The Difference (68/141)

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Wisteria waited at one side of the grand hall to be reunited with Lord Nikola; the crowd of other people who had accompanied a Blessed thronged about her. Inwardly, she still reeled from the Blessing of Newlant. Of course, she’d felt it before: all of Newlant knew when the Blessing was held at the Ascension Ball, because one could feel the sudden closeness of the Savior, whereever one was and whatever one was doing. But she’d heard the experience was far more intense for those at the Ascension Ball itself, and goodness, that had not been exaggerated. As she waited, she glimpsed Lord Comfrey through the crowd. Even in a sea of gorgeous costumes he was impossible to miss: waves of black hair swept to the small of his back, stark against a scarlet coat glittering with a knotwork design of gold beads. The coat-tails brushed at the top of knee-height boots of rich leather with a worked pattern that echoed the same knotwork pattern in gold inlay. He was smiling at a small pretty woman who clung to his arm. Wisteria didn’t try to catch his attention: initiating conversations about business was on her List of Things Not to Do (for some unfathomable reason she was permitted to continue the subject if someone else raised it, however), and she couldn’t think what else she’d say to him.

Wisteria recognized a number of people from this or that previous social occasion, and exchanged a few words of greeting as people strolled past. The scale of this event was perhaps the most staggering thing about it, thus far. Any number of parties took place during the Ascension season, from intimate gatherings of a dozen to grand galas for hundreds. The Ascension Ball was the most prestigious of all, by exclusive invitation of the Crown only to titled lords and ladies and their guests. Even the brothers of dukes and the children of princes did not receive invitations, nor untitled families like the Vasilvers, nevermind how wealthy. Somehow, Wisteria had thought that all the pomp and exclusivity would translate to one of the smaller events. Who knew there were so many with titles in Newlant? Of course, every healer had a title, which meant that right now this was the best place in the entire nation to be injured or sick. As she watched the crowd, she noticed others of the healers taking their gloves off before shaking hands, as Lady Beatrice and Lord Nikola had. I must ask him about that. It’s not on my list.

It would have been easy for a gathering so tremendous to feel common, but everywhere was opulence and grandeur. Wisteria found herself wondering practical things: how much did the Crown spend in heating these vast chambers, in maintaining its state of polished perfection? Where did they store those outdoor heating pillars when not in use? Did these vast corridors have furniture in them when they were not stuffed with guests, and if so, where did that go? How many of these lords and ladies had money troubles like the Strikers? Was there a secondhand market for Ascension garb? Surely there ought to be – these extravagances that were worn only once, that were unsuitable at any event but this one. The fashions changed from year to year, but altering one to look current and not reminiscent of a prior year’s outfit was not out the question, was it? But it would be considered gauche, as Lord Striker said renting a coach was, would it not? Perhaps if the service were offered with great discretion…

She was still musing on this when her eyes lit on Lord Nikola: he smiled as he saw her, strides lengthening until he reached her and offered his arm. There was an otherworldly quality to him, even more so than usual, as if he belonged to a more perfect Paradise and was only on loan to this one. Wisteria put her hand on his arm as she gazed up at his features, his slim straight nose and high cheekbones, the stark lines of chin and jaw, forgetting not to stare as she tried to pin her impression to a tangible thing. It was so rare that she had any sense of mood from the way anyone looked. But that was a smile of real joy on him, she thought, the hint of dimples showing and the corners of his eyes crinkling, in the way they didn’t when he was mocking himself. His pupils were dilated, round eyes widened slightly to catch the light. Is that what it means to see someone’s eyes light up? Or is that a different thing?

“Miss Vasilver?” he asked, and she realized that her free hand was half-raised to his face, unconscious expression of her desire to touch him, to learn if that otherworldliness was something she could feel. “Shall we walk in?”

Wisteria forced both her hand and her eyes away, turning to face forward and walk beside him. “Yes, my lord.” Then, not caring if it should be on the list or not, she asked, “What’s it like, for you, to be at the center of the Blessing of Newlant? Is it different from treating a petitioner?”

“It is almost entirely unlike it,” Lord Nikola said. “There’s nothing to diagnose or treat, no demon to cast out. Except – well, when I cannot diagnose a petitioner’s problem but call on the Savior’s help anyway, the Savior’s response is typically of grief, or regret. But when we call on the Savior on this night, there’s no regret. No sense that what we ask, he cannot give. It’s quite the opposite – one can sense him expecting it, looking forward to the event. I want to say ‘with excitement’ but that conveys the wrong impression: it is such a serene, calm sort of pleasure in the anticipation. I don’t – I don’t know, exactly, what he does. When I touch the land, I don’t sense anything you wouldn’t. The Blessed for plants and stone say it’s the same for them, they can’t sense anything but what’s right around them, not the whole nation. But he works through us anyway. It feels extraordinary. Glorious. Like being a part of the sun, giving light and life to the world.”

“It’s so different, being here when it happens,” Wisteria said. “The difference between seeing a beacon in the distance and being close enough to feel the heat of its lighting.”

“I’ve heard that,” Lord Nikola answered, still smiling. “I don’t know what it’s like, either way. I’ve never been anywhere but here for the Blessing.”

“Oh, of course. I apologize; you must hear this sort of thing every year.”

He shook his head. “Not at all, miss.” Lord Nikola covered her hand with his gloved one as they walked into the palace’s banquet hall. Paintings in wide gilt frames depicted the Abandoned World on the east wall, the coming of the Savior and the Ascension on the south, and the settlement of Paradise and the later founding of Newlant on the west. Round dining tables seating eight filled the room, covered in brocade and beaded cloth in Ascension colors of purple and gold. Gilt-edged chairs of carved wood had cushions to match. A web of curving carpet runners that must have been crafted specifically for this room and these tables wove around them. At northwest and northeast corners of the room were two tables scaled for greatcat guests, tall and with low cushioned platforms before them for seating.

One of many uniformed ushers directed them to their places. Lord Nikola escorted Wisteria to her place card and helped her to her seat, then kissed her hand before taking his leave for his own. It was traditional in Newlant to seat couples apart from one another at formal meals – a practice designed to give some time apart to marital partners who saw too much of one another already. Just now Wisteria rather missed Southern Vandu’s practice of letting guests choose their own seats. The host for her table introduced them all to one another, but she’d met not one person before.

For all that, it did not go badly, judging by her limited powers of observation. She was seated between Mr. Jenkins, an elderly and prosperous merchant married to one of the Blessed with a courtesy title, and Mr. Willsham, a pleasant if plump young gentleman escorting Lady Jessica, an earl’s heir. Mr. Jenkins said little to her, devoting himself to the gentlewoman on his left, but Mr. Willsham proved capable of making an astounding amount of conversation around the various courses of food. Wisteria’s appreciation of sustenance did not go much beyond ‘delicious’, ‘edible’, and ‘not in fact food’. Mr. Willsham went orders of magnitude farther, deconstructing the ingredient list, preparation method, cooking time and temperature, so that he might explain exactly why the food was delicious. Or, in the case of the unfortunate soup course, more in the ‘not in fact food’ category. (An ill-chosen blend of cilantro and lemon zest and too short a cooking time at too high a heat had rendered what was meant to be lobster bisque a watery dish that tasted rather like soap.) But he also explained the succulence of the roast pig (slow-roasted whole for some hours, before the fire and not above it, constantly turned and basting in its own fat), the fine subtleties in the sauce for the beef (rich and thick, with a flavor Wisteria could not identify until Mr. Willsham explained that it was a tomato base with onions, raisins, and – among other spices – cinnamon and cocoa, of all things). Although she had little to contribute apart from occasional comment on the country from whence a spice or foodstuff was imported, Wisteria found the conversation enlightening.

Even so, she could not regret when the meal drew to a close and the company rose to reassemble their partnerships. Lord Nikola arrived at her table to reclaim her faster than she would have thought possible, given the distance and the crowd to negotiate. She took his hand to rise from her seat. His smile was not the same as it had been after the ceremony – less wide, she thought, and did not know what that signified – but her heart lightened anyway. She felt as if she were dancing already as they joined the stately procession to the ballroom.

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