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.”
“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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