Within a few days, Nikola fell back into his normal routine as if he’d never left it. To his surprise, the number of petitioners awaiting his care was still down from the pre-Ascension peak. The crowd outside Anverlee’s gates also caught him off-guard. He had half-expected some petitioners to be camped at the gates in the hope of his resumption of duties. Nik had not anticipated a mob of respectful well-wishers crafting a makeshift shrine and praying for his recovery. They cheered when he made his first appearance outside the gates while riding on Anthser, and crowded near like greatcats to touch him. But these people were not ill; merely grateful, he gathered, for some past healing of their own or of loved ones. It was at once moving and unsettling, to have so many strangers devote so much thought to his well-being.
But he felt no trace of his former panic in their presence. He was confident he was healthy again, although both mind and life remained rife with imperfections.
Losing Justin was the worst of them.
Nik would think of Justin at odd moments: this will be a funny story to share with Justin or Justin would enjoy that game or I wonder what Justin’s doing now? And then he would remember their last parting. We are not friends any more. If we ever were. Sometimes he would find himself depressed or angry or grieved and not be sure why, until he recollected that awful departure.
It was irrational but not madness: he could not look to the Savior to cure a broken heart. The best treatment he’d found was to think of Miss Vasilver. Nik was not at all sure that she would receive his suit favorably, but he had no concern that she would curse, shout, or repudiate him.
Almost no concern, anyway.
He was torn between anxiousness to ask so he could know her answer, and determination to take the time to distance himself from his incapacity and prove himself as a competent man and a worthy suitor, and worry over how she might react. His mother had been disappointed when she learned he had not asked at the first opportunity on Wednesday. Lord Striker, at least, understood the point of honor involved.
On the Friday after his recovery, Nikola sent a message to Mr. Vance at the offices of prosecution, informing him that he would be able to stand witness to the crimes committed against him, if so needed. He’d not heard from the watch or the prosecution since Anthser ordered Feli Thranthier away a week ago. He suspected his parents, if not the greatcats, had been deflecting any attempts to reach him. Lord Striker would have no interest in drawing out such a spectacle, and for once Nikola agreed with that view. Still, Feli Thranthier had a point: laws needed to be enforced. It was one thing to balk at testifying when his mental state rendered the prospect akin to torture, and another when it was merely tedious and mortifying.
Mr. Vance’s reply came a few hours later. Anthser brought it to Nik in his office, when the lord was between petitioner appointments.
For Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, By the Grace of the Savior Blessed with the Healing of Minds:
It is my duty to inform you that Ian Brogan has been attacked and slain by another prisoner while in our custody. As their leader was dead and my office was given to understand that my lord and his family wished to avoid a trial, we have reached an agreement with his accomplices that they will waive their right to a trial in return for sentences of indenture and exile from Newlant, as opposed to death. The hearing to approve this agreement is set for next Tuesday. My lord may attend if he wishes, but no witnesses are required. If my office has been misinformed or my lord has any objections to this agreement, please contact us as soon as possible and we will do our best to accommodate.
Your obedient servant,
The revelation of Brogan’s death shocked Nik. “Did you know about this?” He waved the note before Anthser’s face.
“Know about what?” The greatcat tilted his head, trying to read the moving paper.
“Brogan’s dead. And the prosecutor’s letting his accomplices plea to avoid the gallows.”
“Oh. I knew about Brogan. Was in the papers, uh, Monday?” Sheepish, Anthser canted his ears and sat back on his haunches. “We didn’t want to bother you about it then, and then when you were doing better…guess no one thought about it. Sorry. Didn’t know about the plea, though. Is that bad?”
After a moment of consideration, Nik shook his head. “No, it’s as well. They won’t be free to hurt anyone else, and I’ve no taste for vengeance.”
The black greatcat’s ears perked. “Then it’s all over now.”
Nik exhaled, feeling an unexpected relief at the realization. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
A full week of petitioners, family members, and social events bolstered Nik’s self-confidence, and on the following Thursday he let impatience win out over fear and propriety. Attired in a conservative suit of Fireholt’s black and orange, Nik called upon Miss Vasilver with one goal in mind.
The Vasilvers happened to have several other callers that morning and their everyday parlor was jammed with family members and visitors. Miss Vasilver introduced Nikola to the infamous Mr. Stephen Vasilver and his wife, as well as some family friends or perhaps business associates – it was hard to tell the difference. There were even a few mutual acquaintances: Mr. Anthony Dalsterly, one of Lady Dalsterly’s great-nephews or great-great-nephews, and Mr. and Mrs. Lavert. Predictably, his acquaintances in the crowd were eager to ask after his health. Surely I cannot be more than a nine-day wonder, and my nine days are well past, Nik thought as he put on a smile and gave civil answers to the inquiries.
He was seeking a pretext under which to isolate Miss Vasilver when her mother approached. “Wisteria, perhaps his lordship would like to view the prospect from the south parlor.”
“He would?” Miss Vasilver said.
“You know, how the windows frame the ice on the trees,” Mrs. Vasilver said, at almost the same time that Nikola offered his assurance that he would be delighted to see it.
“It does? Oh, I should be happy to show you, my lord.” Miss Vasilver took his arm and led him out of the crowd. As they walked the paneled hallway, she added, “Though I didn’t think there was any ice left on the trees. Wasn’t the last storm three days ago?” He laughed, and she tilted her head at him. “My lord?”
“I do believe your mother was scheming again, miss. But since her scheme to get us alone coincides exactly with my own wishes, I will say nothing against it.”
“Oh.” Miss Vasilver faced forward, her gaze directed aimlessly upon an antique bust on a stand at the end of the hall. “You must think me foolish, to be oblivious to such things.” She turned to open a door into a cozy room, far more comfortable than the formal parlor.
Nikola left the door partway open for propriety’s sake as he followed her within, then caught her arm. “Miss Vasilver—” he moved to face her, smiling with a goofy affection he had lost all will to conceal “—I do not find you foolish in any respect. Indeed, I am entranced by your nature, which is so honest and sincere that it scarce occurs to you how devious all the rest of us can be.”
“That is a kind way to interpret it, my lord, but I think it has more to do with inobservance than personal inclination.”
“Even if that were the case, it is of no consequence.” Nik let his fingers slide down her sleeve to take her hand. “Miss Vasilver – there is so much I wish to say to you that I do not know where to begin.”
“Is it all inappropriate?” she asked, deadpan.
He smiled despite his growing nervousness. “Not all.”
“You have my permission to begin with the first item on your list, if you like. I cannot imagine I will dislike you for it.”
“I can.” Nikola swallowed. “But I do not think you will. Will you sit with me, my lady?”
She nodded and sat on the couch. He sat near enough to take her hand again, and she watched him gravely. “If that was at the head of your list, I shall be very disappointed, my lord.”
He smiled again, shaking his head. “Miss Vasilver…some weeks ago I told you I was not interested in marriage at this time in my life. My feelings on this point have had a material revolution, one that I am not altogether sure will be welcome to you. But I – I am making quite a hash of this. There is a question I want to ask you and I daresay by now you can guess which one, but before I ask I wish to be honest with you, as I have never been honest with anyone, and to tell you something which may be pertinent to your answer. But I must also ask that you hold it in strictest confidence; my reserve on this point has been with good cause. Will you hear my confession?”
Her expression was as closed as ever, unmoved by affection or surprise. But she spoke without hesitation: “Oh, Lord Nikola, please do. Speak your mind. I will be very happy to hear it, and I shall not betray your trust.”
With some reassurance – were she decided against me she could have no wish to hear more – he plunged forward. “I believe my reputation preceded your acquaintance with me, if I am to judge by the document you provided when we met. You know that I have not been chaste. I daresay my reputation as a rake is exaggerated: I am an inveterate flirt and that leads rumormongers to inaccurate conclusions. Still, it is true I have…taken a number of lovers, over the years. But what I do not think you know is this: some of those lovers have been men.” Two, to be exact, or three depending on how one wants to define ‘lover’. He watched her anxiously, waiting for some reaction.
She tilted her head. “Oh. Truly? How does that work?”
He blinked at her. “Er…”
“I have a very general notion of what sexual intercourse between a man and a woman consists of – you have no idea how difficult even that was to glean – but even in Southern Vandu where it was permissible no one would ever explain to me what exactly that healer had proposed doing with Stephen. Stephen and the Kyriel both said it was extraordinarily wrong of me to…oh. Dear. I am sorry, my lord, I should not have—”
Nikola laughed. “Miss Vasilver, I should dearly like to kiss you right now. Would you be terribly offended if I did?”
She shook her head, and did not quite throw herself into his arms. But she did reciprocate his kiss with a heartening enthusiasm. When he drew back she was half in his lap, arms looped behind his neck. He cradled her close. “I take it you are not horror-struck by my revelation.”
“Oh, no, not at all. Not by any of it.” She hesitated. “I…technically, I have been chaste my whole life. But that has more to do with a scarcity of opportunity and my own cowardice than any true virtue on my part. Indeed, the more I think about it the less I understand why it is regarded as a virtue at all. Um. Paternity? But that’s of no consequence between two men.”
“I could produce some reasons for you, but as I have no wish whatsoever to persuade you from your opinion I will not.”
“Does it make sense to you, then? I long to understand the reasoning.” She did not pout, but something in the tilt of her head made it plain to Nik that she would be disappointed if he gave no answer.
“Well. Er. Society does not wish to have the, er, energy, of its individuals diverted from the task of childbearing and rearing. Insofar as such a relationship must be a distraction.”
“Must it? My father’s interest in commerce, ships, cards, and landscaping have occupied far more of his time than the procreative act, I do believe, but this has not prevented him from siring six children. Nor has the time my mother has invested in reading, needlepoint, or the harpsichord kept her from her familial duties.”
“It’s…different.” Nikola hugged her, closing his eyes.
He shook his head. “I will not argue with you further, not when I have nothing to gain and everything to lose by winning.”
“Oh, are we arguing? I am sorry, I did not mean to quarrel.” She looked down at his chest, her fingers toying with his jabot as she snuggled into his lap. “Was there more you did wish to tell me, my lord?”
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