How to Handle This Well (121/141)

RA Header 121

In mid-spring, Nik returned to Gracehaven to visit Wisteria. His parents were at their estate in Anverlee, so he had the enormous Gracehaven manor to himself. Himself and a few hundred petitioners, over the course of a week-long stay: they kept him busy, but it was not the overwhelming pre-Ascension crush.

Comfrey normally stayed in the city until the Assembly closed for the summer, but this year he had given his proxy to one of his political allies and removed from the city to return to Comfrey Viscountcy for the summer and early fall. Nikola had not heard from him since the Ascension season ended; only of him, from mutual friends. Including Wisteria.

Wisteria was engrossed in plans for Fireholt, which she would discuss with Nik in as much or as little detail as he liked. At first, the business angle had made him uneasy; he recalled his father’s mounting debts and worried about what he might be committing himself and his people to. But Wisteria’s competence and thoroughness, and her calm way of answering every question and addressing each nuance, had put his mind at ease. Her dowry was impressive, and he wanted to leave it in her care. In fact, he looked forward to putting her in charge of all their finances. He was confident she’d handle it better than he did, and enjoy doing so more.

His future mother-in-law found wedding-related tasks for him to do, such as chasing down answers from some of their guests who’d not responded yet but whom were almost certain to make an appearance. Despite the growing anxiety and pestering with messages from both sets of parents, Nikola could not be worried about it. There’d be someone there to perform the ceremony and Wisteria would say yes, and everything else was irrelevant pomp.

Well, perhaps not quite everything else.

One afternoon, after Nik finished with his last petitioner appointment at Anverlee Manor, Shelby informed Nik that Miss Vasilver had called, and awaited him in the back parlor. Nik was surprised. While a single woman would never call upon a single man in the ordinary course, a betrothed woman calling upon her intended was unexceptionable. However, Nik was to dine at Vasilver Manor in a couple of hours, and it was odd that Wisteria wouldn’t wait for his arrival.

He hastened to meet her in the back parlor. The coverings on the room’s antique sixth-century furniture were a trifle threadbare, but its modest size and the placement of its windows conspired to make it the warmest room in the mansion and very pleasant during the cooler months. Wisteria was sitting at the secretary desk by one wall when he entered; Nik had not seen its surface unfolded in years, but she had it open now to support a leather folder. She was studying the papers inside, but turned at his entrance. “Good afternoon, my lord. I apologize for my intrusion—”

He stooped to cup her cheek in one hand and kissed her. “Your presence could never be an intrusion, my love. Everything else intrudes on time I should rather spend with you.”

Wisteria slid her hands around the back of his neck and pulled him down again for a second kiss. “My lord is much too kind.” She stroked his jaw with her thumb and kissed him again. After a few speechless minutes, she disentangled herself enough to speak. “Not that I have the least objection to this use of our time, but I did in fact come for a reason beyond glorying in what a wonderfully talented and handsome betrothed I have somehow acquired for myself.”

Nik laughed. “Now, what better reason could there be?”

Wisteria considered this. “I will not go so far as to say it is a better reason. But I wanted to talk to you about the marriage contract.”

“Please no. I thought we’d settled all that before the season ended.” Newlant marriage contracts were convoluted documents, not merely between the two individuals marrying but also between their families. They specified the woman’s dowry, the man’s personal holdings, the inheritances that were intended for either of them and what circumstances might change the latter. In addition, they stipulated the terms under which various assets might be spent, invested, or must be held for the married couple’s heirs, what became of marital assets if one spouse or the other died without issue, what became of the heirs if both spouses died, and on and on and on. Some of it was covered by boilerplate and much of it was subject to future amendment by the involved parties. But since “the involved parties” included both Wisteria’s parents and Nik’s, discussions about the marriage contract had involved all six of them plus three lawyers plus assistants, and it had all been interminable.

“Yes, the financial details are settled, but there’s one thing that I wanted to discuss with you alone and not half of Gracehaven. I have been looking into the law involved…”

“Wait, wait, if we’re going to discuss law I want to get comfortable first,” Nik said. Wisteria nodded and glanced about for another chair to pull up to the desk. Nik, having other plans, scooped her into his arms.

“Oh!” She clasped her hands around his neck as he started for the couch. “Wait, my papers.”

He stooped with her so she could gather them awkwardly one-handed, then carried her to the couch and settled with her in his lap. She folded her knees to one side with incongruous decorum, so that her shoes did not rest against the couch as she leaned sideways against his chest. “Now, what is this one legal matter?”

“It’s regarding extramarital affairs,” she said, as calmly as if discussing the Fireholt entailment. “I – my lord, I know we discussed this prior to the engagement, but I am not entirely sure we have an understanding. Fidelity is the expected course, and I believe it advisable to, well, attempt to follow it, if only because there are good reasons for this expectation. Are we agreed thus far?”

Nik thought about Justin. You cannot have him. You never truly did. He remembered that surge of fear and jealousy at the thought of Wisteria loving another man. He kissed her forehead and marveled anew at the unique beauty of her mind. Her long curly dark hair was swept to one side and held with a comb, exposing the shell-like curve of her ear and the sweep of her long neck. “Yes, my love.”

“And yet…we did acknowledge that temptations might arise and so many people do fail at living up to this ideal, and I thought that perhaps we ought to plan for the possibility that one or both of us might…at some distant point…some very distant point…it’s very distracting when you do that, my lord.”

He paused in nibbling at her ear. “Sorry,” he murmured insincerely, nuzzling down her nape. “Do go on.”

“And the boilerplate has stipulations in it…my lord, am I wrong to bring this up? I know I plan for every contingency and perhaps I shouldn’t, only if we don’t plan for it now, well…I don’t know.” She wriggled in his lap, circling a hand around his head to cradle his face to her neck.

He licked the velvety skin of her throat, nipped, drew back before temptation overwhelmed him, and considered the question. The memory of Wisteria’s confession that there was another man still made him jealous and fearful. Even if the conversation they’d had back in Fireholt had made him half-suspect that ‘other man’ was Comfrey, the least likely bachelor in Newlant to commit to anyone. “I…is this about that other man? The one you wanted to marry as well?”

She shook her head. “No. Nothing will come of that. I speak only hypothetically.”

Nik relaxed, stroking her arm. “I admit, I don’t want to share you with any man. But I would rather share you than lose you, and I would rather you felt comfortable being honest with me. Please, continue. What does this have to do with the marriage contract? You can’t mean – our parents would have fits if we included terms on conducting extramarital affairs.”

“Oh yes, I learnt my lesson on that count already. No, I have been thinking about how to do this subtly. It is not my strength, I fear. First: are you aware that adultery is not a crime in Newlant?”

Nik blinked at her. “It isn’t?”

“No. There are two statutes on the prohibition of sexual intercourse. One prohibits unmarried persons from engaging in sexual intercourse. It dates from the third century and the penalties are rather silly: a week of temple service and suitable restitution for the dishonor to one’s family, not to exceed the value of a score of chickens. The other is from the sixth century and prohibits sexual acts between men, and the penalties there are unfortunately more serious. But there is no statute prohibiting sexual acts between, say, two married people who happen not to be married to each other. Instead, it’s a civil matter: a contract violation. Of the marital contract, specifically. In the boilerplate of virtually every Newlant marriage contract is a clause that prohibits adultery and specifies the penalties thereof. Which are quite standard things, such as pillorying for a single offense, up to divorce with all marital assets going to the wronged party for ‘gross violation’. Of course, few parties choose to sue for such breach, I presume because our society is so unforgiving of divorce and since adultery is often difficult to prove in court.”

“…that makes sense.” Nik had never given much thought to the legal consequences of adultery. He knew some cases where men had duelled their wives’ lovers for the insult, and some where women cheated in revenge for their husband’s infidelity. But almost any plan of action was regarded as preferable to the scandal of invoking the courts and airing to the world one’s marital problems and one’s inability to resolve them privately. “So you want to, what, snip out this bit of boilerplate before we sign?”

“That probably would not go unnoticed, since there are three lawyers involved and there will be a reading of the final contract before ourselves and our parents. No, I was thinking about the amendment clause.”

“How’s that?”

“Since our parents are signatories on the original marital contract, their signatures are generally required for amendment of it. However, an ‘amendment clause’, stipulating fewer people who must sign to make a change, has become common in the last few decades. Usually it’s for things like letting the marriage partners change the guardian of their children without getting the signatures of four grandparents. But there’s several pages of boilerplate that doesn’t impact on fiscal obligations and doesn’t involve the parents. I think we can make our amendment clause—” she flicked through the pages in her hands “—something to the effect of ‘Sections 1A through 8H inclusive may only be amended by consent of all living signatories or their designees. All other sections may be amended by consent of Husband and Wife.’ That doesn’t sound peculiar, does it?”

Nik smiled. “Wisteria. Listen to yourself. All legal terminology sounds peculiar.”

“Yes, granted, but it doesn’t sound any more peculiar than the rest, does it? And sections 1A through 8H are the only ones that concern property and our inheritance. All the rest is just about us. Including the article governing adultery. And I checked and it’s a little unusual to have an amendment clause like this but it’s by no means unheard of.”

Nik kissed her cheek. “I am sure it’s fine. So then we can amend it after marriage to say adultery is all right, if we like? That…doesn’t seem the sort of thing one would want on public record, even if no one is ever expected to look at it.”

“The adultery clause is…” Wisteria leafed through the pages again. “Section 10 Article I. I thought we’d file an amendment changing something reasonable – the guardian for Fireholt in the event we are both incapacitated but not killed, say – and in the same amendment have a line saying ‘Section 10I is removed’. Oh, better yet, ‘Section 10I is replaced by’ some minor rewording of Section 10L. Then if anyone wonders we could claim we meant to change 10L. Oops.”

Nik laughed. “I had no idea you were so devious, Wisteria.”

She dropped the papers in her lap, studying his face. “Is it wrong of me? I am not sure how to handle this well; it seems much easier to do it badly the way so many others have.”

“I think you are doing a fine job of it. Very subtle. Make it so, my love; I am with you in this and all things,” he said, and sealed the pledge with another kiss.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? A Rational Arrangement is now on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements contains three more novellas in the same setting, and is also on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Sale ends February 15, so buy now!

Am I So Mistaken? (120/141)

RA Header 120

Wisteria fell in love with Fireholt at first sight.

Even the sophisticated suspension of the beautiful coach in which they travelled could not protect her and Byron from the jolts of the pitted stone road, but she didn’t mind. Old-growth forest rose to either side, towering trees arching over the lane with branches already budding with nuts. Spring berry bushes fruited in their shade. Narrow trails threaded between the trees and dense undergrowth: this land was a hunting preserve. It had once been reserved for the lord of the manor, but five generations ago Fireholt’s lord had opened it to all his people. Greatcat game wardens roamed the woods to prevent poaching by strangers, but enforcement was only strict against hunters who engaged in mass slaughter. Sally and Ransha, the greatcats pulling their carriage, were already chattering merrily about hunting plans as they pulled the carriage up the winding hilly lane. A second coach followed behind, bearing their luggage and servants.

This vast preserve was one of the things Vasilver’s mining plans would inevitably disrupt, and Wisteria and Byron discussed during the ride ways to minimize the damage.

“Gone sentimental in your old age, Teeri?” Byron asked during a contemplative lull. “Surprised to see you so concerned about a bunch of old trees and wild animals.”

“It’s important to the locals, and a miserable populace is an unproductive one,” Wisteria said. “Besides, Lord Nikola likes it. Oh.” She gazed out the carriage window as they emerged from the forest and into view of Fireholt Keep.

It was no longer a keep, of course: only a picturesque ruin of stone walls and eroded fortifications remained of the original keep. Instead, a lovely sixth-century house rose from within those crumbled ruins. By the standards of Vasilver or Anverlee, the house was small: a two-story building of three thousand square feet, according to county records, with the servant’s quarters and felishome detached. But it was beautiful, nestled with its back to a hill, and perched at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean to the east. A waterfall dropped down the hillside and meandered across the landscape until it cascaded down the cliff. Several square miles of land around the brook were cleared, with tenant houses and cottages dotting it, along with a few larger homes.

As was to be expected, all of Fireholt’s staff turned out along the house’s drive to greet the approaching visitors. Wisteria knew that Nikola’s staff was small, but it still startled her to see that just seven adult humans, one adolescent girl, and three greatcats were the sum of his retainers. But the staff paled into insignificance at the sight of Nikola, standing a little apart from the servants. A middle-aged couple waited with him, gentility by their dress, but Wisteria had eyes only for Nikola. Byron made some remark on the size of the welcoming party that she did not attend.

One of Fireholt’s footmen sprang forward to open the carriage door as soon as the vehicle stopped. Nikola was there with equal alacrity to offer his hand to Wisteria in helping her alight. A thrill went through her at the warmth of his gloved hand against her skin. She met his eyes as she stepped from the carriage, and then, quite careless of propriety, fell into his arms. He laughed softly and enfolded her fast in his embrace. “I’ve missed you too,” he murmured into her hair. “Thank you for coming, my love.”

“I am so very glad you invited us.” With an effort of will, Wisteria straightened and withdrew from his arms to stand a decorous pace before him. “Mother is driving me to madness with wedding plans. I may need to petition you.”

“I am at your service in all things, Miss Vasilver.” He gave her a short bow, and another for Byron who was now standing beside her. “And Mr. Vasilver. Thank you for bringing your sister to me, sir. Allow me to present my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Greenleigh.” Wisteria took Nikola’s arm as he conducted introductions, then the group ascended the wide steps into the house.


Life at Fireholt was delightfully peaceful. Nikola saw petitioners for two unhurried hours in the morning; he seldom had more than fifteen in a day. When Nikola was busy with that or his other duties as lord, Wisteria and Byron amused themselves tramping about the woods to look at old mines and make notes on the countryside, existing trails, roads, and available housing. Byron was appalled that Fireholt had no quickgas lines and relied on wood-burning stoves for heat and candles and lanterns for light. “That’s the first thing we’re fixing,” he declared.

They were not left entirely to themselves. The neighborhood – in this rural place, that term covered everyone within a few miles of the residence – had several other gentleborn families, and Nikola invited a few of them to dinner each day. He and Byron went hunting twice, although Byron was not much use with a bow. They also went fishing in the brook, which both men were even worse at – they caught not one fish, on three separate occasions – but which they enjoyed immensely nonetheless, judging by their mood on returning.

But much of the time was spent in Fireholt’s parlor or drawing room, talking, sometimes with company and sometimes alone. Byron did not believe that his sister either required or desired a chaperone and would leave her and Nikola alone for hours to talk. Which they did. Talk, that is. Also kiss and embrace and cuddle together on the loveseat. But fully clothed. For the most part.

But they discussed serious matters too, and trivial ones, and everything in between.

One afternoon, Nikola returned from handling an issue with one of his tenants to find Wisteria at work on the table in the drawing room. At her side were lists of names, charts cross-indexing names in different colors of pencil, a floor plan, a pair of scissors, and a tack-stick. She was cutting out names from the lists and arranging them on the floor plan.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Since my mother wants me involved with the wedding preparations, I told her when I left that I’d take care of the seating arrangements. I already ordered placecards and holders, but I still need to decide where everyone sits. I thought it would be interesting to be the one who gets to choose, for a change. Though I am a terrible choice for this task, since I have no idea who hates whom and shouldn’t be seated together. I interrogated Byron for details on all the guests he knows, but of course that doesn’t include any of your relations. Are there any intra-family feuds among them which I ought know?”

“Probably.” Nikola sat at the table and looked over the guest list. “Don’t put Uncle Henrik near any of the Kinsleighs. Preferably not in the same section of the hall, for that matter. Why is Uncle Henrik even invited?”

“He was on your father’s list. Is he so bad as all that?”

“Uncle James Kinsleigh duelled him four years ago for an unspecified offense against his daughter’s honor. Who, I might add, is nineteen now. Neither of them tried to kill the other so I suppose the specifics were not grave beyond measure, but I thought everyone in the family stopped speaking to Uncle Henrik after that. My mother certainly did.”

“I shan’t seat him at our table either, then. Perhaps between his mother, and…er…some other elderly female relation.” Wisteria went through the pile of unassigned names. Since the reception was a formal event, men and women had to alternate seats.

“Have you done our table yet?” Nikola shifted to stand, leaning over her to look at the floor plan and resting a hand on her shoulder for balance.

“Oh, yes, I did it first. I don’t want to do any of the rest, to be honest, but I didn’t suppose it would be quite the thing to take eight guests for myself and leave the other four hundred to someone else to deal with.”

“Do we truly have four hundred guests?”

“Four hundred thirty-two, to be exact.” It’s not too late to elope, Wisteria thought.

“Did one of us want a large wedding? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.”   

“Our parents, I believe. Well, mothers, at least. Though my father has not once complained about the cost, so I daresay he is pleased too.”

“Because it’s not too late to elope,” Nikola added.

Wisteria covered his hand on her shoulder with hers, amused at his echo of her own thoughts. “Funny you should mention it. But no, I have disappointed my parents enough times in my life already. You do not mind so much, do you?”

“Only the delay.” He kissed the top of her head, then frowned as he studied the seating chart. “Why is Lord Comfrey at our table?”

Wisteria turned to look at him, tilting her head. “Where else would he be?”

“Anywhere else. Did he say he’d attend?”

“Of course. He was one of the first to respond.” Wisteria was perplexed and a trifle anxious. Had Nikola somehow learned of Lord Comfrey’s proposal? If they had fallen out over me wouldn’t he have spoken to me of it before now?

Nikola twisted his mouth in what Wisteria had learned to recognize as a bitter expression. “Of course he would. Appearances must be maintained. Well, they don’t have to extend to him sitting next to me on my wedding day. Put him somewhere else.” He peeled back the name cutout – the tack-stick used removable glue – and stuck it to a random spot on the floor plan halfway across the room from their table.

“But why? Hasn’t he been your friend for years?”

He straightened, crossing his arms. “That’s what I thought too, but I daresay we have both been mistaken.”

Wisteria twisted in her chair to stare at him. “How could we be mistaken? He saved our lives.”

Nikola turned away. “Don’t you start too. Look, I know how great a debt I owe the man, but that doesn’t mean he owns me. Fine, put him wherever you like. I can pretend one more time to be cordial if he can.”

Wisteria tried and failed to see how this statement followed from hers. “I do not speak of indebtedness, my lord; I simply do not understand how Lord Comfrey’s actions could be taken as anything but those of a friend. He has always been welcoming when we see him, and he’s been an attentive companion to me since our engagement. Do you know, he never speaks anything but praise of you? Even when he jests. He might tease me for my fixation with analysis, but you would only be faulted for being ‘too principled’, or some such quality no one could possibly take for a failing. If there is some information I am missing, I should like to be enlightened.”

“Well. Appearances can be deceiving.”

“I am aware of that, and no one is more likely to be mistaken about appearances than I am. But I am not speaking of cues; I am referring to his actions. When I told my father that I intended to meet with your abductors, Lord Comfrey and Fel Fireholt supported my decision against his objections. Before I left, Lord Comfrey told me privately that he would pay any ransom they named. I do not understand how that could be the offer of an enemy or even someone who is indifferent. Will you not speak to me of your reasons?” Had she not promised Lord Comfrey that she would keep his proposal confidential, Wisteria would have blurted out an apology on the spot. Does he know about that carriage ride back from the ball? But why would he blame Lord Comfrey for that and not me?

Nikola was not looking at her, the sharp lines of his handsome face in stern profile as he stood to one side of her chair. “You’ve seen a great deal of him, since I left Gracehaven.”

“Less than before you left. He calls once a week or so.” She hesitated. “Are you jealous, my lord?”

He glanced at her then. After a moment, he gave her one of his wry lopsided smiles. “Perhaps I am.”

“Lord Comfrey has been unexceptionable in every respect since the betrothal, I assure you,” Wisteria told him. She stood and placed her hands on Nikola’s folded arms. “I am very fond of him, I admit, but I want to marry you.”

Nikola blinked at her for a few moments, mouth open but not speaking. Then he unfolded his arms to embrace her and bury his face in her hair. She hugged him close in return, resting her cheek against his chest. “I wish I could tell you my reasons,” he said. “But…you do not feel ill-used by Comfrey?”

“Not in any way.” More the converse. “Next to you and Byron, there is no man I would trust more. Am I so mistaken?”

“I don’t know.” He kissed the top of her head, arms curled snugly around her shoulders. “Perhaps I am.”

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? A Rational Arrangement is now on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements contains three more novellas in the same setting, and is also on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Sale ends February 15, so buy now!

The End of the Season (119/141)

RA Header 119

Nik saw Sharone Whittaker a few more times while she was still in Gracehaven, once to test if she had a Blessing for mind-healing. To no one’s surprise, she did not. Other tests determined she did not have one for physical-healing or for plants, and the two people with a Blessing for stone who observed her doubted she had one for stone either. Which left her as a riddle to the community: some did not believe she had any connection with the Savior at all. But Nik wasn’t the only one who felt, upon speaking with her, that there was more to her “Mr. Brown” than a mere imaginary friend, and she was certainly neither possessed nor impaired now. She was happy and healthy, to all appearances a normal little girl even if she did attribute the occasional flash of startling insight to her intangible friend. At length, the enigma as yet unsolved but with assurances that it was nothing they needed to fear, her parents returned with her to the Vastings of Kinder.

After the Ascension season was over, Nik lingered in Gracehaven for a little while. This was not unknown for him, but in the past his reason to stay had been Justin and clandestine; this year it was Wisteria and everyone knew it. The openness of their relationship was one of its many attractions; it gave him one area of his life where he no longer had to mask his feelings. Nik still felt that proposing to Wisteria was the best decision of his life, even as he hated what had happened between him and Justin because of it.

But he was never my friend. All that changed is now I know it.

Ignoring that change became more difficult after the season ended and Gracehaven went back to work. It should have been easier, because there were no longer a myriad of social events where he’d run into Justin and consequently be called upon to feign normalcy.

But for six years Gracehaven had meant Justin to him, and the lightened social calendar just highlighted Justin’s absence from it. Much as he loved and treasured Wisteria, he could not forget Justin. No matter how much he wanted to.

Thus, after a week of post-Ascension Gracehaven, Nik opted to return to Fireholt and ready his estate for its new mistress.

He and Wisteria exchanged long letters full of affection; indeed, in some ways her correspondence seemed even more loving than she had been in person, where he might be misled by her neutral tone and expression. The way she wrote of Comfrey did concern him, though. Comfrey had taken it into his head to befriend Wisteria, and Nik found it difficult to trust the man’s motives in so doing. What possible interest could he have in her? According to her letters, they spoke mainly of business, but Nikola could not believe the viscount’s sudden interest in his betrothed was coincidence. But surely he would not court an engaged woman out of spite. Nikola didn’t believe Comfrey spiteful anyway. Only…indifferent. But he could not imagine what Comfrey hoped to gain from Wisteria’s friendship. He wanted to caution Wisteria not to trust the man, but could think of no reasonable way to do so without revealing the entire story. And he had told Comfrey he’d keep his secret. So he said nothing.

In the early spring, Nikola invited Wisteria and her brother Byron to visit Fireholt. Nik dreaded entertaining on his limited resources, especially guests like the Vasilvers who were accustomed to the best of everything. He’d been living more frugally than ever since his return, but so many of his expenses were fixed that it was hard to cut back without laying off staff or postponing necessary repairs. He knew Wisteria was already aware of his circumstances and was not truly concerned she’d change her mind on seeing for herself his estate’s condition. Still, he did what he could to present it in the best possible light. His staff was more than commonly anxious to please. Only the greatcats were relaxed and mellow in the weeks leading up to the Vasilvers’ arrival.

By means unclear to him, Nikola had acquired an additional two greatcat…bodyguards, he supposed. They weren’t trained warcats like Anthser, and they weren’t on Nikola’s payroll – in fact, they paid him for their room and board – and they rotated out every four weeks. As they were officially guests of Anthser’s, no one asked them to do any work. The first pair, Oliver and Heather, Anthser had introduced back in Gracehaven as visiting friends, and had been among the greatcats who’d kept vigil over him during his time in the cottage. But Nikola noticed that even after his recovery, either one of those two or Anthser was always within earshot, keeping watch over him. After they were exchanged for a second pair, who behaved identically, Nik was no longer willing to credit that they were there to keep Anthser company. Nik suspected Anthser of hiring them, but both they and Anthser denied it. Nik supposed he could have denied them his hospitality and ordered them off for trespassing if they persisted, and on the one hand he hated the idea of unpaid employees. On the other hand, having an extra two sets of paws around was comforting. Nikola was no longer pathologically afraid of abduction, but he was aware that the world was not as safe a place for him as he had always assumed.

Anthser was, nominally, still Nik’s employee. After Nikola’s recovery, Anthser had insisted at first that he didn’t want to get paid any more. “I don’t need a job and I don’t want one. I’m just going to hang about and eat your food and take up your space and do whatever I feel like. You shouldn’t pay me for that. It’d be like salarying a friend for keeping you company.”

Nik had accepted this for two weeks, by which point it had become clear that “whatever Anthser felt like” was “being a hyper-vigilant warcat and making sure no one even thought about bothering his lordship over anything”. Nik no longer asked him to run errands – or asked him to do anything else, for that matter – but Anthser volunteered to carry him wherever he happened to be going eight times in ten. At which point, Nik insisted that if Anthser wasn’t going to accept a salary he was going to hire another warcat and force Anthser to stop working. Anthser had negotiated down to half his former salary: “I’m still not running errands for you, you know.” Nikola was not happy about the whole affair, especially since his family had never paid Anthser what a warcat of his caliber could make elsewhere. But at some point, it did not feel worth fighting over any more.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? A Rational Arrangement is now on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements contains three more novellas in the same setting, and is also on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Sale ends February 15, so buy now!

No Longer Friends (118/141)

RA Header 118

Justin and Nikola were no longer friends.

Oh, there was no open hostility between them: Nikola didn’t scowl when he encountered Justin in a social setting, made no sharp remarks, offered no veiled insults. Indeed, in public he behaved just as he always had: gracious, friendly, civil, even warm. Justin reciprocated, offering the same appearance of easy, open friendship. In public, no viewer would think there had been a break between them.

In private…

There was no “in private”. They saw one another at events hosted by mutual acquaintances, where Nikola never strayed from a group of fewer than three and was often with Wisteria. On the occasions that the Strikers invited Justin for dinner, there were at least a dozen other guests and Nikola’s presence was required to entertain them until such time as some other social duty was certain to call Justin or Nikola away. For the two invitations to dinner parties that Nikola accepted from Comfrey, Nikola arrived with Miss Vasilver and left early, with an unimpeachable excuse each time. When Miss Vasilver was not about, there was always some other group. Invitations to hunt and to bowrace were both politely declined “due to prior engagements”. There likely were prior engagements, even, but Nikola of old would have offered an alternate date.

Nikola of now did not want to take any chance of being alone with Justin.

What was left was a hollow mockery of their former friendship, all appearance and no substance. The amiable public facade which had once concealed deep intimacy now concealed a vast empty gulf.

Justin felt the lack keenly. Sometimes, when he was telling a story at a party and Nikola was listening and laughing along, or when Justin and Nikola and Wisteria were all three offering droll commentary on a particularly insipid ball, Justin could forget that well-hidden animosity. For a time, he could pretend to himself that Nikola’s distance was but a product of his additional obligations to his betrothed and the stress involved in the wedding preparations.

Then they would meet by chance in some empty hallway, outside the lavatory or wherever, at a society event, and Nikola would give him a look of cold hostility and an icy “My lord” before hurrying away, and Justin would know that this was no matter of happenstance.

Distractions abounded: the Ascension season was nothing but one entertainment after another. Justin attended the galas and parties and theater performances, went to shadowed back rooms for anonymous assignations, forced his body through grueling exercise routines, tried to forget himself in noise and sensation. But at the end of every day, he was alone with the knowledge that he would always be alone. There could be no pleasurable anticipation of his next night with Nikola, nor his next day either.

There was nothing to look forward to at all.

It hurt, and Justin didn’t know what to do about it. Perhaps it was his own fault, for walking out on such an angry, bitter note. Perhaps he could have sent a note, apologized or at least explained that of course Nikola was not nothing to him, could never be nothing. I want so much more than friendship from you, but friendship would be better than this. But what could he write that would be enough and not too much, too dangerous to risk falling into unknown hands? And why must I always be the one to humble myself? After all I’ve done and risked for love of him, why must I still prove that I am his friend?

Some days Justin hated that he cared at all, wished he felt as coldly towards Nikola as Nikola did to him. If he tried, he could work up a righteous anger on the topic and sustain it for a while.

But mostly, it felt pointless. Everything felt pointless. Justin continued his activities out of habit, and for that occasional glimmer of forgetfulness, those moments near Wisteria or Nikola in some crowd, when the present was pleasant and ordinary and he could pretend it was real.

He intended to keep Miss Vasilver as a friend and had been thus far successful. If Miss Vasilver believes me capable of disinterested friendship why cannot Nikola, who knows me so much better? (Because he knows me so much better, of course.) He’d managed her news rather better than Nikola’s, perhaps because he’d spent some time contemplating how he would handle it.

Part of him wanted to seduce her still, to claim her body before Nikola could. (They are not yet wed; if I persuaded her to give her virginity to me, would she break with him and wed me instead? If he knew, would he break with her?) Justin desired Miss Vasilver more the longer he knew her, but he respected her too. He rather suspected that any attempt he made would end in humiliating failure. Even if she were receptive, she deserved better than such manipulative treatment. So he took care to avoid any circumstance that might tempt him otherwise.

At times he wondered why he bothered, wondered if it might not be better to seize at any chance, no matter how slim, that might end the dark pall that had fallen across his life. Who was he trying to impress by taking the high ground? Miss Vasilver? She already knew how little honor he had, given that he’d revealed Nik’s intentions to her and proposed himself. Nikola? Justin was never going to regain his good graces. The general public? Perhaps. Justin had put considerable effort into cultivating his reputation and some part of him, the part that said ‘this too shall pass’, did not want to throw that away for nothing. And it very likely would net him nothing.

And I still have Wisteria’s friendship. Do I want to risk losing that, too?

It was not as much as he wanted, but it was something, and Justin had little enough of true value to him now.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? A Rational Arrangement is now on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements contains three more novellas in the same setting, and is also on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Sale ends February 15, so buy now!

Rejection (117/141)

RA Header 117

After dinner, Lord Nikola – Wisteria still could not think of him without the title – and she made the announcement to her parents. Which was, unsurprisingly, well-received by them.

Courtesy of Lord Comfrey, Wisteria had had several days to come to terms with the idea of Lord Nikola proposing to her. She had more-or-less resolved in advance that, after giving Lord Nikola as full a disclosure as she could, she would accept if he were still interested. So she had little right or reason to be surprised at finding herself engaged.

She was anyway.

Even more astonishing was Lord Nikola’s revelation that, first, her oddities were not only mental in origin but likely treatable, and second and more amazing, that he did not advise treating it. It had never occurred to her to look on her handicaps as anything but obstacles to be overcome. That someone might care for her not in spite of but because of them was nothing short of miraculous.

After the announcement, her mother didn’t want to do anything but discuss wedding plans and dates and set preparations in motion. Lord Nikola made his escape by promising to send his own mother as sacrifice in his place. Wisteria had no idea how to extricate herself from the task. She told her mother up front and repeatedly that her sole preference was “as soon as possible” and otherwise she was indifferent on the matter of location, invitations, colors, theme, and every other conceivable aspect. While her mother nodded and agreed, her behavior gave no indication that Wisteria had been believed or even heard.

When Lady Striker called with both her daughters to congratulate Wisteria and speak of wedding plans, Wisteria resorted to sneaking away outright. She excused herself to go to the lavatory, passed Mrs. Warwick a note on the way out to beg her to cover for her absence, and fled.

She stopped at her office first to get the folder she had worked up on the Colbury evaluation, put a suit jacket over her dress, and directed Sally to take her in the gig to Comfrey Manor. I can apologize to Mother later. This cannot wait.

Lord Comfrey had guests when she arrived; since her attire and folder signaled a professional call, Comfrey’s butler directed her to wait in his office.

A quarter of an hour later, Wisteria was seated at his conference table and engrossed in the file when Lord Comfrey stepped into the office. “Good evening, my dear. This is an unexpected pleasure; I would never expect you to work on that during the Ascension season. In fact…” His smile faded as he walked to join her at the table. “I ought to pay your fee and cancel the request; I no longer have the need to sell.”

“Oh, I truly think you ought to divest yourself of your stake in Colbury Textiles,” Wisteria told him. “But I did not come on business.” She stood before he had moved to take a seat, feeling the joy of recent events ebb out of her, an empty ache filling her heart. How can this be what I want and yet not at the same time? “Lord Nikola proposed to me today, and I have accepted him, my lord. I did not want you to learn this from another source.”

“Ah.” He stood motionless for a moment, then smiled. “Congratulations to you both, my dear. I trust you will be very happy together.”

“I believe we will.” She wished she could read his expression. “I wish I could marry you both.”

Lord Comfrey laughed. “There’s a notion! As if one marriage were not trouble enough. What kind of Paradise would it be where one might have several?”

“A more perfect Paradise?”

“I do not think you will find many who would agree. Come, my dear.” He offered his arm. “I should not keep my guests waiting. Let me show you out.” As they walked together into the hall, the lord added, “Thank you for telling me yourself, Miss Vasilver. That was well done.”

“You deserved that much. A great deal more, to be honest. I am sor—”

“Never apologize, my dear,” he interrupted her. “I should have made the same choice, in your place.” They had reached the front door. The footman opened it for them, and Lord Comfrey escorted her down the steps to hand her into her gig. “Be well, Miss Vasilver. I look forward to seeing you again.”

“Good day, Lord Comfrey.” There were a thousand things she wanted to say: had there been a moment, any chance at all, she would have blurted something inappropriate out. But she was in the gig before she knew it. I wonder how he does that, she thought as she asked Sally to take her home. I am sure my parents would love to know. Watching Lord Comfrey stroll back inside, tall and strong and graceful, the embroidered trim of his jacket flashing in the winter sunlight, she ached with loss and desire. How can I love them both so much, when I am only permitted one?

The remaining weeks of the Ascension season passed in a blur for Wisteria: all of the usual social events piled on top with all the details and chores of planning for the wedding. The date had been set for early summer, driven in part by the timing of the queen’s schedule. As a count’s heir, Nikola had the privilege of a royal officiant for his wedding and Lady Striker hoped the queen herself would do the honors. According to Nikola, the other part was that both their families wanted them wed at once, “for fear we might reconsider.” Wisteria’s mother lamented that a mere five months was insufficient to all the tasks that must be done for a proper wedding. Privately, Wisteria wanted to elope.

She did not suggest elopement to her betrothed, mostly because she was sure he would agree and she felt that, after all the times she had disappointed her parents and even his, she owed it to them to do this one thing properly. Or as close to properly as she could manage.    

Wisteria gave the question of treatment for her mind’s peculiarities considerable thought. On the one hand, her inability to read and express emotion as others did had always troubled her. To smile, laugh, cry, and so forth as a natural response had been a childhood dream that she had never quite outgrown.

Yet it was useful in ways: her exaggerated reputation for patience and calm was due to the difficulty people had in discerning her feelings, for instance. And while normal people who could read emotions picked up on cues that she missed, it did not stop them from getting into stupid misunderstandings. If anything, it made the stupid misunderstandings worse, because where Wisteria would ask for a verbal explanation, others would rely on inaccurate nonverbal communication and their own assumptions. Do I want to be normal?

‘Normal’ was out of the question anyway. She doubted any treatment would take her interest in finance and analysis away, or instill a love of clothing. But: more normal?

In the final analysis: no.

As frustrated as she was by her limitations, Wisteria liked the person that she was. That person had been formed in meaningful part on her limitations.

Besides, I can always seek treatment later, if I change my mind about changing my mind. It’s not as if my healer of minds is going anywhere.

Lord Comfrey continued to call on her, to her surprise. Not as often – once every week or two – but he was as pleasant and attentive a companion as before she’d refused him. They would speak on a wide range of topics, but always circumspect ones. After the first couple of visits, Wisteria realized that he had to still be managing her, so deftly she could not even describe how he did it. But he ensured she never brought up any subject that might prove disagreeable, and likewise that they were never alone where she might be frank about her feelings.

Her very conflicted feelings.

As far as she could discern, Lord Comfrey had lost all romantic and sexual interest in her the moment she told him she would marry Nikola. Which was good! Even if Nikola was willing to overlook her transgressions, she would prefer he did not have to. Wisteria knew she loved Nikola and had a confidence of at least ninety percent that she wished to marry him even more than she wished to marry Lord Comfrey.

But she still desired Lord Comfrey.

Wisteria was glad for his visits, grateful that he enjoyed her company because she treasured his. Yet it was difficult not to be close to him, not to be open with him as she was with Nikola.

It was not that she felt any lack in her relationship with Nikola, save that it was not yet consummated. With the betrothal, they were afforded more privacy: ample time to cuddle and speak of whatever they chose. They could likely have gotten away with doing more than simply cuddling, but Nikola insisted on circumspection – some nonsense about proving his respect for her. Still, after waiting so long already, Wisteria reasoned she could survive another few months. So they were waiting. Impatiently. Perhaps when she was wed, her fantasies about Lord Comfrey would cease. Not to mention her fantasies about Nikola with Lord Comfrey. Which she truly should not have and there was no reason to think that Lord Comfrey had been Nikola’s lover, and even if he had been Nikola had made it plain it was over. So it was outlandish and insulting and offensive and oh so very, very sensual. She would never speak of it, of course: Nikola had entrusted her with his secret and she did not need a list to know one did not betray a secret. Just as she could say nothing to Nikola that could suggest that Lord Comfrey had been the man of whom she had spoken with longing. Risking her own reputation with an ill-chosen word was an easy mistake for her to make, but Wisteria had discovered that her mind was more than willing to put in the effort to protect the men she loved.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? A Rational Arrangement is now on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print
Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements contains three more novellas in the same setting, and is also on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Sale ends February 15, so buy now!

Proposal: Part Two (116/141)

Further Arrangements, adding to the story of the characters from A Rational Arrangement, is now available and on sale for just $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

RA Header 116

“Yes! And let me make this attempt properly.” Nikola shifted her from his lap to the cushion, then stood. He dropped to one knee on the floor before her, took one of her hands for reassurance – she looked so composed, and he all but trembling with nerves – and swallowed. “Miss Vasilver: I am ready to set aside all my philandering ways and cleave only unto you, if you will do me the very great honor of becoming my wife. Will you marry me, my lady?”

Her hand squeezed his as he awaited some reply, but his spirit sank as she remained silent. Finally, she asked, “Are you quite sure you wish to give up philandering?”

“For you? Absolutely. I have no entanglements, no illegitimate children, if that is your concern.”

But she was shaking her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s that I am not sure I am suited to the standards of marriage.”

“I…Miss Vasilver, if you are decided against me, you may feel free to say so; there’s no need to—”

“No!” She spoke quickly, interrupting him. “It’s not that I do not want to marry you, my lord, I do, marriage has been my goal for so long that you cannot know, you cannot imagine my happiness at being asked by you, by a man I esteem so much, one so principled, capable, attractive, even Blessed – you are everything I ever hoped for in a husband.” Nik blinked at her, stunned by the praise and apprehensive about the ‘but’ that must be coming. “I would be delighted to wed you. Only I fear I will not be the wife you expect or deserve. I had always thought, well, everyone marries, surely I can manage it, but everyone is not like me—”

Nikola rose enough to brace a knee against the couch and took her face in his hands to kiss her, silencing the flood of self-doubt. “Please, my lady. Let me be the judge of that. My mother has pushed a half-dozen or more conventional, unexceptionable girls into my path. I do not want to marry an ordinary woman who will be just what everyone expects. I want to marry you. Extraordinary, exceptional, unexpected.”

“Oh,” she said, faintly. “But…um…what if you do not have sufficient information to make an accurate judgment? I never did get you that due diligence report on myself.”

Nik took a deep breath, steadying himself against the rush of conflicting emotions: fear, passion, hope, nervousness. He focused on Miss Vasilver: her long face was composed but her light brown hands were clenched together, anxious, her gaze off to one side in concentration or embarrassment. “I have seen you defy and attack a man in my defense with both your own hands tied. I am not unaware of your character, Miss Vasilver. Is there something in particular you think I ought know and do not?”

“I’m afraid I’ll be unfaithful,” she blurted out. “That is – I was so forward with you when I oughtn’t have been and everyone has always told me that men despise such behavior in a woman—”

“I was there,” Nikola said, mildly. He resumed his seat beside the dark-haired woman. “‘Despise’ is not the word I would use. I am proposing to you, you know. I like your passion.”

“But what if I am the same way with another?”

He couldn’t help smiling at the way she phrased it, as if her actions might suddenly be beyond her control at any moment. “Miss Vasilver, I think you underrate your—-” he stopped mid-sentence, with a sudden awful premonition. What if she truly is afraid her actions will be beyond her control? “Are you – do you—” I love your mind, please, please do not ask me to change it. “Remember those pages of your document that so distressed my parents?”

She nodded. “My judgment can be so shockingly poor, my lord, there’s something horribly wrong with—”

Nik touched a gloved finger to her lips, not wanting to hear. That’s not a petition, she did not ask me what was wrong with her – “It did not distress me, my lady. I went to that meeting predisposed to dislike you, your parents, and everything about the situation. But instead you charmed me. With your very bluntness, your willingness to not merely consider but confront and address the ways that marriage fails some of its participants. Why would you think this makes you unsuitable for marriage? It is half the reason I am asking you! Perhaps that makes me unfit for the institution, in which case it is surely best that we be unfit together. If fidelity does not suit you – well, I should like you to be discreet; I do not wish to be a laughingstock. But I am not a jealous man. If you find you wish a lover in addition to and not in place of me, I do not think it an insurmountable obstacle to our matrimony.”    

“Oh. Truly?”

He smiled. “Truly. Is there…another man, then?”

“Oh…I do not think I ought to say. Is that the same as saying? Do not ask me his name, I beg you. I do not think anything could come of it regardless, I make such a hash of things.”

Nik swallowed against an unexpected surge of jealousy. Who is he? A gentleman? Some impoverished tradesman or a servant, too low class for you to wed? “Would you rather marry him?”

She shook her head. “No. I should rather marry you both, in truth.”

Nik smiled involuntarily. “I’m afraid that’s not an option.”

“So everyone tells me. If I may only have one, I will choose you. If you are sure—” She stopped as Nikola swept her into his arms again and kissed her thoroughly. As uncertain as her words had been, there was no shy hesitation in her response now. He caressed her side and down one skirt-covered leg as she twined her hands through his hair and pressed against his chest. Nik found he didn’t care why she prefered him to this unnamed suitor, whether it was for his title or Fireholt or his Blessing or – whatever. The important thing was she said yes!

“I am quite sure,” he told her after he paused for breath. His jacket had come off at some point in the last couple of minutes and his waistcoat was open. Delicate hands stroked over his shirt as she nuzzled experimentally at his cheek.

“Oh, thank you,” she murmured, kissing his neck just above the collar. “I am so very happy, I do not have words for it.” She clung tighter to him, as if to reassure herself he was real. “I do so want to be a good wife to you. I will do my best to be true, and not be a disappointment or an embarrassment to you. If I were not always making so many mistakes obvious to everyone else – but I will do better. For you I feel I could learn to be anything.”

Nik shivered at her words. “I don’t want you to be anyone but yourself.” The shapes of her mind filled his senses, the atypically rational connections standing out to him now, and the accompanying lack of instinct. That’s not a demon. Her mind is beautiful and fascinating and she did not petition me. ‘There’s something horribly wrong with me’ is a figure of speech. It doesn’t mean anything. He hugged her close, shutting his eyes, and knew he was making excuses to remain silent. “I do not believe there is anything wrong with you as you are, my betrothed. Do you…do you truly think yourself flawed?”

“Yes, certainly,” she answered, without hesitation. “In all sorts of ways. My body doesn’t express my feelings as it ought – my parents took me to dozens of healers when I was small and no one could ever determine why, and it’s as if because I cannot express them I cannot read emotion either. And things that are obvious to everyone else, like, oh, how one ought not discuss any of the important details of marriage when one is considering an engagement, or why one cannot marry more than one person, or – oh, the list is endless. Why I oughtn’t do things that feel wonderful, like kissing you.” She kissed him to demonstrate, and for a minute Nik forgot the topic and the accompanying sense of dread.

But she paused to breathe, gazing at him with a calm, neutral expression while he was flushed and stunned by desire, and he knew he could not just ignore what she’d said. “Ahh…so you’ve seen other mind-healers?” Not me. I would remember your mind anywhere, even if we had both been children at the consultation.

“No, my lord, it’s not that I’m—” She cut herself off, tilting her head at him. “Oh, it is, isn’t it? The healers couldn’t find a problem because it’s not my body that’s wrong but my mind. You can see it, can’t you? Why did you not – oh, of course you wouldn’t, you said you don’t ask people if they have a problem. But this is wonderful, Lord Nikola, will you fi—”

Nikola covered her mouth before she could finish, before she committed herself. “Don’t – please, wait.” Reluctantly, he shifted her from his lap to the sofa and stood, needing to clear his mind to think. He paced the polished hardwood floor of the small parlor. “Miss Vasilver, your mind is, yes, most unusual. I do not say ‘defective’. There are connections that your mind makes with reason and that other minds make by instinct, and that…that might explain the symptoms you describe.”

“This is very exciting, my lord,” she said, head tilted. “But is it not something you may repair? You do not seem pleased.”

“It’s not—” Nik dropped to one knee before her and clasped her hand. “I don’t know if I could change it. If you find it so troubling as that – very likely the Savior would alter it, if you wanted but—” he held up a hand to forestall her “—please consider what you are asking first. The Savior will not alter your mind in a way that makes you unhealthy or less sane, but it can – will, in the case – make you less like who you are now. Wisteria, I love the way your mind works. I love the contract that you made full of all the important details that no one is supposed to discuss, and I love your list of topics not to talk about, and I love that you made a list, and I love you. As you are. I do not imagine that I will stop loving you if you ask the Savior’s aid here, and if you petition me of course the Code obliges me to honor your request. But I do not want to change you. You are not insane, or dysfunctional, or – anything that is not wonderful. You may not be typical but typical is overrated in my opinion. Please, consider seriously whether this is truly what you want.”

She watched him for a long moment, silent, and he had to throttle back the urge to press further arguments upon her. “You love me?”

He blinked at her. “Of course. I asked you to marry me.”

“Lots of people get married for reasons besides love.”

Nik glanced to one side. “Not me. It’s all right, I do not expect you to feel the same—”

“But I do.” She leaned forward to embrace him. “I love you,” she said, matter-of-fact. He rose, sweeping her into his arms. That lack of expression isn’t self-control. It’s just how she is. How she will always be, if I am lucky. Footsteps sounded in the corridor outside as they were kissing, and Nik set Wisteria on her feet and smoothed her dress and sleeves to suit decorum again before hastily buttoning his jacket.

A maid tapped at the half-open door. “Mrs. Vasilver wishes to know if his lordship will be staying to dinner?”

Nikola took Wisteria’s hand and squeezed, thinking of the news they had to announce. “I will be very happy to.” The girl curtsied and withdrew. “I suppose that’s our cue to stop hiding here.”

“Oh. Regarding what you said, my lord, on petitioning—”

“Please, take all the time you need to consider.” Nik smiled at her, a little forced, and swallowed. “There is no rush at all.”

She nodded, curtseying to him. “Thank you, my lord. I shall.”

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? A Rational Arrangement is now on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print
Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements contains three more novellas in the same setting, and is also on sale for $2.99! Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Sale ends February 15, so buy now!

Spoken (115/141)

RA Header 115

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,

G. Vance

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.

“Different how?”

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?”

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy it now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Blessed (114/141)

RA Header 114

When Nik woke again, it was full daylight, and he was still wondering about Miss Whittaker. It’s been over a week. She must be on a ship bound for the Vastings of Kinder by now, and even if she’s not, she’s six. I doubt she could explain how she managed to overcome her own impulse to refuse treatment.

Still, after dressing, he asked Anthser, “Would you mind asking my people to look into what happened to the Whittakers? If they left a forwarding address or anything.”

“Sure thing, Lord Nik.” The greatcat took off the claw-tip pen he’d been writing with and heaved himself to his feet to pad outside. Nikola sat at one of the tables and set to work on his catalog of mental illnesses: lists of symptoms, possible causes, and treatments for each. Meredith, Anthser, and one of the other greatcats had taken over indexing the case studies for him. With some supervision and consultation, they were doing well at it. The project was starting to look like a project and not just heaps of wrinkled and folded papers.

Half an hour later, Nik heard the front door open as Anthser returned. The greatcat poked his giant black head into the workroom. “So…did you want to, like, actually see them? Cause they’re here.”    

Nik looked up from his work. “What, you mean the Whittakers haven’t left town yet?”

“I mean they’re here here. Outside the cottage. Mrs. Whittaker and the little girl, anyway. Turns out they were out on the sidewalk with the other shrine-watchers.”

“They were with whom?” Nik blinked, then waved a hand before Anthser could explain. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter, please, show them into the parlor. I’ll be there directly.”

He hardly needed to put a neckcloth and jacket on for callers of their class, but Nik did anyway and greeted the two looking the part of lord. Sharone’s face lit as soon as he stepped into the room. “Lor’ Nik!” she cried, and ran to him. He crouched to catch her in his arms, as if she were one of his nieces. “You’re all ri’!”

Bemused but not displeased, Nik hugged her in return, looking over the girl’s shoulder to her mother. Mrs. Whittaker’s expression was somewhere between pleased and concerned. “Oh, thank you so for seeing us again, Lord Nikola. Sharone hass been eager to thank you in person. What do you say, Sharone?”

“Than-kyoo,” the little curly-haired girl whispered in his ear.

“You’re welcome.” Nik loosened his embrace, but the child clung fast with her arms about his neck. Her mind had the grace of a flowerbud just starting to bloom; the damage from the long possession showed in underdeveloped pathways but little else. “I’m surprised you’ve not left for home already, Mrs. Whittaker.”

“We tried, m’lord, bu’ unfavorable winds kep’ our ship in harbor for three days. Then when she did sail, an acciden’ damaged her rudder a’ the harbor mouth and she had to warp ba’ to port for repairs. We’ve passage leaving Thursday now, and my husband said the weather looks auspicious for i’.”

“I’m sorry to hear it has not gone smoothly,” Nik said. Sharone finally let him go. She patted his cheek with her small hand, then stepped back and reached into her pocket for a folded square of paper. Solemnly, she held it out to him.

“Iss nothing, my lord.” Mrs. Whittaker smiled again. She looked a decade younger than the last time Nikola had seen her, dark eyes alive in her oval face, mahogany skin no longer aged by worries. A little laugh escaped her. “I could be shipwrecked on an island for a month and think i’ a minor inconvenience now. You dinna know what a difference i’ makes, having Sharone be so much better now.”

Nikola nodded, taking the offered paper from Sharone. “Thank you,” he said, unfolding it. It had a stick-figure drawing of a brown man with a big smile and curly brown hair, saying ‘I lov yu’. Red hearts decorated the page. Like all such offerings, it was beautiful and utterly endearing.

“Mister Brown says you nee’ me t’ tell you,” Sharone said, earnestly.

A chill crept up Nik’s spine at those words. He met Mrs. Whittaker’s eyes, and the woman gave a little shrug. “She doesn’t talk about Mrs. Square or any of the other ones any more. Just Mr. Brown. We though’…perhaps he’s jus’ an ordinary imaginary friend? He’s na – she’s never attributed anything cruel or mean to him. Jus’ things like this. She’s been drawing one for you every day and coming to the shrine to leave i’.”

Shrine? Nikola drew off his glove and held out his hand to Sharone. With a calm trust at odds with his memories of her, she slipped her bare hand into his. He studied her mind again, looking for anything wrong or unusual in it, but a closer inspection showed no anomalies either. No new demons, no old demons, no malformations beyond the underdeveloped pathways, and those were growing normally. Would that cause her to cling to an old delusion?

“Mister Brown’s na mad a’ you,” Sharone added.

“Why would Mr. Brown be mad at me, Miss Whittaker?” Nik tried to figure out the puzzle, questing for a few more pieces.

“Ess na. Says maybe you think he ess? But ess na. He does get mad sometimes but ess na a’ you.” She peered up at him.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Nik knelt, still holding the little girl’s hand. “Why would I think he was angry at me?”

“Cus he wass upset. Na a’ you. A’…stuff? Like when Mrs. Square had me break everythin’ an’ you were mad. But na a’ me.” She peered at him. “You weren’ mad a’ me, were you?”

“No. It wasn’t your fault,” Nik said automatically. Sharone beamed, waving his arm from side to side with their hands still linked. “So Mr. Brown was upset when all those things were broken, too?”

“Nonono!” She shook her head, vehement but without the violence of her possessed self. “Other things. Big things. All the bad things in Par’dise. Mister Brown knows bout i’ all. He says ess hard na ta ge’ a li’l mad. Even for him. But ess na the big thing.” She pushed up his other hand, the one still holding her picture. “Love ess.”

He looked again at the smiling brown stick figure man, the hearts and scrawled words. His fingers trembled with the sudden certainty that this conversation was not about Sharone or an imaginary friend. “But I hurt him.” Nik was not aware he spoke the words aloud.

“Nuh-uh,” Sharone shook her head again. “Mister Brown says he ess always that way. But you’re usually mostly-closed an’ you were all open. So you fel’ more. But it does na hur’ him when you’re all-open.”    

“Sharone, you shouldn’t talk to his lordship like tha’,” Mrs. Whittaker said like the mother she was, but her voice wavered in fear. “M’lord, I – ess she all right? Ess she still cursed?”

Nikola shook his head, looking at the child’s drawing of the Savior. “I don’t think so.” Savior. He reached for his god at last, and felt the answer in a rush of warm golden light on his soul, full of love, joy, compassion, and profound relief. Sharone squealed in delight. He gasped, half a sob, and blinked back sudden tears to look up at Mrs. Whittaker from where he still knelt before the child. “I think she’s Blessed.”


Nik didn’t know what to make of Sharone’s Blessing, if Blessing it was. There were myths of people to whom the Savior had spoken, but all of the Blessed he knew only sensed the Savior through feeling, not words. Certainly not by giving them information they would not otherwise have means to know.

Perhaps he was making too much of a few vague sentences from a child; maybe it was coincidence. But Sharone’s simple description was exactly right. He had been more open to the Savior on Brogan’s boat than ever before, and ‘open’ was the word he would have chosen to describe it. But he had not spoken of that event, or of the Savior’s anger, to anyone. It seemed too precisely the message he needed to hear for mere coincidence, for a misunderstanding of ordinary childish babble. And her reaction of childish glee after he contacted the Savior again suggested she had knowledge that could come from but one source.

Mrs. Whittaker was amazed and disbelieving, however. Neither her family nor her husband’s had any record of a Blessed member, but that could mean the gift had skipped too many generations for their genealogy to trace back to it. That was not improbable: all the nobles of Newlant were descended from saints, but many noble families had not had a Blessed in generations. She remained dubious, but agreed to have Sharone tested. Testing for a Blessing of healing minds or bodies, or one for plants, was a simple matter: a known Blessed watched the subject touch a person or plant afflicted by a demon, and would see if the subject cast the demon out. Casting out demons was instinctive: an infant Blessed would do it. Nikola could not imagine how Sharone could possess a Blessing for minds and still have become demon-ridden, but this situation was peculiar enough that he thought it best to test her anyway. A Blessing for plants might explain how she’d gotten the door off its hinges in Anverlee Manor a couple of weeks ago: that Blessing allowed one to shape wood and other plant matter. Although removing the door did not seem like something the Savior would have assisted in doing. Blessings for stone could not be tested in infancy, but usually those Blessed would use their Blessing instinctively to shape stone at some point in early childhood.

He gave Mrs. Whittaker a note of introduction and recommendation to take to the Gracehaven infirmary for Sharone’s testing, and said he would contact them regarding mind-healing testing. Nik was optimistic that he would be able to do that himself, but he did not want to commit to it yet.

After the two left, he lay down on the couchbed in his workroom and let the Savior’s power wash through his own mind, shaping and adjusting it to smooth away the jagged edges of trauma that were inflicting such violence on his mindshapes. He coaxed his inflamed anxiety and sense of fear back to proper size and shape.

When he had finished, Nik felt not only restored but invigorated, like himself again. The person who had been cowering in this drafty disreputable cottage, unable to face his nearest relations, was a stranger to him. Anthser was lounging on the floor watching as he emerged from the trance. “Everything all right, m’lord?”

Nik laughed aloud, sitting up and reaching to ruffle the greatcat’s tilted ears. “Yes. Everything is, at last, all right. Would you tell my parents I’ll be up for dinner? It’s not past dinner time, is it?”

The black greatcat spread his whiskers. “Nope.”

“Splendid. I’d like the furniture returned to the house, too. I daresay I am done living in exile.” He regarded the squalid room with a mixture of revulsion and regret. The place reminded him unpleasantly of his incapacity the last several days, but it was also quiet, private, and a haven from his parents. Being sane again meant he should be able to handle them, but that didn’t mean it would be pleasant.

Anthser rose, nosing at Nik’s head with whiskers spread and ears relaxed in pleasure. “You sure about that, m’lord?”

Nik smiled, stroking Anthser’s neck. “Oh yes.” Whatever its flaws, it would be good to return to normal.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy it now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Parental Blessing (113/141)

RA Header 113

After-supper conversation in the drawing room was as awkward and strained as Nik had expected, but the distraction of cards made it bearable. Edmund, to Nik’s surprise, maneuvered to speak with him alone for a few minutes, and offered a confused but heartfelt apology: “I did not mean to make light of what you’d endured, I promise. Dreadfully sorry about that.” Nik waved it off; granted that ‘boys will be boys’ was execrable garbage used to excuse the inexcusable, but he’d overreacted to a remark that even at the time he knew was not pointed at him. I overreact to everything of late.

After several hands and a couple of rounds of brandy, the atmosphere relaxed to merely stilted. By the time the elder Warwicks departed and Daphne and her husband retired for the evening, Nik felt something approaching normal. Enough so that when Lysandra and Edmund excused themselves, Nik asked his parents to wait before leaving the drawing room. “I’ve something I wish to say to you.”

“What is it, dear?” Lady Striker asked, all solicitude.

Lord Striker settled back into a chair, suspicious and irritated. “I’ll have you know I’m in no mood to be lectured at, boy.”

“Hush, Rukert.”

“Don’t shush me, Voleta.”

Nik raised both his hands. “Please. I just want to tell you something.” He took a deep breath. “First: as is obvious, in my present condition I am in no position to offer matrimony to anyone.”

“Of course not, sweetie, no one expects you to be looking now,” Lady Striker hastened to say. “I didn’t mean anything at all, mentioning Miss Rubane earlier—”

Miss Rubane? Nikola didn’t even recall when her name had come up. He waved the words aside. “Let me finish, Mother. I want you to be aware that, once I’ve recovered, I intend to ask Miss Vasilver to marry me.”

His mother clapped both hands over her mouth, eyes wide and even rounder than usual with shock. Lord Striker leaned forward, square jaw set and blue eyes narrowed as he appraised his son. “Do you, now?”

“Yes.” He met his father’s gaze defiantly. “Do not try to dissuade me on this point. I am convinced of Miss Vasilver’s virtue and worth. She is the finest, most admirable woman of my acquaintance; I can imagine no one I would rather wed. If she will have me, I will be honored to be her husband.”

Lord Striker grunted; his wife made a little squeaking sound muffled behind her hands. “Very well,” Lord Striker said. “Good to see you taking your position in society seriously for once. Good luck to you with her.”

His mother dropped her hands from her face, fingers waving, and managed, “Oh Nikki, how wonderful! I’m so excited for you! Are you going to ask her – oh, I know you can’t know yet, but before the season’s over, I hope? Oh, there’s so much to plan!” She clasped plump fingers together before her ample bosom and wriggled in her chair with excitement.

Nikola blinked at them. “You…uh…approve?” Having braced himself for resistance, he was off-balance at meeting none.

His father shrugged. “Odd girl, I’ll grant, but she’s of good family. Well-connected. You could do worse. Savior knows I’ve expected you to any number of times.”

“Rukert!” Lady Striker batted at her husband’s wrist in irritation, and leaned forward to say, “Of course we do! She’s a lovely woman, so courageous and selfless, I just know you’ll be happy together. Oh! My little boy getting married! I do hope we can have a summer wedding. Perhaps I could make just a few discreet inquiries regarding preparations, see if Alastasia Temple is available during any of the prime weeks…”

“But…when we first met her…you…”

“Oh, that!” A dismissive wave of one hand. “All a simple misunderstanding, Nikki, nothing to worry about now. Not after all she’s done for us. I’m sure with you to influence her you needn’t worry she’ll ever embarrass herself again.” Lady Striker beamed affectionately at him. Lord Striker gave a skeptical snort, but offered no correction.

Nik was still blinking. Part of him remembered Lady Striker’s vigorous condemnation of Miss Vasilver to Lysandra just a couple of weeks ago, and his father’s objections when he invited Miss Vasilver to the Ascension Ball. The wiser part recognized the folly in pressing his parents on their reversal. After all, I too have made my own reversal. I wonder if this was their plan all along? The thought dizzied him.

Lady Striker was rhapsodizing on the theme of color schemes and centerpieces. Nikola touched her hand to break the trance. “Mother, I’ve not even asked yet, much less been accepted.”

Her lined Haventure features broke into a fond smile. “Don’t you worry about that! No girl could refuse you, Nikola.”

Lord Striker muttered, “And the girl’s twenty-six. It’s not as if anyone else will offer.”

“Regardless. Please don’t get ahead of events, Mother.” Nikola rose and bowed to his parents. “Thank you for your blessing, my lord, my lady. If you will excuse me…” He took his leave, still marveling.


Nik awoke sweating and cold, from a nightmare of drowning in a half-frozen sea, trapped below the surface by a wall of impenetrable ice. He could see into a world of sunlight and life, but he could not reach it; saltwater burned in his lungs as he gasped for air. Even after waking, his lungs still ached with remembered pain. Beyond the terror of death was a crippling loneliness, an empty inner ache that wakefulness did not banish. He pulled a dressing gown on over nightshirt and staggered from the cottage’s bedroom to the workroom. Anthser was sprawled snoring upon the couchbed there; Nik sat beside the greatcat and draped an arm over his broad furry flank. That made the man feel a little better, but it wasn’t greatcat or even human contact he craved. He missed the Savior’s love, the god who had once been a constant presence in his mind. Now Nik shook even to think of him. How many petitioners are waiting for me now, while I tremble and feel sorry for myself, unable to face the god I have wronged? If I called, would he still answer?

He wanted to call, ached to reach for the Savior, but it was like trying to make his hand close on a burning log. Even when he told himself it wouldn’t hurt, his mind rebelled and would not obey the conscious command.

Anthser stirred under his fingers, dark head lifting in the dim predawn interior, the outline of ears pricking. “Lor’ Nik? Wassamatter?”

“Nothing, Anthser. Go back to sleep.”

“Mmhmm.” The big cat rolled over, wrapped one broad paw around Nik’s shoulders, and toppled the tall man down next to him. He snuggled Nik like a stuffed toy to his chest, purring.

“Anthser!” Nik struggled ineffectually, half-laughing; the greatcat outmassed him by an order of magnitude.

Anthser licked his face and squirmed to position Nik more comfortably. “Wha’? S cold. How’m I s’pposed to sleep when m cold?”

“I am your lord and master, you great beast, not your hot water bottle. Let me go.”

Anthser gave an incongruously pitiful mew and released the man. Nik gave him a hug by way of consolation before sitting up. He fished a blanket off the floor and draped it over the greatcat. “There. You may keep warm like a civilized creature.”

“Mph. The uncivilized way s more fun,” Anthser complained, burrowing down.

There was no arguing with that. Nik sighed and lay down beside the greatcat, who wrapped both right legs over him and cuddled against the human. I miss Justin, he thought, and felt a surge of annoyance. I miss the friend I thought I had, anyway. I miss sleeping through the night. I miss sanity. I miss the Savior. He tried again to open that connection they’d once shared. It was like using bare fingers to pry at a door locked and barred. They’re right, I know they’re right, I’m refusing. I don’t want to refuse. How do I unlearn that? How did Sharone Whittaker do it? He wished he could ask her. I wonder how she’s doing, and if she and her parents have made it home safely yet.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy it now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Moody (112/141)

RA Header 112

Nik did very little for the remainder of Monday, apart from grow unreasonably angry with Anthser when the greatcat faulted Justin for upsetting him. “Comfrey didn’t upset me! I upset myself! Because I’m an idiot! Now get out and leave me alone, you great ignorant oaf!”

He had not planned most of that conversation with Comfrey, or rather, not planned it for that day. All Nik had meant to do was give Comfrey his money back. Which he had not even managed to do. The rest had just…happened. Nik had meant to address those issues eventually, of course. They had to be dealt with at some point. But not this soon. Sometime when he was a little less fragile would have been good.

And I would have liked to have had one last good day with him, untainted by everything that has happened and all that is to come.

Nik had known he would very likely lose the…physical component of his relationship with Justin. He had not believed – not truly believed – that he might lose Justin’s friendship. Part of him still could not accept it, even after Comfrey threw his obligation in his face. To him, ‘friendship’ meant ‘I own you and you curst well better fuck me’ , and if I won’t honor that he has no further use for me.

But I cannot do that. I cannot live my life as Comfrey’s personal property, no matter how much I owe him.

No matter how much I love him.

By Tuesday, Nik had walled up the pain and grief behind a hard shell of cold anger. Yes, he owed Comfrey, far more than money. But the man had no right to demand so much of him. I never agreed to this bargain, never asked for his curst money, never commanded him to rescue me. I have a right to live my life with some integrity, however tarnished. I would have asked Miss Vasilver’s blessing for the affair if he’d let me, even. Perhaps it’s as well that he did not. At least now I know where I stand with him.


Nik sent a greatcat messenger to deliver the ledger, with an icily formal note reiterating his gratitude (of as little value to him as my affection, I suppose; I shall trouble him with neither again after this). The package was accepted with a terse message of acknowledgement; Nik had expected nothing more.

As awful as he felt, in some ways it was better than the misery and brooding of the previous days. Grief and anger felt more natural, more reasonable, than the bouts of irrational terror. That he’d had the strength of will to break with Comfrey made him feel stronger and more competent, as much as he hated the results. He slept badly on Monday night, napped through the middle of Tuesday, and woke in the late afternoon feeling – not better, but numb. As if he had exceeded his capacity to experience emotions and now could feel nothing at all.

When Anthser asked what he wanted brought down for supper, Nik surprised both the greatcat and himself by saying, “I’ll dine with the family.” He even asked for Shelby to help him dress for the meal.

Dressing went without incident, increasing his confidence that he could face his family and whatever guests were present this evening. He’d seen his mother and sisters separately at the cottage on Sunday.    

His hands trembled as he walked the path to the house: he clasped them together to mask it. Nik was highly conscious of the additional greatcats about the grounds, all studiously not-watching him. At the manor, the footman exclaimed “Lord Nikola!” and bowed too deeply as he admitted him. All the servants moved on tiptoe about him, anxious looks betraying a concern almost comical.

At the supper table, his mother welcomed him with excessive solicitude, seating him at the chair nearest the fire and having his portions cut up small, as if he were convalescing from some physical illness.

His father offered, “Good of you to join us, Lord Nikola”: words cordial enough to excite no comment from their guests but tone implying Nik’s withdrawal from the household had been due to pique.    

Nik confined his reply to, “Thank you, Father,” and ate his meal. His mother’s request for tiny pre-cut pieces for him was perhaps as well, since it meant he did not have to embarrass himself using a knife with shaking hands. I will not spend my life imprisoned by fear. If I can get through this perhaps I can convince my body it is not so dangerous after all. He could not force his heart rate to slow or end the anxiety, but he managed not to bolt from the table and the worst of the sensations eased after a little while.

Conversation at the long formal table was stifled by the weight of everything they were not talking about. Their guests, Lysandra’s in-laws, plainly longed to ask about the abduction but were determined not to be the ones to raise the subject. The table was saved from total silence only when Lysandra’s mother-in-law offered the topic of the education of her eldest grandson. This sparked a lively discussion, as most of the attendees had strong feelings on the subject. The elder Warwicks favored outside schooling over tutelage, and Lady Striker spoke lovingly of the East Hansleigh Academy for Boys, the boarding school Nik had attended. Lord Striker grumbled against it. “Their dean has some of the most daft ideas, practically an egalitarian. There’s no respect for rank in that school.”

Nik stifled a smile. Dean Dremmond was less an egalitarian than a tightwad. He used the student body to supplement his serving staff. Making the students do without titles and servants of their own wasn’t about equality but an excuse because the campus couldn’t accommodate additional servants. Lady Striker was saying, “Whatever do you mean, Rukert? You never complained about it while Nikki was there.”

Lord Striker harumphed. “Perhaps I should have.” Meaning ‘I thought a humbling experience would make my intractable son more tractable, and instead it made him even less dignified’, Nikola reflected.    

“You went there, Nikola, what did you think of it?” Lysandra asked.

“Only for four years. It went well enough.” It got me away from my parents. And I met Comfrey there. The memory of that interlude – just a few days while Comfrey attended an event the school hosted – pained him now. I knew even then he was only using me. “The academics were good. I wouldn’t send a boy there at ten, though. Some of the older students are hard on the little ones.”

“Boys will be boys,” her husband Edmund Warwick said. “No harm in it. Toughens em up.”

There was no reason for that remark to remind Nik of Brogan, but it did. He clenched his hands together in his lap, staring at his plate without seeing it, waiting for the moment to pass. He was dimly aware that Lysandra had asked something else, but not what. A hand tapped his shoulder and he nearly jumped from his chair.

“Nikki?” His mother was watching him. Everyone was. “Are you all right, dear?”

“Nikola.” Lord Striker was looking at his wife, not his son. “His name is Nikola, madame. Perhaps if you stopped infantilizing him he could finally grow up.”

His mother exclaimed “Rukert!” at the same time that Daphne and Lysandra said, “Father!”

Before the scene could worsen, Nikola stood. Everyone was still looking at him. “I think,” he said, with more composure than he had expected to muster, “I may say from experience that pain does not, in fact, make one stronger. Excuse me.”

As he left the room, Lysandra’s voice rose behind him. “Mother, Father, you are both impossible! If it weren’t for Nik’s Blessing I declare we’d all be mad by now!”

“Don’t take that tone with us, young lady,” Lord Striker snapped.

“Then don’t you treat my brother like – like—”

Nikola walked quickly enough to be out of earshot before he could hear how Lysandra thought their parents were treating him. He had not intended to cause a scene and he certainly wasn’t staying to eavesdrop on one. He was halfway down the path to the cottage when he heard Daphne’s voice behind him. “Nik?” The tall lord stopped, wiped his eyes, and turned with a forced smile for his little sister.

She ran to him, blonde curls bouncing. “Oh Nik, why does our family always have to be so awful?” Daphne held out her arms, hesitated, then threw herself into his embrace when he didn’t shy away. With her arms tight around his waist, she added, “Why didn’t you ever cure them, anyway?”

Nikola dipped his head to rest his face against her hair, a genuine smile curving his lips. “A personality is not an illness.”

“Are you sure? Because Father acts like you got abducted on purpose just to annoy him and Mother acts like you’re three and it all seems at least a little bit crazy.”

“I’m afraid that’s all within the range of normal human behavior. For parents. Sorry.”

Daphne heaved a muffled sigh against his chest. “If I still call my son Ickle when he’s over four, you have my permission to kill me.”

“You call your son Ickle? I feel better about Nikki already.”

She hugged him harder, with a watery chuckle. “Oh, Nik, you are going to be all right, aren’t you? I know it takes time when the Savior can’t help, but…eventually?”

I hope so. He leaned away enough to look down into her round, worried face. “I will,” he told her. “The mind is extraordinarily resilient when it comes to trauma, even without divine intervention. If I wasn’t already better, I’d not be able to stand here talking to you. I will improve, I promise.”

Daphne wiped at her own eyes and nodded. “Do you have to hide in that horrible old cottage again? Lys was scolding everyone into submission when I left. They might manage to be tolerable for a few hours afterwards.”

“Or it might be even more hideously strained and awkward.”

“Well. Yes.” Daphne shivered against the winter chill: she didn’t have a dinner jacket like Nik and had not brought a wrap when she’d followed him.

Nik put an arm around her shoulder and steered her back to the house. “Since this is all my fault, I’d best help you face the hideousness, hadn’t I?”

With a strangled laugh, she slapped his wrist. “Don’t you start, Nik.” But she welcomed his company back into the manor house.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy it now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print