Late on Thursday morning, Anthser interrupted Nik between reevaluations. The black greatcat stepped into Nik’s office as the young lord showed out the latest petitioner. Instead of bringing the next, Anthser had an adolescent greatcat courier beside him. “…message for you, m’lord.”
Nikola frowned at Anthser; the big feline had a glazed, stupefied expression. “Is something amiss, Anthser?” One man kept bringing back his unresponsive and sadly untreatable mother – the staff now turned him away before he got inside, but it still caused a scene. Nik hoped it wasn’t something like that again.
“I…uh…you tell me.” Anthser nudged the liveried courier forward.
The messenger pawed open a pouch and produced a packet and a courier’s receipt. “There’s a document inside for you to sign, if you would, m’lord. I’m to wait for it.”
Still frowning, Nik turned the packet over. It bore the seal of Michaelson’s Bank and Trust – not an institution Nik utilized. He broke the seal and opened the packet. Inside was a bank ledger in an embossed leather case with Fireholt’s seal on the front, a contractual document and its duplicate, awaiting signature and seal, and a sealed envelope marked “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt”, in Justin’s casual, bold hand. With the weight of dread in his stomach, Nik sat in one of the office’s comfortable chairs. The contract was boilerplate, granting him possession of an account held in trust at the bank, his signature and seal meant to identify him for future transactions. It described the safeguards on the funds with a level of detail he couldn’t process; he got a vague sense that the trust was secured by several different institutions but accessed only through Michaelson. Nik opened the bank ledger. It had a detailed breakdown of the account in neat figures, which totaled an obscenely large sum. A sum large enough to pay the expenses of Nikola’s entire household for the next hundred years. It was more money than he’d seen in one place, ever. He knew that Justin was wealthy, but this – this – what kind of Paradise did they live in, where one man could have so much that he could give it away like this?
Over six years ago, due to a series of misunderstandings almost comic in retrospect, Justin had sent Nik a gift of cash – a humiliating gift that Nik had returned in fury at the presumption behind it, the idea that he had been bought. Justin had called it a ‘token’ then, and Nik had been shocked that anyone could refer to five thousand marks – more than Shelby’s salary for a year – as if it were a trifle. Looking at this ledger now, Nikola finally understood just how insignificant five thousand marks was to the Viscount of Comfrey.
Anthser had laid down at Nikola’s feet, great black head against his forepaws. The young courier-cat was sitting on her haunches, waiting politely. Nik drew an unsteady breath and closed the ledger. He moved to the desk to sign the receipt and then the account, setting his seal at the bottom before sealing the whole closed. He returned the document to the courier and let her leave before he opened Justin’s note.
My life is worth a great deal more to me than this, you know; I feel quite the miser for offering so little. I trust you will forgive me.
Michaelson’s is famed for their confidentiality. Only two people there know the origin of the funds for your account or Anthser’s; news will not spread from that quarter, nor from me. Whatever you would have known, or not known, I leave entirely to your discretion, my most excellent friend.
Thank you again for saving me. And for allowing me to repay you in some fashion for that priceless gift.
Your devoted servant,
Nik touched his fingers to the paper, an impossible mixture of emotions flooding him. Anthser’s name caught his eye, and he looked down to the greatcat sprawled on the floor.
Anthser had raised his head to look back at him. “So,” Anthser said, then stopped. He tilted his head to one side and tried again. “I think I just got a mountain of money from Lord Comfrey.”
Nik blinked at the greatcat. “…did you?”
“Unless it’s a joke. Or I’m dreaming. Either kinda seems more likely. When I think about it.” Anthser opened a harness pouch with one paw and pulled out a bank ledger with Anthser of Fireholt, Warcat embossed on it. “Is this real?”
Nikola took the ledger and opened it. It was identical to the one Nikola had just received, down to the same obscene total. Nik stared at it for a while, even more shocked than before. Justin – you – you – Justin. There were no words. Despite himself and all his inner turmoil, Nik realized he was smiling. You truly are making it about that rescue, aren’t you? He returned the ledger to Anthser and sat in the chair again. “It’s real.”
The greatcat pinned it to the floor before him. “Whoa. That is…whoa. I mean. Whoa. What do you do with that kind of money?”
“Whatever you want, I suppose.”
Anthser turned it upside down, as if the figure would make more sense that way. Perhaps it did. “Could I buy my own bowracing course?”
“I imagine you could, if you wished.”
“Huh. That…that’s a lot of marks.” Anthser looked up from the ledger at last. “Lord Comfrey sent a note with it. Said I should talk to you about, um, discretion. And money management.”
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Nik advised, gently.
“Does this mean I have a big vault full of bills I could go roll around in?”
“Because I want to, maybe? It’d be more real. Heh. I could hire Southing to race for me! She wouldn’t need to find another sponsor.” Anthser’s whiskers spread with pleasure.
Nikola marvelled at the greatcat’s uncomplicated delight at the funds: it did not occur to Anthser to wonder at the motives of the giver, to find obligation inherent in the gift. If he does not see it, curst if I’ll be the one to teach him. “Do I need to find myself another riding cat?” he asked, smiling.
Anthser started, and kneaded his claws against air, muzzle crinkled in thought. “Uh. I don’t know. I like being your warcat.” He sunk his chin against forelegs. “The riding part’s fun. And harassing you. I’d miss you if I didn’t have an excuse to hang about. And it’s not like anyone who doesn’t work with you gets a chance to see you for more than fifteen minutes. I could do without fending off petitioners and parents and stuff, though. Could you hire another greatcat to do all the crappy parts of my job and I’ll keep the good stuff?” His ears perked. “I mean, Lord Comfrey gave you a mountain of money just the same’s mine, right?”
“Exactly the same,” Nikola said. “And I could, if that’s what you’d like.”
Anthser opened his mouth in a feline grin. “That’d be great, Lord Nik.” The greatcat sat up and leaned forward to butt Nik’s chest with the top of his head and then slurp his face, making Nik laugh.
“Enough, enough, you great oaf.” Nik gave lie to his own words by wrapping his arms around the greatcat’s shoulders and burying his face against the thick furred neck. “On the matter of discretion…I should prefer not to be a nine-day wonder on account of Lord Comfrey’s absurd generosity. But I don’t want to ruin your joy of your new wealth, Anthser.” One of us ought to take joy in it.
“Eh, I don’t need to brag.” Anthser shrugged, then flicked an ear back. “I guess people’ll talk if I buy a bowracing course, though.”
“Don’t let that stop you. You can ask Mrs. Linden for advice on how to handle it with a minimum of gossip – but there will be gossip. It’s all right, Anthser. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary.” Nik sat back to offer the greatcat an encouraging smile. Why is it that I can believe that when I say it to Anthser, yet not of myself?
The big feline scuffed the floor with one black paw. “Heh. Guess we did, didn’t we?”
Nikola ruffled his fur. “Though what I cannot do is hire someone to do these reevaluations for me. Unfortunately. Will you see the day out with me? I’ll speak with Mrs. Linden about hiring additional staff.” Spending Justin’s money. He was ashamed of himself for thinking about it, not just replacing Anthser but enlarging his entire support crew, enough people to manage the crowds, to work shifts, to keep the paperwork straight, to ease the burden on everyone. When he’d been sixteen and Justin had sent that humiliating gift, Nik had refused to touch the money, whatever the need, until he’d finally had opportunity to return it. Part of him wanted to do the same now, but it seemed such a petulant, selfish gesture. He’d agreed to take the money; what was the sense in refusing to make use of it? All that would accomplish was to hurt those around him, with no benefit to anything but his wounded pride.
Anthser was snorting in response to his question. “’Course I will.” He nuzzled the top of Nik’s head and padded to the door, to show the next petitioner in.
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