The top sheet looked a lot like a contract, broken into articles and sub-articles and substitute articles. The first page detailed Miss Vasilver’s dowry and terms under which it would be held and could be spent. His father leaned closer to look at it as well. Nik tugged at the fingers of his right glove with a slight gesture to it. “With your permission…?” At Mr. Vasilver’s wave and his daughter’s nod, Nik removed the glove and flipped to the next page.
“My daughter doesn’t intend to be forward, my lord,” Mr. Vasilver said, fingers clutching and releasing the arms of his chair. “There’s no need to discuss such things now, at such an early stage.”
Miss Vasilver said, blandly, “Wouldn’t discussing such things now be the logical way to decide if we’re going to the next stage?”
The second page had alternative terms and conditions – ‘if Anverlee agrees to X, Vasilver will agree to Y’. The document reminded Nik of the woman: cold, calculating, blunt. He should have found it repugnant. Presumptuous, as if she assumed he was interested in marrying her, which he most certainly was not. His parents’ hints about Anverlee’s financial needs and his duty to procure a wife were unsubtle, but this was like a sledgehammer, with not the least attempt to cloak its purpose in courtesy, sentiment or romance.
But he didn’t feel insulted. So what if it was presumptuous? Money and marriage was the point of this charade, and it was almost a relief to have someone call this sorry affair what it was. His parents trying to guilt him into marriage, that was offensive. This was…honest. Unappealing, but honest. “It’s fine, Mr. Vasilver,” Nik answered, vaguely aware that on the opposite side of the couch his mother was sputtering. Lord Striker read over Nik’s shoulder, bemused.
Nik scanned the article headings as he flipped pages, not trying to digest the details. It looked…thorough. Not just the lists of holdings and financial responsibilities, but the alternatives, as if she wished to demonstrate flexibility even in writing. It went on about the specific benefits Anverlee might expect from Vasilver Trading – use of their fleet, warehouses, personnel – and vice versa. There was quite a long section on mineral rights and mining in Fireholt, including minimizing the impact on the land. “Did you say you prepared this document, Miss Vasilver? Or had it prepared?”
“I consulted with my lawyer, father, and other involved parties for various sections pertaining to their interests, but it mainly represents my thinking. It’s only a draft, my lord.”
“Mm.” Pity it involved marrying the icicle-woman before him; he might have found it intriguing if it came attached to a less unappetizing individual. Nik turned to the next page anyway.
Next to him, his father’s teacup crashed to the floor. Lord Striker bit back a curse, diving after it with an inadequate napkin. Miss Vasilver pulled the bellrope to summon the staff; Mr. Vasilver apologized as if it were somehow the fault of his china for falling. Nik barely noticed the uproar, his eyes fixed on the page in front of him. “You have a section on procreation.”
“I would like to have children.” Miss Vasilver answered, unmoved by either the ruckus over the shattered cup or Nik’s choked tone.
His father’s voice hissed in his ear. “By the Ascension, boy, don’t talk about it!”
Nik couldn’t stop himself. “There’s a specified number of marital encounters.”
“My research indicates five to twelve during the fertile period of my cycle would be appropriate. My personal experience is, by necessity, nonexistent, but I will be willing to do whatever is necessary.”
“For the love of – Wisteria, please,” Mr. Vasilver gave his daughter an aghast look.
“What kind of contract is this?” Lady Striker screeched, recovering her voice at last.
“Five to twelve,” Nik repeated, softly.
“…I am open to negotiation, my lord. The necessity of procreation aside, there doesn’t appear to be a suitable way to determine compatibility prior to actual marriage, so the following article is on extramarital affairs and maintaining appropriate discretion.”
“WHAT?” Lady Striker rose, stomping one foot.
Nik flicked his eyes down, turning one page, then another. “Ah. So it is.” He returned his attention to Miss Vasilver.
His father gripped Nik’s arm. “What are you thinking, boy?” he hissed as he stood.
“I think I’m in love,” Nik murmured, too low for even his father to hear. Belatedly, he rose alongside his parents; it was impolite for a man to remain seated while a lady stood. Mr. Vasilver stood as well, wringing his hands. Only Miss Vasilver remained seated. She was composed despite the furor their parents were making.
“Please, my lady, my lords, my daughter doesn’t mean it like that—” Mr. Vasilver was saying. A maid slipped into the room; she tried to sidle into position to clean up the spilled tea and broken cup, impossible since Lord Striker was standing over it.
“This is outrageous! Has she no manners at all?” Lady Striker shrieked.
“I believe we need to leave now—” Lord Striker raised his voice over his wife’s.
“How do you mean it, Miss Vasilver?” Nik asked.
The woman tilted her head back to meet his eyes; he had to strain to hear her over his parents’ increasingly strident protests. “I mean to be honest, my lord, and have realistic expectations. I do not expect any husband to be perfect. I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.”
“We are leaving now.” Lady Striker stomped around the couch, lined features red with anger. Lord Striker took his son’s arm and moved to follow.
Nikola shifted out of his way instead, and shook off the hand. Lord Striker snarled. “Come along, boy.”
Nik struggled to imitate Miss Vasilver’s calm, but his voice raised anyway. “In a moment.”
“Rukert!” his mother yelled from the hall. Mr. Vasilver fluttered about, making ineffectual placating gestures.
“Now, Nikola,” Lord Striker growled.
“In a moment.” Nik repeated, fingers clenching about the document.
Lord Striker shot his son a final glower and followed his wife out to the hall. Mr. Vasilver pursued, offering incoherent apologies.
“I am sorry if I gave offense, Lord Nikola.” Miss Vasilver said, as if she’d only now noticed how upset his parents were. She stood at last, tense but composed.
Nik waved it off. “You did not offend me.” A little tension leached out of her, and Nik wondered if the icicle-woman had feelings after all. He smoothed the sheaf of papers in his hand, then curled them into a neat roll and tucked it into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. He pulled his right glove back on and straightened his jacket. “Thank you for receiving us,” he said, just as if his parents had not stormed off in a fit of pique.
She curtsied politely. “You do my house honor, my lord.”
He answered with a bow. “May I call again, Miss Vasilver?”
“Of course, my lord.” She didn’t sound surprised, though she tilted her head.
“Then I will.” On impulse, he took her light brown hand and bent to kiss the air above it, lips not touching skin. “Good day, miss.”