For a few minutes, the cliff base was still save for the rustle of leaves and the quiet babble of water flowing down the creek. Justin spoke at last. “She tried to kill me.” His voice was tight and controlled.
“She attempted a highly dangerous maneuver at your request, in contravention of her own judgement. As a result, you fell.” Nik didn’t open his eyes.
“Curse it, Striker! Are you saying I can’t tell the difference between a throw and a tumble? When it’s happening to me?”
Nik looked to Justin, the image of his strong handsome angry friend superimposed in his mind with the sight of that terrible fall. I almost lost you. He swallowed, nauseated by lingering fear. “I was watching,” he said, softly. “Feli Southing did just what every other greatcat does when clambering over an outcrop with a bad grip. Kicked off with her hindlegs to get lift and momentum.”
“Are you telling me Anthser would have done that?”
“Anthser and I used the trail on this cliff.” Nik paused a moment to let that sink in. “He would not today, not with a rider. But he has before. Five or six summers ago. Jumping from the ground to a second-floor balcony. I fell, too.” Voice low, he went on, “You do not know how grateful I am to be able to argue this point with you, here and now.”
Justin exhaled. After a moment, he sank down to sit beside Nik on the log and put an arm around the blond man’s shoulders. “Thank you for catching me,” he said, just as quietly.
Nik twisted sideways to hug Justin fiercely, hiding his face against the man’s tan neck. “You’re welcome.” Nik swallowed, closing his eyes as Justin held him in return, caressing his back and smoothing his hair. After a long silent moment, he added, “I would take it as a great kindness if you could manage not to get yourself killed, my lord.”
“Hah. I’ll do my best.” Justin bent to kiss Nik’s pale forehead. Another silence, then: “So. An ass.”
A strangled half-laugh. “Inexcusably. Saints, Justin, even if she had tried to kill you, your behavior was out of line.”
“Oh, come now,” Justin protested. “I wasn’t that bad.”
“You were abominable. ‘I’ll see you never race again’? I’ve never seen you so petty or so crude.” Even in retrospect it shocked Nik, so unlike Justin’s usual easy-going demeanor. With their heads still touching, he scanned the familiar contours of his friend’s mind for a clue to the reason. He’d always been fascinated by Justin’s mind, quite unlike those of other men and yet so sane, orderly, efficient. Long-healed traumas nestled like pearls among the different mindshapes. Most of his anger channeled into humor, where it soon dissipated, rather than into violence or outbursts. The capacity for the latter existed, but by a seldom-used connection chained alongside fear. Like Anthser’s, Justin’s sense of fear was modest; unlike Anthser’s, it had an odd shape to it, and was twined with anger. Links between fear and anger were not uncommon, but this level of intertwining not something he’d seen in anyone else. Still, much of the variance in minds was unusual or unique to Nik’s experience, without causing any apparent difficulty for the individual.
Justin had winced at Nik’s remark. “She kept provoking me.” Nik sat up to look him in the eye. “She did. If she’d shown a little humility instead of backtalking – stop looking at me like that! It’s not a servant’s place to question a lord. Even if I was a little unreasonable.”
“‘A little’? I’m not even willing to repeat the things you called that poor greatcat. And she wasn’t your servant, for pity’s sake. You can’t expect a greatcat to show the deference of a scullery maid.”
“Why not? She works for me. Worked.”
“Well you can, but you’ll be disappointed. Saints, I hope you don’t treat your human servants that way.” Nik drew away, leaning against the cliff instead.
“Only when they try to kill me.” At Nik’s sharp look, Justin added, “It’s never come up before, all right? Believe it or not this is the first time in thirty years that one of my servants has tried to kill me. Employee. Accidentally almost killed me. You get the idea. It’s a new experience for me.”
“…have people who don’t work for you tried to kill you before?” Nik asked, frowning, wondering again about the Justin’s intertwined mindshapes for fear and anger.
“I have fought duels,” Justin pointed out, then sighed. “I suppose I did handle this badly.” Nik looked at him without comment. “Very badly.” Nik kept looking. Justin put his face in one hand. “I should apologize, shouldn’t I.” It wasn’t a question.
“Oh saints yes.”
“Curse it. I hate apologizing to an inferior.”
One corner of Nik’s mouth twitched up in a smile. “It’s turned out well for you in the past.” At Justin’s sour look, he added, “Remember when we met?”
Justin shuddered. “Show some mercy, boy. I’ve made enough mistakes today that you needn’t dredge up the ones from six years ago to throw at me.”
Nik pulled Justin into his embrace again. “Sorry.”
Justin closed his eyes, resting his head against Nik’s chest. “Forgiven.” A distant querulous ‘hallo’ caught their attention, and the two men straightened into more dignified positions. “Curst attendants.” Justin climbed to his feet.
“It’s not their fault either,” Nik said. “At least this way you won’t have to walk back to the clubhouse.”
“I think I’d rather walk back.” Justin called out a hallo in response anyway.
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