Mrs. Linden began the proceeding, voice booming out to fill the hall: “Visitors and people of Gracehaven! Lord Nikola will now move amongst the petitioners! Remain still, do not speak, and be patient. After he makes a determination, do as he directs you.”
Nik drew off his right glove and stepped to the start of the line, fingers touching the top of a bowed gray head. An instant’s contact was enough to see the spiky shell of a demon growing where the thick web of memories joined the rest of the mind. Savior. The god’s sunlit grace flowed through Nik and into the willing mind beside him: the hard demon shell melted away like snow in a thaw, vanishing from Nik’s perception in a moment. The petitioner’s head jerked up. “Oh! Oh.” Clear brown eyes looked up at him. “Is that all there is to it, my lord?”
Nikola smiled. “That’s all. You’ll be fine now; you may leave.” He moved on to the next petitioner, giving an absent nod in response to the profuse thanks of the elderly man and the relations with him. Bill Coxsleigh, one of Nikola’s own footmen who was helping to manage the crowd, gently but firmly herded them away. The next was an old woman with the right side of her body slack, a woman next to her helping to keep her steady in position. A touch, and the demon in her mind was gone. She lifted her right arm and laughed out loud, her face breaking into a smile.
The next was an unresponsive Haventure woman of middle years, with a man of about Nik’s age attending her. A frown creased Nik’s brow as he touched her: her mindshapes were all unremarkable, well within normal variation, no sign of a demon. “Please move to the end on the left,” he told her. She did not stir. He tilted her unresisting head back. Her eyes were brown, open but unfocused in a waxy, lined face: it was like looking at a doll.
The man behind her – her son, given the similar curly brown hair, narrow nose, and pointed chin – said, “She can’t hear you, m’lord. She doesn’t react to anything any more. Won’t you help her?”
“I will if I am able.” Which I almost certainly am not. Still, that was only ‘almost’, and he wanted to give her another chance after he finished the initial pass. “Please take her to the end on the left.” Nik stepped to the next petitioner.
“Please, my lord, I’ll do anything,” the curly-haired Haventure man said, grabbing Nik’s left arm. At the far end of the hall, Anthser snapped to his feet, and the footman by the door moved towards them.
Mrs. Linden disengaged the man’s hand. “His lordship will do whatever he can,” she said, firm. “Go to the end of the hall and wait on the left.”
The man shook her off and looked on the verge of seizing Nik bodily again, but as Anthser bore down on them he recovered his senses and bowed low instead. “Come, Mum,” he said in a quiet voice, taking her beneath the arms and lifting her. The woman did not resist, and her feet dropped into a standing position when he held her high enough. She shuffled like a sleepwalker as he steered her to the back corner. Nik was already engrossed by the next mind.
More petitioners arrived while he worked his way down the line. Nik continued in the usual pattern: curing the demon-ridden if they did not resist, and sorting the rest into groups. Most of the latter fell into two categories: those with a problem he could identify and cure given more time – the greatkittens went to that group – and those whose problems he could not determine, which today was about one in four.
When Nik reached the restrained little girl, she glared at him with pure hatred: had she not been gagged, he thought she might have bitten him. Nik paused before her, and went to one knee to meet her infuriated eyes. “Good morning,” he said to her, then looked up at the heavyset man who loomed over her, holding her shoulders. “What’s her name?”
“Sharone Whittaker, m’lord.” The man had a weathered, careworn face, bags under his eyes. Nik wondered if he was as old as he looked.
Nik nodded. He wanted to ask for her to be unbound and the gag removed – such a small child, she could hardly be a threat – but at the same time was hesitant to override the measures her caretakers deemed necessary. Particularly in a public setting, with so many watching. “I’ll not harm you, Miss Whittaker. I am only going to touch you for a moment.” The girl made an animal growl deep in her throat as Nik raised his hand. She flinched back from his touch, writhing violently in the arms of the man behind her despite her bonds. Gritting his teeth, Nik grazed his fingertips against her cheek.
She was not so much demon-ridden as infested, mindshapes riddled by hard black thorns, thousands of tiny spikes that jabbed into her everywhere. Nik invoked the Savior, but it was as useless as he’d expected. Her mind clung as fast to the demon as the demon did to her, repelling the Savior’s power as if it were an invading enemy. The deep, profound sorrow of the Savior at this failure washed through Nik as he let his hand fall away. He could imagine too well what that demon was doing to her mind: warping her perception of reality, whispering to her in a dozen different voices, even controlling her body at times. Sharone gave a plaintive whimper, squirming. The man holding her wore a painful look of desperate hope. “Can you help her, m’ lord?”
No. “I don’t know.” Nik rose, rubbing his face with one hand. “I will need to discuss her situation with you and her further, but I’d prefer to do so in private. Please wait there—” he pointed to an empty corner of the hall “—and I’ll return to you soon.”
The little girl wasn’t the sole case that morning who refused treatment. A man whose very posture spoke of hopelessness, only there because his wife and son had dragged him in, also rejected the Savior’s help. Nikola directed them to wait in the same section as the child. More people came in as he finished those who’d been waiting from the start. When Nik had finally looked at everyone once, he consulted with Mrs. Linden: “How are we doing?”
She consulted her list. “It’s half-past ten, m’lord. Thirty-two cures, twenty-two awaiting reevaluation, twenty-nine requiring extended treatment, two refusals.”
“And you have eleven appointments this afternoon already, m’lord,” Shelby reminded him.
“Right.” If he averaged five minutes for each reevaluation and fifteen for each extended treatment… Well, there’s probably enough hours in the day. Especially If I skip eating and sleeping. “Is it me or do we have more petitioners each day than we did the previous?” He had appointments left over from yesterday because he’d cleared the afternoon for the call on Miss Vasilver, but even so – three hours had always sufficed for petition hours in Fireholt. In distant, rural Fireholt.
“Each day has more petitioners than the last,” Mrs. Linden confirmed. “Word that you’re in town is spreading. I could send the reevaluations away if you wish, Lord Nikola?” Unspoken was the fact that the reevaluations were nearly always futile. Nik reevaluated scores of petitioners in vain for each one on whom he found a treatable anomaly upon second look. Hours of my time.
But it’s their entire life at stake. “No, they don’t take long. Let’s see if I can get through them all before the appointments start. First is at noon?”
“Yes, my lord,” Shelby answered.
Nik nodded. “Do I have any other engagements for today?”
“Your lady mother is having company for dinner and requests your presence at three o’clock.”
“And that will last until five or so…” Nik considered how his father would react if he saw petitioners by appointment in the evening. And then about telling twenty-nine humans and greatcats to come back tomorrow to see if his schedule looked any better. More every day. “Take appointments from five-thirty to nine tonight, Shelby, and those who wish to wait may in case I’ve extra time. For now, I’ll see the refusals first, and then do the reevaluations until noon.” Nik nodded to his staff, ignoring Mrs. Linden’s purse-lipped frown, and turned to the office.