A Roderic Barr Adventure
by Kate Elliott
It might have been the dog, or it might have been the woman. He wasn’t sure.
When he had prowled into the garden from the enclosed parkland beyond, the little pug dog had been yapping in a skull-rattling fashion. His first instinct was to shut it up. He’d also wanted to cleanse his palate of those tickling feathers from the peahen he’d had so much fun chasing down in the parkland. So he’d bounded after the dog, snapped it up, and shaken it. The dog was small and fatty and sour-smelling, but at least it didn’t have feathers.
Then a woman’s voice tensely said, “Blessed Venus, step back out of sight, Felicia. A slow step. Don’t startle it. Just back away and it will eat that hells-cursed pug and not you.”
“But do you see what it is, Ami?”
“Yes, I see what it is. It is a very large and very hungry saber-toothed cat.”
He raised his head just as the dog weakly wriggled, its blood dribbling down his dagger-like incisors.
“It’s so beautiful.”
A woman stood on marble steps lined by troughs of prickly winter shrubs that were dusted by snow. She was anything but prickly. She was delectably plump. She was wearing indoor clothes with a bodice laced tightly over a full bosom and white petticoats pulled up to keep their hems out of the snow. Her ankles were so shapely he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to gnaw on them or lick them.
The pug gave a last little farting gasp.
Her ankles, or the pungent scent. Hard to say which triggered the sudden flowing river of change that cut through his lean cat’s body like the tide of a dream changing him from one creature into another. He shivered out of the skin of the cat in which he’d been born and lived in his natural home in the spirit world, and slipped into the skin of the man’s body he wore here in the Deathlands.
Which meant he found himself sitting on his bare ass in cold, slimy snow.
He spat out a foul-tasting hairy mouthful of bloody skin. The pug plopped limply across his lap like an incongruous set of lumpy drawers. Scraps of the clothing he had been wearing when he’d changed earlier from man into cat shed onto the ground around him with a smattering of pats and thuds. A torn hank of boot leather was caught between toes. His long black hair, and the dead dog, were his only covering.
How on earth did creatures survive in this blistering cold?
He looked up to see the woman the other one had called Ami venture onto the steps. She was tall, strong like a whip, much darker in skin than the first, and with a magnificent cloud of black hair surrounding her head. She also had a metal stick in her hand which she held as if she knew how to whack with it. She halted beside the paler, plumper one called Felicia. Together they stared at him.
“Yes, that was my thought, too,” said Felicia. “He’s gorgeous.”
He wiped his blood-smeared mouth with the back of a hand before smiling at them, for he was sure his half sister Cat would have told him to use proper manners. “I have no clothes. They came off. My apologies.”
The two women looked at each other. The wordless interchange reminded him of Catherine and her spoiled and irritating cousin Beatrice (no actual relation to him, he was glad to know!). Cat and Bee spoke a great deal without saying anything. Sometimes they did it when they rattled on with words to addle their listeners into thinking they hadn’t even a pair of half thoughts to rub together into one. Other times they displayed the uncanny ability to look at each other and come to an unspoken agreement.
“And I’m cold,” he added, aggrieved the two women hadn’t already noticed that he would be cold because he had no garments. Cat would have noticed. “I’m very very cold. And I’d like to wash out my mouth. I didn’t mean to bite the pug,” he added, for it abruptly occurred to him that the rules were different here and he could not just take what he wanted. “Perhaps it was a favorite of someone. However unlikely that may seem.”
“That nasty little beast!” said Felicia, taking another step down as she looked him over. “It pisses on the couches and bites us as it wishes, and we are the ones who get slapped for it by the mistress.”
Rory considered the dead dog. “My apologies, then, if there will be trouble for you because of what I did.” He grasped it by the scruff and hoisted it with a sigh. “It is an unsightly creature. But I suppose it’s dead now and can’t be living again.”
Ami gasped. “Blessed Mother, Felicia! Don’t go any closer! You don’t know what manner of creature he is. He could be anything, prowling about on Solstice Night!”
Felicia reached the base of the steps and halted on a strip of pavement swept free of snow. “What’s your name?” she asked boldly. “How could you be a saber-toothed cat one moment and a . . . man the next?”
The tall one gave a snorting sort of sound like a choked-off laugh. She strode down the steps in an arrestingly commanding fashion, a woman who knew how to take charge. Halting beside Felicia, she brandished the metal stick, which he finally recognized as an implement with which you could poke fires.
“What is your name? Are you a cold mage? I don’t think so, for I never heard that cold mages could change shape. It’s only creatures from the spirit world who can change.”
Still holding the pug, he stood. Their gazes took in the line of his body, and then they looked at each other again, and Felicia’s brow raised in a deliciously charming way.
“Roderic Barr, at your service,” he said, offering a smile to sweeten the introduction,“but you may call me Rory. That’s my pet name. What shall I do with the dog? How can I help you? I wouldn’t want you to be punished for me biting it. That doesn’t seem fair.”
“Little enough about life is fair,” said the tall one, but Rory noted how she nudged Felicia with her hip, as if reminding her to not say anything. “How did you get in the garden?”
“There was a tree and a wall and another tree, easy to leap and climb if you know trees. Where I come from, I’m used to trees and walls. I’m very agile.”
“I don’t doubt that,” murmured Felicia with a sensuous upward curve of her rich red lips.
“Hush,” said the tall one. “Don’t even think it, Fee. He’s some kind of spirit man. My
grandmother would tell you such creatures cross over from the spirit world to seduce women.”
“And then?” asked Felicia. “What happens then?”
“Then everyone is pleased,” said Rory. “Is there something wrong with that?”
A bell rang, shaken impatiently. Ami and Felicia winced.
“Where is my Coco?” cried a booming female voice from within. “Where is my little chub’ums? He’ll take his death if you force him outdoors to do his widdle business! Really! Why you cannot let him do his business under your cots as he likes to do for it’s safest and warmest there in these cold winter nights . . . Girls? Girls? Where have those lazy sluts gone?”
“Hide!” said Felicia. “Behind the troughs.”
“What about–?” He shook the limp body with a hand rather as he had earlier shaken its living self in his jaws.
“Hurry!” Ami leaped down to grab him by an elbow and drag him to the prickly shrubs.
He’d grown up in a pride of saber-toothed cats ruled by his mother’s implacable will, so he simply never argued with females. With the oozing pug still in hand, he dashed behind the shrubs and crouched. The stone was like ice against his bare feet. The needles scratched him most painfully. But when a woman dressed in a robe of flowing gold swept out onto the patio at the top of the steps, bellowing about her chub’ums and her ungrateful servants, she did not see him. Another small dog was tucked in the angle of one of her arms. This one was even fatter and uglier than the corpse he held.
“Where is he?” she demanded.
For a moment he thought she had seen him, but then he realized her only thought was for the missing dog.
“We just saw him run inside through the parlor curtains, Your Highness,” said Ami with a smile so false it would have curdled milk.
“My poor frightened Coco! You chased him! You heartless beasts!” The highness happened to be standing closest to plump Felicia. She slapped her. The pug on her arm snapped at Felicia, teeth catching on her sleeve. Felicia took a step back, and the highness grasped her sleeve and wrenched her back toward the growling dog. “Don’t try to run away from your crime!”
A snarl escaped Rory, and he shifted forward to his toes and would have leaped up to pounce on her but Ami pounded the metal poker into the stone once in what he took as a warning to stay put. The pug began to huff out a wheezy cascade of barks. Its beady black eyes were fixed on the shrubbery, for it had clearly smelled Rory or the blood of its missing companion.
“We have not seen him, Your Highness,” repeated Ami with a false smile.
Yes, yes, obviously they were lying to protect themselves; he could understand that. But that awful woman wasn’t being fair to them at all. Yet by the flash of Ami’s gaze toward the shrubbery, as if fearful he might spring out, he knew he had to stay hidden.
Felicia raised a hand to the red stain on her cheek. She spoke in a voice as smooth as cream. “Your bath is ready, mistress. We were just coming to tell you when we discovered that Coco had to do his business. Ami will be glad to take His Highness the Exalted Ramses inside, for the cold air has startled and discomforted him. I will escort you in to your bath.”
“How can you think I can think of even having a bath at a time like this, with my little chub’ums so scared and likely shivering and cowering with fear! You are heartless and devoid of feeling, but no doubt you cannot help it being a bastard’s bastard child. Only my devotion to your grandmother keeps you in my service.”
“I cannot express my gratitude, Your Highness.”
“Of course you cannot! It is inexpressible, what I have sacrificed for you!” She lifted a hand to the heavens as if exhorting some personage who lived in the clouds. The gold bracelets on her arms jangled as they slipped to her elbows. The pug in her arms nipped at the bracelets, clearly as ill-tempered as the highness and fortunately as distractible. “But the gods lay their claim on us to be generous. That is our princely lot in life.”
The speech exhausted her reverses. She swayed as her lips pinched together as if to trap all the things she did not want to lose. She had an otherwise pleasant face soured by the expression of a person accustomed to slapping all underlings who did not accede quickly enough to her demands.
“I shall faint!” she decreed with the certainty of an oracle.
Felicia dabbed the woman’s forehead with a scrap of fine linen, carefully avoiding the pug as it struggled to shift close enough to fasten its stubby muzzle around her fingers. “Take my arm, Your Highness. I shall help you inside to your couch.”
“How can you think I would abandon my sweetling so! It is your flawed nature that twists your heart so cruelly. You must find Coco and bring him to me! I must lie down.” She snorted out a copious sob, a sound similar to the honking of the big wild cows he and his mother’s pride of saber-toothed cats sometimes hunted. “I haven’t even the strength to feed poor Exalted Ramses his supper. You can see he is starving! But I do not doubt that you care nothing for his suffering!”
“Let me assist you into your chambers, Your Highness,” said Ami.
“Aurea!” the highness bellowed.
A moment later a girl not yet full-grown scurried out onto the porch. She had the look of a mouse sure it is about to be gulped down, and she cringed as she made a clumsy courtesy.
The two serving woman again exchanged glances.
“I can help you in, Your Highness,” repeated Ami. “Let me take the Exalted Ramses.”
The highness shoved the growling pug into young Aurea’s arms. It bit, mouth fixing over the girl’s scarred fingers as its growl rose in pitch to a shrill frenzy.
The girl shrieked.
The highness slapped her. “How dare you abuse Ramses so!”
With a practiced swish of her sleeve, Ami got cloth in the way of the pug’s next snap as she snatched the dog from the girl’s arms. The beast squirmed impotently as Ami swept inside without a word, fabric muzzling its head.
“Come here, Aurea!” commanded the highness, holding out an arm. Blood dripping from her bitten finger, the girl scuttled under the outswept arm with its jangling bracelets. She physically sank as the highness settled her weight on her, but as the highness moaned, the girl staggered inside with her. A curtain swished down behind them.
Wind rattled through the branches. A crow swooped overhead as if to investigate the altercation. Ami returned, without the pug, shaking out a damp spot on her sleeve and carrying a shawl.
“I put him in in his bed and took away the stairs so he can’t get down,” she said. “How I hate that foul stinking beast. He peed on my arm!”
Felicia hastily shut the glass-paned doors.
“The way she torments that child by pretending to favor her makes me want to smash her head in,” added Ami with a flourish of the poker.
“That’s a stabbing weapon, so it wouldn’t do well for smashing,” Rory said. “Can I stand up now? My right leg is falling asleep, and my feet are cold.”
“You can’t stand up until we’re sure she won’t come back. Put this on.” She tossed the shawl over the shrubbery.
“Cat would make sure I had shoes,” he muttered as he tugged the shawl around his shoulders.
Heartlessly, Ami turned away from the bushes to confront her companion. “We must do something or she’ll kill poor Aurea. The girl has become nothing but bones and skin. And for her to prate on about her devotion to your grandmother, Fee! That nasty bitch bought your family’s debt purely to hold it over a woman who was prettier than her when they were young. Not that your sweet old grandma would have ever shoved it in her face back in those days.”
“You don’t know my sweet old grandmother very well, do you?” Felicia’s smile, as sumptuous as gravy, distracted him from his cold feet. He licked his lips, wishing he could be licking hers instead. “They still hate each other. Every morning when I wake up I think of why I’m stuck here for seven years and I know that every time Her Royal Bitch sees me, she has to remember my gorgeous granddam. Let her stew in her own juices until she dries up! Rory? You can come out now.”
Ami’s hard glare softened as Rory cautiously rose to his feet. He held out the pug.
“What in the hells are we going to do with the cursed dog?” Ami muttered.
“Bury it?” Felicia studied the limp canine with a frown.
Ami shook her head. “The gardeners will find it. You know how the prince hates anything disturbed except what he has given permission for. This time of year, any digging will be quite obvious, even if we try to hide it behind a shrubbery.”
“Throw the corpse in the privy?”
“She’ll have it raked. You know she will. One of the stablehands will be made to do it.”
“What will happen to you if the highness finds the dead dog?” Rory asked.
Felicia blanched, her magnificent bosom quivering.
Ami shrugged. “Fee will be whipped. So will Aurea, just for the pleasure the old cow gets in knowing she can command it.”
“Whipped!” If he could have laid his ears back, he would have. “Will you be whipped, too?”
“No. I’ll be sent home in disgrace. She dares not lay a hand on me for my family is too important. But one of my poor cousins will be sent to take my place. I don’t mind serving the bitch. Keeps me free from a marriage I don’t want. You must be freezing. We’ve got to sneak you inside.”
He was shivering, but his honor was on the line: He had created the problem that would cause them to be harmed. So it was up to him to solve it.
“I could eat the dog,” he said.
Ami looked thoughtful. “The whole body?”
“Not the bones and skin. But the flesh and insides.”
Felicia was clearly a tenderer soul. She pressed a hand to her mouth. “How could you do that? Wouldn’t it be nasty?”
“I would have to change back. Then I could eat it. You’d have less to get rid of.”
“Are you experienced at that sort of thing?” demanded Ami.
He considered the pug with a frown. “I’ve never eaten this sort of creature exactly . . . ” Her eyebrows had drawn down, so he paused.
“Changing back and forth at your own will, I mean,” she said.
“It’s something I didn’t know I could do until recently,” he temporized, for he wasn’t sure how much he ought to tell them. But he liked the way they were looking at him with hopeful, interested expressions. A man who did a good deed to make up for his bad deed would surely be rewarded. He might even hint at the sort of reward he would like most. “You would have to help me. You’d have to be very brave. I would have to become a cat and eat as much of the dog as I can. Then you’d have to persuade me back, to remind me how much I would rather be a man than a cat.”
“You wouldn’t just eat us?” Ami asked, but she was biting her lower lip as she considered.
He smiled, flashing a gaze at Felicia. “Not in that way, anyway.”
Felicia gave a most gratifying gasp and blushed bright red.
The music of Ami’s answering laugh was so seductive that his man part stirred alarmingly, even in this tremendous cold.
“Oh!” said Felicia. “My!”
“You think we might coax you back from cat to man?” murmured Ami.
“I think you’ve already had your answer,” he said, not bothering to hide because even though Cat would likely have told him it was very rude to stand naked in public in such a state, his two new friends were not troubled by it. “But my feet are very cold. Could we make a decision quickly?”
The two women looked at each other. If his feet hadn’t been quite so cold he would have enjoyed the way their expressions spoke in emotions instead of words. Ami’s lips quirked up in a half smile as her eyebrows rose as if with a question. Felicia’s mouth parted as she exhaled, and she ran white teeth over her lower lip in a way that made him want to nibble that luscious mouth right there.
“All right,” said Ami, turning back to him with the poker slightly raised and slightly trembling, rather as he was. “We’ll do it.”
He set down the pug on the stone. Hands at his side, he considered his man body and the memory of his cat body and how the two things were the same body but different in texture and movement. Deep inside himself there flowed a current like the stream of a river. He let his awareness sink into the current; he dropped into the flow where his cat body waited, ready to pour back into his flesh. He let the cat out and put the man in the river.
A shiver flew through him. His body curled forward as it bristled with fur and claws and teeth. He huffed out a breath and brushed his whiskers along the pug’s body. It smelled better than he had been thinking it had smelled. Lots of nourishing fat! But not much time!
He pinned the body with a paw and carefully opened up the belly with a sideways tear. Blood oozed. He licked it up and pulled out flesh and liver and the fatty heart, leaving aside the intestines, working around the bones and spine. It was a pleasant morsel coming after the less appetizing peahen, which had been scrawny and dry. Sour blood and bits and scraps of fat and liver dribbled from his mouth. He settled onto his haunches and began cleaning himself. Then felt the sting of cold snow on his hindquarters, and wondered if there might be a more sheltered place to settle down.
Suddenly two larger morsels slipped in on either side of him. He sniffed. They smelled very tasty in a way he could not quite identify. He didn’t want to devour them, precisely; he wasn’t hungry, or at least, not in that way. A hand brushed his neck, then kneaded down the line of his spine. He rumbled, then began to purr.
“He’s so tame,” whispered the plumper one to the more muscled one.
The muscled one with the cloud of hair bent so close her breath misted along his muzzle and caressed his nose. The tips of her hair mingled with his whiskers, making him shiver with delight. “I don’t think he’s as tame as all that. If he would just change back into a man, we could find out.”
A man? What was a man? A man was shaped something like them, wasn’t it? Upright, a fast runner, but with flesh that was not very appetizing when it came down to it. He could be a man if he could just remember the way the river flowed and dive into it, even though water was not really to his liking. But their thighs brushing against his flanks made him think a swim might be worth it. Their hands petted him, and their voices murmured with crooning promises.
Anyway, he liked this new skill that was a sort of freedom. As a cub, he had learned to hunt. Hunting made him useful and gave him pleasure. Not being trapped in a single form gave him a weapon the poor creatures here in the Deathlands did not have, for they were confined into one form from birth until death. All they could do was grow, and die.
He twisted his thoughts inward and plunged into the current. The flow poured around him and through him and into him, and he made his thoughts take a man form. The change shuddered through him, and he became a man.
“That wasn’t too hard!” he said, rather delighted at himself for managing it so easily.
Think of what Cat would say! She would praise him, wouldn’t she? He was less sure of his mother’s opinion as she was always apt to give him a long reproachful look when he attempted to impress her as if to say ‘Why are you bothering me with these trivialities?’ He frowned. An unpleasant taste rimed his lips, and his paws–his hands–were streaked with blood and other more unsavory substances. He was sitting right by the ripped apart carcass of what had once been a small, fat, squashed-face dog. The intestines simply reeked, for although he had been careful not to puncture them, they had spilled anyway and the dog had voided in its last moments. His feet slipped in the mess.
He wrinkled up his nose, lifted a hand to his lips, and licked at it, but the taste made him gag.
“Hurry,” said Ami briskly, throwing the long shawl around him. “We have to get you inside before anyone sees you. But the dog . . . ”
Felicia reached under her own skirts and pulled off her drawers. “I’ll wrap them up in these until we figure out how to hide them. The laundresses will just think I’m having my bleeding.”
He sniffed. “You aren’t bleeding, though. You’re not even in your fertile passage. Won’t people know it for a lie, if you say the blood is yours?”
She flushed. “How can you tell?”
“Can’t people smell here?” he asked, astonished.
“That’s very rude to talk about people smelling,” said Ami in a kindly way meant, he supposed, to gently correct him. “But what did you mean, that she’s not in her fertile passage?”
Standing, he bent closer, pulling back his lips and brushing his cheek alongside Ami’s. She was attracted to him, that was obvious by her smell. “You’re not fertile at the moment either,” he said.
She drew back so sharply he thought he might have offended her, but when he examined her wide eyes and lifted chin, he thought instead she was merely startled.
“Did you want to be bred?” he asked. “If you’re not fertile, I can’t manage any breeding.”
“No, no, all the better,” she said with an arched eyebrow and a quizzical smile as she studied him. “Women would pay a lot to a man who could tell when they weren’t fertile. Especially one as attractive as you are.”
He almost said, “Am I?” but decided that since he knew he was and since he knew they thought he was, it might be unseemly to say so. So he merely smiled, to acknowledge what they all were happy was true.
Her smile sharpened, lips twitching up. “But I warn you, you’re a bit forward to say so, so bluntly, to two women you barely know.”
He coughed out a curt laugh. “Now you’re just teasing me. I can tell what your body is saying. But my apologies if I’m not to say so. I haven’t quite figured that out yet. My sister Cat is always correcting me. I have a lot to learn. As long as we don’t get caught with the corpse.” She broke off to turn in the direction of voices sounding from inside.
He stepped back behind the row of potted shrubs as Fee bent to roll up the bloody skin and bones in her spotless white linen. The voices moved on, footsteps tap-tapping on wood flooring. No one came outside into the cold after all, like sensible people remaining indoors where there was warmth.
He was starting to shiver again. Out of the darkness, a voice called out a bellowing “halloo” and was echoed by a second, then a third, from farther out. A light swayed on the distant wall, a lantern being carried.
“Bright Venus,” said Fee, “you’re cold, you poor naked man. We’ve got a hot bath that the princess has rejected. Do you think we can sneak him in? She went to lie down, and she’ll want freshly heated water when she wakes.”
Ami pushed a hand over her hair, a gesture that looked habitual. “If we’re discovered with a man in the women’s quarters, we will certainly both be turned out bare ass naked in the snow. The sensible thing to do would be to have him turn into a cat and jump back out over the wall.”
“Darling,” said Fee in a coaxing voice like a child begging for one more piece of cake, “you can hear that the watch is changing, so he can’t go right now in any case lest the soldiers spot him. Anyway, there’s no telling if he can get back out the way he came in. Let’s get him clean, and sort it out after.”
“I like to be clean,” said Rory with what he hoped was a grateful smile that wasn’t too begging nor too eager. “It’s especially nice when others lick me.”
The two women exchanged a glance fraught with an emotion he felt as a hand caressing his skin. His body reacted predictably, even though his feet were terribly, terribly cold.
“After heating and hauling that bathwater,” added Felicia suddenly, “I should hate to see it go to waste.”
“Yes,” said Ami decisively, and to his surprise, both she and Fee giggled in a girlish way that made his loins grow hotter and his ears burn as with whispered promises.
“I’ll carry the dog,” he added, thinking it a polite gesture that they might appreciate. “I’m already bloody.”
He picked up the flaccid leavings. Fluids mottled the linen. Ami swept the stone with a branch broken off from an evergreen shrub, then wiped up the last of the spume with her sleeve. Rory followed Felicia inside, as quiet as if he were stalking unsuspecting prey. In a way he was.
Inside and up the steps, the floor was remarkably warm, oozing pleasure into the soles of his feet.
“Ahh, it’s so much better to be inside than outside!” He brushed a shoulder along Fee’s.
The touch brought her to a halt as she looked at him sidelong in a marvelously delicious way. Fee blushed, and chewed on her lower lip as if she were chewing on him. He sniffed. Dog scent drenched the chambers. Streaks of dried urine stained chair legs, table legs, and the lowest span of the brightly painted wallpaper where the dogs had marked where they wished. Their dribblings spotted the fine carpets like a series of tiny ponds long since dried into rancid swales. The highness’s fraught moans echoed through the linked chambers like labored grunts. Her bed chamber lay to the left through a series of closed doors. He smelled blessedly hot water in the opposite direction.
Fee’s hand brushed his elbow. She pulled it back nervously, then with a delightfully skittish grin let her wonderfully plump fingers tickle on his forearm. His hair tingled at the touch, and she inhaled in a way that made him quite amorously inclined.
“Come with me,” she whispered.
He dipped his head down to brush his cheek against her soft one. “I’d like that.”
She let go of him so fast he thought he had offended her. Yet with a teasing backward glance and a provocative swish of her lushly rounded hips, she hurried off toward the bathing chamber.
From behind a curtained alcove, a dog whined with thwarted anger. Rory pulled the curtain back and glanced into the chamber beyond, a spacious room furnished with gold-painted wallpaper and two gilded beds covered with dog hair. In dimness, the noble Ramses huffed indignantly. Ami had indeed deposited Ramses on his bed and pulled away the steps so the ungainly creature could not descend unless it leaped. Rory was pretty sure it was too fat to leap, and in any case too accustomed to its privileges to make the attempt.
Cornered and trapped, the little thing growled shrilly at him, quivering all over.
Ami slipped up beside Rory and slapped him on the ass.
“If he starts barking, we’re all in,” said Ami. With her free hand she tossed a hank of bread that landed neatly right in front of Ramses. His growls turned into slobbering as he set to gnawing on the crust with the sort of gluttonous lack of fastidiousness common to dogs. Meanwhile, Ami’s fingers strayed along the curve of his ass before darting up to grasp his elbow. “Come along, Rory.”
He followed obediently through a set of linked sitting chambers lit by handsome gold lamps molded in the shapes of overly-fed hounds so unlike the lean, cruel beasts he knew in the spirit world that at first he thought they were meant to be cows. Behind a pair of carved doors lay a small stone room painted with a mural of cavorting mermaids and dolphins engaged in unexpectedly acrobatic water games and fitted out with a large brass tub brimful with hot water. Six full buckets and two large brass pitchers suitable for pouring sat on a stone bench alongside. There was also a rack to hang a robe or dress or other clothing, and a closed wardrobe. At a side table with a basin, he washed the blood off his hands.
“These aren’t the real baths,” said Fee, who was waiting beside the tub with her gaze fixed shyly on the floor. “The maidservants wash here. But the highness likes us to bathe her here. She likes to pretend sometimes she’s a lowly servant cavorting among her friends.”
“You just bet she does,” remarked Ami. “Since the prince never touches her, we’re the only ones except her hired lovers from whom she ever gets a stroke. We do it to keep her temper under control. If she weren’t such a misbegotten tyrant, I would almost feel sorry for her. But she is, so I don’t.”
She began to strip off her clothes.
“Ami!” breathed Fee, turning pink.
“You know what I think of her!”
Fee gestured to a now mostly naked Ami. “Not that. Your clothes . . . ”
“Oh! Well! He can’t be expected to wash himself, after everything he’s gone through, can he?”
“He can’t!” agreed Rory. “After everything he’s gone through? Certainly not! What do I do with–?” He held up the damp cloth that veiled the oozing corpse. He was so distracted by Ami’s long, dark limbs and firm breasts that he took a step back and set the dead dog beside the door, to one side, before turning back to the women with his slyest smile. The shawl slipped off his body. “Where do I get in?”
“Do you say such things for their double meaning, or are you just that charming?” asked Ami with a laugh.
“I like to let people wonder how tame I am. Until I eat them up.”
“You are the worst flirt I’ve ever met,” said Ami appreciatively as she slipped out of her drawers.
Such soft pleasing undergarments they were, too. He took them from her before she could drape them over the bench and held them over his hips.
“Do you think they would fit? My sister says I’m not to wear women’s undergarments because I’m male, but I think that’s not fair. What do you think?”
Ami was as bold as Fee was shy. She pressed herself against him, naked chest to naked chest, and looked him right in the eye, for she was quite tall. She spanned his hips with strong hands. “I think they would fit you, but you’ll look oh so much better handsomely clad in a dash jacket and well fitting trousers, don’t you think?”
“Whatever you think is what I think,” he murmured into her ear, and then he nibbled at the lobe.
She had such an air of command that the way her breathing grew unsteady made him most pleasantly excited.
She steered him toward the tub. “Now you’ve gotten me dirty, too, you wicked beast. We’ll have to both go in the tub. Darling Fee, what are you waiting for? I know you’ve seen naked men before. And Bright Venus knows we’ve been in that tub together before.”
His ass came into contact with the tub.
“In you go,” said Ami, wrapping an arm around him and tipping him backward.
He grasped her just as tightly, and together they fell in with a huge splash that soaked the front of Fee’s gown. The wet fabric clung to her generous curves, and displayed the rounded curve of her breasts and her erect nipples in a most marvelous way.
“Now I’m wet,” said Fee in a tone whose astonishment made Ami laugh.
“Milady Aminata?” A mouse-like girlish voice murmured from outside the closed doors. “Milady Felicia? I don’t– I mustn’t– I’m sorry–”
“Angry Jupiter,” muttered Ami, sitting up in the bath and pushing Rory behind her. He found that he could curl his naked body around hers in a very amorous way and keep his head hidden by pressing kisses between her shoulder blades. “What is it–? Ah! Mmm. What is it, Aurea? Aren’t you attending Her Highness?”
“She sent me to look for Coco,” came the plaintive voice. “The mistress is wanting him.”
“Is she up?”
“No, she is sleeping.”
“Well, then, child, we’ll sort it out later. We’re just warming up in here. We were so cold searching outside that I thought our toes would–Stop that!–freeze off. You had best go to the kitchens and try the yam pudding to make sure it is fit for when Her Highness wakes up. And the biscuits and the rabbit, too, for you know how Her Highness likes her food just so. Make sure you try everything, and not just a spoonful, either, enough so you–Ah!–so you can make sure it will be to her liking. Go on. She won’t wake for another hour.”
“But I can’t. Her Highness ordered me to look for Coco.”
“Felicia and I will look for him, I promise you. As for the other, I command you, for I am senior to you, so you must obey me.”
“But I’m not allowed–”
“I’ll obey you,” murmured Rory at the same time, exploring the part of her that rested under the water.
“Ah! Stop that, you beast!”
The little voice quavered. “Milady, did I displease you?”
“Yes! You displease me by not eating enough to keep up your strength and feed your appetite. I have changed my mind. You must eat two bowls of yam pudding first, at my order, and then try all the other foods. Is that clear, Aurea?”
Rory discovered how well his two hands could fondle Ami’s two breasts. Her head sagged back against his, her hair caressing his two lips.
Fee had been standing mute and damp, looking from tub to door and back to tub. “Yes, you must eat two bowls of yam pudding for supper every night, Aurea,” she said with unexpected decisiveness. “Besides the rest of your meal. That is an order. Go right away, so you can eat as much as you wish while the highness sleeps. And then take a nap until we call for you. Go!”
The scuttling footfalls of the girl faded.
“You’re feeling frisky,” said Rory with a laugh.
“So I am,” she said as she stripped off her gown and gathered up a thick bar of soap and a sachet of herbs and leaned over the tub.
So she was, and Ami, too. They frisked quite delightfully and energetically in a way that splashed a great deal of water over the floor. Eventually, they ended up on the floor on a pile of lovely thick towels. They took their time, indeed they did.
But really, considered in the greater scheme of things, it was all over far too quickly. He was granted the merest scant interval of lying, spent and satisfied, with a woman on each side nestled cooingly against him, before a high light bell sounded.
Ami sat up. “Curse the old bitch with boils and an itching arse.”
A great deal of shouting and bellowing rose from the princess’s rooms. A bird-like scratch scraped the door.
“Lady Aminata. Lady Felicia. Her Highness is awake and looking for you. She’s rousted the gardeners to search the ground. I didn’t tell her yet where you were, but . . . ”
The one truly impressive thing about the highness was her voice. “Aurea! Where is that useless bit? Why is she not here by my bedside?”
Although Rory could tell she was no where near, her shout carried marvelously, like warning of a distant storm that would break over them at any moment.
Ami went to the door and cracked it open. “Aurea. Go tell Her Highness we’re outdoors looking still. That will give us time to make sure she doesn’t find us here. Hurry.”
The girl scuttled off as Ami closed the door and turned to regard first her naked companions and then the messy linen that wrapped the remains of darling Coco. “We have to get you out of here,” she said to Rory. “The problem is that men are not allowed in this wing. The moment you’re seen, they’ll know something is up.”
“Will you be punished?” he asked.
Her frown had a grim cast that chased all thoughts of dalliance out of his mind. His lazy languor burned off at the thought of these delectable females being punished, especially because he would have been responsible and they left to accept the blame. His mother always told him that if there was anything she hated, it was males who let the women do all the work. “I would rather give myself up to spare you that. If I become a cat again and run back through the garden, they’ll never know you were involved.”
“The soldiers will shoot you!” exclaimed Ami with a look of real alarm.
Fee planted a firm kiss on Rory’s lips, but then rose. “I know exactly what to do.”
She flung open the wardrobe and rummaged around until she found what she wanted. “Here.” She dropped men’s trousers, shift, waistcoat, and a sober green dash jacket onto Rory’s lap. “Get into these.”
“But Fee–?” Ami’s protest died as Fee tossed a clean gown at her and shook out a second gown, one cut to fit Fee’s more generous figure.
“He’s got no beard. We’ll dress him in a gown, veil his face in a shawl, and tell the guards at the gate that he’s my cousin come to visit me for the day and leaving now for home. His hair is long and beautiful enough to be a woman’s. Once he’s outside he can take off the gown and go about as a man, although it will be cold without a coat.”
“My sister will find me a coat,” he said, much taken with this idea as he swiped Ami’s drawers from the bench and pulled them on, covering them quickly with the trousers so she wouldn’t notice and thus object to his stealing them. So soft!
“You’re brilliant, Fee!” breathed Ami in a voice so tender and admiring that he paused while buttoning up the front flap of the trousers. They were gazing at each other as if they wanted nothing more than to lick each other, and he abruptly felt that while this had been a pleasing dessert for them, he wasn’t truly necessary to their repast.
After all, he was leaving, wasn’t he? He had to return to his family, and they naturally would make their own little pride in the territory where they roamed. A sigh escaped him nonetheless.
“Dearest Rory!” said Fee at once, rushing over to him. “You’re so honorable and good.”
“Am I?” he asked, not to demand their agreement but because he wanted to be honorable and good. That was what males were meant to be, wasn’t it?
“You are,” she assured him. “Let me help you with those buttons.”
Ami dressed also. “I still don’t know what we’re going to do with darling Coco,” she said as they all finished dressing and the women helped sort out the gown so the drape and flow did not reveal the men’s clothing beneath.
“I have an idea,” said Rory as they wrapped the shawl around his head in way that made him seem a modest woman who did not wish to be stared at on the street. “A very cunning and devious idea. But you can’t know, and you mustn’t watch. Wait here.”
“You can’t let anyone see you!”
“There’s no one outside right now. The highness is wailing in her bedchamber and the servants are either waiting on her or shivering about out in the cold.” He gave them his sternest look, the one he reserved for moments of extreme danger or when he really had to convince his mother not to swat him after he had played a trick on his spoiled and obnoxious little sister, the other one, not Cat. To his surprise, they opened the door enough for him to slip through. He picked up the stinking remains and sneaked out.
Stealthy as only a cat can be, he sought the den of the foul beast, behind the curtained alcove.
Then he returned to the women.
“It’s taken care of,” he said with a smile. “Trust me.”
The voice shook the walls. “Where are those sluts? Where is my darling Coco?”
“Hurry.” Ami dragged him out of the bath chamber and along a servants’ narrow hall by the light of the lamp Fee carried. A pair of lamps marked a door barred from the inside. Ami pulled open a square view hole and peered out.
“Who’s out there? Ah, Captain Gaius, it’s you. Open up. Lady Felicia’s cousin has to get home. She was visiting, but Her Royal Highness is in a pet.”
The soldier standing at guard laughed. “Are you telling me that’s something new today? I reckon I’m glad I’m out here and you’re in there tending to her fits and starts. Stand back, girls.”
Ami slid shut the view hole and then gave Rory a sound kiss. On the other side, the guard fiddled to unlock a mechanism, for evidently the door was barred on both sides. Fee unbarred the door. As it swung in, the captain raised his lamp to take a good look at them with a proprietary air that made Rory want to claw him. But he knew better than to pick a fight and draw attention. So he smiled winningly instead. The man was rather good-looking, with the bluff, muscular build of a fellow who spends a lot of time wrestling and running and hacking at helpless objects. His broad hands looked as if they might be very adept at squeezing and kneading. His gaze was certainly probing.
“Who is this lovely? I’ve not seen her before, and I know all you girls by sight and by that lovely sway of your ass, Lady Felicia.”
Lady Felicia was not, perhaps, as enamored of Captain Gaius as Rory thought he could be, given the chance.
“This is Rory,” she said in a cool voice far removed from her passionate utterances not long ago. “She’s not a serving woman to the princess, Captain, so you must show her respect.”
Ami added, “She’s really a saber toothed cat dressed in a man’s skin and wearing a woman’s clothes.”
“I have very nice man’s skin,” said Rory helpfully. “Do you want to see it?”
Captain Gaius laughed, slapped Rory on the ass in a most gratifying way, and then, unfortunately, stepped back. “You women and your jests. Go on. There’s a commotion brewing, for I heard the wall captain call up half the men. If the old bitch finds me chatting up you lot, she’ll have my balls. Get out of here.”
A male voice shouted for the captain. With a frown he signaled to them to stay put as he stepped away around a corner and into a guardhouse. Across a courtyard, a closed gate in a high wall promised access to the city beyond.
“I can’t believe you told the truth, Ami,” said Felicia under her breath. She was still holding Rory’s hand, and with obvious reluctance she released him. “About Rory, I mean.”
“The benefit of telling the truth is that so few people believe you. You must go, Rory. Though I’m sorry to lose you so soon after finding you.”
“All will be well,” he assured them. “The highness will never suspect you.”
At that moment, out of the depths of the princess’s wing, a mighty shriek cleft the night like the anguished howl of a wounded monster.
“My chub’ums! My Coco! Aieeee! Ramses! HOW COULD YOU?”
Rory smiled smugly, imaging how sour Ramses must look with his nose smeared in blood and his paws dabbling in the moist remains. The two women looked at him with wide eyes. He kissed each one on her warm, willing lips, and stepped away as the captain returned, looking grumpy.
“Hurry, lass. Get out of here, as the lord general is bound to make his rounds with all this fuss. Cursed women! Either scolding or wailing.”
One last glance was all he was permitted as the captain hustled him to the servants’ gate and thrust him out into the cold night. The captain shut the gate.
Rory stood on the cobblestone street, savoring the adventure. That had felt good! And he had learned something important about himself, just as Cat would have urged him to do: By understanding what it meant to flow and change, he could now shift from cat to man and back again whenever he wished. Sadly, he knew he would never be able to tell Cat about all the best parts of the night, because she would no doubt be affronted and embarrassed.
A curious watchman paused to eye him and, when Rory snarled, hurried on. He stripped off the gown and shawl and folded them up to carry. He took in a draught of air. Beneath the many heated smells of the city, he sought his sister’s distinctive scent, blended of both worlds.
Dressed in his man’s clothes with his soft woman’s drawers beneath, he sauntered off in search of her. Sometimes things did work out. He had righted a tiny wrong, done some good in the world, maintained his honor, and been well petted in reward.
It was good to be a man.