Havoc (52/141)

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Nik struggled through his petitioners on Friday and Saturday – both days made more troublesome by his abandonment of duty on Thursday, of course – without contemplation of escape again. Where would I escape to? He couldn’t run off to Miss Vasilver every day. After his last appointment on Saturday night, he went to the manor’s library to read for a few hours. Their library held an eclectic selection of books, from a leather-bound illuminated replica of Code of the Savior, with Commentary by His Blessed of the Second Century (purchased after his father was forced to sell an original hand-scribed edition) to natural histories so old they pre-dated greatcats, to the histories and biographies his father favored and the melodramas and tragedies his mother enjoyed. Nikola chose a battered adventure novel he’d read many times as a boy – The Knights of Cambre – and sprawled undignified on a sofa as he read it again. A quarter of the way through, the author introduced Sir Conrad, one of the protagonists, and Nik remembered he’d always pictured Sir Conrad as Justin.

Nikola had known of Justin for some years before they’d properly met (‘improperly met’ might be a better way to put it, given the peculiar circumstances of their first encounter). Lord Justin, as he’d been before he inherited at twenty-three, had been a famed competitor in a number of school sports – fencing, archery, unarmed combat, backball – and an adolescent Nikola had idolized him from a distance. He’d followed Justin’s exploits via coverage in the Post, and sometimes traveled to attend local matches with Lord Striker. He’d thought Justin the perfect lord: fearless, determined, handsome, quick-witted, at ease in every setting. It had taken a while for young Nik to realize that his adulation sprang from infatuation rather than a desire to emulate Justin. Nikola had never expected that attraction to be reciprocated. He’d been stunned when he learned it was. Stunned and thrilled.

If only the admiration had been reciprocal as well.

He felt a certain weariness at the thought. Is it truly Justin’s failing? If he does not admire or respect me, is it not because there is little admirable or respectable about me? Penniless, undignified, petulant, spoilt, self-centered – it’s no wonder he thinks so little of me. And whatever chance I had of ever making him see me as a grown and independent man vanished when I agreed to put myself in his debt forever.

Nik sighed. He might as well try to avoid air as to escape thoughts of Justin. He’s been a fixture of my life, one way or another, for more than half of it. Small wonder I cannot set that aside. He turned back to the book anyway. As he read, he reflected that Sir Conrad was not much like the real Justin: the fictional knight was a kind-hearted, selfless man, indifferent to his own welfare and comfort, ready to lend assistance to any who asked without thought to the cost. Nik found he preferred Justin anyway. Sir Conrad has no sense of humor.

The clock had chimed past one in the morning and Nik was still reading when the noise of a commotion in the foyer caught his attention. He opened the library door, grimaced at the too-familiar high-pitched shriek of a young girl, and quickened his stride to reach the source.

The foyer was in shambles, as if a small tornado had torn through it and knocked over tables, toppled the grandfather clock, upended vases, ripped down tapestries, and cast paintings upon the floor. The probable source of the chaos cowered in a corner behind a makeshift barricade of tables, wielding the broken side of a heavy gilt frame like a club. “STAYBA’STAYBA’STAYBA,” Sharone Whittaker shrieked at Robert, a footman standing just out of reach of her ersatz club. The stout man was uttering a stream of curses, the sleeve of his jacket torn, his look suggesting he was considering drawing his ceremonial short sword on her.

In the most commanding tones he could muster, Nikola said, “Miss Whittaker, what is going on here?” He yanked on the bell rope by the front door to summon a greatcat from the felishome as he crossed the room to join the footman.

Robert bit back on his latest string of curses to give Nikola an ashamed look. “M’lord, we just found her wandering loose like this—” he shouted to be heard over Sharone’s screams “—Elisa went to get her parents—”

Nik nodded, motioning the man to silence. He took up station on the opposite side from Robert, surrounding Sharone’s barricaded corner of the foyer in the hope that she would not be able to get past both of them. As the child paused to refill her lungs with air, Nik demanded sternly, “Miss Whittaker, what is the meaning of this outburst?” On instinct, he added, “Is Mrs. Square involved?”

The child fell silent, breathing hard as she stared at him, fluffy black curls in a wild tangle about her face. After a moment, she gave a slow nod.

“Tell me how.” Nik tried to sound firm but not angry.

While the child’s attention was on him, Robert darted in and seized the section of frame she held. Sharone wailed “Le’goLE’GONOMISTERBROWN!” but the footman’s much greater leverage and strength overcame the reckless power that madness lent her and he wrested it from her grip. Screaming, she let it go and darted between the legs of a sideways table. Nikola caught her as she emerged and immediately regretted it as she flailed at him with feet and fists, frantic to escape. “LE’GOMISSUSSQUAREDON’HUR’EM!” Reflexively, he called on the Savior to cast out the demon that riddled her mind with thorn-covered vines, strangling her mindshapes. It was fruitless, of course; his mind filled with the Savior’s sorrow at the girl’s resistance.

As he was still trying to get her under control, the adult Whittakers arrived at a run. Mrs. Whittaker stammered apologies and Mr. Whittaker relieved Nik of his squirming, weeping burden. By the time Anthser arrived, the Whittakers had their daughter effectively restrained again. Mrs. Whittaker blamed herself – she’d fallen asleep on her watch, and Sharone had somehow managed to get a locked door off its hinges and escaped without waking either of them.

Nikola could not imagine how much trouble the child would be full-grown if she were not cured first, given the amount of havoc she could wreak at six. She’s not even four feet tall. How could she get a door off its hinges? The mind boggled. He resisted the impulse to rub his thigh where she’d kicked him. Elisa, a very young woman and daughter of the cook, had a ripening bruise around one eye and would not come within fifteen feet of the child even after she’d been bound. He nodded wearily at the Whittakers’ apologies and waved them back to their suite. Mr. Whittaker promised to watch the girl while Mrs. Whittaker would return to help clean the mess. As they left, Elisa started putting things to rights while Robert went to wake some of the other staff.

“Want one of us to stay in their suite?” Anthser had shown up a few minutes after the humans had gotten the situation under control. The greatcat had kept a quiet vigil by the door while Nik was busy.    

Yes. No. I don’t know. The uncanny energy of her madness could not, surely, make the child a match for a greatcat, and a greatcat’s superior hearing, strength, and speed should keep her better under control. On the other hand – this was not their job. They should not have to deal with this kind of thing. Nikola watched the chambermaid lift paintings and lean them against the walls to survey the damage, then gather up the fallen tapestries. None of them should.

Anthser yawned, tongue curling in his huge fang-rimmed mouth. “Y’know, I’m tired and I don’t feel like going all the way back to the felishome tonight.” Nik raised one eyebrow at him; the felishome was a hundred yards away, if that. “So I’m gonna go sleep in, oh, one of the north wing suites. The one you gave the Whittakers has a fire set in it already, right? I’m sure they won’t mind sharing. G’night, Lord Nik.” Anthser nuzzled Nik’s cheek and turned to depart.

Nik managed a half-smile. “Good night, Anthser.” He watched a half-dozen grumbling, sleepy servants file into the foyer. Mrs. Goslin, Anverlee’s head of staff, shook her head at the chaos and directed the others on various tasks. His presence checked their complaints, but he could feel their resentment of the hour, the work, the extent of damage done – at least three of the paintings he could see were torn and irreparable. A wave of weariness washed over him. With an effort, he strode to Mrs. Goslin’s side. “Thank you for your efforts tonight,” he told her. “When you have a reckoning on the extent of the damages, please let me know. I’ll cover it. Also, I’d appreciate a list of the names and hours worked this evening on it – I’ll provide a bonus for it.” I don’t even have it yet and I’m already spending Justin’s money, he thought, nauseated and hopeless.

The tall, silver-haired housekeeper answered with a grave curtsey. “Yes, m’lord. Thank you.”

For what? There was a great deal more work to be done, none of which was his to do. Nikola gave up and retired.

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A Challenge (51/141)

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Justin made his way to the Vasilvers’ section before they left, while their assistants were still gathering their things. As he drew near, he overheard Miss Vasilver say in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, “If you ever put me in a position to be humiliated like this again, Byron, I will not speak to you for a year.”

Her brother winced, hunching his long-limbed frame. “I didn’t know it’d go like that, Teeri. Besides…some woman has to be first.”    

“She needn’t be me,” Miss Vasilver said.

Before she could add more, Justin was close enough that her father greeted him with, “Good day, Lord Comfrey,” and his two adult offspring looked up from their private conversation.

“Mr. Vasilver, Vasilver.” Justin shook each man’s hand in turn and looked to Miss Vasilver, waiting pointedly for an introduction. The young woman met his gaze with disinterested light brown eyes before glancing away.

“I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter,” her father said. “Lord Comfrey, this is Miss Wisteria Vasilver, executive analyst for Vasilver Trading Company. Wisteria, this is Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey.”

“A pleasure.” Justin extended his hand. “Thank you for your time today, Miss Vasilver. Your illustration of financial concepts was captivating.” Miss Vasilver looked at his hand for a few moments before offering her own with a certain hesitance; Justin realized belatedly he was holding his hand sideways, as if to shake hands with a man. He corrected himself and bowed over her hand.

“You’re welcome, my lord.” Miss Vasilver gave him another brief look and added coolly, “it is an honor to make your acquaintance, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin was well aware that he was a handsome man and that his powerful build was a rarity that attracted notice and admiration. He dressed in impeccable attire that suited his station and set his features to advantage; he had rank, wealth, and title and was the kind of highly eligible match into whose path society matrons threw their daughters. He was used to young women who would not meet his eyes, who blushed and looked away coyly, who flirted and giggled. He found such behavior entertaining if not particularly attractive, and had a practiced ease in handling it. Miss Vasilver’s indifference – neither attracted nor intimidated nor impressed – was something else entirely. Almost unsettling. Almost a challenge.

Justin offered his warmest smile, the kind that had inadvertently conquered the heart of Miss Dalsterly. “Do you work exclusively for Vasilver Trading, Miss Vasilver, or would you be willing to act as consultant?”

Unmoved, Miss Vasilver glanced to her father. “Er,” the older man said. “I don’t believe the question’s ever come up before. My daughter has always worked for me.”

“I imagine it would depend on the nature of the engagement: whether it poses any conflict of interest, either with Vasilver Trading’s business or with my existing time commitments to the company. Did you have something in mind, my lord?” Miss Vasilver tilted her head, regarding Justin.

“I have a few businesses I may sell in the next several months, and I’d like an independent evaluation of them,” Justin answered. That wasn’t what he’d planned to say when he came over, although now that he thought about it, it was a good idea. “No great hurry on it.”

Miss Vasilver nodded. “The Ascension season is usually quiet for me…”

Her brother glowered at her, and her father said, “Wisteria. Social obligations are also obligations.”

“Yes, Father,” Miss Vasilver said, without conviction.

“As I said, there’s no hurry,” Justin said. “If you’re interested, I’d be happy to call later this week and go over the details.”

“I am sure that would be fine,” Mr. Vasilver said.

After a short pause, Miss Vasilver nodded as well. “Thank you, Lord Comfrey.”


Mr. Vasilver sent the assistants home by gig, while he and his offspring took the carriage, a comfortably-appointed vehicle whose velvet-padded bench seats included clever fold-out footrests. The elder Mr. Vasilver took the forward-facing side while Wisteria and Byron sat together on the opposite side. With the smooth ride given by the cab’s impeccable suspension, there was little to distract Wisteria from her inner seething. She was still angry about all of the events at the Association: the infuriating complaints about nothing, that humiliating vote to close the session. And almost as upset at Byron for asking her to do it, when he must have known how the members would react. Her father usually stopped her before she made this kind of social blunder – why hadn’t he done so this time? It was maddening.

And that Lord Comfrey! She supposed from later context that he’d meant to help, but being lured into apologizing for her delivery when he was only being sarcastic – ah! Infuriating. She wondered if everyone else had thought her a fool for taking Comfrey literally, or if they assumed that she too was sarcastic. I don’t imagine it matters; neither way is flattering. She hadn’t meant to insult Mr. Edgewick and hated to think she’d added fuel to his irrational resentment. That Lord Comfrey was such a handsome man did nothing to lessen her agitation. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to like him or hate him. On the one hand, at least he had defended her right to be there, and while she had taken a while to realize that was his intention, if she was to be reasonable then she had to admit that was at least as much her fault as his. On the other, she was already rather pining after one attractive gentleman she couldn’t have. If she hated Lord Comfrey, maybe she wouldn’t add a second unattainable lord to the list. Maybe I should find a nice footman or delivery boy to obsess over. If I aim low enough, perhaps I’ll find one I can have, she thought glumly. After brooding for some minutes, Wisteria finally mustered the energy to ask Bryon, “Was he serious, do you think?”

“Lord Comfrey? About consulting work? Yes, certainly.” Byron put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her to his side. “His compliment on your presentation wasn’t sarcastic, either.”

Wisteria nodded. She rested her cheek against her brother’s shoulder and closed her eyes, not angry enough with Byron to reject comforting. From context it hadn’t made sense for Lord Comfrey to be sarcastic, but it was always best to check.

“It’s a good opportunity for you, Wisteria,” their father said. “Lord Comfrey’s an influential man. Seat in Assembly, you know. And…well, he’d be a good man for Vasilver Trading to cultivate a connection with.”

“Then why are you suggesting I do it?” Wisteria asked. “Wouldn’t anyone else be better?”

Mr. Vasilver coughed. “Well. He didn’t ask for anyone else. He asked for you.”

“It’ll be fine, Teeri.” Byron squeezed her opposite shoulder. “Lord Comfrey already saw what you’re like. If he found anything objectionable, he’d not have suggested it.”

“Thank you, Byron.”

He glanced down at her. “Not being sarcastic now, are you?”

“No.” Wisteria considered this. “Do you truly think that listening to me lecture for an hour covers all the ways I might offend someone?”   

Into the ensuing silence, her father conceded, “Perhaps not all the ways.”

Byron grimaced. “Still something, though. And you’re a good speaker, Teeri. You’ve a keen intellect and a shrewd mind for finance. Ought to show it as an advantage, right?”

“Is that why you wanted me to be the one to speak?”

Her brother shifted against the velvet-cushioned bench. “Might’ve factored in. You were the best person for it, though. And the one who argued we should share the information instead of keeping it for our own advantage.”

“A well-informed marketplace benefits everyone save liars and criminals,” Wisteria said.

Byron raised a hand between them, palm-out. “Not arguing! But that’s my point – you see things differently than most. More clearly. Half those insights were ones you’d come up with. Ought to be you explaining them.”

Wisteria did not feel insightful; she felt like everything she’d said was so obvious it hardly bore repeating. But that made sense, in its way: so many other things were so obvious to everyone but her that no one considered that she might not grasp them. It might as well work in the converse occasionally. “Very well. But the next time you want me to do something for multiple reasons, I would appreciate it if you would share them all.”

“Sorry. Guess it would help you evaluate it better.” Byron rubbed the back of his neck.

“Yes. And to hate you less when it turned out to be a disaster for reasons you foresaw.”

Byron turned away, mumbling, “Didn’t think they’d be outright rude like that.”

“Next time, Byron.” Wisteria patted his shoulder and spoke no more of it.

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A Presentation by Miss Too Honest (50/141)

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The meeting proper began with the standard tedious recitation of the previous meeting’s minutes. A glance at the agenda revealed the usual suspects: confirm the next year’s elected officers in their roles, approve an extension to the charter, discuss the AIC’s position on legislation pending in the next session, and a presentation on the valuation of companies. The last might be interesting, dependent on how much it was directed at the lowest common denominator. Justin would not fault the presenter if he did aim low: for an association of business people, there was a shocking degree of ignorance among them.

Justin let his mind drift as the meeting ran its course, remembering a summer two years ago when he’d induced Nikola to spend two weeks at a house party in Comfrey Viscountcy. Then the house party had wrapped but he’d persuaded Nikola to stay another week ‘for the hunting’. Then one week became two, and then four, and finally six and a half before Nikola refused to extend his stay again and returned to Fireholt. The whole viscountcy had buzzed with speculation that Lord Nikola had been drawn to stay so long by the charms of one or another of the pretty young local misses. Everyone was disappointed when he left, Justin not the least. Presumably it was possible to be exposed too much to Nikola – that was certainly the case with every other individual Justin had ever known – but he’d never reached that point. He rather wanted to try again.

At various junctures, the agenda touched on matters of particular interest to him and Justin would focus on the subject at hand. Some were pending regulations – one on stock market manipulation, another on the standards for imports, and a third on confidentiality in banking – all of which Justin opposed on the principle that government knew even less about what it was doing than industry did. And I should know, I’ve a seat in Assembly. Nothing he heard today persuaded him to change his opinion, and he made a few remarks into the record to argue for the association’s opposition.

When the time came for the presentation, Mr. Byron Vasilver took the floor accompanied by two assistants. Byron was a lanky but attractive man of about Justin’s age, which sad to say was the reason Justin recognized him at once. One assistant, a woman, opened a leather binder on the podium while the male assistant erected a flip chart behind her. Vasilver conferred quietly with the woman for a few moments, then he addressed the association: “Good afternoon, gentlemen, ladies, greatcats. Allow me to introduce my sister, Miss Vasilver. She will conduct this presentation.” With that, Vasilver returned to his seat beside his father. A low murmur ran through the assembly: puzzled, speculative, irritated. The Association had no rules regarding who might address them, but this was the first time Justin could recall when anyone but a human man had done so.

Miss Vasilver waited a moment for the muttering to subside; when it did not, she squared her binder noisily against the podium. “Members of the AIC.” Her voice was surprisingly loud, particularly for a woman: not a shout, but projected like a herald or a ship’s officer, to reach the highest tiers of the chamber. “Several of you have made inquiries as to the methods behind Vasilver Trading Company’s extraordinary successes in the realm of acquisitions and partnerships. I will explain as much of those methods as is feasible in the time allotted.”

Without additional preamble or waiting for the audience to hush, she launched into her topic, her voice cutting over the whispers. Justin attended, not least out of curiosity for this woman with whom Nikola had arranged an unbetrothal. She gave a high-level overview of bookkeeping – not the mechanics of ledgers, but more an ‘everything a chief executive needs to understand in order to judge the financial health of a company’. She covered the basics with concise accuracy, defining jargon as used – “accounts receivable: funds due but not yet paid to the company for goods sold or services rendered” – and did not linger on it. Instead, Miss Vasilver moved to the heart of her subject: interpreting the figures in a meaningful fashion. The importance of not just the total amount in an accounts receivable, but how long the amounts had been uncollected, and likewise whether the business was slow or prompt in paying their own creditors. The significance of inventory turnover: a product one can sell once every six months for twice its cost generates less net revenue than one of the same value sold every day for five percent over cost. Comparison within that industry: account payment times in the ship-building industry were nothing like those among greengrocers. All of it was covered in strong, crisp, detached tones, her assistant turning the prepared illustrations on the flipchart to reinforce her points.

Justin was impressed, not only by the content but by Miss Vasilver herself. She was surprisingly attractive for a woman: tall, straight-backed, with a boyish figure and dark hair worn up to lend additional strength to her severe features. Many of those in the chamber were hostile to being lectured on high finance by a woman, but Miss Vasilver spared no thought for the whispering, staring, or inattentive behavior. She ploughed through her material with cool professionalism, indifferent to the rudeness. It annoyed Justin more than it appeared to aggravate her, but then again, she wasn’t trying to listen.

About halfway through her presentation, the restlessness reached a pitch and one man, Mr. Edgewick, rose to his feet and glowered at the section where the two Vasilver men sat. “All right, this is all very amusing, Mr. Vasilver, but don’t you think you’ve carried the joke far enough?” Mr. Edgewick demanded, not waiting for the chairman to recognize him. Miss Vasilver stopped rather than speaking over Edgewick. She gave him a cool, unperturbed look, as if waiting for him to make a point.

The elder Mr. Vasilver squared his shoulders and placed a hand on his son’s arm to forestall him. “I am sure I don’t know what you mean, sir.”

“This farce. What do you mean, having your little girl lecture us?”   

“Is there a problem, sir?” Miss Vasilver asked from the podium. Edgewick ignored her, still looking to her father for a response.

“I think,” Justin drawled in tones that carried the length of the chamber, not bothering to stand much less wait for recognition, since the chairman had already abandoned his duty to keep order, “you’re going too fast for him, miss. Or perhaps your language is too sophisticated.” Edgewick turned, red with anger. For a moment, Justin thought the man might demand satisfaction, but Edgewick checked his response on identifying the viscount.

“Oh. I apologize for the complexity of my topic, gentlemen,” Miss Vasilver said. “I am sorry I have done an inadequate job of explaining it.”

“Not at all, miss. Some of us would have a difficult time parsing words of one syllable.” Justin locked gazes with Edgewick, daring him to issue a challenge.

Edgewick sputtered. “I’ll not stand for this kind of insult!”

“Then kindly sit down, Mr. Edgewick, and let the gentlewoman continue,” Justin told him.

“This is an outrage,” Edgewick said instead, turning to the assembly. “Does the chairman mean to let the dignity of this body be offended by some slip of a woman speaking to us as if we were a gaggle of schoolchildren?”

The chairman looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. “We were, er, unaware of whom Vasilver Trading would choose as presenter when we issued the invitation. Perhaps they could…” He trailed off with a hopeful glance to the Vasilvers.

The elder Mr. Vasilver glanced down at his hands, then to his son. “I suppose we—”

Byron Vasilver stood before he could finish, hands fisted against the table before them, and overrode his father with, “Vasilver Trading offered our best analyst for this occasion. If that’s insufficient to the association’s needs, can’t imagine any substitute would improve matters.”

“Oh, honestly,” Mr. Lavert said, a tier away from Justin. “Let the girl finish already. Of all the ridiculous things to fuss over.” Beside him, Lavert’s wife fumed but didn’t speak.

“Seconded,” Justin added, although Lavert hadn’t made an actual motion and the entire interruption was out of order. Justin hoped the incoming chairman would have more spine than the current one.

“You may think the dignity of this association is ‘ridiculous’—” Edgewick started.

“Finally, you’ve got something right,” Justin muttered under his breath.

“—but I, sir, do not. Motion to adjourn before this travesty carries on any further.”

“Seconded,” came from the elderly Mr. Ponglot, a bald and stooped man of over a hundred, who’d been one of the mutterers earlier.

The AIC chairman gave Edgewick’s motion the respect it didn’t deserve, putting it to immediate vote and evoking a disgusted noise from Lavert. Justin was no less irked: regardless of how one felt about a speaker or a topic, common courtesy dictated that one bear it stoically, not pitch a childish public fit. Vasilver Trading’s selection may have been unorthodox but Edgewick’s behavior was beyond boorish. Justin’s “Nay” vote rang across the chamber. Under his glower, the motion to adjourn failed, narrowly.

Infuriated, Edgewick all but stamped his foot at this. “You may wish to tolerate this insult, but I will not,” he pronounced, and stomped from the chamber. A number of others of the ‘yea’ voters followed suit, with varying degrees of dignity and petulance. Justin leaned back in his seat and rolled his eyes skywards. Saints save us all.

When the chairman finally asked Miss Vasilver to resume – not even apologizing for the interruption, the coward – she did so with astonishing composure. She continued where she’d been cut off, in the same untroubled and precise manner as she’d begun. Justin tried to imagine being in her position and could only see himself unleashing a tide of well-earned verbal abuse on the assembly – granted, perhaps not earned by the remaining members, but nonetheless – and storming out himself. Thank the Savior I am not a woman. When she finished, the ensuing applause was more heartfelt than usual.

After the customary thanks to Miss Vasilver for her time, the chairman made the routine request for any further motions before they adjourned for the season. Justin thought, Saints, what a sordid display. We ought to apologize to Miss Vasilver, if not to her entire company. He imagined how Nikola would react if he’d borne witness to this sorry occasion, and smiled briefly. There was a limit to how much he wanted to antagonize the business community, however, and everyone already knew how he felt based on his earlier outburst. Calling for a motion to have the AIC issue a formal apology would only alienate a number of influential men over a trivial point of honor. He let the moment pass and the meeting adjourned to the relief of all.

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