Custom dictated that when seating a formal gathering for a meal, men must alternate with women and no one could be seated beside the person with whom they’d arrived. Justin and Nik were placed at the opposite ends of the table; Mrs. Haskill and Mrs. Lavert were placed to either side of Justin, then Lavert and Haskill in the center and with their wives on opposite sides, and then the Lady and Miss Dasterly bracketed Nik. It was a small enough affair that conversation was not strictly confined to one’s neighbors, though the tendency remained.
Miss Dalsterly was an attractive girl of seventeen, brown-skinned and auburn-haired, and with no more than the most minimally polite interest in Nik. Judging by the amount of time the girl spent gazing up the table, Miss Dalsterly would have given much to trade places with Mrs. Lavert and be seated beside Justin. Yes, well, so would I, girl. Live the life you’re born to, Nikola thought.
Lady Dalsterly was ninety-six, short, slim, stooped, and white-haired, with a face like a smiling golden raisin. She also had a ready laugh and a supply of stories about every major event that had happened in Gracehaven in the last ninety years. After a couple of glasses of wine, she could generally be persuaded to share embarrassing stories on almost anyone. Once a few polite efforts determined the extent of Miss Dalsterly’s disinterest, Nik abandoned the great-granddaughter to whatever joy she might glean from straining to catch the conversation of Secretary Haskill, Mrs. Lavert, and Justin. He turned all his attention to the elderly woman at his right instead. “What do you think of the wine, Lady Dalsterly? I understand it’s a splendid vintage.”
“Is it? I would say that fine wine was wasted on my dull old palate, but I believe it was wasted on my sharp young palate seventy years ago too. I’ve never been able to taste all those flavors that are supposed to be in wine: smoky and fruity and nutty and whatever all else. It’s dry, though, I can tell that much, and I like my wine dry.”
“Then it is not wasted on you, m’lady.” Nik moved to refill her glass from the decanter.
“Are you trying to get me drunk, Lord Nikola?” Lady Dalsterly teased, though she held out her glass anyway.
“Of course. How else am I to take advantage of you?” Nik topped off her glass.
Lady Dalsterly laughed merrily. “I must warn you, that if you are looking to add a centenarian to your string of conquests, Lord Nikola, then I still have another four years to go.”
“Then I’d best get started now, hadn’t I? No doubt it will take me at least that long to wear down your virtue.”
She shook her head at him and took another sip. “Now, you scamp, what are you truly after?”
“Well, if you insist on doubting the impurity of my intentions – perhaps I hope for some tale of Lord Comfrey’s wayward childhood, by way of retaliation for letting him trick me into attending one of his business suppers.” At some point during the soup course, Nik had been struck by the unpleasant realization that it was likely he, and not Lady Dalsterly, who’d been invited to make up the numbers. Justin would have had to invite some lady to bring the party from five to six, and he could not have invited either Lady Dalsterly or her young houseguest without including both.
“Mmm.” Lady Dalsterly looked thoughtful. “This Lord Comfrey, I imagine, and not his father or grandfather?”
Nik considered. “As this is but a cover for my nefarious designs upon your person, I don’t suppose it matters. How long have you known the Comfries?”
“Oh, I met Lord Langston Comfrey, saints watch his soul, back when he was Lord Langston and I was still a girl, a year or two younger than Rebecca here. He was a very stern upright gentleman then, and very round too. Pie was his one great vice, you understand.”
“Any kind, fruit or pudding or savory. There was a little hushed-up scandal between him and his cook, and I am quite convinced it was solely from the poor woman smuggling him late-night pastries against his wife’s wishes. The old lord was never the same after the cook’s dismissal. Wasted away to a mere oval instead of a sphere.”
At Justin’s end of the table, the conversation had turned from the minutiae of customs and tariffs to a more general discussion of policies. Nikola’s attention was caught from Lady Dalsterly when Mr. Lavert spoke his name. “Beg pardon?” Nik said, shifting his gaze from the lady to the gentleman beside her.
“I was just saying, Lord Nikola, that if we’re to discuss the appropriate compensation of Blessings, we ought to ask a man who bears one.” Lavert spoke clearly, the rest of the table falling silent.
Nik gave the group a nonplussed look. “I daresay the Code settles that question.”
“The Code begs that question,” Mrs. Lavert responded, ignoring Mrs. Haskill’s satisfied expression. “‘A gift for a gift’ – it gives no true guidance as to what the recipient ought to pay. And the Code’s insistence that ‘any who may be helped, must be helped’ offers precious little incentive to make the payment adequate.”
“Adequate to what?” Nik asked.
“Adequate to human greed, Lord Nikola. Pay no mind,” Mrs. Haskill interjected, while Mrs. Lavert scowled.
“Adequate as compensation,” Secretary Haskill said. “The Code has already been set aside for those with a Blessing in plants or stone. It’s archaic to insist those Blessed to heal body or mind – priceless skills! – must follow it.”
“‘Priceless’,” Nik repeated. “Rather the point, isn’t it?”
“A figure of speech. It ought to have a price; the existing system is unfair to the Blessed.”
“It’s as the Savior intended, Brennan,” Mrs. Haskill said.
At the head of the table, Justin cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, it’s a system that offers no incentive for a Blessed man to develop his talents. Certainly some—” he inclined his dark head to Nik “—do so anyway. But how many Blessed content themselves with the easy cures they are born to, and never exert themselves to do more? If the Blessed were permitted to charge a realistic fee for their services, they would be far more motivated to expand their powers. Learning to regrow a man’s leg when sailors will repay you in grog… well, it’s not much of a trade.”
Nikola tightened his fingers against the stem of his wineglass, then forced them to relax. “If you were standing on a dock beside a life preserver, and a man was drowning in the water before you, would you throw the life preserver to him?”
Justin’s dark eyes met his across the table. “Lord Nikola, this is not—”
“I ask,” Nik interrupted, “Would you give him the life preserver? Or would you first calculate the value of his life in marks and eighths, and demand that he ransom himself with the appropriate sum? If he were a beggar or an orphan, would you leave him to drown? If he were an old man, would you give him a discount because he didn’t have much life left anyway?”
“It is very well to be moved by a higher calling, but not all men are. Surely you as much as anyone are aware that the Blessed desire shelter, clothing, and to provide for their families?”
“Lord Comfrey.” Nikola leaned forward, raising his voice. “If I were penniless—” and you know how near that is to truth, don’t you? “—and drowning, would you save me?”
Justin looked at him as if he were a particularly obstinate pupil. “You know I would. But that is not a fair comparison—”
“It is the only fair comparison.” Nik leaned back in the ornate dining room chair. “The Savior has seen fit to give me an ample supply of life preservers. To hold that supply for ransom, only to be given to those who could meet some arbitrary price, would be an abomination.” Everyone was watching him now, some with pity and some with a shining respect bordering on hero-worship, and Nik felt a bone-grinding weariness at being misunderstood. Enough. I am neither a saint nor a martyr.
He was rescued from the silence that followed by the dessert course of spiced baked pears nestled in pastry and drizzled in chocolate. It was delectable enough to distract the company and restore an amiable mood before they adjourned to the gaming room.