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.”
“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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