Chapter Twenty: Ritual

QUEEN Innes sat in her conservatory among her ever-growing collection of exotic plants and butterflies. A human girl was busy tucking pearl hairpins into her long, braided hair, but as soon as Wynn led Ora inside, she dismissed the servant. “You may leave as well,” she said to the thachwing.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Wynn said before drifting back down one of the winding conservatory paths.

“Have a seat.” Innes gave a small nod toward the chair across from her. She had a fine spread of butter cookies and tea prepared, which sat on the table between them. As Ora took her seat, the queen poured her a cup of milky, sweet-smelling tea.

“Thank you.” Distrustful of the queen, she left the teacup untouched.

“Let me see your hand,” Innes said.

Knowing it would do little good to argue, Ora held out her hand so the queen could study the scarred over nub.

“Tyg?” she asked with a sad look. When Ora nodded, she let the girl slide her hand away. “I am sorry, Eudora. I did not think she would be so cruel to you. She must have caught on, though. Why else would she take a finger?”

The sound of her true name made Ora’s skin crawl. She could sense the power in the queen’s voice.

“Perhaps I was wrong.” Innes sipped at her tea and watched as a butterfly landed on a sugar cube. “I imagine it would be much easier for you if your name was bound.”

Ora held onto the sides of the chair and tried to calm her racing heart at these words. “Queen Innes,” she began.

The fae queen went on as if Ora had not spoken. “I have never allowed a human to walk through Mysanhal unbound, but it is Cree himself who has willed it. He is most mysterious at times. The gods are that way, aren’t they?” Her pale eyes became less distant and settled on the girl.

“Yes?” Ora said.

Innes rose to her feet in such an elegant movement that she seemed lighter than the air itself. “Come with me, Eudora. It’s time we find out what you are.”

Properly bound or not, a power beyond Ora’s own reason compelled her to follow Innes. They slipped out a glass door in the other corner of the conservatory. It opened to a brightly lit stairwell. The queen led her up the stairs, through another door, and then along a labyrinth of hallways without another soul in sight.

They eventually came to a large, open room with a flower-covered altar and hundreds of palm-sized, golden bowls of water. The stone columns came together in arches on the tall ceiling, and huge windows on either side meant light could come in from the east or west.

“On your knees and do not move, Eudora.”

Ora’s stomach knotted as she lowered herself to the ground before the altar. She gritted her teeth, furious that she could not stop herself from obeying. Her whole body felt rigid, and she could not will even the smallest twitch of a muscle. Though she could hear the brush of skirts behind her, she could not turn her head to see what the queen was doing. Anger and fear coursed through her.

Then, Innes stepped in front of her. She had a thin blade in one hand and one of the golden bowls in her other. “Don’t worry. I won’t be taking any fingers,” she said. “I need only a drop of your blood.”

She used the very tip of the blade to prick one of Ora’s fingers and squeezed a drop of blood into the bowl of water. It spread out in dark, crimson tendrils. Behind her, the water in the other bowls began to turn a deep red as well.

“When I heard news of your arrival, I consulted Cree right away. I was told something that has been on my mind ever since,” said the queen as she set the bowl down on the altar. “Can you guess what that might be?”

“No,” said Ora.

“You are, as I understand, a new creature. Not human but not fae either.” Innes stood over her, cleaning the blade with a soft, white cloth. “It took some time to find the proper ritual, but now we will know just what you are. And, whether or not you are a threat to the fae.”

Ora struggled to understand. She had grown up in Fel, daughter of Hagen and Nel Widogast. Her own brother had been there when she was born, and her uncle swore she looked just like her parents. The thought of her family and her home pained her, and she felt tears gathering in her eyes.

Innes turned away from her to peer into the bowl. She drew in a long breath and began to chant a complex, ancient spell. The water in the bowl rippled.

As the thachwing queen chanted, Ora tried to will herself to stand up. She focused first on her feet and tried to wiggle her toes. Nothing. Pain shot through her all the sudden. She gave a small gasp, and her head spun. She tried again to focus on moving, but the white-hot pain returned, doubling in proportion. It was then that she understood why Pons could do nothing and what it truly meant to be name bound. There was no disobeying. Her own body had turned against her.

With each word that spilled from the queen’s mouth, Ora’s pulse beat faster. Her cheeks were wet with tears by then, and she had gritted her teeth so hard that her jaw hurt.

Then, something strange happened. She heard a warm voice fill her mind, but it was not the queen’s. It was far too deep and mocking.

Would you like some help, Eudora?

She shifted her eyes, trying to see what was in her periphery but only caught the glimmer of golden bowls. Was there someone else there? Wouldn’t Innes have noticed?

Well? the voice pressed.

Yes, she thought in a panic. But hurry.

Promise you’ll help me. Whatever it takes. I’ve been saving this last bit of magic for longer than you can imagine.

Yes, yes. I promise! She did not believe her thoughts could be any louder. She feared she had in fact said it aloud.

Very well, Eudora. You are now bound to me and to no one else. Your name is mine and cannot be used by any fae. It will hold no power. As long as you breathe, I can call on you however I choose.

Wait! It was not at all what Ora intended when she agreed to the stranger’s help, but before she could ask any questions, she felt the force that held her in place dissipate. Shaking, she very slowly got to her feet and stepped away from the queen without making a sound.

Innes gripped the sides of the altar as she uttered the last word of the chant. The water in the bowl grew still. She gingerly picked it up, tilted it against her lips and drank every drop, even licking the rim.

She will be in a trance for quite some time, searching your memories and the memories of your ancestors. I doubt she’ll find much of interest. You seem rather mundane to me.

Ora watched as the bowl dropped from the queen’s hand and clattered to the floor. She sank down to her knees beside the altar, clutching at her stomach and moaning in pain.

Oh, well, that isn’t so mundane after all. Run, Eudora. You will find me in the hallway.

Ora fled past the countless bowls of crimson water as the agonized cries of the queen echoed in the stone chamber. It did not bode well if her blood killed the queen. Tyg would gut her for sure. She flung the doors open and stumbled into the hall. But as she looked up and down the passageway, there was no one in sight. Just the black cat from before.

“I knew you would be useful, but I admit, that was not the outcome I expected.” The same voice that aided her in the chamber now rose up from the cat with a feline trill, neither masculine nor feminine. Her mouth gaped open in disbelief.

She was bound to a cat?

“No,” she said. “No, no. You are not—”

“Oh, but I am.” It flicked its tail. “Ora suits you better, truly. Eudora sounds too stuffy for a girl that chases innocent cats about the palace.”

“How do you know my name?” she snapped.

The cat smiled, showing its pointed teeth. “I was in the conservatory, of course. Queen Innes is more careless than she realizes. An unbound name should not be thrown about so freely.” Then, with an impatient sigh, it said, “Let’s go, Eudora.”

She followed, though her arms were firmly crossed. “You don’t have to use my name, you know. I promised I’d help you.”

The cat glanced over its shoulder as it led her farther down the hallway. “I can’t be sure you’ll want to do the thing I’m going to ask of you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s a bit dangerous is all.”

“That’s never stopped me,” she said.

“Come along, then.” The cat took off running down the hall.

Sarah Day ©2021