Saturday afternoon found Nikola in the cottage’s ersatz workroom, transcribing and elaborating on some salient portions of his great-grandmother’s letters to him, when Meredith poked her head in. “Um, Lord Nik? We know you don’t want to see any humans but there’s a lady at the house for you and Jill said we ought to tell you about her just in case? If you don’t mind?”
Nik tensed at the idea of company, then made himself relax and sat up, squaring the correspondence into a neat pile next to him. Miss Vasilver? I did ask her to come, albeit not this soon… “That’s fine, Meredith. Who’s calling?”
“Lady Beatrice, if it pleases you, m’lord?”
“Ah.” Rumor travels fast. Nik was not ready for this, for another round of the hope/stress/panic that offers of help from a Blessed had invoked so far, that deterred him from so much as reaching for the Savior’s presence on his own. But this will spare me the stress of braving the crowds of her petitioners later. He did not delude himself that this visit was unrelated to his current condition. “Thank you. Tell her I’ll be with her shortly.” He stood to change into suitable attire.
Meredith spread her whiskers, ears perking. “Yes m’lord!”
While shifting from dressing gown to trousers and a short jacket appropriate for a social call, Nikola’s mind ran ahead, picturing himself entering Anverlee Manor to greet Lady Beatrice in the main parlor. That didn’t sound bad. He’d run into his mother, too; fair enough, he wouldn’t mind seeing her at this point. Or his sisters. Father? He didn’t want to see Lord Striker; his father had little understanding or sympathy for mental illness. There would be others at the manor, too: servants, guests, his sisters’ husbands, all questioning, demanding—
—he tried to divert his thoughts but couldn’t, fastening buttons with sweating hands, heart pounding. Curse it, I can do this, I can do one ordinary thing—
Jill’s voice at the dressing room door broke into his thoughts. “Lady Beatrice’s in the cottage parlor now. So’s ya know.”
Nik realized he had not told Meredith where he would see his visitor. A greatcat wouldn’t realize how unsuitable the cottage’s parlor was for a wellborn caller, and it was too late now to amend the mistake. He wiped his damp palms on a handkerchief and hunted for gloves: he had not worn a pair in days. He checked his reflection in the mirror, rearranged his neckcloth a few times, realized he was stalling as well as not improving it, and left off.
Lady Beatrice was seated in the parlor chair nearest the stove, with her wrap still around her shoulders; it was a cold, drafty room. “Lady Beatrice. Thank you for calling; I must apologize for the shabbiness of my hospitality,” he told her as she rose at his entrance.
“Oh, Lord Nikola, please don’t apologize.” Lady Beatrice drew off her glove and extended one plump hand to him, bracelets tinkling around her wrist. The evident distress in her voice surprised him. After a brief hesitation (why am I seeing her if not for this?) Nik likewise removed his glove and took her fingers. She gasped, tightening her grip. “Oh, Lord Nikola, I am so very sorry. You – what they must have done to you – I—” Lady Beatrice took a deep breath, clasping his hand between hers. “Do you not see it as well?”
He looked to the window, uncomfortable. “Of course.”
“Then why – oh, I know it’s not been a week, but surely the Savior would…I mean…”
Nik knew what she meant. The Savior wouldn’t heal recent trauma because the brain needed time to process and learn from experiences, including traumatic ones. But with damage that was extensive and not improving, as was his case, the Savior would certainly be willing to intervene by now. He shook his head, extracting his hand from hers. “It’s…complicated.”
“My lord?” Lady Beatrice had her round, anxious face turned up to watch him.
Nikola paced to a window and rested a hand against the trim. “I can’t.”
“But…you cannot see what needs to be remedied? Will you let me help you, then?”
He shook his head, looking through the narrow, distorted, yellowing glass of the window. A greatcat sat on the path to the cottage, fifty yards off, keeping watch. “It’s not that I can’t see it. I can’t ask for the Savior’s help. I…don’t feel him any more.” Nik closed his eyes at the woman’s gasp, not wanting her pity. “I—” I hurt him, I don’t deserve his help, I cannot feel him again, not that fury and outrage “—when I saw healers of the flesh, they said I was refusing them unconsciously. Lord Walther managed to heal my body while I was sleeping, however. That…might work again, I suppose.” But you’re not a greatcat and I can’t ask a lady to watch me sleep; the whole idea is absurd.
“But you – why would you – how can you not feel—” Lady Beatrice put a hand over her own mouth to stop the words. “I’m sorry, my lord. It’s not my place to pry.” She folded her hands together. “However, please know that I believe your injuries are within the Savior’s power to remedy. I would be happy to make the attempt now. Or at any time of your choosing, including while you sleep tonight. You don’t have to suffer like this, Lord Nikola.”
Nik half-turned to her. “Lady Beatrice…I cannot ask you to—”
“Then don’t ask.” She crossed to his side and took his sleeve, her small plump form looking up at him with a pleading look. “Just agree. You – you of all people deserve better. I’ll stay until you sleep, if that’s what it takes.”
Nik blanched, horrified by the impropriety and irregularity of it all. “I can’t let you do that. Your reputation! I ought to be petitioning you—”
She waved a hand in dismissal. “I will not let convention stand in the way of your well-being!”
Nik couldn’t imagine even trying to sleep with a casual acquaintance just outside his door in this tiny cottage. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful, but – here: I’ll stay up the night and go to sleep tomorrow morning. You can call then; I’ll give the greatcats instructions to show you in. I’ll be less likely to wake if I’m already sound asleep in any case, and I don’t wish to waste your time. And a daytime call will excite no gossip.”
Lady Beatrice offered a troubled smile, her eyes still worried. “Whatever you prefer, my lord. Are you sure you don’t wish me to try now?”
Nik swallowed against a spike of terror, remembering the terrible weight of the Savior’s emotions smashing him into oblivion. He shook his head. “Believe me, it wouldn’t work. I do appreciate your concern, my lady. It’s very generous of you to indulge me in this.” Nik was surprised and touched by her heartfelt offer; he couldn’t imagine what he’d done to merit it. I wonder if this is how the Whittakers felt when I invited them to stay at the manor? Maybe some things you get because your need is so desperate.
“It’s the least I can do.” Lady Beatrice took his hand and gave it a quick squeeze. “I shan’t tax you with further pleasantries, Lord Nikola. I’ll see you again tomorrow, I promise.”
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