THEY did not make it far before they heard the rush of footsteps coming up the stairs. The cat stopped and pressed its paw against the nearest door. Ora looked down at it expectantly. “What are you waiting for? Missing finger or not, you’re the one with hands,” said the cat.
Feeling foolish, she twisted the doorknob and hurried inside with the cat at her heels. She shut the door gently before turning to see where they ended up. There was a large fireplace against the wall and three tall, south-facing windows. A long wooden table with plush dining chairs sat in the middle with a grand, crystal chandelier hanging over it. Paintings of regal-looking fae filled the walls.
“Ah, perfect. One of the dining rooms,” said the cat. “There should be a secret door somewhere. The servants were once required to use it for discretion.”
With little time to think or question the cat, Ora began feeling along the trim and pressing on the walls. She even tried tilting the larger paintings to see if there was a door behind them. When she had searched every corner of the room, she stood back with her hands on her hips and tried to think of what she might be missing.
“New plan,” called the cat. It had its paws against one of the windows. “Are you scared of heights, by chance?”
She approached the window without answering and pressed her face against the glass. There was at least a ten-foot drop to the terrace below. She would have to jump.
“Do you know where the terrace leads?” she asked but was already opening the window. It swung out and summer air warmed her cheeks.
“It’s better than staying here,” said the cat. It balanced on the windowsill. “If you hesitate, I will use your name.”
“I’m not scared of heights,” she said.
With a laugh, the cat leapt from the window. It landed on all fours, as cats do, and then looked up at her, waiting. She felt especially grateful to be wearing slacks instead of one of those silly dresses as she stepped up onto the windowsill. Then, she jumped.
The hard landing made her stumble forward, and she caught herself with the edge of a lounge. “Not so bad,” she said, though she had to catch her breath from the rush.
Inside was another room with countless paintings. Velvet lounges and chairs filled the space. A thin layer of dust sat atop the tables as if the room had not been used in a while. Ora hurried past it all and opened the door to peer into the hallway. She saw a guard walk into another room and a lady in sage green skirts ascending the stairs on the opposite side. Neither noticed her, but it still made her heart quicken.
The cat glided past her, and she heard its voice echo within her thoughts. It’s clear. Just keep your head down, and do not speak to anyone.
Ora took a deep breath and stepped out into the hall. The black cat once again led the way, but this time it did not use her name to make her follow. Still, it kept glancing over its shoulder as if she might change her mind and run in the other direction at any moment.
When they went up a staircase rather than down, she began to question the cat’s intentions. Why would it lead her right back to the queen? It had been the one to help her escape. Only to bind her to it … But when they emerged on the landing, she realized they had come to yet another corridor she had never seen before.
“Where are we going?” she whispered after glancing around to be sure no one noticed them.
If we are to escape this palace, I will be needing your help. As promised.
And what sort of help do you need? It felt strange to be carrying on a conversation silently, especially with a cat, but it was certainly more discreet.
I need my power back. I told you that was the last little bit of magic I had, said the cat.
“What business do you have here?”
The sudden voice made her wince. She hadn’t heard any footsteps. It took immense effort not to look up. She saw the hem of a lavender-colored skirt when she peeked from the corner of her eye. Fumbling for an answer, she said, “I—I’m just—”
Tell her you’re to light the fire in the queen’s study.
The words rushed from Ora’s lips as soon as the cat delivered them to her. Her shoulders relaxed as the woman huffed and went on her way. That was close, thought Ora.
Come on then. The cat led her to the end of the hall and sat before a red door. The queen’s study, it said. I cannot pass through the door. It’s enchanted. But I believe you can.
You’re not certain? She glared down at the cat.
Well, why should she want to keep you out? I’ve seen plenty of servants in and out of there.
Ora tapped the crystal doorknob quickly, and when it did not burn her hand, she gave it a cautious twist. The door swung open without any incident, and she stepped inside. To avoid drawing attention, she shut the door behind her. The sun had nearly set, and it was difficult to make anything out other than piles of books, a large desk near the window, and a reading chair in one corner. Now what? she asked.
There should be an orb of some kind. All cloudy inside.
She walked about the study, running her hand along the spines of books. There were countless odds and ends tucked onto the shelves: ornate boxes, bronze instruments, jars of herbs, and figurines. Then, she rounded the desk and began opening the drawers. When she gave the bottom handle a tug, it did not budge.
Do you think she’d lock it away? she asked the cat.
Perhaps. Why do you ask?
There’s a locked drawer in her desk.
Any sign of a key?
Not that I’ve seen. All the same, she began shuffling through the papers and quills strewn atop the desk. She doubted Innes would be leaving the key in such an obvious place. Do you know a spell?
I know many, but now isn’t the time for such conversation.
I mean, do you know a spell to unlock the drawer?
The cat did not answer right away, but just as she began to grow impatient, it said, Place your hand against the drawer and say to it, politely, pasij.
She pressed her hand on the drawer as instructed and tried to focus, but she was in too much of a hurry. When she cast the spell and pulled the handle, it held tight. It didn’t work.
With more confidence, Eudora, the cat said impatiently.
I told you, you don’t have to use my name. She took a deep breath, pushing aside her annoyance, and tried again—not that she had a choice. “Pasij,” she said, careful not to sound too harsh. This time, she heard a tiny, almost inaudible click.
It worked, she said.
You are full of surprises. Is it there?
She pulled the drawer open. A muted light burst through the crack. When her eyes fell on the orb, she could not smother a proud smile. It’s here, she said. She lifted it into her hands, and its warmth spread through her palms. A whirl of black, shadow-like energy swirled inside of it, shifting and bumping against the glass. What is this?
An ash crystal. Now hurry up before anyone finds us here.
Ora closed the drawer and wasted no time in returning to the cat.
You’ve done it! It smiled up at her. Now, smash it.
I said smash it, Eudora!
At the sound of her name, Ora’s hand let the orb roll from her fingers and drop to the marble floor below. The crystal cracked but did not shatter.
The cat no longer bothered with their secret conversation. “Again, Eu—”
“I keep my promises, cat,” she said, cutting it off before it could utter her name again. She picked the orb back up and, raising it above her head, threw it hard against the tile.
This time, the crystal exploded into a thousand tiny shards. Light and energy rushed out so violently that Ora covered her face. The hairs on her arms and neck stood on end, and she could hear the cat laughing joyfully. When the bright light faded, she slowly lowered her hands. The cat had vanished.
“Cat?” she said, dumbfounded.
Something soft tickled her arm, and she covered her mouth to muffle a cry of surprise. A formless, black shadow whirled around her, and then, it settled on the marble floor, taking shape until it resembled an enormous wolf.
“What do you think?” asked the wolf. It was nearly as tall as her, its gaze level with her own and bright green. “A much more useful form than a cat, yes?”
Instinct made Ora back away from the wolf, though a wolf frightened her less than Tyg. “Who are you? What are you?”
At this, the wolf grinned. “Well, now you’re curious, aren’t you? You may call me Eiko. I am one of the very last pukhas of the Cedar Clan.”
“The Cedar Clan?”
“You’ve heard of us?”
“In a way.” She frowned, thinking back to the Marigens’ hushed conversations. Tyg had clearly hated the idea of dealing with the fae clan, but they had not mentioned pukhas. “What is a pukha?”
“We’re the most talented shapeshifters. The fae have their glamour, but we can take whatever form we please.” To prove its point, Eiko began to hop about, changing so swiftly she could hardly decide what it was at any given moment. A fox, a badger, a horse, a falcon, a raccoon, a goat, a bear—all with black hair and the same emerald eyes—danced about the corridor until it settled once again as a wolf before her.
“I will never be a cat again,” it vowed.
That’s when the terrified cry rang out, echoing down the hallway from the opposite end. “A pukha! A pukha! In the palace! Guards!” It was the lady in the lavender-colored dress.
Before Ora could speak a word, the wolf took off down the hall, barreling toward the frantic woman. She screamed at the top of her lungs and nearly tripped on her own skirts to get away. Just as Eiko reached her, she burst through one of the doors and slammed it shut in the pukha’s face.
“Eu—” Eiko paused and smiled at the girl. “Ora, let’s get going.”
She nodded in approval when it called her Ora and ran toward the pukha, grinning ear-to-ear. It seemed as if she had made a powerful ally, one that other fae feared.
Eiko charged down the stairs so quickly that the guard who had been rushing to the lady’s aid did not have time to draw his sword. The pukha only had to growl and gnash its teeth, and the guard flattened himself against the wall with his eyes squeezed shut. The two flew past him in an instant.
They returned to the room full of chairs and lounges. As the pukha ran onto the terrace, it shifted into a griffin with its black wings spread wide. Ora had never seen a griffin before, though her uncle had described them to her. It flicked its lion tail impatiently as she slowed to a walk and looked at it with wonder.
It snapped its beak. Surely you did not expect us to simply walk out.
Nervous with excitement more than fear, she climbed onto the griffin’s back and clutched tightly to its black fur. “No,” she said. “This is much better.”
When the terrace dropped away, Ora let out a shout. The rush of wind filled her lungs and made her chest feel light. Eiko swooped downward at first before rising past the white stone of the palace. By then, she was hugging its neck and laughing. She was at last free from Tyg, free from the fae queen.
But as the palace faded behind them, so did her initial joy. Now, she had to figure out the pukha’s intentions.
Where are we going? she asked, reaching out with her own thoughts this time.
Aren’t you the natural telepath, replied Eiko, a note of amusement in its voice. Then again, we are uniquely connected now. Aren’t we, Eudora?
She scowled. You bound my name, she said bitterly.
It was necessary.
The pukha did not answer her question about where but turned toward the darkening eastern horizon. Only a sliver of light remained in the day, and above them, stars began to glitter in the clear sky.
I must return to the Hy Borea, she insisted, pushing aside her other questions.
You are in luck, then. I too must return to the Hy Borea.
These words made her relax a little, and her expression softened. Whatever business the pukha had in the Hy Borea, she did not care. She would at last be able to find Hademar.