Nik did very little for the remainder of Monday, apart from grow unreasonably angry with Anthser when the greatcat faulted Justin for upsetting him. “Comfrey didn’t upset me! I upset myself! Because I’m an idiot! Now get out and leave me alone, you great ignorant oaf!”
He had not planned most of that conversation with Comfrey, or rather, not planned it for that day. All Nik had meant to do was give Comfrey his money back. Which he had not even managed to do. The rest had just…happened. Nik had meant to address those issues eventually, of course. They had to be dealt with at some point. But not this soon. Sometime when he was a little less fragile would have been good.
And I would have liked to have had one last good day with him, untainted by everything that has happened and all that is to come.
Nik had known he would very likely lose the…physical component of his relationship with Justin. He had not believed – not truly believed – that he might lose Justin’s friendship. Part of him still could not accept it, even after Comfrey threw his obligation in his face. To him, ‘friendship’ meant ‘I own you and you curst well better fuck me’ , and if I won’t honor that he has no further use for me.
But I cannot do that. I cannot live my life as Comfrey’s personal property, no matter how much I owe him.
No matter how much I love him.
By Tuesday, Nik had walled up the pain and grief behind a hard shell of cold anger. Yes, he owed Comfrey, far more than money. But the man had no right to demand so much of him. I never agreed to this bargain, never asked for his curst money, never commanded him to rescue me. I have a right to live my life with some integrity, however tarnished. I would have asked Miss Vasilver’s blessing for the affair if he’d let me, even. Perhaps it’s as well that he did not. At least now I know where I stand with him.
Nik sent a greatcat messenger to deliver the ledger, with an icily formal note reiterating his gratitude (of as little value to him as my affection, I suppose; I shall trouble him with neither again after this). The package was accepted with a terse message of acknowledgement; Nik had expected nothing more.
As awful as he felt, in some ways it was better than the misery and brooding of the previous days. Grief and anger felt more natural, more reasonable, than the bouts of irrational terror. That he’d had the strength of will to break with Comfrey made him feel stronger and more competent, as much as he hated the results. He slept badly on Monday night, napped through the middle of Tuesday, and woke in the late afternoon feeling – not better, but numb. As if he had exceeded his capacity to experience emotions and now could feel nothing at all.
When Anthser asked what he wanted brought down for supper, Nik surprised both the greatcat and himself by saying, “I’ll dine with the family.” He even asked for Shelby to help him dress for the meal.
Dressing went without incident, increasing his confidence that he could face his family and whatever guests were present this evening. He’d seen his mother and sisters separately at the cottage on Sunday.
His hands trembled as he walked the path to the house: he clasped them together to mask it. Nik was highly conscious of the additional greatcats about the grounds, all studiously not-watching him. At the manor, the footman exclaimed “Lord Nikola!” and bowed too deeply as he admitted him. All the servants moved on tiptoe about him, anxious looks betraying a concern almost comical.
At the supper table, his mother welcomed him with excessive solicitude, seating him at the chair nearest the fire and having his portions cut up small, as if he were convalescing from some physical illness.
His father offered, “Good of you to join us, Lord Nikola”: words cordial enough to excite no comment from their guests but tone implying Nik’s withdrawal from the household had been due to pique.
Nik confined his reply to, “Thank you, Father,” and ate his meal. His mother’s request for tiny pre-cut pieces for him was perhaps as well, since it meant he did not have to embarrass himself using a knife with shaking hands. I will not spend my life imprisoned by fear. If I can get through this perhaps I can convince my body it is not so dangerous after all. He could not force his heart rate to slow or end the anxiety, but he managed not to bolt from the table and the worst of the sensations eased after a little while.
Conversation at the long formal table was stifled by the weight of everything they were not talking about. Their guests, Lysandra’s in-laws, plainly longed to ask about the abduction but were determined not to be the ones to raise the subject. The table was saved from total silence only when Lysandra’s mother-in-law offered the topic of the education of her eldest grandson. This sparked a lively discussion, as most of the attendees had strong feelings on the subject. The elder Warwicks favored outside schooling over tutelage, and Lady Striker spoke lovingly of the East Hansleigh Academy for Boys, the boarding school Nik had attended. Lord Striker grumbled against it. “Their dean has some of the most daft ideas, practically an egalitarian. There’s no respect for rank in that school.”
Nik stifled a smile. Dean Dremmond was less an egalitarian than a tightwad. He used the student body to supplement his serving staff. Making the students do without titles and servants of their own wasn’t about equality but an excuse because the campus couldn’t accommodate additional servants. Lady Striker was saying, “Whatever do you mean, Rukert? You never complained about it while Nikki was there.”
Lord Striker harumphed. “Perhaps I should have.” Meaning ‘I thought a humbling experience would make my intractable son more tractable, and instead it made him even less dignified’, Nikola reflected.
“You went there, Nikola, what did you think of it?” Lysandra asked.
“Only for four years. It went well enough.” It got me away from my parents. And I met Comfrey there. The memory of that interlude – just a few days while Comfrey attended an event the school hosted – pained him now. I knew even then he was only using me. “The academics were good. I wouldn’t send a boy there at ten, though. Some of the older students are hard on the little ones.”
“Boys will be boys,” her husband Edmund Warwick said. “No harm in it. Toughens ’em up.”
There was no reason for that remark to remind Nik of Brogan, but it did. He clenched his hands together in his lap, staring at his plate without seeing it, waiting for the moment to pass. He was dimly aware that Lysandra had asked something else, but not what. A hand tapped his shoulder and he nearly jumped from his chair.
“Nikki?” His mother was watching him. Everyone was. “Are you all right, dear?”
“Nikola.” Lord Striker was looking at his wife, not his son. “His name is Nikola, madame. Perhaps if you stopped infantilizing him he could finally grow up.”
His mother exclaimed “Rukert!” at the same time that Daphne and Lysandra said, “Father!”
Before the scene could worsen, Nikola stood. Everyone was still looking at him. “I think,” he said, with more composure than he had expected to muster, “I may say from experience that pain does not, in fact, make one stronger. Excuse me.”
As he left the room, Lysandra’s voice rose behind him. “Mother, Father, you are both impossible! If it weren’t for Nik’s Blessing I declare we’d all be mad by now!”
“Don’t take that tone with us, young lady,” Lord Striker snapped.
“Then don’t you treat my brother like – like—”
Nikola walked quickly enough to be out of earshot before he could hear how Lysandra thought their parents were treating him. He had not intended to cause a scene and he certainly wasn’t staying to eavesdrop on one. He was halfway down the path to the cottage when he heard Daphne’s voice behind him. “Nik?” The tall lord stopped, wiped his eyes, and turned with a forced smile for his little sister.
She ran to him, blonde curls bouncing. “Oh Nik, why does our family always have to be so awful?” Daphne held out her arms, hesitated, then threw herself into his embrace when he didn’t shy away. With her arms tight around his waist, she added, “Why didn’t you ever cure them, anyway?”
Nikola dipped his head to rest his face against her hair, a genuine smile curving his lips. “A personality is not an illness.”
“Are you sure? Because Father acts like you got abducted on purpose just to annoy him and Mother acts like you’re three and it all seems at least a little bit crazy.”
“I’m afraid that’s all within the range of normal human behavior. For parents. Sorry.”
Daphne heaved a muffled sigh against his chest. “If I still call my son Ickle when he’s over four, you have my permission to kill me.”
“You call your son Ickle? I feel better about Nikki already.”
She hugged him harder, with a watery chuckle. “Oh, Nik, you are going to be all right, aren’t you? I know it takes time when the Savior can’t help, but…eventually?”
I hope so. He leaned away enough to look down into her round, worried face. “I will,” he told her. “The mind is extraordinarily resilient when it comes to trauma, even without divine intervention. If I wasn’t already better, I’d not be able to stand here talking to you. I will improve, I promise.”
Daphne wiped at her own eyes and nodded. “Do you have to hide in that horrible old cottage again? Lys was scolding everyone into submission when I left. They might manage to be tolerable for a few hours afterwards.”
“Or it might be even more hideously strained and awkward.”
“Well. Yes.” Daphne shivered against the winter chill: she didn’t have a dinner jacket like Nik and had not brought a wrap when she’d followed him.
Nik put an arm around her shoulder and steered her back to the house. “Since this is all my fault, I’d best help you face the hideousness, hadn’t I?”
With a strangled laugh, she slapped his wrist. “Don’t you start, Nik.” But she welcomed his company back into the manor house.
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