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They set the wedding for three months later, at Fireholt. Nikola and Justin were inclined to perform the ceremonies the night of the engagement, but Wisteria counseled for an engagement period. She was particularly concerned that Justin reflect on the decision. “You’ve never truly considered this possibility before, I think, and it does mean you will never have a legal wife all to yourself. Our marriage will be secret, but nonetheless legally binding. It’s a large step along a difficult and ill-lit road.”

“The two of you are the only family I have ever wanted. I never desired a ‘normal’ family and long ago resigned myself to bachelorhood,” Justin noted, but he allowed Wisteria’s prudence to persuade him. At times he did still reel at the vastness of it, at the realization of a future he had never dared dream of.

They invested some time discussing the wedding beforehand, though the preparations were still orders of magnitude simpler than for Nikola’s wedding to Wisteria.

“No need to plan for guests,” Justin remarked. It was well after midnight, late in the Ascension season, and the three of them were snuggled together among the maroon velvet blankets of his broad bed.

“Actually…” Nikola looked at the two of them.

“What, did you want to invite your parents?” Justin teased.

“I didn’t want to invite them to my first wedding,” Nikola retorted.

“That’s not true,” Wisteria said.

“Perhaps not entirely true. But there is someone we could invite, if we want guests. A few someones.”

Justin gazed at him askance. “Have you checked your mind for signs of possession lately, Nikola? Perhaps you should.”

Nikola stuck his tongue out. “I was thinking of Anthser. Fela Southing knows, too. Not about the wedding itself, but you know they won’t be shocked by it. They’d be pleased.”

“It would be nice to have witnesses,” Wisteria said. “Didn’t Anthser say there’s another greatcat who knew already? One of your parents’ greatcats?”

“Jill. It might look a touch odd if we invited her out, but Anthser could without exciting comment.”

Justin pushed himself upright amongst the plump pillows of his bed. “You can’t be serious about this.”

“Why not?” Nikola rolled onto his side, propped up on one elbow to look over his wife at Justin.

“Because the more who know, the more danger we’ll be in of being detected?”

“But they already know,” Wisteria said.

“Making them part of it will reduce the chance they’ll expose us,” her husband added. “If we leave them to draw their own conclusions, they may end up accidentally betraying something they don’t realize they need to keep secret. Frankly, I’m amazed Anthser never did so. Perhaps greatcats have better instincts for this sort of thing than I’ve given them credit for. But I still think it would be safer to tell them upfront what we’re doing and why they can’t talk about it.”

Justin sighed, looking between his lovers. It went against his instincts. But so does marriage itself. Yet this is what I want. And a wedding should be witnessed. “If you’re certain…”

“I am,” Nikola answered, while Wisteria snuggled close to Justin and kissed him.

He closed his eyes. “Very well. No need to resort to seduction to convince me.”

Wisteria ran her tongue over the curve of his ear. “What if I want to resort to seduction to seduce you?”

Chuckling, Justin pulled her into his arms and scooted closer to press her into Nikola’s body. “Then by all means, do.”

§


Before the Ascension season ended, Wisteria had rearranged their lives in other ways as well. She felt the three of them spent too much time apart, and one by one produced unexceptionable reasons for them to be in the same parts of Newlant at the same time more often. The high demand for Nikola’s Blessing during Ascension was clearly because Gracehaven needed a mind-healer in residence, so she arranged to rent a house there for a month during spring and fall that he might be more accessible, and they agreed Justin would invite them to stay a week or two now and again to keep demand manageable. Justin took a stake in the Vasilvers’ mining operation in Fireholt, giving him a business reason to visit there more often. Wisteria even spoke of spending part of the summer in Comfrey Viscountcy: “It’s a good half-day’s travel from Gracehaven by greatcat: I suspect the demand for a mind-healer would justify a month there.” When everything was added up, they’d spend no more than a few weeks apart at any given period, and perhaps six or seven months combined each year would be spent living in close proximity.

§


As on every Sunday, Fireholt was empty of staff for the day, but Nikola had ordered an elaborate dinner of storable foods be left for their dinner. Jill was visiting from Anverlee, nominally as Anthser’s guest.   

The greatcats set up decorations in the petitioner’s hall. They rolled a white carpet runner down the center of the hall, hung Ascension curtains of gold and purple over the windows, and white and gold streamers from the new gaslit chandeliers. It was festive and cheerful, if not exactly like a wedding.

Justin could not order wedding clothes without raising eyebrows, but he wore an elegant white suit with gold and indigo jewelry. Nikola and Wisteria had snuck their own wedding clothes out of storage. Nikola left the long cape off for now, as he took the officiant’s place at the front of the hall. Jill, Anthser, and Southing were gathered to one side, whiskers spread with pleasure as they watched Justin and Wisteria enter from opposite ends of the hall.

It shouldn’t make this much of a difference, Nikola thought, unable to restrain his smile as his lovers met before him at the center of the hall and knelt to one another. We’ll still be in danger of discovery. Many would regard these weddings as even more abominable than the previous nature of our relationship, where at least we laid no claim to legitimacy or divine blessing for our actions. Could the Savior ever approve such a thing?

But the divine presence in his mind offered no hint of sorrow; nothing but warm pure love washed through Nikola as he presided over the marriage of his beloved. Is this why I could never cure myself of this passion? Because there is no madness at its root to destroy?

But even if human society would revile this union, the act of marriage mattered to Nikola, more than he had realized even when they proposed. After years of no promises, no words of love, nothing but the ever-present now: this was something entirely other. A vow that they would remain together, steadfast, no matter what happened. A pledge that there was more between them than temporary forbidden pleasure. A promise that their love was mutual, their commitment unshakeable. As the walls rang with Wisteria’s recitation of the vows, as Justin smiled uncontrollably at her, Nikola found himself blinking back tears of joy. Justin was half-right. This cannot possibly be happening.

Yet it is.

After Nikola pronounced them united and they kissed, the new Lady Comfrey officiated while Nikola married Justin. They’d not had time to rehearse the performance: Justin and Nikola both stumbled over their vows at different points, and laughed at their mistakes, and smiled at the adaptations they’d made to the traditional vows since both of them were men. It was ersatz and strange and as wonderful as their shared relationship. When Wisteria touched their joined hands to seal the marriage, Nik felt the Savior’s presence in it, just as he had at his wedding to Wisteria.

After Nikola and Justin exchanged a not-at-all-chaste kiss to the roaring approval of three greatcats, Wisteria donned her cape again and took Justin’s left arm. Nikola took his right, and they processed from the hall as solemnly as if an audience of thousands had been watching. Three greatcats could not match the level of noise at Nikola’s first wedding, although at this proximity it almost seemed they did.   

“Is it very wrong of me, my husbands,” Wisteria said, “that I spent my first wedding wishing we could skip the formalities and the audience and elope, and now I find myself regretful that I cannot proclaim my love to the world at the second?”

Nikola chuckled. “I was thinking the same thing. I wish all Paradise could know.” They paused outside the main entrance to the petitioner’s hall to wait for their guests to join them.

Justin squeezed their arms close. “We know. That’s all that matters.”

And it was.




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Justin was delighted when the Strikers arrived at his manor for the Ascension season. “I see you have worked another miracle in inducing Striker to accept my hospitality,” he told Wisteria when he kissed her hand in greeting.

Her face was as unmoved as always when she answered, “Indeed, my lord. What could be more inexplicable than spending a holiday with one’s dearest friend?” No one who looked upon her would ever suspect her of having a lustful thought for any man, much less of the full extent of her tastes, Justin reflected as Nikola took his wife’s arm and the viscount led the two inside. An entourage of a dozen servants and employees accompanied them. Part of Justin was jealous of Wisteria still, not merely for marrying Nikola, but for accomplishing what Nikola had never allowed Justin to do: giving him wealth to match his station.

They had arrived in time for supper; Justin had arranged no guests or entertainments for the first night back in Gracehaven, assuming they’d be tired from the journey. The three spent a few hours after supper deep in conversation in Justin’s cozy parlor, but the couple did retire early, around ten o’clock. But when Nikola shook his hand good night, the blond lord murmured, “We’ll call after the servants are abed.” The implication sent a thrill of desire humming through Justin’s veins.

Justin resisted the temptation to hurry to his own chambers to await them. He dealt with a few odds and ends in his study instead, as was typical of him, and then retired. He left the door unlatched after his valet departed, and settled on the sitting room’s chaise in dressing gown and slippers with a book while he waited for his lovers. The long time apart had in no way diminished his ardor. He knew he ought to do something to break this addiction, to better brace himself for the inevitable ending, but Justin did not know what. Withdrawing from them while they were still willing was madness itself. He needed to make the most of this while he could.

The door opened quietly, without a knock. Justin rose from the chaise, but pleasurable anticipation shifted to apprehension as Wisteria and Nikola entered. Both were attired as if for a formal event: Nikola in a suit of Anverlee blue with silver embroidered lapels and cuffs and a lace jabot, Wisteria in a dress and short jacket of the same colors. Justin fought back the sense that something must be wrong and smiled to them. “My lord, my lady. I feel quite underdressed for the occasion; I did not know we were going out.”

Nikola looked to his wife; he was nervous, which did nothing to settle Justin’s own mind. Wisteria was calm as always. “We do not intend to, my lord.” She moved to him and took his left hand. “I apologize for the lack of warning. Nikola and I thought we ought to do this properly.” She turned back to her husband and asked him, “Perhaps we should let him have the chance to dress?”

“Perhaps you ought to tell me what occasion I am dressing for?” Justin kept his voice light. Surely this is not how they would end this affair with me. Surely they did not accept my hospitality only to tell me they no longer wished to share my bed.

Nikola was shaking his head. “No, we should just ask.”

“Ask what?” Justin said impatiently.

The Haventure man strode to his side and took Justin’s left hand, standing beside his wife. Nikola’s gloved fingers trembled with nervousness. They glanced to each other, and then together sank, Nikola dropping to one knee and Wisteria in a deep curtsey. “Lord Comfrey,” Wisteria began. “We wish to ask you to do us the very great honor of becoming our husband.”

“Will you marry us, Justin?” Nikola lifted his head to meet Justin’s gaze, expression as serious as his wife’s, eyes beseeching.

Justin stared at the two, blinking in mute shock. Then he yanked his hands from theirs and stumbled back a pace. “This joke is in extremely poor taste,” he snapped.

“We’re not jesting.” Nikola rose, took a step towards Justin, and stopped as Justin backed away again.

“You’re already married! You can’t do it again and you certainly can’t to a man,” Justin snarled, voice low but harsh.

“Er,” Nikola said. “Actually.” He looked to Wisteria for support.

“I believe we can.” Wisteria got to her feet

What? Have you both gone mad?”

“No, Nikola would know if we had. I’ve been researching the law involved,” Wisteria said. “The practice of polygamy, defined as one man marrying more than one woman, was criminalized in Newlant in the third century. The standard marital contract further includes clauses specifying that both marital partners are currently unwed, and that neither will marry another. But there is no actual law preventing a woman from marrying multiple men. There’s a law prohibiting sexual congress between men, but there isn’t one prohibiting a marriage between two men. Nikola and I have made some seemingly-innocuous modifications to our marital contract which happen to have the effect of removing the clause which prohibited both adultery and multiple marriage. So there is no legal reason you cannot marry either or both of us.”

Justin stared between the two; even Wisteria’s calm manner could not soothe the combination of insult, outrage, and suppressed longing that seethed within him. “And which of us would be the husband in this ludicrous arrangement? Do you imagine Nikola could be my lord and master, or I his?”

Nikola’s lips twitched in a hint of a smile. “We have gotten this far without one or the other of us turning into a woman, Justin. I daresay we could sustain that trend.”

“I don’t see why you cannot be husband to each other,” Wisteria added. “You have both already shown yourself willing and able to protect the other.”

His sense of insult leeched away, leaving him weak in its absence. Forgetting his manners, Justin sunk onto the chaise; he no longer felt equal to standing. “But a marriage is confined to one man and one woman. Everyone knows that.”

“Indeed. It is a fact so obvious to every person in Newlant that the law has never seen the need to define it as such.” Wisteria perched on the edge of the chaise, not quite close enough to touch. “Since the Sanctity of Marriage Act was repealed in the fourth century (to remove the requirement that one’s family approve a marriage) there is no actual law that defines the term ‘marriage’. It is, instead, defined by each marriage contract for the specific parties entering it. The law that makes sexual congress between men illegal would likely still make it a crime between you and Nikola even if you were wed, alas. Although there’s some legal wrangling even there. There’s a fifth-century act that criminalized weddings and sexual congress between races. Because the authors could not criminalize existing marriage without violating the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws, the law included specifications that intercourse between already-married persons was legal. Well, the miscegenation portions of that act were eventually repealed, but the whole act never was so that clause legalizing relations between married persons remains in effect. One could argue it would apply to the two of you, if you accept Nikola’s proposal. I do not have great confidence in the effectiveness of such a maneuver, however.”

“We’re not saying we should publicize the marriages, Justin, if you accept.” Nikola sat on the other side of Justin, putting a hand on his knee. “We’d be pariahs even if we won the legal fight, I know. Society would revile us.”

“But it doesn’t need to be public,” Wisteria said. “Nikola can officiate the marriage between you and I, and that would make me technically Lady Comfrey so I could officiate for you and he. Or Nikola could designate me to perform it, if say you wished to accept him and not me.”

Justin looked between them, lost. He turned at last to Nikola. “Why?” he asked, plaintive, unable to articulate beyond that.

Nikola folded Justin’s golden-brown hands between his white-gloved ones. “Because I love you. Because I have always loved you. I want to share the rest of my life with you. I love Wisteria as well, but there is no choosing between you; it’s like asking which do I need, food or drink? I cannot live without both.”

Wisteria slipped her arms about Justin’s waist and snuggled against his back. “I feel the same, Justin. But you know that. I always wished to wed both of you.”

Nikola’s hands tightened about Justin’s. “If this is not what you want, my love, say so and nothing need change between us.”

“We’ll understand. If you want your own normal family someday. A wife you need not keep secret.” Wisteria had her cheek against Justin’s broad shoulder. “Or if you only want to marry one of us, for that matter.”

He closed dark eyes against longing. “You know I have never been faithful, not even to you.”

His blond lover chuckled, drawing near enough to kiss the side of Justin’s throat, above the lapel of his dressing gown. “You do not think we care about a thing like that, do you?”

“You might have lain with a hundred others, and I would not mind as long as I might be the hundred-first,” Wisteria said, echoing his own words of nearly a year past. “If you wish to consider the question longer, you may of course. There is no need to answer tonight.”

Justin squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that threatened to overflow. “Yes,” he managed, seizing Nikola in a hug so tight the slighter man squeaked, but Nikola held him in return just as fiercely. Justin laughed, tears flowing down his cheeks, and twisted to the side to embrace Wisteria as well, pulling them both hard against him as he leaned back against the wall. “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. We are all three mad, and perhaps that is the Savior’s blessing on us because I hope never to be sane. I never want to be anywhere without you. I love you both.” He breathed out, feeling a part of his soul unclench from its tightly-guarded knot, feeling a freedom he had never known before. “I love you both,” he repeated, and then he could say no more as his elated lovers kissed him.




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After two and a half weeks at Fireholt, Justin took his leave. Wisteria and Nikola tried to persuade him to stay longer still, but he’d already extended his stay by ten days. Assembly would resume in a few days and he had business in Gracehaven he needed to attend to. And he’d be headed back to Fireholt again soon enough, for the house party.   

Which would not be nearly the pleasure that being their sole houseguest had been. There would be fewer opportunities for unsettling conversations as well. Justin was not sure if that was good or bad. He felt as if he were growing far too comfortable with his lovers, their company dangerously addictive. However it might feel in the moment, everything about this situation was precarious by nature. Nikola or Wisteria might lose interest in him, or grow jealous, or break it off for any number of reasons. He had to remain on guard against that day. It will come, sooner or later. I need to handle it better than I did Nikola leaving me the last time. They are wedded to one another and that commitment is inviolate, but I can never be more than an optional addition to their happiness. I am no true part of it, no matter how much they may welcome me now.

Gracehaven was relatively empty during the summer, but by the fall it was back to being the center of life in Newlant. Still, returning home to it felt like going into exile. He was glad to get back to his various business dealings, and he had bills in Assembly he needed to champion – such as one to increase the legal protections the Blessed had against men like Brogan, and to make the punishments for such crimes harsher in the hopes of deterring them. But he missed Nikola and Wisteria more than ever.

He was delighted to go back to Fireholt for the house party, and quite amazed to find Wisteria had put a connecting door between the suite they gave him and Nikola’s room. The pretext for it had been that when her first (and still unconceived) child was born, it would be the baby’s room because she did not like the situation of the nursery. But since the house was full for the party, of course they had to put some guest in there…

It was wonderfully convenient.

By that time, Wisteria had preliminary results from her commissioned experiments on greatcat scent perception. Her official motive for the study was to quantify greatcat tracking abilities in the event of another abduction. Some of her findings were alarming, such as that a greatcat could detect and even discern between different levels of stress in a man’s scent. The researcher had tested for such moods as calm, angry, anxious, and afraid, but Anthser had privately confirmed that ‘aroused’ was also discernible. Both research and Anthser indicated that a greatcat’s ability to distinguish subtleties in a scent diminished quickly at range. “You’d want to keep a few feet away and avoiding riding a greatcat if you did not want one to note where you’d been,” Wisteria phrased it. “But riding in a greatcat-drawn carriage or passing one on a street would be unlikely to betray anything.”

Perhaps most constructively from Justin’s perspective, the study had determined several different perfumes and colognes that were strong enough to overpower any human scent to the point that not even a greatcat could detect it. If he couldn’t smell it himself, at least he could cover it up so no greatcat could either.

Justin enjoyed the house party a great deal: it kept them busy enough that they didn’t have time for long unconventional conversations, but not so busy that they could not indulge in late-night carnal activity. Still, it too had to come to an end. His hosts persuaded Justin to stay a week after the last guest had left, but after that he went back to Gracehaven.

Well, it will be Ascension in two months; I’ll see them then. However much I get to, with all the other family commitments involved in the season.

§


“Would you like to stay at Comfrey Manor when we go to Gracehaven for the season?” Wisteria asked Nikola one morning in mid-autumn. She was at her desk in her office, attending to her correspondence, while he had stopped in to see her after finishing early with the day’s petitioners. Nikola had eschewed the room’s other seats to perch on the edge of her desk instead, where he was near enough to touch her.   

Nikola gave her a lopsided smile as he ran his stockinged foot along her calf. “I wish we could. But I’ve never been able to manage it, with my parents having a mansion in town, and now we’ve your parents’ hospitality to consider as well.”

“I thought that could be our reason, actually.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, we wouldn’t want to offend my parents by showing a preference for yours, or yours by showing a preference for mine, correct? If we stay with Justin, that’s neutral ground. And it’s relatively convenient to both Vasilver Manor and Anverlee’s Gracehaven residence.”

Nikola considered this. “It is, isn’t it? Do you suppose our relations might accept that?”

“I’m sure my parents will.”

“I don’t know…I always get mobbed with petitioners when I’m in Gracehaven. Last year was particularly bad, and if your reasoning about my reputation holds true, this year will be worse.” Nikola drummed his fingers against the side of her desk. “I hate to put that kind of strain on Comfrey’s household.”

“I cannot imagine he will be less gracious about it than your father is,” Wisteria said, prompting a chuckle from her husband. “Truly, I can brief Justin on the requirements. His house is not so large as your parents’, but it does have a petitioner’s hall. Your staff is more than twice what you had last year and I intend to hire more just for the season, given your caseload last year. I am not saying it isn’t an imposition, but it will be no matter whom we stay with, and you said you did not wish to take lodgings for the season. Justin invited us already, so he does not think the imposition unreasonable.”

Nikola smiled then. “Did he? When?”

“In today’s letter.” She smoothed the pages. “Though he doesn’t expect us to accept: ‘I am sure you will be staying with relations who have a greater claim upon you than a mere friend such as myself may ever have, but I will extend the invitation anyway: the two of you (and any stray madgirls Striker may stumble across along the way) are welcome to stay the season with me. I should not wish to deprive Striker of the annual privilege of declining merely because he is wed now.’” She passed the letter to her husband.

“That sounds like him.” Nikola’s smile grew as he read the letter himself.

“Does it ever bother you when he says things like that?” Wisteria asked. “The ‘greater claim than I may ever have’ part.”

“Oh, he doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just his sense of humor.”   

“Is it? It feels more as if he means it, but is saying it in a humorous way to take the sting from it. As if being the first to laugh over it will rob it of its power to wound.”

Nikola let the hand holding the letter fall. “…perhaps it is.”

“And I don’t think it works because it still hurts me. I suppose it would not be discreet to write that he has a claim far greater than blood. Unless I attributed it to his heroism, and I very much doubt that would give him any pleasure.”

Her husband smiled again. “No, I do not think so. Besides, he has a point. That is – I wish it were not true, Wisteria, but we are not kin to him. And cannot become so. If humor helps to cope with that unfortunate truth…well, perhaps we all might need it.”

Wisteria gazed at the books filling one glass-windowed case. “Not all countries have the same marriage laws Newlant does.”

Nikola gave a startled laugh. “What, do they let a woman have two husbands in Southern Vandu?”

“No…not in Southern Vandu. But in some countries – Bijoli for one – I know a man may have more than one wife. Perhaps there’s one where a woman may wed twice. Or a man marry a man.”

The corners of Nikola’s blue eyes wrinkled with his smile. “Wisteria, even I think that a man marrying a man is absurd.”

She turned to face him directly. “Do you, my lord?”

“Of course it…is.” Nikola dropped his eyes after a moment.

“And you would not marry Justin if it were permissible?”

“Justin would never agree to something so ridiculous.”

“But would you?”

“Why are you asking me this, Wisteria? It’s not legal, and no, I do not want to give up Fireholt and Anverlee and my family and yours in search of some remote barbarian tribe that might approve such a thing. My sense of familial duty may be weak but it is not nonexistent!” Nikola stood, mouth set in a thin line, hands clenched at his sides.

Wisteria rose as well, touching his hands. “I did not mean to upset you, my lord. But you know I always wished I could marry you both. Life is compromise, but I cannot help wondering if this is truly the most satisfactory one we can manage. If you disapprove of such notions, however, of course I will not pursue any other possibilities.”

The tall man uncurled his fingers to take Wisteria’s. A few moments passed in silence, then he bent to embrace her, exhaling as he kissed her forehead. “My love,” he whispered. “I should like nothing better than to unite my life with Justin as I have with you. My mind tells me ‘but this can never be’, yet my mind has said that about too many things that you have proven possible for me to trust it. If there is a way, lead and I will follow.”

Comforted, she snuggled in, tucking her head beneath his chin. “I do not know if there is or not. But I will look.”




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It was the second week of Justin’s stay: Nikola and Wisteria had conspired to persuade him to lengthen his trip beyond the original plan of a single week. Justin was outside, once again exercising before his hosts arose. As he jogged along a wide trail through the hills behind the manor, Fel Fireholt loped up to him from behind, then slowed to fall into stride beside him. “Mind if I join you, Lord Comfrey?”

Justin shrugged. “As you like. Pacing me won’t be much of a workout for you, I daresay.”

“That’s fine. I’m a lot lazier than you anyway.”

They traveled together in silence for half a mile, Justin breathing hard as he ran up the gentle slope of the winding trail, and Fel Fireholt doing little more than a walk to keep up. Justin did not know how to treat Fel Fireholt any more. The greatcat wasn’t Nikola’s employee now, but he still watched out for Nikola as if he had been, and the two often rode together. Nikola treated Fel Fireholt as an equal, a feat which made Justin uneasy and which he could not match. It was wrong somehow, a violation of the social order. Yet the black greatcat had saved his own life, as well as Nikola’s and Wisteria’s. Decency demanded Justin treat him civilly at the minimum.

At length, the greatcat interrupted the silence. “So. Do they know what you’re doing?”

Perplexed, Justin asked, “‘They’?”

“Lord Nik and his wife. Do they each know you’re screwing the other?”

Justin nearly ran into a tree. “What?” He stumbled to a halt as he glared at Fel Fireholt, a dangerous wrath building inside him. “I beg your pardon?” He couldn’t call out a greatcat: it would be suicidal even if it weren’t illegal.

The dark greatcat dropped back a pace, broad shoulders hunching. “Look, I know you humans are weird about mating, and I’ve kept out of this for six years, but…I can’t pretend I haven’t noticed any more. I don’t care what any of you do with each other, really. Ain’t my fur. But if you’re gonna rip Lord Nik’s heart out again and stomp on it, I…kinda…need to know.” He faltered, ducking his head with an incongruously abashed look.

Justin stared at him. Six years? Has he known all this time? He fought to master his anger (how dare this upstart commoner threaten me and my lovers) and form a cautious reply. “Are you implying that both Mrs. Striker and Lord Nikola are carrying on an affair with me? Have you any idea, Fel Fireholt, how serious an accusation you are making?”

“Uhhh. No.” Fel Fireholt canted his dark ears to the side. “Not really. Whaddaya mean?”

“What in Paradise makes you believe such a preposterous tale?”   

The greatcat sighed. “It’s your scent. It’s on both of them. And theirs on you. I mean, Lord Nik always smelled too clean after visiting you but I probably wouldn’t ever have realized why except that he didn’t wash his hair before he went home. And human hair catches and holds scents too. Sorry.”

Justin turned a slow circle, verifying that they were alone on the trail as he gathered his thoughts. You can’t duel a greatcat, he reminded himself. “Are you aware, fel, that accusing Mrs. Striker of infidelity with me would force Lord Nikola to duel me for her honor? Or that your reprehensible accusation of sexual congress between Lord Nikola and myself could result in us being stripped of title and property, and sent into exile?”

Fel Fireholt sat back on his haunches. “Seriously? That’s messed up.”

“This is an insult of the highest order, fel. I must demand that you retract your words.”

“No it’s not. I mean, you don’t really believe that, do you? I’m not insulting you. Er. I didn’t mean to insult you, anyway. I guess implying that you’d do it behind their backs is kind of…bad. So you aren’t, then?” The greatcat pricked his ears, hopeful.

Justin took a deep breath. “I don’t think you understand your part in this script.”

Fel Fireholt shook his head vehemently.

“You are supposed to apologize for having made such a vile statement and withdraw it before I am forced to take action.”

One feline ear dropped. “How d’you withdraw words? I don’t see what’s so vile about it anyway. And what sort of action?”

“Action to ensure you will not spread such an abhorrent rumor.”

“I…uhhh…what?”

“I haven’t figured it out yet. I’d duel you if you were a man, but I’ve never had this problem with a greatcat before. Look, just say you withdraw the remark and that you’re not going to repeat it to anyone. It’s much simpler that way.”

“‘I withdraw the remark and am not going to repeat it to anyone’,” Anthser parrotted, bemusement evident even on feline features.

“Very well.” Justin turned and started away.

The greatcat climbed to his feet and followed hastily. “But I still don’t understand what’s going on.”

Justin chose his next words with care. “I am not engaged in any activities with either Lord Nikola or Mrs. Striker of which the other is unaware.”

Fel Fireholt brightened immediately. “Great! That is such a relief.”

As they walked in silence, Justin glanced sidelong at the greatcat. The feline had visibly relaxed, strides easy now. Shadows from the leaves and branches of the trees around them played over black fur, interspersed with dappled sunlight. After a brief struggle with discretion, Justin asked, “You’ve known for six years?”

“’Bout that, yeah.”

“Who have you told?”

“No one.” The greatcat’s ears flattened. “It’s no one else’s business. And I know you humans are…really weird about it.”

“Do all the greatcats just…know, then?” Unsettling thought.

“Naw. You’d have to almost shove your face in Lord Nik’s hair after…er…the things I’m not repeating again…to notice. Callie might’ve noticed it with Wisteria when we were out riding, but she hasn’t realized that humans barely touch each other or why it’d be unusual. Jill knows about you two, cause she and Lord Nik have always been close. I’d be surprised if anyone else does.” The greatcat swished his tail once. “You know we’d never do anything that could hurt Lord Nik, right?”

Six years. I do now. Justin nodded, mind struggling to encompass all the ramifications. “It truly is of no consequence to you, is it?”

“Nah. Never understood why it was so important to all of you. It’s only natural.”

Justin gave a dry bark of laughter. “Believe me, there is nothing natural about it.”

“Yes it is. I mean, yeah, reproduction is kind of the point, but the function is pleasure and there’s nothing abnormal about doing things that feel good. You three obviously love each other, why wouldn’t you do things together that make you happy? And if it were crazy, Lord Nik would cure it.”

“Even a Blessed cannot treat all dysfunctions.”

“Still. One of the other mind-healers would’ve noticed. The Savior doesn’t cure it because it’s not a disease,” Fel Fireholt said with conviction.

The viscount fell silent, uncomfortable with the line of discussion and regretting that he’d resurrected the topic. One could not expect a greatcat to understand the subtleties and refinements of a human culture many centuries in the making. The greatcat race was still in its infancy by comparison. It wasn’t in their blood the way it was with him. His rank rendered Justin immune to the consequences of his behavior so long as he remained discreet and kept it deniable. That wasn’t the same as making it right.

And yet Nikola and Wisteria and even Fel Fireholt believe otherwise, don’t they? It was a pleasant daydream, to imagine for a moment an entire world who accepted him as he was, without any need for habitual lies and everyday deceptions.

A dangerous daydream, that could tempt a man into carelessness and ruin. Better not to get in the habit of thinking in such a way. “Why did you come to me instead of asking Lord Nikola?”

The black greatcat ducked his head. “Couldn’t give anything away to you. I mean, I can’t ask Lord Nik ‘Hey, did you know that your wife and your friend are—’” he stopped at Justin’s look “—well, you know, without telling him if he didn’t know.”

Justin raised an eyebrow. “And you would not tell him if he didn’t know?”

“…I dunno. If you’d said they didn’t know, I was going to try to talk you into telling them.”

“Were you.”

Fel Fireholt winced, flattening an ear. “Yeah, none of my business, I know, but there’s a point where you can’t just do nothing.”

“And as things stand, can you do nothing?”

“Sure. You all know what’s going on. Fine, it might still be a disaster later on, but it’s not like there’s an obvious disaster that’s easy to avoid.”   

Everything about this is an obvious disaster. “You greatcats have a peculiar way of viewing the world.”

“Hah. Take a step back sometime and consider how you humans think about it.”

§


Later, when he was alone with them in the Fireholt library, Justin told his lovers about the conversation. Justin would have preferred not to, but at a minimum they needed to know that they had all been overlooking a way they could be detected.

Nikola was flabbergasted. “Anthser knows? He’s known for years?” He sank into one of the library’s cozy reading chairs. “I can’t believe he never said anything to me.”

“It wasn’t his place.” Still isn’t.

“Yes, but I didn’t think he’d know that.”

Wisteria wanted to experiment to determine the exact limits of greatcat senses. “I suppose a double-blind test would be difficult to arrange, but we could check to see if he can distinguish between a person who has been with another recently and one who has not. How long does the scent persist as detectable – is it a matter of minutes? Hours? Days? We’ve been assuming that an ordinary bath eliminates the odor, but does it? We ought to find out.”

“You cannot run tests to see under what conditions greatcats can tell with whom you – or anyone else! – last had intercourse.” Justin was appalled. “There are no circumstances under which that is an acceptable line of questioning.”

“Truly? But it’s for science. How else would one find out?”

“One is not supposed to find out. That’s the entire point.”

Nikola chuckled. “Perhaps you could frame it differently, Wisteria. Test it with less indiscreet scents.”

“Oh, and on different materials, like a handkerchief or a ceramic tile or a letter or a lock of hair. And whether or not perfumes or other artificial scents would be sufficient to mask it from a greatcat.” Wisteria produced a little notebook from her reticule and jotted it down. “I wager there’s far more variance to it than we imagine. Perhaps I could commission an inventor to make a study of the topic.”

Justin covered his eyes with one hand. “Wisteria, please do not make it look as if you’re trying to figure out how to hide your dalliances, all right?”

Still grinning, Nikola said, “I’ll help her come up with some innocuous excuse, my lord. Fear not.”




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“So what happened after this kiss?” Wisteria asked after a moment’s pause.

“Oh, I was devastated,” Nikola said, easily. “I thought Justin had noticed my infatuation and was intentionally mocking me over it.”

Justin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I had not the smallest notion. I was trying to think of some way to keep you from believing I’d intended to molest you.”

“In fairness, you did accomplish that.”

“In the most horrific way possible. I spent the whole ceremony trying to think of some way to ask Dremmond to replace you—”

“I always wondered that you did not!”

“—but I could think of no way without implying that you were at fault and risking that you’d be punished. For my indiscretion.” Justin looked back to Wisteria. “So when I found him waiting for me when I got back, I apologized for my behavior and told him to take a holiday. I’d care for myself and not tell a soul. Then the next night—” Justin paused again. “Why did you come back the next night? Because I had a whole host of theories and I believe now that every one of them must have been wrong.”

“I was hideously confused at first – I was not even sure what you were apologizing for – but after considerable thought, I concluded it was for desiring me. Which was what I wanted you to do, so I worked up the nerve to approach you again.”

Wisteria shifted between them, nuzzling the top of Justin’s head before glancing at Nikola. “Have you two managed to know each other seven years without ever discussing your first meeting? How is that even possible?”

Nikola laughed. “I don’t know. It never came up. There’s…a great deal we never talked about,” he said, wistfully.

“One doesn’t talk about such things,” Justin said. Even to his own ears it sounded prim and fatuous.

“I hope that doesn’t mean you will refuse to tell me the rest,” Wisteria said.

“Of course we’ll tell you,” Nikola said.

Justin cleared his throat and raised his head from Wisteria’s shoulder to continue. “I found him the next night in my room, out of uniform and all dressed up – terribly fine for a servant, I thought. When I asked him what he wanted, he said—”

“‘You’.” Nikola leaned in to kiss Justin again; Wisteria watched them with rapt attention.

“I thought you terrified then, too,” Justin murmured against Nikola’s mouth.

“I was. That I was wrong, that you were uninterested, that you’d laugh or worse.”

Justin closed his eyes, hugging Wisteria to him with an arm about her shoulders and his other arm holding Nikola to them both. “I am a very great fool. And that, madame, is how we became lovers.”

“But then you hardly knew one another at all when you began? Did Nikola tell you that night he was Lord Striker’s son?”

Nikola shook his head ruefully, while Justin laughed and answered, “No. No, we did not know one another at all, and I daresay Nikola was too busy to consider correcting his little oversight with his title.”

“It wasn’t an oversight! East Hansleigh Boys’ Academy had a ‘culture of service’, which meant we weren’t to use our titles on campus and we got drafted for menial labor during big events like Ambrellan. That’s why I was in a position to volunteer. It was that or set up tables.”

“Oh my,” Wisteria said. “When did you find out, then?”

Justin covered his eyes. “Five months later? At an Ascension-season party. When his father introduced him. I about died of mortification, learning that what I had thought was an affair with a valet of about my own age had actually been with an underage peer.”

“It truly took five months to emerge?”

“We were not in contact after those first few days Justin spent at the academy,” Nikola said. “I was too intimidated to write Lord Comfrey, and he – well, he could not start a personal correspondence with a man he thought a servant.” Justin was thankful that Nikola omitted the one disastrous gift Justin had sent while in ignorance. Nikola stroked Justin’s cheek. “But it all worked out well in the end.”

Justin managed a smile, turning his head to kiss the pale hand. “That it did. After that formal introduction we became friends.” He remembered what a miracle even that much had seemed, at the time. How much he had missed Nikola in those intervening months, how he had thought Nikola uninterested in continuing the relationship. To think that he had always admired me, and I never knew until now. We never spoke of it.

Perhaps we should have. Perhaps I ought to say something now, about those feelings. But even like this, it felt impossible to match his lovers’ frankness. Men in his world did not share their emotions, and Nikola might be the exception to every rule but that did not mean Justin could be, too.

“Did you think of one another, in that intervening time?” Wisteria asked. “I cannot imagine having a lover without attachment. What is it like?”

“Not as good as one with,” Nikola answered. “Not bad, mind, I still enjoy the act. But it’s less intimate and intense, at least for me.” He hesitated, then added, “I don’t think I could ever be described as unattached to Justin, though. I missed you, you know. And felt like a complete fool for it, under the circumstances, with no acquaintance to speak of between us. I imagine you scarcely gave me another thought until we met again.”

Justin looked at Nikola’s slight self-deprecating smile. I never told him. I never tell him anything, and then I wonder why he does not understand. “No, not above a half-dozen times,” Justin said, softly. “Each day.”

Nikola blinked, smile turning to wonder. “Truly?”

“Truly. I thought it perhaps as well you were not around, because I was so obsessed with you I was sure to give it away in my behavior.”   

“You were always so collected, your manner so easy and casual. Even when we were alone. I never thought you greatly affected,” Nikola said in a voice just as low.

“I’ve been pretending so long that sometimes I think I have forgotten how to stop.” Justin paused, struggling for his next words. I love you. I’ve always loved you. Until I met Wisteria, you were my whole world. How can I know these things are true and yet find them impossible to say aloud? “I have always been attached to you, Nikola.” That was such a profound understatement it felt like an untruth. “Those five months, when I did not know who you were and thought you indifferent to me, I still longed for you. I would imagine returning to East Hansleigh, just to see if you’d changed your mind, if there was anything I could offer to induce you to leave Dremmond’s service for mine. I could not, you know. I could not face harassing you so, not when I felt you had made your wishes clear. But how I wished I might.”

Nikola touched Justin’s hand, where it rested on Wisteria’s stomach. “I…I never thought you could be anything less than confident.”

“One more pretense, my friend.” My love, Justin thought, and could not say it. “My life is full of them. I do not know how the two of you manage to be so honest.” That was dangerously sincere; he ought to leaven it with a joke, but his mind refused to produce one. “Or why you would take up with someone as unaccustomed to truth as myself.”

“It is no virtue in me,” Wisteria said, her arm tightening about Justin’s shoulders. “I’m jealous of you, do you know, my lord? You know just when to be false in order to please the society you are in, and just how far to take it, to ensure no one ever notices it. If I could imitate your manners, I would in a heartbeat.”

“You wrong yourself.” Nikola’s voice was harsh with emotion. “You have played the part others demanded of you, and only deceived those who had no right to the truth. Those who’d condemn you for what they had no business questioning you upon at all.”

“No.” Justin shook his head, straightening to sit upright. “You said it yourself – even with you, with the two of you whom I ought to trust, for whom I care more than anything in the world, I have still clung to my masks. Like an armor I don’t know how to set aside. Let me set it aside for this moment, and tell you: I love you.” He met Nikola’s eyes, tan fingers trembling under pale ones, then looked to Wisteria. “I love you.”

“Oh Justin.” Wisteria caressed his cheek, and she did not smile but Nikola was smiling wide enough for both of them, blinking quickly. She sat up to kiss Justin, with all the warmth and passion her expression never showed. “You are safe with us. We would never betray you.”

“Never,” Nikola promised, kissing his cheek. “I love you too.” They enfolded him fast in their embrace, holding him tightly enough that Justin could almost believe in that safety.




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Notwithstanding Justin’s fears, the remainder of his stay continued in much the same joyous vein. They had to be more circumspect during the week, with all the servants underfoot. But Nikola had a long-established reputation of valuing his privacy, so it surprised no one if he gave orders to his greatcat employees to keep everyone out of the forest when the three of them went walking there, or if all three were shut up together for hours in Nikola’s study, or in the library. It was not so comfortable for lovemaking as a bedroom, but they were not spending all their time alone indulging carnal appetites, either.

Much of it was spent engaged in conversation. Justin had always enjoyed conversation as a pastime, and he’d carefully nurtured his skills at it. He had cultivated an excellent sense for when to speak and when to listen, what responses and questions would steer a conversation towards or away from a given topic, what topics would be of interest to a group in general, whether a given participant needed to be encouraged to speak or would be happiest left to listen – all the little talents his society valued in a conversationalist.

Justin had always regarded Nikola as equally skilled, but he learned over the next few days that Nikola had good habits by instinct more than by conscious intent. He found this out because Wisteria asked Justin how he directed conversations, a skill her husband had been unable to articulate and one where her difficulty at reading body language put her at a disadvantage. It was not the kind of thing one normally discussed, but Justin did his best to explain in a way that would be useful to her.

But the irony of her request for his advice on this subject was that he found himself at a loss to direct conversations with Wisteria and Nikola.

Speaking with either of them alone, or among other people, was never – well, almost never – anything outside the ordinary bounds of polite conversation. But when the three of them were alone together, he discovered that Wisteria and Nikola had an openness between them unlike anything he had ever before witnessed. The two of them could talk about anything. Anything. They talked about lovemaking. It was not merely an activity in which one engaged but the subject of frank discussion on tastes, desires, and timing, in which Justin was expected to take part. He learned that Wisteria and Nikola had engaged previously in anal intercourse because she’d asked Nikola what intercourse with another man consisted of and he answered. And then she wanted to try it. Her, a gentleborn woman and a lord’s wife! Most of the prostitutes Justin knew of refused to engage in that. And Wisteria liked it.

About which he ought not complain, of course, given that intercourse with her and Nikola together was Paradise perfected, an experience to rival his most erotic fantasies. And Justin did not complain, but this openness made him uneasy. He had gone through life segregating the various parts of it so that they did not interfere with one another, and part of that meant that there was an entire world of emotions and experiences that he did not give voice to. That was the way society worked: one could do these unspeakable things, as long as one left them unspoken. This frankness violated that compact of hypocrisy. It wasn’t even restricted to lovemaking: they touched on an array of subjects he’d always thought untouchable.

Such as one evening after supper when they’d gathered in Nikola’s study. This room had become a favorite haunt of theirs because the catbed he kept in it afforded enough space for three humans to cuddle – or use for still more intimate activities, as time and inclination allowed. Tonight they had shed only the least comfortable articles of clothing – jackets, neckcloths, shoes – before the lovers snuggled together. Wisteria was in the middle this time, leaning into the curving corner where the back dipped down towards the front, while Justin and Nikola cuddled to either side of her. Justin was not sure when or how this greatcat-like-heap had become their default mode when alone together. He and Nikola had never done so except post-coitus. The casual physical intimacy gratified Justin in a way he could not articulate, as if it satisfied a craving that had gone unacknowledged so long he had not realized it existed. It was disquieting if he thought about it. He tried not to think about it.

“How did you first become lovers?” Wisteria asked after all three were settled together cozily. Her question prompted a laugh from Nikola and a groan from Justin. “Is that something I should not ask?”

“It’s definitely something you shouldn’t ask,” Justin growled.

Nikola was still laughing. “Oh, come, Justin. You have to admit it’s a great story, and it’s not as though there’s anyone else in Paradise we could ever tell.”

“It’s a hideous story and I have been grateful never to have had to relive it in words.”

“I am sorry. We can speak of something else, my lords,” Wisteria offered.

With an impish smile, Nikola promised her, “I’ll tell you when we’re alone.”

“You’ll do no such thing!” Justin reached across Wisteria to tickle Nikola into submission.

Laughing, Nikola squirmed out of range as Wisteria said, “He won’t, Justin, I do not wish to pry.”

Still grinning, Nikola mouthed to him I absolutely will. Aloud, he said, “Justin is only playing, Wisteria. He doesn’t mind.”

Justin made a face at him, his reluctance more genuine than he wanted them to know. “Fine. But I will tell her. No doubt you’d mangle it to make it even more horrifying.”

Nikola straightened enough to give an insouciant half-bow before he lapsed back against his wife’s side. “By all means.” Wisteria tilted her head and waited for Justin to begin.

Justin put one hand over his eyes as he considered how to relate these events to maximize the humor and minimize the painfulness of the recollection. “About seven years ago, I visited the East Hansleigh Boys Academy to present one of the Ambrellan Society grants. It was the second-to-last stop on this five-week tour I’d been on as I put my father’s estate in order. One thing and another had led to several delays to my arrival. The last of these – the overturning of my cab and resulting injury to my valet – had caused me to arrive less than an hour before the scheduled event. Alone, on foot, grungy, and in the foulest mood imaginable.

“My host, Dean Dremmond, sent me up to my room to prepare as best I could, and promised to send someone along to serve as valet. A few minutes later, the most beautiful young man I had ever laid eyes upon – this angelic vision, slim and with perfect carriage, golden hair, astonishing blue eyes—” Justin looked to Nikola as he spoke; the younger man had the grace to blush at the description “—walked into my room and asked how he might be of service.”

Wisteria glanced to her golden-haired, blue-eyed husband, then back to Justin, perplexed. “But that cannot have been Nikola?”

“Yes! Exactly! That cannot have been Nikola!” Justin said, prompting a laugh from Nikola. “The Strikers’ only son was a mere child, so young I had not yet been introduced to him! And there is no sane reason in Paradise that a count’s heir with a Blessing would come into my room to act as valet. That is precisely why, even when I asked his name and was told ‘Nik Striker’ – note the lack of any title! – it never occurred to me that there could be a relation.”

Nikola was still laughing. “I was not trying to mislead him, Wisteria. It was—”

“Shut up, Nikola, this is my story and we’ve already established you cannot be in it yet. So I spent half an hour doing my best not to molest this handsome angel, who by the by had brought me food, gently brushed the tangles from my hair, washed and massaged my aching feet, and was in every way all that one might hope for from a valet. By arcane means I am no longer able to explain, I somehow concluded from this that he must be flirting with me—”

“—probably because I was—”

“—so I kissed – wait, what?” Justin broke off his narrative as his mind processed Nikola’s interruption.

Nikola laughed. “Justin, I was all but fondling you the entire time I helped you dress.”

“But I – you – you were terrified when I kissed you!”

“Yes! That you’d stop. Which you did.

“Because you were whimpering in fear!”

“I was not! Arousal, maybe. Come, Justin, I knew you didn’t realize this at the time, but you must have known when I came back?”

“I…” Justin’s mind reeled as he sorted through all the misunderstandings and different interpretations he’d made of the long-ago events. “…I never did.”

“Why did you think I’d come back?”

Justin blinked at him, not answering. Between them, Wisteria asked, “My lords?”

Nikola explained for her, “After discerning – correctly! – that I was flirting with him, Justin kissed me. Passionately. I panicked, because it was Lord Comfrey, whom I’d been infatuated with for years—”

“—what?” Justin demanded.

“—and he was actually kissing me and I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond and I was terrified that I’d do the wrong thing and he’d stop. Since I was not responding, Justin decided I must be repulsed and stopped. And laughed, like it was all just a joke and he hadn’t meant anything by it. And clapped me on the shoulder and ran off to his function—”

Justin propped himself higher on one arm and waved the other. “Wait, stop, go back, what was that ‘infatuated for years’ bit? We’d never so much as met before!” I would have remembered you. You are unforgettable.

Nikola’s smile turned shy. “No, but I’d watched you at sporting competitions. And I snuck down to a party you were attending at Anverlee Manor one year. Did you ever see him compete, Wisteria? He won all sorts of tournaments. Fencing, archery, backball…”

She shook her head. “I do not believe so; I’ve attended few sporting events.”

“Ah, pity. He’s magnificent.” Nikola extended a hand to caress one well-developed bicep through Justin’s shirt.

Justin blinked. “So…you knew of me already?”

“Justin, I volunteered for that assignment, the instant Dremmond’s butler came looking for someone. Did I truly never tell you?”

Stunned, he shook his head. “I had not the smallest notion.”

Nikola smiled, leaning across Wisteria to kiss him. “I can scarce remember a time when I did not long for you, Justin,” he murmured. Justin was still reeling from the shock of revelation.




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Justin was still reeling from bliss as Nikola fell onto his side beside the two of them and snuggled close with an arm over his wife’s back as she lay on top of Justin. She extended an arm blindly to circle his waist. “Oh, my lords, that was the most sublime, amazing thing I have ever felt.”

“Agreed.” Nikola slipped an arm under Justin’s head and kissed first him then Wisteria, before hugging both fiercely. “I love you both so much.”

The slim, long-legged beauty laying against Justin caressed Nikola before wriggling off to lie on the opposite side of Justin and rest her chin on his chest. “You are the best husband in all Paradise,” she told Nikola. “I’ve loved Lord Com – Justin – for so long.” Addressing Justin directly, she added, “You have been such a good friend to me, to both of us, strong and loyal and brave.” Justin found himself blushing again, listening to them. He’d long known Nikola loved him, but the two of them had never spoken of emotions before. It was strange to hear it now, strange and heart-achingly sweet. “But I always thought it would make you unhappy, Nikola, if you knew of my feelings.”

Nikola shook his head, smiling. “I would have thought so too, but it doesn’t. I am thrilled. My sole regret about marriage was giving him up. And now I have you back.” He rose on one arm to kiss Justin, stroking his cheek.

Justin hugged Nikola one-armed to his side. He still could not believe that this was real. Madness seems so much more plausible.

I will never consent to be cured of this.

He had never been happier in his life. Lying between his two favorite people in all Paradise, he realized that this was what he had been longing for. This peace, this connection, this comfortable physical ease, this is what he had needed even more than gratification. To stop hiding, to stop pretending, if only with these two, if only for a little while. He was more relaxed than he’d been in months, no guilt, no shame, no regrets.

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” Nikola murmured, reaching across Justin’s chest to stroke his wife’s cheek.

She stirred to press against his fingers. “Oh yes.”

Justin chuckled, squeezing them closer. “Alas that we cannot. Does Fireholt still hold Temple service at four o’clock, Nikola?”

“Ugh. Unfortunately.” Nikola shuddered. “What time is it?”

Wisteria lifted her head enough to see the clock on the mantlepiece against the wall beyond Nikola. “Half past two.”

Nikola groaned and snuggled closer to Justin, curling one leg across his and stroking Wisteria’s thigh with his toes. “I suppose I ought to get ready. I’m leading the service so it’ll be short, at any rate.” He sighed.

“Probably we all should.” Wisteria turned her head to kiss Nikola’s hand, then Justin’s chest. Her lips drifted to encircle one bare nipple, hand gliding down his abdomen to rest atop his hip.

Justin arched, half-laughing. “Ahhhh, my very dear Wisteria, that will get one part of me to rise, but it will by no means encourage me to leave your bed.”

The blond man on his other side shifted to drop kisses on both of them as he sat up. “You two may play as you like, but I had best arrive a little early. Excuse me, my lord, my lady.” He slid from the bed and padded into the bathing chamber to clean up.

Justin snagged Wisteria’s hand and pulled her up with his other arm for a quick kiss before she could tempt him further. As if she wasn’t tempting enough just being her beautiful self pressed nude against him. He ran a hand through her thick curls, smiling at her. “I should not wear myself or you out completely, my dear.”

She nodded, settling for a moment with her legs twined about his thigh and her face against his shoulder. She held him tightly, and they lay together a few minutes longer before rising.

The three of them helped one another dress in lieu of the usual servants. Nikola finished first and went to his study to collect his notes, leaving Wisteria alone with Justin as she tied his neckcloth. He stood at ease, watching her as she worked. Like her husband, she wore simple jewelry for the occasion: a single brooch of onyx and gold styled in Fireholt’s symbol pinned to the short-waisted embroidered violet jacket she wore over her long gown, gold bracelets clasped around her wrists. Her expression was neutral as always, her motions brisk and efficient. When she was done, he caught her about the waist and pulled her close; her body melted gratifyingly against his. “How are you feeling?” he asked her. “No regrets?”

Wisteria shook her head. “I am so very happy, my lord.” She rested her cheek against his shoulder. “I feel wonderful. A little wicked, perhaps, for doing something so outrageous that even I never imagined such things could happen. And I was sure you must have lost all interest in me, and that it was very wrong of me that I could not put you out of my mind even as much as I love Nikola. Now…it’s as if I had been trying to put a puzzle together with half the pieces flipped over. Now that they’re all right-side up everything fits together beautifully.” She burrowed in against him, as if to remind him just how well they had fit together. As if he needed any reminders.

Justin smiled and kissed her forehead. “A little too well, perhaps.”

“What do you mean, my lord?”

“Ah, do not mind a cynical old madman, my dear. I am only thinking that something so improbable cannot possibly last. But that will not stop me from enjoying it in the moment.” He released her to offer his arm. “Come, let us join Nikola that we may all walk out together. We ought not arouse suspicions.”




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Before Wisteria had even reached the lawn, she regretted the bluntness of her words. Nikola never minded when she was straightforward, but what must Lord Comfrey think of her? He had been so circumspect with her these last several months, and her speech was so wanton – she was sure even her husband thought it strange that she would enjoy watching two men be intimate. But I couldn’t let them believe I would be full of moral outrage at their actions. Could I? Perhaps I should have left it at “I do not mind” and not explained the why.

She crossed the lawn to the gazebo, an edifice with waist-high stone walls and the upper half an open-air wooden frame with a tiled roof. Workers had replaced the decaying wickerwork a couple of months ago, and re-tiled the roof so that it looked like new again. The seats and backs of the interior stone benches were now covered with weatherproof cushions. Wisteria took a seat inside and fretted. Do I not mind? Or did I only think it all right when I was able to watch? Did Nikola ask me to leave so they could resume without an audience? Wisteria imagined the two men reviling her as soon as she was out of earshot, for spying upon them and for having such perverse desires. It made a depressing image, and would not be the first time her manners had been despised. But surely they would not judge me harshly when their own desires are atypical. Would they? And if Nikola thought me out of line he would tell me. That was reassuring. But would Lord Comfrey? Lord Comfrey had not been himself that entire interview; even I could tell that. He hardly spoke. It’s not like him to be so quiet.

Preoccupied with anxious thoughts, she did not notice the two men returning until they were almost to the gazebo. Wisteria rose to greet them. “Hello, my lords.” They were both smiling as they approached. That has to be a good sign, right? Lord Comfrey was not smiling when we spoke earlier. They still looked damp and rumpled, although they had put themselves back in some order: Nikola had tied back his hair, while Lord Comfrey had exchanged his fraying clubbed hair style for a simple ponytail. Lord Comfrey had also fixed the shirt he’d buttoned on crookedly earlier. Her husband motioned for the raven-haired lord to precede him into the gazebo.

The viscount bowed to her as he stepped through the entryway and stood before her. “Mrs. Striker.” He paused, glancing to her husband. Nikola made an encouraging motion. Lord Comfrey cleared his throat. “This is going to be a hideously awkward moment to regain my senses, I’ll have you know.”

Nikola’s smile widened. “You’re not crazy, Comfrey. You have my professional word on it.”

“That would be more reassuring were it not exactly what I’d expect from a demon-induced hallucination,” Lord Comfrey said, making her husband chuckle.

“My lords?” Wisteria resumed her seat, perplexed.

“Never mind.” Comfrey sat sideways on the bench before her, so close they were almost touching. He took her hand, his thumb caressing her knuckles. “My dear Mrs. Striker, my friend Lord Nikola and I have been speaking most bluntly, a pastime at which you know I have no skill. I have confessed that I once proposed to you and believed you to find the offer – ah, to be more blunt still, my person – attractive. Would you say that was accurate, my dear? It is quite all right to answer, I promise.”

“…you know it is, my lord.” Wisteria was still confused. His manner was more like himself again, but something about this made her uneasy. She glanced at Nikola and he smiled at her, giving a small nod.

“And do you yet feel this attraction?” Lord Comfrey asked in a rush.

“Yes?” She was still looking at Nikola. “Is this a problem, my lord? I know Lord Comfrey isn’t int—”

She was interrupted as Lord Comfrey captured her face in his hands and kissed her with a dizzying passion. “Lord Comfrey,” he told her when he paused for breath, “is expert at feigning a disinterest that has nothing whatsoever to do with his real inclinations.”

“…oh.” She gazed at his eyes, so dark and intense, feeling lost.

Nikola poked his friend’s side. “You were supposed to ask her first.”

“May I kiss you again, Mrs. Striker?” Lord Comfrey asked, one hand still cradling her cheek.

“Um.” She wanted to say yes but she wasn’t sure she was supposed to. She glanced to her husband, standing a few feet away from them. “Is this a test, my lord?”

Nikola shook his head. “No! More of…er…an experiment?” He moved to sit behind her as she faced Lord Comfrey; Nikola’s arms slid around her waist and held her close in the way he only did when they were alone. “This was my idea. There’s no wrong answer.” Nikola dipped his head to nuzzle the side of her neck, kissing her nape. “I know it sounds absurd, but I thought—”

“We thought,” Lord Comfrey interjected.

“—we thought that if you enjoyed watching us, you might enjoy…doing…more. With us. Both of us.”

“Were we mistaken, my dear?” Lord Comfrey asked. “I did mention that I’ve gone delusional, did I not?”

“He’s joking,” Nikola clarified.

“He thinks I’m joking. In any case, I am very serious about wanting to kiss you but do not wish to press—”

Wisteria looped her hands behind Lord Comfrey’s neck and pulled him to her for another kiss. He moved with her, pressing her back against Nikola as his shirt-clad chest brushed against hers. One of his hands dropped to her thigh for balance as his tongue slipped between parted lips to explore her mouth. She could feel Nikola’s teeth raking over the skin of her neck, hands stroking her stomach. “Yes,” she said, when she was capable of speech again. “Please.”

Lord Comfrey chuckled, kissing a line down her face and neck until he intercepted Nikola over her shoulder and kissed him as well. His hands drifted up her torso to caress the slight curves of her breasts and prompt her to arch into his touch. They continued their exploration up to the collar of Wisteria’s dress, and hesitated before undoing the top button. He sat back, drawing a shuddering breath. “Perhaps…we ought continue this somewhere more comfortable. And private.”

“Mmm.” Wisteria had her eyes half-closed, hands wandering the considerable breadth of Lord Comfrey’s muscular shoulders. “Whatever you wish, my lords.”




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After his wife had disappeared into the woods, Nikola re-seated himself sideways on the blanket, legs stretched to one side and loose hair thrown over his shoulder as he leaned on one arm. Wet and disheveled and gorgeous, he made no effort to speak, only waited.

Justin paced, mind so whiplashed by the conflict between reality and expectation that he could not form a coherent thought. At length, he dropped to sit cross-legged before Nikola. “Did you – did you know…?” He trailed off, words still failing him.

“Had I the smallest idea of her reacting so…positively, I should have acted months ago.” Nikola offered a lopsided smile. “No, when we discussed extramarital affairs, our understanding was that fidelity would be preferable. I did not – I do not – wish to give her pain, and it seemed…advisable at the time.”

“How in Paradise could you ever bring such a topic up? With your wife?”

Nikola laughed. “What makes you think I brought it up? Did I never tell you, Justin? She raised the subject at our first meeting. It’s why my parents took such a dislike to her for a time.”

She planned to have an affair? And told you so?”

“No, not at all. Well, not at that time.”

“There was more than one time?”

He nodded, chuckling at Justin’s boggled expression. “Wisteria likes to prepare for contingencies, and to be straightforward about…everything.” His smile turned dreamy. “She is the most wonderful woman in Paradise. The first time she didn’t have anyone in mind, but she knew my reputation and did not want to assume I’d be faithful. In retrospect, she was entirely right in that. The next time was when I proposed, in fact. Do you know she nearly refused me?”

Justin blinked a few times. “I did not.”

“She thought herself unfit for marriage because she wanted another man as well as myself.”

“Did she.” Justin listened with a deepening sense of dread.

Nikola rolled to sit with his legs before him, leaning back on his arms and gazing at the sky. “I had to assure her that I would rather share her with another man than have no claim on her at all.”

Justin swallowed. “…would you?”

Another chuckle. “Paradise, yes. When she first spoke of it, I was so jealous of that man, whoever he was – she would not tell me his name. I would think of that faceless individual and wonder what attraction he must hold for her. Was he too lowborn for her to wed, and that was why she chose me instead? Married already and thus ineligible? I cannot say the question did not trouble me. But having no part of her, that was intolerable. It was months before I had any suspicion who he might be.” Nikola rolled to face Justin again, torso supported on one arm while the other extended to caress Justin’s cheek. “But I believe now she must have meant you. And…I have no idea how you feel about my wife, Justin. But I find the idea of sharing her with you concerns me not at all.” He scooted closer and leaned forward to kiss Justin.

“Nikola – you cannot – your wife – you cannot mean this.” A flare of hope burned inside him: so hot it hurt, disappointment certain.

“Can’t I?” Nikola nipped at Justin’s lower lip, tantalizing. “But I do. I love you both so much; I can think of no more perfect Paradise than one where I may share you with one another, where I may see you both as happy together as I am with each of you.”

Overwhelmed, Justin wrapped his arms about Nikola and toppled him backwards to press him against the blanket and cover him with kisses. The blond man laughed in delight and answered his embrace. After a few moments, Nikola rolled Justin onto his back and pinned him down, kneeling over him with his hands on Justin’s shoulders. “I take that to mean the idea is not without appeal to you as well?”

Justin growled, wrapping his hands over Nikola’s rear and squeezing. “It may have escaped your notice, boy, that your wife is the most desirable woman in Paradise, but it has not escaped mine. And I have clearly gone mad with lust and am trapped in some demon-fashioned delusion because this cannot be happening. So let us find Mrs. Striker at once, because curst if I am not taking fullest advantage of this hallucination before I have the misfortune of being cured by my excellent mind-healer friend.”

§


As they walked down the trail, Nikola spoke of how to approach his wife. “We should ask her outright if she’s interested. I know that sounds too forthright, but she’ll appreciate it. She needs clear explanations. If we tried seducing her without speaking plainly first, she’d be confused and upset.”

Justin nodded slowly. Is that why she always withdrew from my embrace? How does one explain such desires in words?

Nikola continued, answering his unspoken question. “Perhaps start by asking her if you are that other man she said she was attracted to when I proposed. Oh, and reassure her that it’s all right for her to answer.”

Would she mention the proposal? She’d have to realize I haven’t told Nikola about it or I wouldn’t be asking such an absurd question. Wouldn’t she? Justin lagged behind, mind turning to all the ways this could go wrong.

His tall friend had outpaced him by a few yards before he noticed and turned. “Justin? What is it?”

Aching with desire, Justin stared into those beautiful blue eyes. He’ll hate me if he finds out. I can’t tell him. I can’t lose him, not again. “Perhaps this is a mistake.”

Nikola walked back to stand before him, extending a hand to cup his cheek. “She won’t be offended that we asked, not even if she’s uninterested. She always prefers openness.”

What am I doing? I am the least open man in Paradise. “It’s not that.”

Nikola half-smiled, dipping his head to Justin’s. “Timidity is unlike you, my friend,” he murmured before kissing him.

As he answered the kiss, Justin locked powerful arms around Nikola. He lifted Nikola and pivoted to press him against a tree, kissing and caressing with a hunger that was almost violent, angry.

Terrified.

Justin pulled back, gasping, arms still imprisoning Nikola. The other lord blinked at him in a daze of desire and confusion. “Justin?”

“I know it’s me.” Don’t hate me. “Nikola, I proposed to her.” As soon as the words were out, Justin wanted to take it back. What are you thinking? You’ll ruin everything. You’ve ruined everything.

“What?” Nikola stiffened in his arms.

Please don’t hate me. It was too late now to stop. “The day of our break. I proposed to Wisteria.” Nikola stared at him, tense: Justin couldn’t tell if he didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand. “She did not accept, obviously. But she would have, had it not been for you.”    

“You proposed to Wisteria? Directly after I told you I wanted to marry her?”

He dropped his eyes. “Yes.”

Nikola struggled in Justin’s embrace and the stronger man released him, stepping back. Nikola clenched his fists at his sides. “How dare you? Did you hate me so much?”

Justin gave a bark of humorless laughter. “Do you think so little of me, Nikola, that you believe I would propose to a woman out of spite?”

The pale man colored. “Well, why else…would…” He paused, swallowing. “You truly wished to wed her?”

Justin turned away. “She’s only woman I’ve ever wanted as wife. I daresay the only one I’ll ever ask.”

“…I had no idea.”

“I know it was ill-done of me, after you’d stated your intentions, to take advantage of your condition so.” Justin forced himself onward. I can hardly make this worse now. “But I’d just lost you. I did not want to lose her as well. I had to try.”

“But…why would she refuse you?” Nikola asked, so bewildered that Justin chuckled. “Why take my impoverished backwards holding when she could have Comfrey Viscountcy, wealth, and prestige, not to mention the most handsome man in Newlant?”

Justin smiled briefly before sobering. “Did you never ask her why she chose you?”

“She never told me anyone else had offered. I thought the other man ineligible.”

“Ah.”

“Did she tell you?”

Justin shook his head. “I did not ask. I did not have to; she chose the better man.”

Nikola snorted. “I don’t even understand why she didn’t accept you at once. Could she have expected me to ask?”

“Well. Yes. Since I told her to.”

“You told her I intended to propose? At the same time that you yourself proposed?”

Justin winced and nodded.

Nikola sank to the ground, his back against the tree. “I don’t know whether I should call you out or thank you.”

“It was ill-done of me.” Justin repeated. He could say that much. He could not apologize, not sincerely. He regretted asking only because he’d been refused. He’d do it all again for the chance that she’d accept.

His friend rubbed a pale hand over angular features. “This is quite a day for revelations. So…if you know that Wisteria wanted you, why do you think it a mistake to ask her now? Do you think she’s changed her mind?”

“No…I thought you’d be angry. If you learned of the proposal.”

Nikola looked up at Justin, still standing on the dirt trail. He extended one hand, and Justin took it, helping Nikola to his feet. “I don’t know. It was ill-done of you. But I cannot swear that I would have done otherwise in your place.” Nikola stroked Justin’s cheek with his thumb. “I cannot claim the moral high ground, not after attempting to seduce my guest with my wife watching.”

“Were you seducing me? I thought I was seducing you.”

Justin.” Nikola enfolded him in his arms. “I forgive you. And I still mean what I said earlier. I’d rather share you with her, and her with you. Shall we see what Wisteria thinks of it?”

Exhaling, Justin squeezed him. “As you will, my lord. But for the record, I am still certain this is madness.”




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Justin gloried in the closeness to his love, bodies pressed together, ardent kisses fending off the underlying terror that at any moment it might end. But the small part of his mind that was always on guard against discovery was thinking What will onlookers make of the condition of our clothes? Justin brushed it aside as irrelevant. A little whimper escaped him as Nikola’s hand wormed under his trousers to close around his erection. The servants are all gone off for the day, there’s no one around to notice. Except Wisteria.

Wisteria.

Justin’s fingers trembled against Nikola’s trousers, then clenched on air. Shuddering, he pushed himself away, rolling to one side to sit with his elbows on his knees and his palms pressed against his eyes.

“Justin?” Nikola touched his arm. Justin shook him off and scrambled to his feet to stalk a few paces away. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Justin gave a bark of bitter laughter, half-turning to look back at his former lover. “What’s wrong? Demons take us both! What’s right? You have a wife, Striker! A devoted, beautiful, intelligent woman who curst well deserves better from you – from us – than this.” For the first time, after a lifetime with any number of adulterous encounters, Justin was ashamed.

Flushing, Nikola approached, reaching for him again. “I know…I…I’ll talk to her, Justin, it—”

“No!” Justin knocked the pale hand away with a snarl of pain. “I’ll not be the wedge driven between the two of you! Curse it, Striker, this is madness of the worst kind! Why have you never cured us?”

Striker turned away as if slapped. Before he could respond, a new voice interrupted. “Good morning, my lords,” Mrs. Striker said. Both men gave a guilty start as she emerged from the trees surrounding the meadow. “Before you decide what I want, I recommend consulting me on the subject first. I may have some insights for you.”

Justin’s glib tongue failed him; he’d been caught in potentially compromising situations before but never one so revealing as this. Beside him, Nikola stammered: “Wisteria – I – we – we were just—”    

“Making love,” Mrs. Striker provided in her usual calm way. Justin felt all the mortification of the words. Had she been anyone else, he would have demanded the statement be retracted or that he be given satisfaction, and never mind the truth of the accusation. But she was Nikola’s wife, and it was her trust they had betrayed, and that…mattered. “I apologize, my lords; I have been watching for several minutes.”

Is she actually apologizing to us for catching us in the act of adultery? If the situation had not been so painful it would have been funny. There was nothing he could do, no words or deeds by which he could make this right. Decency demanded he try anyway. “The fault is entirely mine, Mrs. Striker,” Justin said, voice heavy and without conviction. But better that she blame me. She doesn’t have to live with me. “I regret extremely my actions and my abuse of your hospitality. I will remove myself at once. Please excuse me.” He bowed low, not looking at her, then headed at once to the path. He did not even pause to retrieve his shoes. I deserve worse than sore feet for this debacle. Blood and death, what was I thinking?

“Why are you leaving?” Mrs. Striker asked. Justin froze, with no idea how to begin to answer that question. How could I stay, after what she has witnessed? The slender woman strode to his side and took his hand with a gentleness that made no sense at all. “When I said that you ought to consult me before you reach any conclusions, that was actually what I meant. I should like to talk with you. With both of you. Will you not do this for me, please, Lord Comfrey?”

Justin would have sooner accepted demonic possession, would have preferred to be left behind in the Abandoned World. But under the circumstances, he had no moral force with which to refuse. He closed his eyes, swallowed, and nodded. “As you wish, Mrs. Striker.”   

“Oh good.” She led him back to her husband. Nikola silently handed Justin his shirt and shoes, then started buttoning his own shirt. Mrs. Striker produced a picnic basket, of all things, from behind a tree. She spread the blanket from it and sat with her legs folded to one side.

“Wisteria.” Nikola found his voice at last. “I am so very sorry. I don’t know what came over me – it wasn’t Comfrey’s fault at all, I—”    

“You know, perhaps it would save some time if I went first.” Mrs. Striker patted the blanket in invitation. “You both seem to be under the misapprehension that I am dreadfully upset. I am not, in fact, upset at all. Well, I suppose if I thought about it I could be a trifle upset with you, Nikola, because you gave me to understand you were uninvolved with anyone other than me and I am confused as to why you’d mislead me on this point. But you could make me forget all about that in five seconds by kissing each other again, because the two of you making love has been one of my favorite fantasies for the last eight months and it’s even better in reality than it was in my imagination.”

With some hesitation, Justin had approached the blanket as she spoke. By the time she was done, he did not so much sit as collapse onto one corner, staring slack-jawed at her.

Nikola sat as well, blushing furiously. “Wisteria – I – you…truly?”   

“Yes. And I apologize if I am not supposed to admit that, but not talking about things does not seem to be working for any of us so I thought perhaps we could try the converse for a bit and see how that goes?”

Justin was still trying to wrap his mind around this. “So…you were watching us – and not interrupting – because you were enjoying it?”

“Yes. That is, at first I didn’t interrupt because I was so surprised. I had not expected to see anything of the kind, well, ever. But mostly because I thought if I said anything, you’d stop and I didn’t want you to,” she answered, matter-of-fact. “I was rather frustrated that you stopped anyway. That the cessation was intended for my benefit seems particularly unfair.”

With one hand against the blanket, Justin leaned on his arm for support and blinked at her in a wordless stupor.

“…why would you fantasize about us?” Nikola asked plaintively.

“Have you looked at yourselves? Why wouldn’t I fantasize about you?” Mrs. Striker said, as if that were an explanation. “Why did you never tell me you had a tendre for Lord Comfrey when we were discussing extramarital affairs?”

This penetrated Justin’s stupor. “You discussed extramarital affairs?”

“Wisteria talks about everything,” Nikola said. “It’s one of her best features. Wisteria, I didn’t tell you about him because we weren’t involved. That is, er, we broke it off prior to the engagement.”

Just prior to the engagement,” Justin muttered with a trace of bitterness. His usual self-censors must have been shocked into dysfunctionality; under normal circumstances he could not imagine saying a word about any of this.

“Did you break because of the engagement?” the dark-haired woman asked.

“…sort of. Comfrey feared you’d expose us if you found out, and I didn’t want to keep it secret from you if the affair were still ongoing.”    

“How very awful.” Mrs. Striker turned to Justin and covered his hand with hers. “I would never expose you, my lord, I swear it. I would never let anything unpleasant happen to you, ever, if it were in my power to prevent it.”

Justin stared at her hand over his. How can she say that? She should hate me for what I’ve done, what I am. How can she wish to protect me instead? “Am I dreaming?”

“You know, that was my first thought too?” She squeezed his hand. Her grip felt warm and solid. “I am confident we are not.”

“I don’t see how this can be real. You truly do not mind that I was…kissing your husband?”

“If it helps, I will forgive you if you promise to do it again?”

Nikola leaned across the blanket to take Justin’s chin in his hand and tilted Justin’s face until their eyes met. Long loose blond hair fell in a curtain along one side of his face as Nikola closed his eyes to kiss Justin, gently. He drew back an inch to murmur, “She truly does not mind. Wisteria doesn’t say things unless she means them.”

Justin realized he was blushing; his eyes darted to glance sidelong at Striker’s wife.

She was watching them raptly. “You need not stop on my account.”   

Justin pulled back anyway. He stood, stepping back from the picnic blanket and onto the grass of the meadow. “I…this is all so strange.” He ran his hands over his head to push back stray hairs that had escaped from the club securing the rest at the nape of his neck.

Nikola turned to his wife and kissed her too. “Will you give us a few moments alone, my love?”

After she assented, Nikola stood and helped her to her feet. Mrs. Striker shook out her long violet skirt. “I’ll wait for you in the gazebo, my lords.” She curtsied and strolled away.




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Nikola and Justin spent more effort on conversation than fishing; for his part, Justin found conversation more rewarding. Still, they lapsed into companionable silence at times. Even spread out, Nikola’s jacket wasn’t wide enough for them to sit upon without touching occasionally, and Justin was keenly aware of his friend’s nearness. Whenever Justin shifted and stretched to keep himself from stiffening, he inched a little farther away, until he was sitting half-off the jacket in an effort to get a buffer of distance between them. Which was the opposite of what he wanted: his mind was full of fantasies of pushing Nikola down on the moss and making love to him as they had of old. Why did I choose this spot, so full of memories? It was almost intolerable to brush against Nikola when he could not claim him. Distance was safer. A little safer. Has anyone ever petitioned you to mend a broken heart, Nikola? If the Savior cannot heal it, do you know how long it takes to recover on its own? Will I never stop wanting you? He could say none of it.

The day grew warmer, the sun chasing back their shade as it climbed. During a conversational lull, Nikola yawned and shook his head. “Ah, forgive me, Comfrey. This heat is making me drowsy.” He set his fishing rod down to stand and stretch, then bent to slip out of shoes and stockings and roll up his trouser legs. The fair-skinned man picked his way down a sloped section of bank to stand in the shallow water along the edge.

“Testing to see if human toes make more appetizing bait than shiny baubles?” Justin watched the waterfall upstream to avoid staring, but from the corner of his eye he could see his friend’s lithe form as Nikola shook the kinks from his shoulders.

“They can’t do worse.” Nikola wiggled his toes in the muck and bent to splash water on his face and hands.

Justin was more overheated than ever, and the water looked cool and inviting. What harm could there be in bare feet? There is nothing whatsoever for a normal man to find erotic in this. (Yes, and there has never been anything normal about my desires.) He pulled up one foot at a time to unbuckle his own shoes despite his misgivings.

“Did you want to keep on fishing?” Nikola asked. “I think I’ll swim for a bit instead. I don’t suppose it’ll scare the fish any more than the lures do.”

Justin froze in the act of placing stockings atop shoes. He finished the movement with exaggerated care and looked up to see Nikola turned in profile to him, eyes on the depths of the pool. His handsome friend unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of it, tossing it carelessly atop the jacket. Justin clenched his fingers against the urge to run them over exposed Haventure-pale skin, to feel the lines of lean supple muscle. Nikola drew the ribbon from his ponytail and ran his fingers through long loose waves of golden hair as he waded deeper into the pool.

Justin splashed into the pool after him. Nikola was up to his thighs before he felt a hand on his upper arm. “Am I stone, Nikola?” Justin asked, softly. Skin flushed pink beneath his fingers. Need overcame restraint and he circled his other arm about the fair man’s waist, caressing his stomach, pulling Nikola to him to press the younger man’s back against his chest. He nuzzled aside golden hair to bare Nikola’s shoulder to his lips. His former lover’s body tensed against his touch, but Justin could not make himself draw back. “Am I unfeeling rock? You are not sixteen, Nikola. Nor innocent.” He kissed the exposed shoulder, skin reddened and heated against his lips. “You know full well what effect you have on me.” In emphasis, Justin ground his hips against Nikola’s rear, ensuring he felt the erection through their clothes.

“I…Justin, I’m…” Whatever he was going to say trailed off unfinished.

“Curse it, boy. Fidelity was your choice.” Justin nipped at the side of Nikola’s throat, provoking a stifled moan. One hand drifted up Nikola’s chest, feeling firm muscle beneath the skin. “Why are you tormenting me like this?”

Nikola shuddered under the attentions of hands and mouth, then twisted to face him. Justin released Nikola and forced himself back a step, eyes down. “I’m not sorry,” Nikola whispered, hoarse and fierce, following Justin’s retreat and wrapping him in his arms to prevent further withdrawal as Nikola dipped his head to lock his mouth over Justin’s. They kissed with the pent-up passion of months of frustrated desire. Nikola tore open Justin’s shirt to stroke the skin beneath. “I can’t stop wanting you, Justin,” Nikola whispered, lips moving from Justin’s to press against his cheek, to lick his ear. “I’ve tried, I’ve been trying for months, but it’s all pretense. I am so very tired of pretending, my lord.” Teeth raked over the curve of Justin’s ear, Nikola’s hips grinding urgently against his.

With a groan of pure need, Justin lifted Nikola and carried him to the bank. He laid him down on the moss and covered him with his body, his dominant thought take him now before he changes his mind. Nikola arched into his mouth as Justin bit down on a stiffened nipple, a hand clamping on the back of Justin’s head to hold him in place. Justin stroked his fingers over the trousers covering Nikola’s cock, fumbled at the stiff wet cloth as he tried to unbutton them, fingers clumsy and shaking with need.

§


Nikola’s note had said he expected to find Justin near the waterfall, which didn’t surprise Wisteria. It was one of the most picturesque spots in Fireholt; she and Nikola had been there many times on pleasant days like this one. It was also private, screened off by forest and part of the few dozen acres that remained reserved to the lord of the manor. As she walked up the final rise, she hadn’t heard or seen them yet. But she didn’t expect to; the waterfall often masked other sounds.

The first indication that the men were about was a towel hanging from a tree not far from the pool. She continued along the path, peering between the trees to look for them. Wisteria was about to call out when she saw two figures standing hip-deep in the water. Standing oddly close together in the water. With their arms about one another. How strange. Are they all right? By build and hair color, the two had to be her husband and Lord Comfrey, but why would their heads be so…Oh.

Oh.

Stunned, Wisteria stepped off the path and into the trees, using them for cover as she drew nearer. She watched as Lord Comfrey lifted her half-naked husband from the pool, as Nikola stripped the dark-haired man of his shirt, pale pink hands moving with eager, practiced assurance over golden-brown skin. They lay together on the mossy bank, Comfrey half on his side and half on top of Nikola, kissing, licking, nibbling at her husband.

Am I dreaming? Wisteria touched the bark of the tree she was half-hiding behind. It felt very real. My husband is making love with Lord Comfrey.

It was the most moving, erotic thing she’d ever witnessed. They looked beautiful and right together, as if they were made for this intimacy. She set her half-forgotten basket on the bare earth and crept nearer, wanting to see more, sensible of the impropriety of her actions but unwilling to stop herself.




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It was Sunday, the third day of Justin’s stay at Fireholt. On the bright side, each day was no longer bleak and colorless. Justin hardly knew how he felt from one moment to the next, but “colorless” definitely was not it. At times he grasped the easy companionship he craved, as at home at Fireholt as anywhere, bantering with Nikola and his wife on walks about the grounds, playing cards and other games in the evening, as comfortable as he gave the appearance of being. Other times, he was so consumed by desire that a lifetime of practice at concealing his passion did not seem equal to the task. He had already masturbated three times since his arrival and had contemplated locating the local whore – there must be one – and would have if he thought it would make any difference. It was like satisfying hunger by drinking water: it might temporarily sate the appetite, but it could not touch the underlying need.

Like his great-grandmother before him, Nikola had always given his staff a holiday on Sundays, a quirk his marriage had not altered. Rather than have his people be the only ones in Fireholt working, Justin had followed local custom and allowed them the day off as well. Thus he rose and dressed alone. Mrs. Striker had told him the night before what the breakfast arrangements were, but he couldn’t remember the specifics when he got to the kitchen. He scavenged a few hard-boiled eggs and a pastry that might or might not have been set aside for this purpose. When he finished, Striker and his wife were not awake yet, or at least still in their chambers (thinking about what they might be doing if they were awake prompted a fourth effort at manual satisfaction of his unrelenting lust). So Justin ventured outside for his morning exercise.

He spent half an hour running trails through the wooded hills near the manor, and another half-hour on strength-training exercises. Now he closed with fencing drills in a meadow by the waterfall, where the brook pooled deep and still before meandering its final path to the ocean. Not even the greatcats were in evidence this morning; Justin felt like the only man in the world as he practiced his footwork.

§


Nikola and Wisteria had separate suites – Fireholt might be small for a lord’s holding, but not so small that the lord and his lady had to share sleeping quarters. The two suites did share an adjoining door for convenience, however. Nik usually came into Wisteria’s bedchamber after her maid had finished dressing her for bed and left. “I don’t know why I keep changing into nightclothes when I am just going to take them off again a quarter of an hour later,” Wisteria remarked once.   

Often they fell asleep intertwined. Nik always drew his nightshirt back on but sometimes Wisteria snuggled up to him nude and didn’t bother with her nightgown until the lady’s maid came back in the morning. Nik found this habit intensely erotic and did nothing to discourage her from it.

Last night had been such an occasion. Nik felt as if he’d been in a constant state of arousal since Comfrey’s arrival, and had been subjecting Wisteria to even more of his attentions than usual in an effort to give this lust an appropriate outlet. Thankfully, Wisteria was as eager as ever herself. This morning he had awakened to find her wrapped intimately about him, one hand stroking his cock and her own body aroused and ready for him. After they made love, she fell back into a doze. He held her for a while as she slept, then rose to check on their guest.

The door to Comfrey’s suite was open but he wasn’t in it, or any of the common rooms. Probably taking some exercise. I should wait for him here. The vivid memory of Comfrey shirtless and gleaming in the garden of his own home flashed through Nik’s mind. Or I could look for him. It’s a beautiful day, and I know his favorite trails and spots. He left a note on the dining table for Wisteria, and took fishing gear with him as an excuse to be out.

The early morning had been pleasantly cool, but as the sun rose higher the day turned warm, and Nik perspired while he hiked up the trail to the meadow by the waterfall. As he drew nearer, he could hear the pad of Comfrey’s feet and the occasional grunt of effort. The polite thing to do would be to call out, but Nik pretended he couldn’t hear. This had been a favored locale of theirs in years past; Nik felt himself warm further at the memory of some of the things they had done together in this pool. The trees thinned as he cleared a rise, and he could see Comfrey. The Newlanture man was turned away from him, moving with a practice foil in hand, feet shifting backwards and forwards along an invisible line. The foil’s blunted end dipped and wove with thrusts and parries against an imagined opponent.

Nikola drew to a halt, mesmerized. When he was a boy, before he’d even met Comfrey, he’d seen the lord compete in sporting events. That was how he’d first contrived this lifelong infatuation. He realized anew how much he missed watching Justin in such activities: grace, strength and skill combined in movement as elegant as any dance, the interplay of rippling muscles on Comfrey’s back as hypnotic as any cut-crystal adornments on an Ascension jacket. Nik stared, not wanting to say anything that might draw attention to himself, that might bring this private performance to an end.

But after several minutes, Comfrey lifted his sword in salute to his invisible opponent, and started to turn. Nikola hastily cleared his throat, resuming his approach. “Good morning, Comfrey.”

The dark-haired lord turned about to look at him. “Hello, Striker. I didn’t hear you coming.”

“It’s the waterfall.” As Nik entered the meadow, Comfrey splashed water over his torso to rinse off, then dried himself with a towel from a bag he’d brought.

“Indeed. So what brings you out here?”

“Looking for you.” Nikola motioned with the fishing poles resting against his shoulder. “One of my new brothers bought me this array of angling gear. I thought you might care to try it.”

“You know I am game for every sort of sport, Striker.” Comfrey tossed the damp towel over a tree limb and, to Nik’s regret, produced a shirt from the bag and buttoned it on.

“It is the least sporting sport I have tried,” Nik warned him. “It requires a great deal of patience and sitting. Well, one might stand if one preferred, but I don’t believe it helps any. It is, however, an excellent excuse for lazing next to a river for several hours, accomplishing nothing whatsoever in a socially-acceptable form.” He offered Comfrey one of the poles.

It was too warm for a jacket in such an informal environment; Nik took his off and draped it over a mossy spot along one of the higher sections of the bank for them to sit on. They sat side by side, legs dangling over the bank above the pool, while Nik showed him the assortment of baits and lures. “What works best for this area?” Comfrey asked

“Try one of these.” Nik pointed to a selection of lures supplemented by bright feathers. “They’ve not failed me yet. By which I mean ‘I’ve not tried them yet’. I have never caught anything except the occasional small branch. Byron has a theory that the greatcats have already caught all the stupid fish and the ones that remain are too clever to fall for some merely human ruse.”

“A likely scenario. Have you not yet learnt to stock your streams and hunting grounds if you expect to catch anything in them, Striker?”

“Having someone else catch or cultivate animals for me and then release them into my grounds so that I can try to catch them again has always seemed a bit…roundabout? For my tastes. Though I admit that hunting is more fun at the Markavian or on your grounds than here.”

Exactly. The point is to be entertained, my boy, not to be productive. Having a Blessing has given you entirely the wrong idea about what a lord ought to do.”

“It has?”

“Indeed! You have the misbegotten notion that a lord ought to be the benefactor of his people, healing their illnesses of body and mind and requiring no special reward for the service. Why, I suppose you even believe it is a lord’s purpose to be a good steward over his lands and to exercise wisely what powers Assembly has not yet legislated away from us.”

“It is possible I have been so informed. Yet this is not the true function?”

“Of course not. A lord’s proper role is to amuse himself and his peers with no regard to the ridiculousness of his pastimes. Indeed, the more ridiculous the better, for his goal is to prove himself the most useless of all. His purpose is to be fat, indolent and live off the fruits of other’s labors. Sitting about recapturing someone else’s captured fish is perfectly in keeping with the lordly way.”

“I observe, my lord—” Nik poked at Comfrey’s steely abdomen “—that you yourself have been less than exemplary in regards to gluttony and languor.”

“I have never claimed to be an exemplar of my class, Striker. We all have our vices,” Comfrey said, sanguine. He finished baiting his hook – “Aren’t we supposed to have servants for this sort of thing?” – and had Nikola show him how to cast off.

§


Fishing was a man’s pastime. Wisteria thought gendering activities as male or female was absurd and she was willing to defy convention and learn unwomanly things if they piqued her interest, as bowracing did.

But fishing did not sound exhilarating; it sounded rather dull, and she thought Nikola used it as an excuse to connect with his male friends instead of for its own sake. So when she found his note, she did not intend to intrude on his time with Lord Comfrey.

Usually she had no trouble entertaining herself alone; she loved the stillness and the freedom to concentrate on one thing uninterrupted. But today she was restless; her thoughts kept going to her husband and Lord Comfrey. She longed to be with them, to hear their laughter and banter. As the morning grew later and Wisteria foraged in the kitchen for a snack, she noticed the food set aside for dinner was still packed in its basket in the cupboard. I’ll carry it out to them, she decided. It’s a nice day and we can all enjoy a meal outside, and then I can leave them alone to their fishing or whatever afterwards.




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Fireholt’s front parlor had always been a charming room, with a view of the hills and brook, its thick stone walls covered by drywall painted a cheerful yellow. Nikola and his wife had updated the furniture since their marriage, recovering the threadbare sofa and chairs with a subdued flowery pattern that echoed the carved flowers in the wooden trim. Small matched ottomans sat before each chair. The room’s shelves and mantle showcased an eclectic selection of gifts from petitioners. Some showed great skill, such as the carved bust of Nikola’s great-grandmother, and others only great enthusiasm, such as a clay creation that was perhaps intended to be a greatcat, or the framed picture of a brown stick figure captioned “I lov yu”. There was nothing of pretension or ostentation in the chamber. Justin liked it.

He and Mrs. Striker sat together on the sofa, heads bent to look at her planning notes. As he reached to move a page and almost collided with her hand doing the same, he remembered their flirtation over the Colbury file, the feel of her fingers on his skin, her eyes betraying nothing when they met his. This was almost the first time he had been alone with the girl since her engagement. To distract himself from the memory and discourage the sudden urge to kiss her again, Justin leaned back on the sofa. “I fear for your state in this marriage business, my dear.”

She turned to him, shifting a few inches away on the sofa. “Why do you say that, my lord?”

“Why, because I can already tell you have made Striker a terribly happy man.”

“…I don’t believe I follow how this is a problem?”

“Do you not understand the importance of managing investor expectations, Mrs. Striker? How can you sustain such impossibly high standards as you have set for yourself?”

Mrs. Striker folded her hands in her lap, her light brown-gold skin a pleasant contrast against the pale green of her dress, and regarded him with her head tilted. “Isn’t that why I invited you here?”

If you want tips on how to satisfy your husband, I’ll be glad to demonstrate. This was not taking his mind from inappropriate topics. “Yet you are but three months into this venture and you are already drawing on your full resources. You ought to be holding a card such as myself in reserve, perhaps for his fiftieth naming day. If you give him everything his heart desires now, what will you use to appease him a year from now?”

“I think you are worrying over nothing, my lord,” the dark-haired woman replied. “I have been informed by no fewer than six gentlewomen, on my wedding day no less, that I should never be able to make my husband happy if I did not learn to smile more.”

“By women whose own husbands were henpecked miserable creatures, no doubt.”

“I fear I would not have noticed. However, it is clear to me that my husband’s natural good humor requires no help from me to maintain.”    

Justin laughed. “Your triumph is complete, if you have so transformed him. Tell me, my dear, how are you? Is marriage to your own liking?”

“So much so that mere words cannot express it, my lord. I love Nikola, and Fireholt, and having my own household to run just as I please. Nikola is the easiest man in Paradise to live with, he always encourages me to say just what I feel. You have no idea what a pleasure it is, not to feel as if I am being tested each day on some scale I cannot comprehend and am always failing.”

He smiled at her plain language. “So you do not miss Gracehaven?”    

“Oh, a little. I miss the plays and the music at times. And talking to my father and Byron, especially. Business is more difficult to manage at a remove and I regret that I cannot be as involved with Vasilver Trading as I once was. But I admire the peace here. It is so wonderfully easy to concentrate on a task, hours at a time with no interruptions. And we’ll be back soon enough for the season.” She took her teacup from the table and sipped. “No, I do not see how I could be happier, unless I could be wed to both of you.”

The last was spoken with such matter-of-fact simplicity, no pause nor weight to her tone, that it caught Justin off-guard. For a moment, the idea of it seized his imagination: of being gathered into their marriage instead of being divided from them by it. If Nikola could share his wife with me, would she be able to share me with him? It was as if he were a starving man being offered a feast.

An illusory feast he could never taste. It was shockingly painful to contemplate, knowing how impossible it was. No man, not even Nikola, would willingly share his wife; no woman, not even Wisteria, would tolerate her husband having an affair with a man. He closed his eyes against agonized longing. What am I doing here? Waiting to muster the courage to petition Nikola to cure this madness?

“My lord? I apologize, should I not have—”

Justin opened his eyes as she spoke, forcing a smile so artificial he doubted it would fool even her. “My dear Mrs. Striker, you must re-check your calculations. I daresay you would find two husbands to be twice the trouble but half the joy.”

“I do not think mathematical equations work that way, Lord Comfrey.”

“No, but relationships do.” He could withstand no more of this subject and took a page of Mrs. Striker’s notes from the table before them. “Since you miss the plays in Gracehaven, have you considered inducing your guests to perform for you? I am not the only one of Nikola’s acquaintance who enjoys being the center of attention.”

She put her hand over his. “I feel I have wronged you, my lord, and I do not know how to make it right.”

Even that touch was too much; he moved away, putting some distance between them. “Not at all. Dear lady, I have always been so wrong that I do not see how anyone might ever right me. Shall we return to the agenda, or must I sue the chairman to bring the meeting back to order?”

She dipped her head, dark curls falling from the comb to dangle against the side of her neck. “As you wish.”




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Long before Justin had set out for Fireholt, he knew this was a terrible idea.

He could not have refused Mrs. Striker’s plea, innocent of any desire beyond a wish to please her husband. Well, he could, and refusal would have been the sensible, prudent course. What did he think he was doing, agreeing to spend a week in the countryside with his former lover and the sole woman he’d ever wanted to marry, with no distractions from yearning and envy? Was a more certain recipe for disaster even imaginable?

But he missed them both too much to choose any sane course. Daily life felt empty of purpose or savor; he lived for the occasional letter from Wisteria – Mrs. Striker – or Nikola. Striker had never been a great correspondent – neither was Justin, for that matter – but his wife wrote every few days. Every letter closed with “Nikola sends his love”. Some sleepless nights, he would lie in bed reading and re-reading those innocent, expected words, and then the rest of the letter, daydreaming that he was there with them. Pretending that it would be enough just to see her, to hear his voice, that friendly companionship could suffice.

It would be better than nothing.

Thus his carriage was rolling with scarcely a bump over the newly-paved lane, carrying himself, his valet, and his secretary to Fireholt. Justin was full of apprehension at the final approach, but he exerted himself to force his features into a semblance of his usual confidence as the carriage drew to a halt before the house. Nikola had turned out his entire staff to welcome him – a staff that had doubled since his last visit. The whole of Fireholt looked better than he’d ever seen it: lawn weeded as well as clipped, the manor freshly painted, chipped flagstones replaced, no detritus in sight, not even fallen fruit or twigs. Even the signs of the pipeline construction that would bring gas to the neighborhood were unobtrusive.

Nikola waited at the foot of the steps, his wife on his arm, looking as well and happy as Justin had ever seen him, splendid in a new summerweight suit of Fireholt colors, black with orange embroidery at the trim. Mrs. Striker looked as she always had, as beautiful and detached as an ice sculpture. Her dark hair was held back from her face by jeweled combs but allowed to spill loose curls down her back. They stepped forward as Justin disembarked, Nikola grinning like a schoolboy. “Welcome to Fireholt, Comfrey. It’s good to see you.” He shook Justin’s hand, grip firm and as warm as his smile.

Justin could not have restrained an answering smile if he’d tried. “And you. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Wisteria’s idea, but you know you’re always welcome in my home.”

Justin turned to kiss Mrs. Striker’s hand, and she said to him, “Yes, thank you so much for coming, Lord Comfrey. You don’t know how comforting it is to have you here.”

No idea at all, Justin thought, though the smile was still on his face as the three of them walked into the house. ‘Comforting’ is the last thing on my mind at the moment.

§


Over the course of Nik’s marriage so far, he had enjoyed more regular sexual intercourse than he’d had in his entire unmarried life. He and Wisteria made love nearly every night, and often during the day as well (the hour before dinner had proven a good time to steal away to the bedroom). Her interest and eagerness to experiment surprised him, in the best possible way. Things he could not have brought himself to mention to a gentlewoman, not even his wife in private, she would offer as if such desires were only natural. Perhaps they were: Nikola saw nothing malformed in either his libido or hers. Every day brought new reasons to thank the Savior for his astonishing good fortune in marriage. If every man were blessed with a wife as wonderful as mine, Paradise would indeed be perfect.

As satisfied as his carnal appetites were, Nik felt he ought to be easy at the idea of seeing Comfrey. Oh, he still entertained the occasional ribald daydream and not a day went by that Nik did not think wistfully of his absent friend. But surely he was in no real danger; he could be subject to no powerful temptation to stray from the marital bed.

Yet, from the moment Comfrey stepped from that carriage, Nik knew his former lover’s hold over him was undiminished. He wanted at once to step into Comfrey’s arms, to hurry him into his study and there strip him naked, as he had one visit two years ago. To drink in the sight of that powerfully developed body, to run his hands over golden-brown skin, to wrap his mouth around Justin’s cock and feel strong hands holding his head as the man thrust.

Comfrey was at ease as he always was, conversation light and bantering, showing no sign that he was now or ever had been attracted to Nik. Not that he ever had except when they were alone. Nik feared to be alone with him now, not out of his prior concern over how Comfrey might behave but because Nik doubted his own resolve. Through dinner, he tried to focus on his love for Wisteria. Afterwards, he made some excuses about work he needed to do on his treatment notes and left the two of them to their own plans. While Wisteria was not trying to surprise Nik with her intentions for a house party to celebrate his naming-day, she did want some of the events to be pleasant surprises for him, so it was a reasonable excuse.

His study at Fireholt was far nicer than the makeshift one he’d had in the gamekeeper’s cottage. One of Wisteria’s first improvements to Fireholt had been hiring a master carpenter to refurbish both his study and the room he turned over for her use. Her design was unconventional but functional and efficient: his chair was at the center of a surrounding desk, with shelves on top and drawers and shelves below, in a variety of shapes and sizes for different purposes. The rest of the room was wall-to-ceiling bookcases, and the floor hardwood. The desk chair’s legs ended in smooth polished curves that could glide over the floor, to make it easy to scoot about behind the desk without standing to reach the farther parts. It seemed absurdly indolent.

Alone behind his desk, surrounded by unattended papers for his project, it occurred to Nik that perhaps he should have had some concern for Wisteria’s propriety, if Comfrey was indeed that other man she had hinted about having an attachment to. It made sense: Comfrey had cut a heroic figure, dashing into that ship to her rescue, and he had always been able to charm any woman, often without meaning to. But no: Wisteria had assured Nik nothing could come of it, so Wisteria must have recovered when she realized Comfrey uninterested. And Comfrey cannot have expressed interest; she’d have to be mad to choose the chore of rehabilitating my impoverished estate in the middle of nowhere over becoming Lady Comfrey and limitless wealth.

Unless Comfrey had made some disreputable proposition to her. That would be like him. But no, Wisteria said she did not feel ill-used by him, and she would have told me if she were pursuing an illicit relationship. We haven’t even spoken about that adultery clause since before the wedding.

To Nik’s surprise, the idea of Wisteria being infatuated with Comfrey, specifically, induced far less anxiety than thinking about her with an unknown man. Not because Comfrey was unintimidating: Nikola could imagine no rival more formidable. Perhaps it was that he could sympathize with Wisteria’s position. Pity her, even. Nik supposed he had come as near to having Comfrey as anyone ever had, and even he did not think he had ever penetrated Comfrey’s reserve, ever known his secret mind or touched his heart. It wasn’t until he’d become engaged to Wisteria that he truly appreciated the distinction. To know how Wisteria felt, all he had to do was ask. Such conversations with Comfrey were all but impossible: he avoided any approach to personal topics and deflected all questions with flippant non-answers. If Wisteria loved Comfrey – well, half of him wanted to wish her luck, and the other half to protect her from heartbreak. You can give him your heart, but he won’t want it.




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Nikola and Wisteria had been married for three months, and Wisteria had never been happier.

Life at Fireholt was not perfect. Wisteria had all sorts of plans and ideas, not only for the mining operation but for running the household and for handling Nikola’s petitioners. Especially for addressing Nikola’s petitioners. Wisteria had been shocked when she found out that Nikola did no accounting for the gifts he received. The entirety of his process consisted of sending one of his people to market any gifts he wasn’t keeping, and placing all proceeds into the household account alongside rents and any other income for that period. “It’s not as if it’s a business,” he told her when she asked. “I’m not charging them a fee for services. I’ll take a pebble from the street as soon as a diamond; it’s all the same to the Savior.”

“Yes, but how do you know how much you are taking in? How can you budget for the future if you’re not tracking your income? How do you know what the trends are?”

“What difference does it make? I’m going to do the same thing whether it’s profitable or not.”

“But, goodness, Nikola, your people could be embezzling from you and you’d have no way to know.”

“Wisteria! My people would never steal!”

Eventually, she persuaded him to humor her desire for information. She hired an accountant and set up a system where all gifts were recorded upon receipt, whether in marks or goods or services, and the sale price of any that were sold. They also tracked which petitioner presented which gift and how long Nikola had spent with the petitioner.

They hired additional retainers to help manage the petitioners, including a foreign woman with experience as an asylum nurse in Natol. Nikola’s fame had grown since the abduction, and more petitioners who had had no luck with other mind-healers were making the trek to see him. Wisteria had convinced Nikola to have the new nurse interview petitioners whom Nikola could not diagnose immediately, on the theory that perhaps knowing the problem might help in diagnosis and referral. After he’d told her that people petitioned for relief from normal, functional drives, Wisteria thought it ridiculous not to screen for that sort of thing. She wanted to interfere more; there was so much that didn’t make sense or was inefficient in the process. The gifts were so arbitrary, correlating not at all to the severity of problem nor to the time Nikola spent curing it, and only weakly to the petitioner’s own wealth. When they travelled, if word got out, Nikola would be mobbed at their destination by people who were unable to travel themselves. Mundane treatment for those he could not cure was all but nonexistent; the reason they’d hired a Natolese nurse was that asylums in Newlant were nightmarish places no better than prisons.

But Nikola was adamant in his opposition to any change that involved charging petitioners. He was more than happy to be guided by her in all other matters of business, but it was not possible to induce him to look on answering petitions as a business. Never mind that it had income like one, or expenses like one, or consumers like one, or that his time and Blessing was of irreplaceable value. It was a sacred duty. He would accept gifts because that was part of the Code, but the Code was the beginning and the end of it for him. Wisteria intended to improve the process further as a charitable endeavor, but she did want their household on solid financial footing first.

As a result, most of her efforts were put towards improvements in Fireholt and directing the mining activities. Byron was a frequent guest, as Vasilver Trading was their partner in the venture. It would be years before the mine itself returned any profits, but it was already doing good things for the local economy.

But all of this meant change – a great deal of change – and humans in particular were not enamored of change. More than a few of the locals were full of ill-will for her, as the instigator of all these alterations in their locality. They resented the new developments, the construction activity, and complained about it driving away game in the hunting preserve. While they’d made an effort to minimize the latter and 90% of the preserve was untouched, the increasing population and activity did have a negative impact on the local fauna.    

It was also widely believed that Wisteria Striker did not return her husband’s obvious regard, a complete untruth that nonetheless held sway even among many of the household staff. She did not smile, she did not laugh: it followed naturally that she could not love. The staff she’d brought with her – her lady’s maid, her secretary, and one of the greatcats who’d asked to join her, Sally – knew better, more or less, but those who’d always worked for Nikola resented her. Wisteria had no idea what to do about this, other than wait for them to figure out that reality did not match their imagined version of her. It did not help her cause that she still was not pregnant. Not for lack of trying, on her part or Nikola’s. But it’s only been three months. Much too soon to start worrying.

They had done some entertaining – of Byron, of course, and Lysandra Warwick and her family had also come for a week, and regular invitations exchanged among the neighborhood gentility. But the most unusual of her new social acquaintances were the greatcats.

Wisteria had been surprised to learn that Fel Fireholt – Anthser, as he’d asked her to call him – was one of Nikola’s friends rather than an employee, and independently wealthy. Despite the latter, Anthser stayed at Fireholt, in the newly-remodeled felishome. He shared it with Sally and another greatcat employee Wisteria had hired to pull the new carriage, and with two friends of his: Feli Southing and a second who varied from month to month.

She’d never had a greatcat friend before: all the ones she had known had been employees for Vasilver or some human acquaintance, and as such never encountered in a social setting. She was fond of both Anthser and Feli Southing as company. The greatcats did not seem to have the same inscrutable prohibitions on various topics that her own kind possessed, and were far more willing to state and accept things at face value.

Anthser was using his personal wealth to have a bowracing course constructed, and Wisteria had been inspired to ask her husband to teach her how to bowrace. Nikola had been surprised by her request – she supposed the sport was unladylike – but had been willing enough. It turned out Feli Southing also had an interest in the sport, and so the four of them would go out a couple of times a week to practice. Nikola would ride Southing while Wisteria rode Anthser, with the two experienced bowracers both providing advice to the newcomers. Wisteria was not yet up to firing a bow from a moving greatcat, and her aim from a stationary one left a great deal to be desired. Still, clinging to the back of a racing greatcat was an exhilarating experience.

Stimulating as these diversions were, they’d not yet hosted any large gatherings, nothing like a house party. Wisteria wanted to throw one for Nikola’s naming-day: invite a dozen of his friends for two weeks and have entertainments every day. Such events were quite normal among the wealthy: her parents had held any number of them, sometimes during the Ascension season itself for friends who didn’t have residences in town, more often at other times of year when entertainments and company were scarcer. Wisteria knew Nikola enjoyed such occasions: he spoke fondly of ones he’d attended in the past, especially when Lord Comfrey had hosted. But the constraints of Fireholt’s budget had kept him from hosting much in that line himself. However, Wisteria’s marriage portion and her considerable portfolio of investments meant that they had ample disposable income. Money was not a constraint.

Unfortunately, Wisteria found the prospect rather terrifying. Social gatherings were not her strength, most of the locals were indifferent to her at best, and she feared such an effort on her part would be a disaster. She was in a quandary on what to do about it: she did not want to burden Nikola with planning his own naming-day celebration or dealing with her worries, and she didn’t want to avoid doing something that he ought to like just because she was intimidated by it. She’d been maintaining a regular correspondence with Lord Comfrey since the marriage and had solicited his advice on the subject. He’d replied with a lengthy letter stuffed with useful insights, tidbits, and ideas. It was so helpful that she asked – begged, in truth – Lord Comfrey to visit them so she might call on him for further assistance in the planning. He had accepted the invitation, and thus was engaged to stay with them for a week at the end of summer.

The thrill that went through Wisteria when she read his acceptance made it hard for her to convince herself that her invitation had been motivated only by the desire for his advice. She knew that she missed his company, and knew Nikola would glad to see him, perhaps even moreso than she. But she also knew that her love for Lord Comfrey was nothing like platonic. Even though her relationship with Nikola was everything she had ever hoped for, in many ways far better than she had ever imagined marriage could be, she still had daydreams and fantasies about Lord Comfrey.

I am his closest friend’s wife now. He has quite properly lost all interest in me. All I need do is behave as a mature woman and not make any improper advances on him while he’s under my roof. This is not too much to expect of myself.

Nonetheless, she could not escape the sense that this was a terrible idea.




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The wedding banquet had been delightful. Wisteria was glad that Nikola had reconciled with Lord Comfrey, because the viscount was the most charming part of it. She could barely recall the food, but she could remember his smile and kind words as he toasted them.

Her majesty had generously offered the Vasilvers use of the Dragongate Palace in Viant for the wedding reception. When dinner adjourned in favor of dancing, the affair began to remind her of the Ascension Ball. The Dragongate ballroom was akin to Dawnfell’s only in opulence: the floor at Dragongate was of tiny fitted marble tiles in an intricate pattern that made it look as if one was walking on ocean waves, and there was no balcony from which to watch the dance. But the dancing and music were similar, and as she stood up in a set with her husband (my husband!) and Lord Comfrey and Lord Comfrey’s sister and four other guests, the sense of deja vu was uncomfortably intense. At least Wisteria had been allowed to detach her gown’s trailing cape for the dancing; having two children following her every motion had been an odd experience.

When the pattern of the dance put her and Lord Comfrey together for several turns, he opened conversation with a smile. “You must tell me how happy you are, my dear. I hope the wedding has matched expectation?”

“Oh, Lord Comfrey, I am happier than I ever have been before. Terrifyingly so.”

“Terrifyingly?”

“Yes. I feel like a fairy-tale princess and part of me in convinced something awful must be about to happen. A demon-prince come to curse my husband, perhaps. Or worse. If a messenger comes to tell Lord Nikola that some petitioner needs his attention urgently, I do not think my reaction will be rational.”

“Now, my dear. If you tackle Lord Nikola to the floor and forbid him to leave your sight, I will vouch for it being the sole reasonable course. I will assist you, in fact.”

“Thank you, my lord. I am so very glad you understand.” Wisteria squeezed his fingers when their hands touched in the dance, before the next moves split them to new partners.

After two dances, no demon-prince had arrived at the party to curse them, and no messenger to summon Nikola away. Wisteria was increasingly anxious to escape any possibility of such. Also, she had been legally allowed to be intimate with her husband for nearly six hours now and that she had been allowed no opportunity to take advantage of this Most Important Fact was plain cruel. At her request, they took a break from dancing to take some air: it had been a warm day for early summer, and the ballroom was overheated.

It took half an hour to make their way out of the ballroom, as it seemed every guest not among the dancers wanted to stop them to wish them well and exchange a few sentences. It was like a miniature version of the endless receiving line after the wedding.

Wisteria had thought it would be safe outside, but it was worse: a good third of their guests had also taken to the palace gardens in pursuit of cooler air, and all of them also wanted to offer their congratulations and marital advice. Often, Wisteria would find herself steered aside, or Nikola “borrowed” from her arm for a few minutes, so that some relation or acquaintance might offer advice. Much of the advice was perplexing if not disturbing in nature.

When she had finally managed to reclaim her husband’s arm and they had escaped to an unobserved bower, Nikola breathed an enormous sigh. He peeked around the corner of the vine-covered trellis that sheltered them from view, then ducked behind it again to sweep her into his arms and kiss her. After a few moments, he drew back laughing, whirled her about and embraced her again. Wisteria clung to his neck, suffused with delight. “My wife,” he whispered in her ear.

“Yes, my husband?” she replied, just to say the words.

“Are you quite sure you made the right choice, marrying such a great fool as me?”

“Very sure. But what is your folly, my lord?”

“You will never credit it, it is so preposterous.”

“Oh, try me, my very dear husband. I have lived two years in Southern Vandu; my standards of unbelievable are high.”

“Well, there was a time – now, you must trust me on this, I know it sounds absurd – but there was a time when I thought I did not wish to marry you.”

“I am glad to hear that is so,” Wisteria said gravely.

Nikola blinked at her. “…you are?”

“I should hate to think you had lied to me, those months ago, when you said you were uninterested in marriage at the present time.”

“Oh! Yes. Still, it was exceedingly foolish on my part. I cannot imagine what I was thinking.” He pressed her back against the trellis to kiss her neck, one hand stroking down her side and the other around her waist. A few too-short minutes passed before he murmured, “I suppose we ought to get back to our party.”

“Must we?” Wisteria had unbuttoned his wedding jacket to slide her hands beneath it. It is much too warm for all these clothes. “I was hoping you knew some private room in this palace too, where we might be undisturbed.”

Her golden-haired lord chuckled. “I do not, my lady. But if you wish to retire early—”

“I do. Now. Six hours ago. This wedding celebration is ill-timed, I tell you, and not at all the way I would like to be celebrating my wedding.” She caressed his chest through the thin shirt, fingers tracing the lines of pectoral muscles, finding the nipples and lingering over them as he gasped.

Nikola wriggled in the most intriguing fashion, then seized one of her hands to kiss her palm. “Then let it be as you wish.” He stepped back, reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket, and with a flourish produced a whistle. As she tilted her head at him, he blew on it, producing no sound she could hear.

“But what do you want a greatcat for?” Wisteria asked. Nik signaled her to wait with one raised hand.

There was a thump above and to one side of them, and she looked up to see Fel Fireholt perched on the stone wall at the rear of the bower. “Don’t tell me you need rescuing from her, Lord Nik?”

“No, we need rescuing from this party. Will you get us out of here?”

The huge black feline rumbled a chuckle and dropped into a crouch in the bower beside them. “You got it, m’lord.”

The warcat was still in the regalia he’d worn at the ceremony, but had removed the riding seat. Nikola lifted Wisteria to sit sideways on Fel Fireholt’s back, the full skirt of her dress belling against his side. Lord Nikola swung up behind her and snuggled her to his chest. “Carefully now, Anthser; Mrs. Striker cannot get a good seat in this dress.”

“Yessir.” Fel Fireholt padded down the garden path with even, decorous strides. The guests who saw them leaving smiled and waved; Nikola returned the smiles and Wisteria waved, leaning against her husband for support she didn’t need as he held her for balance she also didn’t need. But it made a delightful excuse.

They had taken temporary lodgings in a charming inn overlooking the river, a mile or so from the palace. Even at an easy pace, it didn’t take long for the greatcat to carry them to it. The inn was a modern new building, with vaulted ceilings and vast doors and passageways large enough not only to accommodate a greatcat, but to accommodate one bearing riders. The inn’s doorman opened the double doors for them and stood aside as Fel Fireholt carried them in and padded up four flights of stairs to the royal suite, where another footman opened the doors. Fel Fireholt crouched in the sitting room. Nikola dismounted and lifted Wisteria off. “Thank you, Anthser. You may go.” The dark-furred warcat bowed and withdrew.




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Wisteria wasn’t sure if her wedding day was the happiest day of her life – the day Nikola asked her to marry him gave it stiff competition – but she was undeniably happy. There were a few flaws in the perfection of the day, most of them falling under the header of “mother” and “mother-in-law-to-be”. The two women seemed determined to make even the most minor of issues sound like a major disaster. Last minute uncertainties in Queen Felicia’s schedule threw both women into fits, even though Prince Edgar was attending and had already confirmed his willingness to officiate if his mother didn’t arrive in time. Then the queen had arrived this morning and sent notice that she would perform the service, rendering the whole issue moot. The place cards, which had been delivered weeks ago, had a pattern of gold leaves on them which did not match the pattern of gold vines-and-leaves on the borders of the tablecloths, an issue Wisteria had not noticed even after her mother had pointed to the two in horror three days ago. New place cards were to be printed and delivered but had not yet arrived and Mrs. Vasilver was in a panic over it. “Everything has to be perfect!”

Lady Striker, meanwhile, had uncovered some problem or other with the soup course of the wedding feast and was flying hither and yon in an effort to make various hapless servants and caterers rectify it to her satisfaction.

Fortunately, neither woman expected Wisteria to address these matters. A few weeks ago, Wisteria had taken to responding to every statement on the lines of “There’s a problem with the wedding plans!” with “Has Lord Nikola changed his mind about marrying?” When the answer came back as “No” she would respond, “Then it’s not important.” This had not stopped anyone from telling her what they thought was wrong, but it had stopped them from expecting that she would care.

The marriage was taking place at the Alastasia Temple, in the duchy of Viant. The location was chosen not for convenience – it was close to neither Gracehaven nor Anverlee County nor Fireholt – but for prestige. The summer court was held in Viant. By long tradition, the members of the upper nobility – royalty, dukes, margraves, and counts – and their designated heirs had the right to an officiant from among the royal family and the right to be married at Alastasia Temple. An Alastasia Temple wedding was, Mrs. Warwick assured her, every little girl’s dream. Even Mrs. Warwick and her sister had not been wed here, as they were not heir to their father’s title, and their husbands were gentleborn but not titled.

In one sense, it was unfair that the direct recipients of this very great honor were so indifferent to it. In another, Wisteria reflected that the whole of the wedding was for the benefit of their two families, who appreciated the honor enough to make up for a score of uninterested wedding couples.

Wisteria’s wedding dress was even more elaborate than her gown for the Ascension ball. Unlike Ascension fashions, the style was classic and varied little, though hers employed modern materials. The underdress was spotless white lace over layers of silk opulence, with a full skirt that flared from the waist to swish about her ankles. The overdress was golden flaxvelvet with insets of matching lace, the whole trimmed in gold beads and set with indigo sapphires. The colors were symbolic: white for purity, gold for prosperity, and indigo because her intended was a peer. The overdress included a matching attached cape, secured along the shoulders and down the sleeves of the dress and extending behind her for several yards. There were two little girls, children of servants, trained for the role of following her about to hold the cape off the ground, until it was detached for the party afterwards. It would only trail during the ceremony itself. Wisteria wore her mother’s wedding jewelry for the ceremony: a necklace dripping with diamonds and gold ear cuffs and bracelets to match. As servants swarmed about Wisteria, arranging her various garments, she wondered if she ought to have put her foot down about some of these extravagances.

§


The Alastasia Temple dated back to the third century: the work of dozens of Blessed for stone and plants, as well as myriad other craftsmen, after the sacking of Viant destroyed the original temple. The original, by all accounts, had been a far more modest affair. Successive generations of kings and queens had added their own touches to the temple to make it ever-grander and more imposing. Like all temples, it was a round building with a speaker’s circle at the center. Unlike most temples, the speaker’s circle was lowered and the seats surrounding it rose in tiers of polished hardwood, inlaid with elaborate knotwork, and it included dedicated seating for a small orchestra. The domed roof alternated gleaming alabaster and panels of stained glass. The temple was enormous, so large that Nikola’s four-hundred-something invited guests filled only the lowest tiers. The ceremony itself, as was traditional for a marriage involving a peer, was open to the public. Thousands of commoners were in the higher tiers to watch the spectacle: there were just a hundred and three titles of a rank of count or above, so marriages involving them were rare. Hundreds of the spectators were greatcats; Justin had never seen so many greatcats gathered under one roof. Viant was a full day’s journey from Fireholt even for a greatcat; Justin had to wonder how many of them had made the long trip to see their lord wed.

Justin had come with his sister Meg and her husband, Henry Walker, who had received invitations of their own. While Justin’s invitation allowed him to bring a guest, no one assumed a bachelor such as he was would travel with a female companion. Which was as well, since he was in no mood to entertain some near-stranger of an acquaintance. Meg and his brother-in-law were much more suitable for the occasion: Henry Walker was a bluff, self-absorbed man without the wit to notice whether his companions were lively or not, and it was not in Meg’s nature to rely on anyone else to entertain her. Justin had to exert himself enough to be civil and show a semblance of good humor instead of sinking completely into brooding, but if his conversation lacked its usual polish no one remarked on it.

Justin feared Meg truly was jealous of Miss Vasilver; Meg had had nothing good to say of the match since its announcement five months ago. Justin had discouraged his sister from speaking ill of Miss Vasilver or Nikola’s prospects and Meg was making an effort to hide her resentment, but he did not think her happy about the proceedings.

As they watched the wedding begin, music swelling from the orchestra, Justin was not sure how he felt about it himself. Part of him was consumed by jealousy, of Nikola for marrying the one woman Justin had ever wanted, of Wisteria for taking from him the one man he’d ever loved.

Another part was happy – not thought-he-ought-to-be-happy, but genuinely pleased – that the two were marrying. They were both good people, the most intelligent, principled, generous people he knew. They were perfect for one another. Justin did not want to keep them apart.

But he regretted extremely that their union must inevitably separate him from them.

The east and west doors at the top of the temple opened, and all necks craned to one side or the other to watch the procession begin. Servants pulled levers at the top of either side, which opened dozens of cages that lined the stairwell, each full of white and gold swallowtail butterflies. The butterflies swarmed out to fill the air like confetti. Next came the siblings of the bride from the west, and the siblings of the groom from the east, each with spouse and children over the age of eight, if applicable. Each member of these groups carried basketfuls of wedding favors, cleverly folded paper creations designed to sail through the air, each carrying a mark-note – most singles, but a random few of larger denominations – in its interior. The favors were strewn liberally into the crowd in the higher tiers. The children and some of the men hurled them with particular vigor, ensuring that members of the crowd in the middle stood as good a chance at snatching one from the air as those near the edge. The greatcats, who would have had a tremendous advantage at the game in speed and reach, politely refrained from playing, though some of the youngest greatkittens could not resist batting ones down.

By the time they reached the lower tiers, the baskets had been emptied and the bride and bridegroom had made their appearance. Wisteria was mounted sidesaddle on a pure white greatcat in gold harness. The train of her cape flowed out over the greatcat’s flanks and fell to trail down the steps behind her as the greatcat bore her in slow, measured steps to the speaker’s circle. On the opposite side of the temple, Nikola descended, riding on Anthser. That greatcat’s fur remained its usual black, rather than bleached to the traditional white. His cape and harness were in Fireholt orange, however, making him match Fireholt’s colors of black and orange; perhaps that nod to Nikola’s holding was substituted here. Nikola’s own attire was a masculine version of Wisteria’s: white satin breeches with gold buckles, white silk hose, white shoes with gold buckles, white shirt with gold lace cuffs and jabot, brocade jacket of gold lace over white. He wore more expensive jewelry than Justin had ever seen on him: hair clasp studded with sapphire chips, rings over his gloves, a lapel brooch inset with indigo sapphires large enough to flash even at this distance, and the gold chain and obsidian pendant of a mind healer crossing his chest.

The parents walked, arms linked, behind their offspring. As the first of the siblings approached the speaker’s circle, they filed into the seats of the lowest tier. When the greatcats reached the bottom step, they too stopped. Their riders dismounted, turned to their respective parents, took their hands, kissed cheeks ceremoniously, and then turned to the speaker’s circle. Each crossed alone to meet the other at the center, capes drifting in their wake. A pace apart, they stopped. Nikola bowed low to her and fell gracefully to one knee as she dropped into a deep curtsey. The orchestra fell silent.

Queen Felicia, seated in her throne at the edge of the speaker’s circle, rose. The vast temple was still other than the fluttering of butterfly wings. “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, heir of Anverlee, by the grace of the Savior Blessed as healer of minds. Miss Wisteria Vasilver. You are come today in the presence of the Savior, your liege, your families, your friends, and your people to unite your lives and your families in sacred matrimony. Lord Rukert Striker, Count of Anverlee; Lady Voleta Rukert Striker, Countess of Anverlee: do you give your consent to this marriage?”

“We do.” The two spoke together from the east edge of the circle, Lady Striker’s voice wavery as she dabbed at her eyes.

“Mr. Ethan Vasilver, Mrs. Madeleine Ethan Vasilver: do you give your consent to this marriage?”

“We do,” Wisteria’s parents echoed. This portion was traditional rather than legal: parental consent was required where inheritance and parental property were concerned, but marriage itself only required a titled officiant (or one’s designated gentleborn representative) and the consent of the two people marrying.

“Lord Nikola. Miss Vasilver. You have the blessing of the Savior, the permission of your liege, the support of your families, and the goodwill of your nation in entering this union. In the years to come, you will find yourself relying on all of these things. Depend on the Savior most of all, my dears; he’s the most reliable of the lot of us,” Queen Felicia said to them, as smiles broke out across the crowd. “But you are in this circle alone because the ultimate success of your marriage rests upon you. The Savior and all of us wish for a more perfect Paradise for you, but it lies in your hands to build it. Conflicts in daily life are inevitable: it falls to you to resolve them with compassion, patience, and trust. You will know hardships, sickness, and suffering in your life together: it falls to you to share these burdens, to do what you may without resentment, to accept what is given to you with grace. It falls to you, Lord Nikola, to lead your wife wisely, to ensure the prosperity and honor of your holdings. It falls to you, Miss Vasilver, to obey your husband in all things, to nurture your household and your family with love and honor.

“Lord Nikola. Please rise,” the queen continued. Nikola stood, opening the velvet box in his hands as she continued, “Will you pledge yourself to Miss Vasilver?”

“With all my heart.” Nikola smiled, radiant, unreserved, as he turned to his bride. He took the gold, diamond-studded tiara of the Countess of Anverlee from the velvet box. It was customary for a groom to shower his bride with jewels at the wedding, as a show of his ability to provide for his new family. For a count’s heir, this was a traditional choice, even though as part of the county entailment it would not fall to Wisteria’s hands until the current Count of Anverlee passed on. Nikola placed it on her brow just the same. “My lady, I pledge my life to you, to honor and guide you, to cherish and protect you, to be true to you always, through all our days together.” He held out his hands to her.

Queen Felicia turned to Wisteria. “Miss Vasilver. Please rise. Will you pledge yourself to Lord Nikola?”

Wisteria took his hands and rose. “With all my heart.” Her expression was grave and calm even now, but her voice projected to the top of the temple as she continued, “My lord, I pledge my life to you, to honor and obey you, to nurture our family, to be true to you always, through all our days together.”

The queen lay her own hands over their joined ones. “And so let you be as one, and let nothing sunder you apart.” The orchestra swelled again as Queen Felicia stepped back and Nikola took Wisteria in his arms to kiss her. The crowd in the upper tiers cheered, greatcats roaring their approval, while the more dignified guests confined themselves to applause.

Justin joined in the applause, blinking hard and biting the inside of his cheek to avoid weeping openly.




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At the end of the Gracehaven trip, when Nik bid his (lengthy) farewells to Wisteria, he did so knowing that the next time he saw her would be for the wedding. And then I’ll never have to say goodbye to her again.    

As pleasant as the idea was, it was not to Wisteria that his thoughts turned on the return trip.

It was a beautiful day in the countryside, fifteen miles out from Gracehaven. Crops grew in knee-height green stalks in the fields to either side of the road, and cherry blossom trees bloomed in pink and white along the lane. The sun shone bright in a sky streaked with a few clouds. Nikola was riding Anthser because it was too lovely outside to be cooped up in the hired carriage. Anthser had wanted to stretch his legs, and so they were miles ahead of Nik’s entourage. Even Anthser’s pair of greatcat “friends-of-the-month”, Gavin and Rawlth, had been disinclined to keep up. Now the muscular black greatcat was strolling at an easy pace, sides vibrating with contentment. His blond rider was glad as well: travelling alone with Anthser made him feel free, unrooted by obligations, titles, employees. Nik could be anyone, going anywhere.

They were coming to a crossroads, where they’d turn northwest towards Fireholt. The lane they were on continued west, to Comfrey Viscountcy. Comfrey could not be said to be on the route to Fireholt; the trip was some thirty miles out of the way, a detour of at least two hours even riding alone on Anthser. As the greatcat moved to the side of the lane to let an overly wide wagon pass, Nikola told him, “Let’s keep going west.”

“West?” Anthser snaked back onto the lane and glanced at the crossroads. “Huh. You want to wait for the others?”

“No.” Nik grinned as the greatcat twisted to look at his rider. “Just the two of us. We can catch up to them later.”

“You’re ditching them? Even Gavin and Rawlth?”

“I haven’t ditched anyone in years, Anthser. Well. Months, anyway. Don’t you think I’m past due? Here, I’ll leave a note on the signpost for them so they needn’t fret.” He rifled through Anthser’s harness pouches to find a notebook, tore out a sheet, scrawled a message, folded it, wrote “Mrs. Linden” in large letters on one side, and tacked it to the post. “There.”

Anthser flared his whiskers, amused. “As you wish, m’lord.”

Nikola didn’t need to tell Anthser why they were taking the west road, or which turns to take. They’d made this journey many times before. Comfrey Viscountcy boasted a bustling, wealthy community, with a dock on the river that served as a hub for trade. Comfrey’s ancestral home was in a prime location, situated near the river and at the top of a rise, with a stone wall to separate it from the town. It was at the edge of town because the town had been unable to grow behind it: the rear several hundred acres formed Comfrey’s private hunting preserve, a stocked wilderness to rival the Markavian’s. Acres of garden surrounded the house itself, immaculate lawns lined by cultivated flowerbeds, selected so that there were always some flowers blooming among the green. Flowering hedges broke up the landscape, some sculpted together with trellised ivy to make private bowers.    

Nik had reconsidered his impulse a half-dozen times on the ride here. Once or twice he was on the verge of telling Anthser, “Never mind, I just wanted to take in the scenery, no need to stop.” But he let the greatcat carry him to the top of Comfrey’s steps. As the greatcat crouched, he slid off Anthser’s back onto the wide sheltered porch.    

One of Comfrey’s retainers must have seen their approach, because Nik had not even knocked before a footman opened the door. “Good morning, Lord Nikola. Our deepest apologies, but we were unaware you were coming and his lordship is out at present. His lordship is expected to return before dinner, however, if m’lord would care to wait in the parlor?”

Nik waved off the apology. “It’s fine, Mr. March. I didn’t send word…just a whim, in truth. I’ll—” Part of him was tempted to flee: what are you doing here? Comfrey doesn’t want to see you. But he had already come this far. “—wait in the garden. Kindly inform Lord Comfrey when he returns.”

§


Justin was running one of the trails in the vast hunting preserve behind his mansion. He hadn’t brought bow or quiver; the sound of his pounding feet as he hurtled down the track would frighten off any game. He didn’t have the patience for hunting any more. The stillness left him too much time to brood. Easier to run, to focus on making each stride faster, to maintain the pace even when his lungs burned and heart pounded. Don’t stop don’t slow just move go! His body obeyed. It was well-trained in that respect. I thought my mind well-disciplined once, too, but it’s evident now how I spoilt it. Justin shoved the thought away. He raced shirtless, in trousers and flexfiber shoes that conformed to his feet through each stride, black hair tied back and clubbed to keep it from his face.

He checked his pocket watch as he broke out from the cover of trees: not as good as his competition days, but better than his times from last year. Justin slowed to a jog as he crossed the lawn, sweat trickling down the small of his back. Someone was walking in the side garden to the west of the manor. Not a servant; too well-dressed, and besides all Comfrey’s gardeners were working on trail maintenance in the preserve today. Who could that be? he wondered, annoyed as he veered off to avoid catching the stranger’s eye. He disliked coming on people like this, as disheveled and scruffy as some lowborn farmer’s son. The stranger was tall, and that he was a gentleman was plain even at this distance, by his straight-backed carriage as much as by his summerweight suit. His back was to Justin, attention on the lane leading to the house, long hair gleaming gold in a ponytail that spilled down the blue jacket back. The silhouette and hair color arrested Justin’s eye, and he stumbled. It’s not Nikola, he told himself. Nikola would not drop by unannounced, would not drop by at all, stop that it’s not him. Despite his sternest admonitions to himself, his feet turned of their own accord, pace quickening to move in the newcomer’s direction. The closer he drew the more the figure looked like Nikola’s: even the suit was familiar. Justin slowed to a walk as he closed on the garden, wanting the man to look his way so this hideous mirage could be ended, not sure if he was more afraid that it was Nikola or that it wasn’t. I don’t want him to see me like this, like a bare-chested heathen. It was too late to turn and run into the house without looking even more ridiculous if and when the visitor finally noticed him. Justin cleared his throat to call out hello. The greeting came out half-strangled when the man turned that handsome, unforgettable visage at the noise. “Striker?!”

“Hello, Lord Comfrey.” Nikola squared his shoulders, uncomfortable.

‘Lord Comfrey’, is it? Justin let the weight of that formality squash the painful surge of hope. “Lord Nikola.” He delivered a short bow that must have looked ridiculous in his sweating, half-naked state. “What brings you to Comfrey Viscountcy?”

Nikola would not meet his eyes. “I was…I wanted to see you.”

“Ah.” Justin’s head was so full of things he could not say that it took a moment to supply another meaningless cordiality that he could. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is it?” Blue eyes flicked up to his face at last.

Is that another accusation? Justin was suddenly sick to death of pretense: of pretending to be cordial, polite, civilized. Happy. “I suppose that depends on why you wanted to see me.”

Nikola’s expression changed from a neutral one to a scowl. “Of course. If I didn’t come to fuck you there’d be no point in welcoming me at all, would there? Good day, Lord Comfrey.” He spun on his heel and stalked away between two sculpted hedges.

Demons take it all. “Striker—” Justin charged after him, seizing one arm. Nikola twisted to face him, arm jerking away as if the touch burned. Justin let go. “Curse you, Striker, I did not say that! I said nothing like that! Abandoned world! What have I ever done to you to deserve this?”

The taller man glowered at him, jaw working. “What was that crack supposed to mean, then?” His body was tense, words clipped.    

“I meant that if you came because you missed glaring at me and treating me as if I’d betrayed you then yes, that would considerably lessen the pleasure of your company!”

Still scowling, Nikola turned away. “Look, Comfrey, I know I have not behaved as I ought. I am grateful for all that you have done—”

“Curse it! I don’t want your fucking gratitude, Striker—”

“I know!” he hissed, stung. “All you want is my body to fuck—”

“Blood and death! I don’t even want that!” Justin lied; even now, even like this, if Nikola had offered himself, Justin would have taken him and been grateful for the chance. But it was not what he wanted most.

Nikola put a hand over his face, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I should not have come. Excuse me, my lord.” He walked away between two flowerbeds. The viscount did not chase him this time, though part of him ached to. What would be the point?

At an intersection of the garden’s stepping-stone paths, Nikola stopped and half-turned. “Lord Comfrey…I just…what would have made it good to see me?”

“…almost anything but this.” Justin walked after him, slowly. “Why can we not be friends, Striker? You don’t know how much I’ve missed your friendship. And no, I don’t mean screwing, I mean friendship. Hunting. Bowracing. Conversation. Things friends do.”

Nikola glanced sidelong at him. “I did not think you interested in that. Any longer.” A statement of belief, not an accusation.

“Well, I am. Do you truly think I’ve spent six years merely tolerating your company for the sake of the occasional opportunity to screw?” Justin was torn between indignation and amusement. “You’re a good lay, Striker, but not that good.” That last…might have been a lie, too. Nikola flushed, making a face at him and crossing his arms. Justin reached for the other man’s shoulder, let his hand drop without making contact. “I do not want anything of you because you are grateful, Striker, or obliged. I want your friendship because you are fond of my company, because I have always been fond of yours. I ask sincerely, what may I do to persuade you of the truth of this?”

The younger man turned to face him then, the emotion in his expression hard to judge. “Um. That,” he answered at last, and stepped forward to envelop Justin in a hug. By reflex, Justin caught Nikola in his arms, one foot going back to brace them as the taller man pressed against him. The feel of that long, lean form, of gloved hands against his naked back, sent a too-familiar surge of lust through Justin. He tightened his embrace to keep his hands from wandering, and rested his chin on Nikola’s jacketed shoulder. “I’m sorry, Justin,” Nikola whispered.

“If you’re apologizing for hugging me, stuff it.” Justin squeezed harder, rewarded by Nikola’s chuckle.

“Not for that. For doubting you. For reading in too much. I ought to have asked and not assumed.” Nikola relaxed in his arms, the contrast making it obvious how tense he’d been. Justin was tempted to steer Nikola into one of the garden’s bowers, screened from prying eyes by greenery, to push him down on a padded bench and see how much more relaxed Justin could make him. Ah yes, the perfect strategy with which to cap my credentials of disinterested friendship.

“No matter.” From somewhere, Justin mustered the will to release Nikola and step away. “I ought to clean up and change, Striker. Will you stay for dinner?”

Nikola was still flushed; he clasped his hands behind his back and smiled. “I’d be glad to.”

§


After dinner, Nik lingered over drinks in Justin’s study, talking and laughing as they caught up on all the news they’d missed. Nik felt better than he had in months, as if he’d been missing a piece of himself and finally had it restored. By the time he thought about leaving, it was too late to make his planned stop before nightfall. Justin invited him to stay the night; with a certain amount of hesitation, Nik accepted.    

At some point during their conversation in the garden, Nik had realized that at least part of his willingness to believe Justin indifferent was because that made it easier on himself. If Justin had never cared, then there was no reason to feel guilt or regret over ending their relationship. It was a convenient belief in that respect.

Seeing Justin like that in the garden, shirtless, muscles gleaming with sweat, had been a vivid and unnecessary reminder of how powerful the man’s appeal was. Comfrey made not one untoward suggestion or innuendo the entire day, took not one opportunity to touch him even when they played billiards and Justin offered advice. By the time they retired to their separate rooms for the evening, Nik was wondering if Justin’s avowal of physical repulsion during their fight earlier had been earnest. Had the months of coldness between them broken whatever power Nik had once held over him?

Because it had not altered Nik’s attraction to him. As he lay in bed that night, he couldn’t stop thinking of previous stays at Comfrey Manor, of the secret passageways that ran between the bedrooms. If he crept down it now to the master suite, would he find the concealed door in Justin’s dressing room latched against him? He’d checked the latch in his own chamber: sealed. Nik had left it that way, and by turns wished he hadn’t and was glad that he had, because if he’d found Justin perched on his bed in a dressing gown, Nik doubted he’d have the strength of will to do anything but pull him into bed and ravish him. As it was, his mind kept replaying memories of past nights together. Chastity was hard.

Perhaps it will be easier when Wisteria and I are wed was one of Nik’s last thoughts before sleep claimed him.

§


The next day, Justin sent a messenger ahead to the inn to let Nik’s retinue know they could return to Fireholt without him and that he’d be along later. Nik ended up spending another entire day at Comfrey Manor, just enjoying Justin’s company. He would have spent more time yet had he trusted himself. As it was, the two men were often alone and the temptation to violate Wisteria’s trust in him was far too great. Remaining chaste in distant Fireholt was far easier.




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