Halfway through the petitioning assembly, Nikola already felt flayed to the bone. He’d lost track of numbers cured and those sorted, but several of those he had not been able to cure were wailing, crying, or screaming, despite the best efforts of their family or friends to calm them. Desperate petitioners clutched at him instead of following instructions, as if holding onto him hard enough would force the Savior to fix them at once.
At one end of the hall, his footman Bill and Anthser wrested apart a pair of belligerent petitioners; at the other Mrs. Linden spoke in a low voice with one of the Anverlee staff about cleaning the mess created by one agitated woman. Shelby was straightening out someone who insisted he had an appointment, even though it was 10:30 and Shelby never scheduled appointments before noon. It took an effort of will for Nik to keep moving down the endless line alone. A traitorous voice in his head whispered, Think how much easier this will be with more people, enough to handle the mob, enough to work in proper shifts, perhaps with expertise at handling those with impaired faculties. With Justin’s money you can do all that… Nik hated himself even more for that thought. Has all my resolve been nothing but coy, missish objections that I wanted him to overpower? Is it his money I’ve been after all this time in truth, like some gold-digging mistress? He forced his attention to the mind before him instead: no demon, and he struggled to focus enough to diagnose any other problem. After half a minute, he discerned that the mindshape for anxiety was grossly overinflated (that should have been obvious) and directed her to go to the section for the treatable. He turned to give Shelby a time estimate for her appointment, and realized the valet wasn’t back yet.
Sighing, Nik continued on to the next petitioner, a big twentyish man who knelt with eyes downcast. He touched the man’s cheek and saw the demon in his mind at the same time the petitioner turned his head and sunk his teeth into Nik’s hand. Nik screamed, as much from surprise as pain. Savior! He invoked the god by reflex to cast out the demon. A large shape flashed in his peripheral vision, accompanied by a deep roar, then a greatcat – tawny, not Anthser – knocked him aside and pushed the petitioner to the floor. Nikola staggered and winced as his hand ripped free of his assailant’s mouth. He clutched at his wrist as the hall around him erupted in noise. Anthser was upon them before the strange greatcat had time to finish asking, “Are you all right, m’lord?”
“What happened?” Anthser snarled at the unfamiliar greatcat as he curled his body around Nikola protectively. A half-dozen other greatcats – relations of petitioning kittens – had crossed the hall to gather around him, though they stayed back to give him and Anthser space.
“Man attacked Lord Nikola,” the golden greatcat answered, one paw pinning the unresisting assailant to the floor.
“I’m so sorry, my lord!” the youthful petitioner said, wide-eyed. He looked stunned but not hurt. “I don’t know why I did that!”
“I’m fine,” Nikola said automatically, although he did not feel fine at all. The physical injury was minor, however. Blood welled from torn skin on the back of his hand; deep tooth marks marred the palm, back of the hand, and the first joint of the index finger. Nik pushed on Anthser, and the great dark form shifted aside enough for Nik to move forward and crouch to touch the petitioner’s bare hand. “Let him up.”
“My lord?” the strange greatcat said.
“Demon’s gone. Let him go.” The rest of Nikola’s staff materialized around him as he stood; the barricade of greatcats had stepped aside for them. Nik felt suddenly claustrophobic, smothered by the expectations and even the goodwill of all the people crowding him. “He’s not a criminal.” If the man had been a prisoner brought for treatment, his guards would have warned Nik first. Mrs. Linden tried to take Nik’s hand, but he shook her off. “It’s nothing. I…” Nik pictured continuing the petitioning hours, trying to restore order, spending hours with his appointments for the day, and shuddered. He tried to move, just to see who was next, and his legs would not respond. I can’t do this. “Clear the hall,” he told Mrs. Linden. He wanted to sag against Anthser but forced himself upright. Curse you, you’re a man and a noble, act like it for five minutes, he told himself.
“My lord?” Mrs. Linden looked surprised.
“Clear the hall,” he repeated. He looked at the faces around him. “Shelby, cancel all my appointments for the rest of the day. Anthser, with me.” Nikola started towards his office at the back of the hall; Anthser paced alongside, long black tail lashing a warning. Five minutes, Nik told himself. The office door seemed impossibly distant.
“But…what do we tell them?” Bill Coxsleigh asked, trailing behind.
Find another miracle worker. There’s three others in the country. “They may come back tomorrow.” Nik closed on the office with slow, deliberate strides, not looking to either side, afraid if he moved any faster he would start to shake. Or perhaps run. Anthser put a paw on the door handle and pulled it open for him. “Thank you. Please wait outside and see that I am not disturbed.” Nikola stepped inside and Anthser closed the door behind him. He made it halfway across the room before the shaking started. Useless, pointless tears that had nothing to do with pain trickled down his cheeks as he washed the injury in the room’s basin and wrapped a clean handkerchief around it with trembling fingers. Nik sprawled over the couchbed, eyes directed sightlessly at the gift mural for some time, until his body started behaving properly under his conscious control again. At that point, he took a long close look at his mind in an effort to figure out what his problem was now.
No demons, of course – those were so obvious he would not have had to make a special check to find them. His mindscape looked much the same as it had for the last few months. There were minor developmental changes: nothing as dramatic as watching his mind alter while growing up, where it was as obvious as his physical growth, but the process was still ongoing. His great-grandmother had told him that in some people, their mindshapes became rigid in their teens or twenties, but in many the mindshapes continued to shift, change and sometimes grow. It wasn’t unhealthy either way. Nik’s hadn’t settled down, but his great-grandmother’s never had either. Even in the last year of her life, when she was a hundred twenty-seven, he could still notice the little alterations from month to month.
Nik wished she was here now, to tell him he wasn’t crazy.
He found the most probable source of trouble: little burrs of recent trauma, positioned so it was easy for them to scrape other parts of his psyche. What caused that? Don’t tell me I was traumatized by watching Justin nearly die. Or by being bought. Am I so fragile? Nik sighed and washed his blotched face in the basin. Apparently so.
He didn’t ask the Savior to fix them: he could tell they were too recent for a miraculous cure. Trauma was a part of life: the mind needed time to learn from events, including difficult ones, and could recover naturally in good time from most. If his mind could not cope long-term and they were still a problem – or had grown more severe – in a week or two, the Savior would intervene then. Until that time, he had to manage on his own. And manage better than pitching a fit and throwing out my petitioners after a minor incident. Not to mention alarming my staff.
After drying his face and hands, Nik straightened his attire and hair. Hoping he looked presentable or at least not disgraceful, he left his makeshift sanctuary. Anthser, sitting on his haunches on the marble floor by the door, turned to look at him. Shelby stood from a chair next to the warcat, a basic treatment case at hand. “Your lady mother and the count asked after you,” Anthser said.
Nik almost returned to the office. The thought of facing his family, the eager questions about why he’d dismissed his petitioners early, concern for his health, his father’s now-justified objections to petitioners being in the house at all – it was nearly enough to destroy his fragile façade of normalcy. “Thank you, Anthser.”
Shelby cleared his throat. “Does m’lord wish to see a healer?”
“No. It’s nothing.” No one can fix what’s truly wrong with me, anyway.
“May I, m’lord?” The thin, white-haired valet gestured to the treatment case.
“Very well.” Nik sat and allowed Shelby to clean and dress the bite marks.
Anthser loomed nearby, watching, tail lashing again. “Maybe we should have ’em all tied up before letting ’em in,” he growled.
Nikola sighed. “I have to touch them to treat them, Anthser. And bound hands wouldn’t stop a man from biting me.”
“Gagged too, then.”
“No, Anthser. It’s nothing.”
“Then why—” Anthser cut off as Nik looked at him, and dropped his massive dark head, ears drooping. “Sorry, Lord Nik.”
Proper bandages were almost invisible beneath Nik’s habitual gloves. Nik tried to imagine facing whatever his parents had to say to him without screaming, weeping, collapsing, or otherwise humiliating himself. Justin would never be this shamefully weak.
Curse you, Justin.
He wanted to escape, to go somewhere safe, where he wouldn’t have to deal with family or Justin or even be reminded that Justin existed. To talk to someone sensible, someone who would not try to manipulate or control him. “Shelby, please give my parents my best compliments and inform them that I have gone out. My regrets but I will not be available for dinner today. Anthser, kindly bring the gig around to the front. I will call on Miss Vasilver.”
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