How to Handle This Well (121/141)

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In mid-spring, Nik returned to Gracehaven to visit Wisteria. His parents were at their estate in Anverlee, so he had the enormous Gracehaven manor to himself. Himself and a few hundred petitioners, over the course of a week-long stay: they kept him busy, but it was not the overwhelming pre-Ascension crush.

Comfrey normally stayed in the city until the Assembly closed for the summer, but this year he had given his proxy to one of his political allies and removed from the city to return to Comfrey Viscountcy for the summer and early fall. Nikola had not heard from him since the Ascension season ended; only of him, from mutual friends. Including Wisteria.

Wisteria was engrossed in plans for Fireholt, which she would discuss with Nik in as much or as little detail as he liked. At first, the business angle had made him uneasy; he recalled his father’s mounting debts and worried about what he might be committing himself and his people to. But Wisteria’s competence and thoroughness, and her calm way of answering every question and addressing each nuance, had put his mind at ease. Her dowry was impressive, and he wanted to leave it in her care. In fact, he looked forward to putting her in charge of all their finances. He was confident she’d handle it better than he did, and enjoy doing so more.

His future mother-in-law found wedding-related tasks for him to do, such as chasing down answers from some of their guests who’d not responded yet but whom were almost certain to make an appearance. Despite the growing anxiety and pestering with messages from both sets of parents, Nikola could not be worried about it. There’d be someone there to perform the ceremony and Wisteria would say yes, and everything else was irrelevant pomp.

Well, perhaps not quite everything else.

One afternoon, after Nik finished with his last petitioner appointment at Anverlee Manor, Shelby informed Nik that Miss Vasilver had called, and awaited him in the back parlor. Nik was surprised. While a single woman would never call upon a single man in the ordinary course, a betrothed woman calling upon her intended was unexceptionable. However, Nik was to dine at Vasilver Manor in a couple of hours, and it was odd that Wisteria wouldn’t wait for his arrival.

He hastened to meet her in the back parlor. The coverings on the room’s antique sixth-century furniture were a trifle threadbare, but its modest size and the placement of its windows conspired to make it the warmest room in the mansion and very pleasant during the cooler months. Wisteria was sitting at the secretary desk by one wall when he entered; Nik had not seen its surface unfolded in years, but she had it open now to support a leather folder. She was studying the papers inside, but turned at his entrance. “Good afternoon, my lord. I apologize for my intrusion—”

He stooped to cup her cheek in one hand and kissed her. “Your presence could never be an intrusion, my love. Everything else intrudes on time I should rather spend with you.”

Wisteria slid her hands around the back of his neck and pulled him down again for a second kiss. “My lord is much too kind.” She stroked his jaw with her thumb and kissed him again. After a few speechless minutes, she disentangled herself enough to speak. “Not that I have the least objection to this use of our time, but I did in fact come for a reason beyond glorying in what a wonderfully talented and handsome betrothed I have somehow acquired for myself.”

Nik laughed. “Now, what better reason could there be?”

Wisteria considered this. “I will not go so far as to say it is a better reason. But I wanted to talk to you about the marriage contract.”

“Please no. I thought we’d settled all that before the season ended.” Newlant marriage contracts were convoluted documents, not merely between the two individuals marrying but also between their families. They specified the woman’s dowry, the man’s personal holdings, the inheritances that were intended for either of them and what circumstances might change the latter. In addition, they stipulated the terms under which various assets might be spent, invested, or must be held for the married couple’s heirs, what became of marital assets if one spouse or the other died without issue, what became of the heirs if both spouses died, and on and on and on. Some of it was covered by boilerplate and much of it was subject to future amendment by the involved parties. But since “the involved parties” included both Wisteria’s parents and Nik’s, discussions about the marriage contract had involved all six of them plus three lawyers plus assistants, and it had all been interminable.

“Yes, the financial details are settled, but there’s one thing that I wanted to discuss with you alone and not half of Gracehaven. I have been looking into the law involved…”

“Wait, wait, if we’re going to discuss law I want to get comfortable first,” Nik said. Wisteria nodded and glanced about for another chair to pull up to the desk. Nik, having other plans, scooped her into his arms.

“Oh!” She clasped her hands around his neck as he started for the couch. “Wait, my papers.”

He stooped with her so she could gather them awkwardly one-handed, then carried her to the couch and settled with her in his lap. She folded her knees to one side with incongruous decorum, so that her shoes did not rest against the couch as she leaned sideways against his chest. “Now, what is this one legal matter?”

“It’s regarding extramarital affairs,” she said, as calmly as if discussing the Fireholt entailment. “I – my lord, I know we discussed this prior to the engagement, but I am not entirely sure we have an understanding. Fidelity is the expected course, and I believe it advisable to, well, attempt to follow it, if only because there are good reasons for this expectation. Are we agreed thus far?”

Nik thought about Justin. You cannot have him. You never truly did. He remembered that surge of fear and jealousy at the thought of Wisteria loving another man. He kissed her forehead and marveled anew at the unique beauty of her mind. Her long curly dark hair was swept to one side and held with a comb, exposing the shell-like curve of her ear and the sweep of her long neck. “Yes, my love.”

“And yet…we did acknowledge that temptations might arise and so many people do fail at living up to this ideal, and I thought that perhaps we ought to plan for the possibility that one or both of us might…at some distant point…some very distant point…it’s very distracting when you do that, my lord.”

He paused in nibbling at her ear. “Sorry,” he murmured insincerely, nuzzling down her nape. “Do go on.”

“And the boilerplate has stipulations in it…my lord, am I wrong to bring this up? I know I plan for every contingency and perhaps I shouldn’t, only if we don’t plan for it now, well…I don’t know.” She wriggled in his lap, circling a hand around his head to cradle his face to her neck.

He licked the velvety skin of her throat, nipped, drew back before temptation overwhelmed him, and considered the question. The memory of Wisteria’s confession that there was another man still made him jealous and fearful. Even if the conversation they’d had back in Fireholt had made him half-suspect that ‘other man’ was Comfrey, the least likely bachelor in Newlant to commit to anyone. “I…is this about that other man? The one you wanted to marry as well?”

She shook her head. “No. Nothing will come of that. I speak only hypothetically.”

Nik relaxed, stroking her arm. “I admit, I don’t want to share you with any man. But I would rather share you than lose you, and I would rather you felt comfortable being honest with me. Please, continue. What does this have to do with the marriage contract? You can’t mean – our parents would have fits if we included terms on conducting extramarital affairs.”

“Oh yes, I learnt my lesson on that count already. No, I have been thinking about how to do this subtly. It is not my strength, I fear. First: are you aware that adultery is not a crime in Newlant?”

Nik blinked at her. “It isn’t?”

“No. There are two statutes on the prohibition of sexual intercourse. One prohibits unmarried persons from engaging in sexual intercourse. It dates from the third century and the penalties are rather silly: a week of temple service and suitable restitution for the dishonor to one’s family, not to exceed the value of a score of chickens. The other is from the sixth century and prohibits sexual acts between men, and the penalties there are unfortunately more serious. But there is no statute prohibiting sexual acts between, say, two married people who happen not to be married to each other. Instead, it’s a civil matter: a contract violation. Of the marital contract, specifically. In the boilerplate of virtually every Newlant marriage contract is a clause that prohibits adultery and specifies the penalties thereof. Which are quite standard things, such as pillorying for a single offense, up to divorce with all marital assets going to the wronged party for ‘gross violation’. Of course, few parties choose to sue for such breach, I presume because our society is so unforgiving of divorce and since adultery is often difficult to prove in court.”

“…that makes sense.” Nik had never given much thought to the legal consequences of adultery. He knew some cases where men had duelled their wives’ lovers for the insult, and some where women cheated in revenge for their husband’s infidelity. But almost any plan of action was regarded as preferable to the scandal of invoking the courts and airing to the world one’s marital problems and one’s inability to resolve them privately. “So you want to, what, snip out this bit of boilerplate before we sign?”

“That probably would not go unnoticed, since there are three lawyers involved and there will be a reading of the final contract before ourselves and our parents. No, I was thinking about the amendment clause.”

“How’s that?”

“Since our parents are signatories on the original marital contract, their signatures are generally required for amendment of it. However, an ‘amendment clause’, stipulating fewer people who must sign to make a change, has become common in the last few decades. Usually it’s for things like letting the marriage partners change the guardian of their children without getting the signatures of four grandparents. But there’s several pages of boilerplate that doesn’t impact on fiscal obligations and doesn’t involve the parents. I think we can make our amendment clause—” she flicked through the pages in her hands “—something to the effect of ‘Sections 1A through 8H inclusive may only be amended by consent of all living signatories or their designees. All other sections may be amended by consent of Husband and Wife.’ That doesn’t sound peculiar, does it?”

Nik smiled. “Wisteria. Listen to yourself. All legal terminology sounds peculiar.”

“Yes, granted, but it doesn’t sound any more peculiar than the rest, does it? And sections 1A through 8H are the only ones that concern property and our inheritance. All the rest is just about us. Including the article governing adultery. And I checked and it’s a little unusual to have an amendment clause like this but it’s by no means unheard of.”

Nik kissed her cheek. “I am sure it’s fine. So then we can amend it after marriage to say adultery is all right, if we like? That…doesn’t seem the sort of thing one would want on public record, even if no one is ever expected to look at it.”

“The adultery clause is…” Wisteria leafed through the pages again. “Section 10 Article I. I thought we’d file an amendment changing something reasonable – the guardian for Fireholt in the event we are both incapacitated but not killed, say – and in the same amendment have a line saying ‘Section 10I is removed’. Oh, better yet, ‘Section 10I is replaced by’ some minor rewording of Section 10L. Then if anyone wonders we could claim we meant to change 10L. Oops.”

Nik laughed. “I had no idea you were so devious, Wisteria.”

She dropped the papers in her lap, studying his face. “Is it wrong of me? I am not sure how to handle this well; it seems much easier to do it badly the way so many others have.”

“I think you are doing a fine job of it. Very subtle. Make it so, my love; I am with you in this and all things,” he said, and sealed the pledge with another kiss.

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