Not one of the reevaluations yielded any options for treatment. The depressing monotony of sending away petitioner after petitioner disappointed was broken by a dozen or so new arrivals looking for help during the hall hours. Even so, Nikola was glad when noon arrived and Shelby showed in his first appointment. The appointments would not be quick, but at least he knew they were treatable.
The first three appointments went smoothly. As Nik emerged from the trance of the Savior curing the fourth, he became aware of a disturbance outside the office door. His father’s voice, raised: “This is my house, you filthy flea-ridden mangy beast, and you’ll curst well not stop me going wherever I please in it!”
I suppose it was too much to hope that this confrontation could wait until dinnertime. Nikola rose and helped his petitioner – a two year-old greatkitten, blinking and bewildered by the expansion of his mental faculties – from the couch. He normally took the opportunity of the privacy of appointments to ask to touch the minds of the healthy people who came with his petitioners – contact with healthy minds was one of his avenues for learning what was different in unhealthy ones. But right now, Nik needed to rescue Anthser as quickly as possible, so he showed the kitten and greatcat father to the office door, interrupting Lord Striker’s next round of invective against Anthser. Anthser was weathering the tide of verbal abuse with flattened ears and ruffled fur, back arched and tail bottle-brushed. “Stand aside, you feral brute, or I’ll—” Lord Striker was saying.
“It’s all right, Anthser,” Nik said. “I’ll take care of this.” His liegecat slunk to one side of the door, tailtip twitching. The young man waited until his petitioners had departed before addressing his father. “I see you are in need of someone to abuse, Father. By all means, allow me to offer a target.” He stepped aside and bowed his father into the office with a sarcastic flourish.
Lord Striker growled under his breath and strode inside. He waited until Nik closed the door to begin his diatribe. “Abandoned World, boy, what do you mean by lodging your howling mad commoners in my house, without so much as a by-your-leave?”
“The child is demon-ridden—”
“Then banish it and have done! Is this some new tantrum, boy? If I don’t like having your petitioners in my hall you’ll sully my entire house with untreated ones instead?”
Nik ground his teeth together. “The girl is refusing treatment—”
Lord Striker interrupted with a derisive snort. “Savior, boy, your precious Code says you have to help any who asks, not those who don’t!!”
“—because of her extreme agitation. She needs a chance to settle and learn to trust enough to accept the Savior’s aid.”
“To settle in Anverlee Manor?” Lord Striker was incredulous. “This is the residence of nobility, boy, not a madhouse. We have standards to maintain, an image to uphold. Bad enough that they tramp through here every morning, but I will not have a pack of crazed nobodies living beneath my roof and disrupting my staff! How dare you offer them my hospitality without so much as consulting me?”
Because I knew you’d refuse. “I have a duty to help those I may.”
Lord Striker snorted. “Hah! As if you care about duty. You have a duty to sire an heir, boy. A duty to uphold your family’s honor and not humiliate us with your shameless affairs. A duty to maintain the dignity of your name. A duty to provide for your people. What are you doing by way of those duties today? This week? Ever?” When Nikola made no answer, his father shook his head in disgust. “I’ve indulged too many of your ridiculous fancies. Your vermin are to vacate at once; either you will tell them or Gunther will.” Lord Striker spun on his heel and started for the door.
“As you will, Father,” Nikola said, voice icily calm. “My guests and I will remove to Fireholt this evening.”
Lord Striker paused, right hand clenching into a fist. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re staying a month yet. You just arrived.”
“And now I am just leaving. I have an overfull schedule today, Father, and can no longer postpone any of it until the morrow. Do excuse me.” Nik crossed the hardwood inlay floor to the door and held it open.
His father’s tall, trim frame stood unmoving. “You cannot leave before the Ascension Ball.”
“Watch me.” Nikola beckoned to his valet. “Shelby, please notify the rest of my staff that we will be removing tonight. We’ll be taking the guests I placed in a suite earlier with us. Please give my lady mother my apologies that, due to the suddenness of this change, I will be unable to make dinner.”
Shelby, Savior bless him, made no murmur of protest. He only bowed and said, “Yes, my lord.” Lord Striker growled deep in his throat and stalked away.
Anthser was flat-eared in dismay. “Tonight, Lord Nik?”
Nikola sighed. “So it seems. Would you round up whoever’s next on the list and send them in?”
An hour and three petitioners later, Nikola showed the latest one out and found his mother waiting for him, her short stout form ensconced in a comfortable chair next to Anthser. She gave Nik an affectionate smile. “I’m sorry to disrupt your schedule, Nikki love, but I must speak with you. May I have a moment?”
“As you will.” He stood aside for her. Anthser gave her a paw up from the chair, and she rose in a billow of long skirts and swept into the office.
“Nikki.” Lady Striker’s smile faded, although her blue eyes remained affectionate. She sighed, dropping into one of his chairs with a rustle of satin and lace. “This is terribly unkind of you. You are making your people do an awful lot of running hither and yon for no purpose. Not to mention breaking your poor mother’s heart.”
“If my father wishes to uninvite my guests, then he has uninvited me.”
She waved the plump fingers of one hand. “And that! Why do you have to back him into a corner so, Nikki? You know how he hates being seen to change his mind, especially in front of the public. And threatening to leave Gracehaven before the Ascension Ball! The insult to the Crown alone…” She clucked her tongue and wagged a finger at him.
“The Crown won’t even notice one less guest among the however-many-hundreds it is this year.”
Lady Striker sighed again. “Oh, how little you understand. Nikki – of course your guests may stay. I have already persuaded your father and told them myself. Not that it wouldn’t’ve been ever so much easier if you’d told me first. Truly, Nikki, I don’t see why you must set about everything in the most pig-headed way possible.”
Nik let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, finally letting himself think about how little he wanted to act upon this particular grand gesture. “Thank you, Mother.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek.
She smiled and waved him to the door. “There, now, go tell your dear warcat to find your scattered people and let them know they can stop scrambling to arrange a removal on no notice. And in the middle of your appointments too! Poor dears, you’ve no notion how much trouble you’ve made for them. If your Mrs. Linden deserts you over this, I shan’t fault her a whit.” Nikola hastened to comply; Anthser accepted the instructions with a smug look that implied he’d known it was coming.
“Much better,” his mother said, satisfied, when he returned to her side. She held out her hand, and Nik helped her to her feet. It still surprised him how little she was, head not even reaching his collar. In his mind she loomed so much larger. “Now, if you need to do something like this again – Savior forbid – you tell me first, dear.” She tugged his head down with her hand, and kissed his cheek.
At the touch, Nik felt the familiar contours of her mind, the shape of a propriety as well-developed as his father’s but nonetheless different, buffered by the warm pink glow of compassion. People assume that because I can see minds, I can read thoughts, or at least understand the way they think. They could not be more wrong. “I will,” he answered her.
She patted his cheek, smiling fondly. “Good. I’ll let you get back to your petitioners, dear. Dinner at three, now. Don’t forget!”
In the event, Nikola was not permitted to forget: Shelby rescheduled his last afternoon appointment and chivvied him back to his room to dress for dinner, whether he would or no. Nik went along meekly, figuring he’d caused everyone enough trouble for one day. He first sent Anthser off to get some rest: “You worked late enough last night, and this far past open petition hours I shouldn’t need a wrangler.”
Anthser snorted. “Like spending four hours ’nipping and three flirting counts as ‘work’.”
Nik set his mouth in a grim line. “And how long were you subjected to my father’s abuse while you guarded my door today, Anthser?”
The warcat looked to one side, shrugging. “’s of no account, m’lord. Just my job.”
No, it isn’t. Or shouldn’t be. Nik fought down the urge to hug his liegecat, wanting to apologize for his father, for the recalcitrant petitioners, for everything Anthser did not because it was a warcat’s duty but because Nik needed him to. Instead, he said, “Thank you, Anthser. Now scoot. Go have fun. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
The big black cat turned back to him, then gave an insouciant bow. “Yes m’lord.”
Dinner itself, somewhat to his surprise, was entirely pleasant. Lady Striker had invited two of his old school friends, John Glenton and Kelly Veigh; he’d not known they were in Gracehaven for the season. Also invited were his aunt and uncle, who kept his parents sufficiently distracted from him that he could enjoy catching up with his friends in peace. The apology-menu of all his favorite foods made Nik feel a twinge of guilt. Mother has less to apologize for than any of us, today. Nik could tell his father was still angry about the Whittakers, but Lord Striker was too well-bred to make any uncivil comment in front of company.
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