Apologies (36/141)

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The Markavian had a felishome near the clubhouse: an oversized building with extra-large doors and windows, its amenities tailored for use by paws or mouths rather than hands. The interior was plain, as the space was designed to be used by employees and not members – the membership was exclusively male humans. The front room had hardwood floors and whitewashed walls, and was furnished with several wide low couch-beds. When Justin opened the door, he found the front room empty save for Fel Fireholt and Feli Southing. The two greatcats were sprawled together over one of the couch-beds. Their heads raised at his entrance, ears flattening as they identified him. Fel Fireholt’s lip curled back in a half-snarl that surprised Justin: Nik’s liegecat had always been an amiable individual. Feli Southing’s flat-eared, flat-whiskered look was merely cold. Fel Fireholt gave the bare minimum of courtesy in a growled, “My lord?”

Justin decided his impulse to withdraw was more cowardice than prudence and stood his ground. In as deferential and inoffensive a tone as he could manage, he said, “Feli Southing, might I have a word with you, please?”

“No,” she said flatly.

That was final. He bowed. “I apologize. You may collect your severance pay from Mr. Black at your leisure.” Justin withdrew, resigned to writing out his apology instead. Ethan could give it to her with the severance.

He was halfway to the clubhouse when Southing’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Wait.”

Justin bridled at the imperious command from a commoner, but at this point he owed it to her to oblige. He turned around on the marble path. “Yes, feli?”

The gray-and-white striped greatcat stood between evergreen hedges that lined either side of the path. Her tailtip twitched and her ears remained canted backwards. Justin braced himself against getting angry again because she was. But all she said was, “I quit.”


“You don’t get severance for quitting.”

“I think, under the circumstances, you’re entitled. Don’t you?”

Southing lashed her tail, making branches of the adjacent bush sway. “I think I’m entitled to a lot more than that.” Justin inclined his head to acknowledge the truth in this. The tension in her whiskers eased. “…did you really come to apologize?”

“I did, feli. I intended considerably more humiliating detail than the mere two words, but as you were understandably not in the mood to listen I thought I’d just write it.”

“Huh.” The greatcat’s tail stilled, the muscles beneath her fur rippling as she paced closer. “Well. If that’s what you wanted to say, I’ll listen.”

Justin tried not to smile and did not quite succeed. “Thank you, Feli Southing.” She kept moving, slowing to a human’s pace, so he fell in step beside her as he continued, “I wish to apologize for my actions today, to wit: instructing you to take a risky route, falling off when you complied, faulting you for my own error, insulting your person, threatening your career, and in general acting the complete twit.” Beside him, Southing’s whiskers twitched up in a slight greatcat smile. She turned down one of the side paths, past dormant flower beds bordered by ankle-height picket fences intended to discourage walkers from trodding on the plants. The viscount continued, “My behavior was inexcusable. I regret my tone and inflammatory words in particular extremely. I bear you no animosity and, obviously, do not intend to carry through on my ill-conceived and idiotic threats. I will be happy to provide you with a favorable letter of recommendation when you seek your next patron.”

Southing and Justin took several steps in silence. Finally, she asked, “Do you lose your temper like that a lot?”

He gave a dry laugh. “Thankfully, no.”


Justin didn’t want to answer this question for Southing any more than he had for Nikola, and knew he’d put himself in a position where he had no right to refuse. “At one juncture in my youth, I trained myself to redirect fear into anger. As a reflex, the same way one uses a certain stance in fencing or a particular approach for climbing. There have been occasions where this reflex was useful. Today was not one of them.”

Southing dipped her head in a nod. The two of them came to an open space in the dormant garden, where the stone path wound in a circle about a patch of grass. The striped greatcat strode in front and turned to drop to the grass before Justin, laying her head against her forelegs in a startlingly submissive gesture. “I didn’t mean to throw you.”

“I know. Now.” A self-deprecating smile. “I regret that I am not at my most perceptive when angry, either.”

The massive feline head turned to one side, gaze on the silhouette of a stand of barren cherry trees in the near distance. “Anthser told me there’s a…kind of trick, to how you can move in that position so you don’t shake off a rider by accident. He said there’s basically no way a man can stay on if you do it normally.”

“I should not have told you to attempt the climb,” Justin said. “My error regardless.”

Southing nodded more emphatically than Justin thought necessary, but then added, “Still. I did…I mean, I had meant to say I was sorry. I was going to when you started yelling at me.” She glowered at him, and he schooled himself to limit his response to an acknowledging nod. The greatcat sighed, looking away again. “And I think I still should. Even though it was an accident and sort of your idea. So. I’m sorry.” She paused. “That was a pretty terrible apology, wasn’t it?” Justin stifled a laugh. She continued, “I really am sorry. And I’m glad Anthser and Lord Nik caught you and you’re all right. Um, you are all right, aren’t you, m’lord?” The feline peered up at him anxiously.

“My pride may be crippled for life, but the rest of me is fine,” Justin assured her.

“Bet Lord Nik can fix that for you.”

He chuckled, then sobered to say, “I’m not sure I’d want him to. It deserves the abuse. And I accept your apology, Feli Southing.”

“Thanks.” Southing climbed to her feet and shook out her fur. She’d traded her narrow racing cloak for a wider one in plain red; it flared before settling against her flanks again. She swiped a paw over her face, then raised her head high, until her eyes were level with his. “Um. I accept yours, too, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin raised an eyebrow. “Good manners and my failing require me to apologize,” he said, in mild, neutral tones. “Neither requires you to accept it.”

“No, I do. I mean, I want to. I know I don’t have to.” She turned to sit on her haunches beside him, massive form in profile. “Sorry, I’m not good at gracious.”

“It’s fine. Thank you.” He offered a short bow, which she returned awkwardly. They remained in silence for a few moments, the breeze ruffling through the end of Justin’s ponytail and stirring the edge of Southing’s cloak. “I should be on my way. Take care, Feli Southing.”   

“You too, m’lord.”

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She Tried to Kill Me (35/141)

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For a few minutes, the cliff base was still save for the rustle of leaves and the quiet babble of water flowing down the creek. Justin spoke at last. “She tried to kill me.” His voice was tight and controlled.   

“She attempted a highly dangerous maneuver at your request, in contravention of her own judgement. As a result, you fell.” Nik didn’t open his eyes.

“Curse it, Striker! Are you saying I can’t tell the difference between a throw and a tumble? When it’s happening to me?”

Nik looked to Justin, the image of his strong handsome angry friend superimposed in his mind with the sight of that terrible fall. I almost lost you. He swallowed, nauseated by lingering fear. “I was watching,” he said, softly. “Feli Southing did just what every other greatcat does when clambering over an outcrop with a bad grip. Kicked off with her hindlegs to get lift and momentum.”

“Are you telling me Anthser would have done that?”

“Anthser and I used the trail on this cliff.” Nik paused a moment to let that sink in. “He would not today, not with a rider. But he has before. Five or six summers ago. Jumping from the ground to a second-floor balcony. I fell, too.” Voice low, he went on, “You do not know how grateful I am to be able to argue this point with you, here and now.”    

Justin exhaled. After a moment, he sank down to sit beside Nik on the log and put an arm around the blond man’s shoulders. “Thank you for catching me,” he said, just as quietly.

Nik twisted sideways to hug Justin fiercely, hiding his face against the man’s tan neck. “You’re welcome.” Nik swallowed, closing his eyes as Justin held him in return, caressing his back and smoothing his hair. After a long silent moment, he added, “I would take it as a great kindness if you could manage not to get yourself killed, my lord.”

“Hah. I’ll do my best.” Justin bent to kiss Nik’s pale forehead. Another silence, then: “So. An ass.”

A strangled half-laugh. “Inexcusably. Saints, Justin, even if she had tried to kill you, your behavior was out of line.”

“Oh, come now,” Justin protested. “I wasn’t that bad.”

“You were abominable. ‘I’ll see you never race again’? I’ve never seen you so petty or so crude.” Even in retrospect it shocked Nik, so unlike Justin’s usual easy-going demeanor. With their heads still touching, he scanned the familiar contours of his friend’s mind for a clue to the reason. He’d always been fascinated by Justin’s mind, quite unlike those of other men and yet so sane, orderly, efficient. Long-healed traumas nestled like pearls among the different mindshapes. Most of his anger channeled into humor, where it soon dissipated, rather than into violence or outbursts. The capacity for the latter existed, but by a seldom-used connection chained alongside fear. Like Anthser’s, Justin’s sense of fear was modest; unlike Anthser’s, it had an odd shape to it, and was twined with anger. Links between fear and anger were not uncommon, but this level of intertwining not something he’d seen in anyone else. Still, much of the variance in minds was unusual or unique to Nik’s experience, without causing any apparent difficulty for the individual.

Justin had winced at Nik’s remark. “She kept provoking me.” Nik sat up to look him in the eye. “She did. If she’d shown a little humility instead of backtalking – stop looking at me like that! It’s not a servant’s place to question a lord. Even if I was a little unreasonable.”

“‘A little’? I’m not even willing to repeat the things you called that poor greatcat. And she wasn’t your servant, for pity’s sake. You can’t expect a greatcat to show the deference of a scullery maid.”

“Why not? She works for me. Worked.”

“Well you can, but you’ll be disappointed. Saints, I hope you don’t treat your human servants that way.” Nik drew away, leaning against the cliff instead.

“Only when they try to kill me.” At Nik’s sharp look, Justin added, “It’s never come up before, all right? Believe it or not this is the first time in thirty years that one of my servants has tried to kill me. Employee. Accidentally almost killed me. You get the idea. It’s a new experience for me.”

“…have people who don’t work for you tried to kill you before?” Nik asked, frowning, wondering again about the Justin’s intertwined mindshapes for fear and anger.

“I have fought duels,” Justin pointed out, then sighed. “I suppose I did handle this badly.” Nik looked at him without comment. “Very badly.” Nik kept looking. Justin put his face in one hand. “I should apologize, shouldn’t I.” It wasn’t a question.

“Oh saints yes.”

“Curse it. I hate apologizing to an inferior.”

One corner of Nik’s mouth twitched up in a smile. “It’s turned out well for you in the past.” At Justin’s sour look, he added, “Remember when we met?”

Justin shuddered. “Show some mercy, boy. I’ve made enough mistakes today that you needn’t dredge up the ones from six years ago to throw at me.”

Nik pulled Justin into his embrace again. “Sorry.”

Justin closed his eyes, resting his head against Nik’s chest. “Forgiven.” A distant querulous ‘hallo’ caught their attention, and the two men straightened into more dignified positions. “Curst attendants.” Justin climbed to his feet.

“It’s not their fault either,” Nik said. “At least this way you won’t have to walk back to the clubhouse.”

“I think I’d rather walk back.” Justin called out a hallo in response anyway.

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No Way to Make It (34/141)

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Two-thirds of the way through the final course, Anthser and Nik enjoyed a solid lead over their competitors: intimate knowledge of the course and their own abilities let them exploit every shortcut. As Anthser jumped twenty feet down to splash into the shallow water of a creek, Nik glanced over his shoulder to look for their competitors. The cliff Nik and Anthser had just descended was too steep for even them to attempt any shortcuts on the trail up, the few scrubby trees adorning its surface too short and angled to be climbed. So Nik was startled to see Southing writhing vertically upwards, perhaps a half-dozen yards from the top. The base of one of the trees growing straight outwards from the cliff served her as a foothold to push off from and surge towards the next. Justin lifted from the seat to hang in the air for an instant before pulling himself back into it. Nik’s heart stopped, watching them. “Saints and angels…”

Anthser splashed out of the creek to the dry beach alongside and glanced up at Nik’s words. Then he stopped to watch. “Oh blood and death. There’s no way they can make—” Southing shoved upwards from another narrow tree trunk; forepaws scrabbled at an outcrop of rock above her but found no purchase and she fell backwards. As Nik and Anthser stared, she caught herself on the same tree she’d pushed off from; its roots strained and trunk bent under her weight. She launched herself again: the wood cracked under the maneuver, tree trunk tumbling down the cliff face even as greatcat and rider went up. Southing caught the outcrop above with her forepaws, hindlegs curled below. With a violent thrust from her lower body she pushed herself all the way up—

—and threw her rider clear off.

JUSTIN!” Even as the cry left Nik’s throat, Anthser was already in motion, leaping from the beach to a ledge near the base of the cliff and surging up from there as powerfully as he could, his launch almost vertical in an effort to intercept. Justin twisted catlike in the air, curling to get his feet under him as if that might help on an eighty foot drop, and extended his arms out to Nik. Nik dropped his bow and grabbed Justin as he fell. The heavier man’s momentum nearly jerked Nik from the seat himself. By then, Anthser had reached the apogee and was falling as well, and Nik had enough leverage to pull Justin sideways onto Anthser’s back. They landed in the creek with a massive splash, the transmitted shock almost enough to knock both humans off. Nik’s thighs were locked into the seat as his arms clutched Justin to his chest, heart hammering in delayed terror. “Justin, Savior, Justin, are you hurt?”

Justin managed a shake of his head, looking more angry than frightened. Anthser waded out of the creek with flanks heaving, the two humans on his back. Nik clung to the other man, shaking from the spike of adrenaline, stroking Justin’s hair and pressing lips to the top of his head, oblivious and uncaring of how it looked, aware only of one thing: I almost lost you.

I almost lost you.

Anthser more collapsed than lay down on the shore, gasping for breath. Justin broke from Nik’s embrace to slide off and stand on unsteady legs. Southing dropped with a splash into the creek beside them, breathing almost as labored as Anthser’s after half-running and half-falling after them. “Crap, Lord Comfrey, I’m sor—”

“Wildcat bitch! Were you trying to kill me?” Justin roared, cutting her off. Southing rocked back on her haunches in the creek, ears flat back. Nik and Anthser stared at Justin. The viscount didn’t wait for her response, advancing on her with one hand raised. “Because as assassination attempts go, that was pretty fucking convincing! I thought you were a fucking professional, not some Abandoned World demoncat. Just what was bucking me off at a hundred feet supposed to accomplish?”

Southing’s lips peeled back in a snarl. “I wasn’t—”

“Don’t backtalk me you disease-ridden furball!” Justin stopped just inches from her, his head looming over the greatcat’s, though she was more than ten times his mass. His raised palm made it look as though he were about to slap her, which would perhaps rank as only the second-most suicidal thing he’d done that day. “Is this what I’m paying you for? Because I can throw myself off an abandoned cliff for free if I want!”

Nik slid off Anthser. The black greatcat rose to all fours, tense, and Nik placed a steadying hand on Anthser’s shoulder. Southing’s wet fur bristled as she rose from her seated position to a posture as menacing as Justin’s. “You told me to do it!”

“Justin…” Nik could not quite fathom that this argument was happening, much less how to derail it.

The Newlanture lord ignored him, still focused on Southing. “Is your mind made of fur? Because my friend here can fix that for you!” Justin waved a hand at Nik, who winced. “So you know, ‘give it a shot’ does not in fact mean ‘throw me off at the highest possible point’!”

“I warned you that we—”

“Hold your tongue, you insolent wildcat-brained ill-bred monstrosity! I’m not paying you for your worthless mouth, I’m paying you for your equally worthless racing—”

Southing roared, back arched and gums bared to reveal a mouth larger than Justin’s head, lined by jagged pointy teeth. “Blood and death you are! I am through!” She pivoted and stalked away.

“You can’t turn your back on me! I own you!”

She twisted her head to look over her shoulder, snarling, “No, you don’t. I quit, Lord Comfrey.” The greatcat drew out his title like an insult.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me! I’ll see you never race again, you little beast!”

Just watch me, little man.” Southing leapt to the far side of the creek and paced away down the trail, tail lashing.

Justin sputtered, turning back to the others. “That halfwitted homicidal demonspawn – can you believe—”

“Comfrey—” Nik found his voice at last “—shut up.” Anthser’s fur bristled and his glare at Justin was full of loathing. Nik smoothed the fur beneath his hand. “Anthser, feel free to accompany her if you please.” The greatcat acknowledged with a nod and bounded after Southing.

Justin glowered at Nik in disbelief. “Demons, Striker, you’re not taking her part?” Nik turned away, walking stiffly to a damp fallen log at the base of the cliff. Justin followed him, shaking with rage. “You bastard! She almost killed me!”

“Comfrey, you are being an ass,” Nik said. Justin seized his shoulder and jerked the slighter man around to face him. Nik regarded Justin’s livid visage with icy blue eyes before he dropped his gaze pointedly to the tan fingers digging into his shoulder. “Did you want to insult and threaten me as well, or will you skip directly to the beating?”

Jaw clenched, Justin dropped his hand as if burned. He crossed his arms over his muscular chest and turned away. Nik dropped to sit on the log and leaned back against the cliff, long legs stretched before him and eyes closed. The water of the creek lapped around the heels of his riding boots. Nik could not bring himself to care.

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The Best Part (33/141)

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In the event, Anthser and Nikola did much better in the next section. It was one of the two they’d chosen, and while Southing and Justin started in the lead again, Anthser passed the other greatcat on one of the climbs and they maintained that lead for the rest of the section. Justin and Nik shot comparably in that leg. The final score was not enough to offset Justin and Southing’s edge in the first leg, but it left the two teams close again. “See?” Justin said after the scoring. “Plenty we can learn from you.”

“Assuming you didn’t let us win,” Nik replied, with a mock-suspicious glare.

Southing flattened her ears, offended, but Justin laughed. “Never in life, Striker.”

The third leg was Justin’s pick, and predictably, Comfrey’s team extended their overall lead further during it. “Ready to admit defeat now, m’lord?” Anthser asked, as he and Southing panted while awaiting the formal section three scores.

Nik and Justin had dismounted to stretch. Only Comfrey was as energetic and alert as when the afternoon began. Southing stretched her forepaws before her and clawed at the ground with back arched downwards. Their final trail began at the top of a steep slope and soon disappeared into a twisting path through dense undergrowth and sturdy trees. Their vantage was high enough to see past the trees and into the ravine below. A creek ran far beneath; reflections from the water flashed through the trees at irregular intervals. The opposite slope was just as steep as the switchback trail climbed it, then ran along a ridge and vanished into another valley. The various targets were set back in the dense wood, not visible from this distance. Southing eyed the final trail with a certain trepidation. “I’m ready to collect my wager if you’re ready to pay, Blackie.”

“What? And miss the most exciting part of the course?” Justin protested.

She rolled dubious eyes towards him. “If this is the best part, why did Lord Nikola pick it instead of you?”

“I didn’t say it was the part I was best at. Besides, Striker always picks this section.”

Nik bent over to touch his booted toes, grunting. “I may have become too predictable, Anthser.”

“Naw, Lord Comfrey’s just trying to manipulate you out of good strategy.” The black greatcat arched his spine and shook himself out, fur ruffling across his body.

An attendant brought them the score: Justin had out-shot Nik again, to cement Comfrey’s lead even further. “My offer to collect now stands,” Southing said.

“No it doesn’t.” Justin vaulted into his warcat’s seat without waiting for her to lie down first. “Come now, Feli Southing, it’ll be fun. Didn’t you say you love a challenge?”

“Let’s not cry mercy just yet, Anthser. Especially if you’re defending my strategy.” Nik waited for Anthser to stretch out, then mounted in the usual prosaic fashion.

The black greatcat nodded his acquiescence and asked Southing instead, “Have you run this course before?”

“Lord Comfrey and I have run it a couple of times,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve perfected an approach for it.” This particular section of course was distinguished from the others not only by the difficult terrain, but because running the trail was optional. Competitors could take any approach they liked, as long as they hit each of the six targets in correct sequence and at least once, and didn’t cross into a target’s hazard zone – the area about a target that was proscribed to prevent accidental shootings during the race.

“Only one way to improve,” Justin said cheerfully. Southing rolled her shoulders before his knees, and padded to the starting position. Anthser followed suit; the two greatcats crouched together at the top of the steep trail. A Markavian-uniformed man stood on the stump of a starting post, flag raised.

“He’s right, you know,” Anthser murmured to Southing as the servant began the countdown. “You don’t want to miss this.”

The flag dropped. Southing surged down the switchback trail.

Anthser followed for a half dozen yards, then twisted to the side, leapt through a gap in the trees, and flew. Nik clung close to Anthser, face hidden against the greatcat’s neck so that the slender branches scraped against the top of his riding helmet instead of skin. Together, they soared past trees down the slope to land a dozen yards ahead of Southing on the path below. Anthser roared, a deep triumphant note. They lost half a second as he recovered from the turn onto the trail and regained momentum running along it. There wasn’t another gap in the trees large enough for them until they were past the next turning. Then they were airborne again, Anthser’s paws fending off smaller branches and grabbing a thick one to bounce off of it and leap over a stubby tree, falling again onto the clear path below. Behind them, Southing cursed as she crashed through the woods in their wake. Anthser laughed, already racing away down the track. When they reached the bottom of the ravine, he jumped the creek and climbed one of the thickest trees instead of taking the switchback trail up. Claws sank into wood while Nik clung to the racing seat with the boneless ease of a leech. Below them on the switchback trail, Southing raced with her tail tip lashing. Justin grinned like a madman from his perch, form as good as Nik had ever seen it. Though she had much more ground to cover, Southing was remarkably fast on the trail, jumping sideways to rebound off the trees in taking the hairpin turns at nearly top speed. Heart in his mouth, Nik followed Justin with his eyes through one rebound, the viscount all but floating parallel to the ground for a moment before his warcat’s body twisted to land with a bone-jarring thump that nonetheless did not loosen her rider.

The tree Anthser was climbing swayed under their weight. The greatcat shifted his weight to bend it down toward the slope, his progress slowed by the vertical climb and the uncertain footing. It redounded away as Anthser jumped from it to the trail, Southing and Justin only a few turns below them. “They deserve to win, you know,” Anthser said between deep breaths. “Better’n we are.”

“I know.” Nik readied his bow as they crested the final rise, and loosed an arrow for the first target. “Let’s beat them anyway.”

“Gotcha.” Anthser pelted across the top of the rise; Nik had just enough time to sink three arrows into the target before they left it behind.

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The Race (32/141)

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The Markavian was one of Newlant’s most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, with membership by invitation only and a required annual donation that would have paid the salaries of Nikola’s entire staff. Nik only belonged because one of his petitioners had bestowed the membership upon him as a gift and memberships were not transferable so he couldn’t sell it. For Justin, it was one of four or five gentlemen’s clubs in which he held memberships.

The club’s founding location was a beautiful old building in the heart of Gracehaven, a scant block from the Chamber of Assembly. But they maintained several satellites, including this sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city. Among its amenities was a multi-stage bowracing course, where dozens of miles of trails wound through hundreds of acres of tended forest and open fields, going back and forth across creeks and streams and up and down small hills. It was one of the country’s most challenging courses, featuring both steep climbs and hard shots. Nik had had no difficulty in reserving the course time – not surprising, given the season and the club’s exclusivity.

At the clubhouse, each of the four selected a section of trail: Nikola and Anthser, by mutual consent, chose sections with lots of climbs, jumps, and switchbacks. Feli Southing’s racing experience had included obstacle courses, but a great deal of it was on level ground and almost none of it had been with a rider. The one advantage Nikola and Anthser had in this match was that Justin and Southing were less experienced as a team and as bowracers. Southing chose a flat section through open fields, and Justin a course with some of the most distant targets, because the heavier draw on his bow gave him an edge in range. Taken as a whole, the chosen race was some sixteen miles and had a par time of forty-nine minutes.

The layout of the property made Southing’s choice the logical starting point. The greatcats exchanged their riding seats for racing ones, stretching and bouncing on their paws to limber up, exchanging private spread-whisker smiles. At the same time, their riders handled the racing bows and arrows, taking a number of practice shots to test the tension in the bowstring and re-familiarize themselves with the equipment. At length, they returned to their mounts and rode to the start line. The felines crouched low: between Nik’s thighs, he felt rather than heard the rumble of Anthser’s chest, purring in anticipation. Southing’s tail lashed. Nikola and Justin leaned forward in their seats, bows slung over one shoulder, quivers strapped and angled alongside the greatcats’ flanks. The club-provided attendant counted down from five, dropping his flag on the final count. The cats needed no further encouragement to surge into motion.

Bowracing was more marathon than sprint; both greatcats paced themselves for the long term, breathing deeply, legs stretching and bunching in smooth strides. They loped with economical grace, none of the flash of Anthser’s pounces when he’d been dashing through the streets of Gracehaven for Nikola’s amusement. Southing soon took the lead, her ground-eating run seeming effortless as her narrow racer’s cloak streamed behind her. “Let them go,” Nikola said in Anthser’s ear in reminder, the wind catching at his words and whipping them away. “We’ll catch up on the later stages.” That was the plan, anyway, and in the moment Nikola believed it. His blood sang with the thrill of the race, the rush of speed, the sense of power unleashed in Anthser’s body beneath his. The flowing wind washed stress away from him, body so tuned to the greatcat’s that he felt like a part of Anthser. Not a sack of flesh bouncing against the greatcat’s back, but an appendage, as if his arms were Anthser’s, or Anthser’s racing legs belonged to him. Nik laughed aloud in delight, watching Justin and Southing tearing along the trail ahead of them.

“Least the view’s good,” the greatcat rumbled between deep breaths, with equal good humor. Looking at the flag of Justin’s long black hair and the flare of his riding coat, Nikola privately agreed. As the pair ahead drew near the first target, Justin rocked back in the racing seat to unship his bow and nock an arrow. He let fly early, arrow missing to sink into the berm serving as backstop. Southing slowed as they drew closer still, and Justin’s next arrow struck true, though not in the bullseye. A second hit as they drew alongside the target, twenty or so yards to one side of the trail. Southing picked up speed as Justin twisted to strike home with a final shot. That gave them the three hits needed to avoid a penalty for that target. By now, Nik was concentrating on his own shots: crouched over the seat, bow angled as he drew: exhale, fire, next arrow drawn without watching the flight of the first. He re-aimed and fired, barely noting the red fletching on the target that showed his first arrow had found the mark. Nik managed to land with three arrows as well; he and Anthser gained a few yards in the exchange, as they slowed less for the shots.

Nikola didn’t try to track the results of his shots or Justin’s as the race progressed: an attendant from the club would collect the spent arrows and tally the score for them: penalty time was added to the run for every target not struck thrice, and a bonus subtracted for each bullseye. They finished the first section almost thirty seconds behind Justin and Southing, and Nik was glad to have kept the gap as narrow as that. As they waited together at the finish line for the attendants to score their shots, Justin asked him, “Show me your shooting stance?”

“What, this?” Nik drew back his bow as he sat upright in Anthser’s racing seat, puzzled by the question.

“No, no, the one you actually use. When Fel Fireholt’s running.”

Nik blinked. “It’s not this?”

“Not at all,” Southing seconded Justin’s opinion.

“Then…I don’t know,” Nik said. “Trot in a circle, Anthser? Let’s see what feels right when we’re moving.” The dark greatcat obliged by padding into motion. Nik hunched over his liegecat’s neck in his standard racing position, then leaned back again just enough to draw the bow.

“That!” Justin cried. “How do you fire with any accuracy at all while doing that?”

“I just…do.” His shooting stance was raised slightly from the seat on the strength of thighs and knees, while his torso remained almost parallel to his warcat. It felt natural to him, though now that Justin called attention to it he could imagine how odd it must appear.

“That’s why Anthser can move faster through the shoot, though,” Southing observed, turning to watch them. “Less wind resistance.”

“I doubt I can duplicate it.” Justin tried on his standing warcat, and not only positioned himself awkwardly but was unable to draw his bow at that angle.

Nik and Anthser rode up alongside. “I think you need to rise in the seat more. No, from your knees, not your feet. Feli Southing, Anthser, would you pace each other? Not fast, just it’s a little more natural in motion I think.”

Nik made an effort to give Justin riding pointers for a few minutes, while the other lord laughed in amusement at his own difficulty in imitating Nik’s trick. “Now I know what to strive for,” Justin said with a smile, as the attendants returned with the score for the first section.

“Maybe not,” Nik said while the scores were read off. They both had targets they missed once, but Justin had tagged two bullseyes to Nik’s none, so the viscount’s team was even further in the lead for the first section. “Why are we giving you tips? You should be schooling us.”

“They already are, m’lord.” Anthser grinned at Southing.

She spread her whiskers and canted her ears in a greatcat laugh. “Because our advice would be things like ‘run sixty miles a day, at least fifteen of them in under two minutes each’.”

“Or ‘do a hundred chin-ups’,” Justin said. “But only every other day. Amongst an alternating regimen of thirty other exercises. You’re welcome to use my weights any time, Striker.”

“Let’s not take their advice,” Anthser said to Nik in a stage whisper, as the two greatcats bore their riders to the starting point for the next section. “I don’t mind losing that much.”

“Agreed. Though I’m not ready to admit defeat yet.” Nik settled into a racing crouch on Anthser’s back as the greatcats waited for the flag to drop. “Perhaps we can’t outrun or outshoot them, but we may yet outwit them.”

Justin grinned at him. “Just try it, boy.”

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Of Wagers (31/141)

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“So, what shall we wager on today’s race?” Justin asked as they strolled down the grand staircase to his front hall.

Nik rolled his eyes. “Nothing?”

“Where’s the thrill in that?” One of Justin’s footmen waited by the door with Justin’s riding coat. Justin slipped it on before they stepped outside, pulling his ponytail free of the collar. He took his riding helmet from the man as well and tucked it beneath one arm.    

“Shooting targets at high speed from the back of a charging greatcat is not thrill enough for you?”

“Of course not. Come, Striker, it needn’t be cash.”

Anthser and his ladycat friend, alerted by bellrope, waited in the drive for them. The two were largely ignoring the humans in favor of each other, heads close together and engaged in private conversation. Justin’s new riding cat was longer and sleeker than Anthser, a lithe powerful figure with large paws and white stripes running through grey fur. Beside her, Anthser’s dark, heavily-muscled frame looked almost fat and indolent. Bowracing was one of the few sports where Nikola was not hopelessly outclassed by Justin: Justin was a much better shot with a standing bow, but Nik was the better rider, especially on Anthser – they’d been riding together since Nik was a boy. With riding bows on catback, Nik and Justin were almost a match. But given Justin’s new riding cat and Anthser’s comment about a ‘wall full of medals’, Nikola suspected he and Anthser would be outclassed today. He ignored Justin’s remarks about a wager to retrieve the riding gear Anthser had set on the steps, and sat on the stoop to exchange shoes for boots.

Justin leaned against the railing, watching him with a smirk. “Were you raised by wildcats, Striker?”

“Shut up.” Nikola tugged on the second boot and stamped into it.

“I have a whole house full of dressing rooms, you know. And servants to help. I know that ‘lord’ on your name is a courtesy title, but I could’ve sworn your parents were peers too…”

“Shut up, Comfrey.” Nik threw on his coat and strapped the riding helmet over long blond hair.

The greatcats broke off their conversation as the two men approached them. “Heyo, Lord Nik, this’s Feli Callista of Southing,” Anthser said. “Callie, this’s Nikola Striker, m’lord of Fireholt.”

Justin quirked an eyebrow at the introduction, while Nikola gave the gray-and-white cat a cordial nod. “Feli Southing.”

She bowed to him. “My honor, Lord Fireholt.”

“Lord Nikola,” Anthser corrected quickly. She lowered her ears, embarrassed, while Nikola waved the error off. The two greatcats lay down so that the humans could mount.

Feli Southing asked Anthser in an undertone, “So…why is the Viscount of Comfrey called Lord Comfrey, but the Lord of Fireholt isn’t called Lord Fireholt?”

Anthser shrugged. “No idea. Human thing.”

On his back, Nikola laughed. “It’s stupidly complex. I can explain if you truly wish to know.”

The white-striped greatcat flatted her whiskers, apologetic, but Anthser said, “Sure, I’m curious.”

“The land holding of Comfrey Viscountcy is an early entailment – right, Comfrey?” Nikola began, glancing to Justin, who nodded. “Meaning it was established not long after the founding of Newlant – first century or second?”

“First,” Justin said. “Technically. In 98.”

“Right. All original Newlant entailments follow the family line; they may be left to either the oldest son, or the nearest Blessed relation. All Newlant peers at that time took their surnames from their holding, so whomever inherited Comfrey Viscountcy would take Comfrey as his or her surname. So the viscount or viscountess of Comfrey has always been Lord or Lady Comfrey,” Nikola continued.

“But Fireholt is one of the Blessed entailments established by Newlant in the third century. It was bestowed on the first Lord of Fireholt, Galest Kirklynn, as a Gift in return for curing the princess’s clubfoot. Blessed entailments are separate from the family line; they must be left to someone with a Blessing, whether a relation or not. My great-grandmother – my mother’s father’s mother, to be exact – left it to me—”

“He was her favorite,” Justin interjected.

“—because I had a gift for minds, as she had and as had her grandfather, who raised the greatcat race from wildcats. She wanted Fireholt’s lord to be someone able to take care of its large greatcat population. A large greatcat population compared to the small size of the holding, that is. A few thousand acres.”

Feli Southing gave him a wide-eyed look as she kept pace easily beside Anthser, Justin seated straight-backed astride her. “You’re descended from Lord Iason?” She sounded impressed.

“That’s him,” Anthser supplied, puffing out his own chest as they padded along the Gracehaven streets.

“You didn’t tell me that!” she accused Anthser.

“You didn’t ask.” Anthser rolled his eyes back and tilted his head to look at Nik. “So why didn’t you take Fireholt as your surname?”

“Because it’s not a family property. That is, it happens to have stayed in my family through the last three holders, but that’s coincidence. I have no relation to Galest Kirklynn, the first Lord of Fireholt.”

“Uhhh…if you say so. Why’s your dad Lord Striker instead of Lord Anverlee, then? You can’t tell me Anverlee’s one of these Blessed-entailments because I know he’s not Blessed.”

“No, it’s not. Anverlee County was endowed on my family by the Queen of Havenset—”

“Wait, what? Havenset has a queen?”

“It used to. This was before Havenset was annexed by Newlant. Surnames in Havenset have always been patrilineal rather than taken from the names of holdings. So he is the Count of Anverlee, but our family name is Striker and so he’s Lord Striker. Havensetter peers never adopted the Newlant practice on that. Even the Newlanter family that took possession of Anverlee County for a time after the annexation never renamed themselves Anverlee. And eventually the county was restored to my family.”

Anthser crossed his eyes. “So you’re Lord Nik and not Lord Striker because…?”

“I appear to be ‘Lord Nik’ because ‘Nikola’ is too many syllables for you,” Nikola said, teasing. Anthser splayed his ears. “Since Fireholt is not a hereditary title it doesn’t extend to my personal name – I am the Lord of Fireholt, and I am Nikola Striker, but those are separate roles, so to speak.”

“But… ‘Lord Nikola’?” Feli Southing looked bewildered.

That is my courtesy title as my father’s heir. The holder of a family entailment is ‘Lord Surname’ and his heir has the courtesy title of ‘Lord Givenname’.”

“‘Courtesy title’?”

“Extended as a courtesy, because the heir doesn’t have a holding or an actual title.”

“You forgot the courtesy title from your Blessing,” Justin said.

Nik rubbed his face with one hand. “Right. Anyone who has a Blessing for healing, either mind or body, gets a courtesy title too. So I’d be Lord Nikola for that, even if my father disinherited me.”

“So why the deal over Lord of Fireholt not attaching to your name, if you’d get a title anyway?” Anthser asked.

“A courtesy title. Because courtesy titles for the Blessed were granted in the sixth century and Fireholt dates three centuries before that,” Nik said. “I told you it was complicated.”

“And Fireholt could be left to someone with a Blessing for stone or plants,” Justin added. “So it wouldn’t necessarily go to someone with a courtesy title.”

Feli Southing shook her head. “You people are crazy.” The two men laughed.

“Told you. Human thing,” Anthser said.

“In my professional capacity, I must inform you that we are not, in fact, insane,” Nik answered the gray-and-white feline, with all the authority he could muster. Then ruined it by adding, “But on a personal note, it’s hard to argue the point.”

Justin chuckled. “It’s not our fault. We were born to these laws. And if you’re done with the history lesson, Striker, there’s the question of this wager to settle.”

“Are we betting on the race?” Feli Southing’s grey ears pricked in interest.

“Striker and I are.”

“No we aren’t.” Nik said.

“But not money. Something else, then. Loser has to ask Lady Dalsterly to the Ascension Court Ball? Do you have a companion for the event already?”

“Lady Dalsterly already has an escort for the ball – her cousin is taking her – and that’d be more prize than price, Comfrey. I wish I could invite Lady Dalsterly. My parents wanted me to ask Miss Vasilver, before they decided they hated her. I’m not sure now. So you haven’t asked Miss Dalsterly yet?”

“I am not asking Miss Dalsterly.” Justin grimaced. “Miss Rubane, perhaps. All right…winner gets to determine the stakes for the next three matches?”

“No,” Nikola said. “You’re not bullying me into this, Comfrey.”

“Do you want to wager on the outcome?” Feli Southing asked Anthser.

“Sure!” the black greatcat agreed readily. “Go for nip afterwards, loser pays?”

“Oh…I don’t take catnip. Training, you know. Loser grooms winner?”

Anthser’s whiskers spread and his ears canted in pleasure. “Agreed,” he purred.

Nik could feel Justin’s gaze on him, the laughing smile in those dark brown eyes. He kept his eyes forward, afraid of the chain of thoughts that would follow if he dared glance at the man. “Am I the only one who doesn’t think games require a bet?”

“Yes,” Feli Southing and Justin said, almost at the same time.

Anthser tipped his head back. “Sorry, m’lord.”

“I could cover your half of the wager again,” Justin offered. “Give you two hundred marks and then you could give it back if I win, or I give you another two hundred if you do.”

“So you win nothing or lose four hundred?” Feli Southing wrinkled her nose. “Why would you do that?” Justin ignored her.

“No,” Nik said.

“Why would you turn that down?” Feli Southing asked. Nik ignored her too.

Anthser murmured in an aside to her, “Human thing.”

“Hmph. You weren’t this obstinate the other night,” Justin told Nikola.

Nik gritted his teeth. “I didn’t want to make a fuss in front of your guests. I am perfectly willing to raise however much fuss is required in front of you, Comfrey.”

“Oho! That sounds like a challenge. How much fuss would that be, do you think?” Justin watched him sidelong from beneath dark eyebrows, a slight smile on narrow lips.

Nikola lifted his chin, eyes on the overcast sky. Justin would never be serious: everything was a subject of fun for him. That made him good company most of the time – Nik quietly loved Justin’s easy unworried manner – but it also meant he didn’t know when to stop. “Nice day, isn’t it? For this time of year. A trifle cold perhaps, but good riding weather.”

“Or running weather,” Anthser said, stretching his legs and flexing his paws with his next stride.

“I prefer days like this for a workout,” Feli Southing contributed. “On sunny warm days you get overheated.”

“How’s this,” Justin went on, undeterred by Nik’s latest diversionary effort. “Loser owes the winner a favor. Any minor service, and before your legalistic mind goes anywhere with that, Lord Nikola, I’ll stipulate that the loser may veto any request he deems inappropriate. That cannot be too much for your sensibilities, can it?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to be as annoying about taking ‘no’ for an answer in attempting to collect on this favor as you are being right now about this wager business?”

Justin laughed. “Upon my honor, I’ll not press it. Assuming I win.”    

With a sigh, Nikola yielded. “Very well.” The sunny smile Justin gave him in reward melted Nik’s heart, making it impossible to resent Justin for carrying the point.

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Not Private Enough (30/141)

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Justin led him up the sweeping mahogany staircase in the entranceway and along the second-floor hall to the master suite’s dressing room. It was a large chamber for the purpose, with one wall lined by clothing racks. A dresser stood against another wall, alongside a tri-fold mirror, while a settee occupied the third wall. “Take off your shirt,” Justin ordered, flicking through the hangers.

Nik complied, peeling off gloves before looking down to untie his neckcloth. He was keenly aware of Justin’s presence in lieu of the usual valet, and the lack of any other observer. Nik’s fingers trembled slightly as he unfastened the buttons of the shirt. Justin had a spare shirt draped over his shoulder, held by two fingers; Nik could almost feel the heat of his dark-eyed gaze.

Justin closed the distance between them with a few strides. “Need a hand, Striker?” Then those strong hands were on Nik, pushing the shirt off pale shoulders, sleeves tangling around forearms as Nik hadn’t yet undone all the buttons. Justin leaned close to nuzzle at the fading bruises on Nik’s neck.

Nik swallowed. “Don’t, Justin,” he murmured, shivering with desire as tan hands caressed his biceps. “The greatcats. They’ll smell you on me.”

“Of course they will.” The stronger man shifted his weight to pin Nik against the wall, kissing the bruises, pressing the hard length of his body against Nik’s. “You’ll be wearing my shirt.”

Nik closed his eyes against the response of his body, the wave of need driven to an almost painful pleasure as Justin’s hand slipped into his breeches to stroke the erection beneath. He gasped with longing, hips thrusting of their own accord into Justin’s fingers. Nik squirmed an arm free of the shirt to caress his lover’s chest, then froze. “Won’t explain—” Nik lost the power of speech for a moment as deft fingers wrapped about his cock and stroked, evoking a stifled whimper. After drawing in a ragged breath, he struggled to get out, “my scent on you.” Justin closed his mouth on the side of Nik’s throat, and Nik stiffened, wanting nothing more than to lose himself to the sensation and terrified to do so.

A moment later, Justin released him and withdrew two paces. Nik reached for him reflexively, fingers clenching on air as Nik forced himself not to pursue. Curse it, I asked him to stop. I’ve no right to complain that he did. But he felt cold and bereft without Justin’s warm weight against him. “Of course.” Justin said, his own breathing not quite steady. “Of course.” He tossed the riding shirt to Nik and turned his back, straightening his cuffs. Nik drew the borrowed shirt on; it was too big across the chest and shoulders, the sleeves a trifle short, but it didn’t signify.

Justin’s composure was restored before they stepped into the hall; Nik wished he could say the same for his own. Six years. Why is it still so hard to get him out of my thoughts? Damn law and propriety and greatcat noses anyway. I should’ve picked something else. Hunting. Cards. Even billiards. Anything where we could be alone.

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Miss Too Honest (29/141)

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One of Comfrey’s footmen showed Nik to the private dining room, where Justin set aside a copy of the Times Commerce and welcomed Nik with his usual warm smile and a handshake, making no mention of the delay. He did quirk an eyebrow at Nik’s morning-call attire: formal jacket, neckcloth, lace cuffs, breeches, hose and buckled shoes. Justin was already dressed for riding, in gleaming mahogany knee boots, snug cream jodhpurs and a vest over a plain high-collared shirt, black hair in a simple ponytail.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Comfrey,” Nik apologized anyway, taking a seat at Justin’s cue. The dining table had been collapsed to its smallest state – still large enough for six – and set for two. “I called on Miss Vasilver earlier and did not realize the lateness of the hour.”

“Vasilver? Wait, that girl your parents wanted-up-until-they-didn’t-want you to marry?” Justin motioned to the butler to bring the soup course.

“That’s the one. Have you met her?”

Justin thought for a moment. “I don’t believe so. I know her…father and brother, I believe. From Association events.”

“Pity, you’d like her.”

“What, Miss Too Honest? Me?” Justin raised his dark eyebrows.   

Nik smirked. “Perhaps not. But she wouldn’t be bored or perplexed by your business dinners. Brilliant woman.”

“Worse and worse!” Justin shook his head. “How would I impress her with my lordly superiority if I could not depend on patronizing explanations of commerce? I’d be reduced to relying on my title. You know how I despise doing that, Striker.”

“Isn’t that why you maintain your lordly physique?”

Justin grinned. “Have you looked at our peers? There’s nothing lordly about my physique. I’d need to maintain a regimen of strict rest and constant consumption to achieve that.” He leaned back and slouched, puffing out his cheeks and stomach in an effort to look fat. Even that attempt could not disguise the breadth of his muscular shoulders and chest.

Nikola laughed. “That would leave some kind of impression, no doubt.”

“It always has on me.” Justin returned to his normal straight-backed posture as a footman placed bowls of lobster bisque before each lord. “Alas, I am far too fond of sport to give myself over to my appropriate place of huffing and wheezing after a quarter-hour’s walk.” He waved his spoon dismissively and added, “One of my many failings,” before tucking in to the soup.

They ate for some minutes in silence, Nik reflecting on his conversation with Miss Vasilver. Strange that he could not remember seeing her smile, even after hours of talking. Every witticism she delivered was with an expression so deadpan one could only gauge her intent by context. She never laughed at his banter, and yet he had the clear sense that she’d been amused nonetheless. She did banter in return, after all.

“Striker?” Justin said, and Nik realized with a guilty start the other man was repeating himself.

“Yes, excuse me?”

Justin gestured with his spoon to the Nik’s forgotten and cooling soup. “Don’t care for the bisque? Mrs. Alsberry will be devastated.” Justin’s own bowl was empty. “Or I could eat it for you and spare her feelings. I liked it.”

“No, it’s good, sorry.” Nik set to consuming the rest, while Justin sent the footman to fetch himself another bowl.

Justin waited a few moments, then asked, “So, is the engagement back on, then?”

“What? No! No, of course not. Not there ever was an engagement.” Nik shook his head with enough vehemence that he had to rescue his wavy ponytail before it fell into the soup. “In fact, we’ve an explicit understanding that there will be no such understanding.”

His companion raised dark eyebrows. “You reached an understanding with a girl to not marry her. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an anti-marriage proposal before. Er – don’t tell me you offered to make her your mistress?”

Nik choked on a mouthful of soup, spitting it back into the bowl and grabbing his napkin. Round blue eyes glared at Justin until he’d recovered himself enough to say, “No! Why would you even – Savior! With Vasilver’s daughter? Honestly, Comfrey. Besides, it’d be like hiring a first-rate inventor to pull your coach. Highly inappropriate and unsatisfying for all involved.”

Justin laughed. “I wonder if that’s why her family keeps her under wraps – embarrassment?”

Nik pushed his bowl aside. “They don’t,” he said shortly, regretting raising the topic. “I’ve seen her about town before. And she did mention travelling a great deal.”

“As you say.” Justin’s amused smile lingered. “So how did you come to make an anti-marriage proposal to this girl?” The footman returned with the next course, roast stuffed partridges, and cleared the dishes from the last at his lord’s wave.

“Ah. Well – since she’d said she prefered people to be straightforward, I thought I’d just tell her I wasn’t interested in marriage. The quickest way to make sure I wouldn’t mislead her on that count.” Nik cut into the partridge. “You know, as opposed to you and Miss Dalsterly.”

“I did not mislead Miss Dalsterly! I invited her to one supper.” Justin shot Nik an aggrieved look. “And only because I needed her to make the numbers, plus I could not invite Lady Dalsterly without her.”

Nik smirked. “And did you tell her that?”

“Saints no. Are you mad?” Justin took a bite of his fowl, then asked, “Wouldn’t the quickest way to show this girl you don’t want to marry her be to not call on her? Why’d you go?”

“Well…I like her.”

Justin raised a dark eyebrow. “But not enough to marry her?”

“Is that so hard to believe? I like you, and—” Nik regretted the words as soon as they were out, but there was no way to stop now “—I’m not going to marry you.”

“I am a man. You may have noticed. At some point. This might have influenced your calculations in that respect,” Justin said, with a great dignity spoiled by his lurking smirk.

Nik hurried on. “Anyway, my parents were perfect beasts to her, and I didn’t want her to think they represented my own feelings.”

“Which would be…?”

“Disinterested admiration for her intelligence.” Nik sipped his wine, eyes daring Justin to question his motives further.

“And how was your anti-proposal received? Was it the joyous occasion one imagines of the converse?”

Nik made a face at him. “With perfect composure. I suspect she was as relieved as I, under it all.”

“Do you.” Justin put his elbow on the table in defiance of good manners and rested his chin on one tan fist.

“I’d make a terrible husband. I spend half my time with impoverished petitioners and the other half gadding about town. What could she see in me?”

The dark-haired lord gave Nik a long, measuring look as Nik dissected his meal. “Can’t imagine,” Justin drawled at last. “So if this anti-marriage proposal was quick, what did delay you?”

“Oh – business, mainly.”

Justin blinked at him. “You always complain when I talk business.”

Nik had the grace to look apologetic. “This was different. We discussed Anverlee and Fireholt. She had a number of interesting ideas on how to get the house on a better financial footing.”

“I didn’t know you cared,” Justin said, with a slight smile. “I thought you prefered to leave all those plebeian details to other mortals.”

Nik made a face at him. “I am not devoid of all familial feeling, Comfrey.” He paused for a mouthful of meat, then added, “Just most of it.” He went on to make a good-faith effort to explain Miss Vasilver’s plans to Justin. As he did so, Justin offered the occasional request for clarification, which inevitably led to Nik correcting himself on a term or chain of events. Nik was left with the distinct impression that Justin knew better than Nik did what he was talking about.

“It seems reasonable,” Justin allowed grudgingly. “Though why is she so convinced Fireholt’s got onidian deposits anyway?”

“Oh, that’s easy. It’s been mined there before. All the pure veins were tapped out decades ago, but Vasilver’s got a new patent for a smelting process that will let them cheaply extract onidian from the remaining ore. All they need are ore deposits.”

There were tiny tarts for the final course, but Justin had ordered a small dinner in light of their plans for exercise immediately thereafter. “Shall we stop by Anverlee Manor so you may change?” Justin asked as they rose from the table.

“No, Anthser’s got most of my riding gear on him; I’ll just wear it over this.” Nik had intended to change first, but Anverlee Manor was in the opposite direction from the club’s bowracing grounds, and his unintentionally late departure from Vasilver’s had prevented him from doing so beforehand.

“Bah. I’ll lend you a tunic at least. You’ll ruin the cuffs racing in that. Not to mention look ridiculous.”

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Nearly Certain (28/141)

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Still dazed by his long conversation with Miss Vasilver, Nik traveled by cab to Justin’s manor. What a remarkable woman. He didn’t think he’d ever had such a frank discussion with anyone. She hadn’t been the least perturbed by his admission that he was not interested in marriage: quite the opposite, given her willingness to elaborate on alternative solutions to Anverlee’s financial woes. Perhaps she was relieved as well; other than a title and a bloodline, he had little to recommend himself. Probably she dreamt of a husband with a mind as keen for business as her own, someone who didn’t look at her blankly when she spoke of ‘due diligence’ and understood at once the distinction between income and revenue. Though she’d been very patient in her explanations, her cool calm voice holding no trace of condescension or contempt for his ignorance. Miss Vasilver had the most wonderfully concise and clear way of describing complex concepts, unpacking technical details into plain language even Nik could understand.

But the most amazing thing was how easy it was to talk to her about everything. He’d been afraid a few times that he’d given her offense – indeed, how could she not have been offended when he’d inadvertently impugned her virtue? – yet she remained unruffled throughout.

And it was a great relief to have the matter of courtship taken off the table so easily. Nik tried to imagine broaching that topic with any other woman: how would Miss Dalsterly, say, respond if Justin told her up front of his disinterest? The mental image that followed made him wince. Of course, no doubt it helped that Miss Vasilver barely knew Nik and her affections were far from engaged.

It was…almost a shame, in a way. The state of matrimony did not have much to recommend itself, but wedding a woman like Miss Vasilver – a practical, intelligent wife one could talk to, who would listen with calm comprehension to even the most outrageous statements – that had a certain appeal. That document of hers, with its tolerant terms on the conduct of extramarital affairs.

But even her tolerance would not, could not extend to… he squashed this entire line of thought as he stepped from the cab and ascended Comfrey Manor’s steps.


Wisteria felt as though she were made of light. After Lord Nikola took his leave, she leaned back in the parlor chair and closed her eyes to cherish the afternoon in recollection. He called on me! He wasn’t sarcastic or jesting at all! And he said he’d call again! She ought to go upstairs to dress for dinner, but she wanted to commit every moment of the last few hours to memory first. I told him I prefered honesty and he believed me. She pictured Lord Nikola’s angular face in her mind, framed by waves of tied-back golden hair, blue eyes on her, so intent when he caught her hands in his. Imagine him worried that he had offended her. Mirth bubbled inside her at the idea. Oh, but it felt so good to speak plainly and to get plain answers in return.

She shouldn’t let it lull her, she knew. No doubt she’d fall all unwitting into some new conversational death trap at some point, one Lord Nikola would not be so ready to assist her in escaping. He could not be so unlike other people as to truly sympathize with her feelings on politeness and forbidden topics. But he had been so very kind.

When Helen found Wisteria, she was still woolgathering in the parlor. The lady’s maid clucked at Wisteria’s attire and hurried her upstairs to change for dinner. “It’s only family, Helen, does it matter?” Wisteria complained as Helen shut the door on her dressing room.   

“Yes, miss. It matters to your family. They count too, you know.” The lady’s maid plucked a dress from racks well-organized by type and color.

“Of course. They count more, in point of fact. But by now they ought to know better than to judge me by what I wear.” Wisteria stood before the full-length mirror on a cherry stand in the corner by the door.

“Clothing makes the woman, miss.” Helen slipped the jacket from Wisteria’s shoulders and unfastened the rows of buttons down the back of the dress until Wisteria could step out of it. The angoraflax daysuit was exchanged for a formal dinner gown of emerald green with matched jewelry, all selected by Helen. Wisteria never chose her own attire, although she sometimes vetoed singularly uncomfortable selections.

Makes her into what? Wisteria wondered, gazing at her reflection. Helen shifted Wisteria to sit at the vanity, and the lady’s maid busied herself dressing long dark tresses. Wisteria didn’t rush the woman this time. My family won’t leave because I’ve taken too long, she thought. And if they did, it wouldn’t be all bad. Which was unkind and untrue. Almost entirely untrue. Wisteria returned to her daydreams over Lord Nikola while her attendant swept her hair into an elegant twist and secured it with a tourmaline-studded comb.

Dinner was just family for a change: her mother, father, Byron, and her two teenaged brothers, Mitchell and David, home from school on winter break. Wisteria had two other older brothers, both captains in Vasilver’s merchant fleet, and overseas at present.

Byron and their father were already deep in a discussion of trade with Heschia Dachee Company, an overseas press in Esanalee. Vasilver Trading did brisk business shipping their books: HDC had some marvelous secret technique for printing or ink or paper or binding, or perhaps all four, that enabled them to sell volumes for a quarter of what local presses charged despite comparable labor costs in the two countries. Wisteria joined as they debated the merits of continuing to import from HDC versus attempting to duplicate HDC’s processes locally. Their father favored the former and Byron the latter. Byron saw in terms of efficiencies and diversification, preferring to spread into a variety of businesses to avoid overdependence on a single economic sector, while the senior Mr. Vasilver was reluctant to jeopardize a good business relationship and source of profit, and disliked jumping feet-first into businesses Vasilver had no practical experience in running. They both had good points to make, so it was always a balancing act. Wisteria suggested partnering with HDC to create a press in Newlant, allowing Vasilver to provide local knowledge and HDC printing expertise, especially since HDC was reluctant to sell their trade secrets.

While this discussion continued, Mitchell and David fought or maybe just roughhoused at their end of the table – Wisteria could never tell the difference – as her mother ate in silence. Wisteria felt a twinge of guilt. Poor woman. Five sons, and her one daughter is even more incomprehensible to her than they are.

When they reached an impasse on HDC that could not be solved without more information, Mitchell took pity on their mother – or perhaps wanted a different sibling than David to harass – but at any event changed the subject. “So, Teeri, you had a caller this afternoon…?”

Lord Nikola’s face displaced the chart of pros and cons on involvement in the printing process that Wisteria had been building in her mind. “Oh, yes, I did.”

“Well, how’d it go?” Mitchell demanded, when she didn’t elaborate on her own. “You were talking to him for hours.”

“Oh, it was marvelous. Did you know, Father, he liked the document I gave him the other day, we were talking about it.” Wisteria turned to her father as she spoke.

“Were you now?” He gave her a too-familiar look that she had learned to recognize as something between apprehension and horror.

Wisteria abruptly recalled herself. “Yes…” She tried to sort out which parts might be safe to relate to her family. Her father had complained about its business clauses too, but less so than the rest. “Mostly about Fireholt and mining.”

“In truth? Thought Lord Nikola wasn’t much of a man for business,” Byron said.

“He seemed interested enough,” Wisteria said, now second-guessing herself. Would I have noticed if he’d been humoring me? “He lost track of time until Betsy came to say it was near dinner.”

“Teeri’s got a lo-ord,” David sing-songed from his end of the table. Mitchell snorted a laugh.

“Hush, David,” Ms. Vasilver said. Mitchell cuffed his younger brother, and David pulled a face and cuffed him back.

Wisteria was unperturbed by her squabbling younger brothers. “In any case, Lord Nikola said he would call again. I’m sure you can discuss it with him yourself – the onidian mining operations are your bailiwick, after all,” she said to Byron.

“Hmm.” Byron paused, then asked, “So, this mean the engagement is back on?”

Wisteria blinked at the idea. “Oh, no, not at all. Not that there ever was an engagement, of course. But no, nothing of the sort.”

Their mother, who’d paused in eating while this conversation waxed on, heaved a sigh and turned back to her plate.

Byron gave Wisteria a quizzical look. “So Lord Nikola called, to discuss these papers you’d put together in pursuit of a marital alliance – papers he admired – and you had a marvellous conversation, and he’s going to call again.”

“Yes.” Wisteria had no idea why her brother was summarizing her earlier statements.

“But he’s not courting you.”

“Correct. Are we making progress in clear communication, Byron? You have grasped my precise meaning.” Wisteria took a bite of her pudding.

Byron exchanged glances with their parents. “Clear, yes. Understandable, perhaps not so much.”

“Teeri’s got a lo-ord,” David sang out again.

Lacking whatever telepathic abilities were apparently required to explain the situation properly, Wisteria gave up and addressed herself to her food. Yet it had all made perfect sense to Lord Nikola, I am certain.

Nearly certain.

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Technically Not Unspeakable (27/141)

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Lord Nikola turned to face forward, offering his arm to walk beside her again. “I had not realized how heartfelt you were in your preference for truth.”

“My lord, you have no idea. Polite fiction drives me mad. Everyone else but me seems to have a mystical knack for distinguishing between simple truth and a well-intentioned lie, but I fail at it every time. I just want people to use words. Plain words. To tell me what they mean. Politeness is an endless guessing game and I lose at every single round of it.”

He smiled. “That’s quite an indictment.”

“Oh, I would use stronger language, but that would be rude,” Wisteria said, making him laugh. She continued, “Very well, I admit I don’t hate everything about polite behavior. But almost everything. All the dishonesty and the inexplicable rules about what you aren’t supposed to discuss. As if problems will disappear if they go unspoken. Does that work for other people? It never does for me.”

“I don’t think it does.” They took a few steps in silence before Lord Nikola added, “If I may continue to rudely speak of the unspeakable…”

“Please, by all means, do.”

Lord Nikola smiled again. “In that document of yours… article six or so? You wrote of child-rearing. The section on religious upbringing in particular bemused me. Did you write this entire piece with me in mind, or was it adapted from some prior effort?”

“Oh no. This was for you alone. I make a point to avoid old mistakes by making entirely new ones each time, my lord.” That won her another smile. Her heart gave a little convulsive twist. But he’s not interested in marriage. “I think too much about things. Children and what one teaches them are an essential component of marriage, so it seemed like a logical inclusion. To me.”

“It does proceed naturally from procreation,” Lord Nikola agreed. “But… I can understand differences of denomination, but ‘no religious observances’? Why would you suggest prospective children might be raised in ignorance?”

“Observance and education are not the same,” Wisteria said. “One may be taught about the various Ascension belief systems without being indoctrinated in them.”

“Do you not believe in the Savior and the Ascension?”

“I do, my lord. But the religious trappings inherent therein are my beliefs, not facts I can prove.”

“…you can’t?”

“I don’t mean the specifics of history. The archaeological evidence of the Ascension and the historical record are reasonably clear: approximately three thousand humans arrived by mysterious means in Paradise a little less than nine hundred years ago, from a world they seldom described and which historical records depict as nightmarish. They were led by a man we know as the Savior and assisted by Saints, the first known humans with Blessings, who could shape plants and stone, heal bodies and minds. These people set about populating Paradise. That much is corroborated by a variety of sources. But most Ascension teachings aren’t. I do not have evidence that, say, lords who can bring the dead back to life will be born to us when we finish perfecting Paradise, or that it’s the Savior’s presence that sanctifies marriage. Or that the Savior had angels who helped him find and gather the people of the Abandoned World before the Ascension. I can’t even prove the Code we follow is his, because the first written version of it is over a hundred years after his Passage. Oh, and I can’t prove he Passed back to the Abandoned World to save others, because that’s just as much a mystery as his arrival. And if he did Pass back, it’s even more an article of faith that part of him remains here and watches over us.”

Lord Nikola cleared his throat as she finished, and Wisteria glanced at him, her head tilted. After a moment, he said, “Miss Vasilver. I channel the Savior’s power every day to heal the ill. How much more proof do you require?”

“But that doesn’t prove anything about the Savior, does it? It proves that you may touch people and heal them, but it doesn’t prove what process does the healing. That is – if a little child cuts his finger, his skin will heal in time. And it will heal whether or not he knows about the cells of a human body or the way they may replicate and knit together anew. Being capable and having full understanding of what that capability entails are two different things.”

“Are you saying I don’t know how my own ability works?”

For the first time, it occurred to Wisteria that Lord Nikola’s questions might originate from outrage rather than a simple desire to understand her reasoning. Was he upset? How would I know? He hadn’t stormed off yet. And this visit had been going so well. She tried to think of some way to salvage this. “I – my lord, I mean no disrespect, and surely you understand what you do far better than I. It’s just – in my travels, I met a number of men and women from foreign nations who bore what we call Blessings. Yet they did not all share our beliefs. Some thought their powers came from a place inside themselves, or from the Isuelda, a sacred pool in the mountains of Benonya, or… oh it doesn’t matter. I apologize, Lord Nikola.”

“Well, they’re mistaken,” the blond man muttered under his breath. He gazed into the distance.

“Yes, my lord.” Wisteria cringed inside.

“Miss Vasilver—” His attention snapped back to her face. “Are you agreeing with me to be polite?”

Impending doom closed upon her. “…maybe?”

Lord Nikola laughed. “Well, don’t. I’m not offended, Miss Vasilver. Startled. Not upset. That’s a very unusual line of reasoning. I will say that I have no doubt the power to heal comes from the Savior. I can feel his presence, you know. His joy and his sorrow. Quite distinct from my own.”

“Oh. What’s it like?”

“Like sunlight on my soul. Like a downpour so thick and vast you could drown in it, except he’d never let you.” He shook his head. “There are no words for it. I suppose that’s the problem. Taking my word for it means disregarding the testimony of anyone that contradicts me.”    

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, my lord. I do, I do believe in all of it. It’s what feels right to me. I think the idea of a pool of water that mystically acts through certain people to heal other people is…silly. Very silly. I am no apostate. But even so I must acknowledge that my belief is not factual. And I could be mistaken.”

“You’re not.” They’d made the full circuit of the small garden a few times now, without paying any real attention to it. “But I take your distinction. Fascinating way of looking at it.” Lord Nikola led them past the steps back to the house to continue around again. “Do you truly believe a business arrangement between Anverlee and Vasilver Trading might answer, Miss Vasilver?”

Relieved that he’d turned the conversation to less treacherous ground, Wisteria answered, “It would be trickier to structure, without my marriage portion to serve as capital, and with the entailment – marriage is the easiest way to ensure Vasilver shares in legal rights on the property involved – but I am certain it’s feasible.” Wisteria reviewed figures in her head and considered the relevant statutes.

“My father has expended some effort on the business side, and I fear it’s made matters worse.”

Wisteria hesitated. Maybe all conversation is treacherous. “With all due respect, Lord Nikola, I don’t believe modern business and investment is your father’s area of expertise. He, as I understand it, has been borrowing money to cover operating expenses without any particular strategy to increase revenue or net income.”

Lord Nikola didn’t respond to that for a few moments, and Wisteria wondered if she’d offended him this time. When he spoke at last, he said, “You know a great deal about my family’s affairs.”

She wasn’t sure what to make of that. “My parents and yours were keen on the engagement idea. Until we met, anyway. We did research. Due diligence.”

“So… what would your strategy be? For increasing revenue or net income.”

“Oh, I’d have to look over everything again, but selling mineral rights comes to mind. Or rather, arrange a long-term lease to a mining company, since one cannot sell rights on entailed property. A mine would have the added benefit of attracting people to the area. So you’d want to plough your lease receipts into housing convenient to the mine site. And storefronts, of course—” Wisteria broke off. “I’m sorry, my lord, I don’t know how many details you wished to hear.”

He smiled at her. “All of them, I think. What if the mine doesn’t work out, for whatever reason? We’ve got empty housing in the area already.”

“You can spread some of that risk to your partner, by having the lease contract spell out how many people they’ll be employing in the area and forfeits if they don’t fulfill those terms. Perhaps discounts if they do better, though you want to be sure their estimates are solid – you don’t want to incentivize them to lowball their figures—” Wisteria’s free hand fluttered as she spoke.

They took another few turns about the garden, talking until they grew hoarse, at which point Wisteria recollected herself enough to take her guest back into the house and serve him tea. Over china cups and an atlas of Newlant, they continued the discussion in, if not all the details, at least a great many of them. The conversation meandered often, digressing into side-topics on history or markets, or to personal matters like how to manage family expectations. The latter was more commiseration than collaboration: Lord Nikola didn’t appear to have much better luck getting his family to understand him than she did with her own, albeit for different reasons.

At length, Betsy arrived in the parlor to inquire diffidently, “Mistress wishes to ask, will his lordship stay for dinner?”

Which prompted Lord Nikola to check the time. “Is it so late already? I apologize, Miss Vasilver, I’d no intention of keeping you so long – no, thank you, I cannot stay to dinner, I’ve another engagement.” He took his leave with another hurried thanks-and-apology, and a promise to call again.

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