"Fair enough," Mama answered, "Then a month from today. We will have the duel in the training yard, it will be witnessed by me, Bastet, her mother, your mother, and all of the Pridelord's wives. And when Viridian humbles you, you will also mate with my son before us all right there on the floor of the arena as we witness it."

"Yes my Lady," Leandra answered.

"Good," Mama chirped cheerily, "With that settled I want you three to go to Mwanje Kottrheim, and Leandra I want you to introduce Viridian to the Pridelord."

——(!)——

It was as we were riding in the car-like shuttle, I sat on the outside by the window. Bastet sat in the middle, and Leandra sat by the other door. Everything had been awkward between us since the morning. But it made me realize that I had grown quite fond of her over the past eight years. I respected her very much. To have been able to climb to the rank of Magistrate when so young was an impressive feat. Then to have taken his training on as a personal task... Well, now, he knew that it was not entirely altruistic.

I had always known that she was much older than me, and I could definitely see how being promised to a small, delicate, Alfar child would be...humbling. But, I didn't know just how much older she was than me, "Leandra?"

"Yes, my Lord," She answered while still looking out the window.

I felt like she left herself open to being teased, but considering her sensitivity, I left it unsaid and instead continued, "I have known you were much older than me. Hell, you've been around the house since I was a baby, and in the last eight years you've been training me. I understand this must be...humiliating for you...and I am sorry for that. If this is too much, and you don't want to...be mine, then tell me. I will go to my father and yours, and I will tell them that I don't want you."

Leandra turned to look at me as I spoke, and Bastet looked like she was watching a tennis match the way her head kept swiveling back and forth between me and her. Leandra's eyes opened wider in surprise and then narrowed in thought before she turned back to the window and asked in a quiet almost shaken voice, "Do...you...not want me?"

I felt surprised, and ashamed. What she had taken from my statement was not what I meant, and so I tried to explain, "That's not what I said. I said, I would tell them I don't want you. I never said I didn't want you!"

I exhaled heavily, feeling exasperated already with this world. I didn't expect there to be so much political bias or racial prejudice. With a shake of my head I continued, "I...just want to know what you want. If you don't want me... Don't want to be my...Pet," I almost sneered at the word. I hated the idea of owning Bastet, or Leandra, "...then, I accept that and will do everything in my power to reverse this."

By the end of what I had say; Leandra was staring at me. She remained silent for what felt like at least a minute before she answered, "You say the strangest things my Lord."

Bastet nodded vigorously in agreement, "Yes, all the time, but I love all the weird things he says."

"Yes, well, you've been with him since birth," Leandra retorted sarcastically, "What says is normal to you while it is shocking to me!"

Bastet's long curly hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail exposing her shoulders, and as she tensed up with indignation her fur stood on end from her neck all the way down to the small of her back and down to her tail as she snapped back sharply, "You think I am naive? Because I am eighteen, or because I grew up in my Lord's house? You think I am blind to how all other Alfar treat their Animals? Of how they treat us? I've seen our men, women, and children beaten, our sister's and mother's raped in broad daylight while no one did a thing to stop it, and our brother's and father's run through by a Master's sword on a whim or in a fit of rage; right in the middle of the road. So, don't ever think that I am that naive. I know how the world is, and I am thankful everyday of my life that I am Viridian's...Pet! Not just because I love him and the strange things he says, but because he treats me like...a person, he protects me like I am...more than just a...Pet, and he has never raised a hand to me in violence! If being thankful for that makes me immature and naive, then I guess I am..."

"No no, you're right," Leandra admitted with a shake of her head as she apologized, "I am sorry Bastet, and, I am sorry my Lord..."

"Stop calling me your Lord," I corrected, figuring I might as well set the ground rules now if we were going to become...Master...and Pet, "We may have to live in this world and play by its rules in public, but in private, I want you to call me Viridian, or Virdy, or something else that is just...ours. No more of this Master and Pet shit..."

"Shit?" Leandra mouthed silently to Bastet in a silent question of what the word meant.

Bastet just shrugged and mouthed, "I know."

"Oh for fucks sake," I exclaimed in exasperation, "Will you two be serious! Can't you see I'm trying to have a moment here with you two?!"

Bastet and Leandra both started laughing, and even I, after realizing what I said, couldn't help laughing myself. With a good laugh to lighten the mood, Leandra cleared her throat and confessed, "My Lord...Vir...Viridian, it was an honor... No, let me rephrase that. It is my great honor to be so trusted and loved by your father and mother, and my father and mother, so much that I was promised...no...I mean...I was given to you...as your...Pet the day your mother found out that she had conceived you. I was given to you even before Bastet was, and I am proud of that fact. I know that one day you will be a great man. It's just, I want that great man to take me. To challenge me, and subdue me. I don't know if this makes any sense whatsoever to you, but, I want a man that is powerful enough that he can see me...in all my fury...and not shrink away in fear. Do...you...think you are that man, my Lord Viridian?"

I sat there for a long time and thought about what she said. I didn't want to say "Yes I am that man" and seem overly confident and egotistical, and yet, if what Mother had told me about my abilities, and what Leandra and Bastet said about my father were not exaggerations, then I would indeed be powerful enough to subdue her physically. But, was her need for a dominant male simply physical, or was it emotional as well?

Looking across the shuttle, locking gazes with her, my unblinking emerald green eyes meeting golden, and I promised, "I will be the man you need me to be, Leandra."

She smiled at my answer and grinned with an almost predatorial purr, "I guess we shall see how far you've come along on that promise in a month...now won't we!"

"Yes we will," I returned with a determined glare.

We rode on in silence for several minutes, and then I remembered what I had wanted to ask before we went off on the tangent about my worthiness of Leandra, "Leandra?"

"Yes, my Lord," She answered in an overly patient sigh.

"How old are you," I asked.

Bastet slapped my arm, making me shrug away from her in defense while Leandra looked at me dangerously and answered, "I'm forty-nine years old my Lord."

It was in awkward silence that the chauffeur drove the shuttle through the rest of Valeheim and I found myself watching the Alfar and Animal citizens walking through the streets, and my long kept observations came back to me, and so I asked, "Why do you and Andra obey my father so...willingly? It seems to me that either of you two could easily kill him. There are more than enough Animals that you could kill all of the rest of us Alfar if you wanted to, and then you would be free."

Leandra was looking out her window when I voiced my question but then snapped around to glare at me with her mouth agape from shock, "You really don't have a filter do you? To use unfamiliar words and to say shocking things is one thing, but this, this is scandalous...traitorous even! Never may such a fate come upon my Lord, your father! Why would you ask such a thing?"

Nervous now, thinking that I may be in trouble, it took me a few seconds to summon my courage before I answered her, "It was only an observation about you and your father's strength. Really, I guess my broader question is; Why haven't the Animals rebelled against their masters to gain their freedom?"

Leandra and Bastet both stared at me like I was stupid before Leandra looked away with a sniff of indignation as if she wasn't going to dignify me with an answer. I caught her cutting her eyes at me several times while supposedly looking out her window, and it was almost a block later before she finally answered, "If we were to fight, and even if we were to slaughter your father, your mother, your sisters and you, if we killed all the hired Alfar that live here, we still would not be free. We would be wild, but we would not be free."

"Really, why not?" I asked as I remembered my past life's world history. Of all the wars fought to enslave and exterminate, and for freedom and the right to live.

"Many rebellions have broken out world wide over the years," Leandra answered, "Usually against particularly despotic Lords, but once the Lord was killed, the Kingdom retaliates by eradicating every animal that was in the District, from the old to the babe no matter whether they were a warrior or a civilian..."

"Wow," I silently mouthed as I shook my head in regret for the innocents that were killed.

She shook her head and continued, "Animals quickly learned that war and killing was not the way we were going to win our freedom. We will never be free until the governments recognize us as an actual Race, and recognize our right to live a life free of their regulations."

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights came to my mind, and I knew that steep and heavy wars had been fought for and to maintain those freedoms. The existing government of that time had to be forced to recognize those rights, and I felt a deep sadness for the Animals. Leandra was right, small rebellions would never win them their freedom, but neither would politics. A war would have to be fought...eventually.

"Also," She added with a sideways grin and a deeper purr, "Don't ever sell you father short. I may look strong, and my father even more so, but it's your father that is the true beast of these lands. None of us come close to how truly powerful he is, which is why it means so much to us how he has exercised his Lordship so graciously toward us Animals."

That made me very proud. To know that my father was not only powerful, but wise, benevolent, and loved.

The shuttle drove for about thirty minutes once we were outside the city walls, and stopped outside a high wooden wall that surrounded the Mwanje Kottrheim. Shuffling out, we disembarked, and Leandra smiled at me while I took Bastet's hand. I had to admit to myself, I was a little nervous, but I felt better knowing Bastet and Leandra were with me.

Cutting my eyes to observe Bastet, I was once again amazed by her. When we were young she had always lounged around the house almost lazily. She was my companion from birth and we were nearly inseparable, and yet, sometimes, like when I went to hunt Huxian, she was almost indifferent or annoyed. However, today, when mother told us to come out here, she had quickly pulled a wide belt with two curved long knives from under my bed and buckled it on, and now she walked beside me armed and armored and ready to protect me. What a change! She sometimes almost seemed like a different person from 8 years ago.

Standing in front of the village gates, I looked all around at the scenery around me. The Alfar loved trees above all other plant life, and so, when the Dvergr had stated their intention to populate the mountain ranges, and the Svartalfar stated their intentions to find the move to the dark valleys and caves, then the Alfar laid claim to all of the forests of the world. And so, they traveled from continent to continent and they planted trees from ocean to ocean. Looking back down the road from whence we came, the shuttle was pulled off the road, where it would wait until we were ready to return to Valehiem, and for as far as I could see were tall, dark, majestic fir trees, and oak trees, and ever sort of tree the Alfar could coax into growing. The grasslands were green, and out to my left were fields for gardening vegetables, and somehow the land looked familiar and yet I couldn't quite grasp why.

I saw a darting blur of white among the trees, and then Leandra pulled a horn off of her waist tie and blew a clear triple warbling note. A second later a horn answered on the other side of the wall with a different warble and the gates began to open. Within a few minutes, for the first time in my life, I saw a real Kottrheim!

Inside the gates I saw cats! Black and mottled cats of all sizes and ages walking around on two legs...openly! Children ran, and laughed, and played. Young girls and mature women wore interesting leather aprons that managed to cover their breasts and private parts while still allowing for their tails to swish freely. Their aprons were decorated with intricate beadwork, artistic threading, and lace, and they hung from their mid-thighs to some falling as low as their ankles, and then the aprons were tied or cinched around the waist with belts. Some of the girls' and young women's aprons were narrow loincloths, while the older women and mothers' aprons wrapped fully around their hips and legs like sarongs. Because the aprons were leather, it was liberally considered tack and harness equipment.

While the women wore aprons, the men of the city wore belts with leather loincloths except for the Pridelord who wore a beautiful breastplate of raw emeralds and bleached white bird bones, and a long cape sewn heavily with a mysterious brown fur that draped across his shoulders. Leandra brought me to see him first as was the custom, and my first impression of the Pridelord was that he was a grizzled old panther.

"Chief Laborc," Leandra greeted deferentially with a nod of her head in respect as soon as we reached the center of his receiving room, and then she began introductions, "This is Viridian Vale son of Summerset Vale. Heir apparent to the Valelands."

When she stopped for a breath, Bastet ran forward and threw her arms around Chief Laborc and chortled, "Hey daddy, I've missed you so much!"

"Oh my darling girl," Laborc purred as he hugged her close, "I have missed you so much too. I see you have grown up well and strong. You are a spitting image of your mother. I knew you would be in good hands with the son of Summerset Vale."

"Yes father," Bastet purred, "He treats me very well. I am very happy to be his..."

With a cough I decided I would interrupt, "Um, yes, Pridelord Laborc it is a great honor to finally meet you. I didn't know you were Bastet's father, but now that I do; I want to thank you so very much for your generosity! I love Bastet very much, she has been the very best friend and companion to me, and I will always cherish her."

Laborc, Bastet, and Leandra just looked at me for a very uncomfortable few seconds before he tenderly kissed Bastet's cheek, which for some reason immediately made me jealous, and then he whispered, "Go stand with your Lord, my girl."

Bastet nodded, gave her father a kiss on the cheek, and then returned to my side.

Laborc walked over to his throne and sat in it, then pointed to a chair for me to sit in. Once I was seated, with Leandra behind me to the left and Bastet behind me to the right, Laborc smiled and greeted me, "It is a great honor, my Lord, to have you visiting me today, and I can't thank you enough for bringing my Bastet with you so that I could see my daughter after so many years."

"Thank you Chief Laborc," I answered with a nod, "It is a great honor to meet you as well. I've always known that Bastet was a gift to me, but I was never told from where she came, or who was so generous as to give her to me. But now I know, and now I can thank you in person."

Laborc smiled and nodded, "This is why you have been brought here to me today. So that you could do as you have done, and now, I can tell you what Bastet is and why you have truly been sent to me."

"Sir," I asked in bewilderment.

Laborc cut his eyes to look from me, to Leandra, and then to Bastet before looking away and calling out loudly, "Bring them!"

There was a shuffling in an adjacent room, and then two women dressed in aprons appeared carrying a massive silver platter between them with two large gauntlets resting atop. The women set the tray down on the floor between Laborc and me and then quickly left the room. Laborc watched me as I carefully scrutinized the gauntlets. They looked old, and to be made of some sort of iron overlaid with silver bindings with black fur padding. The armor would cover the forearms and hands, and the fingers and thumbs were clawed. Looking up I asked simply, "What is this?"

"Cautious, good," Laborc answered, then pointed to the gauntlets, "These are an ancient artifact. They're called the Claws of the King, and your father gave them to me as payment for my daughter Bastet."

I could nearly hear Bastet's jaw drop, and feel her tension...or was the tension mine?

"I have decided to give my daughter to another man," Laborc stated firmly, "My apologies to the young Lord. I know the two of you have become...quite attached...to each other. However, she has no future with you. She will never bear children by you, and I can no longer standby and allow her line to end by my hand. So, here are your gauntlets. Bastet, come away from him, your place is with me and the one I will give you too."

"Do not move Bastet," I growled through gritted teeth. I was so furious I was shaking, and I was squeezing the arms of my chair so hard my knuckles were white, "Chief Laborc, your Honor, surely there is an amicable arrangement that we can come to. Bastet...is mine, and I will not give her back. She means everything to me. I beg you to reconsider your actions today!"

The old panther looked at me for a few minutes and then looked at Bastet, who had started crying, and he answered, "It is done. The one I will give her to is here to claim his mate, and I will not tell him he can not have her."

"Then bring him in..," I growled, my fury growing by the second, "...and I will tell him myself! You struck a bargain with my father many years ago! I will not give Bastet back to you, or to any man or Animal!"

"Very well," Laborc growled, "Nahuel, come here!"

Nahuel was a large Jaguar that stood at least a foot taller than me. He was broad across his shoulders and thickly muscled, and he looked fierce and intimidating. However, as angry as I was, I saw none of it. In my belly, my magic roared to life and my senses began to sharpen. Strength and power filled my limbs and I felt strong. Standing up out of my chair I squared off against Laborc and Nahuel.

"Nahuel," I growled while clenching my fists in anger, "I am telling you like I just told Chief Laborc. You can not have Bastet. Go find your mate somewhere else. There is nothing for you here. I will never give Bastet to you, or anyone else."

"My apologies," Nahuel answered with a nod, "I did not know you have already laid claim to her as a mate. I thought she was only a...Pet...an Animal...to an Alfar such as yourself. However, I do not accept this. I was promised a mate, and I will not leave without her."

"I suggest you find another to be your mate then," I growled vehemently, "Because I will die before I let you take her from me!"

"The challenge is made," Laborc yelled out for everyone to hear, "Do you accept the challenge Nahuel? Will you fight for my daughter, Bastet, Daughter of Anmar, Queen of Mwanje Kottrheim?"

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