The Heir’s Room — which it has always been, and never named after the man who sleeps in it — is the topmost room in the western tower of the main Avis estate. There are precisely two hundred and twenty-six steps from the bottom of the tower to the top; there are no other rooms in it other than the Heir’s Room. It takes up the entire circular width of the floor at the top, hung with five different tapestries, each embroidered with the Avis Crest, each set against a differently colored backdrop. Beyond that there is a bed that is wide and long, carved out of a single oak tree’s heavy trunk and polished to a glossy shine by the years — and there is a desk, which is almost always empty — there is a wardrobe carved of ebony and mahogany that stands like a looming sentinel by the door — and then there is a window, which starts at waist-height and stretches up to the ceiling.
There is nothing else. The Heir’s Room is an affectation; a sign of his lordship over the people of Avis. It mirrors the placement of the Head’s Room, in the eastern tower. It has been years since anyone has slept in this room. It has been years since anyone has even set foot in it, in fact.
Nikolas hates it at first sight.
He does not let it show on his face, oh no; that would be giving away too much. He walks around the room and he makes small noises at appropriate intervals: when he examines the desk (covered in a thin patina of dust and a stack of forgotten papers with a familiar wandering scrawl of a signature at the bottom), when he looks out the window (out onto a bland brown landscape, wilting under the punishing heat of the late-summer sun; Avis is in the second month of its usual summer drought and nothing of their innovation can completely rescue the landscape), when he sees to the wardrobe (still with a few things hanging inside, and he smells, for an instant, a ghost made of sharp cologne and makeup powder, and he feels something curl around his heart like a fist and squeeze until the breath is driven from his lungs), and finally when he sees to the bed (wide, yes, and so spacious, but the mattress is hard and stiff when he presses his hand to it).
“Is the room to your liking, then, Your Grace?”
He turns to look at the man who has accompanied him: his father’s man, thin and tall and dour, with lips and jowls that hang low, like a hound’s, and he wishes for a moment that he’d had one of his pretty maids instead. He could have smiled at her, and tumbled her onto the bed and maybe it wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable with two. She would have understood — any of them would — that there is nothing in this room for Nikolas to like.
“Oh, yes,” he says. He waves a hand in a wide airy gesture, and manages to encompass the whole of the room with it. “It will do quite nicely, I think. I shall have my girls bring my things up this evening. No! This very afternoon; perhaps I shall do it right this instant, so you may see just how deep my enthusiasm for this goes. I am so very pleased to be coming into my own, here; you cannot begin to imagine.”
The man presses his lips together. He has a name, and it is even one that Nikolas knows, though it escapes him for the moment. Smithy? Smish? Some sort of easy S name and that is precisely why Nikolas always forgets it. The disapproval is apparent in his eyes when he says, “Very good, Your Grace. That will give you plenty of time to prepare before Quertis arrives tonight.”
“Tonight?” Nikolas has to blink rapidly. He thinks back quickly. His father had been blathering on about some sort of important event, in his roundabout complaining way. There had been some mention of upstart women and perhaps that ridiculous creature she calls a son … ah. “Was that today? By the Mother, how quickly time goes by!”
Smasher shakes his head. There is a doleful look in his eyes, as if he had expected no better from him, but any sting the gesture might have had has worn off on Nikolas long ago. Why people still think their disappointment might sway him, he has yet to figure out, but they do still keep trying, and he can’t help but almost find it cute. “Yes, Your Grace. It is tonight they arrive. Trevis will be tomorrow; Oldhill and Relan will be the day after.”
“Splendid!” Nikolas claps his hands and rubs them together; he is smiling and he knows it’s sharp and pointed, but really, who gives a damn if Smitty sees him amused? “I will be there to greet them with bells on. I mean it, actual bells! I have just received word from my tailor that I’ve a new jacket to look forward to for this feast. There will be silver bells in the hem; I shall carry music with me wherever I go!” He crosses the room in a couple of bounding steps, pleased when Smother leans back in response. “It will be quite grand — do you know when they will arrive? I would like very much to be prepared for them.”
“This evening, Your Grace,” Smutt says. His nose wrinkles just a little. “So you will have plenty of time.”
“Good! Good. How wonderful, I’m quite glad for that. Now run along, and tell my dear honored father that I have accepted my new room quite gracefully, and that I shall be taking my place in it as is proper. He likes that.” Nikolas made a small shooing gesture, then a bit more pointedly. “Go on. Shoo! I know that he is ever so anxiously awaiting to hear your report. And see! I have accepted it; I will make this _utterly_ my own, so you needn’t worry.” He leans in closer now, and he knows that Smissy doesn’t like it from the way he leans back in turn, his eyes darting nervously from side to side. Nikolas puts an arm around his shoulders in an ostensibly friendly gesture, and he says, his voice now a whisper:
“And tell him that I know quite well that he has guards established, and I shall not be needing them, though I am grateful for his consideration.”
He gives Smotty a shove as he moves his arm away, a graceful easy gesture, and then he spins and he cross the room in the same smooth gesture to look out the window again. It faces eastward, and in that direction lies Quertis. His fingers curl a little against the smooth stone and he finds his lip curling in a sudden sharp anticipation. That is the road that Celeste Quertis will come, and with her–
Nikolas hears the door close and he gives it another long patient minute before he lets his head fall forward so he can laugh. It starts somewhere deep in his belly and comes up clawing through his throat, and it very nearly hurts, but he cannot _stop_ it once it has started, and he wonders briefly if the people far below can hear it, if they will whisper to each other about the mad Heir in his tower. It runs in the Avis bloodlines, and there is nothing to be done about it; his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, and his father now …
Nikolas laughs, and he laughs, and he _laughs_, and he says, to no one at all:
“Ah, I feel sick.”