Nik saw Sharone Whittaker a few more times while she was still in Gracehaven, once to test if she had a Blessing for mind-healing. To no one’s surprise, she did not. Other tests determined she did not have one for physical-healing or for plants, and the two people with a Blessing for stone who observed her doubted she had one for stone either. Which left her as a riddle to the community: some did not believe she had any connection with the Savior at all. But Nik wasn’t the only one who felt, upon speaking with her, that there was more to her “Mr. Brown” than a mere imaginary friend, and she was certainly neither possessed nor impaired now. She was happy and healthy, to all appearances a normal little girl even if she did attribute the occasional flash of startling insight to her intangible friend. At length, the enigma as yet unsolved but with assurances that it was nothing they needed to fear, her parents returned with her to the Vastings of Kinder.
After the Ascension season was over, Nik lingered in Gracehaven for a little while. This was not unknown for him, but in the past his reason to stay had been Justin and clandestine; this year it was Wisteria and everyone knew it. The openness of their relationship was one of its many attractions; it gave him one area of his life where he no longer had to mask his feelings. Nik still felt that proposing to Wisteria was the best decision of his life, even as he hated what had happened between him and Justin because of it.
But he was never my friend. All that changed is now I know it.
Ignoring that change became more difficult after the season ended and Gracehaven went back to work. It should have been easier, because there were no longer a myriad of social events where he’d run into Justin and consequently be called upon to feign normalcy.
But for six years Gracehaven had meant Justin to him, and the lightened social calendar just highlighted Justin’s absence from it. Much as he loved and treasured Wisteria, he could not forget Justin. No matter how much he wanted to.
Thus, after a week of post-Ascension Gracehaven, Nik opted to return to Fireholt and ready his estate for its new mistress.
He and Wisteria exchanged long letters full of affection; indeed, in some ways her correspondence seemed even more loving than she had been in person, where he might be misled by her neutral tone and expression. The way she wrote of Comfrey did concern him, though. Comfrey had taken it into his head to befriend Wisteria, and Nik found it difficult to trust the man’s motives in so doing. What possible interest could he have in her? According to her letters, they spoke mainly of business, but Nikola could not believe the viscount’s sudden interest in his betrothed was coincidence. But surely he would not court an engaged woman out of spite. Nikola didn’t believe Comfrey spiteful anyway. Only…indifferent. But he could not imagine what Comfrey hoped to gain from Wisteria’s friendship. He wanted to caution Wisteria not to trust the man, but could think of no reasonable way to do so without revealing the entire story. And he had told Comfrey he’d keep his secret. So he said nothing.
In the early spring, Nikola invited Wisteria and her brother Byron to visit Fireholt. Nik dreaded entertaining on his limited resources, especially guests like the Vasilvers who were accustomed to the best of everything. He’d been living more frugally than ever since his return, but so many of his expenses were fixed that it was hard to cut back without laying off staff or postponing necessary repairs. He knew Wisteria was already aware of his circumstances and was not truly concerned she’d change her mind on seeing for herself his estate’s condition. Still, he did what he could to present it in the best possible light. His staff was more than commonly anxious to please. Only the greatcats were relaxed and mellow in the weeks leading up to the Vasilvers’ arrival.
By means unclear to him, Nikola had acquired an additional two greatcat…bodyguards, he supposed. They weren’t trained warcats like Anthser, and they weren’t on Nikola’s payroll – in fact, they paid him for their room and board – and they rotated out every four weeks. As they were officially guests of Anthser’s, no one asked them to do any work. The first pair, Oliver and Heather, Anthser had introduced back in Gracehaven as visiting friends, and had been among the greatcats who’d kept vigil over him during his time in the cottage. But Nikola noticed that even after his recovery, either one of those two or Anthser was always within earshot, keeping watch over him. After they were exchanged for a second pair, who behaved identically, Nik was no longer willing to credit that they were there to keep Anthser company. Nik suspected Anthser of hiring them, but both they and Anthser denied it. Nik supposed he could have denied them his hospitality and ordered them off for trespassing if they persisted, and on the one hand he hated the idea of unpaid employees. On the other hand, having an extra two sets of paws around was comforting. Nikola was no longer pathologically afraid of abduction, but he was aware that the world was not as safe a place for him as he had always assumed.
Anthser was, nominally, still Nik’s employee. After Nikola’s recovery, Anthser had insisted at first that he didn’t want to get paid any more. “I don’t need a job and I don’t want one. I’m just going to hang about and eat your food and take up your space and do whatever I feel like. You shouldn’t pay me for that. It’d be like salarying a friend for keeping you company.”
Nik had accepted this for two weeks, by which point it had become clear that “whatever Anthser felt like” was “being a hyper-vigilant warcat and making sure no one even thought about bothering his lordship over anything”. Nik no longer asked him to run errands – or asked him to do anything else, for that matter – but Anthser volunteered to carry him wherever he happened to be going eight times in ten. At which point, Nik insisted that if Anthser wasn’t going to accept a salary he was going to hire another warcat and force Anthser to stop working. Anthser had negotiated down to half his former salary: “I’m still not running errands for you, you know.” Nikola was not happy about the whole affair, especially since his family had never paid Anthser what a warcat of his caliber could make elsewhere. But at some point, it did not feel worth fighting over any more.
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