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Marc grunted and offered the decanter again. “Good enough, it.s running out—hey!” He paused mid-pour and gestured, tilting the decanter up to keep from spilling the dregs of the amber liquid. “What.s your fiercest shape? We c.n call in th. mai speed cat big 2011 d to fetch up .nother bottle for the decanter, an. you can scare her!” Siona reminded herself this was an act. If she hadn.t been keeping an eye on the difference in how much he refilled each of their cups, she might have thought Marc was indeed inebriated beyond good sense. His tactic worked, though. Baron Oger laughed heartily at the idea. Setting down his cup, he grabbed for the bell on the small, six-sided table set between their lounging chairs. Ringing it fiercely, Oger stood up, settled his shoulders, muttered the words of the spell, and transformed himself. A few seconds later, the door to the parlor opened—and the middle-aged woman summoned by the bell screeched at the sight puma trionfo uk shops of the huge lion lurking just beyond the door. The lion roared , making her scream again, before shifting back into his normal, odious baron-self. Oger laughed heartily at her fright. “Rum , woman!” Marc shouted, waving the decanter. “Rum! Fetch us more rum! And be quick a puma insect shoes uk bout it!” Trembling, the woman staggered back out onto the balcony, letting the door swing shut behind her. Still laughing, Oger stumbled back to his chair and plopped down onto it. “Priceless! That.ll put th. fear a. me into her. Bet you can.t do better.n that!” “Oh, well, large forms are easy,” Marc dismissed, flipping his free hand airily. “The . . . um, whatsits. The conversion rate of magic to matter in the art of Anthromancy is forty to one! Any idiot can make hemshelf . . . himself . . . into something of a . . . a comparable size or even something larger. It takes a true spellshifter, an. a great deal of power an. control, to redushe your shize. If you really want to impress me . . . what.s the smallest animal you c.n shift into?” Baron Oger scratched and belched, thinking about it. “A rabbit?” Marc prompted. “A . . . rat?” Oger smirked. “A shrew .” Marc snorted. “Ha! I don.t believe you! You.re like . . . twice the size of me! All big . . . burly . . . muscles . . .” Having paused to top off both glasses, Marc lifted his to his discount puma lips. “Prove it. Prove you c.n turn into a shrew, and . . . and . . . I.ll do your taxes! For free! .Cause I don.t think you can. ” “Ha!” Knocking back half his glass, Oger shoved to his f puma trainers for men eet. Siona tensed, watching and waiting. The baron set his glass on the table with a thunk , rubbed his large palms together, shrugged his shoulders, and muttered a new set of spellwords. With his back mostly to her, she quickly rolled from her side to her paws, crouching in anticipation. As soon as his body finished shrinking, his clothes shifting from blues and greens to a mottled gray and his nose lengthening into a long, slender snout, she sprang. Leaping twice, once from cushion to floor, the second from floor to prey, she slammed into the little creature.s back with her paws and clamped her jaws down on his neck and head. A hard, fast shake snapped something—and the body swelled abruptly, letting her know she had succeeded. Knocking him unconscious wouldn.t have ended the spell; only death could have had that power. Jerking her teeth free, Siona scampered away from the dead baron, jaws gaping and throat yowling. The pendant translated her wordless distress. “Gods in Heaven! Get it out of my mouuuuth! Disgusting disgusting disgusting , I.ve got his blood in my mouth! Ewwwww! Out! Out! Out! ” Scrambling out of his chair, Marc grabbed for the water flask on the sideboard and a bowl of nuts near the flask. Dumping the nuts on the sideboard tray, he splashed water into the bowl and tucked it under her distress-wrinkled muzzle when she came near. Disgusted but grateful, Siona buried her head puma shoes in the liquid, swishing her face. Pulling out, she sneezed twice while he dumped the water on the floor and gave her a fresh bowlful to swish in. The second time she pulled out, her wail of disgust turned to a choking yowl. The collar translated that, too, projecting her distress as, “Oh, Gods, I.m going to be sick —hairball! Hairbaaaall!” Her husband had the temerity to laugh at her, proving he was at least somewhat drunk. Not completely, but somewhat. Recovering enough to stroke her back while she coughed up the contents of her stomach, he offered her a third, fresh round of water to clear the new nasty taste from her mouth. “There, there, puss . . . You.ll have to stay Boots a little while longer, to wait for the baron.s magics to fade,” he reminded her. “Given how strong he is, or was, that could take up to a week. But it.s over. You did it. You were very brave and skillful, my dear.” Muzzle wet, gut still cramped, Siona leaned into him as he scooped her up for a post-battle cuddle. At that moment, the parlor maid returned with the bot puma cabana tle of rum. She opened the door cautiously this time, peering warily around the edge. The moment she spotted the bloodied, mangled body on the floor, she gasped. Staggering to his feet, Marc stepped over Oger.s unmoving form and held out his hand. “Ah, the rum. Thank you! You have perfect timing. I would like to apologize for egging him on like that and thus scaring you. I.m terribly sorry, but I hope you can take some comfort in the fact that it was necessary at the time.” “But . . . the baron . . .” she stammered, glancing between him and the corpse on the floor. “Ah, yes. It seems he not only insisted upon scaring you as a lion, he foolishly went on to transform himself into a shrew, ignoring the fact that there was a cat in the room,” Marc dismissed airily. “And, cats being cats, with their instincts written into their bones by the Gods Themselves, well . . . every mage is cautioned that such things can happen, and warned over and over in their spellshifting classes to be alert for such possible dangers. “But he went and did it anyway, so only the baron himself is to blame for his timely . . . pardon me, terribly sorry, his un timely demise.” Patting her on the shoulder, he took the bottle of rum from her. “Be a dear and call up some manservants to carry the puma outlet online body out to the chapel for consecration and prepar puma shoes ation, will you? I.m sure Oger.s family will want it spell-preserved and transported back to his family plot, too. “Don.t you worry,” he added as the woman gave him a doubtful look. “The rightful heir to Calabas will be returning shortly, and everything will get back to normal very soon. Or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. Come along, Boots. We.re still on our honeymoon, and I.m in the mood to celebrate!” Bottle of rum tucked in the crook of one arm and slightly damp wife-cat cuddled in the other, the Marquis of Calabas strolled out of the downstairs parlor, leaving the poor, befuddled maid behind. The King Who Heard a Joke Author’s Note:This is one of those fairy tales that has several variations. Some say it was a king, others a farmer, others a fisherman, so on and so forth. And normally—being a rabid equalist—I would balk at the medieval mind-set prompting the “moral” behind the original tale. But this being the modern world, there is plenty of room for mutually consenting activities of, shall we say, a kinkier than average nature? Plus, in the version I’ve chosen to tell, there is a message worthy of being gleaned. With all of that in mind, I decided that my own version would make for an acceptably interesting story. Here’s hoping you’ll enjoy it, too. J ACK King couldn.t breathe. As fast as he tried to gasp in air, it spasmed right back out again, until his face was a reddened rictus from being scrunched. If he hadn.t been seated on the milking stool, he might have fallen to the ground cheap puma and injured himself; as it was, he slumped to the ground, wheezing and panting and heeheehee -ing as though his very life depended on it. His wife, coming back for the second milk pail, stopped in the doorway and gaped at her suffering husband. Hitching up her skirts, she rushed the rest of the way into the barn. “Jack! Jack, dearest! Whatever on earth is so funny?” That sobered him up. Somewhat. Shaking his head quickly, he struggled to breathe instead of guffaw. The sight of one of the barn cats flicking her ear and swishing her tail only made him laugh hard once again. Tears leaking from his eyes, he heard his wife exclaim in disgust. She tried to help him up, and when that failed, she pulled the milk pail out of reach, just in case it got knocked over. “Jack . . . Jack!” she snapped, giving him a disapproving look. “Stop laughing! Dandelion stil speed cat big 2011 l needs milking, and you.re getting your shirt and breeches all dirty. And what in heaven.s name is so terribly hilarious?” He shook his head, struggling for sobriety. He couldn.t tell her; he honestly could not tell a single soul. As much as he wanted to, he couldn.t. Pushing upright, he dusted himself off, struggling against the occasional stray chuckle. “Honestly!” Ellen scoffed, dusting off his backside with practical whisks of her palms. She lingered a little over his buttocks before brushing the bits of straw from the backs of his thighs, then whapped off one last bit of chaff. “Now, what was so funny that you couldn.t breathe?” Avoiding even looking in the direction of the barn cat puma trionfo uk shops , Jack drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Nothing. Nothing, my dearest.” Turning, he caught her hands and kissed them. Ellen was beautiful, smart, and talented at homemaking. She could have been a governess, but had chosen to marry him and take up her share of the work required to make King.s Farm one of the best dairies in western Massachusetts. “Thank you for your help. I shall finish the milking, freshen their feed and water, and be in shortly after that to break my fast. Go on. Go make those drop biscuits I love, and the salt-pork sauce with onions.” “All right—but I expect to hear whatever this jest was,” she warned him, waggling her finger. “It was nothing, my dear. Just a stray thought, long since fled.” Judging from the look she gave him, she didn.t believe him, but he just kissed her on the cheek and sent her on her way with the freshly filled bucket. Claiming the one she had brought, Jack resettled the stool next to the patiently waiting heifer. A glance over his shoulder reassured him he was alone once more. Turning, he mock-glared at the cat and hissed, “That was very dangerous of you! You should have waited until she.d brought back the third round of goat-milk pails and gone back in to finish breakfast.” The barn cat flicked her ears and her tail, and mrrrred . Whiskers forward, she took a couple steps toward him. Or rather, the milk pail. “I don.t know why I should , considering you almost killed me,” the farmer muttered. “But . . . a bet is a bet,” he

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