The petitioner’s hall had an adjoining suite, most of which was shut up, but Nikola was using its front room as an office to treat petitioners in private. The tradition of the hall was fine for the demon-ridden he could diagnose and cure with a moment’s touch, but the ostentatious public display added too much difficulty to anything more complex. His petitioners didn’t need a roomful of gawkers while he asked them about their problems, and he didn’t need extra people staring as he spent twenty minutes entranced and mumbling while he and the Savior worked.
The room was lit by south-facing windows and furnished like a parlor, with a loveseat, a couch-bed of the sort the greatcats prefered and to which Nik himself was quietly partial, and a pair of upholstered wingback chairs. The floor was a hardwood inlay; the walls were hung with some of Nikola’s favorite paintings and drawings from among those gifted to him by previous petitioners. Some were skillful, others amateurish, or the work of children. The largest piece was a mural of smiling figures in a park, done with no great skill but considerable enthusiasm by the former inmates of a madhouse in North Mansay he’d been to once. The image was so crowded that some of the figures were flying about in the sky. Nik sat in one of the chairs and regarded it with a fleeting smile.
Sharone Whittaker was carried in by the heavyset man and followed by a hollow-eyed woman. Anthser brought up the rear of the procession. “Mr. and Mrs. Bartholomew Whittaker and their daughter Sharone,” the warcat announced, almost like a footman. “Do you wish to see Miss Whittaker alone, m’lord?” Nik usually saw refusals alone, but he usually didn’t have six year-old violent refusals, either. Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker looked alarmed by the idea.
“Let me talk to her parents first. Please wait outside, Anthser.” Once the greatcat guarded the door from without, Nikola said to the human parents, “Unbind her, please.”
Mrs. Whittaker wrung her hands. “M’ lord, she ess na – na normal. A’ all. You mus’ understand – we can na control her.” The woman spoke with a pronounced Kinder accent.
“We try, but we jus’…can na.” Mr. Whittaker added, in the same accent.
“Do you keep her bound all the time?”
Mr. Whittaker shook his head. “Na—”
“We could na—”
“Only when we mus’ travel. Else she migh’ hurt another.”
“Or herself. At home ess…na so difficul’. Everything arranged so’s to be safer.”
Nik looked at the little girl. She glared back at him with dark brown eyes, face screwed up in a snarl around the gag. “Understand that I cannot help anyone who doesn’t wish it. Would you like me to help you, Miss Whittaker?” She shook her head emphatically, over and over again, squirming against her bonds.
“She ess na always thus, m’lord,” Mrs. Whittaker said, looking at him as if by hope alone she could change the way Blessings worked. “Ess the travel tha’ makes her worse. But she has moments. She can be sweet. But it never lasts. Ess as if she has her own world.”
“Like her soul ess trapped in the Abandoned World, most of the time,” Mr. Whittaker said. “She does na know this ess Paradise. Please, lord. We’ve seen everyone. They all say you are the best.”
“If you can na help Sharone…” Mrs. Whittaker trailed off.
Nik looked from the girl to her parents. Both instincts and his mindsense told him they were neither part nor cause of the child’s problems. And yet… “I’ll need to speak with her alone. Please seat her on the couch, remove the gag, and wait outside.”
The parents exchanged despairing looks, but did as he asked. Sharone howled like a wild dog, a wordless yowl of impotent fury. Nik controlled his wince, motioning for them to continue. Mrs. Whittaker tried, uselessly, to calm the girl while her husband set her on the couch. The child’s frantic struggling increased, writhing and bucking. “She’ll hur’ herself, m’lord!” Mrs. Whittaker shouted to make her voice audible over the girl’s shrieking. Nik nodded and approached to put his hands on the girl’s shoulders to hold her against the couch, positioning himself to avoid her thrashing hobbled legs. He motioned for the parents to go. Reluctant and fearful, they did.
The child’s wailing worsened after they left. Her energy and volume was uncanny. I need to check the parents to make sure they are sane. Much of this would suffice to drive any man mad. “Miss Whittaker, what do you want?”
Somewhat to his surprise, her shriek changed to something like words: “Le’maygoLe’maygoLe’maygo!”
“If you’ll sit on the couch for a few minutes, I will,” Nikola said. He didn’t raise his voice, which meant he could not make out his own words over her continued yelling. He repeated himself at the same conversational volume, several times, while the girl thrashed and writhed with no sign of understanding him or complying. What she screamed was poorly articulated but clearly speech, marked by the same Kinder accent as her parents; he could make out ‘help me’ something like ‘Mrs. Square’ (Mrs. Square?), ‘do not’, something he couldn’t make sense of, and ‘let me go’. Nik tried removing his hands for a moment, but almost at once put them back, as it was obvious that she would knock herself to the floor and risk injury if not forced to remain in one place. He was surprised by how much she could manage to move even bound as she was. He listened to her for a little while, trying to tease out what meaning there was behind her speech, but she soon deteriorated back to wordless screams.
“All I wish is to speak with you for a moment,” Nik tried again. It was always easier to be patient with his petitioners – these people he didn’t know, who needed the Savior’s help – than with friends or family who irritated him. I expect more of the latter, I suppose. Even so, he felt Miss Whittaker’s lung capacity and energy exceeded both the time and patience he had for this task.
Nik talked to her anyway, speaking slowly as he struggled to organize his thoughts in the face of her incoherent shrieks. He kept his own voice low, letting the words be drowned out by her cries. “Miss Whittaker, there is a demon in your mind. I don’t know exactly what it says to you, but I can tell that it is warping your perception of reality. It makes you see things that don’t exist, respond to threats that are not present, ignore dangers that are real, and hear phantasms. I don’t know if it would let you hear my words even if you weren’t drowning them out. I can only try. This demon is the cause of your insanity. The Savior can banish it, if you will allow his power to do so. Right now, you are refusing him. Your mind is holding onto the demon; perhaps it has lied to you and told you that you need it, or that it is a part of you, or that you deserve to be crazy, or that something terrible will happen if you allow it to be banished. None of these things are true. You do not have to live like this, physically restrained, a danger to yourself and those around you, unable to control yourself. Please. Let me help you.”
For a few moments while he spoke, her yelling slackened to a hoarse whimpering – Saints but her throat must be raw – and Nik thought she might be listening. But before he finished she was yelling again. “NONONONOSTOPPI’ MISSUSSQUAREDONAMIS’ER BROWNLEMAYGOLEMAYGONONO!” Despite the ‘let me go’, the child did not seem to be aware of him, face contorted in fear, eyes tracking on spots beyond him, as if watching the movements of some other figure in the room. Nik followed her gaze, but there was nothing there.
Nik listened for a little longer. “Who’s Mrs. Square?” he asked. The girl didn’t respond directly to the question, but her subsequent monologue suggested that the girl was afraid of whomever she was, and that Mrs. Square was in the room with them. He couldn’t figure out what Mr. Brown’s role was. After a few minutes, her words tapered off into violent, inconsolable sobbing. Her struggle to escape ceased, as least. Nikola moved his hands from her, slowly in case the movement provoked her to violence. He touched her cheek again, just long enough to brush her with the Savior’s power and feel that awful rebuffing again. This poor creature doesn’t need someone to throw her a life preserver; she needs a diving team. He strode to the door and motioned to the Whittakers to re-enter. They hurried to the girl’s side, where Mrs. Whittaker perched on the couch beside her and hugged her gently with one arm. Neither of them asked if he’d done something to provoke her.
“Ess there anything…?” Mr. Whittaker asked, in the tones of a doomed man.
No. Saints, no. Please take her away so I can get back to the twenty-odd people the Savior can help. Nik swallowed. “You said sometimes Miss Whittaker is better than others. Is she ever lucid?”
The man shrugged helplessly. “She usually knows us, and ess at leas’ a li’l aware of what ess happening in this world and na jus’ her nightmare one. You can talk to her and she’ll understand, at times, and respond. Other times she ess…jus’ lost. Like this.”
“She ess better at home,” Mrs. Whittaker said quietly. “This trip hass been very hard on her.”
“Where is your home?”
“Ambersdell, m’lord. In the Vastings of Kinder.”
The Vastings of Kinder were over nine hundred miles away, across the Silver Sea, on the continent of Savorift. That journey would be hard on anyone. “Where are you staying now?”
“We had a room at a hostel on 135th,” Mr. Whittaker said.
He looked at the floor. “They turned us ou’ this morn.”
Nikola could not blame them. He rubbed his face with one hand. “I’ll have you shown to one of the suites here. Whenever she seems lucid and likely to cooperate, send for me and I’ll try talking to her then. Whenever. Day or night, whatever I may be doing, do you understand? I’ll let the staff know.” He tried not to think about how his parents were going to react.
The Whittakers stared at him, almost as uncomprehending as their mad daughter. They were still stammering their thanks and appreciation as Nikola opened the door and beckoned Mrs. Linden over to ask her to make the arrangements. Mrs. Linden was aghast and nearly mutinous, which bode ill for his parents’ response. She did comply, however, and took the Whittakers and their sobbing girl away.