Reflections (75/141)

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Wisteria drifted through the grand petitioner’s hall, even less adept at small talk than usual, her mind elsewhere. She could never tell whether people were greeting her only to be polite, or because they truly wished to talk. The plump brown-haired Mr. Willsham came upon her and introduced her to his escort, Lady Jessica, an even rounder young woman whose gilded gown constrained an astonishing quantity of bosom. They spent a pleasant quarter of an hour discussing spice and vegetable imports from western Cambrique and various applications, which as far as Wisteria could tell was the topic they and not she had chosen and so was acceptable. She did not mind speaking of that, or anything else, but what she most wanted was to talk to Lord Nikola.

Or to do anything else with Lord Nikola. Her mind replayed the feel of his hand against her leg, the shameless way she had clung to him, the taste of his skin. She did not want to be among these however many hundreds who did not care about the things that mattered to her. If she could not be with the one person who was willing – even eager, she thought – to discuss those subjects, at the very least she wanted to be somewhere private where she could daydream about him uninterrupted. Will he be back tonight? Perhaps I should have gone home after all. And looked like a failure to my family, I suppose, for leaving a social event when it was not even midnight yet. And missed the possibility of more time with Lord Nikola.

It was worth it for that chance, Wisteria considered, even if it was as poor as one in two. Also, the ball was hardly an unpleasant place to pass the time. It only suffered in comparison to how wonderful it had been with Lord Nikola at her side.

She made her way back to the ballroom. Rather than wait to see if a man would ask her to stand up with him to dance, Wisteria ascended the steps to the interior balcony that ringed the dance floor. Though the orchestra playing for the dancers below remained audible, the reduced number of people made it quieter up here. The lovely top-down view lent the dance a mathematical precision, glittering pieces in an enormous living kaleidoscope.

She wondered at the all-human composition on the dance floor after she noticed a couple of greatcats also watching, from the far side of the balcony. Do they have their own dances? They cannot do these, certainly, but there are so many varieties of human dance, performed in distant lands. Surely they could do something akin to dance, if they chose. Do they dislike the idea of trying, or does the Crown discourage such an attempt? She knew from history lessons that it had been quite controversial when Blessed were first discovered among the greatcats, over century ago. The Assembly had passed a resolution to bar greatcats from the nobility, a resolution the Crown overturned to bestow a courtesy title and a stipend upon the first greatcat healer. King Kevin’s service prior to that act was famous for its beauty and simplicity: “When the Savior himself has shown the way, it is the duty of mankind to follow it, not to turn petulantly aside because it looks a little different from the path we have followed thus far.” But while that settled the legal question, it left social and theological concerns.

The theological issue was particularly interesting, because traditional Savior theology held that Blessings were passed down the family line through marriages sanctified by the Savior. Most denominations accepted that marriage traditions from nations which did not worship the Savior were nonetheless sanctified by him anyway, because otherwise the mere existence of pagan Blessed invalidated the whole theory. It was true that there were no proven instances of Blessed born to women out of wedlock (although there were always rumors), and the vast majority of the Blessed could trace their line back to a Blessed of a prior generation. The humans who could not were assumed to have a Blessed farther back than they knew their family tree – few people knew their full family tree for forty-odd generations, after all. But none of that explained where greatcats could have gotten Blessings. Greatcats had not even existed as a species until Lord Ferran used his Blessing for minds to create them almost a century and a half ago, by making a number of Paradise’s native wildcats sapient. That alteration had been controversial in its own time, though Wisteria could not see how. It was unnatural, perhaps, but if one believed Blessings were the work of the Savior, it followed logically that any miracle performed by a Blessed must be the Savior’s will. Most denominations explained the later appearance of Blessed among greatcats as Lord Ferran being the spiritual father of the race. This did not strike Wisteria as one of her religion’s more convincing contentions.

Thinking about greatcats reminded Wisteria of Lord Nikola, how he’d said he identified better with their lessened interest in hierarchy. Hadn’t he said once there was something different about their minds? I wonder what. There were obvious differences – greatcats were far, far less inclined to violence: one never heard of greatcat criminals. But she doubted that was what Lord Nikola had meant. Maybe I should ask him when he gets back. I don’t think it even need be on my forbidden list. Her heart warmed at the thought of the list and Lord Nikola asking for the first item on it. Not to mention his wondrous answer to it. I wonder if he’ll ask for the second, or if we may continue…discussing…the first. That thought heated a part rather south of her heart. Her whole body ached to feel his touch.

Desire was by no means unfamiliar to her: her craving for a lover was one of the reasons she had not abandoned her search for a husband years ago. Although, ironically, her desire to marry – to have a legitimate lover, sanctioned by the Savior and approved by family and society – was one of the factors that had prevented her from ever having had a lover. No man in Newlant would want ‘damaged goods’, or a bride of questionable virtue. Why virginity was desirable at all, much less a virtue, mystified her. Inexperience was not valued in any other endeavor in life: why this one? There were obvious advantages for children to have two parents committed to their relationship, but pregnancy could be avoided by a number of means less drastic than abstinence. In prior centuries, some dangerous diseases had been spread through sexual congress, but these days the Blessed could treat them easily and such were now both rare and trivial. It was, granted, a trifle daunting to imagine her fumblings being compared to the acts of Lord Nikola’s prior lovers. But the obvious solution there was that she needed more practice, not that he needed less.

Not that she’d had any real opportunity for practice anyway. Men that she could have been tempted by, certainly, but if they’d been interested she had not noticed, and her desire had not been strong enough before to outweigh the expectations of her family, society, and position. She understood intellectually that any liberties she allowed – never mind encouraged – would be a stain on her reputation. That men could not be trusted to protect such a secret, and that any man with whom she indulged in such behavior would think less of her for it. None of which made the slightest hint of intuitive sense, of course. Nonetheless, family, teachers, and classmates had all agreed that anything with the slightest hint of sensuality to it must be avoided outside of marriage (and possibly inside of marriage too, depending on whom she consulted). That had been enough in the past to deter her from any attempts.

But she’d never met anyone as attractive as Lord Nikola, nor anyone who had so encouraged her to be bold with him. And she had been shockingly bold, and the result had been amazing. Better than anything she had fantasized. She had longed to be touched before, but never like this, a sensation so overwhelming it eclipsed all other feelings. All she wanted was to do it again, only more, and not care about the consequences.

It would be nice if he were interested in marriage, but she found it hard to care that he was not. They were wrong about men not being trustworthy, or at least wrong as it applies to Lord Nikola. We did not do much that was so wrong and he was still taking measures to make sure that it went unnoticed. And he said he respected and admired me. That memory glowed like an ember inside her, bright and full of joy. She knew what she wanted was something everyone had told her she should not want and could not have, but it was impossible to care. I ought to talk myself out of this resolution. I am not good at secrecy. What if I blurt out the truth or something that makes the truth apparent to everyone and my whole family hates and disowns me? Well, Byron would not disown me, I think. Everyone else, then. This truly ought to be more important than satisfying my lust. No matter how intense that lust might be. Wisteria leaned against the rail, not seeing the dancers or anything else, but remembering the feel of Lord Nikola’s caress down her back.

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I Should Like to Help (74/141)

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Various acquaintances greeted him as he made his way out, but he rebuffed all attempts at conversation with the briefest of explanations: “petitioner emergency”. Fortunately, it was an excuse everyone accepted without question.

In short order, he retrieved his overcoat and hurried down the long wide marble steps of Dawnfell Palace, drawing winter gloves on in place of dress ones. The gaslights that outlined every column, ledge, and window of the palace illuminated the grounds almost well enough to make the additional lights along the steps and drive superfluous. The greatcat waiting for him on the drive gave him pause: she was a pubescent calico he recognized as Meredith, one of Gunther’s daughters. Someone had given her a dish of punch, and she jerked her head from it, licking her whiskers clean as she gave him an anxious bow. “Lord Nik – sorry bout your party but Mr. Whittaker said—”

“Not at all, Meredith, you did well. Thank you. Ah…” He considered her size; she was far smaller than a full-grown greatcat, about four feet at the shoulder, but even so she was several times the mass of a grown man, and around the size Anthser had been when Nik first started riding him. Of course, I was smaller then too. “I hate to ask more of you yet, feli, but do you think you might be able to bear me back to Anverlee? I don’t wish to overburden you, but speed—”

She splayed her ears to the sides. “I don’t mind, m’lord, but I hasn’t got no riding seat—”

“I assure you, I can stay on without one. If that is the only difficulty?”

“Sure. I carry Kris alla time, you ain’t much bigger.” Kris was the cook’s adolescent son and half Nik’s size, but perhaps to even a young greatcat that did not signify. Meredith lay down for Nik to mount, though she hardly needed to.

Nik settled behind her shoulders, thighs holding him snugly in place, fingers wrapped around the upper strap of her harness. “Thank you, Meredith. Let me know if the weight’s too much, I’m sure there are other runners about.” Although between the greatcats who chose not to work on Ascension night and the additional demand for transportation, it’d be faster to track down Hughbrant or Northholt and ask either of them to take him without the carriage.

Meredith started down the palace’s long tree-lined drive at a walk, glancing nervously over her shoulder at her illustrious passenger. He offered a reassuring smile. “When I was about your age, Anthser and I used to rampage across the Anverlee countryside. We didn’t use a riding seat because Anthser was too small for the ones we owned. There’s one particular orchard where we’d pretend the ground was lava, and he’d try to negotiate it as quickly as possible without falling into the ‘lava’. A few times, as I recall, he did miss a jump. But I never fell from him during that game.” At other times, granted, but not then. “Whatever speed you consider sustainable, I promise you, I will manage.”

“Oh!” She splayed her ears again. “As you like, m’lord.” Meredith faced forward, squared her shoulders, and began to trot, then loped with ground-eating strides. Her pace was markedly different from Anthser’s, all long limbs and without his practice in managing the shock of a normal run. But she wasn’t vaulting over carriages or running up trees, which more than made up for the difficulty of not having a proper seat. The jolting discomfort also drove any question of amorous activity entirely from his mind. The wintery air and darkened streets brought their own kind of exhilaration; Nik crouched low on the greatcat’s back, hunched to shield himself from the wind of their passage and glad he’d thought to switch to warmer gloves before mounting. The neighborhoods near the palace were all brightly lit by Ascension lanterns, but as they drew farther away Meredith traversed back alleys and ill-lit side streets with a surefootedness that made Nik especially glad for a greatcat’s eyes to guide them.

They made excellent time back to Anverlee Manor, although Meredith slowed by the end, tongue lolling from her mouth as she panted from the exertion. Even so, her muzzle crinkled in dismay when he suggested she get a drink and snack from the kitchen as well as some rest. “But can’t I watch, m’lord?” she asked, disappointed.

“There’s nothing to see, in truth, but…yes, of course you may watch.” Assuming Sharone doesn’t refuse me again. Well, if she does, it won’t take that long to get back to Miss Vasilver. All the lights were extinguished at the manor; everyone but a skeleton crew of servants was out at one Ascension event or another. Nik took a candle from the footman who answered the door and waved off his offered escort. With the young greatcat at his heels, Nik made his way to the Whittaker’s suite.

The soft, inconsolable sobbing just audible through the closed wooden door was not heartening. Nik rapped lightly on it, and an anxious Mr. Whittaker answered. “Lord Nikola! So sorry to have disturbed you—”

Nik could not imagine how it felt to spend your whole life apologizing for things outside your control. “Thank you for sending word,” he said to head off the rest, stepping through the doorway and onto the sitting room’s plain green threadbare rug. Sharone was curled up on one of the mismatched armchairs before the hearth in the sitting room, knees hugged to her chest, face dipped and hidden behind a mass of tangled curls. She rocked in place, whimpering. Her mother was in the other armchair, pretending to read while she stole glances at her daughter.

Meredith sidled in around Nikola. “Hey, don’t cry, kiddo. Look, I got Lord Nik for you! He’ll fix it.” The young greatcat ambled to Sharone’s chair and leaned over the arm to nose at Sharone’s hunched back, oblivious to Mrs. Whittaker’s attempt to caution her against it. The girl screamed and whirled around to flail at the greatcat’s orange, black and white face. Meredith danced out of reach, startled. “Oops! Didn’t mean ta upset her more.”

Sharone scrambled to stand on the seat cushion, small hands fisted before her, dark brown eyes glaring at Meredith and then the rest of the room. When her eyes fell on Nik, she froze. Her hands dropped but remained clenched, a small defiant figure with a round dark face half obscured by tangled black hair. “Said y’ wo’ na come.”

“But I did. You asked for me, Miss Whittaker?” Nik approached her with casual, unhurried steps.

I told ya he’d come!” Meredith protested indignantly. Nik realized at last that Meredith must have been the designated greatcat-on-duty, with Anthser out celebrating and Gunther and Jill taking his parents to the Ball. He winced at the thought. Poor child.

“Missus Square said he wo’ na. Said better if he dinna.” Sharone looked like a wild animal, ready to bolt or attack. She took a step back on the seat cushion as Nik approached, pressing against the chair back.

Nikola stopped a couple of yards away from her. He tried to put his hands in his pockets, forgetting that neither the breeches nor the formal jacket had front pockets. He clasped his fingers loosely behind his back instead. “Why did she say it would be better if I didn’t come, miss?”

“’cause then no one’d ge’ hur’.”

“I am not going to hurt anyone, Miss Whittaker. I am not going to do anything at all without your help.”

She sniffled, dragging her sleeve across her nose. “Wha’ d’y’ want?”

His mind flicked back to the Ascension Ball for an instant, to Miss Vasilver’s embrace, to Justin dancing in the ballroom. Nik pushed the images aside and gave her a lopsided smile. “Now, that is my question to you. You asked for me. What would you like, Miss Whittaker?”

Sharone sniffled again. “I don’ wan’ anybody hur’.”

“A worthy goal,” he agreed. “I can help with that, if you like.”

She shook her head. “Missus Square says y’ won’. ll be worse if I don’ do wha’ she says.”

“Who’s Missus Square?” Meredith asked, whiskers splayed in confusion. Sharone didn’t answer.

Nik kept his attention on the little girl. “You understand that Mrs. Square is not being honest with you, do you not, Miss Whittaker? The things she makes you do hurt people.”

Sharone sank down in her chair, hugging her legs again. She gave a small nod, but added, “’ll be worse if I don’.”

“It will not,” Nik said, with quiet conviction. He took a step forward and knelt before her chair, putting his head a little below hers, and looked up into her face. “She is lying to you and using you.” He cast his mind back to the game with the dolls and blocks and animals, trying to recall what Sharone herself had said and done. “You cannot negotiate with her in good faith. She will not learn. You cannot reason with her. You know that, don’t you?”

Another small, scared nod. “Why d’ y’ care?”

He blinked at her. How could I not? Nik offered as simple and honest an explanation as he could manage: “Because the Savior loves you, Miss Whittaker, and he wants you to be well and whole. And he’s my friend too, so I should like to help.”

“Will it hurt?”

“No.” He drew off his right glove and offered her his hand.

With her face screwed up tight, shoulders hunched, she forced forward one trembling arm. It was as if the air were mud she had to push through. When she touched his fingers at last, her mouth opened: “AAAA—” The scream cut off an instant after it began, as the demon infesting her mind evaporated like mist under the Savior’s radiance. Sharone stared at him, breathless and shocked.

Nik cupped her little hand lightly between his. With the demons gone, he could see the extent of the developmental damage in her mind, the gaps and warping where her mindshapes had grown into and around the demon. That seldom happened – demons altered the mind’s behavior by adding to it, leaving the underlying structures untouched, so the petitioner was cured once they were gone. But he rarely saw demonic infestation so thorough in one so young. The wave of the Savior’s power suffused them both, her mind open and trusting to him. “You’ll be fine,” he said, softly. He started constructing scaffolds, building missing connections, knitting injuries closed, easing apart damaged mindshapes so they would have room to grow properly. “You’ll be fine now.”

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An Evening Interrupted (73/141)

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His hand strayed to caress her cheek of its own accord, Nik forgetting he’d taken his glove off. “Your mind is beautiful.” He drew his hand away quickly. “You don’t know how hard it is not to touch you.”

“I like it when you touch me,” she said with perfect innocence. She laid her fingertips against his jaw, undoing his reserve. “I didn’t know minds could be beautiful. I thought they would be…grey and wrinkled and squishy. Like cows’ brains.”

He shook his head, breath catching as he laced his fingers through hers. “No, the brain is where the mind is housed but the mind’s appearance is…wholly other. The mind dissolves on death, did you know? One cannot see what the mind of a corpse had been.”

“Oh. No, I did not know that.” Miss Vasilver traced her thumb over his lower lip and he swallowed, closing his eyes. “What does it look like?”

“Magnificent. Indescribable. Shape and color and texture combining in endless variety.” He let his mindsense linger on her, exploring the softness of her capacity for love, the warm velvet of desire, the web of reason that wrapped through every structure, strong but flexible, yielding. “I love how rational yours is, so elegantly arranged,” he murmured. Some of the structures were unusual shapes: senses were all normal but most of the usual interconnections with interpersonal skills were replaced by reason instead. In fact, her entire social skills web was heavily reliant on rationality, when not outright displaced by it, which perhaps explained her charming willingness to consider any subject.

“Oh,” she said faintly, cuddling closer, burrowing her face against the lace folds of his jabot, and he realized he had dipped his mouth to kiss her thumb, then nibble at the pad while she wriggled in the most appealing fashion against his thighs—

—I need to stop this. He pulled his head away to press against the sofa backrest. “You’ll not make Vasilver’s daughter one of your whores,” his father had said, and as insulting as the man had been he was right. She was a gentleman’s daughter, never married, taking her innocence was wrong, a sin of an entirely different magnitude from sleeping with a courtesan or a widow or even another man’s wife. Even sitting with her like this would destroy her reputation if they were seen, and she might not understand that but he did. I will not, cannot abuse her trust. He hugged her again, more tightly than intended, then removed her from his lap and stood.

“My lord?”

He heard the rustle and tinkle of her dress as she shifted position, but he had his back to her, a hand over his face. I need to say something or she’s going to apologize again and I don’t think I can bear that. “I’m fine, Miss Vasilver—” the formality automatic and yet absurd after such intimacy “— but I – I fear I have entirely exceeded the bounds of your question.”

“What question? Oh, that question. I don’t mind, my lord. The subheadings on the first item were extensive.”

Her reply was so free of artifice, so very her, that Nik choked back laughter. “What were the subheadings? No, no, don’t answer that, I have no business asking such a thing.” He turned to her again, fell to one knee, reached for her hand and stopped himself from taking it. “I—” His mind was a confused jumble as he searched for a way to explain how he was at fault without implying that she was.

A voice calling from the balcony, a little ways off, broke into his thoughts with a faint but distinct, “Lord Nikola?”

Nik nearly swore despite the presence of a lady. He scrambled to his feet. “I’ll get rid of him,” he growled, pulling his glove back on, straightening his jacket and the ribbon holding back his hair. He strode decisively out the balcony door and closed the door quietly behind him to ensure the searcher would not find the two of them together in such an out-of-the-way spot. He turned and walked towards the sound of the voice.“Yes?” He used his most imperious voice, glowering in the direction of the speaker as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

The other was a boy in the livery of a royal page. He bobbed a bow as Nik approached, saying, “M’lord, there’s a greatcat messenger for you, says she’s come from Anverlee.”

Sudden fear chilled Nik more than the cold night air did. “Is something wrong? What’s the message?” It can’t be my parents, they’re here and avoiding me. Lysandra? Daphne?

“Don’t know, m’lord, the message was only ‘Sharone Whittaker requesting treatment’. Said you left instructions that you wanted to know right away, m’lord,” the boy said. Nikola did swear this time, and the page cringed. “Sorry, m’lord, the messenger carried Fireholt’s seal—”

Nik tried to keep the frustration from his voice and did not quite succeed. Of all the times she has to pick now “You did right. If the messenger’s still here, tell her to wait for me at the foot of the palace steps. I’ll be down in a moment.” After the page bowed and withdrew, Nik returned to the study. His thoughts churned in a half-dozen different directions. Part of him wanted to ignore the message. What difference would a few hours make? Why should he, lord and Blessed, be continually inconvenienced by a young girl’s madness and obstinacy? Who was to say she would not have changed her mind by the time he made it to Anverlee Manor anyway, even if he left at once?   

Excuses. I have to go.

Miss Vasilver had risen and met him halfway to the balcony. “What is it, Lord Nikola?” Her serene expression was at odds with the disheveled hem of her dress, fallen partway back down but left unattended.

“One of my petitioners – a difficult and troublesome case – I don’t wish to bore you with the details, but I must leave at once. I am most heartily sorry for it.”

“I understand, my lord. Of course you must,” she said, her voice betraying neither disappointment nor offense.

He smiled at her quick grasp. “I – do you wish to go home, my lady? Miss Vasilver,” he corrected himself. “I shouldn’t be long. I hope I’ll be able to return within an hour, an hour and a half, perhaps.”

“Should you like me to go with you?” Miss Vasilver offered.

“More than anything.” Nikola briefly indulged the fantasy – he could not hold her in that glass carriage, but the round trip would give them considerable private time for conversation – “But no,” he said, reluctantly. “Speed is essential – it’d be a quarter of an hour at least for the greatcats just to extricate the coach from the warren of them, and even on the road it’s heavy and slow. I hope to ride the messenger back.”

“Then I will wait at the ball for you. If you wish.” She lifted her hand as if to touch him, then hesitated.

Nik caught her hand and pressed her palm to his lips, then drew her into his arms and lifted her into a kiss, spinning her about as her feet left the floor. She looped her arms around his neck, as eager as she’d been earlier. After breaking off the kiss, he held her fast and whispered in her ear, “You are magnificent, my dear lady. If I am unable to return – unavoidably delayed – know that it is not because I wish to be anywhere else or with anyone else. You have my deepest admiration and respect. Never doubt that.”

He could feel tension leave her, that slim, straight body melting to conform to his. “Thank you, my lord,” she said. “You do not know how good it is to hear that.” Strange how she never looks worried about what anyone might think. But she is.

Nikola pressed his lips against her temple, luxuriating in the warmth of her mind. “Thank you for sharing your list with me, my dear. I – we need to go, or I will never tear myself away.” He released her with an effort of will, taking a moment to straighten her gown and ensure she looked unexceptionable before offering his arm to her.

Miss Vasilver did not take it at once. “…I thought I might stay here for a bit.”

He blinked at her a few times, thinking, then shook his head. “It…would be better if you did not, miss.”

She tilted her head at him. “Why does it matter?”

“Someone noted that we’d come this way or that page would not have known to look for me on the balcony. To have the two of us taking air on the balcony is not itself remarkable, but if I’m seen returning inside without you and then leaving, while you’re not seen by anyone for some time thereafter…well. It would excite talk.”

“Oh. I see.” She slipped her hand against his arm, and he fought off the urge to embrace her again. “You have a great deal of experience with this sort of thing, do you not?”

“Some,” Nik admitted, and wondered if he should not have. But she has always been honest with me. “Does that trouble you?”

“No. It’s comforting.” Miss Vasilver had her long face in profile to him as they strode along the balcony to its legitimate entrance to the exhibit hall.

Startled, Nikola laughed. “Comforting?”

“Well, one of us ought to know what we’re about, don’t you think?”

What are we about? He had a brief vision of carrying on a clandestine tryst with Miss Vasilver, arranging stolen moments in secrecy, avoiding the eye of their families, friends, everyone, for – how long? The idea was – sordid. Unappealing. I don’t want to hide how I feel about you. I don’t want to be guarded and careful. I want everyone to know. I want to marry you.

The thought shocked him. I can’t mean that. Can I? I don’t want to marry anyone. Marriage means obligations, expectations, fidelity—    

—to an ordinary woman. But Miss Vasilver is anything but ordinary. He hardly dared look at her as they moved through the exhibit hall, her steps quickened without comment to match his urgency. He thought of her document, still kept close to his heart even tonight. To her, the meaning of marriage is something one may negotiate.

He wrestled down the impulse to propose. This is madness brought on by frustrated lust. I can’t propose to her in the middle of the Ascension Ball, in the thirty seconds before I rush away to a petitioner. I need to give this serious consideration before I do something rash and irreparable.

Shaking off the reverie, he took his leave of Miss Vasilver when they returned to the main hall. As he kissed her hand, he wondered if he looked half so convincingly unaffected as she did. She did not smile at him – she never did – but she did squeeze his fingers as if reluctant to release them.

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The First Item on the List (72/141)

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The pages of her guideline sprang into her mind, neatly printed in her own hand, stark black letters at the start of the first line: Do not whatever you do under any circumstances say this or anything like it. There truly was no way even she could forget she wasn’t supposed to say it. But the reasons why were so nonsensical, unfair even, and her will to follow convention blindly so weak…Wisteria had her face turned to one side, too focused on her planned words to think about where she ought to be looking. The study’s wallpaper had a runner patterned in silver filigree, right under the molding around the ceiling. “Now is either the very worst time for it or the very best,” she said, “and I cannot tell which.”

“Ah. Tell me what it is, and I will tell you which it is?” Lord Nikola offered.

Wisteria swallowed. Her eyes still on the glittering filigree on the walls, she asked, “May I kiss you, my lord?”

In the silence that followed, she heard his indrawn breath, sound sharp and meaningless to her. Was that Yes or No or Next topic please? I need words, my lord, I cannot guess the answer. Still he did not speak. She glanced to his face and could read nothing in his countenance, not even a smile. This cannot be good. “I apologize, my lord. I should – please, forget I—”

He laid a finger against her lips and she fell silent. Lord Nikola licked his lips. “You have a way of catching me by surprise, Miss Vasilver. I – I do not suppose it will shock you to know that I have kissed and been kissed more than once, but – do you know – I do not think that before today anyone has ever actually asked me.” He shifted his hand to cup her cheek.

Wisteria met his gaze in blank incomprehension. “But how else would you know if you could or not?”

“That is a very good question and I wish I had a good answer for you.” He leaned close enough that she could catch the faint scent of champagne on his breath. “But I liked your first question better still.” His head was tilted to avoid bumping noses, lips not quite touching hers. “In answer: yes, absolutely, please do.”

She let her eyes close – it was strange to see his face so close and she wanted to focus on how he felt – and touched her mouth to his. The sensation of that contact ran through her like a transmitted shock, warming her face, fingers, toes. She was not at all sure what she was doing, apart from it being Number One On the List of What Not to Do, but his lips were soft and gentle and tasted of champagne, his touch delectable as his hand slid over her cheek to the nape of her neck, and she wanted to do more of it. Wisteria dipped her chin after the kiss, touching her forehead to his. “Oh. May we do that again?” she asked in a whisper, and he answered by tilting her face up for another kiss.


She had the most incredible mind, unlike any Nik had seen before. The web of rationality and logic seemed to weave through every part of it, as if nothing could happen inside her head without her conscious awareness of the how and why of it. He’d seen people whose emotions were stunted or warped by layers of intellectualism and had more than half-expected that to be the case with Miss Vasilver, but it didn’t seem to be. Affection, desire, anger, fear, love, compassion – all were present in the usual size and textures, albeit united by cool strong threads of reason. The texture and feel of her mind was delightfully intricate, as welcoming as her lips under his, an open invitation to lose himself in exploration. He wasn’t interested in analysis – his first impression was that he’d never seen a mind so organized, so fully sane – but he gloried in the vista.

Her question had astonished him, not only unlike a gentlewoman but at odds with Miss Vasilver’s entire dispassionate demeanor. When he’d finally parsed it, he’d thought perhaps she was intellectually curious even if emotionally unengaged. Their tentative first kiss did not contradict that hypothesis, but with the second she slid one hand to the nape of his neck and curled her fingers through the hair at the base of his ponytail to hold him as she shifted closer. Her other hand caressed his chest through his shirt, above the waistcoat and under his jabot, crystal beads on her trailing sleeve tinkling. Her mouth moved uncertainly against his. Nik was reminded powerfully of his own first experience: lacking the slightest idea what he was about and desperate to learn. He parted his lips enough to nibble at hers, and she responded enthusiastically, fingers clutching in his shirt to pull him nearer. Nik wrapped his arms around her waist and tugged. Her body curved to slide into his lap, ruffled skirt rustling as her legs stretched sideways on the upholstered cushion next to him. She pressed him against the sofa back, fingers sliding under his waistcoat to caress his shoulder as she kissed him with unashamed longing.

Her passionate intensity caught him off guard, as unexpected as her question but even more welcome. One hand stroked down her thigh, over the curve of the ruffle, feeling the smoothness of silk under his fingertips and the tiny bumps from the glittering crystals in the dress. His other arm cradled her back, hand on the fine mesh that covered her shoulder. The layers of cloth between them felt like an unwanted barrier; he ached to touch her skin, to strip off his gloves and unfasten the row of buttons under the silken waterfall of the gown’s one-shouldered cape. He gripped her shoulder to keep that hand from wandering to the buttons, but his other hand made its way down the length of her long leg to find her stockinged ankle. She made no missish objections; instead she snuggled closer as his gloved fingers pushed her skirt higher, baring her calf to his caress. He left her lips to kiss his way along her jawline, nuzzling at her hair, breathing in her scent, overwhelmed by the sensation of her. “Oh, my lord, that feels wonderful,” Miss Vasilver murmured in his ear, her voice strangely level but the truth of her words made plain by the way she held his head close, body squirming deliciously in his arms. Maybe this is like her, he thought, intoxicated by desire. She is so forthright in everything else, why not about this? His hand reached to her knee beneath the skirt, then her lower thigh as she slid down to push his hand higher, rubbing her soft cheek against his, fingers tangled fast in his hair. The layers of fabric were pushed thick and snug enough to give more resistance as he tried to move higher still. The difficulty forced Nik to think for a moment, and realize what he was doing. You’ve taken this well beyond a kiss, boy. He drew his hand away, moving it to rest atop the skirt, and then wrapped both arms around her back. Withdrawing entirely seemed far too much to ask, but he could try to get some control over himself.

His breathing was ragged as she pressed a kiss against the top of his ear, the sense of her mind so close a sensuality of its own, her fingers warm beneath his jacket. The intimacy was maddening, demanding reciprocation. She must know what she’s doing to me. His hands behind her back pulled off one of his gloves as if of their own accord. Her tongue stole along the curve of his ear and he whimpered, lust so acute it was almost painful.

Miss Vasilver paused at the sound. “My lord?”

Nik clung to her, knowing that he ought to move away, back off before he carried things too far, and unable to bring himself to do so.

“I’m sorry…I did something wrong, didn’t I?” Miss Vasilver’s voice was hushed but even. “I did not intend…I know I should not have even asked, I—”

Nik kissed her to stop the flood of words. “Shhh.” He stroked her back beneath the cape, touched her hair, ached to feel it between his fingers but knew better than to disturb its carefully crafted perfection. “You did nothing wrong, my lady, not in my opinion, I just…need a moment.” She ducked her head in a nod, shifting as if to move away. His arms remained locked about her, unwilling to release her even as he struggled to master his desire. Which he knew logically would be easier without her warm appealing form pressed against him, but logic did not enter into it. “Please don’t go,” he whispered.

“I should be very happy to stay,” Miss Vasilver replied, just as soft, and tucked her head against his shoulder. “I like kissing you,” she added, so matter-of-fact that he laughed.

“And I you,” he told her, kissing her forehead, careful to keep his hands on her back and not move them to any place more dangerous or tempting. “But I…I do not wish to lead you into…anything you would regret, my lady. I give you my word, I did not seek out privacy in order to take advantage of you.”

“Oh.” She stilled, half-sitting sideways in his lap, her cheek against his jacket.

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Potentially Compromising (71/141)

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A curious Wisteria accompanied Lord Nikola as he led them to one of the doors leading from the balcony that overlooked the ballroom to the adjoining hallway on the Palace’s third floor. The heels of their shoes clicked against the tiled floor as they proceeded down the hall, Lord Nikola offering cordial nods to the warcats in Palace livery that they passed. They stepped through open double doors into an exhibit hall. In honor of the season, perhaps, the display featured historical artifacts from the first arrival of humans in Paradise, at Salvanton, and even a few relics reputedly from the Abandoned World itself. A number of other guests wandered the exhibit hall and they had to negotiate a gauntlet of amiable greetings. Lord Nikola took the time to introduce her to several of his acquaintances. As large as the event was, with so many attendees from across the nation, Wisteria was struck by how many not merely knew Lord Nikola but wanted to stop to exchange pleasantries with him. None of these little conversations turned strange the way the one with Lady Beatrice and her husband had.

Lord Nikola made the social niceties effortless, finding no difficulty in beginning or ending each encounter. Wisteria found it a tremendous relief to be on his arm, relying on his ease with banter to maintain the flow of talk and trusting that he would let her know plainly and without fuss if she was doing anything wrong. Perhaps if I attended every social event with him, they would not be such a trial. She stole a glance at his tall elegant silhouette, and admired the contrast of his long golden hair against the black of the jacket, the way it caught the light just like the jeweled design did. He glanced down at her at the same moment with a smile that made her forget she wasn’t supposed to stare. “This way,” he said softly, leading her past a diorama of mannequins in Abandoned World clothing. He opened a glass door onto an outdoor balcony, and a cold wind blew in. With an involuntary shiver, she followed him into the night.

“Don’t worry, I’m not keeping you out here,” Lord Nikola said. The balcony was dark; puddles of light cast through the windows splashed the paving stones.

“It’s certainly private.” Wisteria took the excuse to huddle closer to his arm; the balcony was deserted but for them.

“True, but I intend both privacy and comfort. I am a demanding man.” He set a brisk pace along the balcony, fingers unfastening his formal jacket as he walked. “It’s not far—” He shrugged out of the jacket and settled it on her shoulders, still warm from his body heat. She was touched by the gesture even though snuggling up to him for warmth was far more appealing, and held it closed before her – the draping sleeves of her gown would not fit under the jacket’s sleeves. Papers rustled in the inner breast pocket, but she paid it no heed. Lord Nikola’s waistcoat inverted the design on the jacket, she saw now: orange with stylized black flames trimming the back. He paused by one door and rattled the handle, but it didn’t open. He shook his head and moved to the next, which unlatched. “Here we go.” He pulled the door open and gestured her through with a graceful bow.

The room beyond was unlit; Wisteria stepped to one side of the door and stopped, uncertain where to go. Lord Nikola brushed past her, as if his feline grace extended to seeing in the dark. A moment later, he’d lit a candelabra-styled gaslamp. It illuminated a cozy study lined with glass-fronted bookcases of blond wood, and furnished with a claw-footed sofa and matching chair. Lord Nikola checked the door leading back to the hall, and another door leading to the side. “Are we supposed to be here?” Wisteria asked, watching him.

“Now, if we weren’t, the door would have been locked, would it not? And the warcats would have guided us back to the main areas, of course.” Lord Nikola turned back to her with a smile. As logical as the statements were, Wisteria suspected she was not to take them at face value.

“And yet no one else is using this room at all.” Wisteria stroked the lapel of his jacket against her chest for a moment, then drew it off to return it to him.

“They must all find the rest of the palace more interesting.” Lord Nikola shrugged back into his jacket and smiled at her. “Why, this is an unremarkable space; it might be a study in any noble’s home. Nothing to compare with the grandeur of the petitioner’s hall or the ball room. Are you reconsidering the merits of this plan, my dear Miss Vasilver?”

Wisteria shook her head and took a seat at one end of the couch. “Not at all.” She was all at once aware of being in private with a man, with a known rake, one who’d just checked to make sure the doors were secure. That she had come to this potentially compromising situation of her own accord and would be considered responsible for anything that happened as a result. These were the sort of circumstances she had been warned all her life to avoid. She would be in no position to fend off any advances Lord Nikola made. But her main thought was I truly hope he makes some. She cleared her throat and tried to think of something else to say before she made an irrevocable mistake. “For my first inappropriate topic – may I ask the significance to Lady Beatrice and yourself removing gloves before you took her hand?”   

Lord Nikola chuckled. “I’m not sure that even counts as inappropriate. Was it on your list?”

“Not as such, but it seemed like the sort of thing that would have been if anyone had thought of it beforehand.”

He took a seat sideways on the couch beside her, facing her so that their knees nearly touched when she turned to regard him. “There’s three reasons. The nominal, official explanation is that it’s a gesture of equality, one way the Blessed acknowledge each other’s status. The second is that the Blessed understand – like you do—” he smiled at her again, the corners of his eyes crinkling “—that we can’t read minds or see each other naked by touch, so it’s a sign of understanding, kinship: ‘Others may not understand you, but I do’. Third, and the real reason that mind-healers do it: to check to see if we’re crazy.”

That surprised her; she tilted her head at him. “But why would you need to do that? Wouldn’t you see it if you were? Or – is it like trying to see your own face without a mirror, and you cannot tell?”

“No, I can diagnose myself. But my diagnosis is imperfect – just as I cannot tell how to correct the problems of some of my petitioners, I may not be able to detect my own problems. Or be aware that I have one.”

Wisteria digested this. “What would Lady Beatrice do if she diagnosed a problem in you? Or vice versa?”

“Oh, if it were a demon, banish it at once. There’s a code if it’s something complex – you squeeze the other’s hand once if you don’t see anything, and twice if you want to do a consultation. So if she signaled me, I’d call on her at a later date.”

“Has anyone ever signaled you so?” Wisteria asked.

He shook his head. “Not a healer of minds, no. Physical healers, a couple of times. Nothing serious – minor problems that I had not realized were issues.” Lord Nikola took her hand in his gloved one, his thumb stroking over her knuckles, the movement so unaffected he hardly seemed aware of it. “So…may I ask for the first item on the list now, or must I yet wait for the ride home?”

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The Complete Experience (70/141)

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They stood up through two dances – a good three-quarters of an hour – after which Nik thought Wisteria looked winded. The measured pace of the dance was little more strenuous than walking, but it was still exertion and Nik didn’t mind a chance to sit down himself. Justin was, of course, tireless and Meg would not sit down for anything while musicians yet played, so Nik and Wisteria left them to form a set with new participants. With Wisteria on his arm, they ascended one of the spiral staircases to the balcony that ringed the ballroom and overlooked the dancers. Nik left her in a chair while he chased down one of the servers with drink trays, but when he returned she was resting a hand on the railing, looking down. “They look so wonderful from here,” she said, turning to glance at him. Her fingers brushed over his as she accepted his offered flute of champagne. “Not that dancing is unadmirable from the same level, but it’s far more impressive to take it all in at once like this, all those people moving in such remarkable synchronicity.”

“Doing credit to scores of dedicated dance tutors, no doubt.” Nikola stood beside her to watch as well. He judged less than half the attendees were still on the dance floor, many having taken breaks or gone to other rooms to converse or play cards. Even so, that left several dozen sets moving in unison to the music of the royal orchestra. They were by no means all exact in their timing, some half a beat ahead or behind, and the occasional dancer forgetting his place and hurrying to the correct next position without taking the requisite turns or appropriate steps. But taken as a whole, the proficiency of so many hundreds in executing the proper moves in correct time and sequence was striking.

“It’s quite an achievement, when you think of it. I’ve watched professional dance troupes that were not so well-choreographed.”

“Truly? Even considering the likes of…oh, Lord Cambrunt?”

“Who?” Miss Vasilver followed Nik’s gesture to a portly man in brown and yellow. As she watched, the figure missed a step, recovered badly and took two steps to one side, colliding with the adjacent man in his set. “Well…perhaps nothing quite on those lines, my lord. But I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a performance on this scale, either. Making allowance for the outliers and the sheer numbers, I remain amazed and enrapt. It’s even more enjoyable to watch than to be a part of it.”

“Do you not like dancing, Miss Vasilver?” He glanced to her profile: her calm tones were hard to read and her face impassive as always, but he could see hints of the pleasure she spoke of, in her eyelids slightly lowered and the lack of tension to her features.

“Oh, no, I love it, my lord. It’s so delightfully straightforward.”

“Lord Cambrunt might beg to differ.” Nikola half-smiled. “Straight and forward he might be able to manage.”

“A literally straight-forward dance would be more a march, would it not? But I meant metaphorically.” She looked to him, the stones in her dark hair glittering like embers with the movement. His eyes caught on hers, their light brown highlighted by gold in the gaslight, her flawless skin inviting his caress: would it be as warm and soft as it appeared? Guarded, he reminded himself, and looked back to the ballroom floor as she continued, “When one is dancing Andelrick’s or Through and Under, there’s no question of what the right thing to do is: step here, turn now, step back, all exact. One might misstep or forget a move, but there is only ever one right answer. It’s soothing in that respect, if that makes sense.”

“It does indeed.” At the moment, having one right answer struck Nik as extremely appealing

“What of you, my lord? What is your favorite part of this ball?”

“The Blessing of Newlant,” Nik said automatically.

“Oh, so the highlight is already passed? Might we as well go home, then?”

Nik started to shake his head, then glanced to her with a grin. She was deadpan, but something about the set of her eyes convinced him she was teasing. “Well, that would net me a nice quiet carriage ride with you. But I can wait a few more hours to collect on that, miss. I do not wish to deprive you of the full Ascension Ball experience.”

She tilted her head, watching him again. “Thus far I have arrived in a gilded glass carriage, admired a vast quantity and quality of couture, drank champagne from a fountain, felt the annual Blessing at its source, supped, danced, and admired the dancers. Do enlighten me, my lord: what else remains for the full experience?”

“Let’s see: there’s drinking too much champagne from the fountain, being violently ill in the restroom, having one’s outrageously expensive Ascension garb spoilt after slipping and falling in a muddy spot in the dark on the lawn, losing an unfortunate string of games at cards before realizing that one has inadvertently sat at a table with stakes, engaging in conversation with distant relations whom one sees far too often at twice a year…” Nikola paused, as if reflecting. “Some of these may be missable experiences, come to think of it.”

“Have you already had all of them?” Miss Vasilver started to take a sip from her champagne flute, then reconsidered and rested the stem against the railing instead.

“At least once,” he assured her. “…most of them exactly once.”

“I see.” She looked grave. “Are there remaining experiences you would recommend, my lord? I have enjoyed my time so far and would be perfectly content were I to continue to do so. Even at the cost of leaving my evening incomplete.”

“Understandable, miss. In that case, there’s – no. We could – wait, not in an even year. If one…no, that never has gone well either. Hmmm.” He raised a hand to his face, tapping his cheek thoughtfully. A couple promenading along the broad balcony stopped to greet them; an elderly lord whom Nikola had cured a few years ago of senility, and his wife. Nik introduced Miss Vasilver to them. As they were chatting, another small group came by and joined them, and it was several minutes of small talk before he was able to extricate himself and Miss Vasilver again.

As they strolled away, Miss Vasilver glanced upwards to him. Her fingers felt very comfortable against the crook of his arm. “Random brief conversations with whatever acquaintances stumble upon one?”    

It took him a moment to realize she had returned to their earlier topic. “Ah! Yes, but we’ve already done that one. Several times. How’s this – hiding with a friend in a forgotten corner of the palace to converse upon dreadfully inappropriate topics?”

She tilted her head at him. “Oh, now that does sound promising. Has it gone well for you in the past?”

Technically I have not engaged in it, personally.” Nikola gave her a mischievous grin. “But I do know a good hiding place or two.”

She nestled a little closer to him. “Then it is a part of the full Ascension Ball experience neither one of us has had?” The young lady gestured before them with the champagne flute in her free hand, long beaded sleeve swinging with the motion. “Please, do lead on, my lord, that we may rectify this oversight at once.”

Still grinning, Nik sketched the hint of a bow to her. “As my lady wills.”

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Guarded (69/141)

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Nik was guarded now, and uneasy. During the meal, he had glanced in the direction of Miss Vasilver’s table enough times that the lady to his right had teased him about it. At that moment, he realized he was inviting the very speculations his father had warned him would occur. Not merely because he’d brought Miss Vasilver, but because he was acting besotted. Gazing off into space with a smile on his face as he thought about their earlier conversation, waiting impatiently for the meal to end so he could rejoin her, looking towards her table to catch a glimpse of her again – this was the kind of thing that made people talk. He might as well be Miss Dalsterly trying to catch Justin’s eye, the way he’d been carrying on.

Realizing this bothered him on several levels, the least of which was exciting gossip. He and Miss Vasilver were single and of an age and as long as he spoke to her at all, people would speculate about their potential as a match. But it would hardly be juicy gossip: scarcely a whiff of scandal to it apart from the attitude of Nik’s parents towards her.

What troubled him more was that he was used to being guarded, to schooling all inappropriate emotion from his face, to showing only what he intended to show. He had to be; it was vital that his interactions with Justin excite no interest whatsoever in any observer. With women he was less scrupulous, but even that was to a purpose. He’d had several affairs with women, but by flirting shamelessly with any lady young or old, people were less likely to take his behavior with any particular woman – married or otherwise – seriously. Not to mention less likely to consider that his interest might not be confined to women. In any case, unwittingly signaling an obsession with Miss Vasilver was unlike him, unlike his usual control.

Worse still, it meant he was obsessed with Miss Vasilver.

I just like her company. I’m not infatuated with her, he tried to tell himself, long-legged strides carrying him quickly through crowds, gracefully weaving past the other guests to reach her side. And that thought alone was the height of folly. No one ever thinks ‘I’m not infatuated’ unless they are. If I wasn’t infatuated it wouldn’t be a question. I wouldn’t even think about this. As he reached her table, his heart caught at the sight of her. She greeted him in her usual calm, grave manner, and placed her hand in his offered one to rise. Her words were kind, but nothing in her face or voice suggested any particular affection.

He confined his expression to a neutral smile and received, as usual – as always – no smile in return. Savior help me, I’m infatuated with her and half the time I’m not sure she’s anything but tolerating my company. What kind of fool am I?

But when she tucked her fingers into the crook of his arm, they stroked over his jacket and nestled into place with an unnecessary squeeze, and Nik thought, well, perhaps she has some interest in me.


Dance at the Ascension Ball was traditional, in sets of four couples each arranged in rectangular formations – gentlemen on one side, ladies on the other – about the palace’s marble-tiled ballroom. Ascension blossoms, winter-blooming purple flowers with yellow streaks, overflowed from stone planters topping chest-height columns all along the walls. The arched ceiling, some four stories high, was a latticework of steel frame and clear glass panes. With the chandeliers blazing within, the glass mirrored the brilliance of the room below and the bejeweled, gaudy guests. Midway up the walls, a high balcony ran about the room, overlooking the dance floor.

With Meg’s cooperation and the unspoken assistance of Nikola, Justin timed his arrival in the ballroom to coincide with Nikola and his companion – Miss Vasilver, of all women. She looked coolly ravishing in a white gown wreathed by a scarlet ruffle, like an icicle set ablaze. Justin wondered at Nikola’s reasoning in bringing his anti-betrothed – and even more, at her motive in accepting. Did she take him as seriously as he thinks when he told her he would not wed her, or does she reason he’ll come around to another way of thinking given time? For that matter, will he change his mind? She was, after all, a strikingly handsome woman and an heiress of considerable means (though a matter of less consequence to Nikola now), as well as intelligent. Nikola had already acknowledged an appreciation for her conversation. Knowing Nikola, having his parents take a dislike to her probably counted to her advantage. Why wasn’t he interested in her, anyway?

The four exchanged cordial greetings as they took their places in the dance, Nikola introducing Miss Vasilver to Justin’s sister. The structure of the dance involved a stately procession of couples through the eight-person formation, with the couple at the lead falling to the end of the formation as the three other couples processed upward. Only a handful of different movements were involved in the first dance, but they were combined in a variety of ways to make up the set, which included frequent changes of partners in crossovers. Meg was, as always, delighted to dance – her husband hated it – but Justin suspected she’d taken an immediate dislike to Miss Vasilver. Meg never cared for any woman who accompanied Nikola. Sometimes Justin wondered if she was jealous of them: Nikola flirted with Meg almost as shamelessly as he did with Lady Dalsterly, and with the same conviction that his attentions would never be taken as serious. Meg responded with a motherly affection – indeed, the blond man was only a few years older than her eldest son – but Justin could not help wondering if she was as immune as Nikola assumed.

The pacing of the dance was such that one would spend a minute or so at a time close enough to converse with each woman in one’s set. Etiquette required one make small talk during these stylized interludes, while the timing mandated it be very small talk indeed. “How are you enjoying the Ascension Ball, Miss Vasilver?” Justin asked as the dance brought them together, right hands raised to shoulder height and touching lightly palm to palm as they turned a measured circle clockwise, side by side and facing opposite directions.

“Oh, I am delighted by it, my lord,” she replied, flat voice belying her words. “Feeling the Blessing of Newlant in person was quite the experience.”

“Your first time here then?” The measure closed and the next began, signaling each dancer to make a half turn and touch left hands instead, moving counterclockwise now.

“A first for my family, even. It’s a great honor to me. Is it quite routine for you, my lord?”

Justin gave the question more thought than he usually did to his words during a dance. “The ball, yes. The Blessing – one does not ever become habituated to it, or at the least I do not.”

She did not smile, and her strangely expressionless tone remained unchanged in her reply of, “I am glad it is not just me, my lord. I do not even know what words to use to describe it.”

“Unsettling,” Justin offered, with a smile.

She tilted her head as the measure changed and they stepped apart, Justin bowing to her and her curtsying. “That would be one,” she agreed gravely, and then they were turning to their next partners.   

Justin watched Nikola and Miss Vasilver with half an eye through the next several measures – neither dance steps nor small talk were demanding activities in themselves, leaving ample opportunity to people-watch. Nikola was in usual form, smiling and charming with each woman in turn – a charm entirely lost on Miss Vasilver. It wasn’t just that she didn’t smile for Justin: she did not smile for anyone. The other two gentlemen in their set were oppressed by her solemnity, their own countenances sobering when they took their turns with her. Nikola showed no sign of such reserve, almost as amiable with Miss Vasilver as with Meg, whom he’d known far longer. Still, that explained Nikola’s stated disinterest in her: it would be unlike him to persist in the face of such obvious indifference, no matter how beautiful she might be.

Except, if she was indifferent, why accept the invitation? Meg would come for the Ball itself, regardless of who brought her, but Miss Vasilver looked as bland about her surroundings as she did about her fellow dancers. What an enigma you are, Miss Vasilver. I cannot make you out at all, Justin thought as he and Meg danced and chatted idly about her son Daniel. But I always have liked a challenge. He smiled, resolved to un-riddle her yet.

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The Difference (68/141)

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Wisteria waited at one side of the grand hall to be reunited with Lord Nikola; the crowd of other people who had accompanied a Blessed thronged about her. Inwardly, she still reeled from the Blessing of Newlant. Of course, she’d felt it before: all of Newlant knew when the Blessing was held at the Ascension Ball, because one could feel the sudden closeness of the Savior, whereever one was and whatever one was doing. But she’d heard the experience was far more intense for those at the Ascension Ball itself, and goodness, that had not been exaggerated. As she waited, she glimpsed Lord Comfrey through the crowd. Even in a sea of gorgeous costumes he was impossible to miss: waves of black hair swept to the small of his back, stark against a scarlet coat glittering with a knotwork design of gold beads. The coat-tails brushed at the top of knee-height boots of rich leather with a worked pattern that echoed the same knotwork pattern in gold inlay. He was smiling at a small pretty woman who clung to his arm. Wisteria didn’t try to catch his attention: initiating conversations about business was on her List of Things Not to Do (for some unfathomable reason she was permitted to continue the subject if someone else raised it, however), and she couldn’t think what else she’d say to him.

Wisteria recognized a number of people from this or that previous social occasion, and exchanged a few words of greeting as people strolled past. The scale of this event was perhaps the most staggering thing about it, thus far. Any number of parties took place during the Ascension season, from intimate gatherings of a dozen to grand galas for hundreds. The Ascension Ball was the most prestigious of all, by exclusive invitation of the Crown only to titled lords and ladies and their guests. Even the brothers of dukes and the children of princes did not receive invitations, nor untitled families like the Vasilvers, nevermind how wealthy. Somehow, Wisteria had thought that all the pomp and exclusivity would translate to one of the smaller events. Who knew there were so many with titles in Newlant? Of course, every healer had a title, which meant that right now this was the best place in the entire nation to be injured or sick. As she watched the crowd, she noticed others of the healers taking their gloves off before shaking hands, as Lady Beatrice and Lord Nikola had. I must ask him about that. It’s not on my list.

It would have been easy for a gathering so tremendous to feel common, but everywhere was opulence and grandeur. Wisteria found herself wondering practical things: how much did the Crown spend in heating these vast chambers, in maintaining its state of polished perfection? Where did they store those outdoor heating pillars when not in use? Did these vast corridors have furniture in them when they were not stuffed with guests, and if so, where did that go? How many of these lords and ladies had money troubles like the Strikers? Was there a secondhand market for Ascension garb? Surely there ought to be – these extravagances that were worn only once, that were unsuitable at any event but this one. The fashions changed from year to year, but altering one to look current and not reminiscent of a prior year’s outfit was not out the question, was it? But it would be considered gauche, as Lord Striker said renting a coach was, would it not? Perhaps if the service were offered with great discretion…

She was still musing on this when her eyes lit on Lord Nikola: he smiled as he saw her, strides lengthening until he reached her and offered his arm. There was an otherworldly quality to him, even more so than usual, as if he belonged to a more perfect Paradise and was only on loan to this one. Wisteria put her hand on his arm as she gazed up at his features, his slim straight nose and high cheekbones, the stark lines of chin and jaw, forgetting not to stare as she tried to pin her impression to a tangible thing. It was so rare that she had any sense of mood from the way anyone looked. But that was a smile of real joy on him, she thought, the hint of dimples showing and the corners of his eyes crinkling, in the way they didn’t when he was mocking himself. His pupils were dilated, round eyes widened slightly to catch the light. Is that what it means to see someone’s eyes light up? Or is that a different thing?

“Miss Vasilver?” he asked, and she realized that her free hand was half-raised to his face, unconscious expression of her desire to touch him, to learn if that otherworldliness was something she could feel. “Shall we walk in?”

Wisteria forced both her hand and her eyes away, turning to face forward and walk beside him. “Yes, my lord.” Then, not caring if it should be on the list or not, she asked, “What’s it like, for you, to be at the center of the Blessing of Newlant? Is it different from treating a petitioner?”

“It is almost entirely unlike it,” Lord Nikola said. “There’s nothing to diagnose or treat, no demon to cast out. Except – well, when I cannot diagnose a petitioner’s problem but call on the Savior’s help anyway, the Savior’s response is typically of grief, or regret. But when we call on the Savior on this night, there’s no regret. No sense that what we ask, he cannot give. It’s quite the opposite – one can sense him expecting it, looking forward to the event. I want to say ‘with excitement’ but that conveys the wrong impression: it is such a serene, calm sort of pleasure in the anticipation. I don’t – I don’t know, exactly, what he does. When I touch the land, I don’t sense anything you wouldn’t. The Blessed for plants and stone say it’s the same for them, they can’t sense anything but what’s right around them, not the whole nation. But he works through us anyway. It feels extraordinary. Glorious. Like being a part of the sun, giving light and life to the world.”

“It’s so different, being here when it happens,” Wisteria said. “The difference between seeing a beacon in the distance and being close enough to feel the heat of its lighting.”

“I’ve heard that,” Lord Nikola answered, still smiling. “I don’t know what it’s like, either way. I’ve never been anywhere but here for the Blessing.”

“Oh, of course. I apologize; you must hear this sort of thing every year.”

He shook his head. “Not at all, miss.” Lord Nikola covered her hand with his gloved one as they walked into the palace’s banquet hall. Paintings in wide gilt frames depicted the Abandoned World on the east wall, the coming of the Savior and the Ascension on the south, and the settlement of Paradise and the later founding of Newlant on the west. Round dining tables seating eight filled the room, covered in brocade and beaded cloth in Ascension colors of purple and gold. Gilt-edged chairs of carved wood had cushions to match. A web of curving carpet runners that must have been crafted specifically for this room and these tables wove around them. At northwest and northeast corners of the room were two tables scaled for greatcat guests, tall and with low cushioned platforms before them for seating.

One of many uniformed ushers directed them to their places. Lord Nikola escorted Wisteria to her place card and helped her to her seat, then kissed her hand before taking his leave for his own. It was traditional in Newlant to seat couples apart from one another at formal meals – a practice designed to give some time apart to marital partners who saw too much of one another already. Just now Wisteria rather missed Southern Vandu’s practice of letting guests choose their own seats. The host for her table introduced them all to one another, but she’d met not one person before.

For all that, it did not go badly, judging by her limited powers of observation. She was seated between Mr. Jenkins, an elderly and prosperous merchant married to one of the Blessed with a courtesy title, and Mr. Willsham, a pleasant if plump young gentleman escorting Lady Jessica, an earl’s heir. Mr. Jenkins said little to her, devoting himself to the gentlewoman on his left, but Mr. Willsham proved capable of making an astounding amount of conversation around the various courses of food. Wisteria’s appreciation of sustenance did not go much beyond ‘delicious’, ‘edible’, and ‘not in fact food’. Mr. Willsham went orders of magnitude farther, deconstructing the ingredient list, preparation method, cooking time and temperature, so that he might explain exactly why the food was delicious. Or, in the case of the unfortunate soup course, more in the ‘not in fact food’ category. (An ill-chosen blend of cilantro and lemon zest and too short a cooking time at too high a heat had rendered what was meant to be lobster bisque a watery dish that tasted rather like soap.) But he also explained the succulence of the roast pig (slow-roasted whole for some hours, before the fire and not above it, constantly turned and basting in its own fat), the fine subtleties in the sauce for the beef (rich and thick, with a flavor Wisteria could not identify until Mr. Willsham explained that it was a tomato base with onions, raisins, and – among other spices – cinnamon and cocoa, of all things). Although she had little to contribute apart from occasional comment on the country from whence a spice or foodstuff was imported, Wisteria found the conversation enlightening.

Even so, she could not regret when the meal drew to a close and the company rose to reassemble their partnerships. Lord Nikola arrived at her table to reclaim her faster than she would have thought possible, given the distance and the crowd to negotiate. She took his hand to rise from her seat. His smile was not the same as it had been after the ceremony – less wide, she thought, and did not know what that signified – but her heart lightened anyway. She felt as if she were dancing already as they joined the stately procession to the ballroom.

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The Blessing of Newlant (67/141)

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Justin was at the center of a knot of people, in conversation with Lord and Lady Kimbrechton about the possibility of war in western Orlan. Meg, Justin’s sister, stood a few feet away and distracted some of his admirers. After waiting too long, Justin had invited Miss Rubane to the Ascension Ball and received a chagrined refusal: the girl had a prior commitment. He could doubtless have found another single young woman to bring, but this year the whole game struck him as even stupider and more irksome than usual. So he’d brought Meg, who adored the Ascension Ball and was excellent company at it, and who would not expect him to either wed or bed her afterwards. No doubt there’d be gossip about his decision to escort his sister; likely absurd gossip, such as that he was pining for Miss Rubane.

Sister or not, Meg certainly did him credit. She was forty-two and had three children, but was nonetheless in fine form in an Ascension gown of wine and gold that complemented Justin’s attire without mirroring it. She looked nothing like Justin: she was of medium height with a well-padded figure and a round pretty face with large hazel eyes. Her skin was nearly as light as Nikola’s, though not in the Haventure-pink hue, and her hair medium brown. While he was thinking of him, Justin took a moment to look around for Nikola, but the room was too crowded to see much beyond his immediate group. He did note a few furtive glances in his direction, and caught the sound of his name. Excusing himself from the Kimbrechtons, he slipped closer to the other group.

One young man, with his back to Justin, was relating the story of the race from two weeks ago. “No, no, Comfrey was losing the race.”   

A girl tittered. “I hear Lord Comfrey doesn’t lose at anything.”

One of the people turned in his direction noticed Justin’s approach and tried to get the first speaker’s attention, but the youth paid them no heed. “Well he was losing this time. Maybe it was his greatcat. So they’re trying to get up one of those steep cliffs, and that’s when he fell.”

“My dear sir,” Justin said from behind the youngster, “you are telling this all wrong.”

The boy almost jumped out of his finery, coattails fluttering as he spun about. “Lord Comfrey! My lord – I – that is—”

“Has no one ever shown you how to relate a tale properly? Here, allow me.” Justin turned to the tittering girl, who was blushing deeply. “First, you must understand that I was not merely ‘losing’. I was being thoroughly thrashed. Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt knocked off halfway through the course, went back to the lodge for a snack, came back to the course, and were still ahead of us.” He went through the entire story again, with even more ridiculous exaggerations and hyperbole than the last time, while people gathered close to listen and laugh.   

When Justin was done, Meg reclaimed his arm: it was nearly time for the Blessing of Newlant. “I don’t see why you have to encourage them so,” she murmured, steering him towards their place. “Do you want to be the laughingstock of Gracehaven?”

“Why not? They need something to entertain them,” Justin replied, grinning. “Besides, if they hear it from me they’ll take it less seriously than if they hear it from anyone else.”

“Certainly I can’t take anything you say seriously,” Meg chided.

“Exactly, my dear. See how well my plan works?”

She slapped his wrist with the trailing end of her beaded sleeve, but her smile betrayed her amusement as they retrieved their coats and filed out through great glass doors to the rear lawn.

The Blessing of Newlant was held ‘outside’, nominally, although in inclement weather a vast canopy would be erected over the open lawn and snow cleared. Even on a clear cold night like this, large braziers on pillars burned gas to warm the wintery air and light the night. But there were plants and ground beneath their feet, which was what mattered. Outside, the Blessed gathered together, rank after rank of them. For this ceremony, every soul who carried a Blessing was welcome, even the untitled who held Blessings for plants or stone, or children too young for an invitation. Justin’s place was in the audience and determined by rank, which placed him in the second row of this assemblage of peerage – behind a row of royalty, dukes, margraves, and counts. The king and queen alone sat, in thrones placed prominently on the lawn before the gathering of Blessed. The ranks of peers stood to either side and behind their majesties. Meg craned her neck to peer between the duke and duchess in front of them, then seized Justin’s arm and pointed. “There’s Daniel, do you see him?” she whispered proudly. Daniel was her eleven year-old son; he held a Blessing for healing bodies. Justin gave her an indulgent smile and nodded as his own eyes scanned for Nikola. The tall blond lord was easier to spot; he stood head and shoulders above most of his fellows. It was too much to hope he’d have ordered a new suit, Justin thought wryly. Of course, he was magnificent even in a four-year-old suit, but people had expectations of a count’s heir and Justin was sick of having his friend maligned and snubbed for not meeting them.

A cold breeze swept through the crowd, and Meg pressed closer against Justin’s side, hugging her wrap about her shoulders. Justin made a stoic pretense of perfect comfort as he put an arm around her.    

It took some time for everyone to get into position, even with a small army of ushers to ensure each person knew where they belonged. A few stragglers were taking their places at the back when the heralds played the royal fanfare and the queen rose from her throne. The herald at her right hand barked, “All kneel to Felicia, Queen of Newlant, Protectress of Havenset, Guardian of the Riven Sea, Duchess of Viant, Lady of Anjaholt, by the grace of the Savior Blessed of stone.”

The entire crowd, both the ranks of Blessed and the audience, bent before her royal majesty. She stepped away from her throne to stand before the ranks of the Blessed, and turned to survey first them and then the crowd. “Peers, Blessed, and guests, my loyal subjects of Newlant, in the Savior’s name I bid you welcome to this Paradise, his great gift to us. Please, rise.” She was a small figure to bear so many titles, short and round and draped in a daunting array of jewels, a heavy crown upon her brow, gown stiff with layers to make it stand out. After all had risen, she continued, “On this, the anniversary of our Ascension to Paradise, we ask those whom the Savior has Blessed to bless our nation in turn.” In a strong chorus, the entire assembled peerage spoke with the queen for her next words: “O Blessed of the Savior, we petition you: heal what is sick, mend what is broken, and make right aught that is wrong in Newlant.”

Rank upon rank of Blessed knelt as one, the queen herself among them, gloves off, and extended their hands through the cropped frost-touched grass to touch the cold earth.

Justin was not a spiritual man. He’d hired a gentleman to preach for his people rather than do it himself, and what services he attended – he was not above skipping them if he had any reasonable pretext at all – rarely left him moved. But this ceremony – even if he were stone, it would touch him. The Savior’s presence filled the grounds, a palpable warmth that cut off the breeze like a windbreak. A sense of true, pure, unconditional love washed through Justin. For a few moments, he was suffused and transfixed, feeling both loved and loving, unable to conceive of ill-will, much less feel it. For a few moments, everything was right in the world.

Slowly, the sensation faded. Meg smiled and dabbed at her eyes; she was far from the only one weeping for joy. She hugged his arm, whispering, “Thank you for bringing me, Justin.” Justin flashed a half-smile to her. The experience discomfited him; it was not a rebuke, but as if the Savior had lifted and shaken him, saying however you may feel about me, I will always love and be there for you. Whether you realize it or not. It was unsettling. Justin wondered if Nik felt that way all the time.

The Crown offered a brief traditional speech in thanks, to both the Savior and his Blessed, to which the peerage lent their voices in closing. Then everyone filed back inside for the formal supper.

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The Ascension Ball (66/141)

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The wait through traffic to arrive at the palace had never seemed so brief. All too soon, Nik handed his guest down from the carriage and onto wide marble steps. The steps led to gigantic double doors three stories high, open to welcome the steady influx of guests.

They were not announced on entrance – it would take all night to let everyone in if the time were taken to announce each new arrival in turn. Attendants in the royal livery of gold and sky blue took their invitation and the two continued into Dawnfell Palace’s grand petitioner’s hall. It had an arched ceiling higher than the great doors; a dozen massive gaslit crystal chandeliers illuminated the criss-crossing scrollwork chased across the ceiling and between the floor-to-ceiling windows of the enormous chamber. The granite floor was polished mirror-bright to reflect the guests in all their Ascension finery, a glittering sea of glossy exotic fabrics, imported lace, and jewels. A multi-tiered fountain served as centerpiece for the room, engineered of nymphs holding porcelain vases that poured bubbling golden champagne into the overflowing trays of mermaids posed as if swimming below. Waitstaff milled among the guests with trays of filled glasses and canapes.

Nik was impressed by Miss Vasilver’s composure in the face of the most extravagant spectacle Newlant offered: her eyes swept over the room to take it in without staring at anyone or anything, her expression calm. “How did they celebrate Ascension in Southern Vandu, miss?” he asked her.

“Mm? Oh, they didn’t.”

He blinked. “They didn’t?”

“Not in the same way. They have a restrained holy day called imsharu, ‘the Arrival’, in late summer. Their religion holds that Paradise itself rescued us from the Abandoned World. Paradise – the world itself – is like a god to them. They’re one of the people who think that Blessings come from that mountain pool I told you about it – to them it’s another god, Paradise’s husband, who helps her care for her adopted children by granting power to the Blessed. They think the Blessed are demigods of a sort. Their major holidays are the equinoxes and the solstices, when they celebrate different facets of Paradise. Imsharu is a quiet day of thanks, with meditative services and no lavish ceremonies or parties. The Savior himself is a minor figure in their mythology, a prophet and one of the first Blessed, nothing more.”

Nik gritted his teeth. “The rescuer of all mankind and he’s a—” He cut himself off as Lady Beatrice called out to him in greeting and drifted over on the arm of her husband. For a moment, he’d forgotten they were no longer in private.

As if sharing his thoughts, Miss Vasilver murmured, “I need to stop mentioning the things on my list now, don’t I?”

He flashed her a quick smile and put his hand over hers where it rested in the crook of his arm. Why couldn’t the carriage ride have lasted another hour? I should have told the greatcats to walk slower.   

Then Lady Beatrice and her husband were upon them and they exchanged pleasantries and introductions between Miss Vasilver and – Mr. Carson, it turned out; Nik had completely forgotten the man’s name. They were a stout, well-dressed pair in their thirties. A massive necklace dripping with emeralds encircled Lady Beatrice’s plump throat, while the gold and onyx chain of a mind healer crossed an admirably ample bosom. Her dress was a concoction of green satin and gold beads. She wore elegant wrist gloves in matching green, but slipped off one glove to offer her bare hand to Nik. Nik reciprocated the gesture, removing his own glove to take her hand and kiss it. Lady Beatrice’s mind looked as he remembered it: no sign of demons, no unhealed traumas, no malformations in the shape. He squeezed her fingers slightly as he straightened from his bow, and felt her do the same before releasing his hand. He put his glove back on to shake Carson’s hand.

As they shook hands, Carson said to Nik, “Been a busy week for you, eh, m’boy?”

Hackles raised by the man’s excessive familiarity and something in his tone, Nik confined his reply to, “I beg your pardon?”

Next to her husband, Lady Beatrice grimaced, but the pudgy man continued, “Petitioners and all, heard you’ve got em coming out of your ears, what? Making the rest of the Blessed look bad, dunnit? Hah!”

What? Nik tried to guess what a reasonable response to this would be. Carson’s wife patted her husband’s left arm, her bejeweled bracelets tinkling. “We all do our part as the Savior wills, dear.”

“Hah! Yes, and some of us doing the parts of two or three others, what?” Carson gave Nik an inebriated grin, pumping Nik’s hand too hard, veiled hostility in his eyes.

“Is Lord Nikola’s diligence unusual in the field?” Miss Vasilver said, as if oblivious to the undercurrents in Carson’s voice and the undesirability of the topic. “I researched the matter but there were too many variables for me to reach a definitive conclusion.”

“It’s not at all,” Nik said quickly. “Some times are just busier than others.”

“Oh, aye, some times for some people, what think they’re the best—”

Carson was cut off as Lady Beatrice said loudly, “It’s always worst when one is travelling, isn’t it? All the people who couldn’t be bothered to travel ten or twenty miles to see you come out of the woodwork when you happen to be in their little locale.”

“It’ll be a relief to get back to Fireholt.” Nik exchanged glances with Lady Beatrice; her eyes offered a silent apology.

“Oh, but everyone wants to see Blessed Lord Nikola, who’s just the finest in the world, what?” Carson clung to the topic for reasons wholly unclear to Nik. Does he think I want to be mobbed by petitioners?

“That would be logical. Though is he the best in the world? I only did a comparison with other Newlant Blessed, where his cure rates are nearly twice the standard,” Miss Vasilver said, while Nik thought Twice? That can’t be right. “But again, there are so many—”

Carson rounded on her in a fury. “Are you implying my wife is less a healer than he is, miss?”

“Isn’t that what you said?” Miss Vasilver asked calmly.

Why is she needling him like this? Doesn’t she know this is a terrible topic? Nik thought, and blinked. …Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe I should tell her. Carson was sputtering as Nik said, making no effort to be subtle in the diversion, “Might we speak of something else? Have you tried this year’s champagne yet?”

“My husband has,” Lady Beatrice said, with an edge in her voice that made Nik regret his choice of alternative topic. “I find the fountain a torturous thing to do to a perfectly innocent champagne. The rumballs are delightful, however – have you had any?”

“I’ll match her against any Blessed in Newlant, young missy!” Carson got out, still glaring at Miss Vasilver.

Miss Vasilver opened her mouth, paused, and glanced to Nikola and Lady Beatrice. “We haven’t tried anything yet, my lady,” she said. “We just arrived.”

“Lawrence, be a love and find us a server with those darling rumballs? And some of those tiny mincemeat pies?” Lady Beatrice spun her husband around, stepped a few feet away with him, hissed something in his ear, and then returned to Nik as Mr. Carson stalked off. “I am so sorry about that, Lord Nikola. He simply doesn’t understand the way things work.”

“Quite all right, my lady,” Nik told her.

Lady Beatrice sighed. “He doesn’t quite grasp that twice as many petitioners wouldn’t make him a count or us twice as rich.” She took Nik’s hand for a moment and squeezed. “You know we all appreciate the work you do, don’t you, Lord Nikola?”

…I had no idea anyone save my family and my petitioners was even paying attention. “My lady is very kind,” Nik said, touched.

They spoke of trivialities for a few minutes after that, pleasant and comfortingly meaningless. After Mr. Carson returned, sullen but silent, Nik excused himself and his companion on the pretext of introducing her to another noble.

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