Anthser carried him to Comfrey Manor at a walk so sedate that Nik asked, “Are you worn out from the run earlier? I could ask Jill or Gunther to take me.”
The black warcat shook his head glumly. “No, m’lord.” The smooth stone streets were well-lit by gaslamps in this part of Gracehaven. Tall trees flanked the streets, steelwood and marble buildings large and elegant on well-tended lots, light shining out through myriad wide glass windows.
“What’s the matter? You’re not still upset about the scramble on that roof, are you?”
“Oh, no, m’lord. It’s my life’s ambition to get you killed, y’know. I figure ‘splattered last employer taking stupid risks with his life’ will look great on a letter of recommendation.”
“Don’t be silly, Anthser. That fall wouldn’t kill me. What, forty feet? Nowhere near far enough to die.”
Anthser swiveled an ear. “Rrr. Maybe not.”
“Fracture some bones, sure. Perhaps break my neck or cause serious hemorrhaging. But die? Nonsense.” Nik waved aside the idea. “Almost certainly someone could get me to a man with an efficacious Blessing before the punctured lungs would prove deadly.”
The greatcat wrinkled his muzzle. “Thanks. I think.”
“Any time.” They reached Lord Comfrey’s courtyard – even at a walk, Anthser could outpace a man jogging – and Nik slid down at the top of the front steps. “Anthser.” The black greatcat would not quite meet his eye; Nik circled in front of him to catch it. “Thank you for taking stupid risks with my life to cheer me up. I appreciate it. Also, I did not fall, and I trust your judgment, and it wasn’t stupid.”
Anthser grumbled something about humans who were too foolish to know what was good for them, and bumped his head against Nik’s chest. “You gonna be here until some ridiculous hour like usual?”
“I expect so. Get some sleep at his felishome, or go home if you like – I’m sure I won’t leave before one at the earliest, and likely not until three.”
“Hrrf. Home’s a hundred thirty miles away.” Anthser glanced westward, to distant Fireholt. “I’ll get some catnip at Vendrigar’s and come back by one. Maybe with enough catnip in me, Comfrey’s greatcats will be bearable company.” He gave a mock shudder that made his dark fur ripple. Nik shook his head with a chuckle, and rapped on the door as his warcat strode away into the night.
Nikola was early enough that Justin wasn’t ready for visitors when he arrived; the butler showed him to a cozy parlor to wait. Nik selected a book at random from an end table and turned pages without following what he read, his mind elsewhere, until a noise at the door drew his attention.
“Hello, Striker.” Justin smiled as his eyes lit on Nik. “You don’t know how good it is to see you again. Thanks for coming.” He strode forward, clasping Nik’s hand as the other man rose to meet him. “I feel quite the heel, turning down your mother’s last two invitations, but I’ve been swamped. I need to delegate more or something. I don’t suppose you’d be seeking gainful employment?” His dark eyes sparkled.
Nik shook his head, his gloved hand still in Justin’s bare one. “I don’t think so. Just being in Gracehaven stirs up enough trouble for me.” At almost six feet tall, Lord Comfrey was a few inches shorter than Nik, but Justin’s powerful, muscular frame made Nik feel like a reed to his oak. Justin had long, straight black hair, the front section pulled back from his face and gathered in a herringbone braid, the rest left loose to flow down his scarlet jacket to the small of his back. A few silver hairs threaded the black, though at thirty Justin could not be considered to have earned them. His skin was the warm golden brown of Newlanture heritage; thick eyebrows gave his handsome angular face a closed, saturnine look even when he was smiling.
“Hah. Is your mother still trying to fix a wife upon you?” Justin clasped Nik’s shoulder for a moment before releasing him, gesturing to the chair behind him before seating himself.
Nik rolled his eyes and sank back into his chair. “Worse than ever. I daresay Mother set her own agenda back a few days by taking an instant dislike to her latest candidate.”
“Indeed?” Justin smirked as he took the chair opposite. “What did the poor girl do?”
‘I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.’ “She was honest.”
“Ah! An unforgivable failing in any woman. Or man, for that matter. Whatever would we do if people were honest? How would politicians garner votes, or courtiers curry favor, or business deals close? Society would collapse. I can see why such a fault concerned your mother.” Justin kicked up his feet to rest them on an ottoman, legs crossed.
“This must be why you get on with Mother better than I do.”
“No, I get on with her better than you do because I’ve never had to live with her. You know, Striker, you can always stay with me while you’re in Gracehaven. Savior knows I’ve space enough.”
“But you won’t.”
Nikola hesitated. You don’t have time to entertain another houseguest. My petitioners would be an imposition on both you and your staff. I don’t want to be your obligation. “My parents would never let me hear the end of it if I stayed with someone else while visiting the city.”
Justin shrugged. “Suit yourself. Or them, as you please. But you only encourage your parents when you humor them.”
“You humor them.”
Justin laughed. “They amuse me. Your problem is you feel some silly obligation to take their whims seriously.”
Easy for you to say, when your parents aren’t around to torment you. That would be unkind to say aloud, so Nik asked instead, “Who else is joining us this evening? I neglected to ask the messenger.”
Justin did not resist the change of subject. “Secretary Haskill and Mrs. Haskill, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lavert – have you met them? – and Lady Dalsterly and her granddaughter, Miss Dalsterly.” He paused. “Great-granddaughter? I think great-granddaughter. Anyway, you understand. To make the genders even.”
Nik laughed. “Did you truly invite Lady Dalsterly to make the numbers?”
“Mrs. Haskill is Very Keen that such things be Done Properly.” Justin’s eyes glinted. “Besides, I figured you’d want someone you could talk to. Other than me.”
“I see. So is this little gathering business or politics?”
“If I admit ‘both’, will you flee?”
“It’s too late for me to make my escape. I already let Anthser go off to intoxicate himself. Have you ever ridden a ’nipped warcat? He tries to roll over and get me to rub his belly. While I’m on his back.”
Justin grinned at the image. “In that case – both. Sorry. I need to close this contract with Lavert so he can get his ships out of port, and we can’t do that until Customs clears his cargo, which they’re holding under a series of ridiculous pretexts which I suspect amount to ‘some tinpot bureaucrat has taken a dislike to Lavert and/or one of his underlings’. Hence: the hope that Secretary Haskill will expedite the matter.”
“Sounds exciting,” Nik said, dryly.
“It’s not my favorite—” A knock at the parlor door interrupted him, and Justin called, “Yes?”
“Secretary and Mrs. Haskill have arrived, m’lord,” the butler informed them.
Justin sighed. “Thank you. We’ll meet them in the stiff parlor.” He swung his feet off the ottoman and stood. “I promise the evening won’t be all business and politicking, Striker.”