Nikola awoke the next morning as Lord Striker swept into his bedroom in a long dark dressing gown, blue eyes fixed on his son. Nik scrubbed his hands over his face as his father said, “So. I gather you are aware of the destruction your madgirl caused in my house last night.”
“I’ll cover the damages.” There was little else to be said.
Lord Striker raised bushy white eyebrows. “Will you, now? With whose money?”
Justin’s. Nik almost said it, but the effort of the admission was too much. “Gifts from petitioners.” That was almost true, anyway.
Lord Striker looked unconvinced but did not challenge the point. He stood straight-backed at the foot of Nik’s bed, dignified even in a dressing gown. “Did you know the staff was up all night putting what they could to rights? One of the chambermaids gave notice and two other servants have threatened to leave.”
Good. You can’t afford the salaries for all these people anyway. Nik thought about the bruise on Elisa’s face and wondered if she was the one who gave notice. He said nothing; even he could hardly see driving away retainers as a net positive.
When it was obvious Nik would make no reply, his father sighed. “Look. I am not so heartless that I will turn out these people in the week before Ascension. But I will not have Anverlee Manor turned into a madhouse with permanent inmates. I want them gone by Wednesday next, do you hear me? And in the meantime, there are to be no more incidents like this one.”
It was, Nik had to admit, a fair request. More than fair, even. No interpretation of the Code required a Blessed to provide care to those who refused, and Sharone Whittaker had had more than a week to consent. Without treatment, she stood no chance against the demon that plagued her. What will become of her if I cannot help? Of her parents? Where will they go? Is there an asylum that would hold her? He did not imagine there was one that could heal her; asylums were little more than prisons where the incurably insane were kept, often for the rest of their lives. In Sharone’s case, that seemed the best she could hope for. But what else can I do? Take her to Fireholt, I suppose. Well, the Ascension Ball would be over by then and cutting his visit short at that point would not be that remarkable. Is it worth it, so much trouble for the child of strangers? He realized his father still awaited an answer. “Yes, my lord.”
Lord Striker nodded in reluctant satisfaction. “Dinner is at three. Good day.”
Dinner Sunday afternoon continued the unfolding disaster that comprised Nik’s life. His mother touched off a new incident during the main course when she asked who he would escort to the Ascension ball. Thus he announced to his entire family plus six invited guests at once that he was taking Miss Vasilver. The one advantage to this setting was that his parents had to restrain their outrage to a degree, rather than create a scene in front of company.
This did not stop Lord Striker from cornering Nik after the meal. His father took his arm and stood aside so Nik would be forced to linger with him as the crowd dispersed to parlor or drawing room.
Nik reined in his impatience and the desire to shake off his father’s vice-like grip. The rest of the party paid them no special attention, and soon the dining room was clear apart from the two of them.
Lord Striker glowered at his son. “I don’t know what sort of game you’re playing now, boy, but let me tell you this now: don’t imagine you can make Vasilver’s daughter into one of your whores. However much of a slattern she may be, she’s of a good family and I will not have you insult her father by taking advantage of her loose morals.”
Nikola stared, astonished by his father’s absurd fantasy. Beneath his surprise, cold rage grew. He moved to stand face-to-face with his father, prying Lord Striker’s fingers from his arm. “Insult me as you please, my lord, but I will not tolerate such blatant and outrageous lies about a gentlewoman of my acquaintance. You will retract that at once.”
Lord Striker gave a bark of dry laughter. “Adding hypocrisy to your string of vices, are you? I don’t suppose one more will make a difference. Don’t think I can’t tell what your real interest in this girl is, Nikola. It’s certainly not because you’ll consider wedding her, whatever your mother may fear.”
“My interest, as you put it, is in having one acquaintance for whom my beliefs and wishes are not inconvenient obstacles to be conquered, ignored, or swept aside. One person who can be bothered to listen to and perhaps extend some credit to what I have to say. One person, even, who does not consider such a thing wholly unreasonable.” Nik towered over his father, infuriated. “I will not hear her honor impugned, sir. You will retract your accusation against her, or I have nothing further to say to you.”
“What accusation? She wrote it in her own hand and gave it to you herself!”
Nik spun on his heel and strode for the door.
“Don’t you dare turn your back on me, boy!” His father seized his shoulder. “I’m not done with you yet.” Wordless, Nikola shoved the hand back and continued into the hall. Lord Striker followed, heaving an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, do you expect me to believe after viewing that document of hers that you think her a modest and virtuous creature?”
“Yes.” Nik stopped in the grand arched hall outside the dining room, hands clenching into fists. He forced his fingers to relax at the twinge of pain from the not-quite healed bite marks on the right, and glared over his shoulder at his father. “Because she told me as much, and a woman who would be so forthright in writing would hardly lie to me now.”
To his surprise, this argument brought his father up short. The older man folded his arms across his chest, white eyebrows furrowed, and harumphed. Nik waited, jaw tensed. Lord Striker sighed again. “Very well. I retract my statement about the girl.”
Nikola exhaled and turned to face his father again.
“Are you serious about Miss Vasilver, then?”
“Serious about valuing her friendship? Yes. About respecting her person? Yes.”
Lord Striker twisted his mouth. “You know what I mean, Nikola.”
“I am sure I do not.”
“Are you considering marriage to this woman?”
Nik hesitated a little too long before replying. “I am not looking for a wife, Father,” he said, though he was far less convicted on this point than he had been a week ago. “Nor a mistress, before your mind leaps back to the gutter. I enjoy her conversation. Why is this so hard to accept?”
“Because men do not befriend women, my boy. In particular, an unmarried gentleman does not merely befriend an unmarried gentlewoman. You cannot call on Miss Vasilver and invite her to the Ascension Ball, of all things, without exciting certain hopes.”
“Miss Vasilver understands my intentions – or lack thereof, I should say. And is perfectly content with that state of affairs.”
“Even stipulating that she does—” and his father’s tone made it clear that he was dubious on this point “—there is still the matter of her parents, friends, relations. Not to mention yours. Do you want to be the subject of rumor, Nikola?”
Do I have a choice? “I will not live my life based on the fear of ‘what will people say?’”
“No. I don’t suppose you will.” Lord Striker’s stern, square-jawed face looked weary. “Why must you learn everything the hard way?” There was no answer for that so Nik didn’t bother to offer one. “Yet you must be serious about your reputation and duties someday. This house cannot afford – literally cannot afford – your continued shenanigans. You cannot rely upon the continued beneficence of petitioners, especially with the low quality of the people you entertain.” Entertainment? Is that what you’re calling it today? Nikola held his tongue as his father continued, “You must marry a woman of means and quality, and treat this house and its people with dignity, or it will surely come to ruin.”
“I hear you, my lord.” Agree, no. “Shall we walk on? I daresay your guests are waiting for you.”
By the narrowing of his eyes, Nik could tell Lord Striker caught the distinction, but his father only gave another sigh. “Very well.”
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