Fel Hughbrant, one of his snow-white draycats for the evening, stepped out of the harness to open the carriage door with one paw and a deep bow. Miss Vasilver paused before Nik handed her in. “What is this made of, may I ask, my lord?”
Nik laughed, having wholly forgotten the ridiculous vehicle he’d arrived in. “Do you know, I’m not sure?” He looked to the draycat by the carriage door. “Fel Hughbrant?”
“Steelglass. A new composite created by Blessed, m’lord, m’lady,” the greatcat answered. “It’s very sturdy. Scratch-proof, too.” He raked a casual paw over one of the clear plates, claws leaving the surface unmarked. “The frame’s gold-plated steel.”
“Remarkable.” Miss Vasilver touched one of the smooth panes. “I did not know even the Blessed could make steel transparent.”
“It’s not made with actual steel,” the other greatcat with Hughbrant said, watching them from her place in the traces. “Or glass, for that matter. The manufacturers just thought ‘steelglass’ had a good sound to it. It’s a tailored resin cured by a particular process.”
“Fel Hughbrant, Felis Northholt – Miss Vasilver is my companion this evening. If she needs your assistance with anything when I am not about, please oblige her,” Nik added, as Miss Vasilver nodded to the greatcat’s explanation. “Let me take your wrap, miss – it’s warm inside the box.”
As he followed her into the carriage, Nik tossed his outer coat and her fur-lined cloak onto the seat opposite before settling on the comfortable padded velvet seat beside Miss Vasilver. The edges of the carriage door were padded and sealed snugly when closed; while the day outside was cold and windy, it was almost too warm inside the glass coach. He smiled down at her, still giddy. “It’s not mine, you know,” he felt compelled to confess.
“This…” He gestured to the gold and crystal surrounding them, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. “…contraption.”
“I am afraid my brother will be disappointed to hear that. He was terribly impressed when he saw it.” Miss Vasilver did not sound impressed herself. “You are borrowing it from a friend, then?”
“From a petitioner, actually. There’s rather a story behind it, if you’re curious.”
“I am, my lord. I’ve never seen anything like it. A transparent carriage?” She tapped one foot against a translucent floor panel, making a faint clinking with the sole of her jeweled slipper. “It seems so impractical.” The underside, which had been almost spotless when it arrived for Nik, was already dusty from the road.
“It does,” Nik agreed. “But for the story – a bit over two years ago now, I treated a greatkitten for developmental issues. Her grandfather, Fel Carthian, owned a carriage service, and he wanted to provide me transportation for life as gift in return. Which of course I couldn’t accept—”
“Why not, my lord?”
“The Code prohibits daily or frequent services,” Nik explained. Miss Vasilver still had her head tilted at him, so he added, “It’s akin to slavery, to accept an ongoing and constant service like that. I know, it’s not the same when he’s paying others to render the service for him, but the Code nonetheless prohibits such a gift. In any case, he amended the offer to ‘occasional services’ and begged me to call on him for removes or events. I decided to ask him that year for a carriage to the Ascension Ball. Which absolutely everyone thought was a terrible idea – even Lord Comfrey made sport of me over it: ‘You’ll attend the grandest event in Newlant in a common delivery coach?’ – but I was in a snit with my parents over some triviality and refused to go with them.”
Wisteria glanced about at the crystal carriage surrounding them. “But I gather you did not travel in a common delivery coach, either?”
“Not at all! Though it was not this contraption. These greatcats, however. Dyed black that year – they’re bleached white this year, Felis Northholt told me. That year was an elegant and cozy two-seater, in black and silver. Fel Carthian told me later that he’d thought to extend his service from delivery and passenger coaches to rentals for special events. My father thought no one would be interested in such thing, because only an undignified fool like me would do something so gauche as to attend Ascension in a rental. So of course I had to do it again the next year.”
“Of course,” Miss Vasilver agreed, deadpan. “One could scarcely do anything else.”
“And Fel Carthian had decided the elegant two-seater was too understated, and sent Felis Northholt and Fel Hughbrant to pull this extraordinarily grand carriage of sky blue, adorned in silver-leaf scrollwork, with concealed wheels so that it appeared to float on a white cloud.”
“Oh, I recall seeing a carriage like that about town. I did not know to whom it belonged.”
Nik inclined his head. “Just so. I understand Fel Carthian’s new division has been doing well since then. And of course this year brought…” He waved one hand and smiled, self-deprecating. “My life is a bizarre mix of absurd extravagances and humbling retrenchments, I’m afraid. I think I am the only person who arrives at Ascension in the same suit but a new carriage every year.”
“That does sound unique.” Miss Vasilver tilted her head at him. “Do you exercise any control over the gifts you receive? You cannot be the only Blessed with this issue.”
“By no means. My staff does nudge petitioners to contribute cash, and many of the gifts that are not, we sell. But.” Nikola watched Gracehaven roll by through the thick glittering panes. “I know many petitioners want to do something unique and special in answer to a healing, in a way that marks cannot be. Sometimes I want to accept a gift for what it is, instead of what I think I need most that day. Does that make sense?”
Miss Vasilver considered for a moment before she replied in her usual grave way, “I believe it does, my lord. Marks don’t remind you of that little greatkitten you helped two years ago, but this carriage ride does, doesn’t it? Of why it’s work worth doing.”
Nikola turned to her again, smiling. “Yes! Exactly so.” His eye was caught anew by the sparkle of jewels in her dark twists of hair, the quiet calm of her face. He laughed suddenly.
Miss Vasilver tilted her head at him. “My lord?”
“I just realized we’ll be spending the better part of an hour in this carriage, given the crush of traffic that’ll be around the palace. Alone, with no mothers or fathers or servants to listen in. We could talk about anything!”
“Oh, we could, couldn’t we?” She fluttered her hands, silk and jewels trailing from her wrists. “There’s no one to check me but you.”
He grinned. “And I have no interest whatsoever in checking you. What would you like to speak of? We should pick the most awful forbidden unsuitable topic imaginable.”
After a moment’s thought, she shook her head. “Perhaps we should save that for the return, my lord. I shouldn’t like to alienate you while we’ve the whole of the evening left to spend together.”
“I cannot imagine anything you could say that would alienate me,” Nik protested.
She turned to regard him with light brown eyes. “Perhaps I have a better imagination than you do.”
Nikola abruptly envisioned her asking the exact nature of his relationship with Justin, and swallowed. “One or two things that might alienate you from me, perhaps,” he admitted reluctantly. “Still, surely you wouldn’t waste this opportunity on mere small talk, Miss Vasilver?”
“My lord, there is no chance of that. My parents assure me that my idea of ordinary conversation is peppered with the outrageous, and that is when I am trying to be normal. If you are authorizing me to be unsuitable—”
“My dear Miss Vasilver, I all but insist upon it,” Nik told her, grinning.
“—then perhaps I may use something lower on my list of forbidden topics than number one.”
“You have a list?”
“An outline. With subheadings and clarifying points. It’s still not comprehensive. Will you promise me that If I broach some topic you do not care for, you will tell me so plainly and we may move on to another?”
“I give you my word on it.” Nik sobered his expression in the face of her solemnity. “What is, oh, the fourth item on your list?”
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