“Why did you ask me to the Ascension Ball, my lord?” she asked, unhesitant.
Nik gave a startled laugh, but answered gamely, “Because I want to know more about you, and it’s a chance to get you away from your parents, if not mine. Because you are good company, and I admire – enjoy – your taste for honesty.” You make me forget Justin, and it has been a long time since anyone but the Savior has been able to do that. “And…as I already told you I wasn’t looking for a wife, I thought it was…safe.”
“As opposed to the usual threat a woman poses to life and limb?” Miss Vasilver was grave, making Nik laugh again.
“You know what I mean. The politics around balls – this ball, especially – are thick. If I bring one of my sisters, everyone wonders what plague I have that no unrelated woman would accept my invitation. If I ask a woman I’ve met more than a few times socially, then she must be a marriage prospect. If I ask a woman I’ve only met once or twice, it’s as likely as not an unbearably awkward evening as she tries to figure out how serious I might be, or if I plan to, I don’t know, assault her in the carriage or somesuch.”
“…assault her in the carriage? Does that happen often?”
“What, actual assault? In my own first-hand experience, never. For others—” Nik paused, watching the greatcats’ white tails swaying in perfect unison as they pulled the coach. “My information on that would be skewed, of course. One young lady I escorted, whom I will not name, was in any event quite terrified of me. I am not in the habit of asking people if they wish to petition me, but there were three or four points during that evening when I was on the verge of asking her if there was anything the Savior might do for her.”
“Why didn’t you, if her distress was so plain?”
Nik shrugged. “Because for all I know, it’s my Blessing itself that had her petrified. And some people become more anxious if you ask them about their anxiety, because ‘am I conspicuous?’ becomes a new source of anxiety. My great-grandmother taught me not to ask people who aren’t petitioners. They know I am Blessed, and they know better than I do what disorders they might have. It’s rude and presumptuous to imply that I, from a few hours of acquaintance, can perceive a problem they don’t.”
Miss Vasilver tilted her head. “But don’t some forms of madness keep the sufferer from realizing they are mad?”
He flashed a brief, lopsided smile. “One must make exceptions at times, true. But I don’t want to spend all evening talking about me, Miss Vasilver. Shall I ask some forbidden question of you? Did you have that dossier prepared on yourself?”
“I began it, my lord, but I fear I did not complete it. Byron thought you must have been joking when I asked him for a character reference for it.”
Nik grinned. “Half-joking, I suppose. But I am not joking about wanting to hear more about you.”
“Then I will finish it for you. But in the meantime, you may ask me whatever you please, my lord.” She had turned to face forward again, hands clasped in her lap, the long dangling beaded sleeves of her dress trailing over her skirt.
“I did, in fact, resort to interrogating Lysandra about you.” Nik felt odd about the admission – not normally something he’d confess to, although he’d pumped his sisters for information on people before. Yet it felt wrong to be less than straightforward with Miss Vasilver. “She said the two of you used to correspond after her graduation, particularly while you travelled the world.”
“Oh yes. When one is a passenger on a ship one has a great deal of time to keep up on correspondence. Although delivery is erratic.”
“I can imagine. Lys told me you’d spent years in Southern Vandu, and she’d never been clear on why the long overseas stay there. Some course of study they provided?” His sister had several speculations to offer beyond that, but Nik withheld them to see what Miss Vasilver would volunteer.
“Oh. Southern Vandu.” Miss Vasilver was silent for a moment before continuing, “The reason for the two years I spent there is the eighth item on my list. I will tell you, my lord, but you must first promise me you will tell no other. Not even Mrs. Warwick.”
Nikola blinked at her. “Of course, you have my word. But you needn’t say if you’d prefer not to.”
“No, I should like to. You can tell me if it’s as horrifying a tale as my family thinks it. It’s rather complicated. It’s true that I undertook a course of study there – fascinating, actually – but it was not by my choice. Or my parents’. Technically, I was a prisoner.”
Nik gaped at the words, and the calm way she spoke them. “…what? Why did they imprison you?”
“Well, ‘imprison’ is perhaps the wrong way to describe it. Hostage? I did say it was complicated. Perhaps I should start earlier.”
“Perhaps that would be advised.” Nik remembered to close his hanging jaw.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with Southern Vandu at all, my lord, but their textile industry is world-renowned: they have the most remarkable manufacturies, automated looms two stories high which produce tremendous amounts of wonderfully high-quality cloth. Three years ago, Vasilver Trading was negotiating with their Kyr for import/export rights to the nation. We wished to ship in raw ivywool, encotton, and agris, and export bolts of cloth. Southern Vandu is finicky about whom they’ll permit to conduct business in their nation, and no Newlant business at the time was licensed to operate within their borders. All the contracts for their goods were ferried through companies at third-party nations. Now, one of the peculiarities here is that Vandese law prohibits foreign men from venturing about their country unaccompanied by a female relation – wife, mother, cousin, what have you.”
Nikola blinked at her. “Truly? The man needs a chaperone?”
“Yes. It’s…perhaps not dissimilar to the anxiety of that woman you described. The reasoning – not all Vandese believe this, mind – is that non-Vandese men are uncivilized brutes who can only be checked by the presence of a woman. A relation, because an unrelated woman would not be able to exert moral authority over his bestial nature.”
Nikola snorted, trying to restrain a disbelieving laugh.
“This gets worse, I’m afraid. But let me continue. My father sent myself and my brother Stephen to negotiate. Stephen was our lead negotiator – women in Southern Vandu are not expected to engage directly in such things – and I was along in advisory capacity and to fulfill Vandese legal requirements. Along with two wives and one daughter, for the other men on the negotiation team. We made quite a parade. Our first problem was just a little bobble on the evening of the second day, when seven of us went out for dinner without Mrs. Hughes because she was unwell. One of the Kyr’s men chanced upon us on the street as we returned to our lodgings, and pitched a fit over Mr. Hughes being about without a female relation. At that point, we understood clearly that the men needed chaperones in this nation, but we’d quite forgotten that each man needed his own specific one. Miss Caphly made up some bit about her being Mrs. Hughes’ second cousin once removed and therefore a relation of a sort, and they got it smoothed over. After that, we were all careful and things went splendidly for the next three days. Then there was the evening of the fifth day.” Miss Vasilver looked straight ahead as she spoke, focused on her words and seeming unaware of Nik. “We had everything settled for the formal licensing the next day: the Kyr was having clean copies of the documents drafted for his stamp and print, and he was hosting a feast for us. There was a huge quantity of food and copious amounts of a local drink, misfil, served over ice. Stephen’s favorite dish was this spicy duck-and-spinach affair, and he was gulping down glass after glass of misfil to wash down the heat of it.”
“This isn’t going to end well, is it?” Nik asked.
“It’s going to end with me spending the next two years in an enforced stay in Southern Vandu, so no. But it could have been far worse.
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