A curious Wisteria accompanied Lord Nikola as he led them to one of the doors leading from the balcony that overlooked the ballroom to the adjoining hallway on the Palace’s third floor. The heels of their shoes clicked against the tiled floor as they proceeded down the hall, Lord Nikola offering cordial nods to the warcats in Palace livery that they passed. They stepped through open double doors into an exhibit hall. In honor of the season, perhaps, the display featured historical artifacts from the first arrival of humans in Paradise, at Salvanton, and even a few relics reputedly from the Abandoned World itself. A number of other guests wandered the exhibit hall and they had to negotiate a gauntlet of amiable greetings. Lord Nikola took the time to introduce her to several of his acquaintances. As large as the event was, with so many attendees from across the nation, Wisteria was struck by how many not merely knew Lord Nikola but wanted to stop to exchange pleasantries with him. None of these little conversations turned strange the way the one with Lady Beatrice and her husband had.
Lord Nikola made the social niceties effortless, finding no difficulty in beginning or ending each encounter. Wisteria found it a tremendous relief to be on his arm, relying on his ease with banter to maintain the flow of talk and trusting that he would let her know plainly and without fuss if she was doing anything wrong. Perhaps if I attended every social event with him, they would not be such a trial. She stole a glance at his tall elegant silhouette, and admired the contrast of his long golden hair against the black of the jacket, the way it caught the light just like the jeweled design did. He glanced down at her at the same moment with a smile that made her forget she wasn’t supposed to stare. “This way,” he said softly, leading her past a diorama of mannequins in Abandoned World clothing. He opened a glass door onto an outdoor balcony, and a cold wind blew in. With an involuntary shiver, she followed him into the night.
“Don’t worry, I’m not keeping you out here,” Lord Nikola said. The balcony was dark; puddles of light cast through the windows splashed the paving stones.
“It’s certainly private.” Wisteria took the excuse to huddle closer to his arm; the balcony was deserted but for them.
“True, but I intend both privacy and comfort. I am a demanding man.” He set a brisk pace along the balcony, fingers unfastening his formal jacket as he walked. “It’s not far—” He shrugged out of the jacket and settled it on her shoulders, still warm from his body heat. She was touched by the gesture even though snuggling up to him for warmth was far more appealing, and held it closed before her – the draping sleeves of her gown would not fit under the jacket’s sleeves. Papers rustled in the inner breast pocket, but she paid it no heed. Lord Nikola’s waistcoat inverted the design on the jacket, she saw now: orange with stylized black flames trimming the back. He paused by one door and rattled the handle, but it didn’t open. He shook his head and moved to the next, which unlatched. “Here we go.” He pulled the door open and gestured her through with a graceful bow.
The room beyond was unlit; Wisteria stepped to one side of the door and stopped, uncertain where to go. Lord Nikola brushed past her, as if his feline grace extended to seeing in the dark. A moment later, he’d lit a candelabra-styled gaslamp. It illuminated a cozy study lined with glass-fronted bookcases of blond wood, and furnished with a claw-footed sofa and matching chair. Lord Nikola checked the door leading back to the hall, and another door leading to the side. “Are we supposed to be here?” Wisteria asked, watching him.
“Now, if we weren’t, the door would have been locked, would it not? And the warcats would have guided us back to the main areas, of course.” Lord Nikola turned back to her with a smile. As logical as the statements were, Wisteria suspected she was not to take them at face value.
“And yet no one else is using this room at all.” Wisteria stroked the lapel of his jacket against her chest for a moment, then drew it off to return it to him.
“They must all find the rest of the palace more interesting.” Lord Nikola shrugged back into his jacket and smiled at her. “Why, this is an unremarkable space; it might be a study in any noble’s home. Nothing to compare with the grandeur of the petitioner’s hall or the ball room. Are you reconsidering the merits of this plan, my dear Miss Vasilver?”
Wisteria shook her head and took a seat at one end of the couch. “Not at all.” She was all at once aware of being in private with a man, with a known rake, one who’d just checked to make sure the doors were secure. That she had come to this potentially compromising situation of her own accord and would be considered responsible for anything that happened as a result. These were the sort of circumstances she had been warned all her life to avoid. She would be in no position to fend off any advances Lord Nikola made. But her main thought was I truly hope he makes some. She cleared her throat and tried to think of something else to say before she made an irrevocable mistake. “For my first inappropriate topic – may I ask the significance to Lady Beatrice and yourself removing gloves before you took her hand?”
Lord Nikola chuckled. “I’m not sure that even counts as inappropriate. Was it on your list?”
“Not as such, but it seemed like the sort of thing that would have been if anyone had thought of it beforehand.”
He took a seat sideways on the couch beside her, facing her so that their knees nearly touched when she turned to regard him. “There’s three reasons. The nominal, official explanation is that it’s a gesture of equality, one way the Blessed acknowledge each other’s status. The second is that the Blessed understand – like you do—” he smiled at her again, the corners of his eyes crinkling “—that we can’t read minds or see each other naked by touch, so it’s a sign of understanding, kinship: ‘Others may not understand you, but I do’. Third, and the real reason that mind-healers do it: to check to see if we’re crazy.”
That surprised her; she tilted her head at him. “But why would you need to do that? Wouldn’t you see it if you were? Or – is it like trying to see your own face without a mirror, and you cannot tell?”
“No, I can diagnose myself. But my diagnosis is imperfect – just as I cannot tell how to correct the problems of some of my petitioners, I may not be able to detect my own problems. Or be aware that I have one.”
Wisteria digested this. “What would Lady Beatrice do if she diagnosed a problem in you? Or vice versa?”
“Oh, if it were a demon, banish it at once. There’s a code if it’s something complex – you squeeze the other’s hand once if you don’t see anything, and twice if you want to do a consultation. So if she signaled me, I’d call on her at a later date.”
“Has anyone ever signaled you so?” Wisteria asked.
He shook his head. “Not a healer of minds, no. Physical healers, a couple of times. Nothing serious – minor problems that I had not realized were issues.” Lord Nikola took her hand in his gloved one, his thumb stroking over her knuckles, the movement so unaffected he hardly seemed aware of it. “So…may I ask for the first item on the list now, or must I yet wait for the ride home?”
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