Mind-Reading (24/141)

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The next two days followed a similar pattern: it felt as though there were not enough hours in the day to treat everyone whom Nikola was capable of helping. Nik didn’t mind so much for himself; most of the time slipped away in a trance with petitioners and the Savior, and he ended each evening as alert as when he’d awoken. But the long hours and the number of people were a strain on both his staff and Anverlee’s. He needed more people so they could work in proper shifts, but he scarcely had the funds to pay the staff he already had. Maybe Mrs. Linden should send for one of the three staff left to manage Fireholt. Not that he wanted Fireholt to be in a state of disrepair on his return.

After he finished with petitioners at night, Nik went to his gentlemen’s club, the Markavian, ostensibly to catch up with his peers. But at the back of his mind, he always hoped Justin would stop by. That would work…eventually. But at this time of year, before the current session of the Assembly ended and the grand social galas began with the Ascension Ball, Justin had little leisure time, and the Markavian’s rules forbid both business and political meetings on the premises.

Anverlee Manor itself was full of relations Nik had barely had time to greet over the past two days. Both his older and younger sister had come for the season, bringing along their husbands, children, and a few more servants. For the Whittakers, Lady Striker had opened one of the suites in the disused north wing and furnished it with relics from the attic too shabby to have been sold. They were out of the way for now, but with the Strikers expecting yet more guests, Nik felt greater sympathy for his father’s initial reaction. At least Sharone Whittaker was calm enough now that her parents didn’t need to keep her restrained most of the time, and her screaming jags were rare and muffled enough by distance and walls that they did not disturb the rest of the household. She still went into fits at the sight of anyone but her parents, however. Nik had stopped in a couple of times, but while her behavior was less ear-piercingly intolerable, she’d not yet had any periods of lucidity and Nik’s presence seemed to provoke her.

Nik still kept Miss Vasilver’s quasi-contract close at hand, transferring it to his nightstand when he went to bed and to the inner breast pocket of his jacket when he rose the next day. He felt protective of it without knowing why, as if it were a trust he could not expose to the possible scrutiny of Anverlee’s servants. From time to time, when he had a few minutes alone, he’d take it out and review its curious clauses with their proliferation of alternatives. He’d always thought the sole choice in marriage was whom one married: everything after that was just…marriage. To Miss Vasilver, marriage appeared a great deal more open-ended.

He’d told her he would call on her again. Nik found himself wishing to do so; Savior knew he didn’t want to court her, but the glimpses of her thought process revealed in the document piqued his curiosity. He wanted to know more of her as a person, not a potential wife.

The fifth day after their first meeting was a Sunday, the one day he didn’t see petitioners. Justin had, to Nik’s surprise, accepted an invitation to bowracing for the late afternoon: they were to meet for a quick dinner at Comfrey Manor before setting out (“No business or politics, I promise,” Justin’s note of reply specified). Nikola decided to call on Miss Vasilver prior to that. He didn’t know what hours Miss Vasilver kept – in Gracehaven, people of quality tended towards late hours – but their previous meeting had been set for one o’clock. For most, that was a decent interval after breakfast and before dinner. Nik opted to aim for earlier today, in part to be sure it didn’t conflict with his engagement with Justin, and in part to escape Anverlee Manor before his parents could waylay him to ask where he was going.

Nik made it out the front door unhindered, but on the front lawn he ran afoul of his younger sister Daphne. She was wrapped in a warm coat, watching her own baby boy – not quite two – play with their elder sister Lysandra’s brood of five in ages from two to ten, as well as Jill and two of her grandkittens. Two human nannies were also supervising.

“Oh, Nikki, you’re not going out?” Daphne asked, half-turning as he came out. She was a short woman, blond and round-faced like their mother, figure gone from slim to plump since the birth of her first child. After getting a good look at him, she repeated with a laugh, “You’re not going out like that.” She stepped to his side and fussed at his neckcloth. “How did your valet ever let you out of his sight? Maybe it’s time you got a younger man for that job.”

“Shelby has the day off,” Nik said. He suffered patiently as Daphne untied, rearranged, and re-tied his neckcloth.

“Well whoever did help you ought not be allowed to again, Nikki.” She patted at the folds of the cloth and twitched his cuffs straight.

No one did. Nik didn’t feel like explaining to his sister that he gave his entire staff the day off on Sundays. “Daphne.” He laid a gloved finger beneath her pale chin and tipped her face to meet his eyes. With mock sternness, he informed her, “One more ‘Nikki’ out of you, and I will teach every one of Lysandra’s children to call you ‘Aunt Daffy’.”

Daphne giggled. “Nik. Sorry.”

“Much better.”

But the delay had given the children time to notice him, and they swarmed over, demanding attention. “Uncle Nik! Uncle Nik!” Nik doled out hugs. His youngest niece, Annaliese, pressed her forehead to his as he held her and squeaked, “Unca Nik! Ree m’ mind!”

“You want chocolate,” Nik hazarded.

She giggled as he released her. “Kin I ha’ some?”

“Ask your nanny,” Nik told her, as eight year-old Adamos put a grubby hand on Nik’s cheek next and insisted ‘me! Me now!’ “You caught a frog,” Nik told him, based on the damp dirt on the hand in question and a wriggle in the boy’s jacket pocket. Adamos gave him a look of wide-eyed amazement.

Each child insisted on a turn, with cousin or sibling handing up the two that were too young to ask themselves. (“You need a diaper change,” Nik said of Daphne’s baby, and passed the boy to his nanny.) The children had a pleasantly diverse array of healthy, growing minds; it soothed his mindsense to observe undamaged minds for a little while. After ‘mind-reading’, the assembled nieces and nephews presented a variety of childhood treasures for him to dutifully admire, including Adamos’s frog, one snake, a garland of flowers woven for Lady Striker, two snails, Jill’s grandkittens (seven year-old twins whom Nik had met before), Jill herself, and a scabbed knee. Fortunately, a human uncle was no match in entertainment for a trio of greatcats, and soon the kids were back to playing without him.

Nik turned to Daphne as the children pelted away shrieking across the lawn. “Am I unpresentable again?”

Daphne wetted a handkerchief and wiped off his face as if he were her son, then scrutinized his attire. She brushed some flecks of dirt and grass strands off, and shook her head. “No, you’re fit to go. Are you truly leaving? We’ve scarcely seen you since we arrived.”

“You and everyone else. I’ve barely seen myself since Wednesday. I’ll be at Temple tonight, and home for supper. I promise.” He swept her a bow.

His little sister smiled and curtsied with the same faux formality. “I’ll hold you to your word, Lord Nikola.”

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