Wisteria drifted through the grand petitioner’s hall, even less adept at small talk than usual, her mind elsewhere. She could never tell whether people were greeting her only to be polite, or because they truly wished to talk. The plump brown-haired Mr. Willsham came upon her and introduced her to his escort, Lady Jessica, an even rounder young woman whose gilded gown constrained an astonishing quantity of bosom. They spent a pleasant quarter of an hour discussing spice and vegetable imports from western Cambrique and various applications, which as far as Wisteria could tell was the topic they and not she had chosen and so was acceptable. She did not mind speaking of that, or anything else, but what she most wanted was to talk to Lord Nikola.
Or to do anything else with Lord Nikola. Her mind replayed the feel of his hand against her leg, the shameless way she had clung to him, the taste of his skin. She did not want to be among these however many hundreds who did not care about the things that mattered to her. If she could not be with the one person who was willing – even eager, she thought – to discuss those subjects, at the very least she wanted to be somewhere private where she could daydream about him uninterrupted. Will he be back tonight? Perhaps I should have gone home after all. And looked like a failure to my family, I suppose, for leaving a social event when it was not even midnight yet. And missed the possibility of more time with Lord Nikola.
It was worth it for that chance, Wisteria considered, even if it was as poor as one in two. Also, the ball was hardly an unpleasant place to pass the time. It only suffered in comparison to how wonderful it had been with Lord Nikola at her side.
She made her way back to the ballroom. Rather than wait to see if a man would ask her to stand up with him to dance, Wisteria ascended the steps to the interior balcony that ringed the dance floor. Though the orchestra playing for the dancers below remained audible, the reduced number of people made it quieter up here. The lovely top-down view lent the dance a mathematical precision, glittering pieces in an enormous living kaleidoscope.
She wondered at the all-human composition on the dance floor after she noticed a couple of greatcats also watching, from the far side of the balcony. Do they have their own dances? They cannot do these, certainly, but there are so many varieties of human dance, performed in distant lands. Surely they could do something akin to dance, if they chose. Do they dislike the idea of trying, or does the Crown discourage such an attempt? She knew from history lessons that it had been quite controversial when Blessed were first discovered among the greatcats, over century ago. The Assembly had passed a resolution to bar greatcats from the nobility, a resolution the Crown overturned to bestow a courtesy title and a stipend upon the first greatcat healer. King Kevin’s service prior to that act was famous for its beauty and simplicity: “When the Savior himself has shown the way, it is the duty of mankind to follow it, not to turn petulantly aside because it looks a little different from the path we have followed thus far.” But while that settled the legal question, it left social and theological concerns.
The theological issue was particularly interesting, because traditional Savior theology held that Blessings were passed down the family line through marriages sanctified by the Savior. Most denominations accepted that marriage traditions from nations which did not worship the Savior were nonetheless sanctified by him anyway, because otherwise the mere existence of pagan Blessed invalidated the whole theory. It was true that there were no proven instances of Blessed born to women out of wedlock (although there were always rumors), and the vast majority of the Blessed could trace their line back to a Blessed of a prior generation. The humans who could not were assumed to have a Blessed farther back than they knew their family tree – few people knew their full family tree for forty-odd generations, after all. But none of that explained where greatcats could have gotten Blessings. Greatcats had not even existed as a species until Lord Ferran used his Blessing for minds to create them almost a century and a half ago, by making a number of Paradise’s native wildcats sapient. That alteration had been controversial in its own time, though Wisteria could not see how. It was unnatural, perhaps, but if one believed Blessings were the work of the Savior, it followed logically that any miracle performed by a Blessed must be the Savior’s will. Most denominations explained the later appearance of Blessed among greatcats as Lord Ferran being the spiritual father of the race. This did not strike Wisteria as one of her religion’s more convincing contentions.
Thinking about greatcats reminded Wisteria of Lord Nikola, how he’d said he identified better with their lessened interest in hierarchy. Hadn’t he said once there was something different about their minds? I wonder what. There were obvious differences – greatcats were far, far less inclined to violence: one never heard of greatcat criminals. But she doubted that was what Lord Nikola had meant. Maybe I should ask him when he gets back. I don’t think it even need be on my forbidden list. Her heart warmed at the thought of the list and Lord Nikola asking for the first item on it. Not to mention his wondrous answer to it. I wonder if he’ll ask for the second, or if we may continue…discussing…the first. That thought heated a part rather south of her heart. Her whole body ached to feel his touch.
Desire was by no means unfamiliar to her: her craving for a lover was one of the reasons she had not abandoned her search for a husband years ago. Although, ironically, her desire to marry – to have a legitimate lover, sanctioned by the Savior and approved by family and society – was one of the factors that had prevented her from ever having had a lover. No man in Newlant would want ‘damaged goods’, or a bride of questionable virtue. Why virginity was desirable at all, much less a virtue, mystified her. Inexperience was not valued in any other endeavor in life: why this one? There were obvious advantages for children to have two parents committed to their relationship, but pregnancy could be avoided by a number of means less drastic than abstinence. In prior centuries, some dangerous diseases had been spread through sexual congress, but these days the Blessed could treat them easily and such were now both rare and trivial. It was, granted, a trifle daunting to imagine her fumblings being compared to the acts of Lord Nikola’s prior lovers. But the obvious solution there was that she needed more practice, not that he needed less.
Not that she’d had any real opportunity for practice anyway. Men that she could have been tempted by, certainly, but if they’d been interested she had not noticed, and her desire had not been strong enough before to outweigh the expectations of her family, society, and position. She understood intellectually that any liberties she allowed – never mind encouraged – would be a stain on her reputation. That men could not be trusted to protect such a secret, and that any man with whom she indulged in such behavior would think less of her for it. None of which made the slightest hint of intuitive sense, of course. Nonetheless, family, teachers, and classmates had all agreed that anything with the slightest hint of sensuality to it must be avoided outside of marriage (and possibly inside of marriage too, depending on whom she consulted). That had been enough in the past to deter her from any attempts.
But she’d never met anyone as attractive as Lord Nikola, nor anyone who had so encouraged her to be bold with him. And she had been shockingly bold, and the result had been amazing. Better than anything she had fantasized. She had longed to be touched before, but never like this, a sensation so overwhelming it eclipsed all other feelings. All she wanted was to do it again, only more, and not care about the consequences.
It would be nice if he were interested in marriage, but she found it hard to care that he was not. They were wrong about men not being trustworthy, or at least wrong as it applies to Lord Nikola. We did not do much that was so wrong and he was still taking measures to make sure that it went unnoticed. And he said he respected and admired me. That memory glowed like an ember inside her, bright and full of joy. She knew what she wanted was something everyone had told her she should not want and could not have, but it was impossible to care. I ought to talk myself out of this resolution. I am not good at secrecy. What if I blurt out the truth or something that makes the truth apparent to everyone and my whole family hates and disowns me? Well, Byron would not disown me, I think. Everyone else, then. This truly ought to be more important than satisfying my lust. No matter how intense that lust might be. Wisteria leaned against the rail, not seeing the dancers or anything else, but remembering the feel of Lord Nikola’s caress down her back.
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