The Lord of Fireholt had no intention of marrying, and certainly not of marrying Miss Wisteria Vasilver. They’d not yet been introduced, but he had seen her at social events: a tall dark-haired woman whose fashionable attire could not disguise her boyish figure. Nor did it mask the severe expression that added ten years to a long face that had already lost the bloom of youth, assuming she ever had it. It was hard to imagine a less appealing companion for a lifetime. “I’d sooner marry Lady Dalsterly,” he remarked, gaze fixed out the carriage window.
His mother, Lady Striker, Countess of Anverlee, gasped from the seat opposite his. “Nikola Striker! Lady Dalsterly is ninety-six!”
“What does that matter? She’s rich, isn’t she? If old men can marry a destitute girl for her beauty, youth and title, I don’t see why old women can’t do the same. At least I wouldn’t be married to her for long,” he added, purely to spite his mother: Lady Dalsterly would live another twenty years at least.
His mother gave a second horrified gasp.
“That’s enough, Nikola,” his father said. “We are not destitute. This is about finding you a suitable match and a mother for your future heirs. Which Lady Dalsterly most certainly would not be.”
“A suitably rich match, you mean, and let’s kill two birds with one stone as long as you’re going to the trouble of dragging me to the wedding circle,” Nik said, expression sour.
“Don’t be melodramatic. Everyone marries, boy. What else do you intend to do? Install one of your whores as Lady of Fireholt?” Lord Striker said, earning himself a glare and a ‘Rukert!’ from his wife.
Nikola clamped his jaw closed, biting off a reply. It was hard to pick out the worst part from so many bad parts of the situation, but the way his parents made him not only feel but act like a child was high on the list. I am a grown man. My parents cannot compel me to wed. All I’ve agreed to do is be polite to a few strangers for an hour. Then I can tell Mother, ‘There, I’ve met the girl, I’m still not marrying her, I’m going home to Fireholt now’. The opportunity to see Justin is not worth all this. Last week, agreeing to the meeting to end his mother’s nagging had seemed reasonable. Today, he wasn’t so sure. His occasional compliance in meeting his mother’s idea of eligible women had only made Lady Striker more strident in her demands. Well, there was no graceful way to escape it now. The pair of big greatcats padded onwards, pulling the carriage inevitably closer to Vasilver Manor. The carriage wheels moved quietly over the broad paved streets; a clever arrangement of levers, pistons and valves where axle met cab ensured a smooth ride. The sky over Gracehaven was leaden, three- and four-story buildings of brick, steelwood, and stone turned to shades of gray by the colorless light. I might as well be going to my funeral. Savior, get me out of here.
Divine intervention was not forthcoming: too soon the carriage stopped before a modern five-story edifice of stone and glass, its fixtures, floors and corners trimmed by darker stone carved in elegant abstract patterns. One of Vasilver’s footmen opened the carriage door before the lead greatcat could extricate herself from her harness to do it. She padded to loom over the footman from a yard behind him, ears pricked as she watched her three human passengers disembark. Like the other greatcat, she wore a livery cloak in Anverlee’s blue-and-silver. “There’s a carriage house and felishome behind the manor, my lord,” the footman said to Lord Striker.
Nik’s father nodded. “Stow the carriage and wait for us in the felishome, Jill,” he told the waiting greatcat.
She dropped her head, blue-gray fur grizzled with white along her muzzle and ears, one leg bent and the other outstretched in a feline bow. “Yes, m’lord.” Lord and Lady Striker ascended the steps to the front door while Nik lingered by the carriage to put off the inevitable a moment longer. He felt a nudge against his back, and turned to see Jill’s lowered head. She gave him a broad wink. “Knock ’em dead, Lord Nik,” she murmured.
He gave her a lopsided grin and made a shooing motion. “Mother will kill you if you’ve shed on my jacket,” he whispered back.
Jill nosed his hand, unrepentant, and padded back into her harness to help her companion greatcat pull the vehicle from the street. Nik inhaled one last deep breath of freedom, then followed his parents into Vasilver Manor.