The Usual Courtesies (46/141)

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It was half-past noon when Nikola arrived at Vasilver House, in his third-best morning jacket and the sole one that he hadn’t already worn for a call to Miss Vasilver: a dark grey ivytweed with blue piping. Shelby had put his Fireholt monogrammed lapel pin on it, and Nik had taken it off again. He was not courting Miss Vasilver and had no need to impress her with pretensions to wealth, and moreover the pin had been a gift from Justin. It was one of the very few pieces of jewelry Nik had received and kept – wealthy petitioners often donated jewels – rather than sell for the maintenance of his household.

Mrs. Vasilver received him in their overly-formal parlor, its too-cluttered look restored by the return of the Ascension tapestry rug, no worse for his father’s spilled tea. The room reminded Nikola of what Justin called his ‘stiff parlor’, full of pretentious ornaments and uncomfortable furniture, trotted out to impress visitors who might care about such things. Five minutes, Nik told his brain. Can you not go five minutes without thinking of him?

Miss Vasilver’s mother was a softer, shorter, darker-complected version of her daughter, but plump and rounded instead of slim and straight, dark hair streaked by silver a little like Justin’s (enough already!) piled on her head and secured by a fashionable net of silver chain and green stones. Fine lines marked a long face with a high forehead, but unlike her daughter, Mrs. Vasilver had a kind, welcoming smile. Nik had a sudden strong urge to see that smile on her daughter’s lips. What would it be like, if she looked at me just once that way?

They exchanged the standard meaningless courtesies for some minutes. Mrs. Vasilver was a bit worn and melancholy under her gentle kindness: not insincere, but as if her life had held one too many recent disappointments and cheerfulness could not be mustered. Nik sympathized.

When Miss Vasilver arrived, Nikola felt his own mood lighten as he rose to greet her with a smile. She had her hair down and swept to one side again, and wore a vivid blue daydress trimmed in pale blue lace, with a striking jacket entirely of matched lace. She dropped a curtsey to him and offered her hand when he extended his. He kissed the air over her fingers and enjoyed her unaffected air: no simpering or blushing. “Lord Nikola, it’s delightful to see you again. How do you do?”

“The better for seeing you, Miss Vasilver.” Nikola said, because it was true. Her words warmed him even if her cool voice did not sound delighted; in light of their last conversation, he considered she was not the type to utter false pleasantries. Maybe she’s just not the sort of person who smiles. He realized he still held her hand and released it, taking the chair opposite her as she sat.

“Am I to sit quietly and be admired then, my lord? One of my brothers says that nothing spoils a woman’s looks like her open mouth,” Miss Vasilver said, deadpan.

“Oh my goodness, who said that?” Mrs. Vasilver asked. “Mitchell? I’ll have his father beat some manners into that boy yet.”

“Stephen, actually, and I am afraid it is many years too late to beat anything into him, Mother. Perhaps if you could convince Father to withhold his share, but I do not think I could countenance such a move myself.” To Nikola, she added, “Stephen is one of my older brothers, my lord, and captain of Bright Angel, one of our trading vessels.”

“I trust he is a better seamen than wit.” Nik smiled. “Nothing against your looks, Miss Vasilver—” indeed, she looked better today than she had at either of their previous meetings; perhaps the lace had a softening effect on her features “—but I came more to admire your conversation than your person. I would be disappointed indeed if you were to remain silent.”

“I would not disappoint you for anything, my lord.” Her uninflected delivery gave the words a sincerity that the coy flirtatious smile of another woman would have stripped away; Nik found himself touched. “Did my lord have a topic in mind?”

“Not as such. I thought we’d flounder through the usual pleasantries until we stumbled upon something of mutual interest. How do you do, Miss Vasilver?”

“The better for seeing you, Lord Nikola. Am I allowed to steal your lines? I never have been good at the usual pleasantries.”

“Not a bit! I absolutely forbid you to steal my lines. I have given them to you freely, so any use you find for them thereafter is entirely legitimate.”

“In that case – wait, I already asked how you did. How is your family, then? Is that my next courtesy?”

“I believe it is, and they are all well, as well as jammed into every nook and cranny of Anverlee Manor. The place was a great deal larger a week ago before they all descended in force upon it. Alas, I have already asked your mother after the health of your family, so it would be redundant to ask you now.” Nik inclined his head to Mrs. Vasilver. The older woman offered her kindly smile, her expression otherwise bemused.

“Oh dear. We are not yet reduced to the weather, are we? You will be sadly disappointed in my conversation after all, if it comes to that.”

“Now, why would you think that?” Nik smiled at Miss Vasilver, but her long face remained grave. She had lovely skin, clear and flawless, color halfway between the pale-peach from her Haventure heritage on her father’s side, and the warm Newlanture brown of her mother’s.

“Well, for one, I have not set foot outside these last two days, so I do not know what the weather is. I assume we still have some?”

“I daresay we do.” The day was cold, rainy, and dreary; if it had been at all tolerable Nikola would have suggested another walk to Miss Vasilver to get out from under the eye of her mother. “So what has kept you cooped up for two days?”

“I would not say ‘cooped up’. I’ve not had anything I wanted to leave to do, and plenty of work at home. Checking accounts for Vasilver Trading to ensure all is in order for when we close the books at year-end.”

“My daughter works far too much, Lord Nikola.” Mrs. Vasilver gave her daughter a fond smile but there was a hint of steel beneath the words. “I imagine you have been more in the spirit of the Season? Dinner engagements every day and supper engagements every evening?”

“Only if one counts dinner with my family. In fact, I’ve been busy with work myself. Seeing petitioners, I mean.”

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