Nikola and Wisteria had been married for three months, and Wisteria had never been happier.
Life at Fireholt was not perfect. Wisteria had all sorts of plans and ideas, not only for the mining operation but for running the household and for handling Nikola’s petitioners. Especially for addressing Nikola’s petitioners. Wisteria had been shocked when she found out that Nikola did no accounting for the gifts he received. The entirety of his process consisted of sending one of his people to market any gifts he wasn’t keeping, and placing all proceeds into the household account alongside rents and any other income for that period. “It’s not as if it’s a business,” he told her when she asked. “I’m not charging them a fee for services. I’ll take a pebble from the street as soon as a diamond; it’s all the same to the Savior.”
“Yes, but how do you know how much you are taking in? How can you budget for the future if you’re not tracking your income? How do you know what the trends are?”
“What difference does it make? I’m going to do the same thing whether it’s profitable or not.”
“But, goodness, Nikola, your people could be embezzling from you and you’d have no way to know.”
“Wisteria! My people would never steal!”
Eventually, she persuaded him to humor her desire for information. She hired an accountant and set up a system where all gifts were recorded upon receipt, whether in marks or goods or services, and the sale price of any that were sold. They also tracked which petitioner presented which gift and how long Nikola had spent with the petitioner.
They hired additional retainers to help manage the petitioners, including a foreign woman with experience as an asylum nurse in Natol. Nikola’s fame had grown since the abduction, and more petitioners who had had no luck with other mind-healers were making the trek to see him. Wisteria had convinced Nikola to have the new nurse interview petitioners whom Nikola could not diagnose immediately, on the theory that perhaps knowing the problem might help in diagnosis and referral. After he’d told her that people petitioned for relief from normal, functional drives, Wisteria thought it ridiculous not to screen for that sort of thing. She wanted to interfere more; there was so much that didn’t make sense or was inefficient in the process. The gifts were so arbitrary, correlating not at all to the severity of problem nor to the time Nikola spent curing it, and only weakly to the petitioner’s own wealth. When they travelled, if word got out, Nikola would be mobbed at their destination by people who were unable to travel themselves. Mundane treatment for those he could not cure was all but nonexistent; the reason they’d hired a Natolese nurse was that asylums in Newlant were nightmarish places no better than prisons.
But Nikola was adamant in his opposition to any change that involved charging petitioners. He was more than happy to be guided by her in all other matters of business, but it was not possible to induce him to look on answering petitions as a business. Never mind that it had income like one, or expenses like one, or consumers like one, or that his time and Blessing was of irreplaceable value. It was a sacred duty. He would accept gifts because that was part of the Code, but the Code was the beginning and the end of it for him. Wisteria intended to improve the process further as a charitable endeavor, but she did want their household on solid financial footing first.
As a result, most of her efforts were put towards improvements in Fireholt and directing the mining activities. Byron was a frequent guest, as Vasilver Trading was their partner in the venture. It would be years before the mine itself returned any profits, but it was already doing good things for the local economy.
But all of this meant change – a great deal of change – and humans in particular were not enamored of change. More than a few of the locals were full of ill-will for her, as the instigator of all these alterations in their locality. They resented the new developments, the construction activity, and complained about it driving away game in the hunting preserve. While they’d made an effort to minimize the latter and 90% of the preserve was untouched, the increasing population and activity did have a negative impact on the local fauna.
It was also widely believed that Wisteria Striker did not return her husband’s obvious regard, a complete untruth that nonetheless held sway even among many of the household staff. She did not smile, she did not laugh: it followed naturally that she could not love. The staff she’d brought with her – her lady’s maid, her secretary, and one of the greatcats who’d asked to join her, Sally – knew better, more or less, but those who’d always worked for Nikola resented her. Wisteria had no idea what to do about this, other than wait for them to figure out that reality did not match their imagined version of her. It did not help her cause that she still was not pregnant. Not for lack of trying, on her part or Nikola’s. But it’s only been three months. Much too soon to start worrying.
They had done some entertaining – of Byron, of course, and Lysandra Warwick and her family had also come for a week, and regular invitations exchanged among the neighborhood gentility. But the most unusual of her new social acquaintances were the greatcats.
Wisteria had been surprised to learn that Fel Fireholt – Anthser, as he’d asked her to call him – was one of Nikola’s friends rather than an employee, and independently wealthy. Despite the latter, Anthser stayed at Fireholt, in the newly-remodeled felishome. He shared it with Sally and another greatcat employee Wisteria had hired to pull the new carriage, and with two friends of his: Feli Southing and a second who varied from month to month.
She’d never had a greatcat friend before: all the ones she had known had been employees for Vasilver or some human acquaintance, and as such never encountered in a social setting. She was fond of both Anthser and Feli Southing as company. The greatcats did not seem to have the same inscrutable prohibitions on various topics that her own kind possessed, and were far more willing to state and accept things at face value.
Anthser was using his personal wealth to have a bowracing course constructed, and Wisteria had been inspired to ask her husband to teach her how to bowrace. Nikola had been surprised by her request – she supposed the sport was unladylike – but had been willing enough. It turned out Feli Southing also had an interest in the sport, and so the four of them would go out a couple of times a week to practice. Nikola would ride Southing while Wisteria rode Anthser, with the two experienced bowracers both providing advice to the newcomers. Wisteria was not yet up to firing a bow from a moving greatcat, and her aim from a stationary one left a great deal to be desired. Still, clinging to the back of a racing greatcat was an exhilarating experience.
Stimulating as these diversions were, they’d not yet hosted any large gatherings, nothing like a house party. Wisteria wanted to throw one for Nikola’s naming-day: invite a dozen of his friends for two weeks and have entertainments every day. Such events were quite normal among the wealthy: her parents had held any number of them, sometimes during the Ascension season itself for friends who didn’t have residences in town, more often at other times of year when entertainments and company were scarcer. Wisteria knew Nikola enjoyed such occasions: he spoke fondly of ones he’d attended in the past, especially when Lord Comfrey had hosted. But the constraints of Fireholt’s budget had kept him from hosting much in that line himself. However, Wisteria’s marriage portion and her considerable portfolio of investments meant that they had ample disposable income. Money was not a constraint.
Unfortunately, Wisteria found the prospect rather terrifying. Social gatherings were not her strength, most of the locals were indifferent to her at best, and she feared such an effort on her part would be a disaster. She was in a quandary on what to do about it: she did not want to burden Nikola with planning his own naming-day celebration or dealing with her worries, and she didn’t want to avoid doing something that he ought to like just because she was intimidated by it. She’d been maintaining a regular correspondence with Lord Comfrey since the marriage and had solicited his advice on the subject. He’d replied with a lengthy letter stuffed with useful insights, tidbits, and ideas. It was so helpful that she asked – begged, in truth – Lord Comfrey to visit them so she might call on him for further assistance in the planning. He had accepted the invitation, and thus was engaged to stay with them for a week at the end of summer.
The thrill that went through Wisteria when she read his acceptance made it hard for her to convince herself that her invitation had been motivated only by the desire for his advice. She knew that she missed his company, and knew Nikola would glad to see him, perhaps even moreso than she. But she also knew that her love for Lord Comfrey was nothing like platonic. Even though her relationship with Nikola was everything she had ever hoped for, in many ways far better than she had ever imagined marriage could be, she still had daydreams and fantasies about Lord Comfrey.
I am his closest friend’s wife now. He has quite properly lost all interest in me. All I need do is behave as a mature woman and not make any improper advances on him while he’s under my roof. This is not too much to expect of myself.
Nonetheless, she could not escape the sense that this was a terrible idea.
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