Maudlin (98/141)

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Justin called on the infirmary on Monday, the day after Nikola’s rescue. The attendant on duty delivered the welcome news that Lord Walther had succeeded in healing Nikola during the first night. “Healing him physically,” he qualified.

What other kind would he need? He’s the best healer of minds in the nation. If there’s something wrong with his head why would he not fix it himself? Justin didn’t ask. Nikola was still at the infirmary despite being healed. Justin did not ask why. Nikola was not receiving visitors.

Justin did not ask why about that, either. His head was full of questions that propriety and decency demanded he not ask. He left the infirmary with the comforting thought that Nikola was no longer in pain, and the disquieting one that Nikola did not wish to see him. He doesn’t want to see anyone. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with me. Perhaps he’s avoiding his parents and would be delighted to see me, but felt it would be more politic to exclude everyone.

Maybe the real reason he didn’t ask was that he was afraid the truth would be less gentle than the stories he invented for himself.    

His social calendar was crowded with events for the Ascension season. His valet had already sent his excuses for the engagements Justin had missed on Sunday. He had never felt less like entertaining or being entertained, but with an alternative of ‘stay home and brood’, he forced himself to attend Monday’s supper and dinner engagements.    

Everyone he saw wanted to speak of Nikola’s rescue: to congratulate him on his success, or admire his bravery, or ask him “what was it like? How did you do it?”

When Justin had been an athlete in school, and in the years afterward before his father died and Justin dropped out of formal sporting competitions to focus on his inheritance, he’d received questions like these all the time. People wanted the story of this victory or that loss, to know how a championship match went or how he felt in a quarterfinal when he was losing one touch to four but managed to come back and win. He was good at telling such stories. He actually had more fun with some of the disasters, such as when Nikola had rescued him after the fall, than the victories. In retrospect the catastrophes made for more amusing tales. But victories too could be dressed in absurd details and paraded for the amusement of listeners.

But this—

Every time someone asked him about it, he thought of Nikola, filthy and beaten with his fingers hideously mangled, tied to that chair. Of Anthser collapsing on the deck of the ship, licking poison from his own wound. Justin could not make light of it, could barely speak of any part of the rescue. He gave terse replies and waited for the other party to abandon the subject, then had to deal with it all again with some newcomer. Everyone expected him to be glad to tell the tale – he told so many others with ease – so his reticence was mistaken for politeness, taken as a sign that he only wanted more encouragement.    

On Tuesday, he called at Anverlee Manor and endured more thanks from Lady Striker. Nikola was still at the infirmary, she said, and not receiving visitors. She didn’t know when he’d be home. Tomorrow maybe. Justin called at the infirmary anyway, so he could be refused in person. When he went home, he cancelled his engagements for the day and spent the next several hours in grueling exercise, pushing himself harder than he had twelve years ago during his competition years, not stopping even when his body rebelled and he retched from overexertion. Eventually, he collapsed in stupefied exhaustion.

Wednesday morning he awoke early, with every muscle aching in protest of the previous day’s treatment. Justin lay in bed for a while before he could motivate himself to rise, limp through an abbreviated routine, and eat breakfast. Enough. No more idiotic behavior or binges of self-pity. I am a man: I can curst well act like it.

He called at Anverlee Manor again, his mind steeled for another rebuff, certain it would be futile but unable to do otherwise. His carriage rolled past a mob of petitioners outside Anverlee’s walls. No, not petitioners; they were not queued and awaiting permission to enter. It was more akin to a vigil, or visitors at a shrine: they stood in contemplative, quiet groups, many leaving tokens near the gates: flowers, notes, candles, wreaths, other artifacts. The manor gates were closed for the first time he could remember; two footmen unlocked and opened them when Justin identified himself. He wondered if the mob had been a problem, but the gathered people only watched, making no effort to slip inside while the gates were open.

Lady Striker welcomed him graciously to her home’s worn parlor, without any overt expressions of gratitude. Nikola was home now, but not receiving visitors, she said. And then volunteered, in a trembling rush, that he wasn’t seeing anyone. “Not even me, or Daffy or Lys. Not even his own valet. The greatcats bring him meals. He’ll see them. The only reason he came home at all is that I told Anthser Nikki could stay in the unused gamekeeper’s cottage and promised no one would pester him. I think he’d return to Fireholt were it not for the length of the journey.”

Justin wasn’t sure whether to thank her or discourage her from sharing such information; he was sure Nikola would not want it disseminated. Perhaps not even to me. Not that anything could keep Nikola from being a topic of gossip now. Justin settled for gently discouraging her by changing the topic. After a polite interval, he took his leave. His body was so stiff that he moved like the old man Nikola always teased him about being. Used to tease me.

Enough of this maudlin nonsense. I’ll call on Wisteria. Perhaps she’ll be glad to see me.


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