Vardan chuckled and ran his fingers through his wavy auburn hair as he dismounted from the Ponytaur he rode up on. She was dressed in a uniform emblazoned with the Paza family crest, as was her identical counterpart being ridden by Vardan's fiance, Catalina Stephania Dragulescu. Andreea, Vardan's Pumara, and Sabina, his Vixxen, were jogging alongside. The Ponytaurs must have been holding back. Isaac and Elena exchanged non-verbal greetings with the familiar pokegirls before Vardan spoke. "My apologies for dropping by unannounced, Elena, Isaac. We needed to get away from the wedding preparations."

Catalina smiled with a wicked glint in her eyes. "Don't forget your dire warning to your ex-lover."

Her attention was on Isaac, so he responded as if she meant him. "A warning?"

Vardan sighed. "The Paza family is known for its line of Sphinxes, descended from Marichka, the pokegirl general who joined with Damion Paza, the family's founder. My mother is one. They are raised to be paragons of the family's ideals… Including Catholic ideals. Mother is tolerant of my peculiar tastes but not truly accepting and… She's taken it upon herself to 'redeem' young men I've 'led astray' before." Vardan was so nervous he’d ruined his styling from combing his fingers over his scalp so often. "She's not the only one but my only concern… Isaac, please don't tame my mother on my wedding day."

Isaac was completely unprepared for that request. "I… have no intention to…"

Vardan smiled and laughed to himself. "Yes, but you do have something of a weakness for assertiveness."

"Perhaps we'll send our own assertive predator along as Isaac's plus-one," Elena mused

"Astoreth? She would certainly fit in. We would have liked to invite more friends but our families are turning this into a political soiree," Vardan finished saying with a hint of bitterness in his voice.

"At least our honeymoon will not be serving the interests of our fathers and your brother, dearest Vardan." Catalina, for all the hostile air surrounding her, was genuinely pleased when she spoke of the upcoming marriage. "Perhaps we will arrange another hunting trip with your friends when we return."

"Where will you be honeymooning," Elena asked.

"We'll begin in the Crescent Moon League and finish in Noir. It will be like the pilgrimages of old, a stop at the ten most influential Christian holy sites restored by the Thousand Gods Heritage Foundation." Catalina's lips gained a vicious curl at their corners. "I'm sure we'll engage in plenty of wicked deeds as well, but Vardan and I do both love the venerable institutions of our ancestors."

Elena nodded. "Speaking of which, Miss Dragulescu, your family still holds the grounds for the Solomonarie, correct?"

Catalina's smile was wide enough to show that she had unusually pointy canines. "We do," she answered in a delighted tone. "We do not use the grounds for much since the PLC forced us to shut it down. Veliboria enjoys swimming in the lake but that is all." She pursed her lips together and touched her cheek. "Why would the Mizz Elena Hrandelf-Vrach be interested in the defunct rival of her Conservatory of Witchcraft, though?"

Elena took a fraction of a second to release the tension Catalina's question evoked. "I departed from the conservatory under less than ideal terms. To make a long story short, my contemporaries and I are concerned about the quality of magical education that will be available in the league's future. The Voronas are working on expanding what they can offer, however if the Solomonarie were to reopen its doors that would do much to expand options for potential students. I believe Miruna Starladyi would be very interested in returning to her alma mater."

Catalina's expression was seized by a calculating look in her eyes. "I see. What an enchanting idea. Would you be open to meeting with representatives from my family to discuss what you have in mind some time after Vardan and I return from the honeymoon? Please, if you would also give me the contact information for my former tutor, I would love a chance to know how Miruna fairs. She had the patience of a saint to instruct a nasty little girl with so little talent."

"You sell yourself short, my love," Vardan flattered his wife-to-be.

"He says such things because he's never seen me try my hand at spellcraft."

Elena let out a modest laugh. She could appreciate a student who knew her limits and people found it endearing when others shared in their humor. "I'll get you Miruna's messaging ID. Would you two care for some tea? Your pokegirl companions are welcome as well."

"Someone from my family will be in Slov'yanka to ferry us back home in an hour," Vardan said, "And I plan to stay away for as long as I can until then. We'd love some tea. Thank you."


Isaac studied the open pages in front of him intently. Another task for his new apprenticeship was to push the boundaries of his personal spell repertoire. While it would be foolish for him to intentionally participate in a conflict, it was just as foolish to assume he would never need to take responsibility for his own well-being. He couldn't expect to overcome such a situation with force, but the spell he was evaluating was of the subtle sort. He would prefer if he could apply the effect without needing to touch the intended victim, though.

He added the spell to the list he was working up anyway. Jin was with him in the conservatory library, digging through tomes full of various ways to throw orbs of energy at anyone unfortunate enough to earn her wrath. Every time he added to his list though she would peek to see what captured his interest. "Ooh," her voice quivered as she appraised his latest selection. "Nasty, but the range could be an issue."

"Yeah, but I remember hearing about ways to extend that."

"You going to pick anything with fire or electricity? After pure mana I like fire and electric spells."

Isaac thought about Jin's question. "You like flashy spells that cause a lot of damage. I'm thinking sneaky. Being able to conjure some fire for survival situations could be good though." Isaac closed the spell tome and studied the cover for a while. This icon, a red dragon curled into the shape of an ampersand, was familiar…

Nothing came to him though and it wasn't important, so he placed it on top of the growing stack of spent knowledge.

A quiet but warm voice interrupted the spell search. "Isaac, Jin, hey." Dalida the Dorben S-Goth sat down in one of the chairs on the opposite side of the table. She'd discovered that Isaac frequented the library since that is where his Enchantress holed herself up while her tamer was in class. Jin wasn't terribly pleased with the intrusions but not displeased enough to act out. She did stack another book in front of the covert pokegirl with a tiny snort through her nose. Dalida grinned and responded with a quick, "Love you too, Jin."

It was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it response, but Jin's scowl did break into a smile briefly.

"Hey Dalida," Isaac's attention was away from the books at the moment anyway and he appreciated the company of another outsider while on campus.

Dalida smiled as she looked towards a distant window. "Did you happen to be by the parking lot around lunch today?" There was a very small parking lot on campus. Some administrators liked to demonstrate their opulence by driving luxury electric vehicles every day.

Isaac turned his gaze towards the same window. It was in the right direction. "No, I was in class. Why, what happened?"

"That huge old oak that was planted when Izaak Tkachenko died had a huge branch fall on top of the chairman's car. It's flattened. A couple of groundskeepers were out there and they couldn't figure out why it fell. The tree's still really healthy."

"Ha!" Jin exclaimed. "It's his fault for forcing Elena out."

Dalida's eyes got big. "Elena Hrandelf-Vrach? She was still working here?"

"Not really here," Isaac started to explain. "They had her out in the Dnipropetrovsk oblast evaluating applicants for admission."

"They had a pokegirl like Elena out doing busy work? She's a legend," Dalida blushed when she realized how loud her outburst had been considering their location.

"Do you know Elena," Isaac asked.

"No, no not really," Dalida replied in a meek voice. "I've got a bit of a passion for the history of pokegirl rights. No particular reason." She gave Isaac a sly smile with twinkling eyes. "Izaak Tkachenko and Elena practically set the precedent for manumitting pokegirls in the Sapphire League. Also, I was always impressed by her commitment to the school. She could have done a lot with her talents but she chose to stay here." Isaac nodded. "I honestly thought she retired."

"Nope, the board forced her out and gave her Izaak's plaque, so now the plants are pissed off," Jin stated matter-of-factly.

This was news to Isaac. He ignored it to focus back in Dalida. "Yeah, Elena, she stuck it out and she's pretty torn up about how things went." Isaac could feel the dull heartache that Elena was frighteningly adept at concealing. "You know, I think it might help her to hear she inspired someone to take up magical studies."

Dalida's eyes got big and she fidgeted with a lock of hair, rolling the clump of strands between her fingers. "I- I don't think I'd be able to help. I definitely wouldn't know what to say to her. I would like to meet her just not- not today." The S-Goth looked around the library and fixed her gaze on a wall clock. "Actually, I need to get going soon. I was just going to say 'hi,' and share a bit of gossip. What are you two up to? Looks extracurricular," she observed based on the stack of books.

"Isaac's looking for spells that could help him get out of trouble and I'm looking for spells to cause trouble. I'm going to win the harvest festival tournament as payback for Elena. We'll see what good song magic is for taking a Mana Bolt to the face."

Isaac shot Jin a skeptical look. Her Mana Bolt could take the head off of a weak song breed. "Something like that. Since she's got more free time now and we're not really satisfied with the way things are being taught here, Elena's sorta taken me on as an apprentice. She wants me to broaden my spell list, focus on something besides out of combat support."

"Well, good luck, both of you. I'll be cheering for you later this year, Jin. Gotta get to class," Dalida said as she stood up.

Isaac and Jin gave their farewells then Isaac turned his attention back to his Enchantress. She had said something that indicated she was up to mischief again. "Okay, it sounded like you said that tree intentionally dropped a limb on the chairman's car? How could you possibly know that?"

Jin grinned sheepishly. "The plaque. Izaak Tkachenko realized that the plants on campus were aligning with Elena, so he commissioned an enchantment to be placed on that plaque to suppress the Elven plant magic that was going wild. As long as it stayed on campus. Then he made a big deal about how it represented the authority of the head of the school before he retired so that his successor would keep it even though it technically belonged to Elena. He knew Elena would let the school keep it, unless they got rid of her. Then the suppression ends."

Isaac was staring hard enough that Jin started to wilt from expecting she had done something wrong. What he was wondering though was, "How did you figure all of this out? You've never been able to figure out Elven plant magic."

Jin gave a guilty grin again, one that quickly melted to a sad smile. "I found a letter Izaak left in a secret compartment while I was trying to figure out what the magic coming from the plaque was. Elena was mad that I read some of it but she also didn't think she'd find it on her own, so… I guess we’re good?”

Isaac rubbed his eyebrows. One of these days his Enchantress was going to press the wrong button on the wrong person at the wrong time. He'd keep trying to figure out how to avoid that future but Jin needed to learn her own lessons herself. "You could have asked her before you started snooping." That definitely explained the feelings coming across the delta bond.

"I'll try next time," Jin responded.

A little green muppet once had something to say about what it meant to try. Isaac probably should share that wisdom with his Enchantress, but his thoughts were focused on someone else. "Make sure you do." Isaac stored his list in a binder and then picked up half the stack of books to carry to a trolley cart that the librarians used to return them to their rightful place on the shelves. Jin followed Isaac's example and moved the remaining pile before the two of them made their way outside where Jin could teleport them back to Elena's.

It didn't take long to find the Grandelf, between the minimally sized dwelling and the delta bond. She was up in her room sitting on the edge of her bed. She was still poised and composed, but her ears were a bit low, her hair slightly unmanaged, and her eyes downcast and dim. She looked like she could have been staring at the plaque or the piece of folded paper on top of it, but she wasn't focused on anything.

Isaac sat next to her and delicately touched the scholarly pokewoman's forearm, letting only the weight of his fingers press down. 'Elena,' he wordlessly spoke over the delta bond.

Elena finally looked up. "Oh, Iz- I'm sorry, Isaac. When- how was…" Elena shook her head and half-heartedly fixed some of the bangs that fell out of place. She breathed in deeply and managed a sad smile as she exhaled. "Welcome back, how was the Conservatory?"

"I met an admirer of yours and the oak tree you planted to commemorate Izaak flattened the chairman's car."

Confusion and curiosity broke through the grey gloom. "It what? It should still be perfectly healthy…"

"The groundskeepers say it is, but it dropped a huge scaffolding branch out of nowhere, right on top of Chairman Hrusheveskyi’s fancy new EV. The front windshield frame bent, windshield destroyed. The convertible top will need replaced and the hood is dented and scratched to hell." A warmer smile started to show in the corners of the Grandelf's eyes.

"Is that the letter," Isaac asked.

Elena's attention returned to somewhere, more likely some-when, distant. "I haven't read it yet. It was there for three hundred years and I didn't even know to look…"

"It was in a hidden compartment, in the office of someone you hated, on a campus you were encouraged to avoid." Isaac scooted closer and put an arm around the uncharacteristically vulnerable magical scholar.

Elena smiled weakly and finally unfolded the single, aged piece of paper.

Dearest Elena,

I don’t expect you to find this until long after I’m gone. You never cared much for prestigious things. If you have somehow discovered this letter without also finding the warding enchantment I crafted into this plaque, well, either way I have an interesting thing to share with you.

An Elfqueen from the Iliesque family was sent to learn from us and she made the most fascinating observation about the plants on the campus. They respond to you almost as if you were an Elfqueen. I suspect that this will cause trouble for my colleagues once I’m retired and you stay on. They have already set themselves against you in their minds and are working tirelessly to convince me I’m making a mistake in leaving so much to you so that you can live as free as you wish.

They don’t realize this school would fall apart without you.

If it becomes too much, don't feel guilty for stepping away. The love of discovery and education isn't bound to any one person, building, or institution.

I’m glad I have had this bond with you. I lost a piece of myself when I sent you away. Even if we didn’t share this that would be true. I am glad it allows me to know how you’re doing even though you’re no longer close.

I will eternally be grateful to you for everything you shared with me, from the first simple lessons to our highest moments of passion. Being a father to your daughters brought me as much pride and joy as what I gained raising the children born to my pokewomen.

Please forgive your harem sisters, I realized a while ago I had allowed them to manipulate me to satisfy their envy of your longevity. If I were a better man maybe I would have reached out to you when I discovered the truth but I was afraid you would decide you were better off without me.

Please forgive me for my cowardice.

I hope you make new friends. I hope you find new love. I don't want you to forget me, but if that's what it takes for you to continue living then I hope I fade away with little time and grief.

Love lasting long after I'm gone,
Your Izaak

Elena let her hand holding the letter fall into her lap and she leaned into Isaac’s arm that was around her. She was very still and quiet, but after a minute she reached across his lap to interlace her fingers with his other hand while nuzzling her chin closer to his chest.


"Don't fidget," Astoreth growled teasingly. Isaac kept trying to adjust the layers of fabric composing the three piece suit that the socially conscious infernal had commissioned for him to wear to Vardan's wedding. It was white with a slate blue vest underneath, woven to appear strikingly similar to the mottled pattern of her own skin. The shoes were stiff and shiney, polished white leather with way too long of toes. Astoreth had also hired a Godiva to trim and style his hair before they left and he couldn't touch that either, no matter how itchy the product holding it in place made his hairline. Itchy, smelly, sticky, and apparently it would be a hassle to wash out the fat based pomade.

Isaac liked formal fashion up until the point he had to wear it himself.

Astoreth was dressed in a black dress that left her shoulders, back, and all of their shapely muscles entirely exposed. Two little peaks in the fabric, right at Isaac's eye level, left no room to argue if she was wearing a brassiere. Elegant black sandals had their straps wound all the way up her shins. Her only other ornamentation was a fine gold chain draped around her neck. Some accentuated the contours where the loops fell deep below her clavicle. Her hair was shimmering and styled in stiff curls to give it an incredible bouncy volume that spilled back away from her face.

She would stand to his right, it had to be on his right. Everything was very particular. Clothes, hair, accessories, body language, every facet of human expression. Where he put his hand on her waist, how much pressure he used to pull her towards himself. Where her hand was on his shoulder, where its opposite touched his chest. How long his strides were. Hours of effort, all to step through a single doorway.

Isaac put his hand where it was supposed to go but jerked it away when he felt a cool-yet-hot mist instead of fabric. Then his fingers touched warm, bare skin. Astoreth's dress had flowed around his palm and the shiver-inducing tingle was from wherever the dark, unreal fabric came in contact with his skin.

Isaac could recognize this substance. He'd seen it plenty of times before now. It made up Astoreth's Dark Cocoon, her Shadow Shot, and her clawed gauntlets.

Astoreth was wearing nothing but dark type elemental energy draped over her body. Thin and wispy dark energy that blocked the light and nothing else.

‘I always wear black, I’d never wear a dress a second time anyway, no one touches me without my consent, and it’s a fun little secret between me and my man for the evening.’ She chuckled low in her throat and it made the hairs on the back of Isaac’s neck stand up. ‘Sometimes I’m not really wearing my suits either.'

'What are you actually wearing?'

'The necklace and shoes are real,' she smirked.

‘Are you going to torment me like this the entire night?’ Isaac’s sulking was almost too convincing to pass as a joke.

‘Not like this, no. It would be crude of me not to ease you into things. It'll be worth it, I promise.’ Her eyes held the same promise as her words. There would be a reward of some sort for him once the evening was done and they had returned to her mansion. She lowered herself and leaned over to speak at the level of a whisper. Every little noise produced by the flesh of her throat, tongue, and lips danced through his ear canal and down through his spine while her low resonance made his stomach feel tight. "I take good care of my playthings.”

She smiled, a warm smile that spread to her eyes and signaled she was confident, carefree, and having fun. Isaac shared his own version of that smile. Thanks to the reciprocal nature of humanity it was easier than willing himself to smile on his own. A gleam in her gilded eyes signaled even greater satisfaction. "There, hold that until we're through the doors.”

“All of this presentation stuff is really important to you, huh?”

“No, it's all meaningless. The effect it has on people, that is what I value. Now, there's a hall full of pampered pussies waiting for their tails to get tweaked." With that, they went in.

The hall was massive, architecturally engineered to overwhelm occupants with a sense of spacious extravagance. Massive beams criss-crossed to form the rafters. Crystal chandeliers were suspended underneath, each clear prism twinkling from the lights they surrounded. Massively tall, gothic style windows reflected these glimmers back into the room thanks to the darkness outside. White table clothes were laid over circular tables without a single wrinkle, until disturbed by the guests anyway, with gleaming silverware arranged with exact detail around shining dishes and sparkling glasses. A floral explosion overflowed from a vase acting as the centerpiece.

Traditional Western chamber music was played by a band of musicians set in the precise portion of the interior where the building's engineered acoustics would deliver the sound to everyone present. The players were human; to Isaac's surprise. He'd have expected pokegirl musicians but Astoreth explained that many of the performers were from affluent families and performing at an event like this justified all of the expensive and exclusive training their families paid for. She proposed a second date to an all pokegirl symphony if Isaac wanted to hear what could be produced when a superhuman dedicated that level of commitment to the craft of music.

The music was difficult for Isaac to appreciate given the competition for his auditory attention in the countless human voices that filled the hall with a roaring murmur. It was always the noise that got to him.

The floral centerpieces also filled the air with a sweet aroma that mingled with the various fragrances shed by the guests. The number of people all packed in and mingling also filled the air with warmth and humidity. It would be miserable if not for unseen efforts to promote air circulation.

Servers carried trays of hors d'oeuvres or champagne while cocktail waitresses circulated to take specific drink orders. The snacks wound up too sophisticated for Isaac's tastes, too much preparation and presentation, not enough flavor. He also would hold back on the drinks because he struggled with moderating himself sometimes and if he got drunk he wouldn't care about withholding his uncouth opinions on… everything.

Isaac was in the habit of avoiding attention but Astoreth relished each set of eyes that fell on them. Isaac could feel her pleasure channeled through everywhere they touched as they walked up to be greeted by Vardan and Catalina.

The bride and groom were dressed in traditional fashion, opposite Astoreth and Isaac's. Vardan was in daunting, serious black and Catalina was the one in virginal white. The style of her dress was humble and wholesome. They'd fought tooth and nail to keep the dress code and their own wedding attire humble in spite of their parent's designs.

The scions of the elite could never be totally free from the influence of their sires. After all, even if the children accomplished every dream and aspiration laid out for them, then there were the grandchildren to shape.

The brief exchange of compliments on their respective appearances, thanks for attending, and congratulations for the completion of the ceremony were the only words exchanged between them the entire night. From there a Paza family servant showed Isaac and Astoreth to their seats. Waiting at the table for them was Cosmina Kravchevna, the former senior disciplinarian cadet from the Vorona academy.

She was dressed in a shimmering green tube dress that was a few shades darker than her green eyes and contrasted her bright crimson hair. Isaac had last seen her in the academy training uniform, clinging to life with an arrow in her neck. With her was Marharyta, who Isaac realized had evolved to a Dominatrix. Besides becoming taller and curvier, Marharyta had put on some muscle and her behavior suggested a lot more personal restraint. She was dressed in black like Astoreth, but hers was a hobble dress with many leather straps. The top of the dress was suspended from silver chains clipped to a collar around the BDSM pokegirl’s throat. The neck piece was dyed the same red as her mistress’ hair.

Nerses and Sona, the Dominatrix and Dark Elf who had been with Cosmina during her cadet days, weren’t present. Isaac would come to find out that Nerses parted ways amicably and now was a fully fledged member of the Vorona Corps. Sona's psyche suffered from the terror of the raid on the cadets and caring for her became too much for Cosmina to handle on top of her own trauma. She was in the care of another family member, now. 

Cosmina jumped out of her seat and grabbed Isaac for a hug, making a sound of contentment as she did. "Cadet Markiyan," she said with a humorous glimmer in her eyes as she stepped away.

"Not a cadet anymore either, Senior Disciplinarian Kravchevna," Isaac tried to match her humor. "I'm enrolled at the Conservatory of Witchcraft in Kyiv, at least for the time being."

His qualifier captured Cosmina's attention so Isaac shared the story pertaining to Elena, the Conservatory, and his plans to drop out. His telling was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the other two guests placed at their table, a brother and sister pair who were the offspring of a Planetary League Council liaison. They were unexcited to be there and mostly interested in complaining about their parents falling into the periphery of some spiritual movement splintered off from the Cult of Sukebe's influence. Something about waiting for the dreamer to awaken and finish the work of the maker…

The rich and famous were just as susceptible to having their attention seized by fads and the sheer extent of resources available to them meant they could chase these trends with a passion common people had no hope of matching. This even extended to ideologies.

The pair of siblings soon lost interest in their tablemates and migrated to the open bar.

The four remaining at the table spent the time engaging in people watching. Cosmina could point out all of Catalina's family and they all had the same dark, noble, and menacing air to their character as the bride. Seeing them all together with normal people to contrast against their features and it was plainly obvious that the Dragulescu family was unusual.

Isaac assumed pokegirl genetics but Cosmina and Astoreth defended the alleged purity of the family. It turned out the Dragulescu were long time allies to the Khyndzal family and whatever the source of their shared family traits, its presence in the Dragulescu bloodline predated pokegirls.

Then there was the Paza family. Pompous best described them. The full blooded Pazas were just as well groomed and sophisticated as Vardan but lacked his humility. They hadn't had the flaw of their birth held over their heads throughout their entire lives. Vardan's father in particular looked like he thought he was an early twentieth century aristocratic general, just lacking in medals and badges.

The Paza Sphinxes were in a category all of their own. A score of visually identical, anthropomorphic feline / avian hybrid women stalking the reception hall, each dressed in her own distinct ball gown and each with a beautiful young male escort on her arm. An ambitious man's political career serving the Paza family could start in the bed of one of these Sphinxes tonight.

Vardan's mother did not attempt to seduce, or do more than quickly greet, Isaac. Isaac's reluctance to engage with the social affair and Astoreth's possessive vigilance warded off the rest, although one Sphinx had been rather persistent.

Isaac, Astoreth, Cosmina, and Marharyta were able to decipher the 'faithful' of the exciting new cult for the opulent. They wore an icon openly on their person, a simplistic charm resembling a spiral galaxy with two arms wrapping around an inhuman eye symbol placed in the central core. They had no idea what it was meant to represent or how it was connected ideologically to the Cult of Sukebe. The adherents certainly didn't look to be of heavy pokegirl ancestry.

There was a break in the flow of conversation and Isaac took a moment to admire Cosmina's make-up application. Her eye shadow was a fiery smear of autumn colors that made her green irises seem to jump out from the contrast. Isaac was thoughtlessly entranced again when Astoreth's telepathic voice entered his consciousness. 'You know she wants you?'

'She said she wants an older guy,' Isaac defended himself against the accusation of being desirable.

'Yes, such an insurmountable gap of maturation, three whole years,' the three-and-a-half century old Hild telepathically sent to her supposedly sixteen year old date. 'I'm sure she tells herself she wants an older man to be her husband, however…' Astoreth suppressed a chuckle so that it only came out as a couple of warm hums. 'Her current thoughts don't really have much to do with vows and commitment. Mostly, she's trying to figure out if it should be you or her tied up in her bed.'

Isaac wondered why Astoreth, whose sole mission tonight was to keep him from falling into the claws of the prowling Sphinxes, was encouraging him to believe Cosmina held some sexual attraction for him.

The provocative infernal propped her chin up on one finger to lean slightly in towards the subject of her and Isaac's telepathic conversation. She smiled, first merely by pulling her lips together and up, hiding her teeth and minimizing the movement of her eyes and brows while making eye contact with the young woman. "Miss Kravchevna," she stated with a questioning inflection. When Cosmina indicated she was paying attention Astoreth's smile cracked her lips open and raised her lower eyelids. "From what Isaac has shared, I understand you have a great deal of passion for bondage. Do you think I could pick your brain for some advice?"

Cosmina and Marharyta both perked up in unison. "Sure," the young redheaded woman responded. "What sort of questions do you have?"

'Watch her reactions,' Astoreth instructed over the delta bond. Then she asked out loud, "Well, I was hoping to make things a little more exciting between Isaac and myself. What sort of restraints would you use if I were your playmate for the evening?"

Cosmina took a moment to study Astoreth's physique with an even expression. Her eyes and eyebrows did move a little, open and up, but she also straightened up and crossed on arm over her chest to clutch its opposite. She spoke after a second more consideration. Her tone was neutral and knowledgeable. "Well, with pokegirls the first thing to always consider is safety. How strong are you?"

Astoreth made an attempt at showing humility. It wasn't very successful. "Not strong enough to beat an Amachamp at arm wrestling. Last time I was rated I barely managed to break into strength factor eighteen values."

Cosmina sighed and the little bit of excitement in her eyes died. "Unfortunately, there aren't many options with someone as strong as you are. I'd have to go with standard taming restraints in the upper limits to safely play with you. Sorry, it could be fun but there's no artistry in the huge rigs."

Astoreth's smile became apologetic. "I figured. What about for Isaac?"

Isaac was paying attention, as instructed, and the sudden change in Cosmina's demeanor nearly blew him away. Her eyes were alight, eyelids curved joyfully, eyebrows dancing up her forehead.

"Isaac," she said to herself speculatively. Her arms unfolded and she delicately played with the stem of her glass. "Isaac is a good boy,” the bondage enthusiast answered with the sort of emphasis one uses when praising a puppy. Isaac almost missed the tiny bite on her upper lip as she made questioning eye contact. “I’d use silk ribbons on him, I don’t think I'd need anything else."

Isaac didn't formulate a response before the food arrived. There was sarmale and mamaliga, the same foods Vardan had cooked up for Isaac during the dinner date that began their short-lived romance.

The topic of discussion did not return to matters of tying someone up for nefarious deeds. It drifted, died, and resumed over the hour dedicated to eating. No deeply serious topics, in fact most of the times the conversation flagged was when a heavier subject was brushed up against.

The one exception was Cosmina's curiosity regarding Neasa and the conflict with Samodiva. She learned that the Unseelie Elfqueen had perished in a power dispute but was frustrated by the lack of details. Isaac was able to fill her in to her satisfaction.

In spite of her beautifully styled, cheerful mask, Cosmina seemed to be struggling with the environment. Once people moved to occupy the dance floor it seemed all the motion and noise finally broke her resolve. Smiles became slow and forced, responses delayed and struggled to follow the topic.

"Are you okay, mistress?" Marharyta placed a reassuring hand on her mistress' arm. "We've stayed longer than you planned and you're still-" The Dominatrix winced when Cosmina shot her a weary look.

The young human woman breathed in deeply and then sighed the air out. "Sorry, Marharyta. It's okay, I was doing better than I expected with just Isaac and Astoreth here. Thanks for worrying." She stood up and her BDSM pokegirl rose as well. "It's been great catching up with you, Mr. Markiyan," her eyes held the same delight as her tone when she spoke Isaac's assumed surname. "I just… get tired really easily still…"

"It’s okay, I understand," Isaac said as he stood up in response to an unarticulated prompt from his infernal date. Astoreth stood in almost unison.

"You do? Right, you were there too." Isaac nodded a little subconsciously and that was enough for her to continue. “It’s a little hard, going out at all. Anywhere with trees and… I still have nightmares but…” She cut off her words with a clenched jaw and shook her head “It's funny but I remember hearing your voice though the whole thing.” She drifted away for a few seconds. She shook her head a little bit again. “I’m worn out for tonight but I’m glad I was able to see you, Isaac. We should meet up again this year for harvest festival. Probably not Dnipro, unless you’re going with those same people.”

“I’d like that,” Isaac answered. “And Gabi’s the one who lives in Dnipro and I’m sure-” Isaac wrestled with word choice for a span of a few neurons firing, “-Gabi would be fine going anywhere there’s a celebration.” Cosmina smiled, hugged him once again, and then turned to loop her arm through her Dominatrix’s and left.

Isaac was left with only Astoreth for company and he was suddenly very aware that his own reserves for social energy were empty. Was there anything he needed to do? The PLC siblings never returned to their table, they were still at the bar. Slumped over it, in fact.

Vardan and Catalina were still swamped by individuals posing as well wishers while wanting the ear of the more prominent members of their families. The current and future head of the Paza family as well as Mr. and Mrs. Dragulescu were hovering about the newlyweds in a tight orbit. Isaac and Astoreth made it close enough to signal they were leaving and received little more than brief eye contact and a small wave as acknowledgement. It was their evening, not his, so he didn't mind.

As the pair were exciting through the tall, arched doors one of the Sphinx hostesses was entering. Eyes locked onto eyes and a collision course plotted itself in Isaac's mind. The Paza family mascot was determined to not yield the center of the doorway even though there was plenty of room to her left. Astoreth slid closer to Isaac and gently increased the firmness of her grip on his shoulder. It was the most pragmatic point of contact for the considerably taller woman to hold onto her man.

One more step from each pokegirl saw the destined impact. There was the slightest dilation of time as Isaac watched all of the muscles in Astoreth's core bunch up in anticipation of the blow.

Shoulder struck shoulder and both pokegirls, recognizing the challenge, pushed into the contact with all of their strength.

The Sphinx in her humanoid form was sent nearly sprawling from the transferred force. Servants and guests within the vicinity of the entrance were held in breathless anticipation when the low, feline growl reached their ears. Leonine eyes blazed with fury as the Sphinx stared down her transgressor.

Astoreth was fighting not to laugh and Isaac nearly caught the giggles from the humor threading through her telepathic message. 'I have no idea why she tried that in her taming form.'

Isaac recognized the gown the Paza pokewoman was wearing. This was the one who had been persistent in looking for an opening to approach him. She must have held onto her frustration caused by Astoreth denying her. He decided to try de-escalating the situation. "Sorry ma'am. We tried to move over but the doorway wasn't wide enough." It was a decent, rational explanation for the situation. Isaac really didn't have any further to his left to go.

It also made the Sphinx's irrational behavior stand out even more. Her muzzle twitched and her ears flicked back. Astoreth was getting more and more excited facing prospective violence and the winged felinid pokegirl must have picked up on the scent of growing danger, because her body language suddenly changed as she relented. Shoulders dropped and she closed up her stance while looking past her prospective foe. "No, it was my mistake. I must have had too much to drink this evening. I think I'll go lie down."

Astoreth's mouth twitched into a frown as she watched the Paza Sphinx retreat. Then her eyes got wide and a little panicked when Isaac took ahold of her hand and gently tugged her the rest of the way outside.

She snatched her hand free while she was still winning against the impulse to shrink down. It was her one weakness Isaac had discovered so far. "You are asking for trouble, Mister Markiyan," she growled in a low voice laden with all of the aggressive energy she'd been building up all night.

Isaac shrugged and then put his hand around her waist. "I don't think my stunt really changed anything in that regard."

“No, I suppose it didn't." Her voice took on a challenging edge. "You know, I believe I have some silk ribbons at home somewhere." She didn't specify who they were intended for.

(-[|]-) End 16.1 (-[|]-)