Nik grinned, charmed by her plainspoken self-analysis. “Does this mean your preference for honesty does not extend to expecting answers to direct questions, Miss Vasilver?”
“Not when the question is nothing of my concern.” Miss Vasilver paused, then added, “Although I don’t have at all the right notion of what ought to concern me, I’m afraid. In truth, I would prefer a social order where one might ask whatever one liked, but where a response of ‘I prefer not to answer that’ was in no way remarkable. I am perplexed by why that response is seldom offered and poorly received when it is…I don’t suppose you know, my lord?”
Nik gave the question due consideration. “It interrupts the flow of conversation, forcing a new topic to be chosen and suggesting that the questioner is prying into something he should not.”
“But is this such a hardship as to justify animosity? I understand that sometimes one might not want to talk about a given topic, regardless of what that topic is or what one’s reasons are – it hardly matters, does it? But to be offended that it is brought up at all? Or to flee the room because it goes unanswered? Wouldn’t it be simpler to pick a new topic and not fret over it?”
“It would.” Nik smiled. “I’m afraid it would not be very like a human to do so, however. I daresay being affronted is one of our primary pastimes.”
“Why? It’s not an enjoyable one so far as I can tell.”
“My lord?” She tilted her head, inviting him to elaborate.
“It’s natural, would you not agree, to take a certain satisfaction in being correct? In doing what is right, or for that matter in simply knowing the proper answer or solution to a conundrum?” Nik waited for her nod before continuing, “Affrontery is a variant on that feeling. When I take offense at another’s actions, I stimulate the part of my mind that believes I am right, superior to whomever has offended me. It’s a different route to a similar sort of pleasure to what one might derive from a more concrete form of mastery. It has the disadvantage of being connected to other unpleasant emotions too, but it’s nonetheless much easier to find something to be offended by than to go to the trouble of, say, actual learning.”
“Oh!” Miss Vasilver leaned towards him, the fingers of one hand fluttering. “So there is a reason! I have always wondered. It’s…a rather awful reason, though. Are people truly supposed to be that way? Have you observed this from your study of minds, my lord?”
Her calm curiosity – not awed, intimidated, or impressed by his Blessing, but merely inquiring as a matter of fact – impressed Nik. “In a sense,” he answered, after reflection. “It’s…speculation on my part, based on observation. The parts of the mind do not come with tidy labels or unambiguous connections. My great-grandmother taught me to interpret what I experience, and my practice since then has suggested that my interpretations are mostly-but-not-always right. So – yes, my observation of the human mind is that, in most but not all humans, the mindshapes that produce outrage feed into those for satisfaction just as the mindshapes for conscience, curiosity, intellect and other skills do…much of what the mind does, whether we deem it positive or not, is capable of leading to satisfaction. Offense and outrage are part of how humans bond with their own class: one shares the sense of repulsion with others of one’s class to prove that one belongs. That one has to make an example of another for not belonging is, perhaps, incidental. Or…I don’t know, perhaps that’s essential, that there can be no ‘us’ without a ‘them’? Or as a way of establishing one’s place in the hierarchy.” Nik shook his head. “I apologize, Miss Vasilver. I fear I sound as if I possess more information or certainty than I do. Being able to perceive certain qualities doesn’t mean I truly understand how they work, much less why. As for how people are supposed to work – allow me to say that what I describe are attributes of personality, not pathology. A man whose mindshapes connect outrage and pleasure is not ill – and neither is one whose mind does not interrelate the two.”
“How very fascinating. Is the same effect observable among greatcats as well?” Miss Vasilver had shifted to the edge of her seat, head turned to put her ear towards him, light brown eyes fixed on some distant point.
“Yes…perhaps to a lesser degree than among humans. At least Newlant humans. Greatcats value hierarchy less than we do. Less than most humans do,” he amended, out of loyalty to accuracy.
“Most, my lord?”
“There’s a great deal of variance among individuals of all nations and species, but nationality, gender and culture all play a part, such that a Newlant gentlewoman will tend towards different traits than those of a Kinder laborer. And there are always exceptions.” Nikola looked down, started to fold his gloved hands together and stopped, wincing at the twinge of pain from his injured hand. “In truth, Miss Vasilver, I am not much for hierarchy myself.”
“How do you mean, Lord Nikola?” Her attitude, with her face in profile and head tilted, made her look as if she were not attending, but Nik had the clear sense that she was listening intently. It was almost easier to continue than if her eyes had been upon him.
“That. ‘Lord’ Nikola. I’ve had that title my whole life and I still don’t manage to live up to it. I hate being responsible for the livelihoods of other people. I don’t want to tell them what to do, nor do I wish for others to command me. As for the dignity of my rank – I’m more or less an embarrassment to the whole peerage. I’d sooner curl up on a greatcat couchbed than sit in one of these chairs, or race across town on catback and have fur shed all over my clothes than travel with propriety in a carriage. I am the despair of both my parents and even my friends mock me for it. Half the reason I don’t want to marry is because that will give me one more thing I am supposed to be in command of and I am doing a miserable job mastering my existing responsibilities.” The words spilled out of him in a low, urgent rush, unstoppable once he’d begun.
“I cannot agree,” Miss Vasilver said as he paused for breath. Nik blinked at her. She still didn’t look at him, as if too intent on the meaning of the words to spare any concentration for the flesh producing them. “That is – of course I do not dispute your feelings on the subject, upon which you must necessarily be sole expert. But that you do a ‘miserable job’ is factually inaccurate. You still employ all the servants you inherited with Fireholt, save those you’ve pensioned who were no longer capable of work. You guarantee them one day off each week, more than most employers do. You live within your means, adjust your expenditures downwards as necessary, and do not indulge in expensive hobbies. Your tenants’ homes are properly maintained, as is Fireholt itself. I do not say that you have taken all possible measures to maximize the wealth of your holding, but certainly your execution of your duties has been unexceptionable.”
“Oh,” he said, faintly.
Miss Vasilver turned to him at last. “…due diligence.”
“Yes, I…you know, I had planned a digression on how greatcats are different from humans in this respect, but now it strikes me that you know everything about me and I know so little about you, Miss Vasilver. Do you perhaps have a dossier on yourself I might peruse?”
“I fear I do not, my lord. I could have one prepared if you like,” Miss Vasilver offered in her usual grave manner. “I am sure Byron could be persuaded to write a character reference for me.”
“My word, did you accumulate character references on me? I am surprised your father didn’t have to haul you to that first meeting in chains.”
“My lord is much too hard on himself.”
“And still woefully uninformed about you, Miss Vasilver. Since you do not have a dossier at hand, will you do me the kindness of telling me more about yourself now? Or shall I be forced to interrogate my sister for information – ah, I nearly forgot: Lysandra sends her love.”
“Miss Striker? Oh, but she is married now – Mrs…Warren?”
“Of course. How kind of her to remember me after all these years. Is she visiting your parents as well?”
“Yes, with her husband and all five of their children. She recalls you with great fondness, I must say.”
“She does? Please give her my best compliments, my lord. I should very much like to see her again…do you think – no, I don’t suppose I ought call on her at Anverlee Manor.”
“If you wish to write out a message or an invitation for her, miss, I should be happy to convey it.”
“Oh, thank you, my lord, I will do that before you go.” Miss Vasilver rang for a servant for writing materials. She glanced to the clock. “Did you wish to stay for dinner, my lord?”
“Is it so late already?” Nik frowned at the clock as if it offended him. “No, I shouldn’t impose—”
“—it’s no imposition, my lord.”
But he was steadfast. Accepting a dinner invitation obliged him to offer one in return and he could not invite her to dine at Anverlee, or afford private dining elsewhere. Except you will be able to, with Justin’s money. Whatever appetite he possessed evaporated. “No, thank you,” he repeated, watching as she wrote out a note for Lysandra. He was acutely aware that his effort to learn more about Miss Vasilver had been entirely deflected, and was unsure if that was intentional on her part or accidental on his own. But I still don’t know anything about her. Except that she’s brilliant and inquisitive and honest and easier to talk to about anything than anyone I have ever known, and I want to see her again and know more. He rose to take the folded note from her hand when she offered it, and took her hand in his gloved ones at the same time. On impulse, Nikola asked, “Miss Vasilver, would you be so kind as to accompany me to the Ascension Ball Saturday next?”
She did not answer at once; her eyes glanced from his hands around hers to his face and away again. Ah, someone has already asked her, he thought, disappointed. But then she answered, cool and decisive, “You honor me, my lord. I would be very happy to join you.”
“Thank you, my lady.” He gave her a dazzling smile, forgetting her proper honorific in the startling rush of elation that followed her answer. “Good day to you.”
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