“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’.”
“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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