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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