When the new week began, Nikola had as many new petitioners as ever, plus a backlog of appointments from the prior week. In response to Daphne’s complaint of Sunday, however, he had Shelby defend two and a half hours in his schedule each afternoon for the family dinners. “Family” was an expansive term at this season, and encompassed not only his parents, sisters, and brothers-in-law, but also a selection of aunts, uncles, distant cousins, and friends of all kinds.
One of the latter was to be Justin: Nik invited him to dinner Wednesday to reciprocate Friday’s supper invitation. At Anverlee Manor in the afternoon during the Season, they’d be lucky to have even a moment alone, much less any true privacy, but Justin’s note of acceptance pleased him nonetheless.
Monday and Tuesday passed in a blur of unfamiliar faces and misformed minds gently reshaped by the Savior’s power. When he finished the last Tuesday appointment after eleven in the evening, Anthser padded with him back to his room. “I don’t think I’ll go out tonight. I’ll just change out of this jacket and see if Nathaniel and Edmund are at cards in the drawing room.” Nik loosened his neckcloth as he spoke.
Anthser yawned. “Don’t you ever get tired, m’lord?”
Nik chuckled. “I sleep. Eventually. You needn’t stay on duty, Anthser.”
“I am off-duty. Harassing you is what I do for fun.” Anthser bumped his nose against Nik’s head, then licked his cheek with a broad raspy pink tongue while Nik laughed and pushed him away, making a face.
“Ugh, you brute, get off me.” Nik sidestepped the black greatcat to enter his suite, and washed his face in the adjoining bathing chamber’s basin.
“Hey, I just did that,” Anthser protested, craning his dark massive head around the door.
Nik dried his face and hands and hung his jacket and neckcloth on a peg for Shelby to deal with in the morning. “Humans wash with soap and water, not tongues. And I am not a greatcat.”
“Nobody’s perfect.” Anthser sat in the hall while Nik shrugged into the after-supper jacket Shelby had laid out for him earlier. It was a long, loose coat suitable only in the late evening at home among family. Nik stuck his tongue out at the cat, who tilted his head. “Wait, did you want to groom me now?”
Hurriedly pulling his tongue back in, Nik grimaced. “You are impossible.”
“Same to you. Seriously, Lord Nik, you work hours that you’d be ashamed to subject any of us to – you told Mr. Shelby and Mr. Coxleigh to knock off, what, five hours ago? And when you finally do finish up you’re up all night talking and playing cards or whatever.”
“I am fifty years younger than Shelby, and he has to rise earlier than I do for his duties. Besides, my part’s easier than yours. I just lounge about while the Savior takes care of everything. I’m not the one fending off unsatisfied petitioners and outraged parents and whatnot.” Nik straightened the wide cuffs of his after-supper jacket and strolled down the hall to take one of the side stairwells down to the drawing room.
“Mmf.” Anthser followed to rub the side of his head against Nik’s shoulder. “If you say so, I guess. M’lord.” He sounded so dubious that Nik had to smile. “We worry about you. It’s a lot more work than you’re used to. Are you sure the Savior’s not going to get mad at you for overdoing it?”
“Anthser. To the best of my knowledge, the Savior has never been angry with anyone, man or greatcat, for any reason. Including wilful retention of demons. I am fine. So is he. Trust me.”
The greatcat ducked his head, looking so pathetic that Nik turned to embrace him, stroking the wide furred neck and rubbing the side of his head against Anthser’s whiskered cheek. His liegecat sat, wrapping a paw around Nik’s back to hug him in return, rumbling with a sound half purr and half sigh. “All right then. Good evening, m’lord.”
The children were, of course, already abed, but the rest of his family was gathered in the drawing room. It was a large chamber furnished in seventh-century style, using the house colors of blue and silver. A long narrow couch was set against the wall opposite the picture window, beneath a stormy seascape painting. Two wingback armchairs bracketed the fireplace, alongside shelves full of antique leather-bound books his mother deemed too pretty for the library. To one side was a carved wooden parlor-game table, surrounded by four matching chairs.
Lysandra was at work on a portrait, sketchbook on a lapdesk while the Lady Striker sat for her in one of the armchairs, wearing her countess’s circlet and looking pleased with herself. A fire crackled in the hearth beside her: the manor had been remodeled with a furnace when Nik was a boy, but the quickgas heat had never been well-distributed and they often set fires in the most-used rooms rather than keeping the entire house warm. Daphne had a handkerchief in an embroidery hoop, which she occasionally tormented with a needle. Mostly she watched Lord Striker play cards with her husband, Captain Nathaniel Adonse, and Lysandra’s, Mr. Edmund Warwick. Both of his brothers-in-law were several years older than Nik and he knew neither well, although he found Edmund grating: the man had known Nik since he was twelve and had never stopped treating him like a child. Nathaniel, at least, always called him Nikola.
Nik offered a cordial greeting to all, giving a dutiful kiss to his mother’s cheek despite Lysandra’s admonition not to stir her model. He received welcomes in varying degrees of warmth, Lord Striker’s being the coolest. His father was still irritated with him: about the constant influx of petitioners in general and the Whittakers particular. No one had asked Nik about the Whittakers since Thursday; Nik suspected his mother of deflecting enquiries. Mr. Whittaker had sent for him to see Sharone on Monday evening, and she’d been calm and as coherent as a normal six year-old for a quarter of an hour. Sharone had acknowledged that she needed help, even said she wanted it, but when Nik went to take her hand she’d become unhinged again, as resistant as ever.
Nik had not told anyone about that yet. He wasn’t sure how long he ought to keep trying; he’d already far surpassed the requirements of the Code. But she seemed so close to consenting. Surely a little girl’s life and sanity was worth more than a few days or weeks of inconvenience?
“We’re just starting a new round, Nikola, would you care to join us?” Nathaniel asked from the game table. The captain was a broad-shouldered, heavyset man of about thirty, with a complexion dark even for Newlanture, and black hair that he wore clubbed, folded back on itself and secured with a ribbon.
“Certainly.” Nik took the empty seat opposite his father, who barely acknowledged him. They were keeping score with chocolates, Nik noticed with some amusement.
“So where were you off to on Sunday, Nik?” Daphne asked from the couch, while Nathaniel dealt. “I never did ask.”
“Bowracing with Comfrey,” Nik said.
“What, in lace cuffs and neckcloth?”
“Ah…” Nik reviewed the cards in his hands to hide the pause while he tried to work out an answer that didn’t involve with Miss Vasilver. He covered Edmund’s ten with a queen. “Right, I called on a gentlewoman before I went on to Comfrey’s.”
“Oh?” Daphne’s interest was wholly captured now. “Whom?”
His mind produced no practical diversions. “Miss Vasilver.”
His father gave him a sharp look from across the table, while Lysandra said, “Wisteria Vasilver? How lovely! Is she in town now then? How is she?” She missed her mother’s sputtering as she turned her attention to Nik.
“Very well,” Nik answered, surprised. “I didn’t know you were acquainted.”
His mother, red-faced and aghast, got out. “Nikki, you didn’t. Not that dreadful creature! Whyever would you call on her?”
Because I like her. Nik was saved from answering by Lysandra: “Mother! Whyever would you speak so about Miss Vasilver? She’s an excellent woman, generous and frightfully clever. We went to school together, Nik.”
“Then she’s changed since you met, because I have never encountered a woman so crass and uncouth.” Lady Striker shuddered in recollection.
“I can never believe that, mother, whatever did she do?” Lysandra asked.
Lady Striker raised one hand and shook her head. “It’s not fit for a lady to repeat or to hear.”
“Mother! You can’t tell me my old schoolfriend has done something dreadful and then not tell me what,” Lysandra cried in protest. Her mother was unmoved. “But you can’t have thought her unbearable, Nik.”
“Not at all.” Nik claimed the current trick and led with a deuce. Lord Striker snorted and muttered something under his breath that made Edmund smirk.
“Nikki, I can’t believe you’d call on that woman again,” Lady Striker admonished him. “Think of the ideas you’ll encourage.”
“What ideas?” Lysandra demanded.
“I have no notion what you’re talking about, Mother.” He trumped the next trick with a low spade and led with an ace.
“You know very well,” Lady Striker said.
“I certainly don’t,” Lysandra complained.
Their mother gave an exasperated sigh. “May we please speak of something else?”
“By all means,” Nik said, and asked Nathaniel how he was enjoying his holiday from the regiment. The man gamely stepped up to the diversion. Sulking, Lysandra returned to her sketching.
After a decent interval, Lysandra chose to retire. As soon as she was out of the room, Nathaniel grinned across the table at Edmund. “Shall we move to a more dignified stake than chocolates, gentlemen?” he asked.
Edmund chuckled. “One mark a point?”
“Suits me,” Lord Striker said, dumping his stash of chocolates into the candy bowl.
“You know, I’m for bed as well. Petitioners in the morning, you understand. Good night.” Besides, the sooner I go to bed, the sooner it will be tomorrow and Justin will call. After rising and offering a short bow to the room, Nik took his leave.
He met Lysandra again just outside her suite, two doors down from his; she’d stopped in the kitchen for a mug of warm milk with a shot of brandy. She was tall and as brown-haired as their father had been in his youth, with a narrow face; only her clear fair complexion was shared with her shorter and rounder sister and mother. Lysandra stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Oh, Nik – whatever did Mother mean about Wisteria? You’ll tell me, won’t you?”
Nik hesitated, but relented at Lysandra’s pleading look and gave a concise explanation.
His older sister covered her mouth with one hand, the mug in her other quivering as she tried to mask an expression of mixed horror and mirth. “Oh no, no, how…oh goodness, Nik. She was always a little too forthright, I suppose, but…you did forgive her?”
Nik tried not to smile and failed. “I honestly was not offended. Father and Mother haven’t, as you saw.”
“I think she’d make a splendid wife, Nik—”
Nik lifted his hands to forestall her. “None of that, Lys! ‘I wasn’t offended’ doesn’t change my disinclination for marriage. I wasn’t in favor of this whole business at the start. I just…did not want her to feel slighted.”
Lysandra made a face at him. “It would be a good match, though. And I would love Wisteria for a sister – you know I never should have learnt the first thing about accounts were it not for her. Anyhow, you’re not interested I know la la la.” She wiggled the fingers of one hand in dismissal of the concept. “Good night, Nik.”
He continued on to his suite, half of him irritated that everyone – Justin, his parents, Lysandra – seemed to think there was no possible reason he could call on Miss Vasilver other than to evaluate her potential as a bride.
The other half wondered if being outnumbered by everyone else was a sign that he was in the wrong. But I don’t want to marry her. And I’d have to be the first to know if I did. Besides, I am not alone in this view; I told Miss Vasilver and she thought it perfectly reasonable. With this thought in mind, he retired to his bed.
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