The Ascension Ball (66/141)

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The wait through traffic to arrive at the palace had never seemed so brief. All too soon, Nik handed his guest down from the carriage and onto wide marble steps. The steps led to gigantic double doors three stories high, open to welcome the steady influx of guests.

They were not announced on entrance – it would take all night to let everyone in if the time were taken to announce each new arrival in turn. Attendants in the royal livery of gold and sky blue took their invitation and the two continued into Dawnfell Palace’s grand petitioner’s hall. It had an arched ceiling higher than the great doors; a dozen massive gaslit crystal chandeliers illuminated the criss-crossing scrollwork chased across the ceiling and between the floor-to-ceiling windows of the enormous chamber. The granite floor was polished mirror-bright to reflect the guests in all their Ascension finery, a glittering sea of glossy exotic fabrics, imported lace, and jewels. A multi-tiered fountain served as centerpiece for the room, engineered of nymphs holding porcelain vases that poured bubbling golden champagne into the overflowing trays of mermaids posed as if swimming below. Waitstaff milled among the guests with trays of filled glasses and canapes.

Nik was impressed by Miss Vasilver’s composure in the face of the most extravagant spectacle Newlant offered: her eyes swept over the room to take it in without staring at anyone or anything, her expression calm. “How did they celebrate Ascension in Southern Vandu, miss?” he asked her.

“Mm? Oh, they didn’t.”

He blinked. “They didn’t?”

“Not in the same way. They have a restrained holy day called imsharu, ‘the Arrival’, in late summer. Their religion holds that Paradise itself rescued us from the Abandoned World. Paradise – the world itself – is like a god to them. They’re one of the people who think that Blessings come from that mountain pool I told you about it – to them it’s another god, Paradise’s husband, who helps her care for her adopted children by granting power to the Blessed. They think the Blessed are demigods of a sort. Their major holidays are the equinoxes and the solstices, when they celebrate different facets of Paradise. Imsharu is a quiet day of thanks, with meditative services and no lavish ceremonies or parties. The Savior himself is a minor figure in their mythology, a prophet and one of the first Blessed, nothing more.”

Nik gritted his teeth. “The rescuer of all mankind and he’s a—” He cut himself off as Lady Beatrice called out to him in greeting and drifted over on the arm of her husband. For a moment, he’d forgotten they were no longer in private.

As if sharing his thoughts, Miss Vasilver murmured, “I need to stop mentioning the things on my list now, don’t I?”

He flashed her a quick smile and put his hand over hers where it rested in the crook of his arm. Why couldn’t the carriage ride have lasted another hour? I should have told the greatcats to walk slower.   

Then Lady Beatrice and her husband were upon them and they exchanged pleasantries and introductions between Miss Vasilver and – Mr. Carson, it turned out; Nik had completely forgotten the man’s name. They were a stout, well-dressed pair in their thirties. A massive necklace dripping with emeralds encircled Lady Beatrice’s plump throat, while the gold and onyx chain of a mind healer crossed an admirably ample bosom. Her dress was a concoction of green satin and gold beads. She wore elegant wrist gloves in matching green, but slipped off one glove to offer her bare hand to Nik. Nik reciprocated the gesture, removing his own glove to take her hand and kiss it. Lady Beatrice’s mind looked as he remembered it: no sign of demons, no unhealed traumas, no malformations in the shape. He squeezed her fingers slightly as he straightened from his bow, and felt her do the same before releasing his hand. He put his glove back on to shake Carson’s hand.

As they shook hands, Carson said to Nik, “Been a busy week for you, eh, m’boy?”

Hackles raised by the man’s excessive familiarity and something in his tone, Nik confined his reply to, “I beg your pardon?”

Next to her husband, Lady Beatrice grimaced, but the pudgy man continued, “Petitioners and all, heard you’ve got em coming out of your ears, what? Making the rest of the Blessed look bad, dunnit? Hah!”

What? Nik tried to guess what a reasonable response to this would be. Carson’s wife patted her husband’s left arm, her bejeweled bracelets tinkling. “We all do our part as the Savior wills, dear.”

“Hah! Yes, and some of us doing the parts of two or three others, what?” Carson gave Nik an inebriated grin, pumping Nik’s hand too hard, veiled hostility in his eyes.

“Is Lord Nikola’s diligence unusual in the field?” Miss Vasilver said, as if oblivious to the undercurrents in Carson’s voice and the undesirability of the topic. “I researched the matter but there were too many variables for me to reach a definitive conclusion.”

“It’s not at all,” Nik said quickly. “Some times are just busier than others.”

“Oh, aye, some times for some people, what think they’re the best—”

Carson was cut off as Lady Beatrice said loudly, “It’s always worst when one is travelling, isn’t it? All the people who couldn’t be bothered to travel ten or twenty miles to see you come out of the woodwork when you happen to be in their little locale.”

“It’ll be a relief to get back to Fireholt.” Nik exchanged glances with Lady Beatrice; her eyes offered a silent apology.

“Oh, but everyone wants to see Blessed Lord Nikola, who’s just the finest in the world, what?” Carson clung to the topic for reasons wholly unclear to Nik. Does he think I want to be mobbed by petitioners?

“That would be logical. Though is he the best in the world? I only did a comparison with other Newlant Blessed, where his cure rates are nearly twice the standard,” Miss Vasilver said, while Nik thought Twice? That can’t be right. “But again, there are so many—”

Carson rounded on her in a fury. “Are you implying my wife is less a healer than he is, miss?”

“Isn’t that what you said?” Miss Vasilver asked calmly.

Why is she needling him like this? Doesn’t she know this is a terrible topic? Nik thought, and blinked. …Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe I should tell her. Carson was sputtering as Nik said, making no effort to be subtle in the diversion, “Might we speak of something else? Have you tried this year’s champagne yet?”

“My husband has,” Lady Beatrice said, with an edge in her voice that made Nik regret his choice of alternative topic. “I find the fountain a torturous thing to do to a perfectly innocent champagne. The rumballs are delightful, however – have you had any?”

“I’ll match her against any Blessed in Newlant, young missy!” Carson got out, still glaring at Miss Vasilver.

Miss Vasilver opened her mouth, paused, and glanced to Nikola and Lady Beatrice. “We haven’t tried anything yet, my lady,” she said. “We just arrived.”

“Lawrence, be a love and find us a server with those darling rumballs? And some of those tiny mincemeat pies?” Lady Beatrice spun her husband around, stepped a few feet away with him, hissed something in his ear, and then returned to Nik as Mr. Carson stalked off. “I am so sorry about that, Lord Nikola. He simply doesn’t understand the way things work.”

“Quite all right, my lady,” Nik told her.

Lady Beatrice sighed. “He doesn’t quite grasp that twice as many petitioners wouldn’t make him a count or us twice as rich.” She took Nik’s hand for a moment and squeezed. “You know we all appreciate the work you do, don’t you, Lord Nikola?”

…I had no idea anyone save my family and my petitioners was even paying attention. “My lady is very kind,” Nik said, touched.

They spoke of trivialities for a few minutes after that, pleasant and comfortingly meaningless. After Mr. Carson returned, sullen but silent, Nik excused himself and his companion on the pretext of introducing her to another noble.

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