I stretch out on the windowsill, closing my eyes against the morning light. It's warm here by the garden wall, and sheltered from the breeze that rustles through the treetops beyond. I bask in the sunlight, luxuriating in the steadily building warmth. As the heat becomes more intense against my glossy black coat, I shift slightly and open one eye into a slit. I peer down at the cobblestones and discover to my satisfaction that I have drawn the envious attention of the lesser felines that skulk around the kitchen door in perpetual hope of scraps. I open both eyes wide and fix the cats below with a lofty stare. They stare back at me, not concealing their desire to steal my superior position, even though they must know it's hopeless: I am queen here.

I raise my nose delicately in the air and sniff a few times before letting a lazy yawn show off my teeth. Languidly, I pull myself up into a sitting position; now I can see through the open door into the kitchen itself. The cats follow my every movement with their large, round plebeian eyes. They hate it when I do this, emphasising as it does that I can see what they cannot; I can see the kitchen benches and the game meat lying there that tantalises them with its strong scent.

My attention is diverted by a sound from beyond the garden wall and, although I know it's probably just a strong gust of wind in the trees making the branches creak, I can't help darting a look in that direction as my ears spring to the alert. Of course it's nothing - or is it? I catch sight of something glinting in the distance. It's not the right colour to be the bronze on the guards' uniforms - too bright. It's more like a spark of fire. Fire, or sunlight striking human hair? There's only one human in the castle with hair like that. Could it be that one? It's been a long time since he last ventured out here. I miss his attention. He's the only one around here who really knows the proper way in which to stroke a great lady such as I. Not that I'd let just any ordinary human touch me - even one with similar skill - but it's fitting that he does so. He rules over the humans in this place just as I rule in the feline domain. We are of equal status, he and I.

There's that spark of golden red again. It must be he! I jump down from my perch to be greeted by a chorus of hisses and growls from my resentful court. I've broken the rules of the game we play and they're not sure what I mean by such an unprecedented action. I waste no time on them. There will be time enough later to remind them of the lowly positions that they hold and to disabuse them of any presumptuous notions they might entertain of aspiring to a higher position - even, most impudent of all, to my prime position on the windowsill.

I trot swiftly along the bricked path leading away from the kitchen until I reach the lowest part of the garden wall. In one graceful leap I land on top - I've done this plenty of times before. I stand there immobile for a long moment, poised on my toes as I survey the garden spread out below me. To my surprise, I catch sight of the one that I'm looking for almost immediately. He hasn't moved very far at all. This is uncharacteristic of him - as uncharacteristic as his absence in recent times. He usually travels with speed and surprising grace for such a large man. Quite cat-like, in fact.

Ah. He *is* moving, but his movements are jerky and his progress is slow. Even from here I can tell that he's favouring one leg.

I take my time making my way along the top of the wall. Soon I'll catch him, but even if I don't reach him in time it won't matter. I know where he's going. And I have my own ways of getting in.

He stops and leans one shoulder against the grey stone wall to steady himself as he grapples clumsily with the fastening on the gate before him. The garden gate looks heavy and he has trouble keeping his balance as he pulls it open. There's definitely something not right with that leg - he must be carrying an injury.

I continue my stroll along the wall, stopping just short of the gate. There's a tall tree growing so close to the wall that I barely need to leap to reach the nearest branch. I follow the familiar route from branch to trunk then branch again until a final jump delivers me into the garden. I arrive almost silently, only a quiet thud announcing my presence as my paws land in the springy grass.

I know this little garden well. It's here that he used to come so often with that female of his, that woman - before he stopped coming out here altogether, that is. I couldn't begin to count the number of times that I would just happen to be here when he visited this garden, just as has happened today. I remember those times, how he used to pet me, how he would run his hands from the top of my head to the base of my tail, over and over again, then come back to stroke my neck or scratch delicately behind my ears. In return, I would butt my head into his hand - marking him as mine - and occasionally deign to rub the rest of my body against him before finally curling up in his lap, my chin to the sky. All the while the woman would look on jealously. There was something decidedly canine about her and I treated her accordingly. That is to say, I ignored her.

He's flung himself down in the grass - if the upturned crown lying discarded nearby is any indication - and is lying on his back, but he's not relaxed. His limbs, except for the injured left leg, are stretched out tensely, almost like he's trying to touch something just out of reach. His eyes are on the clouds but I don't think he sees them. He hasn't seen me, either. I pad silently past his head, just close enough to make him wonder if something has touched his hair. His reaction is swift and full of violence. His upper body is off the ground in an instant, but he doesn't get to his feet, suddenly awkward as his leg fails him. Interesting. He's always been calm when he's been here before. He's always seemed calm, anyway. Somehow, though, this new air of barely restrained violence about him seems to fit. I've sensed the possibility of it in him before. If he were feline he'd be one of those cats always a trifle too ready with the claws.

When he sees me sitting on the grass behind him he relaxes a bit, turning on his side and propping himself up on one elbow. He smiles slightly. It's a sad smile, though. I suppose he must miss the dog woman, even though he has me.

"Hello, cat," he says.

That's all the invitation I need. He protests at the jolt as I arrive on his hip, but I don't worry about that. I know that any objections on his part will only be half-hearted at best - that's how our ritual works in this place. A claw grips his skin through a gap in his clothing and he swears at me. He's really getting into the spirit of the game today. I reach out a paw, preparing to make my way up to his shoulder - that's the highest part of his body when he's lying in this position. He's still swearing - the level of attention I receive from him is definitely much greater when the woman's not here to distract him - and I'm still intent on reaching his shoulder. Abruptly, there's a too-strong grip around my middle and-


I stalk away into the shade, then sit with my back turned to him in offended silence. How could he do such a thing? True, I landed on all fours, so he didn't inflict the ultimate indignity on me, but still it was a close-run thing. He never would have done that before - that was not how things stood between us. It seems that the quite a lot has changed since he last came here with the woman - more than I had imagined. Strange how these things work out. I'd always wished her elsewhere, so that I could have him to myself, but now that she's gone I find that I don't have him at all. The balance of power between us has shifted. I don't know that he's any higher than he was before - nothing has changed in my status or his, so we're still equals - but he's certainly further away. He seems unreachable now. Apart. Separate.

He is alone.

Even though he has my company.

Even though we're no longer the only ones in the garden.

I'm all too aware that there's someone else here - though how that someone effected an arrival without my noticing is something that has me puzzled. My eyes dart around the garden, looking for possible places in which the unknown visitor might be hiding.

"Iphicles," says a voice. That's just what the woman used to call my human - all the others called him 'majesty' or 'highness' or 'king'. But this is no female voice; its owner is nothing if not masculine. He stalks towards Iphicles with lazy arrogance. If Iphicles has a feline air about him, then this one is all cat - and a big cat, at that. I watch his long, effortless strides as he approaches and wonder if he could possibly have been born into the wrong body. What an impressive tomcat he would have made. He's big and powerful - more so even than Iphicles - and he shines as black as my coat.

Iphicles sits up and tries to struggle to his feet, but he's barely had time to begin the attempt, hampered as he is by his uncooperative leg, before the other one is standing over him and he is being held in place. Iphicles doesn't struggle, but I can feel the tension in him. He's not looking at the other; this is a stand-off. The violence is waiting there between them. If he looks the big one in the eye he'll have to strike - but Iphicles is the lesser of the two, and it's obvious that he knows it.

The big one isn't tense at all. He's relaxed and taking his time - or so he'd like us to think. He is in control, but, like all of us who rule, he knows to keep a certain part of himself alert and ready for action, just in case. He's kneeling behind Iphicles now. He lets go of Iphicles' shoulders and reaches out a hand, as though about to force Iphicles' face around so that he has to meet his gaze. Instead, his hand traces a lingering path across Iphicles' cheek. The fingers dig in, leaving a visible trail from ear to lips.

Familiar with Iphicles as I am, I notice the barely perceptible tremor that runs through him at the touch of those fingers. Then, as if belatedly remembering what should be the appropriate response, Iphicles flinches and tries to get up, but his injured leg lets him down again. He is forced to content himself with jerking his head away, but it's not enough in the face of such self-assured dominance and his defiance seems almost petulant in comparison.

The action doesn't deter the big one in the slightest. "Oh come now, Iphicles," he coaxes as he moves to Iphicles' side. There's amusement and more than a touch of condescension in his tone. "A little stroking never hurt anyone," he says as his hand glides along Iphicles' hurt leg, stopping just where the thigh meets the rest of the body. Iphicles gasps, though not, I think, in pain. Like Iphicles himself, the big one is an expert at stroking.

Without warning, *he* turns his head in my direction. I hadn't expected that - a black cat crouching in shadow is easily overlooked by humans, as a rule. He regards me unblinkingly, like he's looking right through my eyes and into me. He smiles, but it's not like any smile I've ever seen on a human face. This is a cat's smile, a baring of teeth in warning. It's not serious, though - he finds me amusing. I bristle at that, feeling more indignant even than when Iphicles mishandled me so unforgivably. I am not to be laughed at.

He's still watching me. I can feel those eyes on me, night-coloured like no cat's eyes ever were, yet still somehow supremely feline. I feel the silent laughter. He's enjoying unnerving me, even while he never ceases in his attentions to Iphicles.

Abruptly, the stroking hand leaves Iphicles' body and in a lightning quick movement comes up to grab him by the hair, forcing his head back. Iphicles blinks as the sunlight pours into his eyes, blinding him - and in that instant the big one is upon him and I feel the thrill of the hunter certain of his prey. He pulls Iphicles back hard against his chest, then wrenches his head even further around. They kiss - at least that's the only thing I can call it, but perhaps there's some other, better, term for what they do. I don't know. Their lips are touching, but, other than that, their actions have little in common with the playful kisses that Iphicles and the woman would sometimes share when they came here. There is a savagery in the actions of both men, a subjugation by the stronger of the weaker, who struggles to hold his own just the same. The big one increases the pressure, twisting around and forcing Iphicles to lean back further. Everything he does is designed as a reminder to all of us of just who is in control here - and who is not.

Iphicles groans, conceding ground, and the other ends the punishment, his dominance established for now. He strokes the side of Iphicles' face and down along the jaw line, as a human would pet a special cat, as Iphicles does when he strokes me. Iphicles leans into the caress, and suddenly I know that they have done this before.

My skin itches, demanding attention, and I rock onto my back feet and twist around to get at that troublesome spot near the base of my tail. My teeth dig into the skin, soothing the irritation. My mouth lingers there for a while, cleaning the fur, and then I settle in for a proper wash. I let my tongue make its way along my leg, eventually reaching my toes, where I leave off licking to chew the claws clean. Lastly, I clean my face. I raise an elegant paw, preparing to lick, when a loud thump sounds behind me. I freeze for a moment, but there are no more big noises - though plenty of small ones - so I resume my ablutions.

Satisfied that everything is in perfect working order, I spare a glance in their direction. Iphicles is still lying on the ground, but now his chin is pressing into the damp earth. The big one is on him, kissing - or biting at - the back of his neck. I'm not surprised to see them thus. I know well enough where this is headed.

Iphicles' eyes are closed and he seems to be concentrating on not showing any reaction to the big one's touch. He doesn't seem aware of anything else - certainly not of me. I don't like this. It was bad enough when Iphicles rejected me, but now he's letting himself be owned by someone else and it seems that he has forgotten me altogether. That last is too much. I cannot sit by and let this continue. I competed with the woman successfully before; perhaps there's a way of reminding him of my presence. I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to do, but getting closer to him will at least be a start. I make a careful approach across the grass. I really don't enjoy walking on grass much - there are easier surfaces on which to move silently.

*He* makes a sudden movement, throwing back the dark hair from his face as his arm comes around and the powerful muscles flex. There's a sharp ripping sound and I tense in response, getting ready to bolt if need be. But it appears that he hasn't seen me yet and I am safe for now, so I continue moving closer.

Iphicles' clothing lies in pieces on the ground. His skin is uncovered, exposed and vulnerable. Being stripped down to the most basic like this is somehow more demeaning even than the inferior position, facedown on the ground, that the other has forced him into. He's not allowed to keep any of the trappings of his power. I don't like to see him brought so low, and not just because in ordinary circumstances he's my equal.

The big one is leaning over him, and, with the pride of ownership, he runs his hands over the smooth skin of Iphicles' back a few times before they come to rest lower down. *He* also has lost his coverings, but, unlike Iphicles, his nakedness serves only to emphasise his power - it is out in the open now, no longer hidden. He is certainly an impressive sight.

He cups Iphicles' buttocks, fingers clenching tight against the tense muscles, testing them. Iphicles stirs, making as if to move, and instantly the big one's hand is on his back, pushing him down again. Iphicles' muscles tense, straining against the pressure. Perhaps he hasn't been subdued quite as much as I thought but, even so, Iphicles has little chance of escaping from his current situation. He's still struggling, but I could tell him that it won't be long before he's forced to capitulate to the other's superior strength.

Eventually, Iphicles stops struggling and after a few moments the big one moves his hand away. Iphicles makes no response, instead remaining lying there, motionless. They've reached the point where *he* doesn't need to hold Iphicles down constantly - these little reminders are enough. He lifts Iphicles' hips slightly off the ground with one hand, letting the other wander beneath. He smiles, apparently satisfied with whatever he finds there. He doesn't remove his hand though, and after a moment Iphicles groans.

The big one looks up, then, and stares straight at me. He's known all along that I've been edging closer. I feel almost foolish to have believed that I could approach without his notice. I hate the way he makes me feel. Still, he hasn't actually stopped me from coming nearer, so I creep close to Iphicles' head. I remain alert and ready to flee, though, just in case.

I can feel the laughter again but when I look at him he feigns disinterest in me. He has turned his attention back to Iphicles' ass. He caresses it hard - to the point of bruising, I would think - before forcing Iphicles' legs apart. He's on his knees now, and his body's hard and ready - impressive indeed.

He leans down close to Iphicles' head. My sharp ears catch the whisper. "I'm going to fuck you until I make you scream." There's a faintly humorous note in his voice as he says this, as though there's a private joke known only to him in there somewhere. Iphicles certainly doesn't seem to be laughing; he makes an indeterminate sound, muffled against the grass.

And then the big one's hard, glistening cock is pushing into the body beneath him and another sound escapes Iphicles' lips - definitely not a laugh. Iphicles turns his head to the side. He can't see me. His eyes are screwed shut and his teeth pull at his bottom lip. The sweat stands out against his skin and I lick a droplet off before it has a chance to streak down the side of his face; he tastes of salt. His eyes fly open at the abrasive touch of my tongue and he lets out a cry that he just as swiftly silences. He turns a hostile gaze on me. I've succeeded in reminding him of my presence, but he's hardly thanking me for disrupting his efforts to resist. He's sulky in his anger - the anger of the weak. Everything about him seems diminished now. Still, I can understand why the big one wants him - all cats have a taste for salt, after all. Not to mention a taste for ungentle couplings.

It's strange how quiet they've both been through all of this considering that they're acting much like two cats in heat. I can sense the violence of the feeling between them and yet they don't express it noisily - just the opposite. In that they are not cat-like at all. Of course, Iphicles has more reason than ever to stay silent now, after the big one's promise to make him scream, but I'm not sure why *he's* been so quiet himself. It's not from apprehension. He's sure that he's won - I can see it in his eyes. Oh yes, he has no doubts on that score. In fact, he seems a little bit too sure. I wonder if I can use that to my advantage? Perhaps what he needs is a surprise. My lip curls back to reveal my teeth, echoing the cat's smile he displayed earlier.

Leaping is one of the things I do best. It requires precision, especially when aiming for a moving target. Before I have a chance to re-think my decision I have landed on *his* shoulders and I dig my claws into his bare skin to keep my balance as his body moves beneath me. It doesn't continue moving for long, though. I can feel his shock as his body stills.

"What the fuck-?" He isn't silent any more, at least. He twists his upper body around in a movement so abrupt and fierce that I am sent flying. And this time I land in an inelegant heap close by. That's never happened to me before.

Suddenly there's a fire, out of nowhere, in his hand - literally nothing there one moment and crackling flames the next. Now I am genuinely afraid as for the first time since *he* arrived I begin to comprehend the true extent of his power. I had thought he was fully revealed before, but I was mistaken. I am beginning to appreciate just how much strength must be in Iphicles to enable him to stand up to the big one even as much as he has.

I wonder what he intends to do with the fire. I think I can guess, but I'm not willing to wait to find out. In the space of a few breaths I'm halfway up the tree again and peering from the shelter of the familiar branches.

He throws the ball of flames - it dazzles me. In that instant, waiting for it to hit, a small, detached part of me wonders which of the other cats will succeed to my position. I wish I had not come here today. I wish I hadn't noticed the flash of Iphicles' hair in the sunlight. I even wish that the woman were here.

The ball of fire flashes past and hits the wall. My claws grip tighter into the trunk of the tree and I wait for his next move. It can't be long...

I'm still waiting, but nothing has happened. I peer down to the ground, to see what's going on. He's ignoring me! He's biting Iphicles' neck again; he's pushing into him again. He's not going to do anything to me. He knows how to use the most deadly weapons in a fight, this one. He undermines confidence. He destroys from within. He leads you to the point where you expect death - even want it on some level - and then he denies it to you. He denies you even recognition. He doesn't view me as a worthy adversary. He doesn't even view me as an unworthy adversary. To him I am nothing.

I look away, the humiliation of that almost enough to make me turn tail and flee back to my little kingdom by the kitchen door. Almost, but not quite enough. I am made of sterner stuff than that.

Huff. Who am I trying to deceive? My words lack conviction, even in my own mind. A short time in that one's presence has been enough to turn me from a queen into something small and insignificant. I stay, knowing that it is curiosity rather than bravery that keeps me here. I need to know what will happen next.

Iphicles is still lying there, the muscles cording in his neck, and the sheen of sweat on his skin glistening in the sunlight. He can't help but respond to the rhythm that the big one has set but he's still managing not to make a sound - or not much. His lips are bloody with the effort of staying silent. I can't take my eyes off the blood as I imagine its sticky saltiness. My tongue sticks between my teeth as I recall the taste of the sweat that I licked from his face.

Their movements are becoming faster, and there's a growing air of desperation about Iphicles that he's unable to hide. The urge to cry out must be almost irresistible, but if he can make it to the end in silence, then in some way he has won. No, not won - I correct myself. Winning is not an option. Yet, staying silent to the end shows that he has not been subdued, not completely. He can emerge with some dignity intact, perhaps.

But it is not to be. Just as I think that Iphicles may indeed have a chance *he* grabs Iphicles' head roughly, forcing his mouth open. It's too much, after trying to hold out for so long. Iphicles' body arches back, even with the weight of the other pressing him down, and the sound that escapes his lips now - there's no speech in it. Nothing so controlled. Nothing controlled at all.

Iphicles' cry seems to act as a signal for the big one to abandon his own self-control. His rhythm falters, becoming increasingly erratic before ceasing altogether. He throws back his head and now is the moment that he finally looses his victory cry. Iphicles doesn't see the expression on the face above him - but I do. It's not the look of a detached, amused superior being. He's enjoying it too much. In victory he loses - he's revealed himself. It's no longer a game for him. He's involved, whether he acknowledges it or not. He can no more leave Iphicles alone than I can. What is it about Iphicles that keeps us both in his thrall - loath though we both are to show it? I have felt the pride of ownership of him, and today I've also felt the threat from the big one, who seems to think that Iphicles belongs to him, or should. But maybe we are both wrong. Maybe it is we who are his.

They lie there for a time, bright hair mingling with dark. Now that they are at rest and the contest is over they appear evenly matched - both large, both muscular, both stripped down to their skin, both relaxed - except that the dark one lies on top, still dominating even in repose. Eventually, they stir and Iphicles rolls over onto his back as the big one gets to his feet.

*He* stands there, arms folded, saying nothing, staring down at Iphicles, who is still lying amidst the ruin of his clothing. Finally, he turns away, somehow regaining his clothes in the process. He looks up into the tree and raises an eyebrow at me. I wonder if he's going to deliver some parting shot at me but he doesn't do anything more. His attention returns almost irresistibly to Iphicles. I wonder how long he intends to remain here, savouring his victory. Iphicles isn't looking at him; instead, he has turned his attention to the sky. They remain like that for some little time, the big one studying Iphicles and Iphicles studying the clouds that escaped his attention earlier.

I almost miss it, the moment when Iphicles looks the big one in the eye for the only time. It's over in an instant, but I'm sure that a challenge has been issued and accepted in that fleeting exchange. I wonder what it means.

Finally, the big one has had enough. "Until next time, then," he says, then throws his head back and laughs uproariously. The laughter can still be heard after he has vanished. Even that doesn't have the power to surprise me now - his vanishing, I mean. He's truly unlike any human I've seen before.

Iphicles sits up and reaches for his clothes. He picks up a garment - or part of one, anyway - stares at it for a moment, shakes his head slowly, then drops the ripped fabric back on the ground. As he does so, he notices his crown, still lying forgotten beneath my tree. He leans over and retrieves the thing, then places it on his head. His lips quirk as he looks again at the pile of unwearable clothes. He sighs - more in resignation than anything else, I think - and stretches out on the crushed grass.

Now that *he* is gone, curiosity wins out over caution and I leave the safety of the tree and make my way back to Iphicles' side. He lies back under the trees in the dappling light, which catches in his hair, making it dance like fire. It is so tempting, that hair of his. My claws flex and it is an effort to stop myself from pouncing on it, kitten-like.

Iphicles smiles and I wonder if he can somehow read my thoughts, just as that other one could. I rub my cheek against him, trying to re-assert my ownership of him - but it's a perfunctory action. The big dark one has marked Iphicles as his own and I know I can't really compete. Not that I'd admit that in any other place or in any other company, of course.

He reaches over to stroke my head and I lean into the expert caress - this is a man who really knows how to pay proper homage. I climb onto his chest and crouch there, purring into his face to demonstrate my appreciation, my paws hard little points pushing against his skin. He reaches out his other hand and carefully lifts my front paws. Obligingly, I fold them under my chest. He tilts his head up, still smiling slightly as he looks across at me, continuing to run his hand in a steady rhythm along my soft coat, and suddenly we have regained the understanding that's been missing between us.

Strange. Iphicles doesn't wear the air of someone who's just been vanquished and lost face so completely. Could I have been wrong about what transpired here? It doesn't seem likely, and yet Iphicles is relaxed now and the tense unhappiness is gone from his body. It makes me wonder if he didn't really win somehow - or at least get something that he wanted.

He looks like the cat that got the cream.