Nik struggled through his petitioners on Friday and Saturday – both days made more troublesome by his abandonment of duty on Thursday, of course – without contemplation of escape again. Where would I escape to? He couldn’t run off to Miss Vasilver every day. After his last appointment on Saturday night, he went to the manor’s library to read for a few hours. Their library held an eclectic selection of books, from a leather-bound illuminated replica of Code of the Savior, with Commentary by His Blessed of the Second Century (purchased after his father was forced to sell an original hand-scribed edition) to natural histories so old they pre-dated greatcats, to the histories and biographies his father favored and the melodramas and tragedies his mother enjoyed. Nikola chose a battered adventure novel he’d read many times as a boy – The Knights of Cambre – and sprawled undignified on a sofa as he read it again. A quarter of the way through, the author introduced Sir Conrad, one of the protagonists, and Nik remembered he’d always pictured Sir Conrad as Justin.
Nikola had known of Justin for some years before they’d properly met (‘improperly met’ might be a better way to put it, given the peculiar circumstances of their first encounter). Lord Justin, as he’d been before he inherited at twenty-three, had been a famed competitor in a number of school sports – fencing, archery, unarmed combat, backball – and an adolescent Nikola had idolized him from a distance. He’d followed Justin’s exploits via coverage in the Post, and sometimes traveled to attend local matches with Lord Striker. He’d thought Justin the perfect lord: fearless, determined, handsome, quick-witted, at ease in every setting. It had taken a while for young Nik to realize that his adulation sprang from infatuation rather than a desire to emulate Justin. Nikola had never expected that attraction to be reciprocated. He’d been stunned when he learned it was. Stunned and thrilled.
If only the admiration had been reciprocal as well.
He felt a certain weariness at the thought. Is it truly Justin’s failing? If he does not admire or respect me, is it not because there is little admirable or respectable about me? Penniless, undignified, petulant, spoilt, self-centered – it’s no wonder he thinks so little of me. And whatever chance I had of ever making him see me as a grown and independent man vanished when I agreed to put myself in his debt forever.
Nik sighed. He might as well try to avoid air as to escape thoughts of Justin. He’s been a fixture of my life, one way or another, for more than half of it. Small wonder I cannot set that aside. He turned back to the book anyway. As he read, he reflected that Sir Conrad was not much like the real Justin: the fictional knight was a kind-hearted, selfless man, indifferent to his own welfare and comfort, ready to lend assistance to any who asked without thought to the cost. Nik found he preferred Justin anyway. Sir Conrad has no sense of humor.
The clock had chimed past one in the morning and Nik was still reading when the noise of a commotion in the foyer caught his attention. He opened the library door, grimaced at the too-familiar high-pitched shriek of a young girl, and quickened his stride to reach the source.
The foyer was in shambles, as if a small tornado had torn through it and knocked over tables, toppled the grandfather clock, upended vases, ripped down tapestries, and cast paintings upon the floor. The probable source of the chaos cowered in a corner behind a makeshift barricade of tables, wielding the broken side of a heavy gilt frame like a club. “STAYBA’STAYBA’STAYBA,” Sharone Whittaker shrieked at Robert, a footman standing just out of reach of her ersatz club. The stout man was uttering a stream of curses, the sleeve of his jacket torn, his look suggesting he was considering drawing his ceremonial short sword on her.
In the most commanding tones he could muster, Nikola said, “Miss Whittaker, what is going on here?” He yanked on the bell rope by the front door to summon a greatcat from the felishome as he crossed the room to join the footman.
Robert bit back on his latest string of curses to give Nikola an ashamed look. “M’lord, we just found her wandering loose like this—” he shouted to be heard over Sharone’s screams “—Elisa went to get her parents—”
Nik nodded, motioning the man to silence. He took up station on the opposite side from Robert, surrounding Sharone’s barricaded corner of the foyer in the hope that she would not be able to get past both of them. As the child paused to refill her lungs with air, Nik demanded sternly, “Miss Whittaker, what is the meaning of this outburst?” On instinct, he added, “Is Mrs. Square involved?”
The child fell silent, breathing hard as she stared at him, fluffy black curls in a wild tangle about her face. After a moment, she gave a slow nod.
“Tell me how.” Nik tried to sound firm but not angry.
While the child’s attention was on him, Robert darted in and seized the section of frame she held. Sharone wailed “Le’goLE’GONOMISTERBROWN!” but the footman’s much greater leverage and strength overcame the reckless power that madness lent her and he wrested it from her grip. Screaming, she let it go and darted between the legs of a sideways table. Nikola caught her as she emerged and immediately regretted it as she flailed at him with feet and fists, frantic to escape. “LE’GOMISSUSSQUAREDON’HUR’EM!” Reflexively, he called on the Savior to cast out the demon that riddled her mind with thorn-covered vines, strangling her mindshapes. It was fruitless, of course; his mind filled with the Savior’s sorrow at the girl’s resistance.
As he was still trying to get her under control, the adult Whittakers arrived at a run. Mrs. Whittaker stammered apologies and Mr. Whittaker relieved Nik of his squirming, weeping burden. By the time Anthser arrived, the Whittakers had their daughter effectively restrained again. Mrs. Whittaker blamed herself – she’d fallen asleep on her watch, and Sharone had somehow managed to get a locked door off its hinges and escaped without waking either of them.
Nikola could not imagine how much trouble the child would be full-grown if she were not cured first, given the amount of havoc she could wreak at six. She’s not even four feet tall. How could she get a door off its hinges? The mind boggled. He resisted the impulse to rub his thigh where she’d kicked him. Elisa, a very young woman and daughter of the cook, had a ripening bruise around one eye and would not come within fifteen feet of the child even after she’d been bound. He nodded wearily at the Whittakers’ apologies and waved them back to their suite. Mr. Whittaker promised to watch the girl while Mrs. Whittaker would return to help clean the mess. As they left, Elisa started putting things to rights while Robert went to wake some of the other staff.
“Want one of us to stay in their suite?” Anthser had shown up a few minutes after the humans had gotten the situation under control. The greatcat had kept a quiet vigil by the door while Nik was busy.
Yes. No. I don’t know. The uncanny energy of her madness could not, surely, make the child a match for a greatcat, and a greatcat’s superior hearing, strength, and speed should keep her better under control. On the other hand – this was not their job. They should not have to deal with this kind of thing. Nikola watched the chambermaid lift paintings and lean them against the walls to survey the damage, then gather up the fallen tapestries. None of them should.
Anthser yawned, tongue curling in his huge fang-rimmed mouth. “Y’know, I’m tired and I don’t feel like going all the way back to the felishome tonight.” Nik raised one eyebrow at him; the felishome was a hundred yards away, if that. “So I’m gonna go sleep in, oh, one of the north wing suites. The one you gave the Whittakers has a fire set in it already, right? I’m sure they won’t mind sharing. G’night, Lord Nik.” Anthser nuzzled Nik’s cheek and turned to depart.
Nik managed a half-smile. “Good night, Anthser.” He watched a half-dozen grumbling, sleepy servants file into the foyer. Mrs. Goslin, Anverlee’s head of staff, shook her head at the chaos and directed the others on various tasks. His presence checked their complaints, but he could feel their resentment of the hour, the work, the extent of damage done – at least three of the paintings he could see were torn and irreparable. A wave of weariness washed over him. With an effort, he strode to Mrs. Goslin’s side. “Thank you for your efforts tonight,” he told her. “When you have a reckoning on the extent of the damages, please let me know. I’ll cover it. Also, I’d appreciate a list of the names and hours worked this evening on it – I’ll provide a bonus for it.” I don’t even have it yet and I’m already spending Justin’s money, he thought, nauseated and hopeless.
The tall, silver-haired housekeeper answered with a grave curtsey. “Yes, m’lord. Thank you.”
For what? There was a great deal more work to be done, none of which was his to do. Nikola gave up and retired.
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