Since Monday, Nikola had thrown himself into addressing the needs of his petitioners. He started appointments at seven in the morning and continued with them until midnight, and would have taken them later still if Shelby had not flatly refused to schedule them. He no longer attended the family dinners; he took meals alone and largely because his staff brought food and Anthser threatened to sit on him until he ate it. The whole was less out of a sense of mission than because there was nothing he wanted to do. Channeling the Savior’s power for every waking hour was not quite as numbing as spending them falling-down-drunk, but the former was more socially acceptable and at least helped some people. Also, no hangover.
He would have refused Justin’s invitation for Thursday, too, had his conscience not compelled him to accept. You are already spending the man’s money. You have no business rejecting him for anything. The thought sickened him. The entire interior of his head was a repugnant, unpleasant place, which perhaps explained why he spent as much time as possible absorbed in those of other people.
The crush of petitioners peaked on Monday at over four hundred during the course of the ‘official’ open hours from nine to noon. Tuesday and Wednesday saw fewer new people, although despite all the extra time as he’d devoted to appointments, the backlog of the treatable-but-not-yet-treated was larger than he cared to think about.
Since Shelby wouldn’t let him take petitioners after midnight – all his staff had the ridiculous notion that Nik ought to get more sleep, despite all the years they’d known him – Nik would check on the Whittakers then. Sharone’s erratic behavior extended to her sleep schedule, and as a result the Whittakers kept odd hours. Every time Nik checked on them, a different greatcat was in their quarters: Anthser, Gunther, Jill. On Monday night Sharone was awake and raving in a low, steady monotone, making an elaborate abstract pattern in charcoal on the flagstones around the fireplace. Mr. Whittaker was watching her, and apologized to Nikola for all the trouble, as the Whittakers did whenever they saw him. “I don’t think she’s up to treatment but if you want to try…” Mr. Whittaker began.
Nikola waved it off. “I thought I’d just stop by and…be in her general vicinity without being scary for a bit.” He took a seat in an ancient battered armchair fetched out of the attic to furnish the shabby suite, and made desultory conversation with Mr. Whittaker. The man was a cobbler, or had been, until managing his daughter had become a full-time job for two people. His business was in the care of a brother; Nik got the impression that Mr. Whittaker had not worked regular hours for some time even before the nine-hundred mile pilgrimage to Newlant. After an hour or so, Nik was not sure he’d made any impression on Sharone, but at least her father was more at ease. Progress enough.
Tuesday night, Sharone was asleep, sprawled atop a curled-up dozing Gunther.
Wednesday night found Sharone, Jill and Mrs. Whittaker playing with blocks, dolls, and toy animals. The dolls (animated by Jill) and toy animals (by Mrs. Whittaker) were at war while the blocks (under Sharone’s direction) tried to negotiate a peace. Nikola watched them for three-quarters of an hour, waving Mrs. Whittaker to continue and not let him interrupt. Sharone directed the game, instructing her adult playmates in how their forces were to respond to overtures for peace and when to commit acts of war. It was the most normal thing he’d seen Sharone do. The child took little notice of him until Jill gave an ostentatious greatcat yawn and told Sharone, “’m tired. Howabout Lord Nik takes over the dolls for me? You too old to play with dolls, Lord Nik?”
“I think I have always been too old to play with dolls. I will have to pretend they are soldiers instead,” Nik said, mock-somber.
Sharone shook her head. “Nuh uh. Y’ play blocks, Lor’ Nik. I take dolls.”
When Jill scooted back, Nik lay down on the floor before her and leaned against the greatcat just as he had when he’d been a boy. The dolls were a vicious, backstabbing people under Sharone’s hands, much as they’d been with Jill. Sharone had a curiously sophisticated sense of the toys as individuals separate from herself: she would pause during play to apologize for the things the dolls did. “They don’t know any better,” she told Nik. “Ess why y’ have to teach them.”
“But you do know better?”
Sharone shrugged and turned back to the toys. Without her inner demon in evidence, the little girl was adorable: cloud of tight black curls held back by a headband that framed her dark brown face, round eyes animated and intent on the game. The blocks’ diplomatic efforts made little impact on the dolls’ actions. After a savage assault by the dolls on a toy animal found too near disputed territory, Sharone sat back. “Y’ can na reason wi’ them.”
“What do you think we should do, then?”
The little girl was quiet for a long moment. “Don’ know.”
“Perhaps we should banish them,” Nik said, gently.
Her eyes flicked to his, away. “Banch?”
“Put them where they can’t hurt anyone.” He sat up on the flagstone floor to open his after-supper jacket and show its inner breast pocket. “If you’ll give the dolls to me, I’ll put them in here and take them away. Then the animals can be safe from them.”
Sharone hovered her small hand over the toys, then drew back. “Can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” Nik offered his gloved hand, palm up. “I need your help, Miss Whittaker. I can’t do this without you.”
Her fingers closed on one of the dolls in a tight fist. Shaking, she brought it over Nik’s palm, and dropped it into his hand. Slowly, he drew his hand away and tucked the doll with care into his pocket. He extended his hand again, and waited. Sharone stared at his pocket, then gave a little shriek and scooped all the dolls into her arms. She paused, looking at Nik’s hand, then shook her head vehemently and ran behind her mother, dolls clutched to her chest. “can’tcan’tcan’tcan’t” she repeated over and over, huddled in a low crouch.
Mrs. Whittaker put her arms around the girl. “It’s all right,” she said, powerless. She tried to take one of the dolls away, but Sharone shrieked as if in agony.
Nik shook his head at the mother’s look. “I understand you can’t right now,” he said to the child. “Perhaps later?”
At first he wasn’t sure she’d heard or understood – he wasn’t sure he understood the girl’s metaphor properly – but then Sharone turned to look at him, falling silent. Little dolls peeped over her slender arms, chin tucked to her chest and shoulders hunched. She gave him a solemn nod.
Nik flashed her a quick smile. “Well enough, then. Sleep now, perhaps.” He rose and took his leave, not wanting to outstay his welcome further. As he walked back to his room, he took the one little wooden toy Sharone had given him from his pocket and turned it over between his fingers, thoughtfully.
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