Amir-Kasdan was worried; he was about to commit an act which, if it succeeded, would change his life forever, for he was on the way to his grandsire's Pride House to meet with his cousin Andrew, to ask to be bonded to Andrew's daughter, N'Sagar.
No matter that the young lady was still a cub of six months and Amir-Kasdan a grown male approaching his thirty-fifth year. Such unions weren't uncommon on Felida, being consummated when the female reached breeding age. Nevertheless, Kas knew he had to make his desires known before some Pride Chief noticed the promise of N'Sagar's infant beauty and demanded her for one of his sons.
As the only other surviving grandson of Prime Pride Chief Murad sh'en Singh, he hoped any claims he might make would be given precedence over all others.
Kas had no doubt Andrew would agree to the bonding. How his Terran wife might react would be another matter. He knew Andrea liked him, but having affection for a relative-by-law, and receiving that same relative as a future son-in-law, was quite another matter!
So, as he paused before the huge, silver-banded abrawood door forming the entrance to Grandsire's home, he was understandably nervous.
For the occasion, Kas had prepared himself as custom required, in full ceremonial dress--black leather kneeboots and black trousers, a gleaming white shirt of Tyrean silk with a quilted winter tunic studded with diamontium brilliants. Twin dagger belts holding eight-inch blades crossed his chest--weapons Kas as a Healer would never use--and over it all, his marten fur hooded cloak, offering warmth and protection from Felida's blistering winter cold. He'd painted the sacred symbols of a prospective suitor on his face and hands, a true sign of the sincerity of his actions, for Kas hated body paint and all manner of ritual. He'd also tied back the wild black mane so the mate's-ring in his left ear was clearly visible.
At the moment, it seemed to burn his earlobe.
To the sound of the clawed silver knocker striking the door, a servant swung it open, saying in surprise, "Why, Master Kas, did you forget your key?"
She looked even more confused when he stated haltingly, "I-I wish...t-to see Master Andrew McAllister, grandson and heir to the noble Murad, Prime Pride Chief of Khurda. T-tell him Amir-Kasdan sh'en Singh awaits audience with him."
The woman, a female of the Az-Bhan servant caste, swallowed her astonishment and ushered him inside, bidding him wait in the family salon while she fetched Master Andrew.
As he pulled off his heavy winter gauntlets and tossed them on a nearby table of bleached and polished abrawood, Kas studied the furnishings and decorations he'd seen all his life and wondered if he was making a terrible mistake.
His doubts increased as his cousin appeared.
Though it was early afternoon, Andrew McAllister was wearing a morning robe, obviously thrown on hastily, for it was open to the waist, the bright color of his chest-fur gleaming against the robe's dark fabric. His feet were bare, and from the satisfied glow on his handsome face, Kas had no doubt his cousin had just gotten out of bed, probably after some prolonged love-play with his mate.
"K'mu said you wanted to see me, Kas." He looked up at his cousin. "What's up?"
Studying Andrew's face, Kas didn't answer.
For a Felidan, Andrew was small, being just a few inches under seven feet. Some might have called him diminutive, but the noble Murad's younger grandson was a half-blood. In anyone else, his lack of stature would have been a source of scorn, but even if he hadn't been the Prime Pride Chief's heir, no one dared laugh at Andrew Malcolm McAllister, for he had the dubious distinction of being the only man to escape from Ft. Joy Prison in the Federation's Toxic Zone...and live.
He'd been a smuggler, calling himself Sinbad sh'en Singh, a name he still responded to more easily than his real one. His criminal activities had been a source of despair to his grandfather and the secret envy of his older, more conservative cousin.
In contrast to Kas' darkness, his cousin was fair and copper-haired, his coloring inherited from his Terran sire who'd been a gunner on a warship which had been shot down over Khurda during the Terro-Felidan Conflict. Allan McAllister had been fortunate that he was captured by Murad's daughter instead of a Felidan male, for that fact had saved his life.
With a little effort, the Noble Murad's heir could have looked completely Terran and in fact, at the moment, the only things about him appearing Felidan were his green eyes with their slitted pupils, the lynx-like tufts of fur tipping his ears, and--if he smiled as he was doing now--his pointed eye-teeth. Since he hated Terrans and had no wish to be mistaken for one if he could help it, he went out of his way to flaunt his alienness. When he'd been running the blockades from Terra to Bel-Ammon, he'd never attempted to disguise himself. He was a Felidan and proud of it! He had no wish to be thought a member of the race who arrested his father as a traitor and forced himself, a child of three, to be a witness in a trial that made a mockery of the word justice. That he'd married one of the enemy was a total irony.
The half-opened robe revealed that Andrew was also half-pelted, almost nearly furless, unlike Kas whose body was considered full-furred by Felidan standards. In spite of these differences however, or perhaps because of them, the former smuggler-turned-Pride heir was considered handsome by the ideals of many cultures and females especially found his feline charm irresistible. He'd bedded quite a few of them before Andrea Talltrees stormed into his life and changed everything.
Now, he was a law-abiding citizen of the Federation and returned heir of Khurda, a settled family man with a mate, four sons, and a daughter whom Amir-Kasdan adored.
And wanted to marry.
Abruptly, Sin noticed Kas' attire.
"Why the fancy-wear?" He stared at the yellow markings on his cousin's face and hands. "Body paint, too. Is it some feast-day I've forgotten?"
Kas ignored the question, instead squaring his shoulders and clearing his throat.
"I, Amir-Kasdan sh'en Singh, come to you with a petition, Andrew McAllister, and I beg that you listen with a favoring ear--"
"You want a favor, Kas? Is that what you mean?" Sin smiled again, though with more than a little puzzlement. He made an acquiescent gesture. "Hell, you don't have to go to all this trouble! Just ask!"
Why can't he see how serious this is? Kas found himself gritting his teeth. It was just like Andrew to be oblivious to another's discomfort!
Silently, he raised his left hand which had, until that moment, been hidden beneath his cloak. He held out the object clasped within it.
Sin looked at it, frowning slightly as he recognized the twelve-inch intricately-carved wooden cylinder. He took it from Kas, holding it carefully between his fingertips.
"Is this what I think it is?" He looked up again, meeting his cousin's anxious eyes, his own pupils narrowing slightly.
"I offer you a Courting Staff, Andrew McAllister, and ask your blessing."
Sin's smile was broader now.
"And who are you planning to court?" he asked, thinking, At last! It's high time Kas got himself a mate and settled down!
His cousin took another deep breath and replied with the cautiousness of someone about to stick his hand into a blazing oven, "Your daughter, N'Sagar."
N'Sagar? Lord, what a sense of humor Kas has! And I've always considered him so staid and proper! Sin laughed. He couldn't help it.
Expecting to see Kas laughing also, he looked up and abruptly the humor died away as he saw the scowl darkening his cousin's face.
'You're not serious?"
Kas didn't answer. For a moment, he didn't trust himself to speak as he saw that what he'd feared was actually happening.
With desperate determination, Kas plunged into the speech each prospective suitor had to give the female's sire.
"I, Amir-Kasdan sh'en Singh, am son of Patel, bred of the line of Murad sh'en Singh, Prime Pride Chief of Kurda. My blood is well-known in this land--"
At this point, Sin started to interrupt. After all, it was his bloodline, too, and he didn't want to have to listen to the long recitation of ancestors that usually followed this statement.
Mercifully, Kas skipped over that part. "--as are the names of my forebears. I own my Den House and my land, inherited from my sire. I have established myself as a kh'ta in this land and am a physician of good repute and skill--"
By now, Sin was staring at him, open-mouthed, as it sank in that his cousin was indeed serious and was also intent on carrying the Courting Speech to its completion. All he could think of at the moment was, Has Kas gone totally insane?
"--I've kept my body and my spirit pure."
On Felida, an adult male who kept himself virgin was honored and respected, not made an object of scorn as he would have been on Terra. Kas' celibacy was a method of rebellion against his grandfather's rule. After the enemy soldiers took Andrew and his father away, he had become Murad's reluctant heir, refusing to choose a mate and produce the cubs that would bind him forever to his grandfather's Den. Only after his cousin's return twenty-seven years later had he been freed to act for himself again.
Now, he was doing just that.
"--and now," he concluded. "I offer myself to N'Sagar. I wish her to become my kh'tara. I swear to her my complete fidelity and I will cherish and provide for her as is fitting for the daughter of a Pride Heir."
He stopped, waiting for Sin's reply...
His cousin simply stood there, staring at him. Then, the green gaze dropped to the Staff, studying it a moment longer before raising to meet his own again.
"You're serious, aren't you?" It wasn't what Kas had expected. Silently, he nodded. "You actually want to marry my daughter?"
Kas nodded again, swallowing the sarcastic retort he wanted to make. Subservience and respect were called for now. He had to forget that his cousin was two years younger than he, and he'd watched his aunt change Andrew's diapers when he'd been a mewling cub.
"She's six months old, Kas!"
"I'm well aware of that, Andrew. I was there when she was born. Remember?" He tried to keep the sharpness out of his voice. One mustn't offend one's prospective father-in-law.
N'Sagar had been born a few days after Andrew's arrival on Felida. Kas had tended Andi at the birth, remembered his fear when he'd told his cousin the new cub was a female, thinking he might exercise his right to give her away because a Pride Heir needed sons from his mate.
It had taken all of Kas' willpower to hide his joy when Andrew declared that not only was he keeping the cub but he had actually wanted a female child!
"I've loved her since the day she was born."
"Kas--" Sin said the word softly, almost gently, and there was such a strange look on his face that Amir-Kasdan couldn't put a name to it. He was gripping the Staff tightly, slowly twisting it between his hands. "Kas, h-how long have you liked little girls?"
Clenching one hand into a fist, Kas felt his claws spring and dig into his palm. If it had been anyone else who asked that, he'd have killed him.
"I don't like little girls," he managed to say evenly. "I like N'Sagar!"