Various acquaintances greeted him as he made his way out, but he rebuffed all attempts at conversation with the briefest of explanations: “petitioner emergency”. Fortunately, it was an excuse everyone accepted without question.
In short order, he retrieved his overcoat and hurried down the long wide marble steps of Dawnfell Palace, drawing winter gloves on in place of dress ones. The gaslights that outlined every column, ledge, and window of the palace illuminated the grounds almost well enough to make the additional lights along the steps and drive superfluous. The greatcat waiting for him on the drive gave him pause: she was a pubescent calico he recognized as Meredith, one of Gunther’s daughters. Someone had given her a dish of punch, and she jerked her head from it, licking her whiskers clean as she gave him an anxious bow. “Lord Nik – sorry ’bout your party but Mr. Whittaker said—”
“Not at all, Meredith, you did well. Thank you. Ah…” He considered her size; she was far smaller than a full-grown greatcat, about four feet at the shoulder, but even so she was several times the mass of a grown man, and around the size Anthser had been when Nik first started riding him. Of course, I was smaller then too. “I hate to ask more of you yet, feli, but do you think you might be able to bear me back to Anverlee? I don’t wish to overburden you, but speed—”
She splayed her ears to the sides. “I don’t mind, m’lord, but I hasn’t got no riding seat—”
“I assure you, I can stay on without one. If that is the only difficulty?”
“Sure. I carry Kris alla time, you ain’t much bigger.” Kris was the cook’s adolescent son and half Nik’s size, but perhaps to even a young greatcat that did not signify. Meredith lay down for Nik to mount, though she hardly needed to.
Nik settled behind her shoulders, thighs holding him snugly in place, fingers wrapped around the upper strap of her harness. “Thank you, Meredith. Let me know if the weight’s too much, I’m sure there are other runners about.” Although between the greatcats who chose not to work on Ascension night and the additional demand for transportation, it’d be faster to track down Hughbrant or Northholt and ask either of them to take him without the carriage.
Meredith started down the palace’s long tree-lined drive at a walk, glancing nervously over her shoulder at her illustrious passenger. He offered a reassuring smile. “When I was about your age, Anthser and I used to rampage across the Anverlee countryside. We didn’t use a riding seat because Anthser was too small for the ones we owned. There’s one particular orchard where we’d pretend the ground was lava, and he’d try to negotiate it as quickly as possible without falling into the ‘lava’. A few times, as I recall, he did miss a jump. But I never fell from him during that game.” At other times, granted, but not then. “Whatever speed you consider sustainable, I promise you, I will manage.”
“Oh!” She splayed her ears again. “As you like, m’lord.” Meredith faced forward, squared her shoulders, and began to trot, then loped with ground-eating strides. Her pace was markedly different from Anthser’s, all long limbs and without his practice in managing the shock of a normal run. But she wasn’t vaulting over carriages or running up trees, which more than made up for the difficulty of not having a proper seat. The jolting discomfort also drove any question of amorous activity entirely from his mind. The wintery air and darkened streets brought their own kind of exhilaration; Nik crouched low on the greatcat’s back, hunched to shield himself from the wind of their passage and glad he’d thought to switch to warmer gloves before mounting. The neighborhoods near the palace were all brightly lit by Ascension lanterns, but as they drew farther away Meredith traversed back alleys and ill-lit side streets with a surefootedness that made Nik especially glad for a greatcat’s eyes to guide them.
They made excellent time back to Anverlee Manor, although Meredith slowed by the end, tongue lolling from her mouth as she panted from the exertion. Even so, her muzzle crinkled in dismay when he suggested she get a drink and snack from the kitchen as well as some rest. “But can’t I watch, m’lord?” she asked, disappointed.
“There’s nothing to see, in truth, but…yes, of course you may watch.” Assuming Sharone doesn’t refuse me again. Well, if she does, it won’t take that long to get back to Miss Vasilver. All the lights were extinguished at the manor; everyone but a skeleton crew of servants was out at one Ascension event or another. Nik took a candle from the footman who answered the door and waved off his offered escort. With the young greatcat at his heels, Nik made his way to the Whittaker’s suite.
The soft, inconsolable sobbing just audible through the closed wooden door was not heartening. Nik rapped lightly on it, and an anxious Mr. Whittaker answered. “Lord Nikola! So sorry to have disturbed you—”
Nik could not imagine how it felt to spend your whole life apologizing for things outside your control. “Thank you for sending word,” he said to head off the rest, stepping through the doorway and onto the sitting room’s plain green threadbare rug. Sharone was curled up on one of the mismatched armchairs before the hearth in the sitting room, knees hugged to her chest, face dipped and hidden behind a mass of tangled curls. She rocked in place, whimpering. Her mother was in the other armchair, pretending to read while she stole glances at her daughter.
Meredith sidled in around Nikola. “Hey, don’t cry, kiddo. Look, I got Lord Nik for you! He’ll fix it.” The young greatcat ambled to Sharone’s chair and leaned over the arm to nose at Sharone’s hunched back, oblivious to Mrs. Whittaker’s attempt to caution her against it. The girl screamed and whirled around to flail at the greatcat’s orange, black and white face. Meredith danced out of reach, startled. “Oops! Didn’t mean ta upset her more.”
Sharone scrambled to stand on the seat cushion, small hands fisted before her, dark brown eyes glaring at Meredith and then the rest of the room. When her eyes fell on Nik, she froze. Her hands dropped but remained clenched, a small defiant figure with a round dark face half obscured by tangled black hair. “Said y’ wo’ na come.”
“But I did. You asked for me, Miss Whittaker?” Nik approached her with casual, unhurried steps.
“I told ya he’d come!” Meredith protested indignantly. Nik realized at last that Meredith must have been the designated greatcat-on-duty, with Anthser out celebrating and Gunther and Jill taking his parents to the Ball. He winced at the thought. Poor child.
“Missus Square said he wo’ na. Said better if he dinna.” Sharone looked like a wild animal, ready to bolt or attack. She took a step back on the seat cushion as Nik approached, pressing against the chair back.
Nikola stopped a couple of yards away from her. He tried to put his hands in his pockets, forgetting that neither the breeches nor the formal jacket had front pockets. He clasped his fingers loosely behind his back instead. “Why did she say it would be better if I didn’t come, miss?”
“’cause then no one’d ge’ hur’.”
“I am not going to hurt anyone, Miss Whittaker. I am not going to do anything at all without your help.”
She sniffled, dragging her sleeve across her nose. “Wha’ d’y’ want?”
His mind flicked back to the Ascension Ball for an instant, to Miss Vasilver’s embrace, to Justin dancing in the ballroom. Nik pushed the images aside and gave her a lopsided smile. “Now, that is my question to you. You asked for me. What would you like, Miss Whittaker?”
Sharone sniffled again. “I don’ wan’ anybody hur’.”
“A worthy goal,” he agreed. “I can help with that, if you like.”
She shook her head. “Missus Square says y’ won’. ’ll be worse if I don’ do wha’ she says.”
“Who’s Missus Square?” Meredith asked, whiskers splayed in confusion. Sharone didn’t answer.
Nik kept his attention on the little girl. “You understand that Mrs. Square is not being honest with you, do you not, Miss Whittaker? The things she makes you do hurt people.”
Sharone sank down in her chair, hugging her legs again. She gave a small nod, but added, “’ll be worse if I don’.”
“It will not,” Nik said, with quiet conviction. He took a step forward and knelt before her chair, putting his head a little below hers, and looked up into her face. “She is lying to you and using you.” He cast his mind back to the game with the dolls and blocks and animals, trying to recall what Sharone herself had said and done. “You cannot negotiate with her in good faith. She will not learn. You cannot reason with her. You know that, don’t you?”
Another small, scared nod. “Why d’ y’ care?”
He blinked at her. How could I not? Nik offered as simple and honest an explanation as he could manage: “Because the Savior loves you, Miss Whittaker, and he wants you to be well and whole. And he’s my friend too, so I should like to help.”
“Will it hurt?”
“No.” He drew off his right glove and offered her his hand.
With her face screwed up tight, shoulders hunched, she forced forward one trembling arm. It was as if the air were mud she had to push through. When she touched his fingers at last, her mouth opened: “AAAA—” The scream cut off an instant after it began, as the demon infesting her mind evaporated like mist under the Savior’s radiance. Sharone stared at him, breathless and shocked.
Nik cupped her little hand lightly between his. With the demons gone, he could see the extent of the developmental damage in her mind, the gaps and warping where her mindshapes had grown into and around the demon. That seldom happened – demons altered the mind’s behavior by adding to it, leaving the underlying structures untouched, so the petitioner was cured once they were gone. But he rarely saw demonic infestation so thorough in one so young. The wave of the Savior’s power suffused them both, her mind open and trusting to him. “You’ll be fine,” he said, softly. He started constructing scaffolds, building missing connections, knitting injuries closed, easing apart damaged mindshapes so they would have room to grow properly. “You’ll be fine now.”
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