Blessed (114/141)

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When Nik woke again, it was full daylight, and he was still wondering about Miss Whittaker. It’s been over a week. She must be on a ship bound for the Vastings of Kinder by now, and even if she’s not, she’s six. I doubt she could explain how she managed to overcome her own impulse to refuse treatment.

Still, after dressing, he asked Anthser, “Would you mind asking my people to look into what happened to the Whittakers? If they left a forwarding address or anything.”

“Sure thing, Lord Nik.” The greatcat took off the claw-tip pen he’d been writing with and heaved himself to his feet to pad outside. Nikola sat at one of the tables and set to work on his catalog of mental illnesses: lists of symptoms, possible causes, and treatments for each. Meredith, Anthser, and one of the other greatcats had taken over indexing the case studies for him. With some supervision and consultation, they were doing well at it. The project was starting to look like a project and not just heaps of wrinkled and folded papers.

Half an hour later, Nik heard the front door open as Anthser returned. The greatcat poked his giant black head into the workroom. “So…did you want to, like, actually see them? Cause they’re here.”    

Nik looked up from his work. “What, you mean the Whittakers haven’t left town yet?”

“I mean they’re here here. Outside the cottage. Mrs. Whittaker and the little girl, anyway. Turns out they were out on the sidewalk with the other shrine-watchers.”

“They were with whom?” Nik blinked, then waved a hand before Anthser could explain. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter, please, show them into the parlor. I’ll be there directly.”

He hardly needed to put a neckcloth and jacket on for callers of their class, but Nik did anyway and greeted the two looking the part of lord. Sharone’s face lit as soon as he stepped into the room. “Lor’ Nik!” she cried, and ran to him. He crouched to catch her in his arms, as if she were one of his nieces. “You’re all ri’!”

Bemused but not displeased, Nik hugged her in return, looking over the girl’s shoulder to her mother. Mrs. Whittaker’s expression was somewhere between pleased and concerned. “Oh, thank you so for seeing us again, Lord Nikola. Sharone hass been eager to thank you in person. What do you say, Sharone?”

“Than-kyoo,” the little curly-haired girl whispered in his ear.

“You’re welcome.” Nik loosened his embrace, but the child clung fast with her arms about his neck. Her mind had the grace of a flowerbud just starting to bloom; the damage from the long possession showed in underdeveloped pathways but little else. “I’m surprised you’ve not left for home already, Mrs. Whittaker.”

“We tried, m’lord, bu’ unfavorable winds kep’ our ship in harbor for three days. Then when she did sail, an acciden’ damaged her rudder a’ the harbor mouth and she had to warp ba’ to port for repairs. We’ve passage leaving Thursday now, and my husband said the weather looks auspicious for i’.”

“I’m sorry to hear it has not gone smoothly,” Nik said. Sharone finally let him go. She patted his cheek with her small hand, then stepped back and reached into her pocket for a folded square of paper. Solemnly, she held it out to him.

“Iss nothing, my lord.” Mrs. Whittaker smiled again. She looked a decade younger than the last time Nikola had seen her, dark eyes alive in her oval face, mahogany skin no longer aged by worries. A little laugh escaped her. “I could be shipwrecked on an island for a month and think i’ a minor inconvenience now. You dinna know what a difference i’ makes, having Sharone be so much better now.”

Nikola nodded, taking the offered paper from Sharone. “Thank you,” he said, unfolding it. It had a stick-figure drawing of a brown man with a big smile and curly brown hair, saying ‘I lov yu’. Red hearts decorated the page. Like all such offerings, it was beautiful and utterly endearing.

“Mister Brown says you nee’ me t’ tell you,” Sharone said, earnestly.

A chill crept up Nik’s spine at those words. He met Mrs. Whittaker’s eyes, and the woman gave a little shrug. “She doesn’t talk about Mrs. Square or any of the other ones any more. Just Mr. Brown. We though’…perhaps he’s jus’ an ordinary imaginary friend? He’s na – she’s never attributed anything cruel or mean to him. Jus’ things like this. She’s been drawing one for you every day and coming to the shrine to leave i’.”

Shrine? Nikola drew off his glove and held out his hand to Sharone. With a calm trust at odds with his memories of her, she slipped her bare hand into his. He studied her mind again, looking for anything wrong or unusual in it, but a closer inspection showed no anomalies either. No new demons, no old demons, no malformations beyond the underdeveloped pathways, and those were growing normally. Would that cause her to cling to an old delusion?

“Mister Brown’s na mad a’ you,” Sharone added.

“Why would Mr. Brown be mad at me, Miss Whittaker?” Nik tried to figure out the puzzle, questing for a few more pieces.

“Ess na. Says maybe you think he ess? But ess na. He does get mad sometimes but ess na a’ you.” She peered up at him.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Nik knelt, still holding the little girl’s hand. “Why would I think he was angry at me?”

“Cus he wass upset. Na a’ you. A’…stuff? Like when Mrs. Square had me break everythin’ an’ you were mad. But na a’ me.” She peered at him. “You weren’ mad a’ me, were you?”

“No. It wasn’t your fault,” Nik said automatically. Sharone beamed, waving his arm from side to side with their hands still linked. “So Mr. Brown was upset when all those things were broken, too?”

“Nonono!” She shook her head, vehement but without the violence of her possessed self. “Other things. Big things. All the bad things in Par’dise. Mister Brown knows bout i’ all. He says ess hard na ta ge’ a li’l mad. Even for him. But ess na the big thing.” She pushed up his other hand, the one still holding her picture. “Love ess.”

He looked again at the smiling brown stick figure man, the hearts and scrawled words. His fingers trembled with the sudden certainty that this conversation was not about Sharone or an imaginary friend. “But I hurt him.” Nik was not aware he spoke the words aloud.

“Nuh-uh,” Sharone shook her head again. “Mister Brown says he ess always that way. But you’re usually mostly-closed an’ you were all open. So you fel’ more. But it does na hur’ him when you’re all-open.”    

“Sharone, you shouldn’t talk to his lordship like tha’,” Mrs. Whittaker said like the mother she was, but her voice wavered in fear. “M’lord, I – ess she all right? Ess she still cursed?”

Nikola shook his head, looking at the child’s drawing of the Savior. “I don’t think so.” Savior. He reached for his god at last, and felt the answer in a rush of warm golden light on his soul, full of love, joy, compassion, and profound relief. Sharone squealed in delight. He gasped, half a sob, and blinked back sudden tears to look up at Mrs. Whittaker from where he still knelt before the child. “I think she’s Blessed.”


Nik didn’t know what to make of Sharone’s Blessing, if Blessing it was. There were myths of people to whom the Savior had spoken, but all of the Blessed he knew only sensed the Savior through feeling, not words. Certainly not by giving them information they would not otherwise have means to know.

Perhaps he was making too much of a few vague sentences from a child; maybe it was coincidence. But Sharone’s simple description was exactly right. He had been more open to the Savior on Brogan’s boat than ever before, and ‘open’ was the word he would have chosen to describe it. But he had not spoken of that event, or of the Savior’s anger, to anyone. It seemed too precisely the message he needed to hear for mere coincidence, for a misunderstanding of ordinary childish babble. And her reaction of childish glee after he contacted the Savior again suggested she had knowledge that could come from but one source.

Mrs. Whittaker was amazed and disbelieving, however. Neither her family nor her husband’s had any record of a Blessed member, but that could mean the gift had skipped too many generations for their genealogy to trace back to it. That was not improbable: all the nobles of Newlant were descended from saints, but many noble families had not had a Blessed in generations. She remained dubious, but agreed to have Sharone tested. Testing for a Blessing of healing minds or bodies, or one for plants, was a simple matter: a known Blessed watched the subject touch a person or plant afflicted by a demon, and would see if the subject cast the demon out. Casting out demons was instinctive: an infant Blessed would do it. Nikola could not imagine how Sharone could possess a Blessing for minds and still have become demon-ridden, but this situation was peculiar enough that he thought it best to test her anyway. A Blessing for plants might explain how she’d gotten the door off its hinges in Anverlee Manor a couple of weeks ago: that Blessing allowed one to shape wood and other plant matter. Although removing the door did not seem like something the Savior would have assisted in doing. Blessings for stone could not be tested in infancy, but usually those Blessed would use their Blessing instinctively to shape stone at some point in early childhood.

He gave Mrs. Whittaker a note of introduction and recommendation to take to the Gracehaven infirmary for Sharone’s testing, and said he would contact them regarding mind-healing testing. Nik was optimistic that he would be able to do that himself, but he did not want to commit to it yet.

After the two left, he lay down on the couchbed in his workroom and let the Savior’s power wash through his own mind, shaping and adjusting it to smooth away the jagged edges of trauma that were inflicting such violence on his mindshapes. He coaxed his inflamed anxiety and sense of fear back to proper size and shape.

When he had finished, Nik felt not only restored but invigorated, like himself again. The person who had been cowering in this drafty disreputable cottage, unable to face his nearest relations, was a stranger to him. Anthser was lounging on the floor watching as he emerged from the trance. “Everything all right, m’lord?”

Nik laughed aloud, sitting up and reaching to ruffle the greatcat’s tilted ears. “Yes. Everything is, at last, all right. Would you tell my parents I’ll be up for dinner? It’s not past dinner time, is it?”

The black greatcat spread his whiskers. “Nope.”

“Splendid. I’d like the furniture returned to the house, too. I daresay I am done living in exile.” He regarded the squalid room with a mixture of revulsion and regret. The place reminded him unpleasantly of his incapacity the last several days, but it was also quiet, private, and a haven from his parents. Being sane again meant he should be able to handle them, but that didn’t mean it would be pleasant.

Anthser rose, nosing at Nik’s head with whiskers spread and ears relaxed in pleasure. “You sure about that, m’lord?”

Nik smiled, stroking Anthser’s neck. “Oh yes.” Whatever its flaws, it would be good to return to normal.

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Parental Blessing (113/141)

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After-supper conversation in the drawing room was as awkward and strained as Nik had expected, but the distraction of cards made it bearable. Edmund, to Nik’s surprise, maneuvered to speak with him alone for a few minutes, and offered a confused but heartfelt apology: “I did not mean to make light of what you’d endured, I promise. Dreadfully sorry about that.” Nik waved it off; granted that ‘boys will be boys’ was execrable garbage used to excuse the inexcusable, but he’d overreacted to a remark that even at the time he knew was not pointed at him. I overreact to everything of late.

After several hands and a couple of rounds of brandy, the atmosphere relaxed to merely stilted. By the time the elder Warwicks departed and Daphne and her husband retired for the evening, Nik felt something approaching normal. Enough so that when Lysandra and Edmund excused themselves, Nik asked his parents to wait before leaving the drawing room. “I’ve something I wish to say to you.”

“What is it, dear?” Lady Striker asked, all solicitude.

Lord Striker settled back into a chair, suspicious and irritated. “I’ll have you know I’m in no mood to be lectured at, boy.”

“Hush, Rukert.”

“Don’t shush me, Voleta.”

Nik raised both his hands. “Please. I just want to tell you something.” He took a deep breath. “First: as is obvious, in my present condition I am in no position to offer matrimony to anyone.”

“Of course not, sweetie, no one expects you to be looking now,” Lady Striker hastened to say. “I didn’t mean anything at all, mentioning Miss Rubane earlier—”

Miss Rubane? Nikola didn’t even recall when her name had come up. He waved the words aside. “Let me finish, Mother. I want you to be aware that, once I’ve recovered, I intend to ask Miss Vasilver to marry me.”

His mother clapped both hands over her mouth, eyes wide and even rounder than usual with shock. Lord Striker leaned forward, square jaw set and blue eyes narrowed as he appraised his son. “Do you, now?”

“Yes.” He met his father’s gaze defiantly. “Do not try to dissuade me on this point. I am convinced of Miss Vasilver’s virtue and worth. She is the finest, most admirable woman of my acquaintance; I can imagine no one I would rather wed. If she will have me, I will be honored to be her husband.”

Lord Striker grunted; his wife made a little squeaking sound muffled behind her hands. “Very well,” Lord Striker said. “Good to see you taking your position in society seriously for once. Good luck to you with her.”

His mother dropped her hands from her face, fingers waving, and managed, “Oh Nikki, how wonderful! I’m so excited for you! Are you going to ask her – oh, I know you can’t know yet, but before the season’s over, I hope? Oh, there’s so much to plan!” She clasped plump fingers together before her ample bosom and wriggled in her chair with excitement.

Nikola blinked at them. “You…uh…approve?” Having braced himself for resistance, he was off-balance at meeting none.

His father shrugged. “Odd girl, I’ll grant, but she’s of good family. Well-connected. You could do worse. Savior knows I’ve expected you to any number of times.”

“Rukert!” Lady Striker batted at her husband’s wrist in irritation, and leaned forward to say, “Of course we do! She’s a lovely woman, so courageous and selfless, I just know you’ll be happy together. Oh! My little boy getting married! I do hope we can have a summer wedding. Perhaps I could make just a few discreet inquiries regarding preparations, see if Alastasia Temple is available during any of the prime weeks…”

“But…when we first met her…you…”

“Oh, that!” A dismissive wave of one hand. “All a simple misunderstanding, Nikki, nothing to worry about now. Not after all she’s done for us. I’m sure with you to influence her you needn’t worry she’ll ever embarrass herself again.” Lady Striker beamed affectionately at him. Lord Striker gave a skeptical snort, but offered no correction.

Nik was still blinking. Part of him remembered Lady Striker’s vigorous condemnation of Miss Vasilver to Lysandra just a couple of weeks ago, and his father’s objections when he invited Miss Vasilver to the Ascension Ball. The wiser part recognized the folly in pressing his parents on their reversal. After all, I too have made my own reversal. I wonder if this was their plan all along? The thought dizzied him.

Lady Striker was rhapsodizing on the theme of color schemes and centerpieces. Nikola touched her hand to break the trance. “Mother, I’ve not even asked yet, much less been accepted.”

Her lined Haventure features broke into a fond smile. “Don’t you worry about that! No girl could refuse you, Nikola.”

Lord Striker muttered, “And the girl’s twenty-six. It’s not as if anyone else will offer.”

“Regardless. Please don’t get ahead of events, Mother.” Nikola rose and bowed to his parents. “Thank you for your blessing, my lord, my lady. If you will excuse me…” He took his leave, still marveling.


Nik awoke sweating and cold, from a nightmare of drowning in a half-frozen sea, trapped below the surface by a wall of impenetrable ice. He could see into a world of sunlight and life, but he could not reach it; saltwater burned in his lungs as he gasped for air. Even after waking, his lungs still ached with remembered pain. Beyond the terror of death was a crippling loneliness, an empty inner ache that wakefulness did not banish. He pulled a dressing gown on over nightshirt and staggered from the cottage’s bedroom to the workroom. Anthser was sprawled snoring upon the couchbed there; Nik sat beside the greatcat and draped an arm over his broad furry flank. That made the man feel a little better, but it wasn’t greatcat or even human contact he craved. He missed the Savior’s love, the god who had once been a constant presence in his mind. Now Nik shook even to think of him. How many petitioners are waiting for me now, while I tremble and feel sorry for myself, unable to face the god I have wronged? If I called, would he still answer?

He wanted to call, ached to reach for the Savior, but it was like trying to make his hand close on a burning log. Even when he told himself it wouldn’t hurt, his mind rebelled and would not obey the conscious command.

Anthser stirred under his fingers, dark head lifting in the dim predawn interior, the outline of ears pricking. “Lor’ Nik? Wassamatter?”

“Nothing, Anthser. Go back to sleep.”

“Mmhmm.” The big cat rolled over, wrapped one broad paw around Nik’s shoulders, and toppled the tall man down next to him. He snuggled Nik like a stuffed toy to his chest, purring.

“Anthser!” Nik struggled ineffectually, half-laughing; the greatcat outmassed him by an order of magnitude.

Anthser licked his face and squirmed to position Nik more comfortably. “Wha’? S cold. How’m I s’pposed to sleep when m cold?”

“I am your lord and master, you great beast, not your hot water bottle. Let me go.”

Anthser gave an incongruously pitiful mew and released the man. Nik gave him a hug by way of consolation before sitting up. He fished a blanket off the floor and draped it over the greatcat. “There. You may keep warm like a civilized creature.”

“Mph. The uncivilized way s more fun,” Anthser complained, burrowing down.

There was no arguing with that. Nik sighed and lay down beside the greatcat, who wrapped both right legs over him and cuddled against the human. I miss Justin, he thought, and felt a surge of annoyance. I miss the friend I thought I had, anyway. I miss sleeping through the night. I miss sanity. I miss the Savior. He tried again to open that connection they’d once shared. It was like using bare fingers to pry at a door locked and barred. They’re right, I know they’re right, I’m refusing. I don’t want to refuse. How do I unlearn that? How did Sharone Whittaker do it? He wished he could ask her. I wonder how she’s doing, and if she and her parents have made it home safely yet.

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Moody (112/141)

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Nik did very little for the remainder of Monday, apart from grow unreasonably angry with Anthser when the greatcat faulted Justin for upsetting him. “Comfrey didn’t upset me! I upset myself! Because I’m an idiot! Now get out and leave me alone, you great ignorant oaf!”

He had not planned most of that conversation with Comfrey, or rather, not planned it for that day. All Nik had meant to do was give Comfrey his money back. Which he had not even managed to do. The rest had just…happened. Nik had meant to address those issues eventually, of course. They had to be dealt with at some point. But not this soon. Sometime when he was a little less fragile would have been good.

And I would have liked to have had one last good day with him, untainted by everything that has happened and all that is to come.

Nik had known he would very likely lose the…physical component of his relationship with Justin. He had not believed – not truly believed – that he might lose Justin’s friendship. Part of him still could not accept it, even after Comfrey threw his obligation in his face. To him, ‘friendship’ meant ‘I own you and you curst well better fuck me’ , and if I won’t honor that he has no further use for me.

But I cannot do that. I cannot live my life as Comfrey’s personal property, no matter how much I owe him.

No matter how much I love him.

By Tuesday, Nik had walled up the pain and grief behind a hard shell of cold anger. Yes, he owed Comfrey, far more than money. But the man had no right to demand so much of him. I never agreed to this bargain, never asked for his curst money, never commanded him to rescue me. I have a right to live my life with some integrity, however tarnished. I would have asked Miss Vasilver’s blessing for the affair if he’d let me, even. Perhaps it’s as well that he did not. At least now I know where I stand with him.


Nik sent a greatcat messenger to deliver the ledger, with an icily formal note reiterating his gratitude (of as little value to him as my affection, I suppose; I shall trouble him with neither again after this). The package was accepted with a terse message of acknowledgement; Nik had expected nothing more.

As awful as he felt, in some ways it was better than the misery and brooding of the previous days. Grief and anger felt more natural, more reasonable, than the bouts of irrational terror. That he’d had the strength of will to break with Comfrey made him feel stronger and more competent, as much as he hated the results. He slept badly on Monday night, napped through the middle of Tuesday, and woke in the late afternoon feeling – not better, but numb. As if he had exceeded his capacity to experience emotions and now could feel nothing at all.

When Anthser asked what he wanted brought down for supper, Nik surprised both the greatcat and himself by saying, “I’ll dine with the family.” He even asked for Shelby to help him dress for the meal.

Dressing went without incident, increasing his confidence that he could face his family and whatever guests were present this evening. He’d seen his mother and sisters separately at the cottage on Sunday.    

His hands trembled as he walked the path to the house: he clasped them together to mask it. Nik was highly conscious of the additional greatcats about the grounds, all studiously not-watching him. At the manor, the footman exclaimed “Lord Nikola!” and bowed too deeply as he admitted him. All the servants moved on tiptoe about him, anxious looks betraying a concern almost comical.

At the supper table, his mother welcomed him with excessive solicitude, seating him at the chair nearest the fire and having his portions cut up small, as if he were convalescing from some physical illness.

His father offered, “Good of you to join us, Lord Nikola”: words cordial enough to excite no comment from their guests but tone implying Nik’s withdrawal from the household had been due to pique.    

Nik confined his reply to, “Thank you, Father,” and ate his meal. His mother’s request for tiny pre-cut pieces for him was perhaps as well, since it meant he did not have to embarrass himself using a knife with shaking hands. I will not spend my life imprisoned by fear. If I can get through this perhaps I can convince my body it is not so dangerous after all. He could not force his heart rate to slow or end the anxiety, but he managed not to bolt from the table and the worst of the sensations eased after a little while.

Conversation at the long formal table was stifled by the weight of everything they were not talking about. Their guests, Lysandra’s in-laws, plainly longed to ask about the abduction but were determined not to be the ones to raise the subject. The table was saved from total silence only when Lysandra’s mother-in-law offered the topic of the education of her eldest grandson. This sparked a lively discussion, as most of the attendees had strong feelings on the subject. The elder Warwicks favored outside schooling over tutelage, and Lady Striker spoke lovingly of the East Hansleigh Academy for Boys, the boarding school Nik had attended. Lord Striker grumbled against it. “Their dean has some of the most daft ideas, practically an egalitarian. There’s no respect for rank in that school.”

Nik stifled a smile. Dean Dremmond was less an egalitarian than a tightwad. He used the student body to supplement his serving staff. Making the students do without titles and servants of their own wasn’t about equality but an excuse because the campus couldn’t accommodate additional servants. Lady Striker was saying, “Whatever do you mean, Rukert? You never complained about it while Nikki was there.”

Lord Striker harumphed. “Perhaps I should have.” Meaning ‘I thought a humbling experience would make my intractable son more tractable, and instead it made him even less dignified’, Nikola reflected.    

“You went there, Nikola, what did you think of it?” Lysandra asked.

“Only for four years. It went well enough.” It got me away from my parents. And I met Comfrey there. The memory of that interlude – just a few days while Comfrey attended an event the school hosted – pained him now. I knew even then he was only using me. “The academics were good. I wouldn’t send a boy there at ten, though. Some of the older students are hard on the little ones.”

“Boys will be boys,” her husband Edmund Warwick said. “No harm in it. Toughens em up.”

There was no reason for that remark to remind Nik of Brogan, but it did. He clenched his hands together in his lap, staring at his plate without seeing it, waiting for the moment to pass. He was dimly aware that Lysandra had asked something else, but not what. A hand tapped his shoulder and he nearly jumped from his chair.

“Nikki?” His mother was watching him. Everyone was. “Are you all right, dear?”

“Nikola.” Lord Striker was looking at his wife, not his son. “His name is Nikola, madame. Perhaps if you stopped infantilizing him he could finally grow up.”

His mother exclaimed “Rukert!” at the same time that Daphne and Lysandra said, “Father!”

Before the scene could worsen, Nikola stood. Everyone was still looking at him. “I think,” he said, with more composure than he had expected to muster, “I may say from experience that pain does not, in fact, make one stronger. Excuse me.”

As he left the room, Lysandra’s voice rose behind him. “Mother, Father, you are both impossible! If it weren’t for Nik’s Blessing I declare we’d all be mad by now!”

“Don’t take that tone with us, young lady,” Lord Striker snapped.

“Then don’t you treat my brother like – like—”

Nikola walked quickly enough to be out of earshot before he could hear how Lysandra thought their parents were treating him. He had not intended to cause a scene and he certainly wasn’t staying to eavesdrop on one. He was halfway down the path to the cottage when he heard Daphne’s voice behind him. “Nik?” The tall lord stopped, wiped his eyes, and turned with a forced smile for his little sister.

She ran to him, blonde curls bouncing. “Oh Nik, why does our family always have to be so awful?” Daphne held out her arms, hesitated, then threw herself into his embrace when he didn’t shy away. With her arms tight around his waist, she added, “Why didn’t you ever cure them, anyway?”

Nikola dipped his head to rest his face against her hair, a genuine smile curving his lips. “A personality is not an illness.”

“Are you sure? Because Father acts like you got abducted on purpose just to annoy him and Mother acts like you’re three and it all seems at least a little bit crazy.”

“I’m afraid that’s all within the range of normal human behavior. For parents. Sorry.”

Daphne heaved a muffled sigh against his chest. “If I still call my son Ickle when he’s over four, you have my permission to kill me.”

“You call your son Ickle? I feel better about Nikki already.”

She hugged him harder, with a watery chuckle. “Oh, Nik, you are going to be all right, aren’t you? I know it takes time when the Savior can’t help, but…eventually?”

I hope so. He leaned away enough to look down into her round, worried face. “I will,” he told her. “The mind is extraordinarily resilient when it comes to trauma, even without divine intervention. If I wasn’t already better, I’d not be able to stand here talking to you. I will improve, I promise.”

Daphne wiped at her own eyes and nodded. “Do you have to hide in that horrible old cottage again? Lys was scolding everyone into submission when I left. They might manage to be tolerable for a few hours afterwards.”

“Or it might be even more hideously strained and awkward.”

“Well. Yes.” Daphne shivered against the winter chill: she didn’t have a dinner jacket like Nik and had not brought a wrap when she’d followed him.

Nik put an arm around her shoulder and steered her back to the house. “Since this is all my fault, I’d best help you face the hideousness, hadn’t I?”

With a strangled laugh, she slapped his wrist. “Don’t you start, Nik.” But she welcomed his company back into the manor house.

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Every Solution (111/141)

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She wrote down a list of qualities, then erased them to reorganize them by category, and left some extra room in each so she could fill in other categories later. Then estimated numeric values for each one:

Heritage Lord Comfrey    Lord Nikola
Bloodline   9     10  
Blessing   5     10  
Appearance   10     10  
Health   10     8  
Social Position   9     9  
Political Connections   9     5  
Title   8     9  
Wealth   10     4  
Acumen   9     4  
Integrity   7     10  
Courage   10     10  
Honesty   6     10  
Consideration   8     10  
Loyalty   7     10  
Attachment to   ?     ?  

She studied the last section. There were more personal qualities one ought to look for; she had only put down the ones where she could think of relevant data points from her own experience. It was hard to quantify some of them: Lord Comfrey had been given a chance to be brave in a situation where no one would fault him for taking a safer course. Indeed, he’d taken risk after risk to put himself farther into harm’s way. By contrast, Lord Nikola had had few choices on what to do: taken unaware and outnumbered at his capture, bound and gagged as a prisoner. Perhaps he’d given them some trouble which led to them securing him more thoroughly than herself. Or perhaps they’d assumed a woman unlikely to resist. But even under such circumstances, even hideously tortured, he’d had the will and fortitude to free one arm. And he had used that very limited freedom, not to help himself escape, but to distract Brogan from assaulting her. It was such a small act compared with Lord Comfrey’s near single-handed defeat of several men and successful rescue. But she wasn’t sure it was any less brave.

Lord Nikola’s integrity was unquestioned; indeed, it was his fame as a healer of minds that had led to the abduction, and only a madman like Brogan could doubt his adherence to the Code. Lord Comfrey’s she had more concerns about: his indifference to the cronyism involved in an interest-free bank loan, for example. And as he himself had noted, to propose to a woman after learning his closest friend wished to do so was something less than honorable and loyal. She didn’t doubt Lord Nikola’s loyalty: she remembered his concern for his stricken warcat, his refusal to brook any delay despite his own distress.

For honesty and consideration she again had no reservations about Lord Nikola. Perhaps I ought to invent some reservations. He cannot be so much the paragon as I have painted him here. Wisteria reviewed the string of 10s with a skeptical eye, but could find no faults in Lord Nikola on them. When his parents had been outraged at her, he had remained civil and courteous. Even when he confessed to a failing, such as considering himself irresponsible and his demeanor unlordly, she found his candor irresistible and his flaws overstated. I ought to take him at his word on ‘irresponsible’, however. Lord Nikola has not mismanaged Fireholt, but Lord Comfrey has done more for his holdings. Wisteria took Lord Nikola’s ‘integrity’ score down to a 9 from a 10. Both men had been considerate of her, but Lord Nikola treated everyone well, including greatcats and servants. Lord Comfrey, she thought, was less aware of other people except as they related to himself. And she prefered Lord Nikola’s greater restraint and his more explicit communication of intent when they’d embraced. Not that Lord Comfrey had ever done anything she didn’t want, or pressed her when she drew back, but there was something unsettling about the way their encounters had begun. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if they were married anyway.

She pondered whether it was fair to mark Lord Nikola’s title higher than Lord Comfrey’s. Granted a count outranked a viscount, but Lord Nikola would not inherit Anverlee for decades yet, barring grave misfortune. And somewhere I ought to factor in that Lord Nikola’s parents detest me. Lord Comfrey’s have both passed away, I believe. ‘No mother-in-law to scold me’ ought to be worth something. She added in a line for Familial Relations and marked Lord Nikola at a 3 and Lord Comfrey at a 5, since she knew nothing of Lord Comfrey’s.

Under ‘personal’ she added ‘Children’ and put Lord Comfrey at a 3 and Lord Nikola at a 5, since their one brief discussion of child-raising suggested Lord Nikola did mean to have children at some point. She hesitated to score them too far apart on it with so little data.

Wisteria added the revised columns together. Comfrey scored at 125 and Lord Nikola at 126. Because I’ve weighted all the scores equally and have more items for Personal and Heritage than Financial or Social. If I gave each broad category equal weight instead, Lord Comfrey would average – she paused to do the math – about 6.96 to Lord Nikola’s 6.75.

She stared at the slate again. Oh, this is hopeless. I don’t even know what I ought to count as most important. Lord Comfrey’s right, I do believe Lord Nikola is a better man. I even like him better, I think. The thought was oddly painful, as if she were betraying Lord Comfrey by having it. Not even because he’s ‘better’, just…better suited to me. Lord Nikola encourages me to talk about what I think even when it’s improper, and Lord Comfrey steers conversations away from improper topics. My parents would prefer my husband did the latter, no doubt, and perhaps I would do better in society in such a case. But it would be so pleasant to live with a man who did the former. Her heart lightened at the memory of Lord Nikola’s openness.

But marrying Lord Nikola meant refusing Lord Comfrey. She remembered the Newlanture lord’s intent face, his ‘I’ll reconsider my stance’ in response to hers on children, every word of his proposal speaking of a powerful conviction. The pros and cons he’d offered were not unlike the list she’d made just now. He was, as he’d said, often glib, but today he had been more serious than she’d ever known him. ‘It took me thirty years to find a woman I wanted as a wife: I promise you I’ll not find another’, he’d said. She wished she’d asked for clarification. Did he truly believe no other woman would suit him? Surely such a man could not remain single. Not unless he preferred the unmarried state. Had he asked now out of certain desire or had his hand been forced by news of Lord Nikola’s resolve? Would he regret a decision made in haste? Perhaps that was why he sabotaged his own proposal by telling me of Lord Nikola’s, because he is unsure himself.

Unworthy thought. He had said too he would not change his mind, no matter how long she took to answer. She almost wished he had not given her so much information. If he had not proposed, or had proposed but not told her of Lord Nikola’s intent, then her decision would be easy.

There was a curious kind of honor in the course he’d chosen, Wisteria reflected, in giving her full knowledge instead. It reminded her of the way he had helped her dress again in the carriage when she was no longer sure, the way he’d seemed to read her mind and known it even before she spoke. She had thought then too that he might choose for her, and he hadn’t. He keeps allowing me to make my own decisions, even when I don’t entirely want to. He’d respected my decision to meet with the abductors, as well.

Throughout her life, Wisteria had dealt with people – her parents, brothers, even many of the senior executives of Vasilver Trading and the officials in Southern Vandu – who regarded her as a child. They might consider her wishes and her ideas, but they often felt free to decide what they thought best for her. A man who assumed she was best qualified to make decisions for her own life – that was a novelty.   

It was…hard. But she appreciated it. Appreciated him.

I love him.

The thought was inescapable, natural, inevitable. How could I not love Lord Comfrey, after all he has done for me? How can I refuse him?   

But accepting Lord Comfrey meant refusing Lord Nikola. Wisteria remembered him sneaking them into that room alone at the palace, and she had wondered if he took her there to seduce her. But no, all he wanted was a place to talk where no one else would listen, about all the things they weren’t supposed to talk about. And then it was she who tried to seduce him.

And he would ask me to wed him, after that? Nothing anyone told me about men was true. Or perhaps it’s just not true about any man I would ever care about.

She remembered Lord Nikola’s strained voice as soon as Lord Comfrey ungagged him, nearly his first words asking after her well-being and Lord Comfrey’s. Apologizing for missing the rest of the ball. As if that terrible situation was a minor but unavoidable inconvenience. When she thought him uninterested in any serious relationship with her, it was an unfortunate but bearable truth. But if he did want her – Savior, I cannot tell him no either. Why can I not marry them both? This is an impossible choice.

Looking at her ridiculous chart made her think she ought to marry Lord Nikola – she had no strong desire for more wealth, nor for political influence – but it made her feel no better about the decision. How can I pledge to be true to either man, knowing how much I want the other? Am I fit for marriage to anyone? Lord Comfrey’s stated indifference to chastity gave him a certain additional appeal in that, although who knew if he would be so charitable if she proved unfaithful after marriage? I could ask him. But even she knew now that wasn’t the sort of question one asked of any man, and Lord Comfrey did not encourage such deviation from the standards, in the ordinary course.

Lord Nikola does, though. Perhaps if I speak with him, things will be clearer.

Wisteria looked at the chart again, feeling the strangest mixture of joy and pain. If every solution to these equations must lead to choosing one over the other, what use are they? She copied it over to paper anyway, preserving just the first letters of each label and the accompanying scores, thus reducing it to cryptic columns of letters and numbers that would be meaningless to anyone but her. After pocketing the paper, she wiped the slate clean and went downstairs to change for dinner.

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Due Consideration (110/141)

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Byron returned to the back parlor a few minutes after Lord Comfrey’s departure. “Well?”

Wisteria was sitting again by the fire, her feet up and her mind still struggling to encompass this strange new world. “Well what?”

“Did he ask you?”

There is no way – “Ask me what?”

“To marry you! Don’t tell me he didn’t?”

“Byron, what in Paradise makes you think Lord Comfrey would ask me to marry him?”

Her brother sighed and flopped into the velvet chair opposite hers. “He’s been calling lately. Everyone’s talked about you two since the ball and the rescue. And he’d that terrified, agitated look of a man about to be hung. Or propose. One of the two. Thought for sure…” He gave another theatrical sigh. “What’d he want, then?”

“I should rather not talk about it.” Wisteria wanted more than anything to talk about it, but after Lord Comfrey’s request, it didn’t seem right to do so. Unless she was sure she was accepting him.

Byron gave her a sharp look. “He insult you?”

“No, of course not. And you may stop playing twenty questions with that one.”

“Oh, very well.” Byron gave her a comical look of long suffering. “There’s a house for let at Juniper Road and Azalea, near the warehouse district. Convenient for business. Know the one, with the gables and the little brick wall around it?”

Wisteria had never felt less like indulging Byron’s unserious thoughts on setting up his own household. “Do people truly expect Lord Comfrey to address me?”

“Eh. Maybe not ‘expect’. Consider it possible, sure.”

“Why, because he saved me? Does that happen with officers of the law too or is it only lords?”

“Don’t know, never happened to anyone I know before. But it’s not just that. Everyone knows he danced attendance on you at the Ball, after Lord Nikola left. And this makes, what, six times he’s called? Seven? In the last two or three weeks?”

“Some of those were for business.”

“That’s his excuse, yes. Look, not saying he’s serious. Only, he’s Lord Comfrey. Doesn’t attach. Kensleigh’s sister follows these things, says Comfrey never calls on anyone twice in one week. Any woman, that is. Maybe any man, for all I know. So. Noteworthy.”

“Oh.” They were interrupted then by Byron’s valet: Byron needed to get ready for a dinner engagement with friends.

After Byron left, Wisteria started to go to her office to brood, then considered that her office was less of a haven during the season – her mother sometimes chased her out, insisting she be sociable rather than work through the holidays. That Wisteria prefered working to socializing made no impression upon her. So Wisteria chose the unused third-floor schoolroom as her hiding place instead. The room was drafty despite the shuttered windows, so she dragged the big comfy tutor’s chair next to the heating vent and turned on the gaslights.

Bundled beneath an old quilt against the chill, Wisteria sorted through her thoughts and feelings.

She had been, to some extent, looking for a husband for the last nine years. Some years this search had been more active than others; when she was in Southern Vandu it had been confined to correspondence. Arguably, the correspondence had gone better than her efforts by more typical society events. She had received one offer, when she was twenty-one, by the impoverished younger son of a successful goldsmith. She had not liked him and did not think him attached to anything beyond the idea of her dowry, and so had declined.

When she had been very young, she had imagined handsome men vying for her favor. It had not occurred to her at any point in the last several years that this would ever happen. Certainly not with two men she particularly admired. Not to mention desired. Part of her still wondered if this was some peculiar joke on Lord Comfrey’s part. The notion was unkind, given he had been so agitated even she could tell he was not himself.

Another part was overawed, amazed by the idea that any man, nevermind one as powerful and attractive as Lord Comfrey, would be so moved by her. And his offer had to be for her own person: Vasilver was not Comfrey’s equal in wealth, title, or connections. From a mercantile perspective, it was a brilliant match for her, the sort that other women gossiped about with envy. Not a humiliating one for him, but by no means an equal match.

From a personal perspective: she did not know him as well as she wished, but he had been excellent company at the ball, and very kind to her since. Even more than the heroism of his rescue, Wisteria was endeared by his willingness to overlook the many peculiarities in her behavior, such as his acceptance without rancor of both her wanton behavior and her mercurial switches to reserve. That offhand remark – ‘I should not care if you had had a hundred lovers’ – was hyperbole no doubt, but promiscuity was not a failing most men would overlook in a wife. That he had offered even when she had given him reason to doubt her chastity was telling. And perhaps important, given all she had done. Beyond personality, his physical appeal was undeniable. The thought of undressing him in his – their – own home, sanctioned by law, custom, and society alike, thrilled her. She had once thought herself unmoved by such irrational considerations, but at the moment the influence of his kiss, his caress, could not be denied. Had he not told her of Lord Nikola’s intentions, she would have accepted him at once and never mind how serious a decision it was to make on impulse. He is the kind of man who will risk his life for his friends, who will fight and kill for them, and not even wish for gratitude. In all that list of pros and cons, never once did he mention the debt I owe him. That says as much about Lord Comfrey as all the words he spoke.

Nor did he have to tell me of Lord Nikola’s intentions, and he would have been within his rights to request a prompt reply rather than urging me to consider the question in depth. No, whatever he might say of himself, Lord Comfrey was a good man.

But so was Lord Nikola. Does he truly intend to ask me? She had not seen him since the rescue, although he had sent a wonderful letter, gracious and sweet and humble, inviting her to call on Wednesday. Would he ask then? The whole idea seemed so improbable, nearly as unlikely as Lord Comfrey himself asking. But why would Lord Comfrey carry the tale if it were untrue? Do I want to wed Lord Nikola? The instinctive answer was Yes!

But I cannot wed them both. Whom would I prefer for a husband?

Wisteria tried to consider the question systematically, but memories and feelings about both men kept jumbling in her head. Lord Nikola, eagerly inviting her to speak about anything at all in that absurd extravagant glass carriage. Lord Comfrey pulling her against him on her office couch and kissing her, then asking if that distracted her. Even Lord Comfrey’s sarcastic remarks at the Association which had so irritated her when she realized her mistake in taking them for sincere – ‘Your lecture is too sophisticated for him, miss’ – had a charm in retrospect. She couldn’t think this through in her head alone: she wanted to organize her thoughts in writing. In a chart. After a few minutes, she rummaged about the schoolroom for a slate and chalk and set to creating one. Perhaps if I score each on the various qualities one expects in a husband, it’ll be easier to see which I should choose.

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Proposal: Part One (109/141)

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In his private carriage, Justin stewed in anger, an anger he knew full well masked a terror as great as any of mortal peril.

But it was still better to be angry, better to blame Nikola, than to admit that fear. He thanks me in one breath and breaks with me in the next and with the third accuses me of being inconstant! Claims a disinterested friendship with Wisteria one day, pledges his love for her the next, and I am fickle? Hypocritical self-righteous bastard!

Whispers of self-recrimination broke into his fury. There was something wrong with Nikola, something the Savior couldn’t fix, and Justin didn’t even know what because he was too circumspect to ask. Circumspect. Hah. The first thing I did today was try to seduce him, but I am too circumspect to ask him to tell me his troubles? Too self-involved, perhaps, unwilling to confront an uncomfortable subject. Because what could be more important than my own comfort? Then he’d twist back around to how this was all Nikola’s fault – he’s the one who broke it off! He betrayed me! (Betrayed what? There was no oath between us, no pledge of undying love. No statement of love, even.) And then implied my interest in him has always been merely physical! (And if he thinks that, whose fault is it? What was your first instinct on finding him in private?) I saved his life! (And threw it in his face, as if that obliged him to fuck you.) It’s not about obligation! He should know that I’m his friend, curse it! He’s no right to question me on that. (And surely turning your back on him and stomping off in a tantrum proves your devotion.)

But it didn’t matter how the argument in his head went. Nikola was lost to him now, if indeed he could ever have been said to be his at all (he never was). And as if that were not enough, Nikola was going to propose to Wisteria, and she would be lost as well.


He rapped on the front wall of the carriage to get the draycats’ attention, sliding open a panel as the carriage slowed. “Take me to the Vasilver house.”

Wisteria was in the back parlor talking with Byron when Lord Comfrey called. She asked him to be shown to it, because it was his fifth visit and she thought he deserved to escape the pretentious parlor by now. They exchanged the usual greetings when he was shown into the comfortable room, with its view of the rear gardens framed in two square windows and its worn but well-padded chairs, each with an unfashionable ottoman to rest one’s feet upon (her mother despised those ottomans, and the entire practice of putting up one’s feet for that matter).

Lord Comfrey showed no sign of noting the defiant ottomans; in fact, although he sat at her invitation, he was on his feet again in moments, pacing. Even to Wisteria’s inexpert eye, he looked agitated. After inquiring of the health of her family, he and Byron exchanged a look. Perhaps it conveyed some meaning to Byron, because her brother excused himself a minute later, leaving the parlor door ajar for decency’s sake. Wisteria wasn’t sure if she and Lord Comfrey still needed a chaperone: he had called twice since last Wednesday, and both visits had been pleasant but entirely circumspect. To Wisteria’s disappointment, although she could not bring herself to initiate such intimacies herself, and in any case there had been no opportunity on either prior occasion.

Now there was an opportunity, but Lord Comfrey’s nervous pacing intimidated her. “My lord? Is something amiss?” she asked after Byron left.

Lord Comfrey shook his head, then pivoted to face her. Wisteria was seated a few feet away, with her feet on the floor and ankles crossed demurely beneath her long yellow skirt, too anxious to use the ottoman. His dark brown eyes studied her face, his countenance unsmiling. Wisteria tried to remember if that was normal for him – it was difficult for her to notice or recall even obvious expressions – and thought it wasn’t. He strode abruptly to the door, checked the hall, left the door half-closed again, then returned to her. “Were you aware,” he asked, “that Lord Nikola intends to propose to you?”

Her first thought was What? followed by That cannot mean what it sounds like it means. “Propose what, my lord?”

That made him smile for a moment, though it faded as he replied, “Marriage.”

“To me?” Wisteria felt unusually stupid. Surely even if he did propose to me he would not do so through Lord Comfrey. Would he? Does anyone still use intermediaries in Newlant?

“To you. Yes.”

“No, I was not. I am not sure I am aware of such a thing now. Is this a jest, my lord? I am afraid I do not follow the humor in it if so.”

“No jest.” He took a step closer to her chair, looming over her.

Wisteria stood, discomfited and flattered and taken aback all at once. “Truly? But his family dislikes me, except for Mrs. Warwick, and I am not suitable for marriage, and this is all so very strange. Why did he send you to ask? Is he unwell?”

Lord Comfrey clasped her hand between his. “He did not. Forgive me, Miss Vasilver, for the irregularity here. Of course I should not be telling you such things. Lord Nikola would be furious with me – rightly so – if he knew I was relaying his intentions to you. It is not my place to do so, and believe me I am well aware of that. I have gone back and forth over what to do this last hour and my resolution, such as it is, has not favored the most honorable course. But tell me, my dear, why would you say you are not suitable for marriage?”

“Because I am not? I am blunt and indelicate and I speak of things that ought not be spoken and I can’t even remember that they’re not even though I’ve been told and everyone else understands these things. And you, as much as anyone, ought to know how far I fall short of the ideal. I cannot imagine why he would ask, or why anyone would save a man blinded by greed. Why, Lord Nikola told me himself he was not interested in marriage at this time of his life.”

Lord Comfrey smiled, stroking the back of her hand. “He has reconsidered that stance. My dear Wisteria—” her attention was arrested by the sound of her given name in his baritone voice “—you sell yourself far short of reality. And it is due to that brilliant, courageous, passionate reality that I am engaging in this…rather dishonorable course. For you see—” he lifted her hand to his lips, brushing the skin in a caress that made her insides melt. “—I wish to marry you myself.”

Wisteria watched him, her mind wiped blank by pure shock. He laid a tan finger against her lips before she could formulate a coherent thought, much less a response. “Do not answer me now, my dear. It is wrong of me to have asked immediately after my friend confided his own intentions to me. I will not compound that error by forcing you to a decision before allowing you the chance to consider his offer as well.”

The tall, broad-shouldered man took a deep breath and continued. “I imagine you know already that of the two of us, I am by far the wealthier and more influential. My good friend is frugal but has little interest in business and less in politics. ‘Viscountess’ is not so grand a title as ‘Countess’ and Anverlee is larger than Comfrey, but Comfrey is prosperous, developed, and well-managed. In certain respects, I have made good use of the advantages I was born to. I will not undersell the match.” He moved his finger from her lips to stroke her cheek, then cupped her chin and angled it to his face as he leaned closer. “And I flatter myself that you are not indifferent to my charms.” He kissed her, too briefly; her face followed his when he drew away. “But let me be honest, as I so rarely am. As a man, I am deeply flawed: hypocritical, cynical, temperamental, unchaste – indeed, my dear, I care so little for chastity that I should not mind if you had lain with a hundred men, so long as I might be the hundred-first – sarcastic, flippant – wait, that might be one of my virtues. Wisteria – did I mention presumptuous on that list of vices? that too – Wisteria, I very much doubt marriage will improve me in any respect. Lord Nikola is generous, devoted, devout, honest, kind, and a better man than I will ever be. I have no doubt that he will make a better husband. And a much better father, should you desire children.” He gave a bark of laughter. “Saints, I’ve never considered being a father before. I’m not sure I could do it.”

Most of this conversation had been so stunning – wait, someone wants to marry me? Two men want to marry me? The two most attractive and most fascinating men I know want to marry me? – that Wisteria could not process it, never mind comment. That last begged the question, however: “You do not want children, my lord?”

Lord Comfrey shook his head. “My sister has a Blessed son; I designated him my heir seven years ago. I’ll sire no bastards, and I never thought I’d find a woman I wanted to marry.” He caressed her cheek with his thumb. “Until I met you.” He cleared his throat. “Did you want children, my dear?”

“Oh yes. Very much.” She leaned her head into his hand.

He gazed into her eyes. “I would reconsider my opposition,” he said, and for the first time Wisteria wondered if he felt as much like she had upended his world as he had hers. He gave her another gentle kiss. She put her hand on his shoulder for balance, and then somehow they were embracing, kissing hungrily, until Lord Comfrey released her and took a step away. “Ah, I had best leave before I add to my list of rash ill-considered dishonorable actions. I do not know when Lord Nikola will offer, but I urge you to take all the time you need in considering your choice. It took me thirty years to find a woman I wanted as wife: I promise you I’ll neither change my mind nor find another. I shall call again, my dear, but consider yourself under no obligation to answer me at any time. I beg you to wait at least for Lord Nikola to say his piece. He is a good man, a better man than I by far. And, ah, if your answer to him is yes, I would take it as a kindness if you did not speak of my proposal. Given the circumstances.”

He started to withdraw, and Wisteria caught his hand. “Lord Comfrey—” she could not bring herself to say Justin, though she longed to “—if you believe that he would be a better husband and that you are in the wrong for asking, why did you?”

His narrow lips smiled. “Did I forget to mention ‘selfish’ on my list of vices?”

She shook her head. “But then why tell me his intentions at all? Why list reasons to choose him?”

“Ah.” Lord Comfrey looked away. “Perhaps because I do not think it my place to decide. It is you who must live with one of us—” he smiled “—or neither, as you prefer. The choice belongs with you. Good day, my dear.”

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Everything to Me (108/141)

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Nikola managed a smile in return. “Funny you should mention it.” He moved away from the wall at last and took a ledger from the table beside the carafe and handed it to Justin before taking a seat in one of the armchairs. Justin pretended not to notice the trembling in Nikola’s hand and sat on the sofa, giving a puzzled glance to the ledger book. It had Fireholt’s symbol embossed on the cover. “Your reward,” Nikola said, as if in explanation.

With an unpleasant suspicion in his mind, Justin opened the ledger: inside was a signed and notarized assignment of an account at Michaelson’s, to change ownership from Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, to Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey. It awaited only Justin’s signature acknowledging the transfer.

Of the same account Justin had set up for Nikola not two weeks ago.

“It’s a little short, I’m afraid, but since you’d already set the price of a life-saving I thought it only fair I do my best to meet it,” Nikola was saying.

Justin felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. He could hardly breathe. You can’t, you agreed to accept this, you can’t just give it back— He looked up from the account papers to Nikola’s handsome, smiling countenance. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Oh, but I do. I do.” He scooted forward in his seat, hesitated, leaned over to put his hand on Justin’s. “Justin: thank you. I can’t say, can’t describe, how deeply grateful—”

“Nikola, don’t, it’s—”

“Please, Justin. Let me finish.” Nikola stared at their hands, his white-gloved fingers curling under Justin’s palm, thumb caressing the back. “You did more than save my life. Were it not for your intervention, had you and Miss Vasilver been unable to locate me, I would be lucky to be dead now. What Brogan planned next does not bear contemplation.” Justin’s fingers tightened over Nikola’s; he had to force himself to relax his grip. I wish I’d killed that man. No: I wish I’d made him suffer. “I owe you more than I can ever repay – let me finish, Justin – but I must at least try. I am a wreck of a man right now, and there are a great many things I cannot induce myself to do. But this much I can. And will.” He raised beautiful deep blue eyes to meet Justin’s, his smile turned shy. “I cannot keep taking everything from you and give nothing in return.”

You are everything to me. Justin could not say such a thing. “Oh dear. Does this mean you have tired of taking all the abuse I heap upon you?”

Nikola stifled a smile, looking away. “You know what I mean.”

“I should be sorry indeed if you were weary of taking my time. Or wait, am I taking yours? Perhaps you could repay me in that instead. Are we even there? I confess I have not kept track.”

His lover rose to pace the room. The ceilings were too low: his posture was slightly stooped because of it. “You said I’d won that wager, over the bowrace. The favor.”

Justin blinked at the change of subject. “Yes…?”

“Then I’m calling it in now. Be serious. Will you do that?”

Justin stared at him for a moment, then leaned back, arms to either side along the sofa back. “Of course.”

“Are you going to accept it or must we fight about this?” Nikola nodded to the ledger.

Are those my only choices? Justin swallowed the quip. “What of Miss Vasilver? Fel Fireholt? My part in the rescue was minor.”

“You killed two men for me.”

I would have killed every man on that boat if need be. “I would not have been in a position to do anything had Miss Vasilver not led Fel Fireholt to you.”

“Anthser was doing his job. He doesn’t want a reward, or even a bonus.”

“Nor do I.”

Anthser also never set the price for a life.”

Justin grimaced. That was different! You know perfectly well why I wanted to reward you. Anverlee is all but bankrupt. He could not say it, could not state flatly that all his protestations had been mere cover for Nikola’s pride. Insufficient cover.

“As for Miss Vasilver.” Nikola stopped pacing to stand in profile before Justin, golden hair brushing the low ceiling, and half-smiled. “The princess’s hand in marriage is the other traditional reward, isn’t it? Heir in this case, I suppose, though Anverlee’s not much of a county, and certainly no kingdom.”

What— “You asked,” Justin said through gritted teeth, “that I be serious. Will you accord me the same courtesy?”

The half-smile vanished. “I am perfectly serious.”

Justin straightened, clenching his fingers into the sofa back to keep himself from surging to his feet. “You cannot mean to marry a woman out of gratitude, Nikola.”

“No.” The Haventure man turned to face Justin. “Not out of gratitude. I love her.”

The bottom fell away from Justin’s world. No this cannot be happening you cannot love her you belong to me – “Saints, Striker you made an anti-proposal to her! You cannot be serious!”

Nikola dropped his eyes, smiling wryly. “I didn’t know her then.”

“And you know her now? You met her less than a month ago!” Justin was fully aware of the hypocrisy of his words, when he’d had the same thoughts on an even shorter acquaintance, but he had to say something.

“Well enough to know there’s no woman in the world I’d rather marry. Look, I don’t know that she’d be fool enough to accept my proposal – I would not marry me, especially in my current condition. But I intend to offer. When I am…better.” Nikola returned to perch beside Justin on the sofa, taking his hand. “She is the most remarkable woman, Justin, and no, I do not mean only because she had the will to find me, the courage to risk herself doing so, and the wit to lead you to us when she did. She has the most extraordinary mind, the most fascinating way of viewing – everything. I know you are not much impressed by women, Justin, but Miss Vasilver is different. Special. If you knew her as well as I do, you’d understand.”

I’ve seen her half-naked; is that well enough? For a moment, Justin entertained telling his friend that – would you think so well of your would-be betrothed if you knew how easily she could be seduced? The thought was petty, unworthy of him: what right had he to tarnish Wisteria in Nikola’s eyes? But surely he deserves to know what kind of woman he’s thinking of wedding.

While he wrestled with that thought, Nikola continued, “I feel as though I can speak to her about anything, anything at all. And that’s the other matter I need to speak with you regarding. I want to tell her about us.”

Justin stared at him. “What do you mean, ‘about us’?”

“You know what I mean.” Nikola met his gaze earnestly, gripping his hand. “I would share my life with her; I do not want – I will not – deceive her. About who I am, or what I do.”

Justin’s jaw dropped. “Have you gone mad?” He jerked his hand away as if insanity might be contagious.

The Haventure man dropped his eyes. “Yes. But not in this,” he said softly.

Justin barked a mirthless laugh. “That would settle the question of your marrying her, anyway; she’d certainly refuse if you told her that. You cannot, Nikola, it is absolutely out of the question. You would ruin us both.”

“Miss Vasilver would not expose us, I’m sure.”

“‘You are sure’? And on this certainty, this acquaintance of what, three weeks? Four? You would stake our reputation, fortune, freedom – everything?”

“She’s not some naive sheltered girl, Justin.” Nikola hesitated. “She’s spent years traveling. Miss Vasilver would understand.”

“Do you even hear yourself? You say you wish to marry her in one breath and in the next say you would tell her the one thing guaranteed to make her refuse. Even if – if! – you are right that she would not intentionally expose us, a few careless words could do untold damage. If you are seeking my blessing for this insanity: no. Absolutely not.”   

Nikola stood and took a few steps away. “There is nothing I can say to persuade you?”

“Nothing.” Justin had a terrible premonition that his words had made no impact on his friend’s intended course. “Nikola – I beg of you, for both our sakes, do not do this.”

“I won’t betray your secret, Justin. If that is what you choose.”

“It is.”

“But…” Nikola half-turned to look at him again. “I’ll not deceive her about my behavior, Justin. We cannot continue as we have been.”   

Justin had spent six years waiting for and dreading this moment. Everything about this bizarre conversation had suggested it was near. The announcement could not be said to be a surprise. Yet the pain of it was worse than any physical blow. He could not mask entirely the shattering sense of loss; he bent, placed a hand over his screwed-shut eyes, controlled a shudder.

Nikola stepped to him, put a hand to his shoulder. “Justin, I’m—”

“Don’t.” Justin cut him off, voice harsh with grief. “Do what you must, but don’t you dare apologize for it. Don’t tell me you wish it were otherwise. It’s your choice. You made it.” He stood, shrugged off Nikola’s touch, moved blindly to the door.

“Is that it, then.” Nikola said to his back. “If we are not lovers, I am nothing to you.”

The dark-haired lord whirled upon him, snarling with rage and pain. “It’s your choice, how dare you fault me, how can you think—” Justin took two steps closer, fists clenched. Nikola turned his face to one side, pale and eyes shut, tensed for a blow. “You accuse me of lack of friendship? I saved your life!” By reflex, Justin had one fist raised to strike, a dozen conflicting thoughts running through him. He almost hated Nikola in that moment, for leaving him, for shaking with fear instead of being angry like a true man, like he was—

—and then Justin realized the reason for his own anger. I don’t want to lose him.

I already have.

With an inarticulate cry, Justin turned and stormed from the cottage.

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Not Ungrateful (107/141)

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Justin called on Anverlee Manor at ten o’clock on Monday morning. That was an hour earlier than could be considered reasonable for a social visit during Gracehaven’s Ascension season, but Justin had already waited as long as he could tolerate. The peaceful crowd outside Anverlee’s gates was even larger than the last time he’d called; their makeshift shrine full of offerings had also swollen.

He was nervous, an emotion so unusual in him that it took him some time to identify what he was feeling.

Anverlee’s butler showed him into the parlor, betraying no surprise at his early arrival. Nikola’s younger sister, Mrs. Adonse, stopped in to greet Justin. A few years ago, there’d been some awkwardness between himself and the girl due to her infatuation with him. But she’d recovered from that obsession by fixating on the man she was now married to, and eventually recovered from her embarrassment at contriving the infatuation as well. Now she was at ease with him. “Nik said you’d be by this morning. I am so glad he’s feeling a bit less antisocial. We were starting to think he was going to miss the entire season! I hope he comes up to the house to see you,” she chattered away.

Where else would he see me? Justin recalled after a moment Lady Striker saying something about a gamekeeper’s cottage. The thought reminded him of the hunting cottage he’d arranged for them at the Markavian hunting preserve. Part of him wanted to press for further details on Nikola, but the greater part rebelled against gossiping about his closest friend. “Location is no matter. How has your own family been, madame?”

The little blonde woman giggled, as if still surprised three years after marriage to have it acknowledged. “Oh, worried, all of us,” she said. “Not the baby, of course, but even the captain’s been…wondering. You know. When we heard you’d brought him to the infirmary, I thought that was it, he was safe, he’d be treated, it’s over.” She lowered her voice, the remnants of her smile vanishing. “But it’s not. Not that we aren’t grateful for all that you’ve done, Lord Comfrey!”

Justin was saved from having to produce another diversion by the arrival, not of a human servant, but of Anthser. “Heyo, Lord Comfrey. This way, please.” He motioned to the hall with his dark-furred muzzle.   

Mrs. Adonse made a moue of disappointment. “Nik’s not coming up, Anthser?”

“Not today, Mrs. Daphne,” Anthser said, apologetic.

She rose when Justin did, as if to follow him. Anthser’s head sank and ears went back as he gave her a look, his body language uninviting. Mrs. Adonse sank back to her chair. “Do stop in again before you leave, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin nodded assent and followed Anthser down the hall. “Have you been promoted to Lord Nikola’s butler now? Er, would that be a promotion, from warcat?”

The black greatcat shrugged. “Maybe? I can’t keep track. We’re just doing whatever he needs us to, for now.” Anthser led him out to the cold lawn and down a path into an orchard, barren branches stark against the wintery sky.


“All us greatcats.” Anthser raised a paw in a gesture that encompassed the grounds. Justin realized several greatcats were around: an adult stationed where the path joined orchard and lawn, a couple of adolescents about the fringes of the small orchard, another adult on a nearby rise, a third adult lounging atop the broad ledge of Anverlee’s eight-foot stone wall. They had the languid postures typical of greatcats, but their heads were up. Alert, watching.

“…I didn’t think this many greatcats worked for Lord Nikola. Or Anverlee.”

“Don’t. Those two are Gunther’s kids, the rest are volunteers. Making sure no one bothers Lord Nik.”

“Ah.” Volunteers?

The cottage was small, old, and dilapidated, with a patched roof and little windows of bubbling, distorted yellow-brown glass. It hurt to picture Nikola in this squalid half-ruin. Anthser pawed open the door and announced him, standing back so Justin could pass. The interior smelled of bleach with a faint undertone of mildew, dark enough after the light of day that it gave the impression of dinginess.

Nikola stepped through an interior entranceway and Justin forgot all about the room. “Good morning, Comfrey.” The tall lord wore his habitual crooked smile. His neckcloth was tied askew, but that could not detract from his splendor in a blue morning coat and matched trousers, long blond waves of hair left loose to frame sharply-defined features. Nikola did not look pallid or sickly: he looked like himself. Perfect.

Justin’s face lit with pleasure and relief as he crossed the room to meet his friend in the middle, clasping his gloved hand. “Striker.” It took all his restraint not to fall into Nikola’s arms.

“Thank you for joining me.” Nikola motioned to Anthser in dismissal. The greatcat ducked into a bow before stepping back outside and closing the door, leaving the two men in private. “I’m sorry about the squalor here. I ought to have received you in one of the manor parlors, I know.”

Justin dismissed their irrelevant surroundings with a wave of one hand. “It doesn’t matter.” Then he took another look about, considering. “Are you all alone out here, without even servants?”

“Yes. The greatcats have been a tremendous help, of course, but they’re all outside at the moment.” Another crooked smile. “Mostly they help by intimidating the well-intentioned from trying to press their company upon me. It turns out all I need do to get some privacy in Gracehaven is be held prisoner and tortured. Who would have – Justin?” Nikola was caught by surprise as the viscount took a pace closer, steered them out of sight of the room’s narrow windows, and wrapped him in his arms.

Justin nuzzled golden hair aside to press his cheek against Nikola’s neck, breathing in his scent, feeling tension flow out as he exhaled. “I wouldn’t recommend the strategy, just the same,” Justin murmured dryly.

Nikola put his arms around Justin’s shoulders in return. “No. Not worth the cost,” he agreed, then stumbled a bit as Justin moved them farther back to push Nikola against the far wall. Justin pressed the length of his body against Nikola’s, brushing lips over the taller man’s pale neck, running hands down his sides. A familiar ache of desire rose in him, but Justin craved connection more than release, to hear Nikola gasp with pleasure under his touch, to explore every inch anew and verify for himself his lover’s well-being. He licked the line of Nikola’s chin, skin fresh-shaven and smooth against his tongue. “Justin…” Nikola said, quietly. The viscount snuggled closer still, trapping Nikola against the wall as he nipped at Nikola’s throat, exposed above the high collar. Nikola swallowed, breathing unevenly. “Don’t.”

Justin slid his hips against Nikola’s, feeling the other man’s arousal. “If you’re worried about the greatcats, I’ll bathe afterwards. I don’t have anywhere to be.” He caressed Nikola’s shoulders, stroking down his arms to capture the wrists.

At that, Nikola twisted violently, raising his arms to break the grip. “No!” Justin stepped back at once, releasing the other man, realizing too late the sincerity of that initial objection. Nikola was white, breathing too quickly, head turned to one side and eyes screwed up as if in pain.    

Savior, I’m an idiot. Justin took another step away, crossing his arms to keep himself from doing anything else stupid. Apologizing felt wrong: to do so would draw attention to something that would be better to pretend hadn’t happened. Draw attention to the unusual nature of Nikola’s response. He poured a glass of winterberry juice from the carafe on the parlor table and moved to the sofa.

“It’s not that I’m not grateful, Justin,” Nikola said, voice catching. “I am. But I – I can’t—”

Justin clenched his hand around the glass. Do you think I expect you to screw me out of obligation? That I would want you to? He looked to his friend with the easiest smile he could conjure. “Don’t be absurd, Striker.” One corner of his mouth quirked higher with sincere mirth. “After all, it’s not as if you never saved my life before.”

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Never Asked (106/141)

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Nik had been sleeping more than usual, and more erratically: napping when ennui and depression overwhelmed him, waking from nightmares at odd hours, unable to return to sleep. Staying awake through the night was harder than usual, and then paradoxically he lay sleepless in bed for an hour after retiring, apprehensive about every part of this plan. None of this is going to work if I can’t manage to sleep.    

That was his last thought before the sound of quiet sobs stirred him from slumber. Heavy curtains blocked the sun from his bedroom windows, the darkness only mitigated by sunlight through the half-open bedroom door. He sat up against the pillows and squinted to make sense of the form seated in a chair by the bed. “Lady Beatrice? What’s wrong?”

Indrawn breath, stillness. “I’m so sorry, Lord Nikola.” Her voice was strained, tears choked back. A rustling, next words muffled as she dabbed at her face. “I can’t, I tried, but even asleep, something in you kept him out. I’m so very sorry.”

He fumbled a hand out of the bedclothes to pat at the vague shape of her arm, fingers brushing the skin of her hand. “It’s all right.” A new burr of trauma had formed in her mind, inflaming her conscience. I feel like a disease, infecting everyone I know with mental anguish. “It’s not your fault.”

“Oh, Lord Nikola.” She sounded heartbroken, as if she wanted to believe him but couldn’t. “I wish I had, had…” A shuddering breath. “…been able to do…something. That monster. That vile, abominable beast.”

Nik shivered at the thought of Brogan, hands curling to protect his fingers. He couldn’t understand why Lady Beatrice was taking the situation so personally. “It isn’t your fault.” As he repeated the words, a chilling thought passed through him.

Lady Beatrice nodded, composing herself. She gathered her skirts and rose. “I’m so sorry. I should be…if there’s ever anything…”

“Did she petition you?” Nik asked of Lady Beatrice’s back.

“My lord?” She paused, silhouetted by the light of the half-open door.

“Marie Brogan. The man who abducted me said he’d taken her to all the other healers of minds in Newlant. So you must have seen her too.”

“Oh, um, I’m sure I would not remember, my lord. So many petitioners, you know how it is, they all blur together,” she said, with a brittle false lightness.

“She stood out to me.” The terrible suspicion grew stronger. “A sleepwalker, seeming unaware of her surroundings. Not unconscious: she was capable of moving when steered. I don’t think I’ve seen another one like her. I suppose you referred them to me.”

“I – I – yes, I thought – I mean, I would have, I always refer those I, I can’t treat—”

“It’s all right,” Nik said. “You had no way to know what he was capable of.”

Lady Beatrice shook her head. “None at all. Oh, how I wish I’d touched him, if I’d seen that demon…” Heartfelt, honest regret.

“And you were sure I’d be able to treat her.”

She looked over her shoulder at him. “I – everyone knows you are the best of us—”

“And you could see what was wrong with her,” Nik said, very softly. “So of course you thought I would.”

She put her fist to her mouth to stifle an involuntary cry. Turning, she fled the room.

Nik clenched his fingers against the blankets, shaking with cold fury. After a moment, he rose and drew on a dressing gown and slippers. Lady Beatrice was in the parlor, crumpled into a chair, her short chubby form hunched in guilt and misery, face hidden behind her hands. Anthser loomed imposingly by the front door, fur bristling; from the greatcat’s expression, Nik knew he had heard everything. Nikola raised a hand palm-out to Anthser in a ‘hold’ gesture, but did not speak. At length, Lady Beatrice began to speak in low, desperate tones. “I was so busy that day, I had a final fitting to go to, and petitioning hours were over, I just – I could see how long it would take, and I just couldn’t then…”

“So you told him you could not diagnose her.”

She winced, nodded. “I knew you’d be in town soon, I thought – you’re so good with those complex ones – I didn’t know he was possessed! I didn’t know! I didn’t think it would hurt anyone!”

“Except her.” Nik met Lady Beatrice’s eyes as she looked up. “Mrs. Brogan. You left her suffering. So you could be fitted for a dress.”

She clenched her hands around her handkerchief, flushed as she looked away. “There’s always someone,” she said. “It’s my life too. I have a husband, children – we cannot all be as devoted as you, Lord Nikola.”

“You could have arranged for him to bring her back. But they looked poor and shabby and not worth your time.”

Lady Beatrice would not meet his eyes. “I didn’t ask to be Blessed.”    

Nik crossed the room in two quick strides, dropping his hands to the arms of her chair to loom over the older woman. “I didn’t ask to be abducted and tortured. Marie Brogan didn’t ask to be cursed,” he snarled. “One of those things you can remedy, Lady Beatrice. And you will. You’ll find her and heal her. None of this is her fault.” She flinched, nodded mutely. The tall lord released the chair and stepped back. “Good day, madame,” he said in cold dismissal. She collected herself, still not looking at him, and Anthser stood aside for her as she fled the cottage.

Anthser stared at the closed front door after she was gone, lips pulled back to bare sharp teeth. “Wretched little cow—”

Nik was suddenly overwhelmed by weariness, even more than anger and self-righteousness. Who am I to judge her? I haven’t heard a petition in over a week. I can’t even help myself. “Let it go, Anthser.”   

The great black cat flattened his ears. “This is all her fault.”

“No. It’s all Brogan’s fault.” Nikola moved to Anthser’s side and patted his neck. “He just had help.” Surprisingly, he felt a little more like himself now. I’ve made it through two encounters with a human being without wanting to burst into tears or flee. That’s progress of a sort. Maybe seeing Justin tomorrow will go well after all.

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The Least I Can Do (105/141)

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Saturday afternoon found Nikola in the cottage’s ersatz workroom, transcribing and elaborating on some salient portions of his great-grandmother’s letters to him, when Meredith poked her head in. “Um, Lord Nik? We know you don’t want to see any humans but there’s a lady at the house for you and Jill said we ought to tell you about her just in case? If you don’t mind?”

Nik tensed at the idea of company, then made himself relax and sat up, squaring the correspondence into a neat pile next to him. Miss Vasilver? I did ask her to come, albeit not this soon… “That’s fine, Meredith. Who’s calling?”

“Lady Beatrice, if it pleases you, m’lord?”

“Ah.” Rumor travels fast. Nik was not ready for this, for another round of the hope/stress/panic that offers of help from a Blessed had invoked so far, that deterred him from so much as reaching for the Savior’s presence on his own. But this will spare me the stress of braving the crowds of her petitioners later. He did not delude himself that this visit was unrelated to his current condition. “Thank you. Tell her I’ll be with her shortly.” He stood to change into suitable attire.

Meredith spread her whiskers, ears perking. “Yes m’lord!”

While shifting from dressing gown to trousers and a short jacket appropriate for a social call, Nikola’s mind ran ahead, picturing himself entering Anverlee Manor to greet Lady Beatrice in the main parlor. That didn’t sound bad. He’d run into his mother, too; fair enough, he wouldn’t mind seeing her at this point. Or his sisters. Father? He didn’t want to see Lord Striker; his father had little understanding or sympathy for mental illness. There would be others at the manor, too: servants, guests, his sisters’ husbands, all questioning, demanding—

—he tried to divert his thoughts but couldn’t, fastening buttons with sweating hands, heart pounding. Curse it, I can do this, I can do one ordinary thing

Jill’s voice at the dressing room door broke into his thoughts. “Lady Beatrice’s in the cottage parlor now. So’s ya know.”

Nik realized he had not told Meredith where he would see his visitor. A greatcat wouldn’t realize how unsuitable the cottage’s parlor was for a wellborn caller, and it was too late now to amend the mistake. He wiped his damp palms on a handkerchief and hunted for gloves: he had not worn a pair in days. He checked his reflection in the mirror, rearranged his neckcloth a few times, realized he was stalling as well as not improving it, and left off.

Lady Beatrice was seated in the parlor chair nearest the stove, with her wrap still around her shoulders; it was a cold, drafty room. “Lady Beatrice. Thank you for calling; I must apologize for the shabbiness of my hospitality,” he told her as she rose at his entrance.

“Oh, Lord Nikola, please don’t apologize.” Lady Beatrice drew off her glove and extended one plump hand to him, bracelets tinkling around her wrist. The evident distress in her voice surprised him. After a brief hesitation (why am I seeing her if not for this?) Nik likewise removed his glove and took her fingers. She gasped, tightening her grip. “Oh, Lord Nikola, I am so very sorry. You – what they must have done to you – I—” Lady Beatrice took a deep breath, clasping his hand between hers. “Do you not see it as well?”

He looked to the window, uncomfortable. “Of course.”

“Then why – oh, I know it’s not been a week, but surely the Savior would…I mean…”

Nik knew what she meant. The Savior wouldn’t heal recent trauma because the brain needed time to process and learn from experiences, including traumatic ones. But with damage that was extensive and not improving, as was his case, the Savior would certainly be willing to intervene by now. He shook his head, extracting his hand from hers. “It’s…complicated.”

“My lord?” Lady Beatrice had her round, anxious face turned up to watch him.

Nikola paced to a window and rested a hand against the trim. “I can’t.”

“But…you cannot see what needs to be remedied? Will you let me help you, then?”

He shook his head, looking through the narrow, distorted, yellowing glass of the window. A greatcat sat on the path to the cottage, fifty yards off, keeping watch. “It’s not that I can’t see it. I can’t ask for the Savior’s help. I…don’t feel him any more.” Nik closed his eyes at the woman’s gasp, not wanting her pity. “I—” I hurt him, I don’t deserve his help, I cannot feel him again, not that fury and outrage “—when I saw healers of the flesh, they said I was refusing them unconsciously. Lord Walther managed to heal my body while I was sleeping, however. That…might work again, I suppose.” But you’re not a greatcat and I can’t ask a lady to watch me sleep; the whole idea is absurd.

“But you – why would you – how can you not feel—” Lady Beatrice put a hand over her own mouth to stop the words. “I’m sorry, my lord. It’s not my place to pry.” She folded her hands together. “However, please know that I believe your injuries are within the Savior’s power to remedy. I would be happy to make the attempt now. Or at any time of your choosing, including while you sleep tonight. You don’t have to suffer like this, Lord Nikola.”

Nik half-turned to her. “Lady Beatrice…I cannot ask you to—”

“Then don’t ask.” She crossed to his side and took his sleeve, her small plump form looking up at him with a pleading look. “Just agree. You – you of all people deserve better. I’ll stay until you sleep, if that’s what it takes.”

Nik blanched, horrified by the impropriety and irregularity of it all. “I can’t let you do that. Your reputation! I ought to be petitioning you—”

She waved a hand in dismissal. “I will not let convention stand in the way of your well-being!”

Nik couldn’t imagine even trying to sleep with a casual acquaintance just outside his door in this tiny cottage. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful, but – here: I’ll stay up the night and go to sleep tomorrow morning. You can call then; I’ll give the greatcats instructions to show you in. I’ll be less likely to wake if I’m already sound asleep in any case, and I don’t wish to waste your time. And a daytime call will excite no gossip.”

Lady Beatrice offered a troubled smile, her eyes still worried. “Whatever you prefer, my lord. Are you sure you don’t wish me to try now?”

Nik swallowed against a spike of terror, remembering the terrible weight of the Savior’s emotions smashing him into oblivion. He shook his head. “Believe me, it wouldn’t work. I do appreciate your concern, my lady. It’s very generous of you to indulge me in this.” Nik was surprised and touched by her heartfelt offer; he couldn’t imagine what he’d done to merit it. I wonder if this is how the Whittakers felt when I invited them to stay at the manor? Maybe some things you get because your need is so desperate.

“It’s the least I can do.” Lady Beatrice took his hand and gave it a quick squeeze. “I shan’t tax you with further pleasantries, Lord Nikola. I’ll see you again tomorrow, I promise.”

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