Nik gazed at her, somewhat overwhelmed by so many peculiar notions at once. “But did you not resent it, the loss of your liberty like that?”
She considered this. “In some ways. I missed Byron, my nearest brother in age, dreadfully. But I corresponded regularly with him and my friends from Newlant, and Byron and Kilroy – one of my other older brothers – were able to visit me several times, along with our Aunt Clara as chaperone. Stephen, of course, could not. But, you know, I came to love the country. It was not unlike the time I’d spent at boarding school; I’d not had any choice about how long I stayed there, either, nor much control of the curriculum. The Kyr did ultimately license Vasilver Trading (though not Stephen) to do business in the nation, about six months into my time there. The Vandese were patronizing, and I won’t deny that grated, but they were also kind to me. I could not leave the country, true, but within it I enjoyed, in many respects, more freedom than I have in Newlant.”
The carriage slowed as the white greatcats turned up a curving slope in the road: the weight of the vehicle showed in the additional strain on their muscles, but their pace remained steady and synchronized. As the sun hovered on the horizon, the stone buildings around them were gaily lit for Ascension, translucent purple and yellow paper wrapped about gaslights to give them a holiday feel. Some of the statuary adorning the cornices wore wreaths of Ascension flowers. “More freedom, miss?”
“Southern Vandu is very safe, my lord. There’s thievery and fraud, of course, but violent crime is extraordinarily rare, and even common harassment seldom happens. A woman might walk unaccompanied through the worst parts of town in the small hours and not hear so much as an uncivil word. And notwithstanding the reason for my nominal captivity, the kyriel showed complete faith in myself and my judgement. I could, and did, go wherever I liked, whenever I liked. My father forwarded my salary, so I had plenty of spending money for little luxuries. And while it was awkward or impossible to do most of my usual work, I was instrumental in getting that blighted license finally confirmed, and that was an extremely valuable concession. Their country has so much to offer – so many ideas, their civil engineering is a marvel and they have the most remarkable machines – and the opportunity to partner with their businesses was exciting.” She stopped in her narrative as Nik smiled, shaking his head. “What is it, my lord?”
“Nothing. It’s just – the most amazing tale. Like nothing I would ever imagine has happened to anyone, never mind to a person of my acquaintance.”
“Oh. You don’t believe me.”
“No!” He caught one of her hands, pressing it between his gloved ones. “Of course I believe you. It’s – too preposterous to not be true, even if I could conceive of you wishing to deceive anyone, which I cannot.”
Miss Vasilver curled her fingers about his hand. “Thank you, my lord. I’ve never spoken to anyone outside my family about most of it. It doesn’t reflect well on us.”
Nik curled his lip. “On your brother, no. For your own part…that was remarkably brave of you, Miss Vasilver. To tell that foreign king you would be responsible for your brother’s actions, when you understood how grave the offense was.”
“It is only what I had agreed to do before we left. I know it all seemed a preposterous joke to us at the outset, but it was deadly serious to the Vandese. And we were in their country. I had little choice.”
“Still. The entire mess was his fault, and you paid the price for it.”
“It was not so great a price, my lord. And I do not mean to malign my brother. Stephen’s reaction was…not unexpected under the circumstances. I imagine most men of Newlant would do the same. An unfortunate chain of events.”
“Granted.” Nik stroked the back of her hand comfortingly, and her grip tightened around his. “I – do the Vandese truly consider such things, a man – er – making advances upon another man, to be, well, acceptable?” He couldn’t stop himself from asking.
“I gather it was unremarkable among unmarried men.” Miss Vasilver’s tone was as devoid of emotion as ever, holding no disdain or revulsion. “I found out later that the man who’d been tutoring us on the ways of Southern Vandu had even warned Stephen and the rest of the men of our party. The lesson was not recalled at the key juncture, I’m afraid.”
Let it go, Nik thought. Let it go. And then asked anyway, “Did it not trouble you, to be living among a people like…that?”
“Why would it trouble me? I received no unwanted advances.” Miss Vasilver’s eyes flicked to him and away again. “Is it very wrong of me, to find it inconsequential? Stephen thought their ways were corrupting me, but I rather think I was always like this.”
He caressed her hand. “I do not think it is wrong of you in any way, Miss Vasilver.” Quite the contrary, Nik thought, but did not dare say it. He lifted her hand to his lips, wondering if she would object if he actually kissed them and not just the air over them, if her pale brown skin felt as smooth as it looked, if the shapes of her mind would be as intriguing as the ideas that sprung from it. Nik released her hand before he embarrassed himself.
Miss Vasilver was watching him, her long face grave as usual. “You are very kind, my lord.”
He shook his head. “Only honest.”
“You know I regard honesty as the greatest kindness.” She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and glanced to the side. “Oh. My. The palace looks wonderful from here.”
They had reached the crest of a hill and the greatcats were pacing alongside a small green park. Below them, the most exclusive parts of Gracehaven were laid out in all their Ascension splendor. Buildings of polished marble and granite with elaborate cartouches carved into the stonework were brilliantly illuminated in indigo and gold, paper lanterns suspended above the streets like a web of stars. Grand carriages, some already lit by lanterns, flowed along the streets at a stately pace as they bore other highborn guests to their destination. The setting sun painted the bay in deep reds and golds, highlighting the undersides of clouds, streaking the horizon, and silhouetting the grand towers and walls of Dawnfell Palace. As they watched, the palace lit, thousands of gaslight lanterns outlining each tower, column, and story. Tall arched windows glowed from within: the whole structure was a magnificent jewel for the city’s festival raiment.
Nikola leaned closer to look with her, even though every facet of their carriage was translucent. “When I see Gracehaven like this, I understand why Lord Comfrey loves her,” he murmured.
“Do you dislike it here, my lord?”
“Oh, ‘dislike’ would be too strong a word. Granted, it has my parents in it every time I visit, which might detract from its charms. Perhaps without them, it wouldn’t seem so overcrowded.”
“I should not think that two people more or less would make too much of a difference in a city as large as Gracehaven.”
“You’d be surprised. I think one father causes more inconvenience than several thousand strangers. At least.”
“Is your father the worst offender? He seemed the more reasonable of the two. Comparatively speaking. Not that I had much acquaintance.”
“It’s more as if they take turns. If one of them is being unbearably irritating the other will play good parent for a time, until the task of being tolerable becomes too much and they have to switch off again.”
“In truth?” She tilted her head, though her eyes were still on the vista spread below them. As the sun dipped lower, the gaslit streets seemed brighter still, mirroring the stars winking into view in the sky above.
He shook his head. “Not in truth. And I underrate them: they have many fine qualities, even if ‘tolerating their recalcitrant son’s wayward behavior’ is not among them. Perhaps such a thing would not be counted a virtue in any case. What of you, Miss Vasilver – which of your parents suits you better?”
“Oh, my father.”
“Your father?” Nik did not check his surprise in time, recalling with a surge of dislike the man insisting his brilliant daughter was mentally ill.
Miss Vasilver did not notice. “Oh yes. They’re both well-intended, but I am a cipher to them and they try to solve me by changing me into something more sensible to them. And incomprehensible if not impossible to me. With Father, I share a common language of business and we may converse intelligibly on that for hours. But with Mother – I might as well be speaking Vandese. We do not comprehend one another at all. I say the wrong thing and do not so much as realize it’s wrong.”
“You are perfectly comprehensible to me, my lady.” Nik covered her hand with his own, where it rested in the crook of his arm. She glanced from the window to him, and though she did not smile, the way she squeezed his arm left him certain she was pleased.
The carriage wended slowly through the thick traffic as their conversation meandered on about their families. Miss Vasilver’s favorite relation was her brother Byron: “He’s spoken of setting up a separate household on occasion, which would please me and which we’ve ample funds for, but he’s dreadfully fond of living at Vasilver Manor.”
“Please you? Why, do you want his suite?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no, my lord; so I could go with him. He’s not yet wed, so until he marries it would be much like having my own household.”
“Ah, that I can understand. You may not be able to credit it, after all the complaining I’ve done, but my relationship with my parents is much improved since I inherited Fireholt.”
“Do you know, I get along with Father and Mother very well by post? They hardly scolded me at all while I was in Southern Vandu, though Mother fretted endlessly.”
Nik laughed. “I should think sacrificing your freedom for the sake of your brother would garner you some moral advantage.”
“Perhaps it did, my lord. I never gave it much thought.”
“Managing my own staff is more work than I realized as a boy, however.” He smiled wryly. “Perhaps that’s why I get on better with my parents now: more sympathy for them.”
“It’s not the sort of work I mind. My second year in Southern Vandu, the Kyr permitted me to set up my own household – single women do all the time there, it’s wholly unexceptionable – and I miss it. I suppose it sounds strange, to say I miss the freedom I had in the country where I was held prisoner.”
“A little,” Nik conceded. “But understandable.” His mind drifted, thinking about the additional staff he still had to hire, wondering what it would be like to hand over that and the day-to-day tasks of management to Miss Vasilver and let her handle everything.
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