The Markavian had a felishome near the clubhouse: an oversized building with extra-large doors and windows, its amenities tailored for use by paws or mouths rather than hands. The interior was plain, as the space was designed to be used by employees and not members – the membership was exclusively male humans. The front room had hardwood floors and whitewashed walls, and was furnished with several wide low couch-beds. When Justin opened the door, he found the front room empty save for Fel Fireholt and Feli Southing. The two greatcats were sprawled together over one of the couch-beds. Their heads raised at his entrance, ears flattening as they identified him. Fel Fireholt’s lip curled back in a half-snarl that surprised Justin: Nik’s liegecat had always been an amiable individual. Feli Southing’s flat-eared, flat-whiskered look was merely cold. Fel Fireholt gave the bare minimum of courtesy in a growled, “My lord?”
Justin decided his impulse to withdraw was more cowardice than prudence and stood his ground. In as deferential and inoffensive a tone as he could manage, he said, “Feli Southing, might I have a word with you, please?”
“No,” she said flatly.
That was final. He bowed. “I apologize. You may collect your severance pay from Mr. Black at your leisure.” Justin withdrew, resigned to writing out his apology instead. Ethan could give it to her with the severance.
He was halfway to the clubhouse when Southing’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Wait.”
Justin bridled at the imperious command from a commoner, but at this point he owed it to her to oblige. He turned around on the marble path. “Yes, feli?”
The gray-and-white striped greatcat stood between evergreen hedges that lined either side of the path. Her tailtip twitched and her ears remained canted backwards. Justin braced himself against getting angry again because she was. But all she said was, “I quit.”
“You don’t get severance for quitting.”
“I think, under the circumstances, you’re entitled. Don’t you?”
Southing lashed her tail, making branches of the adjacent bush sway. “I think I’m entitled to a lot more than that.” Justin inclined his head to acknowledge the truth in this. The tension in her whiskers eased. “…did you really come to apologize?”
“I did, feli. I intended considerably more humiliating detail than the mere two words, but as you were understandably not in the mood to listen I thought I’d just write it.”
“Huh.” The greatcat’s tail stilled, the muscles beneath her fur rippling as she paced closer. “Well. If that’s what you wanted to say, I’ll listen.”
Justin tried not to smile and did not quite succeed. “Thank you, Feli Southing.” She kept moving, slowing to a human’s pace, so he fell in step beside her as he continued, “I wish to apologize for my actions today, to wit: instructing you to take a risky route, falling off when you complied, faulting you for my own error, insulting your person, threatening your career, and in general acting the complete twit.” Beside him, Southing’s whiskers twitched up in a slight greatcat smile. She turned down one of the side paths, past dormant flower beds bordered by ankle-height picket fences intended to discourage walkers from trodding on the plants. The viscount continued, “My behavior was inexcusable. I regret my tone and inflammatory words in particular extremely. I bear you no animosity and, obviously, do not intend to carry through on my ill-conceived and idiotic threats. I will be happy to provide you with a favorable letter of recommendation when you seek your next patron.”
Southing and Justin took several steps in silence. Finally, she asked, “Do you lose your temper like that a lot?”
He gave a dry laugh. “Thankfully, no.”
Justin didn’t want to answer this question for Southing any more than he had for Nikola, and knew he’d put himself in a position where he had no right to refuse. “At one juncture in my youth, I trained myself to redirect fear into anger. As a reflex, the same way one uses a certain stance in fencing or a particular approach for climbing. There have been occasions where this reflex was useful. Today was not one of them.”
Southing dipped her head in a nod. The two of them came to an open space in the dormant garden, where the stone path wound in a circle about a patch of grass. The striped greatcat strode in front and turned to drop to the grass before Justin, laying her head against her forelegs in a startlingly submissive gesture. “I didn’t mean to throw you.”
“I know. Now.” A self-deprecating smile. “I regret that I am not at my most perceptive when angry, either.”
The massive feline head turned to one side, gaze on the silhouette of a stand of barren cherry trees in the near distance. “Anthser told me there’s a…kind of trick, to how you can move in that position so you don’t shake off a rider by accident. He said there’s basically no way a man can stay on if you do it normally.”
“I should not have told you to attempt the climb,” Justin said. “My error regardless.”
Southing nodded more emphatically than Justin thought necessary, but then added, “Still. I did…I mean, I had meant to say I was sorry. I was going to when you started yelling at me.” She glowered at him, and he schooled himself to limit his response to an acknowledging nod. The greatcat sighed, looking away again. “And I think I still should. Even though it was an accident and sort of your idea. So. I’m sorry.” She paused. “That was a pretty terrible apology, wasn’t it?” Justin stifled a laugh. She continued, “I really am sorry. And I’m glad Anthser and Lord Nik caught you and you’re all right. Um, you are all right, aren’t you, m’lord?” The feline peered up at him anxiously.
“My pride may be crippled for life, but the rest of me is fine,” Justin assured her.
“Bet Lord Nik can fix that for you.”
He chuckled, then sobered to say, “I’m not sure I’d want him to. It deserves the abuse. And I accept your apology, Feli Southing.”
“Thanks.” Southing climbed to her feet and shook out her fur. She’d traded her narrow racing cloak for a wider one in plain red; it flared before settling against her flanks again. She swiped a paw over her face, then raised her head high, until her eyes were level with his. “Um. I accept yours, too, Lord Comfrey.”
Justin raised an eyebrow. “Good manners and my failing require me to apologize,” he said, in mild, neutral tones. “Neither requires you to accept it.”
“No, I do. I mean, I want to. I know I don’t have to.” She turned to sit on her haunches beside him, massive form in profile. “Sorry, I’m not good at gracious.”
“It’s fine. Thank you.” He offered a short bow, which she returned awkwardly. They remained in silence for a few moments, the breeze ruffling through the end of Justin’s ponytail and stirring the edge of Southing’s cloak. “I should be on my way. Take care, Feli Southing.”
“You too, m’lord.”
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