At last, Nik managed to extricate himself from their well-wishes and headed away with Anthser. “You’re covered in fur, Lord Nik,” the warcat observed. As a member of Nik’s personal retinue, he wore a livery cloak in Fireholt’s colors of black and orange under a riding seat.
“I know. Thank you.”
“My leg went to sleep.”
“They couldn’t bring her to petitions tomorrow morning?”
“Are you trying to sound like my father, or is that a side benefit?” At the base of the steelwood staircase in front of the building, Nik fished a lint brush from the pocket of his overcoat and scrubbed the top layer of loose fur from his breeches, then slipped off the overcoat to do the same to it. The result was a little unkempt on close inspection, but would not draw the eye of the casual observer.
Anthser waited without further comment until Nik shrugged back into his overcoat and gloves and started down the street. “Are you well, my lord?”
“Yes. I just want to walk some life back into my leg.”
The sleek black warcat paced Nik effortlessly. Anthser was much smaller than Jill, a little over five feet at the shoulder, and his walking stance put his head level with Nik’s shoulder. “Everything all right, then?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. How are my parents?”
Anthser paused. “Like themselves.”
“So. Father is upset because I won’t grow up and act my part, and mother is… how long has it been since I left the carriage?”
“Then mother is blaming everyone but me for my actions and planning some kind of apologetic gesture, in all likelihood for dinner tomorrow.”
The big cat shrugged. “Sounds about right.”
“I suppose I have a few days’ reprieve before they find another wealthy heiress to hurl me at. Do you have any good news, Anthser?”
“Lord Comfrey sent an invitation. Supper and billiards this evening, with his compliments and apologies for the short notice.”
At last! Nik tried to restrain his smile to a tolerable level of reserve. “Splendid. Any note with the invitation?”
“No, m’lord. His messenger is at the manor, awaiting your answer.”
“Well. Let’s not keep him waiting any longer.” Nik stopped and set a hand on the riding seat.
Anthser’s whiskers twitched in amusement as he lay down so Nik could mount. “Yes, m’lord. Would m’lord like a nice run back?”
Nik smirked. “M’lord would.” The cat twisted his head to unhook a bag from the harness beneath his cloak, and raised it to Nik’s hand. The human retrieved a riding helmet, boots, and a padded coat with reinforced elbows, exchanged them for his current outerwear, and mounted. The riding seat cradled him, legs bent and tucked close to the warcat’s flanks, and Nik leaned forward to wrap his hands around the handles in the harness at the base of Anthser’s neck. “Proceed at will, Fel Fireholt.”
Anthser surged to his feet and rocketed forward with a pounce, landing on cat-light bent legs with such smoothness that what shock was transmitted barely jarred Nik. The warcat raced up the street, weaving around carriages pulled by greatcats as well as handwagons and donkey-drawn carts. At one intersection several blocks later, a greatcat was pulling a vegetable cart across as they reached it: rather than slowing, Anthser sped up and leapt over the cart. “Crazy warcat!” the lead greatcat on a coach snarled as Anthser landed mere inches from her. Nik flashed her a grin as the warcat purred, and they flew onward.
“Maybe the streets of Gracehaven are too crowded for a nice run,” Nik said in Anthser’s ear, snug against his back as they zigged through the narrow space between two carriages.
“M’lord has the right of it, no doubt.” Anthser eyed the buildings alongside them before he darted to the gutter, and from there leaped to a second-floor balcony. A few bounds took them across the balcony, where he jumped the rail to land on the roof of the building beside it. Claws skittered against shingles as he ran to the top of the sloped roof and jumped to the flat roof of the three-story building adjacent. They bounced from rooftop to rooftop for a good mile, Anthser vaulting alleyways and narrow streets, Nik laughing aloud from the rush of adrenalin and speed. Anthser cut a sharp corner when the current rooftop ended over a four-lane boulevard, and veered to the right to continue the race.
The jump across a two-lane street from a three-story building to a four-story did not daunt him: Anthser attempted it without pause. His forelegs landed on the far roof and pulled forward, while hindquarters tucked in but did not quite reach the edge. They scrabbled at air for an instant, until his body curled over the roof’s edge and foreclaws sank into shingles, hindclaws digging for purchase on the brick wall. Nik grunted from the impact but made no other sound to distract the warcat, knees and thighs hugging Anther’s sides, hands clenched on the harness. One forepaw began to slip as the shingle it was dug into pulled loose. Anthser released that shingle and threw his paw down fast on another. The claws of one hindpaw sank into old mortar between bricks. With a roar, the warcat hauled himself and his rider onto the rooftop.
Anthser stood with sides heaving, tongue lolling, looking at the deep furrows his claws had left in multiple shingles. “Oops.” He pushed the loose one back into its empty spot and patted at it, as if that would fix it.
Nik took his bearings and made a mental note of the address. “I don’t think that ‘crazy warcat’ was meant as a challenge.” He relaxed his too-tight grip.
“Now you tell me.” Anthser panted, padding to the roof’s opposite side. He eyeballed the drop to the adjacent roof. “…am I crazy, Lord Nik?”
Nikola extracted one hand from the harness and tugged off the glove with his teeth. He burrowed his bare fingers through the overheated fur of Anthser’s neck and felt the contours of the big cat’s mind. “My professional opinion is ‘foolhardy’.”
“Good to know.” Anthser twisted his head to rub his muzzle against Nik’s fingers.
“Walking the rest of the way would be fine, though.”
“Very good, m’lord.” Anthser jumped down to the next roof, and from there to a balcony and finally the ground. Nik sat upright like the lord he was supposed to be, instead of hunched tight against his warcat, and they padded decorously the last few blocks to Anverlee Town Manor.