Within a block, the neighborhood had changed from one of modest human storefronts to blocky former warehouses, converted to apartment housing for greatcats. Downsing’s sister lived in one; they climbed a creaking exterior steelwood staircase and down a walkway on the second level to reach her door. Downsing stuck his head through the doorway first, calling out, “Marie? I brought a guest.” An awkward hallway just inside had entrances leading to three other rooms; Downsing padded to the right. Peeling paint and walls with exposed brick facing gave the apartment a squalid air, despite being meticulously clean. A pair of rambunctious pubescent greatcats wrestling in the main room added to the impression of disorder. Downsing entered the main room. He motioned with his tail for Nik to follow and said, “Quit it, you two,” to the wrestling kittens.
The kittens ignored their uncle, but the strange human caught their attention, and they sprang apart to stare at Nik. One of them smoothed down his askew cloak self-consciously.
A blue-gray panther with a kitten held by the scruff stepped into the room. “Lord Nikola, this ’s m’ sister, Marie of Brewdon.” Downsing introduced them. “Marie, this ’s Lord Nikola of Anverlee.” Which made a hash of his actual name and title, but Nikola didn’t trouble himself to correct it.
Fela Brewdon’s eyes went wide with shock, and she set her kitten hastily on the wide couch-bed that was the room’s main furniture, a piece with stubby wooden legs and a low sloped back half-ringing it. Brewdon gave him a deep bow. “You honor my home, lord.” She had a spare sleek build, much smaller than Downsing’s large muscular frame. Odd to think him a clerk. But neither interests nor aptitude necessarily coincided with physique.
“I thought he might see little Belle,” Downsing added.
Belle was scrunched down on the couch-bed, a calico-furred big-headed kitten about the size of a human toddler and an order of magnitude more adorable. She eyed Nik suspiciously. Nik’s heart melted anyway. He narrowly avoided saying ‘awww.’ “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Fela Brewdon. Is it all right if I…?” He gestured to Belle.
“Of course, lord. Thank you.” Fela Brewdon put a paw behind her daughter’s back and nudged her closer to the human.
Nik drew off his gloves and crouched before the couch, extending his hands to the kitten. “Hello, Belle.”
Belle climbed onto unwieldy paws and stretched out her head to sniff at his fingertips, then rub her nose against them. Nik inhaled, eyes unfocusing as he studied the shapes of her mind.
It was a sense he had always had, unlike sight or touch, although those were the terms in which he described his perceptions. No hard-shelled jagged demons were burrowing into her mind or disordering her thoughts, but her mindshapes followed a too-familiar and problematic pattern: the fuzzy orange shape of verbal skills more like a stump than a rope, cool purple-blue instincts swollen and stifling the squishy stub of intellect, oversized strands of muscle control strangling the warm furry threads of reason, and so on – mental skills displaced and malformed, too large or too withered. “How old is she?” Nik asked.
“Six weeks, lord.” The mother watched Nik, worried.
“Mmm. Good.” Nik shifted to perch on the edge of the couch-bed, letting Belle lick his fingers, his other hand cupping the side of her head.
“She’s already walking well. Much better than her brothers at her age.” Fela Brewdon’s tailtip twitched. “That’s not actually good, is it?”
Depends; did you want her to be a sapient greatcat or a throwback to her wildcat ancestors? Nik assayed a more diplomatic phrasing. “Her development so far has been…more wildcat than greatcat. But she’s young enough that this is trivial to rectify, well within the bounds of my Blessing. With your permission and the Savior’s will, I would be happy to remedy it.”
Fela Brewdon’s ears flicked down and to the side, dismayed. “She is… but you can fix her? You will? Oh please, lord – we’ve not much, but we’ll pay anything.” She crouched, pressing her body to the floor, supplicating.
“Please, don’t.” Nik winced inwardly at the thought of the fela and her husband in their drafty three room home trying to scrounge a gift they thought worthy of a lord. “Any token is more than sufficient. It’s the Savior’s work, not mine.” She bowed her head, which Nik took for acquiescence. “It will take a little while – Fel Downsing, my warcat was to meet me at Valience Park. Would you wait for him there and bring him when he arrives? He’ll be in my house’s – Fireholt’s – livery, orange and black.” As heir to Anverlee, Nikola was entitled to use their colors or Fireholt’s, but for his staff he preferred Fireholt’s. It discouraged his parents, slightly, from ordering them about. Downsing looked puzzled by his request, but nodded acceptance and padded out. The two pubescent felis had their ears pricked, staring at Nik and their mother. Their mother was tense with anxiety, still stretched out on the floor. Belle drew back from Nik’s touch, catching the uneasiness in the air.
Nik took a deep breath, relaxing his own posture and attitude. “Ma’am, please, be at ease,” he said, gently. “This is entirely routine.” Much too routine. “I’ve channeled this particular kind of healing dozens of times. It won’t hurt Belle, it’s no trouble to me, and the Savior has never complained of his part.” Fela Brewdon’s whiskers twitched at his words, not sure if he was joking. “Please, sit beside your daughter. Groom her. I need her to trust me, and she will follow your lead. Do you trust me, ma’am?”
Startled out of her nervousness by the question, the greatcat stammered, “Of course, sir. Lord. I’m sorry.” She rose and circled wide to the far side of the couch-bed before hopping up. She settled in a half-curl around her kitten, resting a paw over Belle’s hindquarters and licking her head and neck. Belle crinkled up one eye and squirmed, but made no serious attempt to escape. Nik weighed the merits of preserving his dignity against further rearranging the participants. Well, dignity has never been my strength. He shifted from the couch to sit sideways on the floor, leaning against the couch beside Belle. He put one hand on Belle’s cheek and dipped his forehead to touch hers, improving his perception of her mind.
Her older brothers padded closer to him, curiosity overpowering their reticence about a stranger. “Whatcha doin’?” one asked.
“Lionel, don’t bother the lord,” Fela Brewdon admonished.
“It’s fine. I’m asking the Savior to help your sister,” Nik answered, putting an arm against the couch and half-encircling Belle to make himself more comfortable. “Would you like to watch? I am assured it is extraordinarily dull to observe from the outside.”
The boys crowded nearer anyway. “What’s it like from the inside?” the other asked.
“Mm. Complicated. I’m going to be preoccupied now. If I sound like I’m babbling, just ignore me.” Nik lost the thread of the conversation. Without words or even coherent thought, by an instinct he’d relied on for longer than he could remember, Nik asked for the Savior’s power. The Savior answered in what felt like a waterfall of warm sunlight, flowing through Nik’s mind and over Belle’s. Belle butted her nose against Nik’s. “There, now, little one, be patient with me,” Nik murmured in soothing tones, not paying attention to his own words as he coaxed the sunlit power into a scaffold around Belle’s mindshapes. The gentle flow of power gradually loosened the stranglehold of instincts and muscle coordination to make more space for other mental skills to develop. Reason and speech centers flowered, sending out questing tendrils within the space now reserved for them. “See, that doesn’t hurt. There’s a good girl. Good girl.”
When Nik emerged from the fugue state, Belle had crawled partway onto his shoulder, her head nuzzled against the side of his face and nose burrowed under his collar. She was purring. They were the center of attention for her mother, one brother, her uncle, and Anthser; he had only a vague recollection of the last two arriving. One leg had gone to sleep underneath him and he had a crick in his side from leaning against the front of the couch. His mouth was dry and his throat raw, which probably meant he’d been babbling for the last twenty minutes. He coughed once. “A glass of water, please.”
Fela Brewdon dispatched the boy kitten on the errand, while Nik attempted to regain his feet without dislodging Belle. This proved futile; Fela Brewdon scruffed the kitten and removed her instead, provoking an indignant mewl from Belle. Nik shifted to perch on the couch, stretching his numb leg before him. He resisted the temptation to massage some life back into the limb and generally tried to pretend he was not an embarrassment to his entire class. Minor physical aches aside, he felt refreshed, energized by the exertion rather than drained. Fela Brewdon set Belle down again to ask, “Is it done, m’lord?” Belle promptly crawled back into Nik’s lap.
“Yes, she’s fine.” Nik abandoned dignity and cuddled the kitten. Her older brother returned with a stoppered flask, which Nik drank from gratefully. “She’ll be more vocal from now on, and she may be a trifle clumsier. But she’ll develop normally.”
The mother cat drooped in relief. “Thank you, m’lord.”
“You’re welcome.” Reluctantly, Nik handed Belle back to her mother. “I’m afraid I should be going now. Good day to you.”
“I don’t remember it taking so long, when I was little,” Downsing said, expression curious but not questioning.
“The length of time for treatment depends on the cause of the affliction, not the symptoms.” Nik suppressed a wince as he stood, putting weight on his half-numb leg.
Downsing bobbed his head in understanding, stepping aside as Nik crossed to the entranceway. Anthser backed out through the hallway, pawing the front door open with a hindfoot and stepping out to the landing so Nik didn’t have to get past him. Mother, son, and uncle followed; though Nikola stood a full head taller than them, the far greater length and mass of the greatcats made him feel tiny in comparison. They had an air both hesitant and expectant to them; Nik offered his right hand, not realizing until too late that had hadn’t put his gloves back on yet. Before he could repair the gaffe, Fela Brewdon dropped her head to rub her cheek against his bare fingers, murmuring her thanks again. Downsing and the youngster pushed near to do the same; he caught fleeting impressions of their healthy, normal minds, orderly shapes with well-fitted connections. They touched him as if he were a talisman that would protect them by contact alone. Greatcat superstitions about the capabilities of his Blessing were as ill-founded as the human ones, but at least they were less insulting.