The Strikers’ townhome in Gracehaven was a centuries-old edifice. It had been entailed on Nik’s family line ever since Newlant had restored titles and property to the disenfranchised Havenset nobility in the year 576. It had been something of a legal curiosity at that time, since the Anverlee Town Manor had not been part of the Anverlee County entailment when Newlant took Anverleee from Havenset hands and gave it to a Newlanter in the year 484. But since the Newlanter Count of Anverlee had added it to the entailment when he built it, the courts had ruled it part of the estate when it was returned to the Havenset line.
In the four centuries since its original construction, the property had accrued additions, new façades, modernizations, and the occasional subtraction. It had four stories and well over ten thousand square feet of floor space, including a petitioner’s hall, a ballroom, a great dining room, a private dining room, two kitchens, four parlors, a library, two studies, a gaming room, a schoolroom, nursery, eight private suites, seven guest bedrooms, servants’ quarters on the fourth floor, as well as a detached temple and greatcat quarters in the “new” (as of the eighth century) felishome on the grounds behind. Its two acres of surrounding grounds included stands of apple and pear trees, flower beds, and honeybee hives. The property was ringed by a seven foot stone wall that Anthser jumped rather than bothering to open the wrought iron gate.
Between the town manor and the even larger county seat, Anverlee was sliding into bankruptcy.
Newlant’s entailment laws meant that the properties could be neither sold nor mortgaged. They required a small army of servants to maintain in style: one could not have honeybee hives without a beekeeper, or an orchard without groundsmen. Lord Striker insisted on keeping up appearances, and Lady Striker refused to let faithful retainers – some of whose families had served Anverlee for generations – be sent away. Half the rooms were kept locked, their furnishings already stripped and sold for cash. His father had assigned the rents from the county tenants as security on a half-dozen different loans. How that income was to repay loans when it had been insufficient to pay the original expenses, Nikola had no notion. His father could seldom be induced to discuss Anverlee’s finances; Nik had only learned of the rent-secured loans because the last institution Lord Striker tried to borrow from had insisted on the heir’s signature as guarantor. Nik suspected that the full picture of Anverlee’s situation was worse yet; his father’s assurances to the contrary had an unconvincing lack of details, and the rush to find him a rich bride suggested a certain desperation.
Fireholt, Nik’s personal holding, despite or perhaps because of its far more modest dimensions, was in better condition financially. Nik had little more talent for managing money than his parents, but he was better at not spending it. He didn’t care if he wore the same suit twice in one season, or twice in one week for that matter, and he didn’t care for expensive baubles and adornments either. He did not host large house parties, not because he didn’t like them but because he refused to borrow money for the purpose of entertaining. He did maintain the same staff he had inherited from his great-grandmother with the property, but she had not kept a large retinue. The rents from his tenants were thus sufficient to his needs, if not ample. In truth, Anverlee’s problems were the creation of Lord and Lady Striker, and not Nikola’s either to make or resolve. It was perfectly reasonable to behave that way.
All it required was for Nik to be indifferent to the fate of his parents, and the homes he’d grown up in, and the people who had spent their lives in service to Anverlee.
The problem, Nik reflected, as he snuck in through a side entrance, is not that I have no choice. It’s that I have no good choice. On the way to his suite, he stopped a passing footman. “William, would you please find Lord Comfrey’s messenger and bid him tell Lord Comfrey I’ll be very happy to join him tonight? And let my lord and lady know I will be out this evening.” The footman bowed acquiescence. “Also, if you see Jill, please tell her I’d like to speak with her. At her leisure.”
After dressing for supper, Nikola retreated to the unfurnished back parlor on the second floor, where he curled up in the window seat after dusting it off with a handkerchief. He hoped to avoid another confrontation with his parents by not being where anyone would look for him, and reasoned Jill probably wouldn’t try to find him tonight. He’d brought a book, but he didn’t open it: he gazed out the window instead. It faced onto a slope of the backyard, and what view it had once possessed was cut off by the wall around the grounds and the blocky backside of the neighboring manor – the unfortunate view was one of the reasons this parlor had been consigned to disuse. Three greatkittens and two human children – all offspring of Anverlee’s servants – played together despite the additional gloom twilight gave to an already dreary day. Nik watched them tumble down the slope, shrieking with laughter, then race to the top to do it again.
The creak of the door opening caught Nik’s attention, and he turned to see Jill’s big head poke in. “Hey-o, Lord Nik.” The manor predated greatcats by two hundred years, but it had been built on so generous a scale that even Jill didn’t need to duck or squirm to get through doors. She did fill the frame, though.
“Hello, Jill. Please, come in and shut the door.”
She did so, pawing the door closed with a hindleg. “Hiding?”
“Yes. Badly, I gather, but I wasn’t hiding from you in any case.”
“Awww.” She drooped ears and whiskers in a mock-pout. “Here I had my hopes all up. You haven’t wanted me to play hide-and-seek in years.”
A smile flashed over his face. “You always did win.”
Jill padded halfway across the dusty floor before lying down, long blue-gray form comfortably stretched out on the hardwood. “So what’s ruffling your fur today?” she asked. “Girl didn’t take to you?”
Nik barked a laugh. “I have not the least idea, though I’d guess not. Hardly matters: my parents did an about-face and decided they detested her.”
“Mrrph.” Jill rubbed the side of her head against the floorboards, smearing dust on her cheek. “They could’ve figured that out earlier and saved us some trouble.”
Nik shrugged and changed the subject. “Actually, I wanted to ask a favor – I need a message run to 3915 Dale Court. I, er, damaged the building’s roof earlier today and I’d like to compensate the owners for it.”
Jill’s eyebrow whiskers lifted. “What did you do to the roof?”
“Nothing serious. A few shingles need replacing. I’d send Anthser, but I suspect he’d feel guilty—”
“Why would Anthser feel guilty?”
Nik went on without answering the interruption. “—or a footman, but Father rebuked me for asking you to convey a request to one of my people. And I’d rather it didn’t get back to my parents. So I could ask Shelby, but I hate to ask him to walk so far and if he’s going to ride I might as well have a greatcat take the message. Also, I’d prefer the family name was not connected to the incident. Which is why I can’t do it myself either.” He paused. “I’m over-thinking this, aren’t I?”
“You’re human,” Jill said, dismissively. “Why would Anthser feel guilty?”
Nik tugged his ponytail over one shoulder. “Well. He was…involved. But on my orders. My responsibility.”
Jill’s whiskers flared, amused. She licked one broad paw. “How do you know I won’t tell your father? I work for him.”
“Yes… but you’re my friend.”
She rumbled with a purring laugh, rubbing her paw over her face and licking it again as she washed the dust streaks off. “Sure. I’ll take care of it for you. Out of livery. You want to give me money for it now or bring back a bill to settle?”
He produced a wallet from the inner pocket of his jacket. “Now is simpler.” Jill pawed open the magnetic clasp on one of her harness pouches and rose to accept the money. Nik counted out a handful of large bills. “This should cover the damage, and this is for your trouble.”
“Mrrr-hmm.” She swung her big head down to meet his eyes. “You don’t have to bribe me to be your friend, kid.”
“Yes, and you don’t have to run my errands to be mine.”
“Fair ’nuf.” Jill patted his leg with one broad paw. “Going to see Lord Comfrey tonight?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
“Good. You have fun now. Try not to wreck any buildings on the way over.”
“I’ll try. Good evening, Jill.”
The greatcat nosed at his head affectionately, and padded out.
Nik glanced into his nearly-empty wallet with a sigh before tucking it away and looking out the window again. It was full dark now, and the children had all gone inside. He checked his pocket watch, and decided it was close enough to the time of the invitation that he could leave now and be unfashionably early.