Lord Nikola turned to face forward, offering his arm to walk beside her again. “I had not realized how heartfelt you were in your preference for truth.”
“My lord, you have no idea. Polite fiction drives me mad. Everyone else but me seems to have a mystical knack for distinguishing between simple truth and a well-intentioned lie, but I fail at it every time. I just want people to use words. Plain words. To tell me what they mean. Politeness is an endless guessing game and I lose at every single round of it.”
He smiled. “That’s quite an indictment.”
“Oh, I would use stronger language, but that would be rude,” Wisteria said, making him laugh. She continued, “Very well, I admit I don’t hate everything about polite behavior. But almost everything. All the dishonesty and the inexplicable rules about what you aren’t supposed to discuss. As if problems will disappear if they go unspoken. Does that work for other people? It never does for me.”
“I don’t think it does.” They took a few steps in silence before Lord Nikola added, “If I may continue to rudely speak of the unspeakable…”
“Please, by all means, do.”
Lord Nikola smiled again. “In that document of yours… article six or so? You wrote of child-rearing. The section on religious upbringing in particular bemused me. Did you write this entire piece with me in mind, or was it adapted from some prior effort?”
“Oh no. This was for you alone. I make a point to avoid old mistakes by making entirely new ones each time, my lord.” That won her another smile. Her heart gave a little convulsive twist. But he’s not interested in marriage. “I think too much about things. Children and what one teaches them are an essential component of marriage, so it seemed like a logical inclusion. To me.”
“It does proceed naturally from procreation,” Lord Nikola agreed. “But… I can understand differences of denomination, but ‘no religious observances’? Why would you suggest prospective children might be raised in ignorance?”
“Observance and education are not the same,” Wisteria said. “One may be taught about the various Ascension belief systems without being indoctrinated in them.”
“Do you not believe in the Savior and the Ascension?”
“I do, my lord. But the religious trappings inherent therein are my beliefs, not facts I can prove.”
“I don’t mean the specifics of history. The archaeological evidence of the Ascension and the historical record are reasonably clear: approximately three thousand humans arrived by mysterious means in Paradise a little less than nine hundred years ago, from a world they seldom described and which historical records depict as nightmarish. They were led by a man we know as the Savior and assisted by Saints, the first known humans with Blessings, who could shape plants and stone, heal bodies and minds. These people set about populating Paradise. That much is corroborated by a variety of sources. But most Ascension teachings aren’t. I do not have evidence that, say, lords who can bring the dead back to life will be born to us when we finish perfecting Paradise, or that it’s the Savior’s presence that sanctifies marriage. Or that the Savior had angels who helped him find and gather the people of the Abandoned World before the Ascension. I can’t even prove the Code we follow is his, because the first written version of it is over a hundred years after his Passage. Oh, and I can’t prove he Passed back to the Abandoned World to save others, because that’s just as much a mystery as his arrival. And if he did Pass back, it’s even more an article of faith that part of him remains here and watches over us.”
Lord Nikola cleared his throat as she finished, and Wisteria glanced at him, her head tilted. After a moment, he said, “Miss Vasilver. I channel the Savior’s power every day to heal the ill. How much more proof do you require?”
“But that doesn’t prove anything about the Savior, does it? It proves that you may touch people and heal them, but it doesn’t prove what process does the healing. That is – if a little child cuts his finger, his skin will heal in time. And it will heal whether or not he knows about the cells of a human body or the way they may replicate and knit together anew. Being capable and having full understanding of what that capability entails are two different things.”
“Are you saying I don’t know how my own ability works?”
For the first time, it occurred to Wisteria that Lord Nikola’s questions might originate from outrage rather than a simple desire to understand her reasoning. Was he upset? How would I know? He hadn’t stormed off yet. And this visit had been going so well. She tried to think of some way to salvage this. “I – my lord, I mean no disrespect, and surely you understand what you do far better than I. It’s just – in my travels, I met a number of men and women from foreign nations who bore what we call Blessings. Yet they did not all share our beliefs. Some thought their powers came from a place inside themselves, or from the Isuelda, a sacred pool in the mountains of Benonya, or… oh it doesn’t matter. I apologize, Lord Nikola.”
“Well, they’re mistaken,” the blond man muttered under his breath. He gazed into the distance.
“Yes, my lord.” Wisteria cringed inside.
“Miss Vasilver—” His attention snapped back to her face. “Are you agreeing with me to be polite?”
Impending doom closed upon her. “…maybe?”
Lord Nikola laughed. “Well, don’t. I’m not offended, Miss Vasilver. Startled. Not upset. That’s a very unusual line of reasoning. I will say that I have no doubt the power to heal comes from the Savior. I can feel his presence, you know. His joy and his sorrow. Quite distinct from my own.”
“Oh. What’s it like?”
“Like sunlight on my soul. Like a downpour so thick and vast you could drown in it, except he’d never let you.” He shook his head. “There are no words for it. I suppose that’s the problem. Taking my word for it means disregarding the testimony of anyone that contradicts me.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you, my lord. I do, I do believe in all of it. It’s what feels right to me. I think the idea of a pool of water that mystically acts through certain people to heal other people is…silly. Very silly. I am no apostate. But even so I must acknowledge that my belief is not factual. And I could be mistaken.”
“You’re not.” They’d made the full circuit of the small garden a few times now, without paying any real attention to it. “But I take your distinction. Fascinating way of looking at it.” Lord Nikola led them past the steps back to the house to continue around again. “Do you truly believe a business arrangement between Anverlee and Vasilver Trading might answer, Miss Vasilver?”
Relieved that he’d turned the conversation to less treacherous ground, Wisteria answered, “It would be trickier to structure, without my marriage portion to serve as capital, and with the entailment – marriage is the easiest way to ensure Vasilver shares in legal rights on the property involved – but I am certain it’s feasible.” Wisteria reviewed figures in her head and considered the relevant statutes.
“My father has expended some effort on the business side, and I fear it’s made matters worse.”
Wisteria hesitated. Maybe all conversation is treacherous. “With all due respect, Lord Nikola, I don’t believe modern business and investment is your father’s area of expertise. He, as I understand it, has been borrowing money to cover operating expenses without any particular strategy to increase revenue or net income.”
Lord Nikola didn’t respond to that for a few moments, and Wisteria wondered if she’d offended him this time. When he spoke at last, he said, “You know a great deal about my family’s affairs.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of that. “My parents and yours were keen on the engagement idea. Until we met, anyway. We did research. Due diligence.”
“So… what would your strategy be? For increasing revenue or net income.”
“Oh, I’d have to look over everything again, but selling mineral rights comes to mind. Or rather, arrange a long-term lease to a mining company, since one cannot sell rights on entailed property. A mine would have the added benefit of attracting people to the area. So you’d want to plough your lease receipts into housing convenient to the mine site. And storefronts, of course—” Wisteria broke off. “I’m sorry, my lord, I don’t know how many details you wished to hear.”
He smiled at her. “All of them, I think. What if the mine doesn’t work out, for whatever reason? We’ve got empty housing in the area already.”
“You can spread some of that risk to your partner, by having the lease contract spell out how many people they’ll be employing in the area and forfeits if they don’t fulfill those terms. Perhaps discounts if they do better, though you want to be sure their estimates are solid – you don’t want to incentivize them to lowball their figures—” Wisteria’s free hand fluttered as she spoke.
They took another few turns about the garden, talking until they grew hoarse, at which point Wisteria recollected herself enough to take her guest back into the house and serve him tea. Over china cups and an atlas of Newlant, they continued the discussion in, if not all the details, at least a great many of them. The conversation meandered often, digressing into side-topics on history or markets, or to personal matters like how to manage family expectations. The latter was more commiseration than collaboration: Lord Nikola didn’t appear to have much better luck getting his family to understand him than she did with her own, albeit for different reasons.
At length, Betsy arrived in the parlor to inquire diffidently, “Mistress wishes to ask, will his lordship stay for dinner?”
Which prompted Lord Nikola to check the time. “Is it so late already? I apologize, Miss Vasilver, I’d no intention of keeping you so long – no, thank you, I cannot stay to dinner, I’ve another engagement.” He took his leave with another hurried thanks-and-apology, and a promise to call again.
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