Broken (103/141)

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Nik was staying in the gamekeeper’s cottage on the grounds of Anverlee Manor. It was a modest one-story building screened from the main house by a small orchard of apple and pear trees. The hunting preserve was long since gone: it had not been part of the entailment when Anverlee County had been restored to Nikola’s ancestors. The Strikers had never kept game in Gracehaven, and the cottage had been uninhabited for decades. It was weathered by time and disuse, but Anverlee’s people had put a great deal of effort into making it habitable in the day before Nikola took residence there. The furnishings were comfortable if unfashionable, taken from his suite and office in the manor, plus some of the more serviceable pieces dredged from the attic. Lady Striker had purposed its rooms as parlor, dining room, bedroom, and dressing room: it was so old that it had an outhouse, a detached kitchen, and no plumbing. The greatcats brought him food from the manor’s kitchen. At Lady Striker’s direction, an antique tub occupied the dressing room, but Nik made the trek every day to the felishome to use their bathing facility instead. The felishome had a spacious pool that the greatcats themselves seldom used, preferring old-fashioned tongue-grooming. The cottage lacked gaslights or a furnace as well; it had wall sconces instead, and wood-burning stoves in three rooms.

The “dining room” was more a workroom at this point. At Nik’s request, Jill and Gunther had retrieved boxes of papers from the house: old journals, correspondence, observations. Some were Nik’s own, and some inherited with Fireholt. Nik had brought it all from Fireholt with him, half-thinking he’d get to it during the season and suspecting he wouldn’t. Now they were spread in heaps across two long tables pushed against the room’s two exterior walls, while a not-yet-crowded bookcase stood against an interior wall. With help from Anthser and Meredith, he’d sorted most of the papers into rough categories. The dining chairs had been stacked and displaced to the front room; the only seating in the room was a greatcat-styled couchbed beside the bookcase.

Nik lay on his stomach on the couchbed, open notebook on a lapdesk before him, pencil in one hand. Anthser sprawled next to him facing the other way, dozing with a foreleg draped over Nik’s right calf. The situation made Nik feel like a small child, before deportment instructors beat such undignified behavior out of him. He didn’t mind; feeling like a boy kept worse recent memories at bay.

Mostly at bay.

He had been indexing case studies for an hour, until the description of one mind reminded him of Mrs. Brogan’s, and the memory drew him back to that awful cabin. Nik had spent a quarter of an hour trying to force himself to continue regardless, to ignore the panic, the shaking, the terror and remembered pain. None of it real.

Knowing it wasn’t real almost made it worse, because there was no Brogan here to blame. Only his own mind, doing this to him.

Forcing the issue hadn’t helped; he’d given up when Anthser had come back with a pile of books and found Nik curled in a tight knot on the couchbed, crying.

The greatcats’ concern – all of them, not just Anthser – was hard to bear. Everything was hard to bear: solitude left him with too few distractions from memory, company oppressed him with their fears added to his, work reminded him of trying and failing to help Marie Brogan and of lashing out at the Savior, leisure made him long to go out at the same time that panic rendered him incapable of doing so, sleep brought nightmares – whatever he did or didn’t do had its costs. So he rotated between activities until the next one sounded not as bad as the current. Waiting for this to pass, for the day when life would be good again and not just endured.

Nik was working on a letter to Miss Vasilver now. It had taken him two days to finish a short letter to Justin, draft after draft fed to the stove: too intimate, too many details, too revealing, not grateful enough, ungracious, cowardly, everything wrong. Nik wanted desperately to see Justin and was desperately afraid to do so. Terrified that even Justin would trigger those too-vivid memories of torture, that he would crumple – again – in front of his closest friend, that Justin’s gaze would hold nothing but horror and pity at the wreckage that remained of him. Bad enough that Justin had seen his degradation after Brogan’s abuse, but this inability to cope even when he was safe, when everything was fine – this was inexcusable weakness.

Oddly, he was less worried about Miss Vasilver even though he knew her less well. Perhaps because he knew her less well: it wouldn’t be as awful to be judged by her. But more likely it was her frankness, her willingness to broach any subject without hint of judgment or condemnation. As attached as Nik was to Justin, feelings were not something they ever talked about. Trying to do so was unnatural, an invitation to awkwardness at best, if not scorn and contempt for such unseemly behavior.

But Miss Vasilver, with her peculiar disregard for convention, would perhaps not be sensitive to this.

Even so, he could not write her about his present state. Every line that conveyed too much, Nik crossed out. All he wanted to do was express his gratitude in some decent fashion and invite her to call on Wednesday. Maybe by then he’d be able to face Anverlee Manor, his parents and family and the horde of human servants.

…Nik doubted that.

His mental condition had not improved in the four days since Justin and Miss Vasilver had saved him. If anything, it was worse. He had a full catalog of problems: trauma-induced panic attacks, flashbacks, phantom pain, isolation, depression, self-loathing, and thoughts of suicide. Nikola was…pretty sure he wouldn’t attempt suicide. I know I’m irrational. This isn’t like when I was thirteen and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. All of this is textbook, diagnosable, curable.

With the Savior’s aid.

…which I am too terrified to request. And there aren’t any greatcats with a Blessing for minds. But the same gambit might work with a human mind-healer. There’s hope. I can’t give up yet.

But it was irritating that he would even think about suicide again, that he would fantasize about those freezing moments in the harbor before Crit pulled him from the water and wish he’d drowned instead. I thought my great-grandmother had cured me of this urge ten years ago. Why is it back now? He could guess the answer to that. When he was twelve, he’d realized he was sexually attracted to men and not just women. That realization had led to the terror of discovery, and a desire to cure himself of his unnatural longings. He’d prayed to the Savior, begged for insight, and scoured his mind for the source of his carnal urges. When he hadn’t been able to find it, he had been overwhelmed by guilt and shame, and descended into the despair that led to his suicide attempt.

What his great-grandmother had cured was not his lust, obviously. Instead, she had altered his mind so he was no longer ashamed, no longer as eager to please a society that condemned his nature. Nik had long known that – among other things, it meant his intractability as a youth was even more pronounced relative to his childhood than most. It wasn’t until now that he had realized the impulse to self-destruction in the face of adversity was still untouched under that change. It was only that he hadn’t had a reason to face despair since then.

Nikola stared at the shapes of his own mind with contempt. I hate the way my head works. What a mess.

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