Justin was frustrated and angry – not at Nikola, none of this was Nikola’s fault – but at the situation Brogan had left them in. Something was badly wrong with Nikola, but how much was physical pain and exhaustion and how much was from trauma, Justin could not tell. It was not possible to ask now, and he’d pried too much when they’d been alone as it was. The last thing Nikola needed was to deal with his selfish curiosity. But Justin wished he knew anyway; even more, that he could do something to help.
At least Wisteria seemed recovered, with the lavender perfume washed off and her reddened eyes no longer watering. Of course, she would seem all right, wouldn’t she?
Partway back to the dock they were hailed by a larger vessel: finally the Watch had made an appearance. They had brought a Blessed with a gift of healing bodies with them, who jumped down into their craft and touched Anthser. Nikola jerked back as Anthser raised his head and yawned. “Graah.” The greatcat shook down his length, tailtip twitching. “Thank you. Now for the love of the Savior treat Lord Nik!”
But Nikola declined; he said he’d not risk the boat maneuvering to get himself and the healer to the same side, and then refused to be lifted into the larger vessel either. “It’s fine,” he said, in the most blatant lie Justin had ever heard from him. “I’ll wait until we dock.” The healer cured Wisteria and Justin, who had taken a cut to the leg and had some bruises on his foot and ribs that he’d not even registered.
After they docked, Nikola was slow to disembark. The healer was waiting for him; Justin was certain Nikola didn’t want to be touched by her either, but Nikola closed his eyes and submitted. The healer frowned. Nikola’s injuries did not melt away under her touch. “May we take you to the infirmary, my lord?”
What’s wrong with you can’t you see he’s in pain heal him you useless worthless wretched – Justin’s thoughts were full of the same useless rage that had haunted him since he learned of Nikola’s abduction. He did not give them voice. Nikola agreed to go; Anthser carried him. Justin and Wisteria accompanied them in unspoken accord.
At the infirmary, a modern edifice of stone and wood with plentiful glass windows and a bright, airy interior, they met the Strikers and the Vasilvers. The antechamber was awash in a sea of parents and siblings and in-laws, plus a handful of greatcats who did not choose to wait in the felishome and whom no one tried to evict. The healers whisked Nikola from the crowd before too many relations could pester him with idiotic questions like “are you all right?” and “what happened to you?”
Justin unchivalrously let Wisteria field the mind-numbing inquiries as he brooded in a black silence that even Lady Striker dared not brave. Wisteria’s account made him sound heroic – made Nikola sound heroic, for that matter, and more deservedly. Justin suspected that getting one hand free to throw that pot of coals had cost Nikola more than all Justin’s efforts. Wisteria – well, she did not sound grateful, she sounded factual as always, but her words expressed a great deal of gratitude. Justin stirred himself once or twice to ensure Anthser received due credit before lapsing back into silence. He did not want Wisteria’s gratitude, or Nikola’s: he wanted them to be well. Safe, healthy, content. Wisteria appeared recovered from the ordeal, but Nikola…
…why isn’t he healed?
The Watch came to the infirmary to investigate and ask questions, and Justin unbent enough to answer, generally factually. He did not mention beating Brogan after the man surrendered. They did not ask. Nor did they ask him to come to the peacehouse for further questioning, or imply that perhaps he ought to leave criminal investigation to the Watch, and ought not be shooting people dead even if they were armed criminals resisting the rescue of their captives. Rank had its privileges.
At length, one of the Blessed, a Lord Jonathan, returned to the antechamber and announced, “Lord Nikola is as comfortable as we can make him and will be staying here for a time so we may treat him.”
“‘Treat him’? What in Paradise do you mean by that?” Lord Striker demanded, above the murmur of other relatives and well-wishers. “‘As comfortable as you can make him’? Does not one of you know how to heal his injuries?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Now, I assure you that none of his injuries are life-threatening and even under purely mundane treatment, he—”
“What do you mean, ‘purely mundane’? You’re Blessed! Heal him!”
Lord Jonathan winced. “I don’t believe it’s appropriate to discuss his situation—”
“Abandoned World, man, I’m his father! He’s heir to my county! You can curst well tell me.” Lord Striker towered over the healer, the older man’s lean frame quivering with outrage and pale eyes bright.
The Blessed sighed. “Please come with me, my lord.”
Lady Striker took her husband’s arm and the two followed Lord Jonathan out of the antechamber. Without asking, Justin went with them. Neither of the Strikers objected, or seemed to notice. “Are we going to see my son?” Lord Striker asked.
“No, he’s not up to visitors.” Lord Jonathan was a small, youngish man of foreign origin, with close-cropped curly black hair and dark skin, dressed in an ill-fitting suit of sober brown and a linen cravat.
“In your judgement?” Lord Striker asked, unconvinced.
“By his request. He does not wish to be disturbed. I advise you to respect his wishes, Lord Striker; he has endured an extraordinarily grueling experience.” Lord Jonathan led them into a small office. Justin was nauseated by a sudden fear that Nikola’s hands were not the worst of his injuries, that Brogan had come up with some torture even crueler but less visible. The Blessed frowned at him. “Who are you? I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Let him stay.” Lady Striker surprised him by interceding. “This is Lord Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey. He’s my son’s closest friend. Whatever you have to say to us, he may hear.” She gave a little laugh, strained by tension. “I expect Nikki would rather Lord Comfrey heard it than us, for that matter.” She seated her plump form on the narrow sofa along one wall. Her husband joined her while the Blessed turned his chair from the desk against the other wall to face them and sat. There were no other seats, but Justin did not want to sit anyway. He stood with his back against the door.
Lord Jonathan folded his hands together. “Lord Nikola is…unable to consent to healing.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Lord Striker glared at the foreign man as if all this was his fault.
“I mean that he gives verbal consent, and wishes to be healed, but some mental factor – emotional or unconscious – renders him unable to accept the Savior’s aid.”
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! Nikola has a Blessing for minds! There is nothing wrong with his mind,” Lord Striker sputtered.
Lady Striker asked, “Is there anything you can do for him?” Her soft, respectful tone made an odd contrast with her husband’s.
“We’ve dressed the injuries by mundane means. His fingernails won’t grow back without divine intervention, but they’ll callus and in time we expect him to recover normal use of his hands. His cracked ribs and assorted contusions should heal without complications. In time.” He paused. Lady Striker had a handkerchief over her mouth. Lord Jonathan added, gently, “None of his injuries are life-threatening or dangerous, I assure you. He will not be crippled. He is, however, in a great deal of pain, and it will be several days if not weeks before that changes.”
“This is absurd,” Lord Striker repeated. “I don’t see how Nik can be ‘unable to consent’ or whatever that nonsense you said was.”
This nightmare never ends. “Why?” Justin asked.
Lord Jonathan shrugged his slight shoulders. “It’s rare but not unknown. I…would not want to guess Lord Nikola’s specific reason. I doubt he knows himself: as I said, it is not a conscious or rational choice, but an instinctive response. Perhaps for some reason he feels that he deserves to suffer, or that he cannot trust the Savior to help him.”
Lord Striker gave a derisive snort at these suggestions. Justin ignored him and asked, “Is Lord Walther here?”
Lord Jonathan raised his eyebrows. “No…”
“Send for him.”
“I appreciate your concern for your friend, but Lord Walther has no special exp—”
Justin cut him off. “He’s a greatcat. Lord Nikola was tortured by humans. He might be comfortable with a greatcat Blessed instead.”
“Tortured?” Lady Striker said faintly.
“Ahh.” Lord Jonathan bowed his head. “I’ll have him sent for. Thank you, Lord Comfrey.”
“Why would anyone do this to my Nikki, Lord Comfrey?” Lady Striker asked, plaintive.
Justin had no answer for that, no answer for any of this.
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