“I thought that was just in the mornings?”
Nik grimaced. “The petitioner’s hall hours are in the morning. For the more complex cases, I take appointments in the afternoon. And evening.” And night. “With Gracehaven so much more populous and well-travelled than Fireholt, I always see more petitioners when I’m in town. This season has been especially busy.”
“Why does it take so long to help them?” Mrs. Vasilver asked. “I thought the Blessed need but touch the afflicted to cure them.”
“Some are that easy, but with most the Savior needs time to affect treatment. For example, a child whose mental development has been badly stunted may require a half-hour to restore her mindshapes to their proper structure.”
Miss Vasilver tilted her head, listening. “Is that typical of the Blessed?”
Nik started to nod, then paused to give the question real consideration. “In truth, I don’t know. It seems to vary by individual and by Blessing. Blessings for stone and plants strike me as very different from those for minds or bodies; I don’t know how to compare it, since they do not hear petitions or work cures on men. Those for bodies are more akin to minds, although the recovery process for bodies is…not necessarily slower, but more obvious. People overestimate the ‘instantaneous’ effect of treatment, because they go from feeling sick to feeling healthy and don’t realize that there’s still an adjustment process involved. Er…” Nik chased the thread of his point. “At any rate, my great-grandmother, who had the same Blessing I do, spent a fair amount of time with a number of her petitioners when curing their ailments, but I cannot say I know the proportions involved – it’s been too many years. And I suppose it depends on whether one classifies those I cannot cure as ‘more complex’ or leaves them out of the calculation.”
“And how would you classify those?” Miss Vasilver asked.
“Oh, as more complex,” Nik said at once. “A few of them may be untreatable for various reasons. But there’s such a wealth of detail in every mind, and each one so different, that when I cannot make a diagnosis I usually feel as if I just don’t know enough yet.”
Mrs. Vasilver furrowed her brow. “But how can it be a learned skill? Even infants who carry a Blessing will cure the ill.”
“Yes: casting out demons is so obvious it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a reflex. But most ailments aren’t caused by demons. Or if they are, it’s a demon so subtle that it cannot be sensed as such. That manifests as a malformation in one of the hundreds of facets of the mind which have thousands of distinct but healthy shapes. It’s…complex. I learned a great deal from my great-grandmother and the notes from her and her grandfather, and, well, I try to learn more by studying the minds of the sick and the healthy.”
Mrs. Vasilver gave a delicate shudder. “It must be harrowing, seeing the thoughts of strangers all the time. What secrets you must be forced to keep, Lord Nikola.”
“Mother, he doesn’t read thoughts,” her daughter said before Nik could respond. “The Savior’s Blessing lets him see something of the ways in which minds work, not what the person is thinking now. It would be as if – oh – you showed me a blueprint of a house and then asked me to tell you what the inhabitants are doing at the current moment. The one does not give much information at all about the other.”
Nik flashed her a surprised, grateful smile. “That is an excellent analogy, Miss Vasilver. Do you mind if I steal it?”
“I do,” she said gravely. “You must accept it as a gift freely given instead, to do with as you please.”
“If I must.” He rose to give her a bow as solemn as her expression. “Thank you, miss.”
Miss Vasilver inclined her head in acknowledgement. “Is that why this season is busier for you, then?”
Resuming his seat, Nik tried to see the connection and couldn’t. “Beg pardon?”
“If you’ve learned to diagnosis new conditions, that means that people you would have once turned away now take more time, doesn’t it? And your average time per person must increase, because the number of simple treatments would not change but the number of complex ones will rise.”
Nik blinked at her. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. I always thought I was putting myself out of work, because once I’d cured someone they would not need to petition again. But for those who don’t have demons, it is technically faster to turn them away than to treat them. Still.” He shrugged, self-conscious. “It’s so little of my time, relative to their benefit. It would be a shattering waste of the Blessing, not to do all I may.”
“Very much to your credit, my lord,” Mrs. Vasilver said, with an awed look that made him sorry he’d said anything. Nik took some comfort from Miss Vasilver’s bland, unimpressed expression.
“It’s no sacrifice,” Nik said quickly. “And I’m not that diligent about it. I cancelled all my appointments today, for example.”
“Did you in truth, my lord? Just to call on my daughter?” The older woman’s dark eyes took on a speculative cast.
Nik wondered how he’d gotten himself into this subject and, more importantly, how to get out again. “Er…”
“Are you supposed to ask questions like that, Mother?”
Mrs. Vasilver blinked at her daughter, diverted. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s fishing for a compliment, isn’t it? I suppose it’s fishing for one for me and not you, but it puts Lord Nikola in an awkward position if that’s not what he intended, doesn’t it? Or if he didn’t wish to give his reasons for cancelling the appointments. I thought that was the sort of thing I wasn’t supposed to do,” Miss Vasilver observed in uninflected, analytical tones. “Is this one of those areas where there are different rules for you?”
“Wisteria – I – you—” The older woman’s tan face flushed, highlighting the soft wrinkles in her skin, and she directed flustered looks between her daughter and her guest. Nik offered no rescue to her. “It’s—” Miss Vasilver watched her mother, awaiting enlightenment. Mrs. Vasilver coughed. “I have just recollected that I have some papers to attend to upstairs. Do excuse me, Lord Nikola, Wisteria.” Nikola rose with her and offered her a bow, then reseated himself after she completed her retreat.
“That was peculiar,” Miss Vasilver said, eyes on the open door her mother had left through. “Usually she answers my questions first.”
Nik laughed. “I believe that was an answer.”
“It was?” She turned her attention to him.
“Oh yes. Roughly translating to ‘You are correct and only by abandoning the entire engagement can I save face now’.”
“Oh! I didn’t mean to embarrass her. Should I go apologize, do you think?”
“Not at all. She embarrassed herself, Miss Vasilver. It was an awkward question and you rescued me from it, which I appreciate.”
Miss Vasilver digested this. “I am glad to have been of assistance, my lord, though I admit this is a novel position for me. Usually my parents are the ones who tell me I have done something unacceptable. I didn’t even mean to tell my mother she had; I assumed there was some nuance I had not perceived. There normally is.”
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