trouble trusting the Savior before, not even when he’d prayed for alteration to his own mind. Yes, and that didn’t go as you planned, either. What do you truly fear? That you will be able to cure Justin when you have never, ever been able to cure yourself? Selfish coward.    

Curse it all. What possessed me to tell him about it anyway? A misplaced sense of obligation; the fool notion that he owed it to Justin to tell him. Because his conscience had been pricked by Justin’s jibe: ‘A true friend would’ve told me I was crazy and cured me’. He punched the pillow in remembered anger. So what kind of friend am I, Justin? Right. The kind you have to buy.

The tangled web of emotions knotted into a sudden hard ball of hatred: for Justin for putting him in this position, for making everything be about money, about Justin having it and Nik not and never letting him forget that. For the Savior for giving him this curse of a Blessing – I never asked for this! For himself, for his own cowardice, for letting Justin do this to him, for not trusting the Savior.

When Shelby arrived with breakfast, Nik was still hunched in his four-poster bed, maroon and white linens in a disarrayed heap around him. The valet inquired after his health, but probed no further in response to Nik’s monosyllabic reply. Nik went through his usual morning routine sluggishly, and approached the reception hall with a sense of dread. It was by no means the first time he’d felt ashamed to invoke the Savior, and he knew the Savior would do his part whatever Nik’s mood or personal feelings. Even so, he took a moment outside the reception hall to bow his head and ask the Savior to forgive him.    

The Savior’s presence when Nik prayed was different from his presence when Nik invoked his Blessing. Instead of an overwhelming rush of golden warmth and power, Nik sensed an expectancy inside his mind, a hushed listening. His prayer was silent but heartfelt: I am sorry, my Lord. For not trusting you. For being selfish and mean and petty. For selling myself. For resenting it. For being broken. For not wanting to enter this room and help people with problems a hundred times worse than my own. I am unworthy of the gift you have given me. Please forgive me.

His answer came in a touch of the Savior’s love, a warm wind enfolding him: invisible, untouchable, but nonetheless vaster and more powerful than the human mind could encompass. Behind that love was a hint of sorrow reminiscent of the Savior’s response to a petitioner Nikola could not diagnose, as if the Savior were shielding Nik from the god’s own disappointment. The certain knowledge of the Savior’s love took some of the edge off of Nikola’s misery, but it didn’t take away any of his current problems or make them feel more solvable. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and nodded to Bill to open the reception hall doors and announce him.

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To the Letter of the Code (43/141)

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A chambermaid entered with a box of candles, dropping a polite curtsy and a “m’lords” before she set about filling and lighting the room’s candelabra and wall sconces; apparently, the room had never been refitted for gaslight. Nikola fetched down cue sticks and Justin racked the balls – things a footman would do at Comfrey Manor, but that was more of an inconvenience than a convenience in this case – while the girl drew the curtains.

“Thank you, Mary,” Nikola told her as she finished. “That will be all.” The Haventure man leaned over to take the first shot as the maid withdrew again.

For form’s sake, Justin took a shot too, and was amused as the warping of the table turned a straight rebound into a curve after the ball lost most of its momentum. “Perhaps you should patent uneven surfaces for billiards, Striker. It adds a whole different feel to the game, gives an incentive to know the terrain well. Like trail-optional bowracing.” When Nikola didn’t respond, Justin looked up to see the man standing at his elbow, round blue eyes intent upon him.

“I don’t know how you can joke about it,” Nikola said, voice low. “I still have nightmares.”

“So do I, but only that I have to apologize to Southing again,” Justin took the cue stick from Nikola’s unresisting hand and set both on the table to hug him again. “I am fine. See?” he murmured into his lover’s ear. “Thanks to you. I am deeply in your debt, you know.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Nikola stiffened and pulled back, turning away. “No, you are not,” he said shortly. Justin grimaced at his back. I am not just letting this subject drop again, curse it. You will let me repay you. Before he could decide on the best approach, Nikola said, “You never asked me if you were crazy.”

Justin blinked at the non sequitur. “What?”

The tall blond man strode to one of the faded chairs before the curtained windows and fell into it. “You told everyone you’d asked me if you were insane. Which you had not.”

“Come now, Striker, you can’t be upset about that. I was being facetious. Everyone knew I wasn’t speaking literally! Besides, you’ve seen my mind a thousand times. It’s not like I’d have to ask,” Justin said. Nikola’s face was turned away; he didn’t answer. “…would I?” The heavily-muscled lord crossed the floor to stand before Striker, leaning down and planting his hands on the arms of the chair when Nikola still wouldn’t look at him. “Curse it, Striker, am I crazy?”

Nikola met his eyes at last. “Have I ever told you how my Blessing works?”

“I know how it works, you cast out demons, blood and death, Nikola, have I got one or not? Is this such a hard question?” Justin snarled, feeling as though if he were not mad already he was on the verge of becoming so.

“Yes, it is!” Nikola snapped in return. “It’s not – no, you don’t have a demon, yes, of course I’d say something if you did, curse it, Justin, sit down and let me explain.” Taking a deep breath to compose himself, Justin dropped into the armchair opposite. Nikola stripped off his gloves. “Give me your hand.”

Justin quirked an eyebrow. “You had my cheek against yours not five minutes ago, Striker.”

“Yes, and five minutes ago you hadn’t petitioned me. Now you have. Do you want an answer or not?”

Justin leaned forward, putting his strong, thick-wristed hand between Nikola’s long-fingered pale ones.

The other man exhaled. “There’s two causes for disorders. One is demons. Those are easy to spot and expel, and afflict, I don’t know, perhaps a quarter or a third of my petitioners. The other is…oddities in mindshapes. It’s hard to explain in words and I usually don’t, so just listen, Comfrey. All right? Just listen.” Nikola took a deep breath, his hands clasped tightly around Justin’s. “There is a great deal of variation in the way minds look, and most of it is what I consider normal. No,” he corrected himself, “I mean ‘healthy’. Because ‘normal’ implies ‘like everyone else’ and it’s not like that, it’s just…it feels right. Not obviously defective. If someone comes to me with their sense of joy the size of a grain of sand, I can tell that’s a problem. If it’s shaped like a flower on one person and like a corncob on another, though, I’d say they’re both healthy, even though those shapes are unique to them so it’s not ‘normal’. The Savior won’t let me change the shape of one to another if it’s like that – it’s come up, I’ve tried on depressed people whose shapes were particularly odd – because that’s not unhealthy. Just different.” Nikola spoke quickly, agitated, blue eyes unfocused. “Sometimes – much of the time – I can’t tell what’s wrong, And – I don’t tell people they’re crazy, Comfrey. You need to understand that. When people don’t petition me, I don’t look for things that might be unhealthy. Unless a demon or a pattern I know is unhealthy jumps out at me, I’m not going to assume that any of the odd things I see are anything but odd. Part of the natural variation.”

Ahh. “So I am crazy.” Justin felt oddly sanguine about this. It explains so much.

“No!” Nikola cut himself off, swallowed, continued, “I wouldn’t say that. But if you want to know if there’s anything unusual about your mind that would explain why you snapped after the – the fall – yes, all right? There is. Your mind is structured so you’ll become angry instead of frightened. Or find scary things funny.”

“And you were wondering how I could make jokes about it,” Justin said, dryly.

Nikola laughed. “I suppose I should have seen the connection.” His expression sobered again. “I do not—”

A knock at the door cut him off. Stifling a growl, Nikola released Justin’s hand and sat back. “Yes?” he called.

Nikola’s valet opened the door. “Beg pardon, sir, but your five-thirty is here.”

Nikola gritted his teeth. “I’ll be with them shortly, Shelby, thank you.” After the servant bowed and left, the young lord leaned forward again, resuming where he’d been cut off. “My professional opinion is that you are sane, Justin. You said that situation had never arisen before, and if it – if anything like it – I don’t even know if being terrified is more useful than being angry anyway. For that matter, I don’t know if the Savior would change it if we wanted, and if it were up to me I would not ask. Changing something about a mind often has unintended consequences. It could, for example, make you more cautious, not just about physical danger but perhaps in…other areas of your life. It would not make you irrational but it would make you less you. Less who you are now. Usually my petitioners are people whose everyday lives have been made so difficult that the risks of such changes are comparatively inconsequential to them. But you…” He trailed off for a moment. “You’re not like that. Do you understand?”

“I believe I do.” Justin gave him a puzzled look. “But if you do not think it should be changed, why are you telling me about it?”

Nikola swallowed. “Because it is not up to me to choose. It is your mind. It is your choice.”

“Ah.” Justin paused, wanting to give the subject the consideration Nikola felt it deserved. Then his mind lit on a tangential realization. “If you did treat me, you would have to accept a gift from me.”

His friend jerked his head up to stare at him. “What?”

“You could not possibly balk at it: a gift for a Gift, amount at the discretion of the giver, Blessing involved, exactly conformed to the letter of the Code.” Justin grinned, dark eyes dancing at the thought. Yes!

“No!” Nikola rose, knocking back his chair.

“‘No’?” Justin tried to fight down his humor and failed. I have you now, boy. “Did I misunderstand something here? Would you refuse my request? It is my right and obligation to give in return, is it not?”   

His stubborn friend set his jaw. “You wouldn’t – you couldn’t – not to—” He turned and stalked away, hands clenched to fists at his sides. “Fine,” he snarled.

Justin stood to follow him. “Beg pardon?” he inquired at his friend’s back, all light and innocence.

“I said fine.” Nikola turned his head sideways, angular face in profile over his shoulder as he spoke in clipped words. “Whatever ‘reward’ you want to give me, just do it. Say it’s for catching you after the fall or for a private consultation or, or, a curst naming-day gift. Whatever you like. Only, curse it Justin do not make me do this just so you can fucking buy me.

Justin hesitated, struck by Nikola’s vehemence, and his curious turn of phrase. Buy him? But Savior knew when he’d have this opportunity again. “Agreed.” He offered his hand before Nikola could change his mind.

Nikola turned to face him, eyeing his hand as if it were a venomous serpent. “To what?”

“You will allow me to present you with a suitable monetary gift—” Justin chose his words with legalistic care “—in recompense for saving my life, and I will make the decision regarding my mind independent of any consideration regarding you.”

His friend bowed his blond head. After a moment, he lost his rigid, tense posture, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Agreed,” he whispered. His hand in Justin’s felt cold. Justin’s elation – Yes! Finally! – was marred by a twinge of concern over Nik’s attitude. It’s just a ding to his pride, embarrassed that he needs the money at all. He’ll get over it, and things will be much better between us without this foolish gulf in relative wealth. Justin released the hand to draw Nikola into his arms and kiss him, fingers curling around the nape of his neck. Nik was stiff in his embrace, but yielded enough to answer the kiss. He held Justin in return for a moment, then pulled away. “I should go.”   

“Right. Your five-thirty.” Justin stroked his cheek tenderly. “I’ll arrange for the gift soon…it won’t be ostentatious, Nikola. Nothing untoward. I promise.” He gave his lover a last hungry kiss, earnest against their next time alone together, before releasing him.

“And…as far as your mind goes…?”

“If you don’t think intervention is advised—”

“I do not.”

“I trust your judgement.” Justin smiled at him. “I shall keep this quirk in mind and control my temper better the next time my life is endangered, in view of the likelihood that I will misjudge intentions in such conditions.”

Nikola exhaled, nodding. He looked wrung out, even paler than usual. The blond lord escorted him to the front door as was their habit, with Justin maintaining a flow of everyday conversation and receiving mechanical replies in return. Justin was used to upholding the occasional conversation with a partner who could not maintain their end, due to shyness, lack of skill, intimidation, or whathaveyou. But it was strange to be doing so with Nikola, who usually made everything easy. As Justin stepped into his carriage to depart the premises, he suffered from the same strange mix of pleasure and concern. It’s only pique at being outmaneuvered in this silly game we’ve been playing far too long. He’ll get over it.

Justin leaned back in the coach seat and smiled, imagining a future where Nikola no longer fretted about the amount of a wager, where he no longer needed to decline invitations because he could not reciprocate them, or feared hosting guests at Fireholt for lack of appropriate entertainment. Oh, yes. He’ll get over it.

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The Money Problem (42/141)

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Justin remained pleasant and agreeable through the remainder of dinner, smiling and listening after having taken up so much time earlier relating his anecdote. Inwardly, he was irritated and frustrated. Not at having related the whole sorry episode – that didn’t trouble him. Anyone who thought less of him for it deserved to, and besides the only listener in the room whose opinion he valued already knew the truth.

No, Nikola was the problem.

It had struck Justin on Sunday evening that, finally, he had a certain way to force his proud, impoverished friend to take some curst money from him. Money, which always lay between them like a needless thorn. It was an unspeakable injustice that Nikola, whose gifts restored men’s minds, gave them back sanity, dignity, memory, intelligence – everything that made life bearable – should be forced to scrape along in a household hobbled by debt and understaffed to serve the needs of his Blessing, never mind those of his personal life. The world ought to shower the man with riches, not leave pennies in an offering bowl while walking away with the true fortune of an intact mind. Whereas society lavished rewards upon Justin for his far less significant talents in making connections, persuading influential people, and choosing investments. Justin had long ago passed the point where he wanted money for the sake of what he could purchase: it was just a way to keep score, to show that he was winning at yet another game. Justin liked winning, and liked having something to show for having won, but beyond that he didn’t have much use for most of his fortune other than investing it for the next round of the never-ending game. Which was a certain amount of fun, but he’d rather have spent it on something important. Someone important.


Who did need what money could acquire, but didn’t want it from Justin.

Every effort Justin had ever made to alleviate Nikola’s relative poverty had failed, sometimes disastrously. Granted, the disasters were mostly Justin’s fault – one time in particular pained him to recollect, several years after the fact. Somehow, knowing he was to blame did not make his failures any easier to bear.

Why can’t I do this one thing?

Half the reason he’d chosen to tell the entire story of the race at the dinner table was to make Nikola’s rescue public knowledge, and to assert Justin’s right to repay the debt before witnesses, where it would be harder for Nikola to fend off the claim. It should have worked, curse it. Nik was accustomed to being paid to save lives. Not in anything like proportion to the value of the life saved, granted, but nonetheless. Perhaps Justin had started negotiations too high – he’d expected Nik or the Strikers would object to what would be, admittedly, an outrageous sum. That he would have gladly paid. But he figured he’d let them talk him down to something more reasonable, such as ten or five percent. He had not reckoned on Nikola’s obstinate end run around the entire issue. There’s nothing wrong with ideals, boy, but there’s no shame in seeing to your own needs, either. Perhaps making it a public issue had been a tactical error and he’d do better at private negotiations. You know, most people have this sort of problem acquiring wealth, not convincing someone else to take it, Justin reflected dryly. I have to be different about everything.

The back of his mind was still turning over the issue when dinner concluded. Most of the party withdrew to the drawing room, though Mrs. Adonse took her sister and her female friends, Miss Quinen and Miss Rubane, upstairs to the nursery to show off their offspring. Nikola asked Justin, “Would my lord care for billiards?”

“By all means.”

“Anyone else, gentlemen?” Nikola asked politely. None of the others were interested – Lord Striker’s brow was furrowed in outright disapproval, for no reason Justin could discern. After exchanging bows with the others, Nikola led Justin alone to the billiards room in the north wing. “I didn’t know you had a billiards room, Striker,” Justin commented.

Nikola gave him a lopsided smile. “We do. After a fashion.” He opened the door on a forlorn-looking chamber ill-lit by what late afternoon sunlight came through the east-facing windows. The room held a few shabby chairs and an ancient pocketless billiards table in need of recovering. “My father likes to pretend it doesn’t exist because he’s ashamed of it. Captain Adonse detests playing on it because the surface is so warped.”

Justin stepped onto the threadbare rug of Anverlee blue, strolling to the table as Nikola closed the door. “Ah, you know I do love a challenge, Striker.” He stroked a hand over the worn red velvet on the uneven top, then turned to fetch down a cue stick from the wall – only to find Nikola standing a few inches before him, tall and slim in his formal blue dinner jacket and neckcloth with its fraying ends concealed in careful folds. Without a word, the blond lord enfolded Justin in his arms, pressing his cheek against dark hair, holding so hard that he forced Justin back a half-step to bump against the billiards table. Justin laughed, startled but pleased, sliding his own arms around Nikola’s waist. “Or perhaps you don’t want to play billiards, either?”

“Perhaps not,” Nikola admitted. Justin could feel the tension in his lover’s body, a strain that did not feel like passion, though Justin’s own body was responding predictably to the pressure of Nikola’s leg between his thighs. The fantasy of bending Nik over that billiards table and taking him, here, now, in his father’s house, flashed through Justin’s mind. Down, boy, he told himself, and just held his friend instead, stroking a hand over his back.

Nikola had begun to melt against him when they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Neither man started, though Nikola growled in Justin’s ear, tensing again. Calm, they dropped their arms and Nikola took two steps back before calling, “Enter.”

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A Question of Debt (41/141)

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Justin resumed his story. “As I was saying, myself and my landbound mount did our best to follow in their wake, getting smacked in the face by branches that they soared over, picking our way along the narrow ledges of cliffs that they flew up, and falling further and further behind. At length, Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt reached a cliff – a gigantic, sheer cliff – so high that Fel Fireholt said to Lord Nikola, ‘I don’t think my wings can carry us up this one. We’ll have to run the path like mere mortals.’ And Lord Nikola said, ‘That’s fine, they must be a mile behind us by now, take your time.’ So they moseyed up to the top, had a little nap by the target, stuck some arrows in it, and glided down to the bottom.”

Flushing, Nik covered his face with his hands. “Lord Comfrey. Please.”

Justin ignored him. “While they flew down, Feli Southing and I at last reached the cliff base. Evidence the second: I tell Feli Southing, ‘Don’t take the path on this cliff! This is our chance to finally gain some ground on them.’

“She replies: ‘…how?’

“‘Go straight up! The way Fel Fireholt does! Only, you know, without the wings. You can jump from rock to bush and to trail,’ I tell her, and I gesture to a series of points along the cliff face that a madman might conclude could be used as footholds.

“Feli Southing, demonstrating her comparative sanity, says, ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’

“Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?’

“‘We could fall off and die.’

“‘Don’t be ridiculous! Neither of us has ever died before, no reason to think we’d start now.’” Justin waited for the ensuing laughter to quiet before continuing, “Convinced by this illogic or perhaps by my threats regarding her continued employment, Feli Southing made the attempt, leaping vertically from one toehold to the next, sinking her claws into solid rock to scale the cliff.

“At the foot, Lord Nikola told his mount, ‘That looks exceptionally brave and/or stupid. We’d better wait here for when they fall off.’ So they waited and watched as we neared the top, until only an overhang stood between us and the summit. Feli Southing lunged for it, grabbed the underside, fell, caught herself on a tree which started to crack under her weight—” By now, the rest of the table had fallen silent to listen to Justin’s yarn. Nik closed his eyes against the memory of the next few moments, amazed that Justin could speak so easily of it. “—Feli Southing shoved off again, tree tumbling down the cliff with the force of the launch, seized the outcrop with all eighteen claws, and clambered upside down until she’s over it and safe at the top!”

“Oh, thank goodness,” the Lady Striker said from the other side of the table, holding one hand to her ample bosom.

“She actually made it?” Daphne asked.

“She did indeed!” Justin punctuated this statement with a triumphant upraised fist. “Unfortunately, I did not. Not being even a tenth part sphynx, I fell from the seat and plummeted towards the ground hundreds of feet below.” A collective gasp rose from the assembly. “Fortunately, Fel Fireholt and my good friend Lord Nikola, anticipating this contingency, were already flying to my rescue. They intercepted me halfway down, where Lord Nikola plucked me from the air like an eagle saving an exceptionally clumsy chick. An exceptionally heavy, unwieldy chick, who would have pulled a mortal man from the seat and sent both of us to our deaths, whereas Lord Nikola remained part of the chimerical beast he and Fel Fireholt comprised. All three of us touched down at the cliff base again, quite unharmed.”

“Nik! You never told us any of this,” Daphne said.

Nik had a hand over his eyes, so he couldn’t see her expression or anyone else’s. “Lord Comfrey exaggerates. Wildly,” he said in strangled tones.

“Bah! I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Feli Southing caught up to us at the base, and as evidence the third that I am not in my right mind, I had concluded that – since falling from an upside-down greatcat, after commanding her to the action, cannot possibly be my fault – it must be an attempted assassination! I launched into a scathing tirade against my hapless employee, demanding to know the identity of my enemy, threatening her livelihood, and generally posturing like an insufferable pompous buffoon.”

Miss Rubane laughed. “Oh, you never did,” she said, disbelieving.

“He was nothing like that bad,” Nik objected, with more loyalty than accuracy.

“No, not at all, I was much worse.” Justin’s expression sobered for a moment, before lightening again as he continued, “As I frothed at the mouth through this baseless diatribe, Feli Southing gave Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt this look as if to say ‘So, did he hit his head on the way down after all?’ And Fel Fireholt said to Lord Nikola, ‘I’ve changed my mind about this rescuing thing, I’ll just carry him back up there and drop him off again shall I?’ For reasons unclear to me, Lord Nikola did not support this plan. Feli Southing sensibly quit my service and departed, and Fel Fireholt followed to console her while Lord Nikola patiently attempted to explain to me that my reaction may have been something less than completely reasonable.

“‘Am I crazy?’ I asked him, when at last I was persuaded of my folly. ‘Is that my problem?’” As Justin spoke, Nik had to bite his tongue to keep himself from making another angry outburst. You did no such thing! “And on reflection, had he been a true friend, he would have said ‘Absolutely! You were possessed of a demon, which I will now remove thus and nothing that just happened is your fault.’ But no, he maintained that I am sane and, accordingly, to blame for being an utter cretin.” Justin is joking, Nik told himself, feeling his face flush, furious and mortified, knowing he was taking this too seriously. Everyone else knows he’s joking. No one is taking him at his word. But his memory flashed back to that argument, to noticing the intertwined shapes of fear and anger in Justin’s mind. Was there something wrong in that? Should I have said something?

Justin was continuing the tale, oblivious to Nik’s internal reaction. “I had no recourse but to throw myself off the cliff again. Or apologize. After considerable internal debate, I was forced to conclude that getting back up the cliff under my own power would be too hard and I humbled myself before Feli Southing in apology instead. So, in answer to your original question, Mrs. Adonse: I lost the race, my dignity, my temper, and my pride – nothing of any great value, I promise – but do you know the worst of it?”

Daphne shook her head, eyes bright with mirth.

“I never did offer either Fel Fireholt or Lord Nikola proper thanks for saving my life. I believe I must repay them – how does that part of the Code go? ‘A gift for a gift’? ‘Half my kingdom’ is the usual rate for princesses, isn’t it? I cannot split an entailed viscountcy, but for a mere viscount perhaps half my unimpaired wealth might suffice?”

Nik found his voice before anyone else in the ensuing silence, the listeners uncertain whether to laugh at a jest or be shocked by Justin’s earnestness. It was a struggle to keep his voice level, to sound reasonable and not irrational, angry, offended, embarrassed. “First, nine-tenths of that was pure embroidery and the danger was by no means as great as you make it sound. Second, that part of the Code applies to Blessings, Lord Comfrey, which were not involved here. You owe me nothing.” And even if he had, the amount he’d suggested was beyond absurd – some grateful and wealthy petitioners might present an outsized gift, but no one outside of a children’s story had ever given up half their wealth in trade.

“I must disagree, my lord.” Justin smiled, his tone still light, but there was a hardness in his eyes as he met Nik’s. “Perhaps I value my life more highly than you.”

Given the evidence of your actions, I very much doubt that, Justin. “Your continued friendship is worth more to me than any sum you could name,” Nik said, with a quiet but honest conviction. “It is all the thanks I desire or require. To your health, Lord Comfrey.” He raised his glass and the rest of the table joined him in the toast, putting an end to the topic.

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Would You Let the Truth Get in the Way? (40/141)

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With the calm composure that teachers and tutors had drilled into him throughout his youth, Nik waited while Shelby finished arranging Nik’s neckcloth for dinner on Wednesday afternoon. He did not dance with impatience or tell the dignified old servant to ‘hurry it up already’ because a footman had announced Justin’s arrival and Nik wanted to meet him in the parlor before they were seated for dinner. Their friendship was in no way a secret, but rushing down like a schoolboy with a crush was undignified and ill-advised.

Instead, the parlor was full when Nik arrived. In addition to the manor’s current seven gentleborn adult occupants, the Lady Striker had invited two women to balance the genders: Miss Andrea Rubane and her cousin Miss Eliza Quinten. Nik wondered if either of them had wealth enough to have become his mother’s next target for a betrothal. Miss Quinten had a remarkable figure and bright, pretty green eyes in a face framed by gold curls. She was also a giggly creature who hid behind her fan, a ridiculous affectation in wintertime, perhaps in a vain effort to conceal her discolored teeth. Miss Rubane had a less attractive figure – scrawny and of average height, with nondescript Newlanture features and dark hair – but she had a quick smile and an intelligent expression. Nik exchanged amiable greetings with them when Daphne introduced them as her friends. He did not have time for more than some meaningless chitchat and a friendly handshake with Justin before the party was seated for dinner.

Lady Striker had shown some mercy in the seating arrangements for dinner, however. She did place Miss Rubane on Nik’s right, but Daphne was on his left and Justin just to the other side of Daphne. Justin, as usual, was magnificent: long black hair loose except for a narrow queue down the back, broad shoulders encased in a jacket of wine-colored velvet, patterned waistcoat of gold and white just visible beneath it, neckcloth immaculately tied, strong well-turned calves outlined by white stockings, buckled shoes gleaming.

Dinner went off in a fine flow of food, drink, and conversation. Miss Rubane was an attentive but not simpering companion, politely dividing her attention between Nik on her left and Edmund on her right. Daphne was perhaps Nik’s favorite relative, and he had no objections to catching up with her.

Partway through the second course, Daphne asked Justin, “So how did your bowrace with Nikola go, Lord Comfrey? You know I so seldom see him for two minutes together that I’ve not even had the chance to ask him who won.”

Nik suppressed a wince and turned to distract Daphne, only to find Justin laughing at the question. “Oh, that’s just as well, Mrs. Adonse. I promise you Lord Nikola’s version of the story would be much less entertaining than mine.”

“It would?” Nik raised his eyebrows, wondering what tale Justin could plan to spin out of the debacle.

“Without a doubt.” Justin grinned, intention unreadable in his dark eyes.

Daphne all but bounced in her seat. “Don’t keep me in suspense!”    

Justin steepled long tan fingers, considering his subject matter. “A bit of background first. Some weeks ago, I hired a racing greatcat for the express purpose of bowracing: Feli Southing, a superb racer, albeit with little bowracing experience. Still, fair enough, I am not an experienced rider either, so we planned to learn together. Second, as I suspect you are already aware, I am excessively competitive in every sport in which I partake. As one might imagine, Feli Southing, a professional racer, is as well! Surely this is a partnership destined for great things.”

“Oh, so you won?” Miss Quinten piped in from Justin’s other side.    

The dark-haired lord shook his head at her. “Ah, don’t let me get ahead of my narrative, my dear. Lord Nikola and his greatcat, Fel Fireholt, are an excellent bowracing team, with a considerable advantage in both experience and teamwork, if not in competitive drive.”

Nik smiled despite himself. “Or in general physical condition.”

Justin acknowledged this truth with an inclination of his head. “Feli Southing and I are obsessives, you see, while Lord Nikola and his associates are famously sane. Why haven’t you ever cured me, anyway, Striker?”

“Because you’re not crazy.”

“A blatant falsehood, which I am about to disprove!” Justin dismissed Nikola’s answering glower and grinned as he continued, “That should be enough prologue: let us advance to the main event. The four of us had run through the first three of four legs in the bowrace. Feli Southing and I, through a combination of speed and accuracy, had established a comfortable lead over Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt. To the point where the two greatcats spoke of Lord Nikola’s team forfeiting to us and calling it a day. As evidence the first of my insanity, I objected: ‘No! We must finish thrashing them in the grand finale!’ This despite the final leg being a cross-country romp where the greatcats are expected to blaze their own trails through impenetrable woods and up and down cliff faces. Now, I mentioned Feli Southing was a racing cat, did I not? Trailblazing is not her specialty. Fel Fireholt, on the other hand, is in truth part sphynx (the wings are invisible) and so he flies over the brush, down the cliff faces, and up the trees, occasionally putting a paw down against a tree or a boulder or whathaveyou for the sake of appearances.”

Miss Quintin giggled and Daphne smiled; on the far side of Nik, Miss Rubane was leaning around to listen. “Now I want to see this greatcat in action,” she murmured.

Nik shook his head. “Trust me, it’s not as impressive as he makes it sound.”

“It is far more impressive, Miss Rubane. I highly recommend it. As an observer. Not as a participant,” Justin said. “Understand that Lord Nikola becomes the man-portion of this sphynx-like creature, and therefore cannot be unseated. This will be important later. Feli Southing and I, being but greatcat and man and wholly mortal, struggled to follow this mythical arrow-spouting beast across the impossible and more relevantly impassible terrain—”

“It’s not like that at all, Lord Comfrey. Ladies, there are perfectly good trails—”

“Hush, Lord Nikola – didn’t I tell you this would be a better story told my way, Mrs. Adonse? Would you have a trifle like accuracy get in the way of a good tale?” Justin appealed to Daphne.

Daphne, trying not to laugh, shook her head. “Never, my lord.”

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