Nikola turned up his collar against the overcast chill of the gray day, long strides carrying him along the sidewalk, beneath the trimmed awnings of small shops. How does my mother always manage to say exactly what will infuriate me most?
For that matter, why had he defended Miss Vasilver? Lady Striker was right: he hadn’t wanted to meet Miss Vasilver, much less marry her, and that farce of an introduction certainly hadn’t changed his mind. The wintery day was not so chilling as Miss Vasilver’s indifferent gaze.
Yet, when he contrasted his parents’ sputtering hypocritical outrage with Miss Vasilver’s calm honesty, it was impossible to claim that he preferred the former. Nikola reached Valience Park, a pleasant garden of branching gravel paths, fruit and nut trees, and berry bushes. Most of the trees were bare, dormant for the winter, but several of the berry bushes were in flower. He peeled off his pale gloves to avoid staining them and gathered a handful of ripe winterberries from among small glossy dark leaves and white blossoms. The berries burst in a splash of tart sweet juice on his tongue, as he took a seat on a weathered wood-and-iron bench beneath the dark tangle of a walnut tree’s branches.
Nik cleaned his hands with a handkerchief, then withdrew the coiled roll of Miss Vasilver’s pre-engagement document and turned to the section on extramarital affairs. It stated: ‘Honesty being a greater virtue than chastity, neither party should attempt to deceive the other on the matter of fidelity’. Miss Vasilver’s opinion appeared to be that, while fidelity was the preferred state, ‘informed infidelity’ was an acceptable alternative, ‘in light of the practical impossibility of determining physical compatibility prior to consummation of marriage’. ‘Informed infidelity’ meant ‘each party will apprise the other of any indiscretions, and aid in maintaining discretion so that neither party will be exposed to unflattering gossip or humiliation’. Is it still an indiscretion if you have to be discreet? Affairs were also to be conducted in such a way as to (a) avoid interference with the conception of legitimate children and (b) avoid the conception of illegitimate children. There were alternative sections suggesting various ways of ensuring equitable infidelity; Miss Vasilver was evidently of the opinion that one party was not entitled to be jealous of the other if said party wasn’t being faithful himself. Or herself. Nik couldn’t tell if she was assuming he would cheat on her or if she was planning to cheat on him. Maybe she already had some lover in mind, some footman or delivery boy she did not dare wed. It was hard to imagine the latter, as it implied a degree of ardor that Miss Vasilver wholly lacked. How could she write about the subject of intimacy in such indifferent language?
Abandoned world, how could she write about it at all? Nikola leaned back, gazing past the walnut tree’s bare branches to the overcast sky. After a moment, he looked down again and turned to the next section, on child-rearing. His mouth twitched in a smile. After procreation. Very orderly. Miss Vasilver had ideas on this, too. Boarding school versus private tutors versus apprenticeship, the advantages and disadvantages of different religious denominations, or of no religious observances. None? ‘None’ is an option? Not even the sacred is sacred to Miss Vasilver. He shook his head, more bewildered than offended.
A burred feline voice spoke to one side of him. “Lord Nikola?”
Nik curled up the papers and tucked them back in his pocket as he looked up at an unfamiliar orange-and-black striped head. “Excuse me?”
The feline form bowed before him, dressed in a patched and many-pocketed brown cloak. “Farrel of Downsing, m’lord. You wouldn’t remember me – I couldn’t learn to read, and ten years ago m’ parents brought me to you for a miracle. Which you provided, m’lord.”
Frowning in thought, Nikola contemplated the greatcat. He’d met tens of thousands of petitioners over the course of his life, and he always left a bigger impression on their lives than they did on his. Rather the point of the Code, that. Still – orange and black, couldn’t read – “You were a kitten then? Seven or eight? Mother had your coloration but a great white splash over her forehead and nose?”
Downsing rocked out of his bow to sit back on his haunches, surprised. “Yes, Lord Nikola.”
The blond man gave him a fond smile. “I remember. A little demon possessed you, turning all the letters around in your head. You were scared to let it go, but your mother said it’d poison you forever if you didn’t.”
The greatcat dropped his mouth open in mimicry of a human smile, folding his forepaws to rest on the ground and put his head below Nik’s again. “And you promised it wouldn’t hurt.”
“And the Savior shooed it right off. I had to tell you it was over twice before you’d believe that was it. And how is your reading now, Fel Downsing?”
Downsing’s whiskers flared with pride. “Just wrote m’ clerk’s exam last week.”
Nik gave a startled laugh. “Did you truly?”
“Yessir. Haven’t been able to get enough of letters ever since they stopped squirming on me.” He paused, then added self-consciously, “Thank you, sir.”
Nik waved off the thanks, smiling. “The hard work was all yours. Well done, Fel Downsing. Well done.” Nik spread his arms over the back of the bench. “I’m surprised you recognized me. I should think I’ve changed a little since I was thirteen.”
The greatcat shrugged, ducking his head. “Scent doesn’t change much, m’lord.”
“I’ll take your word on that.” Nik studied the big cat; it was nice to see people his Blessing had helped, and it wasn’t uncommon for people of whom he had no recollection to stop him with heartfelt thanks. Downsing looked like he wanted something more than to express his gratitude, and Nik wasn’t sure if the greatcat had a specific desire that he was reluctant to speak, or if it was some undefined drive that kept the cat by his feet after conversation flagged. Nik debated internally whether to say ‘good day’ and take out the contract again, by way of dismissal.
Before Nik had decided, Downsing excused himself. “I shouldn’t keep you, m’lord. Was on m’ way to visit m’ new niece. M’ sister lives just a couple blocks north of the park.”
Ah. “Congratulations to your sister. I trust the kitten is healthy?”
“Oh, sure.” Downsing didn’t sound sure. “She’s a pawful already. Kinda…quiet, for a new kitten. Though. Probably nothing.”
Indeed. And if it’s not, I see petitioners at my residence from nine to noon every day but Sundays. Nik didn’t speak, and Downsing bobbed his head and turned away. With an inward sigh, Nik stood. I’m not busy now anyway. He drew level with the greatcat in a few quick strides. “Do you imagine your sister would object if I joined you?” Nik asked, in the tone of one asking a favor. “I should like to meet this niece of yours.”
Downsing’s eyes lit, his ears pricking forward. “Oh, no, not at all, m’lord, it’d be an honor. Would you?”
Downsing slowed his long strides to a man’s pace. “Would you like to ride, m’lord? I’ve no seat but—”
Nik shook his head. “No, I need to stretch my legs anyway.”