Nik had been sleeping more than usual, and more erratically: napping when ennui and depression overwhelmed him, waking from nightmares at odd hours, unable to return to sleep. Staying awake through the night was harder than usual, and then paradoxically he lay sleepless in bed for an hour after retiring, apprehensive about every part of this plan. None of this is going to work if I can’t manage to sleep.
That was his last thought before the sound of quiet sobs stirred him from slumber. Heavy curtains blocked the sun from his bedroom windows, the darkness only mitigated by sunlight through the half-open bedroom door. He sat up against the pillows and squinted to make sense of the form seated in a chair by the bed. “Lady Beatrice? What’s wrong?”
Indrawn breath, stillness. “I’m so sorry, Lord Nikola.” Her voice was strained, tears choked back. A rustling, next words muffled as she dabbed at her face. “I can’t, I tried, but even asleep, something in you kept him out. I’m so very sorry.”
He fumbled a hand out of the bedclothes to pat at the vague shape of her arm, fingers brushing the skin of her hand. “It’s all right.” A new burr of trauma had formed in her mind, inflaming her conscience. I feel like a disease, infecting everyone I know with mental anguish. “It’s not your fault.”
“Oh, Lord Nikola.” She sounded heartbroken, as if she wanted to believe him but couldn’t. “I wish I had, had…” A shuddering breath. “…been able to do…something. That monster. That vile, abominable beast.”
Nik shivered at the thought of Brogan, hands curling to protect his fingers. He couldn’t understand why Lady Beatrice was taking the situation so personally. “It isn’t your fault.” As he repeated the words, a chilling thought passed through him.
Lady Beatrice nodded, composing herself. She gathered her skirts and rose. “I’m so sorry. I should be…if there’s ever anything…”
“Did she petition you?” Nik asked of Lady Beatrice’s back.
“My lord?” She paused, silhouetted by the light of the half-open door.
“Marie Brogan. The man who abducted me said he’d taken her to all the other healers of minds in Newlant. So you must have seen her too.”
“Oh, um, I’m sure I would not remember, my lord. So many petitioners, you know how it is, they all blur together,” she said, with a brittle false lightness.
“She stood out to me.” The terrible suspicion grew stronger. “A sleepwalker, seeming unaware of her surroundings. Not unconscious: she was capable of moving when steered. I don’t think I’ve seen another one like her. I suppose you referred them to me.”
“I – I – yes, I thought – I mean, I would have, I always refer those I, I can’t treat—”
“It’s all right,” Nik said. “You had no way to know what he was capable of.”
Lady Beatrice shook her head. “None at all. Oh, how I wish I’d touched him, if I’d seen that demon…” Heartfelt, honest regret.
“And you were sure I’d be able to treat her.”
She looked over her shoulder at him. “I – everyone knows you are the best of us—”
“And you could see what was wrong with her,” Nik said, very softly. “So of course you thought I would.”
She put her fist to her mouth to stifle an involuntary cry. Turning, she fled the room.
Nik clenched his fingers against the blankets, shaking with cold fury. After a moment, he rose and drew on a dressing gown and slippers. Lady Beatrice was in the parlor, crumpled into a chair, her short chubby form hunched in guilt and misery, face hidden behind her hands. Anthser loomed imposingly by the front door, fur bristling; from the greatcat’s expression, Nik knew he had heard everything. Nikola raised a hand palm-out to Anthser in a ‘hold’ gesture, but did not speak. At length, Lady Beatrice began to speak in low, desperate tones. “I was so busy that day, I had a final fitting to go to, and petitioning hours were over, I just – I could see how long it would take, and I just couldn’t then…”
“So you told him you could not diagnose her.”
She winced, nodded. “I knew you’d be in town soon, I thought – you’re so good with those complex ones – I didn’t know he was possessed! I didn’t know! I didn’t think it would hurt anyone!”
“Except her.” Nik met Lady Beatrice’s eyes as she looked up. “Mrs. Brogan. You left her suffering. So you could be fitted for a dress.”
She clenched her hands around her handkerchief, flushed as she looked away. “There’s always someone,” she said. “It’s my life too. I have a husband, children – we cannot all be as devoted as you, Lord Nikola.”
“You could have arranged for him to bring her back. But they looked poor and shabby and not worth your time.”
Lady Beatrice would not meet his eyes. “I didn’t ask to be Blessed.”
Nik crossed the room in two quick strides, dropping his hands to the arms of her chair to loom over the older woman. “I didn’t ask to be abducted and tortured. Marie Brogan didn’t ask to be cursed,” he snarled. “One of those things you can remedy, Lady Beatrice. And you will. You’ll find her and heal her. None of this is her fault.” She flinched, nodded mutely. The tall lord released the chair and stepped back. “Good day, madame,” he said in cold dismissal. She collected herself, still not looking at him, and Anthser stood aside for her as she fled the cottage.
Anthser stared at the closed front door after she was gone, lips pulled back to bare sharp teeth. “Wretched little cow—”
Nik was suddenly overwhelmed by weariness, even more than anger and self-righteousness. Who am I to judge her? I haven’t heard a petition in over a week. I can’t even help myself. “Let it go, Anthser.”
The great black cat flattened his ears. “This is all her fault.”
“No. It’s all Brogan’s fault.” Nikola moved to Anthser’s side and patted his neck. “He just had help.” Surprisingly, he felt a little more like himself now. I’ve made it through two encounters with a human being without wanting to burst into tears or flee. That’s progress of a sort. Maybe seeing Justin tomorrow will go well after all.
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