Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. All other characters are (c) Hikaru Katayamma.  This story contains adult situations and language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't read it.

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 13

"Unlucky in love" or "Who can you trust?"

  I flinched at the quiet knock on the door. "Arden? Are you all right in there?" It was Sheila's voice. I could hear him trying to get in. "Arden? Please, let me in," he said, pleading with his voice.

  "Are you alone?" I asked, cautiously approaching the door. 

  "Yah, I'm alone. Please, Arden, unbolt the door," he said with a muffled voice. Standing back from the door I slapped the bolt open and then skittered away. Paw on my Tanto, ready to draw it, I watched as Sheila cautiously stepped into the room and close the door behind him.

  "Arden, what's wrong?" he asked, concern on his face. 

  I backed away as he approached. "I have to leave, Sheila. I have to get away from this place. It's not safe for me here," I said babbling. I could see he didn't understand. 

  "Nobody's going to hurt you. There's nothing to be afraid of," he said, trying to calm me down.

  "Damn it, Sheila! You don't understand! I don't want a repeat of what happened in the mews!" I was yelling again. Anxiety, fear, frustration and anger were all pulling me in different directions. 

  "But that won't happen again. The Duke has decreed that you're not an animal. Nobody will touch you again," Sheila said, trying to allay my fears.

  He still didn't get it. "A proclamation won't do any good if they can't help themselves," I argued. Now Sheila was really confused. "Haven't you noticed my scent? How it affects you?" I asked. 

  I saw Sheila thinking about this. "Yes," he replied slowly, "but I thought it was just the Dragon's senses. You know, like the eyes." 

  Sadly, I shook my head. "No, love. It affects all humans. It's like an aphrodisiac to them. They can't help themselves around me," I said, trying not to sob.

  I could see Sheila wince as he understood. "It will be OK, Arden," he said, putting his hands out to calm me down. "Give it a few days, three or four at tops. Then your scent won't bother them." 

  I was confused. Why would a few days help? Maybe he had found whatever we needed to restore Bjorn.

  "How can a few days help? What? Are they going to build up a tolerance for it or something?" I asked, trying to understand. 

  Sheila straightened up, turning away from me. He leaned heavily against the bedpost for support. "It's not that," he said quietly. "You've been in heat. The musk will fade in a few days."

  All I could do is stand there, looking at him. I was in heat? 

  "Remember our last night in my condo?" he asked. Before I could answer, he continued. "I told you that I had intentionally thrown myself into heat, but later I convinced you it was just a joke." He turned to me, is face full of anguish. "I really was in heat. I didn't think about your scent because of how powerful the Dragon's senses are. I knew you might still be in heat, but it didn't seem to matter," he said, explaining away his guilt.

  His guilt. His fault. Sheila had kept the truth from me and it had almost cost me my sanity, twice now. I could feel the rage building in me. My anger, justified, I felt the flames being fanned as I thought about how Sheila had acted at the hotel. He was always rutty, sucking up to me, looking to hump. He knew my hormones were causing me distress. He had even said so in the bar, though not directly. He was just waiting for my resistance to crumble.

  "You bastard," I said in a low voice. I just stared at him, shaking my head as my words cut him like a knife. "You son of a bitch. You knew and you never told me. You fucking knew that I was in heat and you just let me suffer through it, wondering if I was going nuts," I growled, accusing him.

  The shock of what I was saying stunned him. "Do you have any idea of what you put me through?" I said with a small voice. "I thought I was loosing my sanity. I couldn't control my thoughts. My emotions were tearing me apart." I had no clue if he could comprehend what I was saying.

  "In the mews, as I was being raped, my body responded to it. I enjoyed it," I said, hissing the last out. "Every fucking time one of them took me, I was horrified to find that I liked it! Even after they got tired of me and left me lying on the floor, my body wanted more," I was trembling at the memory now. "Do you have any idea what that did to me? I thought they had somehow broken me. Done something to me that had screwed up my mind. The only positive thing I can remember is that I...didn't...beg for it," I finished almost snarling.

  He started to speak but I interrupted. "No!" I barked. "Get out!" Pointing to the door, I repeated myself, watching as he stared at me, unbelieving. Growling, I showed my fangs and drew my Tanto. "I said get OUT!" I yelled, ordering him from the room. Tears in his eyes, he fled the room. Enraged with anger I slammed the Tanto into the woodwork on the wall, sinking the blade deep into the veneer.

  He had done this to me. Holding back the knowledge he held, he had destroyed all that I was. Born anew, I thought that it was a second chance, but now I knew that I had been robbed of my identity. It was his fault.

  I turned and walked to the windows. I had never really paid attention to them. They looked like tall glass windows but in fact were doors leading to a terrace. The door swung open, allowing me to step out on the terrace, looking out into the darkening courtyard, the mews visible at its edge.

  I was tired of being afraid. I was tired of running. I was tired of being "Little Miss Nice Bitch." I was ready to kill something. I was ready to embrace the machine. I would wrap its cold, calculating, deadly embrace around my spirit and God help the fool that crossed me.

  As I felt the mask of the machine slipping over my mind I found it difficult to fall into the roll. A part of my mind was fighting, preventing it from happening. I still wasn't in control of myself yet and it annoyed me. If the machine couldn't control me, then I would adopt it's veneer until it finally won the battle raging inside of me.

  Behind me, I heard the door open slightly. "Arden?" It was the Duchess. 

  "You may enter," I said, formally.  The door close as she walked over to where I stood. "I had two swords with me when I was captured. I want them returned," I stated flatly.

  I felt her touch on my shoulder. "Are you all right Arden?" she asked. I turned and saw her react as she saw the cold, impassive mask I wore. 

  "The Arden you knew is gone," I informed her, turning to peer out at the city again.

  "What's happened, my dear?" she asked, not understanding why I had changed. 

  "I had a very interesting revelation from our dear Vic," I said sarcastically. "It seems that I am in heat. He knew this. He was aware of the problems that it was causing me. He knew that it was driving me to the edge of insanity, and he said nothing." The last part was said as a growl as my anger flared.

  I turned to the Duchess and watched her. She understood what I was saying, realizing the betrayal. "That's right. My scent, which you found so irresistible, was responsible for what happened to me in the mews. He knew about my scent, he said nothing, and in the end it cost me everything," I said, loathing and hatred filling my voice.

  "Now," I said, once in an unemotional voice, "I am a warrior again. My life is service, death my ultimate reward. There is no room for this..." I said, gesturing to the gown that the Duchess had given me.

  I reached back behind my head and started to undo the strap, but couldn't get it loose. Angry I looked around and spotted the Tanto in the wall. I brushed by Gwen as she hastily backed out of my path and grabbed the dagger. I yanked it from the wall, welcoming the sound of cracking and splintering wood. As I reached behind my neck to cut the dress from my body I was startled by a yell. "NO!"

  "Please! Don't cut it," the Duchess said. "Please, Arden, we beg of you," she said, dropping to a knee, one hand outstretched, her face filled with agony. 

  I paused trying to understand this. "Why? What's so important about this dress?" I asked, pulling the dagger away from the fabric.

  "That dress belonged to our daughter. She passed away two winters ago. Please, my lady, we beg of you don't damage it. It's all we have left from her," she pleaded, tears in her eyes. I felt her sorrow wedge a crack in the mask of the machine. She had lost a daughter, and now she had given me the dress she so loved.

  "Why? Why give the dress to me?" I asked, sheathing the Tanto and helping her up. 

  "You remind us so much of our daughter. She was about your size, the same green eyes and beautiful red hair. She was also very outspoken about the Pantos and their enslavement," she said gently. "You share the same love of life that she did. You have no idea how much it meant to us when you put the dress on."

  The crack in the mask grew as I felt the words that she spoke. In a way, I was replacing the daughter she had lost, even if it was only for a night. "I will wear it," I replied, agreeing.

  "No," she said, denying my acceptance. "Not this way. Like this, you aren't anything like our daughter. You're everything she hated, rigid, uncaring, cold and passionless. No, wearing the dress now, you do her no honor," the duchess said, shaking her head and stepping forward to put a hand on my shoulder. "This isn't you, we can tell. It's a mask you choose to wear, like the one we must wear as Duchess. Please, don't do this to yourself. Is what he did really that bad?"

  I looked at her in disbelief. "Was it that bad? His actions killed me as sure as if he wielded the blade himself," I said harshly. She had no immediate answer, but wasn't willing to concede the fight.

  After a few moments of thought, she resumed the argument. "In our chambers you said that you would live or die at his command. That you would give up anything for his love. Are you now telling us that was a lie? Are you saying that because of this, you're willing to throw that love away?" she asked, her question a stiletto aimed at my heart.

  Was I willing to destroy my love over what had happened? Could I afford not to? How many times could I afford to have him betray me? He had kept the amulet from me, costing Bjorn his life and now trapping me in this body. Now he had almost cost me my life by holding something important from me again.

  "Is it even remotely possible that you can find it in you're heart to forgive him?" she asked, breaking my train of though. I felt the mask crumbling. The machine had tried to control me and failed before. My love for Sheila wouldn't surrender itself so easily. I hung my head, looking at the scabbard for my Tanto. It represented me so well right now, rigid, empty and uncaring. It was a receptacle for the lethal precision of the blade, and yet useless without it. Without a purpose I had no reason to exist. Sheila was that purpose. Could I forgive him? Sure. But could I ever trust him implicitly again? That I didn't know.

  I lifted my head and turned to Gwen. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a long snout for a human?" I asked. 

  A smile split her face as she saw the change in my eyes. "Never to our face," she said smiling at me, knowing she had succeeded.

  "And where does the newborn go from here?" she asked. With a shrug, I walked back out on the terrace. 

  "Well...I guess I won't be killing Sheila any time soon," I admitted, still irked at him. 

  "Hearing that pleases us to no end," Gwen said formally.

  With a small smile, I reached out and embraced Gwen. She had given me back a piece of my soul that I had been prepared to destroy. With a small peck on the cheek, I backed away, knowing how she would react if I stayed too close. "I would appreciate it if you would have someone find Lord Butthead and let him know that I'm looking for him," I said sarcastically.

  "Oh, dear me," I heard Gwen say. "We have so many Lord Buttheads in the castle. Which one would you like?" I had to laugh. I let the smile linger as she left, seeking to find Sheila for me.

  I stood on the balcony for about ten minutes before I heard the door open and then close. Sheila's boots tread softly on the stone as he walked up behind me. I held perfectly still, tail frozen in place, watching two guards as they walked towards the gate in the wall.

  "Well?" I asked, tired of waiting. 

  I heard Sheila sigh. "You're right. What I did was inexcusable. I should have warned you what to expect." He paused, I presumed, trying to think what else to say. "It's not enough to say I'm sorry, but I don't know what else I can do to earn your forgiveness.

  I had a whirling conflict of emotions running through me. On one hand I wanted to hug him and tell him I forgive him. On the other, I still wanted to kick his ass. Of course there was the physical urge to turn and jump his bones, but that wasn't going to happen.

  With a small shake of my head, I turned and leaned against the railing. I wasn't sure how to handle this. As I looked down at my hands, I remembered the Tanto I held. With a flick of my arm I tossed it to him, watching as he caught it, a perplexed look on his face.

  "Draw it," I instructed. Unsure of my intent, Sheila drew the blade, looking at the dark stain still on its surface. "There's no question of forgiveness. I love you too much not to. The question now is trust," I said, pausing to collect my thoughts. "The blood on that blade is as much by your hand as mine. If you had told me what was happening, I would have been able to understand the situation. The experience wouldn't have destroyed me."

  I took a step forward to stand in front of Sheila and grasped the hand with the dagger. Lifting it up near my chin I looked up into his eyes, pleading with mine. "I have to be able to trust you with my life the same way you've had to trust me. If I can't do that, then do me the favor of ending it now. I don't want to have to question everything you do, wondering if you're hiding something."

  While I watched I saw Sheila's expression change from horror at what I said to understanding, tears in his eyes. With a grim nod, he returned the dagger to its scabbard and turned to leave.

  I wanted to stop him. Every fiber of my body wanted to reach out and hold him, but I didn't. I turned back to the view of the city, watching the stars as they slowly came out, unable to clear the tears from my eyes.

  Sheila and I walked down the corridor towards the dining room, arm in arm, sans conversation. "Psssst! Wanna know a secret?" I asked in a loud whisper. 

  "Are you sure you can trust me with it?" he said, pride wounded. 

  Trying not to smile, I feigned indecision. "I suppose I'm willing to risk it," I said, coyly. 

  Sheila looked down at me, a small scowl on his face. "Fine. What is it?" he replied.

  I pulled him to a halt and brought his head down close so I could whisper. "I still love you," I said quietly, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. Sheila straightened up, giving me a scowl. "I do," I said nodding. I could still see he was hurt by what had happened earlier.

  I put my hands on my hips and smiled at him. "So how does it join the club, that is?" I asked. 

  Now he was totally confused. "Join what club?" he asked guardedly. 

  "Why, the 'All Men Are Pigs' club," I said in my best, smart-ass voice. 

  Sheila got an offended look on his face. "I beg your pardon, but I am not a pig," he said, defending himself. 

  I let my jaw hang slack with a look of complete surprise. "Oh yah? From the looks of your hair I'd say you were raised in a barn. Or did you forget to comb it today?" I asked, again being sarcastic.

  Sheila, ever conscious of looks as a female was shocked to think that he hadn't combed his hair. His hands flew up, frantically combing back his short-cropped hair before he remembered that he wore a crew cut. He looked down, glaring at me as I laughed at him. "God, I don't believe you fell for that," I said, squeaking it out as I laughed. 

  Sheila hung his head for a second and then smiled. "All right, you got me," he admitted.

  Reaching out I hugged him, hard. "That's better. There's no way I was going to take you to dinner all depressed. Not the man I love," I said, resting my head against his chest. I felt him return the hug, giving me a kiss on the top of my head.

  "Yah, but can you ever trust me again?" he asked quietly, hope in his eyes.

  I stepped back a bit and looked at him with my arms crossed, considering it. "Well..." I said, seriously, "I'm willing to give it another try. You gonna try to be honest with me from now on?" 

  Sheila smiled and nodded. "Just as long as I don't have to break any of the 'Guy Book of Rules' stuff, I guess so," he said using my old excuse.

  Satisfied for the moment, I gave him another big hug. "Now," I said, taking his arm again, "shall we head to dinner? I believe the Duke and Duchess are waiting for us."

  We had been formally announced as we entered the hall. It was a good-sized room and the guests had been idly standing around, chatting. The Duke and Duchess had met us just inside the door to greet us. Gwen knew what to expect; however, the Duke did not. As his eyes locked on me standing in his daughter's dress he had frozen, stunned at what he saw. As I watched him turn pale I was worried that he was going to faint. Fortunately he recovered quite nicely after shooting Gwen a seriously dangerous look.

  The dinner had been marvelous. Since Sheila and I were the guests of honor, we had sat next to the Duke at his end of the table. This being a casual meal, they used one of the small dining tables, seating only about twenty people. The meal was obviously aimed at me as it was mostly different types of meats, though there were some vegetables scattered about. After the main meal we relaxed, chatting as they cleared the main course to bring dessert.

  "So, Lord Sheen, tell us about your eyes. How did they get like that?" asked one of the young ladies at mid-table. 

  Sheila looked over at me for a second and winked. "I'm a half-breed," he stated. 

  The young woman looked rather confused. "I don't understand. A half-breed of what?" she asked. "Why I'm half dragon, my lady," he responded with a smile and a nod.

  I glanced at the Duchess. She had a confused look on her face as tried to figure this out. She knew that neither of us should be half anything.

  "I don't understand how..." the young lady said, letting the last part trail off. 

  "Oh, that's simple. Just take one dragon and one human," he said, as he held up his hands and began to gesture hesitantly, "then they... well he kind of....ummm.... Surely you can imagine it." I have no idea how he kept a straight face. The looks on the people as he spoke were hilarious. There were scandalous looks all around the table. More than one young person blushed. I was busy trying not to gnaw off a finger while using my hand to choke back my laughter.

  Unable to resist, I reached out and dipped the ends of my fingers in water and flicked them at Sheila. "Hey!" he said, flinching from the water. "What was that for?" he demanded of me. 

  I couldn't resist laughing now. "Quit teasing the poor girl and tell her," I said, still chuckling. "Hey! Do you want to tell this story?" he asked, feigning anger

  . I held up my hands in defense. "Oh no! No way! That story is your domain and I wouldn't dare to intrude," I said, shaking my head in denial.

  A glance at the Duke showed he didn't know what to make of our exchange. The Duchess however was another matter. She was openly grinning like the cat that ate the canary. She understood that we had made up and was delighted to see the banter.

  Sheila turned back to the young lady he'd been talking to. "As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted," the last was directed at me, "my father spotted a maiden who had been tied to a poll as a virgin sacrifice to a dragon. A barbaric practice, and my father detested it. When he let her go he was terrified to find a dragon landing. It was a female of the species. Prepared to defend the maiden with his life, he was surprised when the dragon assumed a human form. They talked, fell in love and the rest is history." Sounded nice and tidy. I wondered if anyone would poke holes in it.

  "Ahem," it was the Duke. "If we may ask a question of you?" he said, looking at Sheila. I wasn't sure I liked his tone. 

  "Please feel free, my lord. Arden and I have nothing to hide," he said, knowing it was a lie. 

  The Duke lifted his goblet, swirling the wine within. "We have seen very detailed drawings of all existing species of dragons, yet none have such...remarkable eyes. What type of dragon was your...mother?" he asked. I looked at Sheila, worried that the Duke may have come up with something. 

  Sheila just raised his goblet and took a sip. "That's very simple, my lord. My mother was a greater dragon of platinum and gold coloration," he said, almost smug. I wondered if Sheila had been doing some research I didn't know about.

  The Duke laughed. "That's absurd. The last of the greater dragons was killed over a thousand years ago," he said, catching Sheila squarely. 

  "But my lord, you forget that Greater Dragons live for tens of thousands of years. The gestation period for an egg is over eight hundred years. I must agree that I look young for my age, but believe me when I say that if you measured a human's life against that of a dragon, my age would be less than seven days in human terms," Sheila reposted, drawing blood. Damn but he had this well thought out. The part about being seven days old was pretty good too.

  "Yes," the Duke said, smiling, not yet ready to concede, "but you aren't a dragon. You are supposedly a half-breed."

  Sheila got a hard look in his face. He didn't take well to the Duke's taunting tone. "It is true that I probably won't live nearly as long as my ancestors. In fact, from what I understand about my kind, I probably won't live much beyond my thousandth year," he said, taking a drink. "That is assuming that I'm not killed through accident or mayhem."

  The Duke huffed a laugh. "Other than your eyes we see no reason to believe that you are anything other than someone who's had cosmetic magic," he said. 

  Sheila laughed at him. "My lord, you don't know the half of it. I'm stronger than a human, faster, I regenerate wounds almost fast enough to be seen, I see equally as well day or night and have a sense of smell that's actually superior to Arden's," he replied, itemizing some of his traits.

  "Indeed," the Duke said, raising his eyebrows. "If you have no objection, we would enjoy a demonstration of your abilities some time," the duke replied, calling Sheila's bluff. I only hoped that the dragon didn't screw him over. 

  "I would be honored to give you a demonstration tomorrow, my lord," Sheila said, with a feral grin, his eyes targeted on the duke as he gave a small bow.

  The Duke blinked for a second and then turned his sights on me. I could tell he had been looking for an opening to start in on us. "And what about you, Arden? What are you a half-breed of?" he asked. 

  It took all my willpower to keep my ears up and fangs covered. "Nothing, my lord. My parents were of the same race as I am," I answered courteously. 

  "Surely you can't be serious," he said, disbelief clearly showing on his face.

  "I can and am serious, my lord," I replied tartly, "And please don't call me Shirley."

  Sheila, who had been taking a drink, choked as he heard that last part. It took the Duke a few seconds to figure out what I had said. He didn't like being toyed with. Good. The feeling was mutual. Let's see how his royal assholieness handled some good old-fashioned sarcasm.

  "Are you telling us that there are more of your kind?" he demanded. 

  I laughed. "Of course there are. Where I come from, my lord, humans are unknown. I only met lord Sheen by accident. Washed ashore in his lands by a storm, he found my broken and dying body. He healed me and nurtured me back to health. In payment I have sworn my life to his service," I said spinning a poetic version of my tale.

  "So you're a trained fighter?" he asked, reappraising me. 

  "Yes, my lord. I am skilled at armed and unarmed combat. If my weapons are recovered soon, I would be glad to give a demonstration of my techniques some time," I said, beating him to the punch.

  "Why not just use one of our swords? They are of very high quality," he ventured, assuming I was just dodging the question. 

  "My lord, I have been trained in weapons that I promise you have never seen the likes of," I said with all honesty. I'd love for them to show me a .50 cal sniper rifle or an M60. "I dare say that even my swords are unique compared to what I have seen in your lands," I added for good measure. If I were lucky, he would track down the missing blades and return them to me. If he did, I planned to kiss him just to freak him out.

  The Duke was about to start back in when he was interrupted by a voice at the other end. "Lady Arden, how long have you been amongst humans?" It was Gwen. I could have kissed her had we been in. Not that I wouldn't have anyway, mind you. 

  I furrowed my brow in face concentration, looking to Sheila. "How long has it been, my lord? Thirty five, thirty eight seasons?" I asked, sounding unsure.

  Sheila nodded. "Something like that," he replied.

  "Wonderful," Gwen replied, "Then you should be able to offer us a detailed insight about the differences between your people and ours," She stated, offering me the floor. I looked at Sheila, my ears at attention. I hadn't expected this. He shrugged and nodded to me in encouragement. Trying to think of what to say I stood and slowly paced the table, looking at the people sitting at it.

  "Well, my lady, the most obvious difference would have to be the way you fold your napkins," I said with mock seriousness, listening as a few people got the joke. 

  "We are most serious. Please, enlighten us," Gwen commanded politely.

  I gave her a small bow and continued appraising the people at the table. "We both have fur, though yours is limited to the head whereas mine covers my body completely. My hearing is better than human as well as my sense of smell, though I don't see colors as clearly, and I have a tail which, of course, you don't have." I stated, covering the obvious. "We both gather socially for companionship. We both tend to take a single mate, although that's not a hard and fast rule for either of us. We both have trained fighting people to defend us. Unlike humans, though, we do not distinguish between our males and females in this roll."

  I stopped behind a gentleman who was rather portly. I bent down, putting my left arm around his shoulder and patting his stomach with my right paw. "Both of us have those who have enjoyed some excesses in life," I said, noting chuckles at my comment. I smiled at him, only to see his terrified expression. With a wink and a laugh I gave him a peck on the cheek, then straightened up and moved on down the line.

  The next was a young lady with some very fancy earrings. I used my paws to lift the earrings away from her neck, making an example of them. "Both our males and females wear rings in their ears, though nothing like this. This would definitely be too heavy for us to enjoy," I said, giving my ears an irritated flick. I saw a few of them nod in understanding.

  Continuing on, I stood next to a young man with blond hair. "As with my people, there are differences in the coloring of our fur," I said, examining his long, blond hair. "Though I must admit, the range in color of the" I paused, feigning having to think, "Yes, skin, is truly striking. I suppose it's your version of our body fur patterns."

  The next was a woman that was wearing way too much perfume. I bent over and sniffed, practically gagging as I backed up. My face scrunched as I shuddered at the smell. I saw more than one person smile at my reaction. They could empathize. "You humans and your fake scents," I complained. "We don't have anything like that. Each and every one of us has a scent that is quite personal, as do humans. That you would wish to mask your scent is a mystery to me. I find nothing more pleasant than coming into a room and knowing that my lord was just there by his scent. It reassures me that he is well." 

  I paused, thinking about smell. "There is also home and hearth. The smell of one's family when one returns home, though sometimes that can be a curse," I said, pausing for a chuckle. "To walk by a place and know that someone you care for was recently there. The ability to track down someone you need by their scent alone. We rarely get lost, as the world is a road sign for those of us who can smell."

  I was now at the end of the table, near Gwen. Walking around behind her, I placed my hands on her shoulder and rested my muzzle on her head, watching as a few people chuckled at the scandalous image. "In our culture we have people whose snouts are so long they are forced to intrude in other peoples businesses," I said, seeing shocked looks from the Duke and others, some with mouths covered so that their smiles wouldn't be seen.

  I straightened up, and smiled down on Gwen as she shot me an indignant and hurt look. "In our land we call these people our rulers. They are the same as your Duke and Duchess. If you are lucky they are wise people who know when and where to intrude, making them a blessing. If you are unfortunate, you will have fools, or worse, dictators who try to control you rather than help you to find the proper path."

  "And how do you find us?" the Duke asked. I looked down on Gwen as she waited for my answer. "I have not decided yet. What happened to me in the mews has left me bitter and resentful of your treatment of my kind. However, the care and consideration I have since been given by the Duchess has done much to repair this breach," I answered solemnly. The Duke looked distinctly uncomfortable, as did several others in the room. I could see people whispering, asking what had happened. I was tempted to tell them, but why ruin a good meal. I leaned down by Gwen's ear to whisper. "To your face, in public and as a compliment, my lady," I whispered with glee.

  A handsome man with a shaved head occupied the chair next to Gwen's. Standing behind him, I rubbed my hands around the smooth skin with a dreamy look on my face. "Now this is fun." I said, my chuckle joined by others. "You'd never find any of our kind willing to shave their fur thusly. It's strange enough to see some without hair naturally, but to see someone intentionally remove it..." I said, practically drooling on the poor guy as I ran my paws over his scalp. From the looks around the table, both men and women found his predicament most humorous. He was also blushing a very vivid red. Before I moved on, I bent down and whispered in his ear, "Thanks for being such a good sport."

  As I moved around the table I saw a young lady who was pregnant. "Here!" I announced, wrapping my arms around her, placing my head on her shoulders. She looked at me without fear. She was the youngest of the four girls in the bath. "This is the binding force that is universal," I said, reaching down to gently rub her pregnant womb. "Two people, mated, continuing the chain of life," I said excitedly "This is the keystone for all our peoples." I was grinning like a fox spotting a chicken. "Human, vixen, cat, all of us," I said, looking at her as she gave my paw a squeeze. "Nothing brings greater joy than watching ones cubs play and grow. Nothing is more satisfying than to help them learn and mature. Nothing can match the warmth and love you get from them. This is truly the one thing that binds us all together." I gave her a kiss on the brow before releasing her.

  Again I stood and continued down to where Sheila sat. Placing my hands on his shoulders, I stood at attention, trying to look regal. "Duty. Honor. These are the ways of the warrior. Without a lord worthy of my pledge I am without these things. Without these things I am nothing. I know there are some amongst the humans who feel this way. They know what I say is true." I could see a couple of the men nod. "Others cannot understand what I speak of. I feel no animosity towards such people, only pity. They will never know the joy and pride I get from serving a lord worthy of my skills. I am lucky to have found one in Lord Sheen." Stepping back, I gave a deep and formal Japanese-style bow.

  I then moved around towards the Duke, watching him as he watched me, unsure what I was going to do. Placing my hands on him, I again stood erect and faced the group. "A Ruler. Strong. Proud. Compassionate. Just. Sure of their decisions. Willing to accept the consequences of their mistakes, to learn from them, to better themselves and their people. This is the mark of a good leader. Wisdom is not something that is handed to you with a crown. It doesn't necessarily come with age or a good birth line. It takes a special kind of person to lead. Our peoples have both been blessed to have rulers with these qualities and cursed with rulers that lacked them." Again I stepped back and gave a formal bow.

  I then returned to my chair, pausing before I sat down to look toward Gwen. "I suppose, my lady, that in the end our peoples are far more similar than different," I said, and took my seat. Around the table I saw some people nodding as they chatted quietly. The Duke looked at me oddly. He wasn't sure what to make of me. What I had said as I stood behind him was not what he expected. Gwen on the other hand had a small, devious smile on her face. She was up to something and it made me nervous.

  As we sat and consumed a mousse-like dessert, the conversation was livelier than before, now that the water had been broken. Most people asked honest questions that they desired answers to. Others tended to ask loaded questions, or ones that were phrased with a slant. This was useful as it let me know who our opposition would be.

  In the end though, it was a good meal and an enjoyable experience.

Chapter 14