As he dragged his attention back to the letter he was struggling to compose, he heard the click of the front door opening and tensed. Anthser bolted upright, ears alert and swiveling, muzzle wrinkled in a half-snarl. “Yo, Lord Nik?” Jill’s voice called out.
“In here, Jill.” Nik patted Anthser’s neck. The black greatcat relaxed again.
Jill poked her head through the archway. “There’s a watchcat here. Wants to talk about Brogan an’ the trial. Want me to send ’er away?”
Nik did not want to talk about Brogan or a trial or anything else that would remind him of that ordeal. I have enough trouble putting it from my mind already. Anthser curled closer to him, rumbling with a protective purr. Still, Nik could not turn the Watch away forever, and he’d already refused them three times at least. “A watchcat? Just the one?”
“I’ll see her. In the parlor here.” Nik disliked the idea of visitors seeing his squalid surroundings, but the thought of approaching Anverlee Manor’s bustle was far worse than mere mortification. And it was only a greatcat.
The Watchcat was young, leopard-spotted, and huge, as large as Jill. “I’m Feli Thranthier,” she introduced herself, jaws parted to imitate a human smile, whiskers spread wide in true reflection of her good mood. “Thanks fer seeing me, your lordship.”
“Thranthier?” That wasn’t a Newlant place name. “Are you from the Free Nation?”
“Parents are, m’lord. I immigrated back.” She declined Nik’s gesture to the human-proportioned couch, which looked barely adequate to her size if she lay lengthwise upon it. Instead, she sat on her haunches on the small carpet set at the center of the grouping of couch and chairs, while Nik took the chair in front of her. Thranthier tucked her tawny black-tipped tail before her forepaws, scarlet and brown-trimmed watchcloak settling on her back. “Want t’ talk to you about the trial of your abductors. Mr. Vance – the prosecutor for this case – wants to set a date fer the trial and would like it at a time good fer you to stand witness.”
Nikola rubbed a hand over his face. Everything about the prospect appalled him: appearing in a packed courtroom, bearing up under cross-examination, forced to relive the horrors of that night, confronting Brogan – he controlled a shudder and forced his mind away. No time is good. “Must I?”
Feli Thranthier ducked her head and hunched her shoulders in a vain effort to appear smaller than Nikola. “Need your testimony, m’lord. Mr. Vance wants those bastards to hang, pardon my language. Miss Vasilver c’n testify as to her own abduction, which’s a capital crime in itself. But Mr. Vance don’t think that’ll be enough. But what they did t’ you—” her voice hardened “—well, with yer help, we’re sure t’ nail ’em.”
Nikola stared at his hands, fingertips curled inwards by a reflexive instinct for protection. “I don’t care,” he said, softly.
“I don’t care what happens to them. Brogan’s not even in his right mind.”
“They – m’lord, Lady Beatrice says he knew what he did was wrong. We got t’ punish him, or what’s t’ stop others from doin’ the same?” The spotted watchcat canted her ears flat to either side in dismay.
This time, Nik did shudder. What’s to stop them now? “They didn’t fear death anyway, Feli Thranthier. Especially not Brogan. Killing them now won’t change that. Look, I know you want to protect people, and I’ll not stop you from doing your job. But I am not fit to testify, and I do not know when or if I will be, and to be honest I just want this to be over. Far more than I want vengeance. What’s past cannot be undone, and no amount of punishment can make it better.”
The watchcat lay down on her belly with her eyes turned up to him, supplicating. “Please, Lord Nikola. Mr. Vance can delay the trial ’til yer better, but y’ got t’ testify.”
“No, I don’t.” Nikola rose. “Good day, feli.”
She didn’t rise. Very quietly, she said, “They’ll subpoena you.”
Nik stopped. “What?”
The greatcat shifted, still prone. “They’ll subpoena you. To testify. Was a capital crime, Lord Nikola. They got t’ press charges. They’ll make y’ testify, even if you don’t want to.”
“What?” Nikola took a step backwards, crossing his arms over his chest. “Are you honestly telling me the watch will drag me in chains to stand witness? For the crime of being the victim of abduction?”
The feli would not meet his gaze. “’s the law.”
“Get out,” Anthser growled. Nikola started, jerking to one side; he’d not even heard his warcat enter the room. The black greatcat loomed in the archway between parlor and ersatz study, fur bristling, head lowered, teeth bared in a snarl at Thranthier.
The watchcat flattened her ears, rising to a defensive crouch on the carpet. “Look, I don’t like it neither, but we need ’is help—”
Anthser leapt past Nikola to land before her with a thump that shook the cottage. “Enough!” he roared, tail lashing. “You want to know what we need his help for? To mend greatkitten minds. Only we’re not getting that any more, and you know why? Because we failed him. Because you failed him.” He advanced on her; even though she was the larger of the two, he drove her backwards with the force of his fury. “That’s the deal, curse it. We take care of him and he takes care of us, and we blew it. Where was the watch on Ascension night, when he needed them? Where were you the morning after, when we rescued him? Too fucking little and too fucking late, that’s what you were. And now you have the gall to come here and tell Lord Nik he has to do any curst thing? Brogan a problem now? He’s your problem. Take care of it.” Anthser had backed her to the front door now: Thranthier looked as agitated as he did, her hackles raised and muzzle wrinkled to show teeth. She started to say something and Anthser roared over her. “NO! We’re done here! Get out.”
“Fine!” Thranthier snarled, then turned tail and fled the cottage.
Anthser watched her go, his body tense and quivering with rage. After a few moments, he took a deep breath and turned back to Nikola, whiskers straight and ears canted in a parody of his normal good humor. “Er. Sorry about that, Lord Nik.”
Nik stared at him, not sure what had just happened. Unsteadily, he crossed the floor to Anthser. The black greatcat met him halfway, dropping his head to nose the hand Nik extended. “Anthser…it’s not that I don’t want to see petitioners, you know.”
The dark head sank lower, ears flat and whiskers drooping in mortification. “’Course not, Lord Nik.”
“I can’t. I’m not doing it to, to punish anyone. It’s not your fault. Or hers, or the watch, or…whatever you seem to think.”
“I know.” Anthser slid his muzzle against Nik’s hand, then butted his head against the man’s chest. “I didn’t mean that you would. No one thinks you’re doing it on purpose. But…we should’ve been there for you. None of this ever should’ve happened.” The greatcat screwed his eyes tightly shut, pressing his head hard enough against Nikola that the man had to put one foot back to brace against the weight. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
Nik bent, hugging the warcat. “It’s not your fault.” He stroked the bristling dark fur down. “It’s not your fault.”
While Justin was at breakfast on Friday morning, one of his servants came in to say, “M’lord, there’s a greatcat from Anverlee here with a message. Says it’s important.”
Justin’s heart leapt – perhaps Nikola will see me earlier than Monday after all! – but he confined his reaction to a calm “thank you,” and held out his hand for the message.
The serving girl looked anxious. “Begging your pardon, m’lord, but she won’t give it to me. Says only to you personally.”
Justin raised an eyebrow. “Very well. Show her in.”
This time, he recognized the massive blue-gray form when she padded into his dining room: Jill, the greatcat who’d started the search for Nikola while Lady Striker dawdled. “You have something for me, fela?”
She dropped to her haunches on the polished hardwood floor and glanced to the servant by the door. “’s private, Lord Comfrey.”
Justin wondered what Nikola felt this creature could be trusted with that his own servants couldn’t, but dismissed the serving girl. “Well?”
“Some prosecutor is out to make a name fer himself by makin’ an example of Lord Nik’s abductors,” the greatcat said, without preamble.
“Good for him.” Justin felt a certain grim satisfaction in that, although he was perplexed why this greatcat was telling him.
“No. Not good for him. Lord Nik doesn’t want to be dragged through standin’ witness at some long, drawn-out trial, forced to relive it all again and again. He doesn’t need the hammer to come down on those monsters. He needs this to be over.”
Granted, that did sound like his friend. But… “Why did Lord Nikola ask you to tell me this?”
She snorted. “Lord Nik didn’t ask me. You know he won’t ask for help. But he needs it just the same. Prosecutor’s threatening to force him to testify whether he wants to or not. You’ve got influence. Make ’em back off.”
Justin blinked at her. “You’re never serious. Subpoena the victim? The prosecutor would have to be mad.”
“Then you tell ’im that. Savior knows they won’t listen to me.”
“You are serious.”
She dipped her massive blue-gray head in a curt nod.
“And Lord Nikola doesn’t know you’re here.”
“’Course not.” She gave him a scornful look. Her whole attitude was infuriatingly insubordinate, but beyond that it unsettled him. Everyone knows Nikola and I are friends, and I am the most influential friend he has. Naturally she would turn to me. It doesn’t mean she knows anything more.
But she knows us well indeed, to realize this is a favor I would do for Nikola as well as one he would never request of me. “Who’s the case prosecutor?”
“Mr. Vance. You know him?”
Justin shook his head. “No, but it’s no matter. I’ll see he’s set straight. If he imagines bullying a lord and a Blessed will help his career, he’ll soon enough realize otherwise.”
The greatcat relaxed, whiskers flaring, her imposing demeanor vanishing with her tension. “Great. Thank you, Lord Comfrey.” She rose to all fours and offered a low bow, head down and both forepaws stretched before her.
“You’re welcome. And – there is no need to tell Lord Nikola any of this, of course. Good day.”
“’Course.” She flashed an open-mouthed smile and left him to his breakfast.
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