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|
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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