Nik awoke when Shelby brought breakfast to his room. The valet had already laid out clothing: a sober navy morning jacket, cream-colored breeches matched to the neckcloth, a light blue shirt with plain cuffs. Shelby was a pale white-haired old man who had been a footman in his great-grandmother’s service. Nikola had promoted him to personal valet, a position Shelby took far more seriously than Nik did. Shelby had a demeanor so exactly proper to his position that Nik often thought Shelby would have played the part of lord much better than Nik did. The valet was discreet and deferential, never breathing a word against his master.
In token of Nik’s unfitness for his position, he generally prefered the unawed if not outright insubordinate attitude of his greatcat employees.
But it was good to eat in peace, with someone who didn’t try to make conversation or question the marks on his neck or appear, in any way, to judge him. Nik finished an omelet and sipped at a glass of orange juice. “How does my morning look?”
“Full, my lord. There were over thirty people waiting at the gates when I came up.”
Nik glanced at the clock. “It’s not even half-past eight.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Nik rumpled his hair with one hand. “Please have them shown into the petitioner’s hall, Shelby. No point making them stand outside.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
Nik had finished his juice and was mostly dressed when Shelby returned. Nik stood still while the valet adjusted his attire and tied back his hair with quick professional movements. “Thank you, Shelby. How many appointments do I have for the afternoon?”
Shelby consulted the appointment book, following in Nikola’s wake as he headed for the petitioner’s hall. “Eleven, m’lord.”
Busy indeed. “Any marked as complex?”
At the top of the main staircase, Lord Striker intercepted them. “Nikola. Must you have so much riff-raff let into the petitioner’s hall? Think how it reflects on us.”
“I thought petitioners were what it was for. Isn’t that why it’s called the petitioner’s hall? Shall I show them to the ballroom instead, Father?” Nikola stepped around his father’s looming form and started down the steps.
“That is not what I meant and you know it, Nikola.” Lord Striker spun to follow his son.
“Do I? I am sure you wouldn’t ask me to violate the Code by refusing to see petitioners, Father.”
“No one is saying you should refuse them, but the Code does not demand you do so every day, and having this house overrun by the lowest sort of people is a great trial on the staff and on your mother.”
And on your sensibilities. “I’ll be sure to tell the demons you would appreciate it if they left the poor alone and only infested the nobility, Father. Perhaps you should ask your friends to volunteer as victims.” Nikola nodded to Robert, the Anverlee footman standing by the hall doors.
Lord Striker set his jaw. “We’ll speak of this later,” he growled, and stalked off as the footman opened the doors.
The petitioner’s hall was a great granite-floored chamber lit by tall windows along the south facing. It had not been fitted with gaslight fixtures, so its three crystal chandeliers were designed for candles, unlit given the daylight hour. A sharp eye would note that many of the candle holders stood empty; Nik couldn’t remember the last time the chandeliers had been lit. The runner down the center of the room was in Anverlee blue with a simple silver trim, and threadbare. They owned a good one but Lady Striker declined to set it out for petitioners, for which Nik did not fault her. They came to be cured, not impressed. The passage of time had been kinder to the cartouches carved into the walls – one of Nikola’s distant ancestors had in fact possessed a Blessing for stone – and the ornate moldings around the windows. Paintings of previous Lords and Ladies of Anverlee hung between the cartouches. The hall had little in the way of furniture, in deference to tradition. Just as well. We’d have sold the furniture if there had been any, and then Father would be even more offended that I use the place for its intended purpose.
At present, the hall was full of life; Nikola guessed something like seventy humans and thirty greatcats. Not enough to make the chamber crowded, but enough to line both sides. Of those, forty or fifty were petitioners. Nikola’s staff had arranged the petitioners in accordance with tradition, kneeling close together at the edge of the carpet. The healthy people who had accompanied them were ranged against the wall behind the petitioners with a few exceptions. Petitioners of both species varied in age, from a greatkitten a year or two older than Belle to a frail wrinkled man who looked older than Lady Dalsterly. The majority were elderly humans, however. Race and skin color also varied: most were the golden-brown Newlanture or pale-peach Haventure hues common in Newlant, but there were several humans in shades of brown and near-black that were rare in this country. Judging by their dress, most of those gathered were poor but prepared as if for temple, faces and hands freshly scrubbed, clothing neat and formal.
Robert, the Anverlee footman who’d opened the door, announced him: “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, Blessed by the Savior, Healer of Minds.” The assembly looked to him; his head-of-staff broke off her conversation to hurry over, leaving Anthser beside the petitioners near the far end of the line. Most of the people in the hall bowed their heads respectfully, though some of the petitioners continued to stare. Nik was untroubled by this; some dementia sufferers were no more capable of following protocol than a legless man was capable of standing.
Mrs. Linden, his chief-of-staff, greeted him with a curtsey. She was a tall heavy-set round-faced woman with golden-brown skin and grey-streaked dark hair pinned to the crown of her head. “My lord.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Linden. Any problems I should be aware of?”
She pursed her lips. “It’s mostly the usual cases today, senility and the like. But there are two feral greatkittens; one’s nearly four already.” She shook her head, and Nik winced. “And there’s…this girl.” She glanced down the line.
Nikola followed her gaze to a little girl, at the end. Anthser lay on his stomach near her. She wasn’t kneeling: she was bound as if she were a dangerous criminal, arms together behind her back, feet hobbled, mouth gagged, eyes darting like a wild animal. A broad-shouldered man stood directly behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. Saints help us. “What – she can’t be more than six. Is she so dangerous?”
“Her parents say so.” Mrs. Linden shrugged helplessly.
Nik averted his eyes to keep from staring. “There’s no way she’ll consent, not if they need to restrain her like that.”
“I know.” Mrs. Linden bit her lip. “Do you want her removed, my lord?”
“No.” Nik inhaled. “Maybe we’ll get a miracle. Let’s get started.”