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 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.”
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.”
Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print
Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks