A Question of Debt (41/141)

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Justin resumed his story. “As I was saying, myself and my landbound mount did our best to follow in their wake, getting smacked in the face by branches that they soared over, picking our way along the narrow ledges of cliffs that they flew up, and falling further and further behind. At length, Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt reached a cliff – a gigantic, sheer cliff – so high that Fel Fireholt said to Lord Nikola, ‘I don’t think my wings can carry us up this one. We’ll have to run the path like mere mortals.’ And Lord Nikola said, ‘That’s fine, they must be a mile behind us by now, take your time.’ So they moseyed up to the top, had a little nap by the target, stuck some arrows in it, and glided down to the bottom.”

Flushing, Nik covered his face with his hands. “Lord Comfrey. Please.”

Justin ignored him. “While they flew down, Feli Southing and I at last reached the cliff base. Evidence the second: I tell Feli Southing, ‘Don’t take the path on this cliff! This is our chance to finally gain some ground on them.’

“She replies: ‘…how?’

“‘Go straight up! The way Fel Fireholt does! Only, you know, without the wings. You can jump from rock to bush and to trail,’ I tell her, and I gesture to a series of points along the cliff face that a madman might conclude could be used as footholds.

“Feli Southing, demonstrating her comparative sanity, says, ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’

“Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?’

“‘We could fall off and die.’

“‘Don’t be ridiculous! Neither of us has ever died before, no reason to think we’d start now.’” Justin waited for the ensuing laughter to quiet before continuing, “Convinced by this illogic or perhaps by my threats regarding her continued employment, Feli Southing made the attempt, leaping vertically from one toehold to the next, sinking her claws into solid rock to scale the cliff.

“At the foot, Lord Nikola told his mount, ‘That looks exceptionally brave and/or stupid. We’d better wait here for when they fall off.’ So they waited and watched as we neared the top, until only an overhang stood between us and the summit. Feli Southing lunged for it, grabbed the underside, fell, caught herself on a tree which started to crack under her weight—” By now, the rest of the table had fallen silent to listen to Justin’s yarn. Nik closed his eyes against the memory of the next few moments, amazed that Justin could speak so easily of it. “—Feli Southing shoved off again, tree tumbling down the cliff with the force of the launch, seized the outcrop with all eighteen claws, and clambered upside down until she’s over it and safe at the top!”

“Oh, thank goodness,” the Lady Striker said from the other side of the table, holding one hand to her ample bosom.

“She actually made it?” Daphne asked.

“She did indeed!” Justin punctuated this statement with a triumphant upraised fist. “Unfortunately, I did not. Not being even a tenth part sphynx, I fell from the seat and plummeted towards the ground hundreds of feet below.” A collective gasp rose from the assembly. “Fortunately, Fel Fireholt and my good friend Lord Nikola, anticipating this contingency, were already flying to my rescue. They intercepted me halfway down, where Lord Nikola plucked me from the air like an eagle saving an exceptionally clumsy chick. An exceptionally heavy, unwieldy chick, who would have pulled a mortal man from the seat and sent both of us to our deaths, whereas Lord Nikola remained part of the chimerical beast he and Fel Fireholt comprised. All three of us touched down at the cliff base again, quite unharmed.”

“Nik! You never told us any of this,” Daphne said.

Nik had a hand over his eyes, so he couldn’t see her expression or anyone else’s. “Lord Comfrey exaggerates. Wildly,” he said in strangled tones.

“Bah! I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Feli Southing caught up to us at the base, and as evidence the third that I am not in my right mind, I had concluded that – since falling from an upside-down greatcat, after commanding her to the action, cannot possibly be my fault – it must be an attempted assassination! I launched into a scathing tirade against my hapless employee, demanding to know the identity of my enemy, threatening her livelihood, and generally posturing like an insufferable pompous buffoon.”

Miss Rubane laughed. “Oh, you never did,” she said, disbelieving.

“He was nothing like that bad,” Nik objected, with more loyalty than accuracy.

“No, not at all, I was much worse.” Justin’s expression sobered for a moment, before lightening again as he continued, “As I frothed at the mouth through this baseless diatribe, Feli Southing gave Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt this look as if to say ‘So, did he hit his head on the way down after all?’ And Fel Fireholt said to Lord Nikola, ‘I’ve changed my mind about this rescuing thing, I’ll just carry him back up there and drop him off again shall I?’ For reasons unclear to me, Lord Nikola did not support this plan. Feli Southing sensibly quit my service and departed, and Fel Fireholt followed to console her while Lord Nikola patiently attempted to explain to me that my reaction may have been something less than completely reasonable.

“‘Am I crazy?’ I asked him, when at last I was persuaded of my folly. ‘Is that my problem?’” As Justin spoke, Nik had to bite his tongue to keep himself from making another angry outburst. You did no such thing! “And on reflection, had he been a true friend, he would have said ‘Absolutely! You were possessed of a demon, which I will now remove thus and nothing that just happened is your fault.’ But no, he maintained that I am sane and, accordingly, to blame for being an utter cretin.” Justin is joking, Nik told himself, feeling his face flush, furious and mortified, knowing he was taking this too seriously. Everyone else knows he’s joking. No one is taking him at his word. But his memory flashed back to that argument, to noticing the intertwined shapes of fear and anger in Justin’s mind. Was there something wrong in that? Should I have said something?

Justin was continuing the tale, oblivious to Nik’s internal reaction. “I had no recourse but to throw myself off the cliff again. Or apologize. After considerable internal debate, I was forced to conclude that getting back up the cliff under my own power would be too hard and I humbled myself before Feli Southing in apology instead. So, in answer to your original question, Mrs. Adonse: I lost the race, my dignity, my temper, and my pride – nothing of any great value, I promise – but do you know the worst of it?”

Daphne shook her head, eyes bright with mirth.

“I never did offer either Fel Fireholt or Lord Nikola proper thanks for saving my life. I believe I must repay them – how does that part of the Code go? ‘A gift for a gift’? ‘Half my kingdom’ is the usual rate for princesses, isn’t it? I cannot split an entailed viscountcy, but for a mere viscount perhaps half my unimpaired wealth might suffice?”

Nik found his voice before anyone else in the ensuing silence, the listeners uncertain whether to laugh at a jest or be shocked by Justin’s earnestness. It was a struggle to keep his voice level, to sound reasonable and not irrational, angry, offended, embarrassed. “First, nine-tenths of that was pure embroidery and the danger was by no means as great as you make it sound. Second, that part of the Code applies to Blessings, Lord Comfrey, which were not involved here. You owe me nothing.” And even if he had, the amount he’d suggested was beyond absurd – some grateful and wealthy petitioners might present an outsized gift, but no one outside of a children’s story had ever given up half their wealth in trade.

“I must disagree, my lord.” Justin smiled, his tone still light, but there was a hardness in his eyes as he met Nik’s. “Perhaps I value my life more highly than you.”

Given the evidence of your actions, I very much doubt that, Justin. “Your continued friendship is worth more to me than any sum you could name,” Nik said, with a quiet but honest conviction. “It is all the thanks I desire or require. To your health, Lord Comfrey.” He raised his glass and the rest of the table joined him in the toast, putting an end to the topic.

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