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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